British and Irish Lions 2021 (too soon) part 2

The half back pairing is probably going to include 2 players who are teammates at Test level because with 6 games and so little time to practice together (especially if Gatland continues to put so much emphasis on strength and conditioning) it will be incredibly tricky for a new scrum half and fly half to find some chemistry.

9. Ben Youngs – he was due to go to New Zealand before a family emergency saw him choose to stay home and he would be quite a controversial pick but he has played a decent amount of rugby with Billy and he’s the best kicking option at 9 outside Conor Murray who will be 32 next summer.

10. George Ford – if familiarity is key then you can’t really ask for more familiarity than club mates guiding the team around the park and when Youngs and Ford are given a solid platform by their forwards they control a game like very other half back combos. In the third Test in New Zealand Jonny Sexton took the reins but he’ll be 36 by the time the first Test in Johannesburg kicks off and his physical ailments seem to be starting to impact his ability to control games the way Ford can. Dan Biggar will be 31 but with a new Wales coach and a long injury list of Welsh 10’s the future half back pairing is far from clear so it’s not unthinkable Rhys Webb and Biggar line up to start the first Test but it seems a long way off right now.

11. Josh Adams – if he continues the form he’s showed in the 2019-20 season he could be the difference between winning and losing the Test series. Elliot Daly wore the jersey last time out but he’s been playing at fullback for England and Adams is 3 years younger. Interesting outside chances for a return to their ancestral homes are Kyle Steyn who was born in Johannesburg and made his Scotland debut against France a matter of weeks ago or former South Africa U20’s winger Duhan Van Der Merwe who becomes Scottish qualified this June. James Lowe will be Irish qualified by next summer so if he impresses during the 6 Nations he could well be a Lion in the summer.

12. Owen Farrell – sticking with the theme of very little preparation time and familiarity being vital along the spine of the team the England 12 who already has 4 Lions caps would have to be the favourite to orchestrate the midfield at this stage. Hadleigh Parkes would be 33 and unless Wales learn to become less dependent on the veteran Kiwi he’ll be lucky to make it through next season unscathed. Bundee Aki would be interesting leading the defensive line and at 31 he’ll be right on the cut off age wise. From a purely personal perspective I think it’d be interesting to see what Sam Johnson could do against the South African inside backs but I’m not sure he provides the kicking option or the level of communication Gatland would want at 12.

13. Manu Tuilagi – he may be a bit of a worry in terms of defensive positioning but against a team who will presumably place a great emphasis on forward power an outside back who brings as much physicality as most back row forwards do would provide the Springboks with a unique challenge in defence. Jonathan Davies started last time out but he’ll be 33 and the last time we saw him his knee looked very unhealthy. Jonathan Joseph would provide a very different challenge and he has the uncanny knack of playing very well in just about every imaginable situation, Eddie Jones selected him on the wing against Ireland and he looked more than comfortable. Rory Hutchinson looks like a physical presence with the ability to make an outside break but somehow Scotland prefer Chris Harris at 13. Gary Ringrose is arguably the most exciting outside centre in Britain and Ireland but he’s battled a lot of injuries recently and Robbie Henshaw started at outside centre for Ireland in their last two 6 Nations games. Rory O’Loughlin would be a complete bolter but the ease with which he rounds off tries has seen him play at both 13 and on the wing for Leinster.

14. George North – Gatland seems addicted to the 27 year old who he handed a Test debut to back in 2010 and if he’s fit he’ll have to start. There aren’t really a whole lot of specialist right wingers who leap off the page as viable Test options, Joe Cokanasiga would be an option if he can return to fitness in time to string together a run of games next season, likewise Jack Nowell if Gatland would be happy to pick a left winger out of position. If he is happy to play someone out of position it wouldn’t be out of the question to see Stuart Hogg or Lee Halfpenny starting. Anthony Watson started on the right wing last time out but I have a feeling he’ll be wearing a different shirt next time out.

15. Anthony Watson – it has to be a straight shoot out between Watson and Liam Williams at 15 they both have the ability to turn attack into defence in the blink of an eye and they can both be very secure in defence but I think Watson has a better kicking game so I think he’ll get the first shot at starting. There aren’t really many outside bets but Henry Slade does have the sort of tactical kicking game that could appeal to Gatland’s belt and braces approach or, if he can return to fitness Gareth Anscombe is a very astute tactical 15 but at the moment he seems a long way from being back on a rugby pitch.

British and Irish Lions 2021 (too soon)

With the current financial turmoil all clubs and presumably Unions are facing given this global situation it is absolutely unconscionable to worry about who will be playing for the Lions in the first Test in Johannesburg next July, but I have a lot of time on my hands and a wild dream where I think maybe one day someone would pay me to do something I really enjoy, so here goes.

One of my favourite Warren Gatland traits is the stubbornness he exhibits in his selections so it shouldn’t be too difficult to project who he’ll want to pick (there will probably only be 6 warm up games and depending how the current season is resolved there might be a matter of days between the squad meet up and departure dates), it’s reasonable to believe Gatland will lean on the spine of the 2017 tour for the biggest games ahead. For the purposes of this exercise you have to assume everyone is fit and healthy and not many players over the age of 35 will still be playing in a year’s time.

1. Mako Vunipola – Despite being the oldest of heads Mako will only be 30 next summer. His work rate is always impressive and if, as has been rumoured, Joe Marler retires Gatland will be missing another of his favourite Loose-heads. Cian Healy will be 33, Jack McGrath will be 31 and while Rory Sutherland has had an impressive break out season this year and will be 28 it would be quite a surprise it Gatland picked a prop with about 12 caps to take on the Springboks. If Gatland were to go with a real shock selection he could always start a 26 year old Ellis Genge, but England use him more as a “finisher” and detonating the Test series from the off would be an unusually risky move.

2. Jamie George – he started the last Test in New Zealand and there’s not really much to persuade you there will be a better option for Gatland than a 30 year old with 50+ Test caps. Fraser Brown will 32 by then, Stuart McInally would be a reasonable candidate for the back up role since Ken Owens will be 34 and Elliott Dee might be considered a bit undersized to start against the beefy Springbok pack.

3. Tadgh Furlong – scarcely believable as it may seem he’ll only be 28 next July and he’ll have over 50 caps by then including 3 starts on the last tour. Kyle Sinkler would have to be favourite for the spot on the bench, although Zander Fagerson has looked good this season and he’s a year younger than them.

4. Maro Itoje – he’s one of the contenders for the captaincy, his 71% winning percentage in Test matches is hard to argue with and after a bit of a dip last season he’s been back to his best since the World Cup.

5. Alun-Wyn Jones – it could or should be James Ryan (but it could possibly be Joe Launchbury, Cory Hill, George Kruis or Scott Cummings) there’s no way this isn’t going to be controversial but after working with him for 12 years it will be incredibly tough for Gatland not to put the Test team on Alun-Wyn’s shoulders even if he’ll be 35 by the time the rolls around.

6. Josh Navidi – one thing is for sure it won’t be Sam Warburton this time out (he might be carrying the water bottles) but the closest thing to Warburton is Navidi, he’s not as big but he’s certainly not far off being as strong as the former Wales and Lions skipper. And he lives for physical contact, he’s definitely a better ball carrier than Warburton and he’ll tackle a lot, he also won’t think twice about throwing himself into a ruck when the gargantuan South African forwards are lining up to smash him. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility Aaron Wainwright gets a shot, he’s the new Dan Lydiate and Gatland had a pretty long standing relationship with him. Sam Underhill could also be close as he’s an absolute tackle machine who worked with Lydiate at the Ospreys. Personally I wouldn’t even count out Lydiate if he continues the form he’s flashed this season in an improved Ospreys team. Yes he’ll be 33 but Gatland loves a safety blanket and Lydiate is a very big, very safe blanket.

7. Tom Curry – Curry and Navidi would be a dream pairing for a Gatland defence, if one of them doesn’t make a tackle they’ll be straight over the ball and vice versa. Eddie Jones might be the only person who thinks he’s a number 8 and it’ll be interesting to see if he still thinks that when Billy Vunipola is fit. Hamish Watson will only be 29 so he may well be in with a shot, there’s a seemingly endless list of interesting Welsh flankers who could be outside chances with Tommy Reffell and Jac Morgan yet to even feature for the national side. If and it’s a big if since he hasn’t played a Test since 2018 Dan Leavy would be right in Gatland’s wheelhouse but he’d need a hell of a 12 months.

8. Billy Vunipola – obviously he and his cousin Taulupe have had their injury issues for what seems like a very long time but I think Gatland would love the chance to start a 20 stone number 8 against the threshing machine that is the South African pack but if he prefers the option of making the Springboks ran around in open spaces he could go with the C.J Stander option or maybe even the way out of left field Sam Simmonds plan. There’s an outside chance Ross Moriarty could be in with a chance but starting Moriarty alongside Genge would be like trying to put out a chip pan fire with a gallon of petrol.

Team of the 6 Nations (so far?)

Technically it might not be finished but it will be very difficult to squeeze the remaining fixtures in so I thought it made some sense to pick my favourite XV from the games that have been played.

  1. Rory Sutherland – Scotland’s scrum was one of the most impressive parts of the entire tournament. Apart from one mistake against a very savvy England scrum involving the walking behaviour disorder that is Ellis Genge they stood up well in all 4 of their games.
  2. Julien Marchand – it’s amazing that he’s just 24, in previous seasons Scotland have had a plethora of hooker’s but this season their line out was a little bit of a problem, Jamie George was also incredibly solid but once again – Marchand is just 24!
  3. Zander Fagerson – in the past Fagerson has been good around the park or good at scrum time but this season it seems to have all clicked for the 24 year old.
  4. Maro Itoje – when good Maro turns up he’s excellent (when bad Maro turns up he’s just very good) and 2020 6 Nations version of Maro was back to his unstoppable best.
  5. Scott Cummings – he’s just 23 and was playing in his first 6 Nations but his impact at the breakdown was vital to allow Scotland’s back row to play on the front foot. Bernard Le Roux was an absolute workhorse for the new Les Bleus and I personally enjoyed how furious James Ryan appeared to be by his team mates performance at Twickenham but when Scotland substituted Cummings against England it was clear to see how much he was missed
  6. Charles Ollivon – 4 tries in 4 games for French blindside is a hell of a return for any player let alone a 6 ft 6 blindside (even if blindside’s wear 7 in France).
  7. Justin Tipuric – 3 in 4 for the Welsh openside is an indication that Pivac wants to get one of his best ball handlers playing in a bit of space and the 30 year old looks like he could play for another 5 or 6 seasons.
  8. C.J Stander – he’s arguably made more impact at the breakdown as he has as a ball carrier and he seems to have mastered the art of pushing his luck with officials which is priceless for a back rower.
  9. Antoine Dupont – to paraphrase Brian Potter “I’ve seen the future and it’s Antoine”, he’s 23 and he looks like he was born to play Test rugby, he will be the next French captain.
  10. Romain Ntamack – George Ford has been very good and Dan Biggar looked in vintage form in most games and while Ntamack struggled against Scotland when his pack took a battering he usually looks at home in the blue 10 jersey which is quite an achievement for a 20 year old who often plays at 12 for Toulouse.
  11. Josh Adams – he’s a born finisher and although he got injured against Ireland and left the field against France he still scored 3 tries in 4 games (all against a bumbling Italian defence, but still). Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson both looked remarkably good in individual games and even though Elliott Daly was playing at fullback he finished well out wide too.
  12. Gael Fickou – this is a really tricky decision, Fickou has been very good but he played on the wing against Wales and Scotland and 20 year old Arthur Vincent stepped in and didn’t an incredibly effective job too. Owen Farrell didn’t really do anything wrong in any game and nor did Bundee Aki and I personally love Sam Johnson, he’s so uncomplicated and tough as teak, even Carlo Canna looks to be settling into the 12 shirt but I think Fickou at 12 is the foundation that Sean Edwards wants to build the new French defence on.
  13. Nick Tompkins – he was a shock selection in the original squad but he’s been the most exciting attacking player in the Wales team, he beats defenders for fun and he’s carried a ton of ball. He’s still adapting to defending in Test rugby but as he made his debut in the first game of this tournament that’s not a surprise.
  14. Jonny May – there haven’t really been many consistent performances from wingers in this tournament and while I love Andrew Conway and Matteo Minozzi (who has been switched to wing from fullback) May’s 2 tries are the second most from a winger behind Josh Adams.
  15. Anthony Bouthier – from part time rugby player and builder to Pro D2 and Test rugby in a matter of about 3 years, he’s been an absolute revelation to me. He has a huge boot, doesn’t mind counterattacking from deep and for someone who isn’t physically imposing he doesn’t shirk a tackle.

Looking to the future

Let’s be honest, hope is all we’ve got at the moment and the hope of a brighter future seems as good a reason as any to try and cobble together some words however incoherent. Hopefully (you see what I did there?) in 2023 there should be a Rugby World Cup in France and in theory at least this should provide the Northern Hemisphere teams with a slight edge in terms of conditions so I thought now would be an opportune time to wonder who Pivac might pick for Wales in 3 and a half years time (plus RugbyPass did it and I have absolutely no shame when it comes to borrowing other people’s ideas, and nobody’s reading this nonsense anyway)

  1. Rhys Carre – he’s huge, he can run and he’s a ball player and he’ll be 25 by then.
  2. Elliott Dee – seems to be the safest pair hands at set pieces and he’ll be 29 by then so should be starting to hit his peak
  3. Tomas Francis – he’s also huge and gets better with every Test season so when he’s 32 he should be almost unplayable.
  4. Christ Tshiunza – the teenager signed for Exeter Chiefs last season and I’m not one to miss a hype train. He was 6 foot 6 at 17 years of age so when he’s 21 he could be a certifiable giant who’s learned from Johnny Gray
  5. Alun-Wyn Jones – the only human I’d back to defeat age, plus he’ll have a 22 year old running around like a gazelle alongside him.
  6. Shane Lewis-Hughes – I’m a really big Jim Botham fan but a healthy 25 year old Lewis-Hughes would be a handful for anyone.
  7. Ellis Jenkins – why have just one Ellis in the pack when you could have 2. Plus a fit Jenkins genuinely challenges for the role of best open side in world rugby.
  8. Sam Moore – he’s 6 feet 5!!! Yes, I have abandoned the notion of subtlety in the forwards. Plus he’ll be 24 by the time the tournament rolls around.
  9. Tomos Williams – he’ll be 28 in 3 years and he’s got all the skills you could want in an exciting half back. And hopefully (again) he will have played with Moore at regional level for a while by then.
  10. Gareth Anscombe – he will be 32 by then but Dan Carter won the RWC when he was 33 (yes, that’s absolutely an apt comparison don’t you judge me).
  11. Mason Grady – it’ll probably be too soon since he’s just 17 at the moment but he looked a constant threat at U20’s level this season and at 6 feet 5 Cory Allen’s younger (not little) brother is full of potential.
  12. Nick Tompkins – he’ll be 28, he’s tough as nails and probably more adept at operating in the heavy traffic around the breakdown than he is in the 13 channel (and he’s pretty solid out there too).
  13. Corey Baldwin – another migrating to windy Exeter but he’s the most talented age grade Centre I’ve seen since Hal Luscombe made Italy’s U21’s team look like an U18’s team at Sardis Road way back when.
  14. George North – he’ll be in his early 30’s by then but even he loses a yard of pace he’ll still be huge and tricky to stop. Could well be Louis Rees-Zammit though
  15. Ioan Lloyd – he is seriously quick and although he’s technically a Fly Half his ability to ghost in space out wide is spectacular and he could just as easily outstrip his support as make defenders miss.

Ok, so it’s more of a list of bolters as it is a possible starters but even for a very miserable pessimist the options that Pivac has in terms of exciting attacking players are pretty exciting.

Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit part 2)

Back in 1996 the Propellerheads collaborated with Shirley Bassey and released “History Repeating” and that should be this game’s theme tune, the Seahawks travelled to Philadelphia just 6 weeks ago and despite a few alleged experts claiming they would struggle with the travel and the time difference they won 17-9. There a few differences in personnel from that game and the Seahawks demonstrated last week that they can quite average and incredibly exciting to watch in 2 halves of the same game so there is a chance that this is the wild Wildcard game.

In week 12 had Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson to combine for 155 rushing yards and a touchdown and this week it looks likely that they’ll be relying on Travis Homer to carry most of the load in the run game with occasional bursts of veteran Marshawn Lynch and another veteran Robert Turbin on third downs. That may sound like a pretty serious problem, but back in week 12 the Seahawks had 14 players either “limited” or completely missing from practice this week that number is just 8 although 3 of them are Offensive lineman and that could have a bigger effect on the run game than the combination of running backs they’re using. The Eagles themselves have missed running back Miles Sanders and left tackle Lane Johnson during practice this week although Sanders says he fully expects to play on Sunday.

It’s been a messy season for the Eagles especially in terms of injuries and they’ve only won 5 games at home this season compared to the Seahawks 7 road games, the Eagles are ranked 12th in the league for passing touchdowns (averaging 1.7 per game) and 8th for interceptions (23rd in overall turnover percentage) and 13th for rushing touchdowns (averaging 1 per game) so they’re going to need their Defence to hold the Seahawks to less than 14 points if they’re going to win this game. The Seahawks have averaged a nice, round 25 points per game on the road this season although the 17 they scored in Philly last time out was the fewest points they’ve scored outside Seattle this season. If Eagles fans are searching for hope they can look to the fact that the Seahawks lost their last 2 games of the season against divisional opponents, so teams who have already played them this season can be problematic although both those teams were considerably healthier than the Eagles figure to be this week.

It’s difficult to see how injuries don’t decide this game, even if both teams start the game with the majority of players who have missed practice there’s a very real possibility the injuries will rear their ugly heads again during the game. Unless something drastic happens the Seahawks should be buoyed by the ending of last week’s battle with the 49ers and should progress serenely into the next round with a 10 point buffer.

Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit)

It seems amazing that any team from the NFC North made the playoffs so the fact that two teams are still playing in January is absolutely inconceivable. Conversely the only thing surprising about the Saints appearance in the playoffs is that it’s happening so early with many expecting them to be one of the first two seeds and on a bye week.

Frankly its hard to envision a scenario whereby the 10-6 Vikings even get remotely close to the 13-3 Saints, even if both teams finished with similar final records there’s no getting away from the fact that Kirk Cousins is an absolute basket case in big games, he’s 7-15 over his entire career in prime time matchups and 6-29 against teams with a winning record! Obviously this isn’t all on Cousins, it’s a team game so obviously the rest of the team need to contribute to decide the outcome of games and the Vikings do have a playoff victory over the Saints in recent years back in 2018 in what became known as the “Minneapolis Miracle” when Saints Safety Marcus Williams completely whiffed on his attempt to tackle Stefon Diggs and actually ducked straight underneath him allowing Diggs to complete a game winning 61 yard touchdown. Unfortunately for the Vikings the cliché “once bitten, twice shy” spring readily to mind, Williams certainly won’t be beaten as easily this time round and as Hollywood often seems to write the script for these NFL redemption stories it wouldn’t be a surprise if he starts the game with a pick 6. As if history and a shonky QB weren’t enough reason to doubt the Vikings they currently have 11 players on the Injury Report and although 6 of them practiced in full today it still concerning.

Statistically this should be the most entertaining of the 4 games this weekend with the Saints being second in the league in terms of passing touchdowns scored and 21st when it comes to the number they’ve allowed. Alternatively the Vikings prefer to run the ball and being 6th in the league for rushing touchdowns. The one thing in the Vikings favour is that they may well be able to keep the ball away from the Saints pass first Offence by running the ball against the Saints leaky run Defence but if Dennis Allen decides to load the box then at some stage Kirk Cousins will have to take the team on his shoulders and we all know that rarely ends well.

There’s a real chance this becomes a huge blowout win for the Saints as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill seem to be finding some very impressive form of late and the Saints haven’t lost a game on the road since week 2 but the Vikings have been averaging 24 points per game at home this season and the Saints have been nearer 29 points per game away so the Total Points set at 49.5 seems far too low. Saints by more 12 points seems like a realistic outcome.

Wildcard Weekend the AFC bit (part 2)

Continuing the Premier League analogies, if Houston and Buffalo are the North London derby then New England and Tennessee are Manchester United and West Ham, the away team have a coach with a tenuous link to their more storied rivals both teams should be better than they currently are and home advantage should be huge in deciding the result of the game.

In terms of recent form both teams have won 3 of their last 5 games which signifies a huge improvement for the Titans who only won 2 games in the first 6 weeks of the season, this change is largely down to Ryan Tannehill taking over from Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry’s traditional late season heroics. Henry has wracked up 896 yards and 10 touchdowns since week 10 and he didn’t even play in week 16! Unfortunately for the Titans best hope of progressing in the playoffs the Patriots Defence has only allowed 7 rushing TD’s all season and 3 of those were scored by the Lamar Jackson lead Ravens in week 9. Since their chastening at the hands of the most explosive Offence in the NFL they’ve conceded on average fewer than 91 yards on the ground per game and just 2 rushing TD’s!

For their part the Titans Defence has managed generate some pass rush lately which will be a concern for the Patriots who have really struggled, 15 of the Titans 39 sacks have come since week 11 so don’t expect a shoot-out. Luckily for the Patriots their Defence has notched up a league leading 21 turnovers 15 more than the Titans have made. If you were looking for a shred of hope for the Titans to cling to it would have to be that the Patriots are missing Stephen Gostkowski and Nick Folk had missed 3 field goals between the 40 and 50 yards out so far this season (but bizarrely he’s 1/1 from 50+ yards). The Titans could also look to the fact that they’ve won their last 3 road games and 5 games away this season but none of the Colts, Raiders or the Texans reserves provided the sort of challenge that the Patriots in a soggy Foxborough will.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be a close game and I would be surprised if there are a lot of points and excitement involved. When there’s a very decent chance that there will be a few fumbles and a lot of turnovers it’s impossible not lean toward the team with 21 takeaways this season by a field goal.