The “What have you done for me lately” XV

Games have come thick and fast since the Premiership resumed on the 14th of August. Some players have really stood out to me (obviously from teams who have performed well), some look like they really benefitted from a mid-season break whilst others have been pressed into action earlier than coaches probably would have liked but have looked more than ready for top flight rugby –

  • Val Rapava-Ruskin – he is really enjoying the new ruck interpretations
  • Tom. Dunn – he’s back to his dynamic best, very Jamie George-esque
  • Will Stuart – he’s dominated scrums, Neal Hatley must be delighted. Not sure about his lockdown mullet though
  • Chris Vui – another who looks like he needed a rest and has come back as dynamic as ever
  • Nick Isiekwe – he began well in his new surroundings but even his presence has been unable to lift Northampton lately
  • Miles Reid – he’s probably a 7, but he looks smart enough to fit in anywhere across the back row
  • Will Evans – he’s been the outstanding open side since resumption and the new interpretations have made an elite 7 vital to a teams success
  • Ben Earl – like Reid he could play anywhere in the back row but like Justin Tipuric he could play in the outside backs too
  • Ben Spencer – he’s probably been in the best form of anyone since August
  • Joe Simmonds – he looks ready for Test rugby, his decision making might be the best of anyone since August
  • Louis Rees-Zammit – it’s unbelievable that he’s still a teenager. He’s had 2 dodgy outings at fullback but he looks a natural on the wing
  • Siale Piatau – Bristol look a different team when he’s not playing as illustrated by the ban he received for completely losing his marbles at Worcester (but he’s a Tongan 12, you want that fire)
  • Tom de Glanville – he’s a 15 not a 13 but he has to be starting he makes rugby look easy. He’s played in 8 games for Bath – they’ve won 6 and he’s only 20
  • Ollie Thorley – he’s not been totally consistent (but neither have Gloucester) but anyone who can score 4 tries in 21 minutes has to be playing pretty well
  • Max Malins – he’s a very good 10 but when he has the space he gets as a fullback he can absolutely devastating. The 23 year old has scored 3 tries in 3 starts since his move to Bristol
  • Honourable mentions should go to Jake Polledri (but he’s always great), Matt Symons (but he’s injured), Matt Garvey (who has always been good when healthy), Ruaridh McConnochie (who absolutely looks like he should have played more at the RWC), Lewis Boyce (he’s an outstanding ball carrier), Alfie Barbeary (hooker’s shouldn’t score 3 tries on their debut at 6, that’s superhero stuff), Jimmy Gopperth (his ability to stabilise Wasps will never stop amazing me) and Scott Baldwin (he looks like he’s 100% healthy and his experience is a real boon when it comes to the new breakdown interpretations)

    2020 AFC West preview

    2019 Super Bowl Champion Chiefs scored 46 touchdowns on their way to amassing 451 points during the regular season, the second highest total in the AFC and fifth most in the league. It’s hardly surprising that the team who won the whole thing last time out would be one of the highest scoring teams but what is slightly shocking is that Patrick Mahomes was only responsible for 28 of them, 26 with passes and 2 rushing TD’s. He did miss 2 games through injury but he threw 24 fewer touchdown passes in 2019 than in 2018 and that has to be unnerving for the rest of the division if not the rest of the league. If 2019 featured Mahomes’ sophomore slump then it’s not beyond the realms of possibility the 2020 Mahomes lead Chiefs could improve on the 12-4 record of last season. Their trickiest games come away to the Saints on the 20th of December, in Tampa Bay on the 29th of November and at Baltimore on a Monday night in week 3 but even if they stumble in those games they’ll still end the regular season at 13-3 which would surely be enough to secure home field advantage in the postseason.

    The Broncos 2019 almost had two separate starts, they had the new beginning of a new Head Coach with an experienced QB in week one when Vic Fangio and his team started out in Oakland against the Raiders with Joe Flacco and a reset and restart in week 13 when they started Drew Lock at Mile High against the Chargers, won 23-20 and proceeded to win 4 of their last 5 games of the season losing only to the Chiefs in Kansas City. During those 5 games they averaged almost 22 points per game compared to under 16 points per game in the first 11 games which may not seem like an enormous difference but when you have a Defence that allows just 18.5 points per game those 2 Field Goals are the difference between winning a game and very narrowly losing. The Broncos have the 12th toughest schedule in the league next season but with their home field advantage (they call it Mile High for a reason) and the addition of stand out WR Jerry Jeudy along with 2 other WR’s and a TE in the Draft the Broncos Offence should continue on their upward curve, I expect they’ll end the season with a 9-7 record which will put them in with a shot at a Wildcard place.

    The Raiders will have a shiny (very shiny) new stadium in the Las Vegas desert to call home this season and while there may be a few question marks surrounding Jon Gruden as a Head Coach he made one of the canniest moves in NFL history when he signed Mike Mayock up as his GM, last year they drafted Josh Jacobs with the 24th pick and despite injuring his shoulder in week 7 the Running Back still carried the Offence and ended the season with 1,150 rushing yards from 242 carries but only scored 7 touchdowns. Their real success came later in the Draft with Tight End Foster Moreau who was drafted in the fourth round and caught 5 touchdowns and Hunter Renfrow who caught 4 touchdown passes despite being drafted with the 149th pick. If the Raiders lower draft picks can have a similar impact this year then Bryan Edwards should be able to help out with their scoring problems, a tall, rangy receiver can always assist a Quarterback who can have accuracy issues and Tanner Muse along with Amik Robertson should at least add some depth to a Defence that gave up 11 more passing touchdowns than the Raiders scored last year, only 9 teams had a worse pass defence. Finding hidden gems may be an area where the Raiders excel but polishing those gems may be their downfall, for all Gruden’s enthusiasm and ability to motivate players the Raiders often suffer from over-enthusiasm, they conceded 1,138 penalty yards on 128 penalties. Only the Jaguars conceded more penalties on average per game with 72.8 compared to Oakland’s 71.1 and this is why I think they’ll struggle to make the playoffs this year. Vegas will actually have quite a favourable schedule in terms of the strength of their opponents, it’s the second easiest in the division behind the Chargers, but they will have to face 8 high powered Offences plus the Browns, Jets and Dolphins (in week 16 when Tua will probably be starting) who may well score freely whilst still suffering through their growing pains. If they can avoid as many injury problems as they incurred last season and without an Antonio Brown sized distraction I can see them ending the season 8-8 which would be an improvement on last season, but the strong possibility of a Carr-Mariota QB controversy when neither really look like a Super Bowl calibre QB prevents them from taking a huge leap forward.

    Similarly to the Raiders the Chargers also have a brand new stadium to look forward to this season with the added bonus that Sofi looks like a space ship and not a robot vacuum cleaner (like Allegiant Stadium does). What will be happening inside that stadium is anyone’s guess though, they do face the easiest schedule in the division but they’ve lost some pretty important players from recent seasons. Before they even began signing draft picks in April the Chargers had to deal with 34 player’s contracts with 13 re-signing, Russell Okung traded to the Panthers for Trai Turner and 21 either cut or declaring for Free Agency (including Phillip Rivers and Melvin Gordon) which seems excessive during a normal year let alone a season which could involve a truncated preseason schedule. Last season the Chargers were ranked 21st in terms of scoring as they averaged 21.1 points per game, just ahead of the Browns who many believe had an awful season but the Chargers were 10th in terms of the number of yards gained on Offence so it would appear that where they got the ball on the field was a bigger issue. Only 6 teams averaged fewer yards on kick off returns and 4 fewer on punt returns so there is definitely room for improvement there. Last season’s Defence stats are more of a worry, especially when Anthony Lynn is considered a Head Coach who bases his success on a firm defensive foundation. In 2019 they conceded 21.6 points per game which is fine for a team with a high octane Offence but if you’re only scoring 21.1 per game you’re not even producing an average amount of octane. I expect it will be difficult for last year’s stuttering Chargers Offence to hit the ground running as a new Quarterback (whether it be Tyrod Taylor, Justin Herbert or Cam Newton they weren’t starting in L.A last season), new Running Back and Trai Turner who will be fitting in to the Offensive line (he’s traditionally a Guard but may be at Tackle if he replaces Okung) all immersing themselves into new surroundings. On the Defensive side of the ball Chris Harris Jr. should make the pass defence even better and the arrival of Linval Joseph will definitely solidify the Defensive line but even with Derwin James returning from injury I’m not sure they’ll be able to subdue teams like the Chiefs, Broncos, Saints and Buccaneers. I can see them making a winning start to the season against the Bengals but the last month of the season involves travelling to Vegas and Kansas City whilst welcoming the Falcons and Broncos to their new surroundings which should be incredibly tough, finishing 7-9 would be a successful season given the upheaval in terms of moving location and the roster turnover would.

    2020 AFC North preview

    If the AFC East is going to look like The Great Depression of the 1930’s the AFC is going to be the 1967 Summer of Love. There’s going to be 3 of the youngest, most exciting QB’s in the league and grizzly old Ben Roethlisberger just waiting to go full “Obi Wan” and teach Burrow, Jackson and Mayfield the way of the Force.

    Lamar Jackson lead the Ravens to a 14-2 record in the regular season last year which put them ahead at the top of the division and a full 6 games ahead of the second placed Steelers. They have added J.K Dobbins, 2 Wide Receivers and 2 Offensive linemen in the Draft and a whole load of talent on the Defensive side of the ball too and according to CBS the Ravens have the easiest schedule based on last seasons results. However they did not face a Steelers team featuring Roethlisberger last season and the Browns were an absolute disaster with Freddie Kitchens at the helm so that’s four tougher games and the teams who they seemed to struggle with were the one’s featuring mobile QB’s and this year they should face Joe Burrow twice and they could see Daniel Jones, Pat Mahomes and Deshaun Watson during the regular season too so they may not stroll to the division title this time round but they should still win it. I’m expecting them to end the season with an 11-5 record.

    The Steelers have added the imposing Chase Claypool as a receiving option for Big Ben and the highly touted Running Back Anthony McFarland jr. (although they currently have 6 RB’s on their roster) but the key to their Offence, as it has been for the last 16 years, is Roethlisberger, when he’s injured they’re a shadow of their former selves, they ended up 8-8 and all of their 8 wins came after they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick who alongside rookies Alex Highsmith and Antoine Brooks could form the core of a seriously fast and exciting Defence next season which will be vital in a division where high powered Offence should be all the rage. The Steelers could be the early pace setters in the division as they start the season against the Giants and Broncos who could take a while to settle in their seasons and they should have a pretty successful December with games against the Redskins, Bills, Bengals and Browns and I expect them to finish the season with at least 2 more wins than they scraped together last season, a 10-6 record will see them finish second in the AFC East and probably get them a Wildcard berth.

    The Browns and Baker Mayfield have a new Head Coach to frustrate this upcoming season but Kevin Stefanski is more than likely to frustrate Baker in equal measure as a Head Coach who will want to run the ball more than he throws it I’m expecting to see Mayfield and his high maintenance receiving corps of Beckham, Landry and Higgins having some rather fraught conversations on the sidelines this season. Even if Stefanski moves away from his preference of running the ball first with those three and Austin Hooper and David Njoku and Damion Ratley amongst 7 other WR’s currently on the roster Mayfield’s head might explode as he tries to share the ball around and keep everyone happy. Defensively the Browns added three players in the Draft including two from the Champion LSU team and a further 6 players in Free Agency so how well that unit gels will be interesting to watch. The Defence wasn’t a huge issue last year as even though they conceded around 25 points a game it was largely due to the fact the Offence couldn’t string together long series of plays so the Defence was almost exclusively on the field in some of those games. Last season the Browns finished 6-10 in a season which lurched from one disaster to another even more controversial disaster and strangely I’m expecting them to finish with exactly the same record this year just with less controversial incidents as Kevin Stefanski has to exert more command over the locker room than his predecessor did.

    The Bengals have a shiny new Quarterback to throw passes to their equally shiny new receiver but I’m not convinced that Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins will be able to completely turn around a team who ended last season with 2 wins in a short period of time that will include no OTA’s or mini camps and will probably include a truncated preseason schedule. Defensively last season they conceded an average of 26 points per game so not to different to the Browns and I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if they finish the 2020 season with the same record as their neighbours in Cleveland, the end of their season could be absolutely brutal as I can’t see them winning any of their last 4 games on their way to a 6-10 record.

    AFC East 2020 preview

    Based on each team’s 2019 win percentages the AFC East have the toughest 2020 season of all 8 NFL Divisions and of all the teams in the division the Patriots have the toughest schedule. Combine that with the fact they’ve lost their starting Quarterback and really struggled to generate any Offence last season with someone as experienced as Tom Brady trying to run the show behind a porous Offensive line and with little help from his receiving corps and this has to be the time to count out the Patriots, doesn’t it? Well, sort of. They’ve got a real chance to go into their bye week with a winning record but their bye comes in week 6 and I’m expecting them to be 3 and 2 as they have to travel to Seattle and Kansas City in the first 4 weeks (although if both of those stadiums are empty then they could have a better chance of surprising away wins). It’s the tail end of the season where their tricky games come thick and fast with a road game in L.A against the Chargers coming on the 6th of December followed by a game in the same new stadium on Thursday the 10th of December against the Rams after which they have 10 days off and a trip to Miami with a Monday Night Football outing 8 days later against the Bills. Their final game is in Foxborough against the Jets which is virtually a guaranteed home win but by then they could already be staring down the barrel of a losing season. I’ve got them finishing with a 7-9 record but in this toughest of divisions they should still finish second.

    So how are the other 3 teams going to shake out? Well while the Patriots seem intent on testing out the maxim that “Defence wins Championships” by having a suspect Offensive line and inconsistent skill players the Bills are taking an opposing stance on Offence, they’ve got a solid Offensive line and some very good receivers with Steffon Diggs joining Cole Beasley and John Brown in their receiving corps and Dawson Knox and Devin Singletary giving Josh Allen plenty of assistance they have no excuses not to produce on the Offensive side of the ball. Allen is the big question mark for the Bills he’ll be in his third season and if he continues to improve his stats from second year to third as he did from first to second he’ll throw 40 TD’s and 6 INT’s but as Defences have more tape to watch and everyone is now aware he’s historically struggled with accuracy on deep passes so keeping the Interceptions down may be a problem. Personally I feel that with the tools he’s got at his disposal the Bills should top the division with a 9-7 record and I’ve got them winning their last 3 games so they could be one of the hot teams come playoff time.

    “Tagovailoa” is the word on everyone’s shirt in Miami (seriously, the Dolphins QB has the two highest selling NFL jerseys this year) but how many games he starts this season seems to be an unknown quantity at the moment, it would however be a surprise if he starts all 18 and what would be an even bigger surprise is if Ryan Fitzpatrick goes undefeated as the Dolphins bed in a new Offensive Coordinator and 4 other Rookies not named Tua and a new Running Back (or two as both Jordan Howard and Matt Breida both arrived in the off season). Personally I have a few misgivings about bringing in so many new faces on and off the pitch (they could potentially have 10 rookies on the Defensive side of the ball too) but the middle of the Dolphins season looks pretty ugly, I’m expecting them to only win 3 games from the 8 surrounding their bye week. Mid-season struggles with new coaches and a rookie QB waiting in the wings could spell disaster for a relatively new Head Coach employed by a volatile ownership but I don’t think Flores will find himself on a hot seat unless something goes horribly wrong, I’ve got the Dolphins finishing the season third with a 6-10 record.

    Bringing up the rear of the division has to be the Jets, not because they lack playing talent but because the coaching staff, front office and ownership is such a convoluted, tumultuous muddle that it will be incredibly difficult for a Quarterback who is yet to complete a full regular season to overcome. This year though the Jets have added some experienced veterans to the mix who are more than likely to back up their QB and hang Adam Gase out to dry if the Offence stutters. Newbies Frank Gore, Brashad Perriman and Joe Flacco alongside the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Le’Veon Bell know what an NFL Offence should look and feel like so they won’t hesitate to ask questions if the Jets are below par. They have bought in Mekhi Becton to help bolster the Offensive line and keep Darnold upright but if the Offensive Coordinator isn’t calling the right plays then the personnel running those plays is largely irrelevant. I can’t see them winning more than 3 games this season and that would surely see them ending up with a very high Draft pick and a new coach next season.

    Fantasy Football (pt. 2)

    The original idea for this flight of fancy came when I thought about which players in the Draft would benefit from working with an adventurous Offensive minded coach like Kliff Kingsbury or Sean McVay and after a while I thought that one position the Cardinals could really use is a Tight End. Tight End has been an area of weakness in Arizona for a while and even when they have had good players there they’ve never really found a way to make them productive (Ricky Seals Jones caught more TD’s last season in Cleveland than in any of his seasons in the desert, Jermaine Gresham was more productive in Cincinnati, the best season of Darren Fells career was last year in Houston) the most impressive season for a Cardinals Tight End in recent history was probably Rob Housler in 2013 when he had 39 catches for 454 yards and a TD, they did get 15 catches for 202 yards and 1 TD from Maxx Williams last season and that rather highlights what an underused position it is in Arizona (although Williams is a bit of an interesting case, he’s never improved on 32 catches for 268 yards in Baltimore during his rookie season). So I thought the one player who could provide a bit of pop for the Cardinals at Tight End would be Thaddeus Moss, he was part of LSU’s Championship winning team, Kliff loves to pass (it is the AIR raid Offence after all), Kyler Murray isn’t a direct comparison with Joe Burrow but he definitely has the confidence and excitement factor most QB’s leave in College and Moss hauled in 47 passes (82.5% of his targets) for 570 yards last season. Moss didn’t attend the Combine as he suffered a foot injury and while he isn’t the superhuman athlete that his Dad was when he entered the league he is 6″2′ with a 32 inch long arms (Rob Gronkowsi’s arms measured 34.3 inches and he’s 4 inches taller) and he’s certainly strong enough to be an effective chip blocker at the line of scrimmage. His foot injury could see drop down to the fifth round of the Draft but if he is healthy in time to for mini camp (and there’s no reason to think he won’t be) he will definitely be fun to watch and with speculation that the Cardinals will draft an Offensive lineman with the 10th pick to protect Murray an extra receiving option to go along with Hopkins, Fitzgerald, Kirk and Isabella seems to be something that would appeal to Kingsbury.

    On the topic of Coaches who might be tempted to Draft extravagantly when it comes to skill players on the Offensive side of the ball it will be fascinating to see what Sean McVay and the Rams do in this Draft, they’ve got plenty of needs and aren’t due to pick until the second round with the 52nd pick. The Offensive line needs a major rebuild particularly at Guard but if they could manage to get Lloyd Cushenberry who can play either Centre or Guard and has been lauded for his leadership at LSU last season that could go a long way toward helping Jared Goff out. Another way to help Goff would be to fill the space left by Brandin Cooks departure to Houston and this is where the fun could begin, if they want to pick one of the more talked about prospects they’ll need to jump about 40 places and they’re not exactly flush with either Draft capital or desirable players but it would be great to see Darnell Mooney working in a McVay Offence, he’s like a version of Brandin Cooks who can catch passes (remember the two touchdowns he dropped in the Super Bowl?) and he’s used to going in motion which was something McVay used to do with Cooks and Goff seemed to be comfortable with.

    The Rams currently only have one Defensive End on the books and since they fired Wade Phillips at the end of last season and lost Dante Fowler to the Falcons they will surely be targeting at least one pass rusher in the Draft, but judging by how many hybrid lineman/linebackers they currently they will be looking for a big, powerful End ahead of a sneaky quick one like Fowler and there are two guys from Auburn who fit the bill. Marlon Davidson is 6″3 and weighs 303 lbs and is comfortable either on the end of the line or inside which would be great news for Aaron Donald since his production dropped with Ndamukong Suh alongside him but he may well be gone before the Rams get a chance to pick and Nick Coe is 6″5 and 280 lbs and isn’t considered to be as consistent or polished as Davidson but working with Donald and Michael Brockers would certainly speed up his development.

    In my own, very personal fantasy world I would love to see how Tua would develop under McVay in L.A too, it definitely won’t be happening anytime soon though after all the money they threw at Goff last off-season. And unless the Offensive line improves drastically that’s probably for the best, an injury prone QB behind that hotchpotch would be a huge risk.

    Finally I would quite like to see the Falcons Draft Clyde Edwards-Helaire, he could be the steal of the whole Draft class with one site ranking him 81st (the Falcons have a the 78th pick). Even though the Falcons have recently acquired Todd Gurley they don’t really have a clear backup on the roster and given Gurley’s injury history combined with the fact they only scored 10 rushing TD’s last season they could do worse than take a gamble in the LSU product. Edwards-Helaire scored 16 rushing TD’s last season, caught one and totaled 1,876 yards from the line of scrimmage at average of 6.9 yards per carry. I imagine the main concerns are over his lack of stature as he only stands 5″8′ but Maurice Jones-Drew was only 5″7′ (he was a whole pound heavier than Clyde) and he didn’t seem to fair too badly in the NFL.

    Fantasy football

    So it’s nearly time for the first online NFL Draft which could could provide some hilarity and more than a few very frustrated and bamboozled middle aged coaches and GM’s. The NFL have said that for the first time in the history of the Draft they will stop the clock if there are unforeseen circumstances which cause team’s issues when making picks so it could also be one of the most protracted first rounds ever, so there’s something to look forward to! Last week I tried to predict (although in fairness I readily admit that I guessed wildly) so this week I thought I’d think aloud about which players I’d like to see with different teams even if there’s no chance of them actually ending up there.

    I’m a big fan of Jalen Hurts and I think there’s a very good chance he will surprise a few of the experts and be a success wherever he lands but I would really like to see him in Indianapolis. Hurts looked very good in patches at Alabama but had a fairly big hiccup in the National Championship game and was bailed out by Tua and that seemed to be held against him despite him returning the favour in the 2018 SEC Championship game against Georgia. Last season he played for Oklahoma and while he wasn’t exactly Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray he actually looked to be playing at quite a high level in a team that wasn’t as star studded as it had been in the previous two seasons. They finished the season with a 12-2 record and lost in the Peach Bowl to eventual champions LSU, Hurts threw 32 TD’s with 8 interceptions and ran for another 20 and even caught a TD so hardly a terrible season but he’s still not projected as a high pick with Tua, Herbert and Jordan Love ahead of him.

    The Colts have already signed Phillip Rivers as a stop-gap for one season so a young QB to learn from such an experienced campaigner the way Patrick Mahomes did behind Alex Smith would be ideal. Two more major plus points for any young QB who the Colts draft are that GM Chris Ballard has made a speciality out of building a team to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, possibly as a result of seeing Andrew Luck take so much punishment during his career the Colts now have a very sturdy Offensive line and Head Coach Frank Reich who was a QB in the league for 13 years and has developed a reputation as something of a Quarterback whisperer as a coach and he was the Offensive Coordinator in Philadelphia when the Eagles beat the Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII. There’s almost no chance Hurts does land in Indianapolis and as they’ve already traded away their first round pick a project QB won’t be anywhere near the top of their list but they do have 2 picks in the first 12 of the second round.

    A more pressing need for the Colts is probably Wide Receiver with T.Y Hilton approaching his 31st birthday and the strain of being the major receiving threat in Indianapolis since 2012 starting to take its toll whoever takes over from Rivers could use a consistent number 1 receiver and unless they trade up for one of the most promising prospects Michael Pittman could be a very useful guy who will probably be available when the Colts first pick comes around at number 34.

    Speaking of high end WR talent I would personally love to see at least 2 of the best 3 land with top QB’s but that is highly unlikely unless there are some blockbuster trades happening in the top half of the first round (which seems highly unlikely), but this is my fantasy world remember so we live in hope. It would be great to see the Packers actually try to help Aaron Rodgers and giving him another elite receiver like CeeDee Lamb to pair with Davante Adams would go some way towards doing that but it’s highly unlikely they will. For a team who won 13 games last season the Packers have a lot of needs in this Draft and they’ve only got 2 picks in the first 93 (!) they do have 8 picks in the later rounds though so they could trade up to try and at least solidify the O-line.

    Carson Wentz is another QB who needs more reliable receiving options, the Eagles ended last season with former College QB Greg Ward playing as a receiver and after an injury crisis they had 9 different WR’s who caught passes. Going into the 2020 their most established WR is DeSean Jackson who will be 34 in December and hasn’t played a full season since 2013! Jerry Jeudy would be really interesting to watch in an Offence with Carson Wentz and coached by Doug Pederson. With a real deep threat to clear space for Zach Ertz, Miles Sanders and Boston Scott the Eagles could return to the sort of high powered Offence that saw them overpower the Patriots not so long ago.

    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.