South Africa v Lions first Test preview

Statistically speaking the more phases an attacking team goes through in their opponent’s 22 the less likely they are to cross the try line, that was a big problem for the Lions against South Africa ‘A’ and that perfectly illustrates what the Springboks do so well.  They have an almost innate ability to dominate the gain-line without conceding penalties, even without much game time in the last 18 months that’s not an ability you can easily lose and attacking with any sort of tempo and fluency against a team who can do that is always an uphill struggle.  Selecting a starting 15 made up of partnerships and combinations who have next to no experience together seems like the sort of the thing that will just compound that issue, only Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly in the Centre’s have started a game on this tour together (and the half backs Ali Price and Dan Biggar featured together  for 20 minutes against Japan in Edinburgh), so the back play may be more cohesive than the forward unit but if the forwards can’t provide a platform the backs will have scarce opportunity to demonstrate any cohesion.

The Lions team selection can partly be explained by how compromised the entire tour has been by COVID, firstly they had to name a smaller squad than they would have liked to have and with the Bulls COVID outbreak they had to play a very young Cell C Sharks side twice (resulting in a combined 128-38 point victory), Josh Adams was unable to return home to be with his partner as she gave birth to their first child and the Springbok camp has suffered it’s own major COVID outbreak with more than 20 people returning positive test results including Head Coach Jacques Nienaber, Fly Half Handre Pollard and Captain Siya Kolisi and that’s where this game becomes as much of a conspiracy theorist’s delight as it is a sporting contest. 

There’s very little information on how COVID effects elite athlete’s and just 5 days ago it appeared highly unlikely Kolisi would have recovered enough to take part in this game but South Africa moved the announcement of their squad forward in order to unveil his messiah like recovery.  It was almost as if in response to Lions Captain Alun-Wyn Jones recovering from a shoulder injury their own totemic leader is sensationally back, so the squad’s that were named may very well not be the actual one’s who take the field (And as I type it’s been reported that Lions prop Wyn Jones won’t play).

With such uncertainty around the personnel who will actually be available for the Springboks it appears that the Lions lack of familiarity is an almost deliberate ploy from Gatland, the experimental feel of the starting 15 rather suggests that he’s using this first Test as an extra tour game they so sorely missed in this constricted tour.  They know Kolisi and Pollard will be lacking game time (particularly as Pollard only recently recovered from a serious knee injury) so big ball carriers like Jack Conan and Luke Cowan-Dickie will be making sure that the Fly Half isn’t going to shirk any tackles.  However Cowan-Dickie does have a tendency to feel the pressure when it comes to lineout time and I believe that’s what has lead to the selection of a 6 feet 7 inch blindside flanker in the form of Courtney Lawes (who is arguably the 3rd best English blindside flanker behind Jack Willis and Sam Underhill).  Lawes’ selection appears to provide a serious imbalance in the back row, with a dynamic open side in the form of Tom Curry requiring an equally dynamic 6 who can intelligently manage a ruck to maximise his skill as he did against the Stormers and with no Wyn Jones the breakdown is certain to be an area of real weakness for the Lions.  If, as expected, the Springboks dominate the gain-line Kwagga Smith and Kolisi will easily outnumber poor Curry as the rest of the Lions forwards lumber behind him and it’ll be left to the likes of Henshaw and Daly to help out the Sale Shark.  The selection of the two wingers who are the most awkward to tackle in Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson (and even Liam Williams on the bench) ahead of the two wingers who are most likely to ghost into space in Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit rather leans toward the coaches worrying about the attacking ruck speed, if they were expecting a fluid, open attacking game they’d have gone with guile over brute force.  If van der Merwe and Watson can cross the gain-line and give Price and Biggar a slightly disorganised defence to work against then the Lions backline has pace power in Henshaw, Hogg and Daly to exploit any gaps on offer but the Springbok backline are one of the most solid defence’s in world rugby so the Lions may end up kicking the ball away more than they would like to.  The Springbok back 3 and whichever member of the back row they choose to drop back will eat up any loose kicks and as the ‘A’ team demonstrated they’ll score from anywhere on the pitch.  The concern with the Lions kicking game is that Gregor Townsend usually has Russell or Hastings at 10 and they have an almost creative kicking game where they sometimes sacrifice distance in order to manipulate the opposition back 3 and allow the kick chasers a better chance of containing any counter attack chance but that’s not really something Biggar, Henshaw or Hogg (and especially Daly) don’t often try, they would all rather kick so they can compete for the ball or just clear their lines which would make Cheslin Kolbe in particular very happy.

Missing Wyn Jones could be a real problem for the Lions as he’s the most well rounded of the loose-head props in the squad and while Rory Sutherland will undoubtedly provide plenty of muscle and aggression he’s not the ball player the Welshman is and whilst Mako Vunipola’s inclusion on the bench provides some destructive ball carrying and a lot of intelligence he hasn’t been in the best form at scrum time, so unless the game is played at a frightening pace and there are some very tired Springbok forwards on the field a ball carrying loose-head might not be the order of the day.

If the Lions can dictate the pace of the game and test the host’s conditioning in the last 15 to 20 minutes they could come away with a healthy victory but if it’s a typically South African disjointed and gritty game then the home team should be the favourites to grind out an ugly win.

A pride of Lions

Warren Gatland and his coaching team are facing the prospect of the most complicated British and Irish Lions tour in history (and the Lions have toured South Africa during the days of Apartheid and played a 35 game tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1888 that involved playing games of Aussie Rules. A tour which departed Gravesend on the 9th of March and returned on the 11th of November! So they have a pretty high bar when it comes to complicated tours). Even without the current pandemic situation organising 4 separate Unions and hoping for cooperation from regional and club teams under the 4 separate umbrellas was always going to be awkward, not to mention expensive. However, the most complicated part has to be selecting the squad and hoping that the players are as enthusiastic about the tour going ahead as the accountants are, Ben Youngs has already decided that the imminent birth of his third child is a priority and Youngs coach at Leicester has politely declined an invitation to go on another tour as part of Gatland’s coaching team so the Kiwi’s job becomes increasingly intricate day by day.

Luckily I haven’t got to worry about the intricacies, I’m just going to pick the 36 players who I think will be in the touring party, so here goes nothing-

Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones, Joe Marler (who may decline the offer, then it may be Rory Sutherland or Ellis Genge)

Ken Owens, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Scott Baldwin (although the 3rd sport is wide open. Rob Herring would be an interesting selection)

Tadgh Furlong, Kyle Sinkler, Andrew Porter

Maro Itoje, Alun-Wyn Jones, James Ryan, Iain Henderson

Tadgh Beirne, Hamish Watson, Josh Navidi

Justin Tipuric, Sam Underhill

CJ Stander, Taulupe Faletau

Conor Murray, Ben Spencer, Tomos Williams

Jonny Sexton, Dan Biggar, George Ford

Robbie Henshaw, Owen Farrell

Garry Ringrose, Chris Harris

Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams, Duhan Van der Merwe

Anthony Watson, Stuart Hogg

Traditionally this would be the bit where the “bolters” get a mention but I would be very surprised if there are any shocking selections. There are 3 areas where there isn’t much depth so there could be some unpopular picks at hooker, scrum half and lock but other than that Gatland has players he is more than familiar to pick from.

Lions chatter

Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future!” and he had a very good point (probably not quite as good a point his father, Christian, who discovered the Bohr effect) but I’m always up for a challenge and no stranger to looking silly so it’s time to talk Lions squad selection.

Warren Gatland is one of the most succesful Lions coaches for a reason, he’s incredibly single minded and puts his faith in players who share his intense focus on winning so I think you can split the potential squad into 2 seperate parts, the core which will consist of players he knows and has previously coached and the wider talent base (it’s not completely impossible there will be one or two complete wildcards in the 36 but since it has been reported they are taking a “streamlined” there won’t be much room for “bolters”). There has also been a lot of talk about Gatland selecting “on form” but that rather implies that he doesn’t believe he, along with his coaching team, can get the best out of players who have been struggling in what has, lets face it, been a particularly trying last 10 months for everyone. According to the current schedule there will be 5 games in South Africa leading into the first Test in Johannesburg plus a pre-tour warm up game against Japan so I can’t imagine selection will be limited to players who hasve been absolutely outstanding in the last few weeks or months.

The core players are pretty easy to predict (he said foolishly), so here goes –

  • Mako Vunipola, I think he’s the loose head prop Gatland would want if he were still playing hooker.
  • Ken Owens, he’s been a driving force in solidifying the Welsh set piece during the 6 Nations and he has 84 Test caps.
  • Tadgh Furlong, if he’s not the best tight head in rugby he’s in the top 2.
  • Maro Itoje, has to be the most annoying player to play against in world rugby, or he might be second to
  • Alun-Wyn Jones, he’s got 157 Test caps and 9 of them are for the Lions. At this stage he’s a living, breathing rugby instruction manual.
  • James Ryan, he’s started 32 Tests and won 26 of them, whatever he does it undeniably works.
  • Tadgh Beirne, possibly a controversial choice for “absolutely nailed on” but he can play 5, 6 or 8 in an emergency and he’s a phenomonal athlete, he’s played 22 Tests and won 15.
  • Sam Underhill, there’s a reason heplayed 22 Tests and won 18, he is one of those people who looks like a normal human but has superhero strength (like a lot of the Springbok squad).
  • CJ Stander, there’s a reason he isn’t retiring until the International window has closed, he made 6 appearances on a 10 game tour of New ZealandA so it’s safe to say Gatland is a fan.
  • Taulupe Faletau, he’s got 90 Test caps, 4 for the Lions and nobody has ever looked so sangfroid whilst playing International rugby.
  • Conor Murray, he’s not been in vintage form but if Gatland thinks he can get 2 decent Test starts from him he’s on the plane.
  • Johnny Sexton, he’s flashed some of his talent this season but has mostly been battling his decrepid body but similarly if he can stay upright for 100 minutes he’ll be there.
  • Owen Farrell, literally everyone who isn’t related to him will be furious (hello Mike Brown) but Gatland loves an angry bloke and he’s actually a decent communicator in midfield.
  • Robbie Henshaw, probably Ireland’s player of the 6 Nations and one of the best Centre’s in the tournament, he’s started 47 Tests and won 33 plus he can play 12 or 13 and he’s massive.
  • Liam Williams, Gatland loves an angry bloke remember and his versatility will help “streamline” the squad too.
  • Stuart Hogg, he’s quick, he’s bigger than he was when Gatland picked him to tour New Zealand, he can kick the ball a mile and he can play 15, 10 and possibly 13 if nobody else can.
  • Anthoy Watson, probably the best athlete in the England squad and another one who can play two postions, his attacking threat was key in stretching the All Black defence 4 years ago.

Predicting the wider squad will be much trickier but after this weekend’s European rugby there may be some stand out candidates, so that’ll probably be a job for Monday then. Can you leave the 6 Nation’s top try scorer at home though? Especially if he’s a manimal born in South Africa. Just imagine Duhan having to tackle Akker in the corner late in the 3rd Test, that would surely be something.

Wales v England 2021, not so much a blog as a therapy session

So Wales have won 2 consecutive games under Wayne Pivac and seem to have accelerated the transition he was claiming had started during the Autumn, however both of those games have seen their opponents have a Forward sent off for an illegal clear out at a ruck, so is there reason to be optimistic? Well, purely based on the last two games it’s very tricky to tell, but here goes –

Wales have really struggled to get their hands on the ball (under Gatland they essentially allowed opponents to have posession because they trusted the defence to force penalties or turnovers in scoring positions but Pivac insists that the cornerstone of his transition is a move away from permanent defence), against Ireland they had just 36% of the ball and in Edinburgh 38%. If England finish the game having had almost 70% they will more than likely score over 30 points and that should be enough to win convincingly.

Another area where Wales have struggled is gaining ground when they do have the ball, against Ireland they had 190 carries and only managed 2.1 metres per carry and whilst they improved against Scotland it was only by 20 centimetres per carry to a similarly unimpressive 2.3 metres. The inclusion of Jonathan Davies at 12 and the return of Josh Navidi should add some extra dynamism to the attack though. For their part last time out England allowed Italy to make 3.5 metres per carry a full metre more than they allowed Scotland in the Calcutta Cup match so the insignificant statistics definitely trending in a Welsh direction.

England have conceded 27 turnovers in the first two games which is 5 more than Wales have and once again the return of Josh Navidi alongside Tipuric, Wyn Jones, Alun-Wyn and Faletau suggest that Wales will be aiming to disrupt as many breakdowns as possible while England will be without one of their arch-disrupters in the form of Jack Willis but in Tom Curry, Mark Wilson and Maro Itoje (and Ben Earl on the bench) England have more than their fair share of scrappers plus Jonny Hill is always good for a few law bending infringments when the ball is on the ground.

On the theme of bending laws instead of breaking them the team of officials are bound to have a huge influence on the result of this game and while Pascal Gauzere’s interpreatations at ruck time are going to be interesting the scrum seems to be the most contencious area and with two Irish assistant referees it’s difficult not to see them being a complete free for all. Andrew Brace seemed to take a real dislike to the Welsh scrum against Scotland in the Autumn and as a former scrum half Frank Murphy isn’t exactly what you would call a front row maven so expect some inexplicable decisions there. One area that England should probably target is the Welsh back 3, Louis Rees-Zammit could win any game of rugby almost single handedly and none of the English backline will want him to get any space or time so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he’s singled out for some special treatment and if he is I’d expect the entire Welsh team to take exception to it with Liam Williams never backwards in going forwards when there’s a potential fracas.

Despite not really having much ball or doing much with it Wales have been looking to keep it alive a lot more than England have, they have offloaded 10 times in the tournament so far compared to England who have managed just 6 and it might be Wales’ desire to promote the ball and find players in space that has caused opponents to attack rucks when Wales look to be turning the ball over?

So it looks like this could be a close game and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if it is decided in the last 10-15 minutes and if that is the case a quick Gareth Davies could exploit some tired defenders and with Callum Sheedy and Willis Halaholo on the bench for Wales they would be more than happy to into the closing stages 5 points behind (don’t think the fans would be though). The old “no fans in the stadium levels the playing field” trope doesn’t really hold much water with me, England have won in Cardiff with fans in the stadium so I don’t think it’ll be the deciding factor here. The deciding factor will probably be that Wales are still a team in that “transitional” phase and Eddie Jones has been drumming his ideas into his England team since 2015.

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.

RWC Power Rankings (week 5)

In the final week of warm up games Connacht arose as a surprise dark horse as they beat Russia in Moscow (that’s 2 wins for Irish provinces against teams going to the world cup during the warm up games).

  1. New Zealand – George Bridge carried the ball 247 metres and scored 3 more tries against Tonga than Wales did against Ireland as the All Blacks romped to a 92-7 victory. They seem to be rounding into form nicely!
  2. Ireland – like every good church Ireland run a lot smoother when there’s a good Sexton around and they dominated territory and possession on their way to a 19-10 victory. The World Cup Final we’ve all been waiting for is back on.
  3. England – despise a fairly experimental backline Eddie Jones’ boys thrashed Connor O’Shea’s Italy who can only really take comfort in having Canada and Namibia awaiting them in Pool C.
  4. South Africa – they travelled to Japan to dish out a 41-7 whooping to the very convivial hosts. Just imagine Amanaki Mafi and Eben Etzebeth in the same car park, actually don’t.
  5. Australia – the Wallabies dominated their game over Samoa but didn’t put the game to bed until the 70th minute. Just to add insult to the Samoan injury Matt To’omua scored a try. no really, he did, I swear.
  6. USA – they look to be in a seriously good place at the moment, unfortunately they share Pool with England and France but they could have a very real chance of upsetting Argentina if they avoid too many awkward scrums.
  7. Scotland – 2 wins in 2 weeks for Gregor Townsend’s team doesn’t happen too regularly but they were both against Georgia!
  8. Wales – Ireland have given plenty of teams problem in the Aviva over recent years and while Wales won 100% of their set pieces against a strong pack their ineffectual breakdown work should be a concern.
  9. Japan – losing 7-41 at home is never ideal but when it’s to a team who have beaten and drawn with the All Blacks recently it’s not disastrous. They won 100% of their scrums, only conceded 7 penalties, beat 22 defenders and the brave blossoms snaffled 18 turnovers so there’s plenty of positives to take away.
  10. Samoa – if they had a 10 they’d be dangerous Tusi Pisi looks out of his depth in the Gallagher Premiership so in a Test match he’s a liability. Despite losing 6 line outs and missing 36 tackles they were within 7 points until the 69th minute.
  11. Tonga – they might have been pasted, but they got pasted by an All Black team going for a third successive RWC title. They did only concede 5 penalties (3 fewer than the New Zealanders) in the whole game which is a huge improvement for a traditionally “feisty” team. They will probably on the receiving end against England but there’s no clear favourite to finish second in Pool C so who knows.
  12. Georgia – they scored 9 points in Murrayfield but conceded 8 fewer points than they did last week, small victories an all that.
  13. Italy – even against a hot England team a 37-0 loss is pretty tough to polish.
  14. Canada – Sir Graham Henry seems to have had an instant impact, they lead 12-0 at half time against a very good USA team but tailed off as the substitutes rolled on. Their first Pool B game is against Italy on a short rest week for the Azzuri and their final game is against Namibia after the Welwitschias have played the All Blacks, so with a bit more Henry magic they could have some very close games ahead.
  15. Russia – Lyn Jones had already gone on record bemoaning how their late qualification has effected their build up but losing to a Connacht preseason team should set all the alarm bells ringing!

RWC Power Rankings (week 4)

Just the 4 games this week, but a few of them point toward who could be successful in Japan.

  1. Ireland – James Ryan comes back into the squad and Ireland win again (sunrise, sunset). But that hasn’t stopped Irish rugby twitter having a Jean Kleyn sized meltdown, well done everyone.
  2. France – they always beat Italy but they don’t always do it with 7 tries and a 28 point margin. 2 forwards binned for repeated infringements might be a concern though.
  3. Scotland – Townsend’s boys have discovered how to win away from home, play in Tbilisi in a half empty Dinamo Stadium.
  4. Fiji – another win for the Flying Fijians but only by 10 points against Tonga who are probably going to get a 60 point spanking in Waikato next weekend.
  5. Wales – Rhys Patchell dusted off his mercurial best and dragged Wales to within 5 points of an equitable draw with a bit of help from half back partner Tomos Williams. They now go to Dublin with Gatland weighing up whether or not to throw caution to the wind in his last 3 months or to stick to grinding opponents into a fine dust.
  6. Italy – Bellini (the 6 foot 3 winger, not the cocktail) and Polledri scored 3 tries against a resurgent French team. Bellini even managed to find time to get sin binned too, busy boy.
  7. Tonga – took an early lead against Fiji through Piutau but then allowed Fiji to score the next 22 points. Yikes!
  8. Georgia – They did score a try against Scotland but their overall performance was so alarming they dragged 35 year old Mamuke Gorgodze out of for retirement for a sweaty trip to Japan.