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 3)

Only 5 Nations played warm up games this weekend but in the spirit of fair play I have to continue the weekly rankings (although theoretically Leinster have half a chance at winning the RWC if this week is anything to go by)

  1. England – 57 points is a lot in any game even against an Irish team who were missing key players and are clearly in a different part of their conditioning schedule.
  2. Scotland – a win is a win and a bounce back win against France who thrashed them last week keeps things in Pool A potentially very interesting
  3. France – after a comprehensive win last week they lost by 3 points this week. To coin a phrase “France gonna France”.
  4. Ireland – Quite a few players struggled in defence but that’s usually a sign they’re in a heavy training cycle. The line out issues could be more worrying for Joe Schmidt.
  5. Canada – but only because Leinster’s touring side aren’t able to compete in Japan. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again what is Kingsley Jones doing (or not doing) to get such poor results? They did score 5 tries (against a very unsettled Provincial team) but they went 19-0 down inside 28 minutes and conceded 14 points in the last 7 minutes!

RWC Power Rankings (week 2)

  1. New Zealand – they’re back in black. They nilled the Wallabies in Eden Park a week after they lost in Perth.
  2. Wales – held England to just 2 penalty kicks even though England welcomed Maro Itoje back to the starting line up and had Owen Farrell on the bench.
  3. South Africa – another win for the Springboks, albeit controversially with some interesting refereeing decisions from Luke Pearce.
  4. Argentina – made 10 changes to the starting XV and could have beaten a changed Springboks team in Pretoria.
  5. England – well they did score 6 points.
  6. France – pummelled Scotland 32-3 as Fabien Galthie’s influence appears. But Scotland always struggle in France.
  7. Australia – missed Rory Arnold and still have a huge problem filling the 6 jersey
  8. Italy – scored 13 tries in an 85-15 thumping of Russia including 3 from Minozzi who was restored to the wing.
  9. Russia – they scored 15 points away in Italy even if it was against a changed Italian side
  10. Scotland – just 3 points against a relatively new French team, even for a team who struggle outside Murrayfield that’s quite worrying.

Ireland, Japan, Samoa, Namibia, Canada, USA, Tonga, Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay all avoided games this week.

RWC Power Rankings

As the World Rugby ranking algorithm seems to be at best “complicated” I thought I’d come up with a way of ranking the Rugby World Cup teams based on their most recent performance –

  1. Australia (there may have been a Scott Barrett brain fart involved but that’s the most points New Zealand have ever conceded)
  2. South Africa (winning away by 33 points is mighty impressive)
  3. England (winning at a canter with most of the stars on the bench has to be a positive)
  4. Ireland (5 tries in a 19 point win with only 1 first choice forward starting deserves plenty of respect)
  5. Japan (they beat a USA team but who had made a few changes by 14 points and they had made several changes too including positional switches)
  6. Fiji (held Samoa to 3 points without Tuisova, Yato or Murimurivalu in the starting XV)
  7. New Zealand (obviously still RWC favourites, but in terms of recency there’s not many positives in a 21 point drubbing)
  8. Wales (lost by 14 points at Twickenham which is pretty normal stuff but lost the Grand Slam winning 10 who brings the calm and confidence to the whole squad)
  9. Samoa (lost to Fiji’s changed team but only by 7 points)
  10. Argentina (Los Jaguares exploits in Super Rugby seem to be kicking in now and Nicholas Sanchez seems to be Ledesma’s Emperor’s New Clothes)
  11. Italy (picked a bit of a mish mash backline but losing by 19 to an underpowered Ireland seems cause for concern)
  12. USA (lost by 14 points to Japan but they’re trying to blend some new players and integrate 2 of the successful 7’s squad into the 15’s set up)
  13. Tonga (they made a few changes and actually won but they conspired to concede 23 points against Canada who hadn’t scored more than 20 points in a Pacific Nations Cup game since 2014)
  14. Canada (its a mystery how Kingsley Jones gets so little out of that squad).

Russia, France, Scotland, Namibia, Georgia and Uruguay all avoided games this week and therefore any unnecessary (see also heart breaking) injuries.

An alternative RWC prognostication

Rugby World Cup 2019 doesn’t start until the 20th of September and there’s a Rugby Championship, Elgon Cup, Pacific Nations Cup and World Cup warm up games to squeeze in before then too. Coaches don’t have to name a final 31 man squad until the 2nd of September and with so many games to be played injuries are virtually guaranteed so it’s far too early to make sweeping predictions about who will definitely make the final so here’s a “what could happen if the underdogs come good” view.

Pool A only had two teams who are currently ranked inside the top 10 in Ireland and Scotland but in Japan they have the team ranked 11th who drew with France in November 2017 and who lead England after 56 minutes at Twickenham last autumn, so there’s definite upset potential with a home crowd behind them. The brave blossoms have the enviable task of playing Russia in their first game (Russia are ranked 20th and have win – loss record of 8 – 9 since 2017) while Ireland and Scotland get to battle it out in the most brutal conditions the tournament promises to provide. Then Japan have a shot at an Ireland team coming off 6 days rest (Japan have an 8 day rest since they open the show) while Scotland take on a Samoa team who are always physical and look to have some incredibly large humans in their Pacific Nations squad. Japan v Scotland will be the final pool game so Japan have a very real chance of qualifying for the Quarter Finals and for the purposes of this highly imaginative story let’s say they do (outside Murrayfield where Scotland look like world beaters and terrified the All Blacks in 2017 Scotland have a pretty dodgy record). Historically Ireland have had mixed results at World Cup’s but its difficult to see them losing a pool game even in a fantasy land scenario.

Pool B is more of a forgone conclusion than all the other pool’s, really only New Zealand and South Africa can qualify, Italy did beat South Africa by 2 points in 2016 but they have only won 3 games since) and Canada and Namibia are the two lowest ranked teams in the competition.

Pool C is the polar opposite of B with England, France and Argentina all incredibly close as England seem to be stalling slightly under Eddie Jones, France have had to parachute new coaches in to save them and Argentina appear to be on the rise as they welcome back their overseas stars. USA can’t be completely ruled out of the running either as Major League Rugby seems to be developing their talent pool and they’ve called 3 of their 7’s stars into the training squad. USA are actually afforded the luxury of taking on England just 4 days after England’s bruising encounter against Tonga in what will be the Eagles first game of the tournament. USA’s fixture list actually throws a lot of opportunities for them to cause some upsets, their second game is 6 days later against a France team coming off an 11 day break (imagine France spending 11 whole days in each others company, what could possibly go wrong), then they have a whole week off before they play Argentina just 4 days after the Pumas take on England. The USA’s short rest week is before they play Tonga and by then they could have already qualified for the next round. Purely hypothetically let’s say Argentina top the pool and USA qualify second.

Pool D is also far from simple, Wales are currently ranked second in the world rankings, Australia are sixth and Fiji are 9th but as their name suggests the Fijians are currently flying on the pitch (they’ve won 5 of their last 7 and only lost to Ireland by 3 in 2017) even if they appear to be having a few issues with money and coaches leaving their camp. Australia appear to have the kindest schedule with 8 days rest before they play Wales, 6 days before they take on Uruguay and another 6 rest days before they face Georgia (although Georgia’s scrum could cause some issues for everyone especially the Wallabies). Wales get the luxury of resting most of their starters in the first game against Georgia while Australia have the tricky task of keeping a lid on Fiji (and that could be a particularly feisty encounter with a few Fijians opting to represent Australia). Wales and Australia meet in their second game of the pool so the pool could realistically be decided by how Fiji perform at the start of the pool games, but we’re not here to be realistic so let’s imagine Fiji top Pool D and Australia overcome their “annus horribilis” (take that republicans) and sneak into second place.

That would provide the unlikely Quarter Final matchups of Argentina v Australia, New Zealand v Japan, Fiji v USA and Ireland v South Africa (actually not that unlikely).

In the spirit of creativity let’s go with Argentina v New Zealand in Semi Final 1 (and they traditionally serve up absolute belters at world cups) and Fiji v Ireland in the Semi Final numero deux which could lead to the tantalising prospect of Argentina and their contingent of Los Jaguares playing possession rugby against the flying Fijians, sexy rugby all round! I reckon the Pumas would probably sneak it by virtue of having a better place kicker but it would certainly be fun to watch.

Saracens v Gloucester

Parkway Drive once declared “Romance is Dead” on their 2005 album Killing with a Smile and they may very well have been predicted the 2019 Gallagher Premiership season. The top 4 teams finished exactly as predicted here back before a ball had been kicked in anger but if there is one glimmer of hope that Parkway Drive’s declaration may have come prematurely its that Gloucester can be absolutely scintillating on their day and if all 22 hit their straps on the same day it could be absolutely glorious to watch.

Gloucester certainly appear to have an edge in the front row battle largely because there’s no Mako Vunipola for Saracens and since he is one of the best Loose-head props in the world any replacement is going to be a step down. They’re also Titi Lamositele, Juan Figallo and Christopher Tolofua who are all capped internationals. They are replaced by Ralph Adams-Hale who is fresh out of the Academy, Christian Judge who is on loan from Cornish Pirates and Joe Gray who only signed for Saracens in September 2018. Gloucester have also got a relative newbie in the front row ranks too with Mike Sherry, who is on loan from Munster, appearing on their bench but apart from him the Cherry & Whites front row are all familiar faces. In actual fact personnel could very little influence on how the scrums go, referee Luke Pearce proved last week that he will penalise effect over cause at scrum time. He was an assistant referee at Sandy Park where he seemed to take a sudden dislike to the Northampton scrum even when it appeared to most impartial observers that the Saints prop’s were struggling to maintain a bind and hold the scrum up because their Exeter counterparts weren’t driving particularly square.

Gloucester have been particularly successful at line outs this season with the play of Franco Mostert being particularly revelatory. The 28 year old Springbok has been one of the stand out locks all season, he’s been indefatigable around the park and he’s stolen 10 line out in 13 games which lead to him being selected in the dream team. Saracens line out has been outstanding this season too when Jamie George has been throwing it in and he may well play the whole 80 minutes this week but how the unfamiliar combinations effect the set piece later in the game will be interesting to see.

There will be a lot made of the Cipriani v Farrell matchup but the main reason that both 10’s are so successful is because they only use the ball when they are convinced that the big lads ahead of them have sucked in enough defenders for them to exploit the resulting space. If this is going to be the slug-fest Gloucester are expecting (they’ve got 6 forwards, even if Polledri has appeared on the wing this season) then neither 10 will be seeing much of the ball. Gloucester have also selected their 2 best defending wingers who are both great kick chasers. Tom Marshall is one of the most underrated players in the Gallagher Premiership, if Cipriani can get Marshall in the space between Lozowski and his opposite number Sean Maitland then Marshall’s physicality could make a bit of space for Gloucester’s right wing Charlie Sharples.

My head says Saracens at home is a huge mountain to overcome particularly at the business end of the season but my heart says Cipriani has the keys to unlock any door that appears to be shut in front of him it’s just all about how his pack stand up to the physical onslaught they’re bound to be subjected to.

And who keeps Luke Pearce on their good side will have a huge influence too.

Franco Mostert to win Man of the Match and Gloucester to win by 2.