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.

6 Nations preview – abridged version

There’s been a lot of overthinking from pundits and alleged experts in the build up to the 2019 6 Nations so I thought I’d offer an alternative perspective –

  1. Ireland – they’ve James Ryan, everyone else is fucked. (Tadgh Beirne, Sean Cronin and Jacob Stockdale are in some frightening form too)
  2. England – if they had Underhill they’d be my favourites to win it but they don’t so the speed of their ruck ball depends on the erratic Ben Youngs
  3. Scotland – Finn Russell is as likely to throw a spectacular misspass as he is to miss touch from 35 yards so they’re right in the middle (ish)
  4. Wales – Gatland looks like he’ll pick an 8 who hasn’t played since the Autumn Internationala and a 9 who was injured yesterday. This is strictly RWC prep time for the wiley old Kiwi
  5. France – if they all shared Guilhem Guirado’s intensity and focus they’d terrify every opponent in world rugby. They don’t and Cami Lopez is their experienced 10!
  6. Italy – less direction than a Gatwick drone hunt, but a pack who work their collective socks off. God love them. If they ever find a 10 who marries Claudio Canna’s flair with Tommaso Allan’s pragmatism there’ll be hell to pay.

Bold predictions for 6 Nations week 2

Ireland v Italy bold prediction – Ireland to win by 40 points

Last week Ireland did the whole ruthless efficiency thing as they squeezed past France with the last kick of the game in atrocious conditions (some would say very Irish conditions) in Paris. Whilst they did fail to score a try and Johnny Sexton was their only points scorer virtually the whole team outplayed their opponent. Ireland had 68% possession and territory (70% and 72% in the first half!) which is pretty spectacular for a team playing away from home. This domination was built on the solid foundation the forwards provided, they won 18 of 19 set pieces and won 162 out of 166 rucks alongside 4 of the 4 mauls they attempted. They only conceded 6 penalties (although it would be prescient to point out that Nigel Owens was on the whistle and he has definitely his own laid back approach to the laws of rugby), the only part of their game that was less than excellent was their defending as they missed 15 tackles, about 4 of which came as Teddy Thomas scorched in from 60 metres out.

For their part Italy endured a tough opening game at home against the doomsday device that is Eddie Jones’ England and while their scrum showed a similar consistency to panna cota they didn’t go down without a fight. Italy won the territory and possession battle against England with 52% of both and they did cross for 2 tries but ultimately their disorganised defence which lead to a complete lack of line speed meant England could dance over for 7 tries of their own (if Italy had managed to keep a lid on Sam Simmonds and Anthony Watson the final score would have been a more respectable 15-26). I can’t imagine Italy will be able to dominate either possession or territory against Ireland’s efficient pack and if Johnny Sexton can get some quick ball he will pick Italy’s passive defensive line apart.

England v Wales bold prediction – Wales leave west London with their 100% record intact

England haven’t lost at Twickenham in 14 games but the last 6 Nations team to win there were Wales. To paraphrase Phil Collins – I can feel it coming in the air this morning, even if it would be a huge upset. Although here’s a few reasons why Wales could do it:

  1. England are coming off a 6 day turn around so Wales have had an extra preparation day
  2. England had to fly back from Italy but Wales only had to travel down the M4
  3. Wales only made 98 tackles (they missed 15) compared to the 136 England had to put in (they missed 17) as they lost the territory and possession battles in Rome
  4. Last year in Cardiff England really struggled with the Welsh physicality until Ross Moriarty was substituted (well done Mr. Howley)
  5. England conceded 9 penalties and 1 free kick in Rome, Wales only gave away 7 and 1
  6. Wales made 18 clean breaks and 13 offloads against a Scotland team who tackled well but were very disorganised. England made 14 clean breaks and 11 offloads against a defence that ultimately conceded 46 points
  7. Eddie Jones has provided Wales with enough motivational material for about the next 7 seasons over the last few days. Calling out an inexperienced 10 is pretty bog standard bully boy stuff but ripping into a Lions captain with 123 Test caps is either desperate or nonsense.
  8. Jonathan Joseph replaces Ben Te’o to face the same Centre combination that beat his Bath team 35-17. And both Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams scored tries in that game.

Confidence is going to be the deciding factor in this game and it’s technically impossible to determine who will have the most once the game kicks off but the Scarlets have won 15 games in the league and European Champions Cup which is more than any English team in their respective competitions and this Wales team has 10 Scarlets starting so they shouldn’t be short on belief.

And for what it’s worth I personally can’t get on board with the whole “Test rugby is a big step up” platitude mainly because playing rugby (or any sport) is exactly the same when the ball is in play. Uncontrollable variables like who you’re representing or how big the stadium is or what the opposing coach said about you on Thursday are exactly that, uncontrollable. The ball is the same size, the rules are the same (although do vary from referee to referee) and the aim is the same, control yourself, keep a clear head and communicate with your team mates.

Scotland v France bold prediction – Good Finn Russell turns up and absolutely shreds the French defence

Not only did France have to make a lactic acid inducing 238 tackles against Ireland they also missed 15, conceded 10 penalties (plus 1 free kick) and spent more than two thirds of the game in their own half. They also suffered some controversial injuries too which have caused 3 changes in their starting XV with 32 year old Lionel Beauxis being recalled to start at 10 for the first time in six years.

Scotland weren’t terrible last week and on the stats sheet they were relatively close 48% territory (60% in the first half), they beat 19 defenders and they did score a consolation try in the 79th minute. A confused selection (Huw Jones at 12 wasn’t great) and Ali Price starting badly and descending into some sort of shame spiral were pretty fatal but Greig Laidlaw and his stoic solidity are starting this week. Scotland have scored 19 tries in their last 9 6 Nations games at Murrayfield including 3 the last time they played France there so I can’t see them repeating last week’s lacklustre showing. The return of Simon Berghan from a ban should bolster the scrum too, provided he keeps his cool a 6 foot 4, 19 stone Tight-head prop should bring enough physicality to trouble a French team who are still having nightmares about relentless Irish forwards running into them.

6 Nations bold predictions

Every dog and their man has come up with their own 6 Nations preview this week and since the final standings all seem the same (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy) I thought I’d try something different, hopefully humorous and, in a break from the norm, remotely interesting.

Wales v Scotland

Bold prediction – this one finishes as a draw

On paper this game involves 2 teams full of skill and attacking intent and a referee who has very little time for either of the above. Pascal Gauzere can be one of the most frustrating referees to watch because he doesn’t appear to have any feel for the game and has no hesitation in checking as many incidents as possible with the TMO (who is David Grashoff and he has been known to take an interminable length of time just to make incorrect decisions).

Josh Adams makes his Wales debut on the wing meaning that Wales have a back line comprising of 5 Scarlets and a former Scarlets academy winger but Rob Howley insists they are not going to play Scarlets rugby. Rob Howley was an excellent scrum half in his playing days but scrum halves rarely make good backs coaches and it must have something to do with how playing at 9 mainly involves what sport psychologists call “closed skills”, you box kick, you snipe around the fringes or you pass to the first receiver and let them do the fancy stuff. Everyone else in the back line has to respond to external stimuli such as defenders, support runners, their proximity to the touchline as well as the decisions the 9 has to make (kick, pass or keep running) and generally scrum halves who coach backs have no appreciation for any of these factors at all, my own personal belief (and concern) in this was reinforced by Howley’s use of the phrase “Welsh play book” this week because you can really only have a play book for closed skills.

All the talk about Scotland this week has been about how injured their front row is but they have selected one of the best props from the 2017 6 Nations and the stand out hooker from the Autumn Internationals in Gordon Reid and Stuart McInally, Scotland will presumably be looking to play like Glasgow Warriors have been in the new Pro 14 league this season (they’ve 12 out of 13 and recorded 10 bonus points too) and that’s why everyone has great expectations for this game.

I’m expecting fraught defensive coaches on both sides because for all the attacking talent on display (Adams, Evans, Davies for Wales and McGuigan, Harris, Seymour, Hogg in particular for Scotland) there are a number of new combinations and inexperienced Test match players who will provide opportunities for their opponents to expose. If the Welsh fowards can get the upper hand then Scotland will have to wait longer than 16 years to win again in Cardiff, but I can’t see Gauzere and his cohorts allowing anyone to dominate this game.

France v Ireland

Bold prediction – France’s noveau riche start like a house on fire and build a big enough lead to hang on to.

Jaques Brunel isn’t going die wondering in his first game as France coach, he’s starting an 19 year old at Fly Half and if that doesn’t work he’s got a 21 year old to come off the bench to save the day. He’s also got a 21 year old scrum half on the bench (who is seriously quick), two 23 years old’s in the pack and 4 24 year old’s on the bench alongside him so maybe (just maybe) the excitement is back in French rugby?

Now, on paper Ireland should crush these French youngsters like great, big, experienced things crush new, smaller, younger things but since 2008 Ireland have only once in France (by 2 points in 2014) and they’ve drawn once whilst losing 4 times. In fact since 1954 Ireland have only won 3 times in France so Ireland at 2/5 on with the bookmakers almost seems to be a minor oversight.

Brunel has gone for an injection of youth because France are perceived to be one of the unfittest teams in the 6 Nations and Ireland are almost mechanical in their dedication to strength and conditioning work so they should be able to outlast their hosts and with both Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens on officiating duty at the Stade de France the chances that this one is decided by an error are pretty slim. Nigel Owens does like a game to flow though so rucks will be hotly contested and there may be some bodies flying in all directions. If France make a good start, and they do have a team full of ball carriers who like to offload, this game could be a real nail biter but if Ireland can keep their heads (and they rarely do in Paris) the bookies are right.

Italy v England

Bold prediction – it’s hard to make any prediction that doesn’t involve England winning, but how about England winning with 14 players on the pitch.

This is the game where England always look a bit scratchy, don’t thrash Italy as conclusively as they should but Owen Farrell will make sure they win by at least 30. In theory the relentless, spirit crushing threshing machine that is the England tight 5 should provide England with enough clean ball to win this by 100 points but Italy are always ul for their first game at home and something weird usually happens, it snowed one year!

Italy are in a seemingly perpetual “transition phase” possibly because they appear to pick their team out of a hat, admittedly they’re missing players like Venditti (who doesn’t love a 17 stone winger? <well Dean Richards didn’t, but I’m talking about normal people>) and Leonardo Sarto (who doesn’t love a 6 foot 3 winger?) but they do have players like Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Gori and Maxime Mbanda on the bench when they should all be starting.

The one hope Italy have is that Eddie Jones’ England and discipline are rarely easy bedfellows and English discretions may give the Azzurri a glimmer of hope, but they usually kick at the post with all the accuracy of a North Korean missile launch so even that’s a slim hope.

2017 6 Nations preview

England haven’t won back to back Grand Slams since 1991 and 1992 back in the days of the 5 Nations, in fact nobody has won back to back Grand Slams in the 6 Nations era, so that indicates what a difficult task lays ahead for Eddie Jones’ men.  It’s not entirely out of the question, after all where there’s an Eddie there’s a way (or something like that), but with them facing a potential Grand Slam decider in March at the Aviva, where they lost 19-9 last time it will be tough.  Allied to the unfavourable schedule (France up first followed by a trip to Cardiff for Wales’ first home game of the Championship) they will be without key players like Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Watson and most importantly Mako Vunipola who are long term injury concerns and there will also be doubts over James Haskell and Jack Clifford who were recently injured on club duty (and Dylan Hartley’s been banned since December, so who knows what state he’s in physically).  The missing back-row players won’t be particularly missed if the tight 5 can provide a stable platform for them work from whoever England pick at 6, 7 and 8 will perform the tasks they are required to, Mike Williams may well make his debut but if your 4th choice is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 18 stone then there’s nothing wrong with squad depth.  The question mark will be over whoever plays at loose-head because whoever it is won’t be able to do what Mako can, his ability to act as a first receiver in attack and disrupt opposition scrums will leave a whole in the game plan somewhere.

Since March 2013 the only team beat Ireland in a competitive match in Dublin have been the All Blacks, in 2013 with a heartbreaking last second conversion and in 2016 a rather banged up Ireland side lost 9-21 with the assistance of some rather lenient officiating, so it’s hard to see them losing to a Northern Hemisphere in the fortress-like Aviva this year.  Ireland open up their campaign in Edinburgh where they were impressive 30 point winners last time out but their visits to Murrayfield are usually much closer affairs, they’ve won 3 and lost 3 going back to 2007 and those 6 games have been decided by a total of 29 points, so this may very well be the game that decides the Championship.  Ireland’s other away game is in Cardiff in round 4 and Ireland haven’t won consecutive games in Cardiff since 2009, with the last 4 meetings being shared evenly but in their last visit to the Millennium Stadium they scored 5 tries on their way to a 22-35 victory, so they should be in confident mood as they cross the Irish Sea.

France are very much the surprise package of the 6 Nations, even to themselves.  Last year they had a chance to prevent England’s Grand Slam in the final game in Paris but despite making more line breaks and conceding fewer penalties than their visitors their inability to cross the whitewash saw them fall to a 21-31 loss.  England outscored France 11-3 in the last 29 minutes of that game and it raised the age old question of exactly how well conditioned are Guy Noves’ charges?  Since the start of last year’s 6 Nations France have won 4 games out of 10 and just one of those 4 games were outside France, so recent history doesn’t provide mu hope for les bleus but in their last 2 games they pushed both Rugby World Cup finalists close with a 2 point loss to Australia followed a week later with a 5 point loss to the All Blacks, so maybe they’re about to turn the corner?

The rarely seen optimistic Welshman in me couldn’t be happier about the introduction of the bonus point system into this year’s 6 Nations, allied with the introduction of Alex King as an “attacking guru” if you believe some publications (skills coach to the rest of us).  If any team in the Championship can benefit from the incentive to score tries it’s the team who had last year’s top try scorer George North out on the wing, Wales scored 17 tries last year (9 of them came in round 5 against Italy and since then they’ve largely been awful) so if they can summon up some confidence and the coaches actually allow them to play with freedom instead of strictly adhering to a prescriptive game plan that would confuse Professor Stephen Hawking there’s a chance they could upset a few apple carts in the coming weeks.  The major talking point in Welsh recent rugby has been Alun-Wyn Jones taking over the captaincy from Sam Warburton (who hasn’t been in great nick for the Cardiff Blues but will almost certainly feature at 6 0r 7 for Wales), Jones has been touted as the Lions captain for the tour to New Zealand in the summer but in order for that to happen one would imagine he’d have to be playing in a successful Welsh team.  Jones is not guaranteed a place on the tour at the moment with Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Richie and Jonny Gray, Luke Charteris and Devin Toner all playing well so far this season (Jake Ball and Tim Swinson have also been in great form for their respective team’s but both face a fight for game time in the follow weeks), so he will need to stand out as both player and leader.

Scotland have seemingly developed the ability to play very well in Autumn Internationals but then crumble and eventually capitulate completely after Christmas, they have improved under Vern Cotter and under Jonathan Humphreys their forward pack has become one to be reckoned with, but this will be Cotter’s last season in charge of Scotland so exactly how that plays out remains to be seen.  Since November 2014 they have run the All Blacks and Australia close at Murrayfield (losing by 8 to the All Blacks in 2014 and by a solitary point to the Wallabies last October) so with 3 games in front of their spirited supporters you have to believe they will have a say in who eventually wins the title.

Italy managed the incomprehensible combination of beating South Africa and losing to Tonga in consecutive weekends before Christmas so which Italian team turn up on a week by week basis is anybody’s guess!  Connor O’Shea must have believed that he was making progress after they defeated the Springboks by 2 points but having made a few changes to play a team ranked below them they conspired to lose to the Islanders by the same total.  The arrival of Dr. Brendan Venter as their permanent defence coach may solidify the sometimes unorganised Italian defensive line and with Carlo Canna looking like the 10 they’ve been missing since Diego Dominguez retired in 2003 the Italian’s may well provide an upset or 2 during the next 2 months, they have beaten France in 2 of their last 3 meetings on home soil, so that game could be fascinating and Wales face a tricky start away to the Azzurri in round 1, they have struggled against Italy before and although they haven’t lost to them in Rome since 2007 they will come up against an Italian pack who will be desperate to rediscover the form that vanquished the Springboks.

Personally I’m not sure how much difference the bonus point system will have on the tournament, particularly at the top of the table.  Head Coaches will still be more focussed on winning games than they will be on throwing the ball around wildly and chasing 1 extra point, there’s a very real chance that the team who wins the Wooden Spoon will be a team who records no bonus point’s and that could mean that a team who loses a few games by fewer than 7 points could finish above a team who wins one game (which would be a bit weird).  There’s a very strong possibility that Ireland will follow up their famous victory over the All Blacks in Chicago with a second Joe Schmidt Grand Slam (which would make Warren Gatland’s appointment as Lions Head Coach look a bit weird too).  Last season I predicted that the Grand Slam wouldn’t be won and Eddie Jones proceeded to show that with a decent Head Coach and a fully fit squad it’s almost easy to build momentum in a short tournament and this year England are still the bookies favourites to remain undefeated, so who knows? Certainly not me.