It’s way too early to select a starting XV for the 1st Lions Test, so here goes….

rugbyUnless you have the misfortune of being a Top 14 player the 2016/17 rugby season doesn’t start for about 3 weeks but since people have been picking their Lions teams to tour New Zealand since the last tour finished in Australia I thought I’d finally succumb and join in.

Providing Eddie Jones isn’t the coach (and he has said he’s got zero interest in it|), pragmatism will rule and assuming there aren’t a string of catastrophic injuries (but with all the rugby matches they play these days there probably will be) and trying to forget that 11 years ago Sir Clive Woodward used 51 players on the corresponding tour these are the 15 players who I can see starting at Eden Park at the end of June –

  1. Jack McGrath (who doesn’t love a 19 stone loose head?)
  2. Dylan Hartley (it’s practically written in the stars, Kiwi stars for Lions v All Blacks!)
  3. Kieran Brookes (he’s suffered terribly with injuries but he’s pushing 20 stone of man mountain)
  4. Maro Itoje (probably the skipper, definitely the first name on the team sheet)
  5. Jonny Gray (he tops the tackle stats and rucks hit for club and country, the 22 yr old is a machine)
  6. Sean O’Brien (the tackle area will be trench warfare, might as well pick 2 7’s)
  7. John Hardie (he’s been instrumental in Scotland’s improvement under Vern Cotter)
  8. Taulupe Faletau (he’s used to playing behind 2 awfully soft packs, any parity and he’ll be in his element)
  9. Rhys Webb (he’s a try machine and without Biggar’s ego to get in his way he’ll be a constant threat)
  10. Owen Farrell (he may not be Barry John but he won a Grand Slam, the Premiership and the Champions Cup last season)
  11. Jonny May (remember that try he scored against the Kiwis at Twickenham in 2014? Well that!)
  12. Robbie Henshaw (He’s 6 feet 3 and over 16 stone. Also Warren Gatland is the only person who thinks he’s a 12 and Manu is unfortunately too broken as he terrifies the All Blacks)
  13. Scott Williams (he may well end up pushed into 12 by Jonathan Davies return to Parc Y Scarlets, but when he’s fit he’s too fast not to be in the outside channels)
  14. Jack Nowell (twinkling toes and 15 stone of BOOM make him a defenders nightmare, although I’m a big fan if Chris Ashton’s ability to romp down the middle of the park under the sticks)
  15. Mike Brown (he’s a very angry man, just what you need when you’re going to New Zealand to meet 15 very angry men. Plus Halfpenny is going to take a while to get back to full fitness and Stuart Hogg is a car crash waiting to happen in his own 22)

A chaotic 6 Nations preview

RBS-6-NationsBacking Scotland is always a risky business because they usually thrive when they’ve been written off and not after they’ve been within a hare’s breath of beating Australia (incidentally Craig Joubert has been appointed to referee England v Wales at Twickenham, what could possibly go wrong?) and making a RWC semi final, but I’ve just got a feeling that Vern Cotter might finally have a squad that can win the 6 Nations (they’re last win was in 1999 when it was still the 5 Nations).
W.P Nel and Ben Toolis added to the Gray brothers should provide a solid front 5 and if the Scottish pack is able to even attain parity against their opponents then a back row which should include John Hardie and could include David Denton and Josh Strauss will be more than a match for anyone. Greig Laidlaw is one of the safest pairs of hands in European rugby at scrum half and with the possibility of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne coming off the bench to test tired defenders it’s hard to imagine Cotter’s side won’t score tries. Scotland do have a few injury concerns (as all the Nations do after a gruelling International season) and while Alex Dunbar will miss the first 2 games and Mark Bennett may not be available to play England Scotland are in the unusual position of having about 5 Centre’s who could start. With Peter Horne, Matt Scott, Duncan Taylor and Sean Lamont desperate to play if Vern Cotter needs to call up reinforcements Scotland have more than a few options to cover those missing. For a change Scotland have even got 2 contrasting Fly Halves to call upon with the steady Ruairidh Jackson having a good season for Wasps (he kicked 13 points as Wasps won in Dublin & scored 15 as they beat Toulon) and the exciting Finn Russell who is renowned for getting a backline moving.
Scotland are 4th favourites for the Championship behind England who have a new coach and seem to be making some inexplicable selection decisions and France who, despite having a new coach haven’t made wholesale changes and have selected 7 Toulouse players (Toulouse are 2nd in the Top 14 but won just 1 European Champions Cup game and finished bottom of Pool A, below Oyonnax with a -88 points difference) so they’ll be looking to rely more on individual flair than on collective performances, “plus ca change” an all that.
England are actually the bookmakers favourites, which would rather contradict Eddie Jones’ assertion that Scotland are favourites to win the Calcutta Cup on Saturday and Warren Gatland’s statement that Ireland must be favourites (that one actually makes sense since Ireland do have 3 home games against Wales, Italy and Scotland). Eddie Jones called up a number of talented youngsters to his training party but then sent most of them back to their club sides late last week so who knows what he’s got planned? If England win in Scotland then they will have a solid base to build from but with consecutive home games against Ireland and Wales Eddie Jones hasn’t got much time to settle on a squad and if he doesn’t trust the younger players to stand up to pressure then it might be a long 2 months for him. As a slight aside in the last 5 years England have scored 97 tries at home and 51 away from home (21 more than Ireland who were second of the 6 Nations teams) so Stuart Lancaster was hardly the albatross around the English rugby that some would have you believe.
Wales’ last 2 Grand Slams have been won in season’s were they had 3 home games and visits to Ireland and Twickenham to contend with but even my most optimistic parts can’t see that happening this season. The residual damage from the ill fated “condition programme” they undertook pre- World Cup will have a big impact on their chances. Scott Williams will be a big miss because he was the only real try threat Wales possessed in September and October (Cory Allen was the other but with Jonathan Davies fit and Gatland’s bizarre belief that George North can play 13 Cory’s not getting a sniff any time soon). Wales have averaged roughly 1.8 tries per game in the last 5 years and that’s not going to be enough to win the Championship, let alone a Grand Slam.
Ireland would be my second favourite for the Championship but they’ve got a slight injury crisis and with Paul O’Connell retiring from international rugby (he would have been injured too if he hadn’t retired) Ireland will start the tournament without Cian Healey, Mike Ross, Ian Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry and with Fly Half Jonny Sexton seemingly ever only 1 heavy blow away from a HIA Ireland will face an uphill struggle to beat England in Twickenham and France in Paris.
Italy are 500-1 shots to win the Championship and you’d have to imagine that’s largely down to their witting duck status with everyone knowing their coach will leave return to France at the end of the season. Their seemingly eternal struggle to find an Outside Half who can both kick and run doesn’t help but if their pack is as strong as it has been in the past they’ll cause some teams problems (Wales particularly) and I can’t imagine Guy Noves will get much sleep this week knowing that Italy love to pull out all the stops when they arrive in Paris.
Rather interestingly you can odds of 40-1 on France finishing bottom of the table which isn’t totally out of the question, under Noves Toulouse (with the exception of Theirry Dusautoir) have often had questions raised over their conditioning and if they’re not ready to battle for 80 minutes they could find themselves on the receiving end of nail biting results. You can also get 10-1 on France winning a Grand Slam, which seems almost impossible to me since they’ve only won 8 of their last 28 away games (29%) and they’ve average 1.4 tries per game away from home in the last 5 years (2.03 per game at home).
In conclusion, just keep your money in your pocket and enjoy the ride, with so many newcomers to this 6 Nations (some from other continents and with Guy Noves maybe even from different planets) a Grand Slam hasn’t been won since Wales did it 2012 and it’s highly unlikely anyone will do it this year but I’m still backing Scotland to win an exciting Championship.

103 days ‘til the Rugby World Cup. But who’s counting? (cont.)

rugbyGroup B seems to be more of a one horse race than Group A with South Africa seemingly destined to easily win the group and progress to a Quarter Final in Twickenham. The battle for second in the group however is much more interesting with the teams ranked 9th, 10th, 13th and 16th all in with a chance of sneaking into the Quarter Finals. Samoa are the highest ranked of the teams battling it out for second place. They stand 1 place ahead of Scotland with Japan currently ranked 13th and the USA in 16th, although there are less than 8 ranking points separating all four of the sides.

Samoa are one of the Pacific Island teams who, like Fiji are bursting with talent but struggle to adapt to the structured nature of International rugby. However they have beaten Wales (who they could face in the Quarter Final stage) twice in previous World Cups and once more as recently as November 2012 in Cardiff, so they certainly won’t fear any opposition this autumn. If they can manage to compete at set piece time then a backline including the likes of former New Zealand 7’s representative Tim Nanai-Williams, Northampton Saints’ brothers Ken and George Pisi and the cousin of the late, great Jerry Collins Newcastle Falcons Sinoti Sinoti (who has notched up 10 tries in 27 appearances this season) will threaten opposing defences from all angles.

It’s difficult what to know what to expect from Scotland, in the Autumn of 2014 they were talked about as being a resurgent force under the stewardship of Kiwi coach Vern Cotter but during the 6 Nations they were beaten by everyone and ended the tournament with a resounding 40-10 thumping at the hands of tournament winners Ireland. Cotter responded by including 8 uncapped players in his initial World Cup training party including South African born W.P Nel and Josh Strauss and New Zealand born Hugh Blake who has only played 3 professional games in Scotland since he moved there last year. Scotland’s main problem is that their best 4 players are all scrum halves and they can’t seem to find an outside half who can consistently provide the structure needed to provide scoring opportunities for their potent outside backs like Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser.

Japan and the United States are in similar positions as the Pacific Island nations in as much as they have an array of talented players but they are spread across a large number of foreign countries as they ply their trade in different top flight league’s so they often struggle for consistency both in selection and in terms of team cohesion. The USA however have made serious improvements in recent years and with 7’s now being an Olympic sport Rugby Union is becoming increasingly popular and the money on offer for playing top flight rugby is attracting the interest of athlete’s who do not quite make in more traditional American sports like American Football and Athletics, particularly sprinters like Carlin Isles and Perry Baker who have been recently seen ripping defences to shreds on the IRB 7’s tour. If Rugby continues to enjoy support in the States and it should do after they won the Twickenham leg of the IRB 7’s series this year then the USA will become a serious threat in future World Cups.

South Africa would have suffer an unusual number of injuries to not win all of their group games and qualify for the Quarter Finals and I think that Samoa should have the individual flair to finish second, but as all the other teams really have the same weakness, a lack of organisation and a 10 who can consistently make good decisions and provide an accurate tactical kicking game there really is a Quarter Final spot up for grabs in this group.