Wales’ 2022 tour of South Africa

In a move very in keeping with the current regime the WRU have organised a summer that should benefit Welsh Rugby in the long whilst simultaneously infuriating the Welsh rugby public in the short term. A tour to play the reigning World Champions and the nation who defeated Gatland’s Lions last summer is mission impossible for a team who have largely looked unable to challenge Southern Hemisphere sides (and Italy last time out) under Wayne Pivac so it’s difficult to find much to be optimistic about but it should play a vital part of the build-up to a World Cup that begins in France next September. The return of Rhys Patchell, Johnny Williams, Sam Parry and Dan Lydiate alongside the first call up for Premiership winner Tommy Reffell should give Pivac options that he was sorely missing during the 6 Nations. Playing two Tests against the Springboks at altitude will be absolutely brutal so expectations are rightly low however it will provide a valuable chance to test Wales’ inconsistent set piece against a team who traditionally have strong forwards and are able to pick players who have very successful domestic seasons.   

But who will Pivac select to take on this monumental task? The first Test could be the best chance for Wales to run the Boks close so it would be unlikely the coach would try an experimental team first up, I imagine there’ll be a return for experienced heads and as many settled combinations as possible – 

  1. Rhys Carre. He’s finished the season well but more importantly he’s huge 
  1. Ryan Elias, He’s a physical presence and with no Ken Owens he seems the preferred starter 
  1. Tomas Francis. He’s the safest pair of hands on the tight-head side and also massive 
  1. Adam Beard. One of the best maul defenders in the world and a line-out specialst. You guessed it, he’s also massive. 
  1. Alun-Wyn Jones. It would be odd to take a 36 year old former captain and not play him. He’s always hugely influential too. 
  1. Dan Lydiate. Another experienced campaigner who’s always willing to put his body on the line. 
  1. Tommy Reffell. Josh Navidi’s versatility makes him the perfect player to have on the bench and Reffell is the only out and out jackaler n the squad (which seems odd) 
  1. Taulupe Faletau. Been there, seen it, bought the t-shirt, still looks cool as a cucumber. A calming presence and able to do pretty much anythong on a rugby pitch 
  1. Tomos Williams. Questionable facial hair but the ability to make things happen even if the pack are struggling. Pivac seems to favour his mercurial streak over Hardy’s ability to make a break. 
  1. Dan Biggar. He’s the captain, if he’s fit he starts and Anscombe or Patchell’s versatility would be great from the bench. 
  1. Alex Cuthbert. He can finish tries better than pretty much anyone else in the squad. Another one who is also massive. 
  1. Nick Tompkins. If Pivac is worried about Andre Esterhuizen (he shouldn’t be, he should be worried about everyone) why not start someone who played opposite him 3 weeks ago? 
  1. George North. He’s back, he’s integral in getting the ball over the gainline and another one who is (yes, you’ve guessed it) quite massive. 
  1. Josh Adams. He’s a very good defender on the wing (not at 13) and he can score a try if he get’s even the smallest chance. 
  1. Liam Williams. Pivac likes a spark plug at 15 more than he likes a tactical kicker so it’d be a surprise if Anscombe started there in the first Test (and with no Protheroe, Lloyd or Collins in the squad there aren’t many options) 

Ones to watch in Round three

Scotland v France

Scotland are riddled with changes as a result of their annual injury crisis but they still have a reasonable chance of winning this game, France have lost in Edinburgh four times since 2016 and they won’t be looking forward to a lunchtime kick off in a gusty Murrayfield whoever is or isn’t available to Gregor Townsend.  Despite the changes Scotland are still able to select their resident fun machine Darcy Graham who gets to line up opposite someone who played in the 12 shirt against Ireland in round two, the 21 year old Yoram Moefana.  Fabien Galthie has named a regular winger on the bench in the form of Toulouse’s Matthis Lebel so France may not yet be sure Moefana is a Test winger who can cope with Graham just yet (they also have their defensive leader Gael Fickou in the 13 shirt so they could swap if it’s all going a bit wrong), of course it was the threat Darcy Graham competing for a cross kick that led to Luke Cowan-Dickie slapping the ball off the Murrayfield pitch to concede the game winning try in round two.

Other than the pairing on the opposite wing (Damian Penaud is a challenge for anyone to defend) there aren’t many interesting match-ups.  Ben White against Maxime Lucu may well be important late on if the game is close, but that will all depend on their respective forward packs and an important part of that should be how the second-row pairings match-up, Grant Gilchrist and Sam Skinner have made 44 tackles between them in the tournament and missed none between them whereas Paul Willemse and Cameron Woki have made 29 between them and just 5.  Obviously, you don’t have to make as many tackles if you’re team is retaining possession but Scotland may well have some joy attacking close to the ruck and it’d be great to see Darcy Graham have a run at either Willemse or Woki. When it comes to ball carriers Nick Haining is a personal favourite and if the Scotland forwards can set a platform, he could have some real impact off the bench late on.

 

England v Wales

Courtney Lawes returns as Captain and Wales have British and Irish Lion Taulupe Faletau back from a lengthy injury break too but the real interest here is in the backlines, Max Malins has provided opposing defences issues all season against Italy his ability to stretch a defensive line provided a lot of gaps for England to attack.  Even though Malins is lining up on the wing and will cause problems out wide the space he creates will be in central areas as defenders are dragged away from the areas they’re responsible for and how Wales’ Centre pairing manage the defence in the middle of the pitch will be vital.  Nick Tompkins often abandons “gap discipline” to coin an NFL phrase in favour of pursuing the ball carrier and Owen Watkin (who carried the ball particularly well against Scotland) hasn’t played at 13 an awful lot for his region the Ospreys (who have been particularly poor defensively this season) so it would be understandable if he were to get to distracted or find himself slightly out of position against England’s “hybrid backline” (which is a terrible name by the way, they’re all rugby players hybrid makes it sound like they need to be charged up at halftime).  It’ll be interesting to see if Henry Slade appears as a first receiver as much as he did against Italy or if England decide to play a more structured game and kick more often (only Wales have kicked from hand on fewer occasions than England thus far).  A lot has been made of Harry Randall starting for England but it’s the forward battle that has more talking points for me, Tomas Francis and Ellis Genge really don’t get on very well after Genge tried to head-butt his opposing prop at a collapsed scrum in Llanelli back in 2020, Gareth Thomas and Will Stewart’s battle off the bench should be one area where Wales look to have an advantage, Stewart had a torrid time in Rome and was substituted before half time while Thomas has been quietly excellent so for Wales.  Alex Cuthbert will be looking forward to lining up opposite his former club teammate Jack Nowell too and both have suffered some serious injury woes over their careers so if they can both complete 80 minutes it’ll be a victory for both.

Ireland v Italy

Ireland have really mixed it up for the Italian’s visit but strangely there are more interesting players in the Italian team and changing so many players for Ireland looks like very much like the sort of selection that will lead to a disjointed performance from Andy Farrell’s charges.  There are some good players in the Italian team who have put up some impressive statistics despite being on the receiving end of two comprehensive losses and strangely the players who are expected to be the leading lights are the ones who have performed the worst.  Paolo Garbisi and Stephen Varney have looked like they have been given far too much responsibility for two players with just 26 caps between them.  The Italian back-row, particularly 23 year old Michele Lamaro who’s 41 tackles leads the tournament and this week’s second row pairing of Federico Ruzza (who’s made 19 tackles without missing one in just 136 minutes so far) and Niccolo Cannone who has put in 27 tackles of his own and has missed just 2 have been particularly impressive.  If the Italian halfbacks continue their profligacy with the ball then all the Italian forwards can do is tackle and Ireland have got more than enough firepower in their 23 to stumble through the entire 80 minutes and still win comfortably but given they need to win by more than 30 to keep in touch with the table toppers this team seems an odd choice.  Italian hooker Epalahame Faiva (who was a “Dream Team nominee in the 2019 Pro 14 season) always brings plenty of energy with him off the bench but he can overstep the line and concede careless penalties which could be costly, however if he can channel his energy he could be a match for Rob Herring on Ireland’s bench.

 

England v Wales 2022

England’s own errors cost them the game in Murrayfield, a combination of choosing to kick for the posts instead of going to the corner and Luke Cowan-Dickie finding himself on the wing to defend a cross kick against Darcy Graham made the difference in a game where they dominated both territory and possession.  In round two a combination of the 6 changes Eddie Jones made and an inexperienced referee made it very difficult to draw many conclusions from a 33-0 win over Italy, really the only standout from that game was Alex Dombrandt, so presumably he’ll retain his place this week against the nation he represented at Under 20 level (purely because he studied in Cardiff and was more of a cricketer before he attended University).  Wales on the other hand were easily brushed aside by Ireland in a windswept Dublin back in round one and then made 4 changes themselves before struggling to a 3 point win over Scotland who haven’t won in Cardiff since 2002.

Against Scotland England had 54% of the possession and in Rome that number improved to 59%, however the territory statistics from both games are significantly different, while they really dominated in Edinburgh with 62% territory and spent just 6 minutes and 3 seconds in their own half in the second game against Italy they only had 42% of the territory and spent almost twice as long in their own territory, 11 minutes and 58 seconds.  All this really displays is Italy didn’t really have a cutting edge in attack, they obviously scored 0 points per visit to the opponent’s 22 compared to England’s 2.5 points per visit (Itoje and Slade had tries disallowed so it could have been a much more impressive 3.6) but it mostly illustrates how unconcerned England were at the prospect of Italy regaining the ball in their half and counter-attacking.  Against Scotland England’s points per visit was just 1.2 as they preferred to kick goals rather than kick for touch compared to Scotland’s 3.4 (who only managed 1.8 against Wales as Wales managed some vital turnovers when defending in their own 22) so they haven’t exactly been at their most clinical so far in this tournament.

In Dublin Wales managed a measly 1 point per visit as they looked both overpowered (and conceded 14 penalties leading to just seven 22 visits) and impressively disorganised in both attack and defence (Ireland only managed 2.1 ppv as they missed kicks at goal and had a try ruled out by the TMO) but they improved to 2.8 ppv when they hosted Scotland as Dan Biggar kicked some close range penalties and a drop goal inside the 22 in addition to Tomas Francis’ rolling maul try.  In terms of possession and territory Wales’ statistics against Ireland were understandably poor (although they could have been much worse considering they only scored an interception try late on), they had just 43% of the territory and only 40% of the possession, although 48.3% of their possession was in their own half and they did spend half as long in Ireland’s territory than Ireland did in theirs (7 minutes and 42 seconds compared to 13 minutes and 50 seconds).  Against Scotland however they had 50% of the possession and 55% of the territory, a large part of that was a result of Scotland kicking the ball to Wales, according to the Six Nations own statistics Stuart Hogg kicked the ball 63% of the time he had it (compared to Hugo Keenan’s 19% the previous week), it’s also important to note Ireland’s kicking was much shorter and designed for them to retain possession which is something that you would expect England to learn from this week.  If Wales are looking for positives this week they definitely improved with the ball, but they have only scored two tries in two games.

Whilst Wales have definitely made progress in their attacking game their defence still seems worryingly fragile, they missed 22 tackles against Ireland (out of 231) and against Scotland where they had more possession they actually conspired to miss 25 (out of 226). If they are actually concerned about this is difficult to know though as their defensive strategy seems to involve creating turnovers more than stopping the opposition making easy yards, in an NFL parlance they’re happy to bend but don’t want to break. A lot of the tackles that are missed are in the wide channels as they almost deliberately defend very narrow (it seems nonsensical to leave the empty space they do out wide but a returning Jonathan Davies may correct the issues they appear to have with their “spacing”) as they resource rucks more than most teams in an attempt to win turnovers or penalties. Winning turnovers is a key part of their attacking plan which appears quite a risky proposition and requires a certain level of sympathy from the referee (although can also lead to attacking players losing ther discipline as they clear out defenders which is why so many players were sent off against Wales last season). Contrastingly England’s defence has improved, after missing 17 tackles in Edinburgh they missed just 10 against Italy (France only missed seven against Italy, but that’s Shaun Edwards for you), England’s defence coach is also a former rugby league player Australian Anthony Seibold and he puts a real emphasis on line speed (most do), but this has lead them to concede 5 penalties for offside in the first two games. The other reccuring discipline problem plauging England is at the breakdown, they’ve given away 8 penalties at the ruck so far and that either means they’ve been competing hard as Wales try to do but with more enthusiasm than control or that they’ve struggled to correctly resource their own rucks and had to hold on to the ball which will be music to Gareth Williams the Welsh breakdown coach’s ears.

England have scored 6 tries in the tournament so far but 5 of them came in the game against Italy who were really completely devoid of inspiration and by the end of the game had missed 19 of the 216 tackles they had been asked to make so it was by no means a sparkling attacking display from the visitors who had two tries disallowed by the TMO and made 14 handling errors as they struggled to gel as a unit. Both teams only managed a single try against the Scots though so this could be a very even contest and if it becomes a staccato affair with Mike Adamson being a particularly fussy referee who struggles to keep up with long passages of play it could benefit Wales. Alternatively a lot of set pieces should favour England who appear set to name a gargantuan team with the return of 113 kg Courtney Lawes in a back row with 110 kg Tom Curry and 118 kg Alex Dombrandt whilst Wales will be missing three of their most experienced forwards and the promising Christ Tshiunza.

Twickenham should be bathed in sunshine on Saturday and that could make for a really interesting game with an England backline who want to attack but haven’t really clicked just yet and a Welsh back three who want to counter attack from any loose kicks as they thrive running in a broken field. However the England backline will only be able to attack effectively with quick ruck ball and Wales will do everything in their power to prevent them generating that so it will be a battle in the contact area and how the officials interpret it may well decide the game. Wales haven’t won at Twickenham since the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and their last 6 Nations victory was back in 2012 so it would be a surprise if they left west London with a result this week and since this is their first home game in 2022 it wouldn’t be at all surprising if this is the game where England’s attack find their feet. The creativity of Max Malins out wide against the narrow Wales defensive line is setting off all sorts of alarm bells for me and with Louis Rees-Zammitt’s omission there’s a real lack of pace in the Wales team who have been struggling to score tries so the smart money is on a comfortable England win, 27-10 or somewhere in that ballpark.

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6 Nations 2022 Team of Round 2

Wales won in unconvincing fashion in Cardiff in what may well be an indication that Pivac’s Wales will be more functional and effective than dominant and attractive.  France demonstrated their overwhelming power and undoubted ability with the ball in hand but still looked fallible in defence and for their part England looked very workmanlike as they overcame Italy without really translating their dominance onto the scoreboard, but which players starred this week?

  1. This is actually a tricky pick; Andrew Porter is always impressive (maybe it’s the barnet?), Ellis Genge threw an outrageous pass which led to Jamie George’s second try and Cyrill Baille didn’t concede a penalty but at the risk of showing my own bias (my game, my rules) I’d have to pick Wyn Jones.  He was the only loose-head to not miss a single tackle and he didn’t concede any turnovers or penalties.
  2. This one’s pretty easy in comparison, Jamie George scored almost a third of England’s points and whilst he did miss one tackle, he didn’t concede a penalty or a turnover and managed to win 2 turnovers.
  3.  It wasn’t exactly a stellar weekend for tight-head props either, Tomas Francis did score a try and Uini Atonio did rumble for 20 metres from his two carries whilst not missing a tackle in 55 minutes but W.P Nel was the standout performer with a 100% success rate on his 9 tackles, 13 metres made and even a successful pass.
  4. This one is really a two-horse race (with an honourable mention for Tadgh Beirne’s 50-22 kick that he performed with such ease that his halfbacks just looked daft), Will Rowlands made 11 tackles and carried for 64 metres in his 75 minutes on the pitch against Scotland but his opposite number Jonny Gray made a whopping 17 tackles in just 62 minutes and made 24 metres from just 6 carries and you could argue that Scotland really stalled after he left the field.
  5. Adam Beard was a giant in the Welsh lineout with 5 takes but James Ryan’s shift was the most impressive in a 5 jersey during round 2.  He managed 11 tackles, missed none, made 6 carries and the most line-out takes of the weekend with 6 and he made 3 passes (only Ewels made more with 4).
  6.  Francois Cros managed to steal a lineout for France but he only managed to take one on France’s own throw and Itoje carried but he only had to make 5 tackles and he missed one of them so Sam Skinner was the most impressive blindside of the weekend with 18 tackles made, none missed, 3 line-out takes and 27 metres made with ball in hand with two passes and no handling errors.
  7. It’d take something very special for me not to pick Jac Morgan for his debut in a Wales shirt when he carried for 78 metres and made 13 tackles but Michele Lamaro was pretty special.  He carried the ball 8 times and managed 48 metres, kicked it for 23 metres, he made 2 offloads, won a turnover and mad an absolutely whopping 20 tackles!
  8. It was a rough old week for 8’s with two of them not making it to halftime and Ross Moriarty making his first start since the Autumn so it was no surprise he was replaced after 58 minutes.  There was one outstanding performer though, Alex Dombrandt carried the ball 18 times for 128 metres and made 8 tackles without missing one.  His most impressive statistic though was the 4 turnovers he made which sees top if the tournament charts despite only playing n one game so far.
  9. In this tournament how well a 9 plays really depends on what the coach ahs asked them to do, Tomos Williams made 12 tackles (almost double any other 9), Harry Randall really didn’t seem to fit Martin Gleeson’s plan, Jamison Gibson-Park played quite well but made two handling errors and failed to record a try assist (even though he scored one himself) so this (and every) week’s top 9 was Antoine Dupont with a try, a try assist, an offload and broke 3 tackles.
  10. Well Marcus Smith scored a try and recorded an assist but Dan Biggar scored 75% of Wales’ points and dragged Wales to a much needed win as they look to defend their title.
  11. This is a close one between Mack Hansen and Monty Ioane.  Hansen made 89 metres, scored one of the most audacious tries you’ll see in this tournament and made an offload but he was playing for a team who had 53% possession and averaged 4.2 points per visit to their opponent’s 22.  Ioane’s team on the other hand had 41% possession and averaged 0 points per visit but despite his team struggling Ioane still carried for 104 metres, broke 2 tackles and made 2 offloads.
  12. Not many inside centres shone this week, only Bundee Aki recorded a 100% tackle success rate and since he didn’t concede a penalty or turn the ball over he’s the best of the bunch.
  13. It’s tempting to give this to Jonathan Davies for his 15 minute virtuoso performance as he martialed Wales’ defence when it really mattered but he only hade to make 3 tackles himself so it has to be Chris Harris.  He made 10 tackles, made an offload, broke 2 tackles and carried for a whopping 100 metres on 9 carries.
  14. Personally I’d give it to Alex Cuthbert who managed to look very good despite the rest of the Wales team struggling to find him with the ball. Max Malins on the other hand ran for 121 metres as both England and Italy managed to feed him the ball, he broke 3 tackles, made 2 offloads and made the only tackle he had to attempt.
  15. Hugo Keenan looks like a man for a crisis, he was the coolest man in a green shirt while France were ramping up the pressure in the first half in Paris and Melvyn Jaminet looks increasingly impressive as a 22 year old playing Test rugby, likewise Freddie Steward who is a year younger and ran for 191 metres (fullbacks always run more since they catch the opposition’s clearance kicks) but Liam Williams’ 156 metres from 17 carries, 1 broken tackle and 1 turnover were vital in settling a very shaky looking Welsh defence in the first 60 minutes against a dangerous Scottish outfit.

Ireland v Wales 2022. It’s all uphill from here

Assessing Wales hopes in this game almost involves more qualifiers than you’ll see at the next US Open Golf tournament (156, come on people read a book), more “If’s” than an anthology of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry but I’ve got a spare 5 minutes, so here goes -#

  • If the Welsh tight 5 can match their Irish opponents they’ll give the exciting backline to play on the front foot. However, there’s no Owens, Alun-Wyn, Navidi, Tipuric or Faletau so that will be tough.
  • If Ryan Elias can channel his inner Ken Owens and defend as well as he carries the ball it will allow Taine Basham and Ellis Jenkins to disrupt the breakdown which could provide turnover ball for the backs.
  • If Dan Biggar plays in the same postcode as the gain-line it will do the forwards a massive favour as our ball carriers repeatedly being stopped 10 metres behind the gain-line lead to numerous penalties being conceded in the autumn as we struggled to sufficiently resource rucks.
  • If Tompkins and Adams are the new Gibbs and Bateman (no laughing at the back, it could happen) Wales could prove a serious threat to a very organised Irish backline.
  • If Wales actually attack toward the left-hand side of the field then Louis Rees-Zammit won’t have to go looking for the ball and that should provide him with more opportunity to attack against isolated defenders.
  • Conversely when Johnny McNicholl appears in the middle of the pitch it really causes opposing defences issues because he can ride tackles and has an innate ability to find space amongst the traffic.
  • If Liam Williams can recapture his vintage form he is one of the most devastating attackers in rugby but recently he’s looked someone who is battling his body.

So, it’s not impossible but you’d have to be very optimistic to believe 7 things are likely to have concurrently in one of the two biggest games of the year for all of these players.

Marginal Gains

Baring one of the biggest shocks in recent times England should cruise to a win in Llanelli tomorrow but Wayne Pivac’s team selection rather shows that he’s not too concerned with the result, he seems more concerned with evaluating the players he has available and analysing who fits his plan for the future. Even so he won’t want to watch his team get run ragged and there’s a chance a few players could pose their opponents a problem, I thought I’d try to predict who wins the individual battles –

Wyn Jones v Kyle Sinkler – Sinkler actually claimed that he’d only been playing at 20% for his club Bristol in an interview this week which seemed either self-deprecating or worrying for anyone who plays against him when he’s back to 100%! If Sinkler is only at 20% tomorrow then Wyn Jones should have a relatively quiet evening but Eddie Jones doesn’t often select players who aren’t firing on all cylinders so one can only imagine Sinkler will come out on top in this one.

Ryan Elias v Jamie George – one has looked completely out of his depth, which is worrying given he’s playing at his home ground, the other is either the 4th or 5th best hooker in the world. Can’t see a way for Elias to suddenly become a Test hooker against such an established international.

Samson Lee v Mako Vunipola – this one is going to be particularly fascinating, they both look born to be props. They both look like they’re most comfortable doing things not many humans would relish, the only real difference is Mako never really looks fatigued whereas you always know Samson has put a shift in. Both played 62 minutes last week but Samson played against a Tier 2 nation who seemed unable to challenge the Welsh scrum too often so maybe he’ll just have a bit extra in the tank.

Jake Ball v Maro Itoje – Jake Ball might be the toughest man in world rugby and he’ll need to be to go toe with the most in form second row in the world. This an absolutely mouthwatering pairing and Itoje will almost certainly come out on top but it will have to be a decision on points rather than a K.O, they’re both bound to knock each other around a bit.

Alun-Wyn Jones v Joe Launchbury – Alun-Wyn seems to have reached the era of his career where the quiet games appear a bit more readily than anyone wants them too whereas you always know what you’re going to get, he’ll be a solid 8.5 to 9 out of 10 every game. Launchbury is 6 years younger than Alun-Wyn but a big game from the veteran would go a long way to quietening the armchair experts and would absolutely raise the level of the rest of the squad.

Shane Lewis-Hughes v Tom Curry – Lewis-Hughes had a very accomplished debut against Ireland 2 weeks ago opposite Peter O’Mahony but a 22 year old Tom Curry is a very different prospect than a 31 year old O’Mahony. Curry is actually younger than Lewis-Hughes but has 25 more caps a World Cup final under his belt. I can’t imagine Wales’ young flanker will take a backward step and it might get a bit feisty but as the old saying goes “youth and enthusiasm is no match for age and skulduggery”

James Botham v Sam Underhill – you actually have to fear for Botham here, he must be showing Pivac some pretty amazing power in training for him to get the nod ahead of the other back row options (granted most of them are either injured or on their way back to fitness, but he picked the squad). Botham played well against a Tier 2 nation last week but he’s giving away the best part of 2 stone to Underhill who looked pretty close to the peak of his powers last week against Peter O’Mahony and when he’s at 100% Underhill is one of the 2 or 3 best 7’s in the world.

Taulupe Faletau v Billy Vunipola – whatever happens you know this is going to be fun and everyone will keep reminding you that they’re cousins and they’re pretty close. But who doesn’t like teaching their closest relatives a lesson? Faletau has been used out wide rather than close to the breakdown by Pivac and if it is possible to get the ball in hands in any sort of space he’s bound to perform some feats of magic. It’s hard to imagine Billy drifting out into the 13 channel when he could be pounding the ball down the channels closer to the ruck so depending on which area of the pitch they end up in will determine the result of this one. Lovers of an underdog story will definitely be cheering for a win for the bloke in red though.

Lloyd Williams v Ben Youngs – it’s absolutely impossible to know which version of Williams or Young will turn up on any given day but with the dominant pack in front of him it’s sensible to expect Youngs will have a better chance to shine.

Dan Biggar v George Ford – it’s not beyond the realms of possibility than vintage Biggar turns up and bosses the game. He won’t want to go back to Northampton in 2 weeks and listen to his team mates bang on about he got his hat handed to him by the Leicester half backs but he seems to enjoy being the pantomime villain a bit too much at the moment and without a thousands of people there hanging on his every move he appears largely disinterested. Ford on the other hand definitely looked like he could have been reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar when he came off the bench and steered England around Twickenham for 10 minutes last week.

Josh Adams v Jonathan Joseph – this has got box office written all over it. The top try scorer at last year’s World Cup against one of the best defenders in rugby, Joseph tends to rely on his pace if he gets caught out of position though and Adams has got plenty of pace of his own so if Wales can find him on the outside he’ll be off to the races.

Johnny Williams v Owen Farrell – this could be where Wales have the most joy, Williams is only in his second Test but he has played for London Irish and Newcastle Falcons so he’ll know all about Farrell and he will surely know that without Brad Barritt alongside him he can be exposed in defence. Williams has looked very impressive as a ball carrier this season (and he’s huge) so if the Welsh set piece can yield any ball they shouldn’t have to to be too expansive to get over the gain line.

Nick Tompkins v Henry Slade – it’s Saracens versus Exeter Chiefs, hold on to your hats everybody. Even Tompkins doesn’t know what he’ll do next and the new chunky Tompkins has definitely got a defensive mistake or 3 in him but if he lines up Slade it’ll definitely be memorable.

Louis Rees-Zammit v Jonny May – this will be hilarious, the Gloucester team mates want to knock seven bells out of each other but they will definitely be far more successful if they pin their ears back and run like the wind. Provided Wales can provide some sort of service for their teenage sensation he should get on the score sheet.

Lee Halfpenny v Elliot Daly – they’re both Lions, they can both kick it an absolute mile and they’re both pretty fearless under a high ball. Halfpenny’s extra experience will definitely be key but if he has to spend the majority of the game tearing around the backfield catching Youngs’ and Ford’s raking kicks he’ll be struggling by the 70 minute mark.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s anything Wales can do about England’s monstrous pack but if they can generate a few turnovers the way Pivac needs them to then they absolutely have the firepower out wide to scare England. Whoever prevails in games between these two nations rarely win by a huge margin but I have to think a dominant set piece will give England the platform to win by about 12 points this time out.

Wales v England 2020 (the sequel)

38 weeks ago Manu Tuilagi was sent off for a dangerous tackle on George North and Wales sneaked in for 2 late tries to put provide a glossy finish to what had been a simple walk in the Twickenham park for Eddie Jones’ England as the first indications that Wayne Pivac’s rebuild was going to be tough to watch for Wales fans. This weekend Wales are set for an even more difficult task than they had back in March, last week’s captain Justin Tipuric is set to miss the game with a head injury, his replacement will probably be Josh Navidi who is yet to feature in this Test window and whoever they’ve picked Wales have struggled to demonstrate any sort of consistency at the line out and as if that wasn’t worrying enough they struggled against an Ireland scrum that looked far from comfortable against England last weekend. On that optimistic note I thought I’d try and guess who Pivac is likely to select for what could be a very uncomfortable in Llanelli –

  1. Wyn Jones – he seems to be preferred for his scrummaging but in reality neither him or Carre have been dominant at set piece time.
  2. Elliot Dee – looks to a safer pair of hands than Ryan Elias.
  3. Samson Lee – what he lacks in pace he makes up for by being completely immovable in a scrum.
  4. Alun-Wyn Jones – he’s still the captain.
  5. Jake Ball – he does everything you want a Lock to do.
  6. Shane Lewis-Hughes – Suddenly Wales have a plethora of young 6’s.
  7. Josh Navidi – more out of hope than expectation, but he’s tough as teak.
  8. Taulupe Faletau – he’s got the sort of knowledge and temperament you need against a Deathstar like this England pack.
  9. Lloyd Williams – he’s more likely to endure the pasting Wales’ 9 is going to suffer in the first 60 odd minutes.
  10. Dan Biggar – might as well go with the experience, none of the 3 10’s Wales have used recently have looked eye catching because they’ve had no platform to work from.
  11. Louis Rees-Zammit – he’s familiar with all the English players and he has the ability to create space for himself.
  12. Jonny Williams – likewise he’ll also be familiar with the opposition and he looked more than comfortable doing everything he was asked to on Saturday.
  13. Jonathan Davies – he’s a very important defensive cog and in the unlikely event that the ball gets into his hands he easily disrupts opposition defences.
  14. Josh Adams – he can play 15 so he won’t mind the number of times England are likely to kick the ball his way and he’s a great finisher if Wales can get him the ball and a one on one matchup.
  15. Lee Halfpenny – tactically he’s one of the best fullbacks in Test rugby, he tackles anything that comes at him and he doesn’t mind a game of aerial tennis.
  16. Ryan Elias – I have no idea why Pivac keeps selecting him, but he does.
  17. Rhys Carre – if the game breaks up a bit late on it’ll be a good chance for the youngster to carry some ball, but again nobody has really stood out.
  18. Tomas Francis – very much a safe pair of hands and someone who will have played with or against all the English players.
  19. Cory Hill – the Alun-Wyn understudy never seems to combine well with the captain but he usually brings some energy off the bench.
  20. Aaron Wainwright – he can cover 6, 7 or 8 and will be unlucky not to start after working his socks off last week but that was against a Tier 2 Nation and he is still only 23.
  21. Rhys Webb – he could start but he usually pilfers a try against a tired defence so why not see if that works this week?
  22. Callum Sheedy – looked reasonable enough against Georgia and if Pivac needs a point of difference Sheedy has the ability to find get the ball to his attacking threats more quickly than most.
  23. Liam Williams – I’m not entirely convinced he’s fit enough to play 80 minutes against England after a near 12 month lay off but you know he’ll create some excitement and liven up his team mates when he comes off the bench.

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.