November Rugby Union Internationals: Squad Announcements

With less than twelve months to go to the RWC 2019 tournament in Japan, the squad announcements for the November internationals in recent weeks have being more scrutinized than an usual squad announcement. For some players, it is an opportunity to stake a late claim for RWC 2019 squad inclusion.

For others, misdemeanors and lack of form have usurped an international recall meaning squad inclusion is bleak for the World Cup next year. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule on the squads announced in recent days. 

England: Squad Selection Debate

England squad selection interesting reading

The England Rugby Union squad selection is always keenly observed and this announcement did not disappoint. Eight uncapped players join the camp and there were some surprising omissions. 

The new players coming into the squad for next month’s are Joe Cokanasiga (Bath Rugby), Nathan Earle (Harlequins), Ted Hill (Worcester Warriors), Zach Mercer (Bath Rugby), Ben Moon (Exeter Chiefs), Michael Rhodes (Saracens), Nick Schonert (Worcester Warriors) and Elliott Stooke (Bath Rugby). 

The omissions though are the main talking points. Danny Ciprani on the field has had a superb start to the season with Gloucester Rugby; his play making and game management have being on point but did the early season arrest scupper his squad selection? Don Armand is also excluded, the player is so consistent for Exeter Chiefs and his abrasive style of play I thought would have being invaluable for England for next month’s test against New Zealand in particular. 

There are several withdrawals in the form of  Jack Clifford (Harlequins), Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers), Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Nick Isiekwe (Saracens), Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Dan Robson (Wasps), Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby) so it is a genuine opportunity for the uncapped players announced today to take their opportunity with both hands but it is going to be tough with New Zealand and a re-energized South Africa coming up. 

New Zealand: Focus on RWC 2019

Steve Hansen looking to RWC 2019 with extended squad selection

New Zealand have named a very strong 32-man main squad. Dane Coles, Joe Moody, Brodie Retallick and Liam Squire all return.

Dalton Papalii is a new face to the All Blacks side and Matt Todd is a surprise selection given that the players is playing his rugby in Japan and the policy to only name players plying their trade in New Zealand. 

An additional nineteen players have being called up to train and prepare for the Japanese test match. Tyrel Lomax, Reuben O’Neill, Gareth Evans, Bryn Hall, Brett Cameron, George Bridge and Matt Proctor are all uncapped players; a chance to impress Hansen and coaching staff. 

A potent squad brought to the NH, there is no complacency in this player group. The focus and eyes are set on RWC 2019 on this selection. Anyone out of this squad selection can probably kiss their World Cup hopes goodbye apart from anyone injured (Sam Cane a classic example). 

Australia: Backs Against Wall Selection

Surprise midfield inclusion for beleaguered Australians

It has being a tough tough couple of months for Michael Chieka, backroom staff and Australian Rugby Union playing squad. Apart from a spirited second half fightback on the road to Argentina last time out, there has being precious little to cheer about. 

Changes were required, a chance to run the rule over new players and see if they are up to test match standard. Step forward 
Jed Holloway, Jake Gordon and Angus Cottrell to impress and they are joined by Samu Kerevi (center) and Jack Dempsey (back row) who return after a stint on the sidelines injured. Kerevi’s ball carrying ability in the three quarters has being keenly missed. 

The squad selection right now is the third Bledisoe Cup fixture in Japan but the nucleus of this squad will feature in the NH next month. 

Wales: Solid squad selection 

Two uncapped players in the Welsh squad

Two uncapped players in the Welsh squad for the November test match series. Holmes (winger) and Morgan (winger) come into the squad; both have had excellent starts to the season. 

The squad selection is teak tough with few surprises thereafter. Faletau and Scott Williams will be missed but there is substantial back row cover and the three quarters is boosted by the return of Jonathan Davies. 

Wales look formidable and test matches against Scotland, South Africa, Tonga and Australia (yet again). Patchell is following return to play protocols. A solid squad selection and one that should look to run the tables against their SH opposition. 

Scotland: Notable Inclusions Key

Scotland squad selection looks exciting

Three uncapped players join Scotland’s squad. Blade Thomson, Sam Johnson and Sam Skinner have being standouts this season and are noteworthy inclusions for Scotland. 

Alex Dunbar, Jonny Gray, Huw Jones, Greig Laidlaw, Sean Maitland, Willem Nel, Gordon Reid, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour, Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson all return to the squad as well to boost quality in the ranks. 

The interesting development will be on the club vs. country row with Thomson and Johnson having to request approval to play against Wales because it falls outside the test match rugby calendar. You may not hear the end of this before this fixture is over. 

France: In Bamba we trust 

Brunel calls up Bamba, drops Slimani 

November test match series has to be the catalyst for an upturn in results and performances from France. Key note inclusions are Demba Bamba (twenty year old prop) and Louis Picamoles who returns after being dropped after the Scotland game (disciplinary issue). Julien Marchand also comes into the side as well. 

Long term injuries Dupont (scrum-half) and Lopez (fly-half) make welcome returns to the squad. France are scheduled to play South Africa, Australia and Fiji in November. It will be interesting to see if there is any genuine improvement to the side. 

Argentina: Homegrown Talent Selection

A provincial 38 player squad was selected by Mario Ledesma who focus on homegrown talent is evident in that only Herrera (Stade Francais) and Figallo (Saracens) are the only players plying their trade away from Argentina. The majority of the squad are playing for Super Rugby side Jaguares. 

What to expect from Argentina? Aviva Stadium faithful will be pleasantly surprised by the game plan of Argentina next month. It is far more expansive with back line flair coming to the fore. Ireland have a tricky squad selection to decide on this fixture. 

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group G

Group G sees England and Belgiium pitted against Tunisia and Panama. Can a youthful England side with little pressure deliver good performances in this group? Can Belgium’s golden generation produce the results and progression that the squad depth in their ranks deserves? Hawkeye Sidekick previews the group setup.

Belgium: Potential Fulfilled?

This is an ideal group for Belgium to settle into this tournament, looking to rid the ring rust and gain confidence heading into the second round of the competition. The squad depth is stacked with talent. The spine of the team looks strong with Courtois, Kompany, Vertonghen, Dembele, Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku to name but a few and a squad depth whose performance levels are high.

The question for me about Belgium is how versatile and adaptable the team is given the game time circumstance. Recent tournaments have seen Belgium resort to Plan A with little deviation from that plan. Given their manager Roberto Martinez was critiqued for the same failing in club football, it will be interesting to see if Belgium can adapt as in the knock out rounds, they will be asked to change their game plan. If they can, then this is a serious contender.

Their final group game against England will determine who tops the group. Given their experience and caliber in the ranks, Belgium should qualify with ease to the second round and win the group but as mentioned the ability to change tact during the knockout rounds to achieve a result is their real test.

England

The hype about England has reduced considerably for this tournament. The side is a work in progress with question marks on defense and goalkeeping key. The goalkeeping position is up for grabs. Pickford, Butland or Pope have precious little experience at this level, not sure who will be lining up in goal for the Tunisian game? Enough said and the fact that Pickford and Butland have a mistake in them does not inspire sufficient confidence either.

The defensive side of the game has the potential to be on point. Walker, Rose and Trippier on the full back flanks will provide midfield sufficient width and their ability to defend is on point. The key question is the central defensive position and who fills the position? Will England go three at the back? Cahill or Stones need to be dominant, huge ask given their lack of first team action with their clubs this season. Question marks defensively for me.

The midfield and attacking options look exciting. Kane will score goals provided that the service from out wide is on point. Can Dele Ali start this tournament with energy and positive attacking mindset? His partnership with Kane looks key to England’s success from an attacking sense.

England should be more than capable to advance from this group but I think lapses defensively and goalkeeping are not far away. England to advance as runners up in the group with a couple of scares. For England to be a dark horse, Sterling has to deliver. Time will tell.

Tunisia

Their opening fixture against England is their proverbial cup final. They need to get something from this tie to realistically have a chance of qualifying for the second round. Tunisian’s squad looks solid and compact with the majority of players plying their trade in France, Egypt, Saudia Arabia and in Tunisia.

Massive onus in this side will fall to Leicester City’s Yohan Benalouane who will need to marshal his team mates around him from central defensive to ensure that the side is compact, hard to breakdown and organized because the attacking options while pacy have no proven goal scoring threat in this level of competition. Khazri is the focal point in attack; needs good service but given possession issues against England and Belgium, it could be a forlorn experience.

What is the hope for Tunisia? The hope and expectation is to be competitive and look to be in these group games come the final twenty minutes and look to score on the counter-attack or set-piece. The lack of goal threat is an impediment, the goal ratio in the squad is low. Tunisia to offer plenty but an opening round exit looks on the cards provided they can turn the tables on England tomorrow!

Panama

The fairy tale of making the World Cup for Panama is here. It is now time to deliver and produce good performances. The squad is comprised of players plying their trade in MLS and Central America. This is a significant improvement in opposition and I fear for Panama in all facets of play.

Their opening fixture against Belgium could be a potential nightmare unless Panama are defensively solid. Belgium have the ability to carve this side open at various stages; it is up to Panama to be compact and perhaps park the bus for the opening period and then look to probe Belgium thereafter with Perez and Tejada the key attacking threat.

Tournaments like this at times have glorious fairy tale stories but for Panama, the fairy tale ends here. Penedo and Baloy will have to produce heroics defensively for Panama to have any chance of securing a result in this group. Panama look vulnerable and an opening round exit is on the cards.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round Five Preview

The Natwest 6 Nations tournament concludes tomorrow with all eyes on Twickenham where England will look to do what Ireland did to them last year and deny Joe Schmidt’s men of the Grand Slam and Triple Crowns titles to complement the championship accolade already won last weekend. Scotland and Wales will look to end their campaigns with victories over a hapless Italy and progressively improving France respectively.

Solid England Selection

Eddie Jones has wielded the axe for the last game of the tournament. A huge compliment to the Ireland half back pairing is the decision of Jones to pair Saracens team colleagues Wigglesworth and Farrell together in opposition. Wigglesworth is a solid operator at nine; game management, good kicking game and will look to release quick ruck ball for Owen Farrell who is now playing in his prime test match position. Jones is frightened of the threat posed by Murray and Sexton; this half back selection speaks volumes.

Owen Farrell now from the ten channel can dictate play on his terms. His kicking game is on point and his decision making to pass the ball so close to the gain line allows his colleagues a perfect platform to create line breaks. Joseph’s inclusion at thirteen a direct result of Farrell moving to ten. Joseph’s power and pace with ball in hand could seriously test Ireland defensively.

Ben Te’o retains his place at twelve and will provide the abrasive ball carrying aspect to this England three quarters partnership. It will be interesting to see if England’s support running is improved from last weekend; only five offloads last weekend and for England to seriously rumble Ireland, they will need to create tempo in their running play with good support line running throughout.

The pack was always going to have personnel changes given the injuries to Hughes and Lawes. The back row will have a wealth of experience as Haskell and Robshaw will look to create breakdown dominance. Simmonds come into the pack at eight; will be interesting to see if Simmonds can produce quick go forward ball at the back of the scrum. Questions on back row balance here? Time will tell.

Eddie Jones has recalled Dylan Hartley and Kyle Sinckler to the front row. Dan Coles and Jamie George are omitted. The two starting players have massive potential and skill set but question marks on their discipline at times will be tested tomorrow. Ireland may look to target both in the pack exchanges.

On paper, England have named a side which looks to be their best of the tournament. With an explosive back three as well as Daly for long range penalty kicks, England will look to establish supremacy early and force Ireland chase the game resulting in more opportunities for England to exploit down the stretch.

Ireland’s team selection went along familiar lines. Devin Toner for Iain Henderson is a coaching selection call. Toner has not put a foot wrong in this tournament since coming in against Wales in round three. Henderson provides incredible work rate and energy which will be required to stifle the influence of Itoje and Kruis in the England second row. Toner coming off the bench to call the set piece in the second half could be huge.

The structured game plan that Ireland have employed in this tournament has reaped the benefits; four wins, three of which securing the try bonus point which has allowed Ireland to claim the championship with a game to spare. Ireland’s pack will face their stiffest examination so far in this tournament; imperative a solid platform is created in the opening quarter.

The set piece will be tested by England who despite their struggles on the road have produced good front five performances particularly in the set piece. France struggled at times last weekend in the scrum and line out so Rory Best and his pack will need to play the percentages in the opening exchanges, not to let the home crowd get too involved early doors.

Garner’s officiating at the breakdown will be intriguing to watch in the early exchanges. How do Ireland and England adjust to his officiating style? Garner attempts to provide teams the opportunity to become expansive. Garner is at times resolute in penalizing teams attempting to kill the ball so both teams will need to adapt this facet of play.

I expect a strong England challenge tomorrow. There will be a backlash. Several England players looking to impress Jones and management; stake a claim for summer tour starting berths. 50/50 call. Ireland will need to cope with adversity at different points of this test match. The defensive structure will need to improve further in comparison to last week’s performance.

Hoping for an Ireland win but given the superiority and dominance that England enjoy in Twickenham and the fact that Ireland have not won at the venue for eight years, I am slightly leaning towards an England win. The losses to Scotland and France have awoken England and tomorrow, we will see the response.

Scotland stroll in Rome

I will not dwell too much on this test match. Italy’s work rate cannot be faulted but there are fundamental flaws in their game plan. A half back pairing whose game management is a mixed bag. No distinct kicking game from nine allowing opposition to gobble up Italian attacking threats with ease. The back line defensive shape at times has being very poor; soft tries conceded at a rate of knots and worryingly the pack has being second best in recent games.

If the weather allows, Scotland could put a big score up with their expansive play. Scotland will be keen to bounce back from the loss to Ireland last week. A twenty point loss was harsh considering the opportunities that Scotland created in that test match. Huw Jones’ pass to Stuart Hogg if it had gone to hand was a try. Peter Horne’s intercept try. A couple of second half breaks resulting in poor passing at the critical time.

Scotland’s pack will look to impose their authority on proceedings. Nel returns to the front row and will provide set piece stability. The Scotland back row will look to stifle Sergio Parisse and allow quick ruck ball to be presented to Laidlaw and Russell to cause damage in the back line featuring Seymour and Grigg; two superb ball carriers and with the ability to create line breaks at will here.

With Richie Gray back in the test match starting lineup, this has all the hallmarks of being an arduous afternoon for the Azzuri in front of their home crowd. Italy have not progressed in this tournament, the elusive tournament win seems as remote as ever (now entering into a full third season). The hope is that the U20 players and improving Pro 14 club success can be the springboard for future national team success.

Scotland to win at a canter,expect plenty of tries and phases of sheer brilliance from Scotland who will relish the track conditions on offer. Scotland to win by twenty points, bonus point try secured well before the final quarter. For Italy and Conor O’Shea, time to reflect and see where improvements in player recruitment can be made.

Wales and France conclude the tourney

Warren Gatland has recalled the big guns to face a French side who after two consecutive wins in this tournament must travel to Cardiff in relatively high spirits. Captain Alun Wyn Jones returns to the pack along with flanker Josh Navidi, prop Rob Evans and hooker Ken Owens, while Aaron Shingler is on the bench. Dan Biggar is back at fly-half, and full-back Leigh Halfpenny and centre Scott Williams are also included.

France have being forced to make a couple of personnel changes. Guilhem Guirado is injured so his place at hooker is taken by Adrien Pelissie. Cedate Gomes Sa starts at tight-head prop in place of Rabah Slimani. Gael Fickou comes in on the wing with Benjamin Fall moving to full-back in place of Hugo Bonneval. Bastareaud captains the side.

Guirado for me is a big loss to this French side, his skill set and work rate set the tone for others to follow. Fickou is a thirteen playing on the wing, interesting to see how North and Liam Williams look to expose Fickou in the wide exchanges.

Wales are aiming to finish second in the tournament; considering the injuries that they have being dealt during this tourney, it is a good outcome. Squad depth is definitely improved in the Welsh setup with plenty of fringe players before this tournament now firmly in Gatland’s plans going forward.

The Welsh back line is exciting and I think given the personnel changes for France in this area, edge goes with the hosts. Parkes will look to negate Basteraud’s influence while Scott Williams potentially could produce a man of the match performance with his dynamic ball carrying and line breaks.

Wales to edge this one by seven points. France to show additional positives in this showing but the changes to the side ultimately could expose their squad depth down the stretch. Camara aside, question marks on the breakdown battle for France where Navidi’s breakdown work could be decisive.

England Team Profile

What a difference two games can make? Prior to travelling to Murrayfield, England were most neutrals tip to win this tournament. After a humbling loss to Scotland and a narrow defeat to France on the road, pressure is building on this England team and on head coach Eddie Jones. Can England scupper Ireland’s Grand Slam, Triple Crown ambitions? Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule on this current England side.

Fortress Twickenham

Ireland enter this fixture with confidence aplenty. Four wins from four in the tournament so far but the toughest road trip fixture looms large. Since the RWC 2015 debacle, England have made Twickenham once more a fortress, formidable venue for all foes and one that Ireland have not had the best of memories in recent visits.

Ireland’s last win at Twickenham came in 2010 with a 18-10 win. It is a poor record for Ireland to arrest even against a England side who are struggling for form and cohesion.

England Front Five Pack Platform

England’s recent losses in this tournament have being surprising but the front five have played to a high level. England pride themselves on the set piece and the statistics from last weekend’s loss to France saw excellent numbers.

England won both their scrums and disrupted France’s scrum (4/6). The line out functioned well with a 92% success and disrupted the French line out (54% success). The front five played well as an unit. George had an excellent contest and it will be interesting to see if the Saracens hooker retains his starting berth. Jones may be keen to bring Hartley back into the fold (why?).

Maro Itoje is a phenom; set piece execution coupled with his mobility, pace and work rate means that the Saracens second row will pose the single biggest threat to Ireland in this tournament. A front five unit who will test Ireland in all facets of play.

Back Row Woes

There is a question mark on the England back row selection for the Ireland test match. Nathan Hughes and Courtney Lawes will not feature due to injuries sustained against France.

No Billy Vunipola has being a massive loss to England in this tournament. The Saracens number eight provides the platform for the side to flourish. His ball carrying is incredible.

Given the injuries sustained by England in this unit, Chris Robshaw looks set to feature. An indifferent tournament so far, Robshaw provides experience but has being isolated in breakdown work as well as being penalized for offside infringements.

Simmonds and Haskell look set to feature for England; both will look to improve the breakdown facet of play. Simmonds’ mobility with ball in hand was seen to good effect against Italy with a brace of tries. The issue is whether the new back row unit has the balance required to offset at times rampant Ireland back row unit; question marks exist in the breakdown work.

England Game Plan?

After four rounds of the Natwest 6 Nations tournament, the England game plan has yet to take shape. The expansive side of play was seen against Italy and there were flashes against Wales. Progression so it seemed.

However, the last couple of test matches have seen England look quite one dimensional in their ball carrying with minimal offloading. Only five offloads from England against France last weekend; raising questions about ball carrying player offload options or is it a confidence issue within the ranks?

The Ben Te’o selection pointed to an abrasive ball carrying game plan and so it proved against France. I thought England would look to change things up and offload in the tackle more last weekend but it never materialized.

May and Watson received precious little quality ball to impress along with Daly. The game plan was conservative in nature. Penalties were slotted over from long range; no ambition to hit the touchline deep into France territory and test the hosts defensively on their own line until the death.

England right now have no game plan identity. The entertainment factor is in short supply. Will they unveil a more creative, expansive game plan against Ireland? Time will tell.

 

Penalty Count

The penalty count has being an issue in this tournament for England. Offside infringements the order of day against France particularly in the opening period when France were struggling to create a platform.

Fifteen penalties conceded by England. A yellow card issued to Anthony Watson whose high tackle prevented a near certain try. The penalty count is something that Ireland will look to expose; execute multiple phases of play and see if England come out of their defensive line too quickly.

Full Back Issue?

Mike Brown was the defacto England full back up until the Scotland test match in round three. Brown is an excellent test match full back. Defensively solid, good organizer and pace hitting the line.

It was a difficult game for Brown as England were defensively opened up against Scotland. Brown was the fall guy for the system failures.Anthony Watson was summoned to fill the role against France but it was an indifferent performance. Watson’s desperate high tackle on Fall saw a yellow card and a penalty try. It summed up his performance perfectly. Inaccurate.

England surely need to revisit the full back slot again. Will they decide to recall Brown or will they move Daly to the position? Intriguing management decision on a key position for England. Watson is a serious threat on the wing but the full back experiment failed in Paris.

Conclusion

In recent weeks, I have mentioned that this crisis for England is a blessing in-disguise ahead of 2019 RWC. Team issues have surfaced and England management have an opportunity to analyze and address these issues, improve and progress ahead of the tournament.

England is stacked with serious talent. Farrell, Ford and Care have the potential to create excellent line breaks if given the opportunity. Excellent kicking game when you add Daly’s big boot on long range penalties. All to play for. Ireland face their Mount Everest in the tournament this weekend, only a perfect performance from Joe Schmidt’s men will suffice to get over the line on Saturday given the expected England response!

Natwest 6 Nations: Round Four Preview

A weekend with the potential to produce massive excitement and talking points. A confident Scottish side travel to Dublin to face an Ireland side who will look to retain their unbeaten run in the competition.

England lock horns against arch rival France, an opportunity to bounce back from their loss at Murrayfield in round three. Wales with a much changed lineup face an Italian side looking for momentum and confidence.

Aviva Showdown

The weather forecast looks bleak in Dublin tomorrow; periods of rain with a significant breeze could reduce the expansive nature of this contest. Ireland’s team selection sees two starting lineup personnel changes from the side which defeated Wales in round three.

Tadhg Furlong returns to the front row in place of Andrew Porter who did not put a foot wrong against Wales. Devin Toner retains his second row berth as Iain Henderson must be contend with a place on the bench. Gary Ringrose as expected slots into the thirteen channel for the injured Chris Farrell.

Scotland have kept faith by and large with the squad which produced an excellent win against England in the previous round. Blair Kinghorn comes in on the wing to replace Tommy Seymour. Gregor Townsend has resisted the urge to recall Richie Gray and John Hardie to the match day squad.

For Ireland to win this test match, the front five must provide the platform early in the contest. Expect Ireland’s front five to test their Scottish counterparts in the set piece, look to create maul situations. Conor Murray’s kicking game will be keenly noted. Scotland will look to give Murray no time to setup his box kicks but Murray should get the pack coverage to execute this facet of play to test Kinghorn aerially.

In stark contrast, Scotland will look to play a less structured game. They will look to create quick ruck ball and John Barclay will play a pivotal role in this aspect of play. Laidlaw and Russell if provided with quick ball will fancy their chances of creating game winning line breaks considering the form of Jones, Horne, Hogg and Maitland out wide

This contest given the forecast may see the officiating play a significant part in the outcome. Waynes Barnes and Ireland have in recent times not being on the same page. Ireland will need to adapt early to  Barnes’ officiating of the breakdown as well as scrum time.

50/50 contest. Slight edge to Ireland given the weather promised; feel the side with a more structured game plan could triumph. Scotland will look at the Italian and Welsh second half performances against Ireland for hope and optimism. Ireland have not produced an all round defensive performance for eighty minutes so far in this tourney. Expect an exciting contest despite the weather!

France lock horns with England

The loss to Scotland could be a blessing in-disguise for this England outfit. All facets of play were not at the level required to win at Murrayfield. Eddie Jones has responded by making a couple of personnel changes. Hartley (injured) is replaced by George. Brown is dropped which means a full back role assignment for Watson. Ben Te’o takes Jonathan Joseph’s place at outside centre. Eliott Daly comes in on the wing to provide attacking threat and balance to the unit.

France come into this contest with a much required test match in round three under their belt. Even though the opposition was Italy, France needed a win to come from somewhere to build squad morale and team momentum. Brunel has not tweaked his starting lineup significantly for this encounter. The only change sees Trinh-Duc come in for enigmatic Beauxis at fly-half.

What should we expect from this fixture? England surely will start this contest with gusto and tempo. The inclusion of George provides excellent upside to Hartley who has struggled at times in this tournament. England’s scrum performance will be duly noted; a set piece which England prides themselves on was put under pressure by both Wales and Scotland. Improvement is required.

Can England’s back row clear out work at ruck time allow Care, Ford and Farrell to launch their runners? Te’o will relish any quick ruck ball down the thirteen channel. His duel with Bastareaud will be keenly watched; utter physicality on show.

Can England’s rejigged back line unit provide defensive stability whilst presenting France with a menacing attacking threat. Daly on the wing is a key component to this test match. His kicking game, coupled with his ability to create gain line breaks will be fascinating to watch.

France have competed well for long periods in this tournament. The pack personally has their standout unit so far. Their conditioning on point and have provided opposition so far with plenty of questions to answer. The set piece has being good, back row abrasive in breakdown and ball carrying.

However, the rest of the units within the side have a question mark over it. The half-back partnership has fluctuated from week to week. Trinh-Duc gets the nod at ten to partner Machenaud.

Can Trinh-Duc keep England off balance with a varied game plan? Can the Toulon fly-half produce a flawless kicking game to establish territorial gains and also improvise with drubber kicks if England’s defensive line positioning is off. I have my doubts.

The threats out wide have diminished with the omission of Teddy Thomas. He was France’s go to attacking threat in the first two rounds of this tournament.

I am not sure France have enough in the back line selection to seriously threaten apart from Bastareaud who will look to use his physicality to create line breaks. Will his colleagues be alert to provide sharp, incisive supporting running lines for the thirteen? I have my doubts again.

England for me are poised to produce a performance which will nullify France’s pack after fifty minutes and expose France defensively out wide late on. I would not be surprised if England secured a bonus point try win here given the concerns in the French back line unit.

Wales change their lineup up

Ten changes from Warren Gatland for the visit of Italy to the Principality Stadium. The side is not diminished much as Faletau and North are included to the starting lineup along with Bradley Davies and Justin Tipuric. The squad depth for Wales still looks strong when you see the subs bench. Eliot Dee gets the nod at hooker; a player with massive international test match potential.

Centre Giulio Bisegni replaces Tommaso Boni in Italy’s only change from their 34-17 defeat in France. The continuity in team selection is to be applauded by Conor O’Shea but the half-back performance against France was bereft of quality. No kicking game from nine exposed Italy, their play was incredibly one dimensional, living off scraps throughout.

What to expect from Wales? Given the experience coming into the side, Wales will look to create quick tempo from the first minute. Liam Williams assumes his best position at full back and his line breaks could devastate Italy defensively whose back line defensive work has at times left plenty to be desired.

Italy will work hard but the onus is back on the front eight to establish a platform, try to win the breakdown battle which will be no easy task. I am looking for points to be optimistic for Italy but having very little given their first three tournament outings. Not enough creatively out wide. Not enough game management and leadership in the half backs. A long day afternoon beckons for Conor O’Shea’s charges.

Wales to win with plenty to spare; would be disappointed for Wales if they do not secure a bonus point try win from this test match. Italy will look to upset the odds but George North potentially could have the proverbial field day if given adequate ball which looks a dead cert consider Faletau and Tipuric in the back row.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 3 Reflections – England

The warning signs of round two were not heeded by England who fell to a road trip loss to Scotland at boisterous Murrayfield. It is a reality check for England and the decisions that Eddie Jones and management make now post this test match loss could define their ambitions for World Cup glory in 2019. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects.

Blunt England

25-13. The final stages of this test match summed up England’s attacking style perfectly. England continually looking to smash their way through the Scottish defense who were solid throughout and superior in the breakdown when the opportunity arose.

England were incredibly blunt in their attacking play throughout this test match. May, Nowell and Watson received precious little quick ruck ball to test the Scottish defense out wide. The pack were tasked with building the platform with numerous punishing ball carries but it was quite one dimensional. Barclay, Watson and McInally lapped up the breakdown exchanges as a result.

Half Back Struggle

Finn Russell was sensational throughout, started the game with confidence and England were unable to temper his influence thereafter. Russell’s ability to create line breaks for colleagues was evident in the tries scored. The grubber kick was on point for the opening try. It set the tone for Scotland to create further opportunities. Kudos to Laidlaw too as the scrum half was decisive in his passing.

Care and Ford in contrast were struggling to create any attacking tempo or rhythm during this contest. Care’s ability to create line breaks off the fringes was quickly nullified and Ford was unable to effect the game at ten as the Scottish back row continued to grow in confidence with each passing minute.

Leadership

Owen Farrell to his credit provided the leadership last weekend. His penalty kicking was good and his running line for England’s try was sublime and gave his side hope of victory early in the second half. England though continued to use their big men to bore holes in the Scottish defense. No distinct change in attacking plans which was disappointing. No subtle changes to the game plan to throw Scotland a different look.

Missed Opportunities

There were missed opportunities. Danny Care’s intercept was called back and then Courtney Lawes knock on (in the tackle) which saw England only to be also called back. Two key incidents on another day which could have turned the tide but it was not to be.

Adapt Game Plan

If England learn anything from this loss, it is that they need to evolve their game plan on the pitch when the need arises. The England players looked drilled to death at times; executing the same game plan for limited results.

England were exposed by Italy last season for not adapting on the pitch to a left field tactic. It was a similar story last weekend and until England players can take on this mantle, questions on their game management will continue. There is so much that management can do for the playing group.

Personnel Changes

The key question will be whether Eddie Jones makes any changes to the side which will face France in round four of the tournament. Paris traditionally is a tough place to go and even more so for a player looking to make an impression when called into the test match starting lineup.

Daly comes into the equation as a back line option. His versatility and kicking game could prompt Jones to act as England’s back field defense struggled at times. Jones’ second try a perfect point as Brown and Watson collectively failed to take down Jones.

The England front row could see a change as well. Will Jamie George finally get his opportunity to stake a claim for the hooker position? Dylan Hartley’s subdued performance surely opens the door for George to impress. Joe Marler will be looking for game time as well given inconsistencies at scrum time in recent tournament rounds.

Second row changes probably will be minimal. Itoje is probably one of the first players on the team sheet. The only talking point here could be whether Eddie Jones feels that George Kruis should come in if he decides to draft Jamie George into the front row. The Saracens lineout axiis could feature in Paris.

The back row was a mixed bag for England. The absence of Billy Vunipola was particularly felt. No go forward ball from the back row unit who struggled in the breakdown exchanges. Sam Underhill comes into consideration but his yellow card raises question on his discipline. Hughes at eight failed to fire while Robshaw fought the good fight but was second best to John Barclay who was superb from start to finish.

A defeat against Scotland will always hurt England but the manner of the loss will be of more concern for Eddie Jones. England are at a critical juncture. Their squad is stacked with physicality, skill set and game winners but how do the England players improve their game management and decision making in test matches such as last weekend?

England will be a viable 2019 Rugby World cup contender provided lessons are learned. This loss will focus the minds as the 12-6 win over a Welsh side missing several experienced test match starters clearly did not. A critical end to this tournament beckons for England, another loss in this campaign and questions will be asked on whether the Eddie Jones revolution is regressing. Compelling viewing beckons!

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 2 Reflections

The second round of the Natwest 6 Nations tournament saw Ireland totally outclass an Italian side whose defensive frailties were exposed at alarming intervals, England go to the trenches to beat a determined Welsh side who will rue the TMO decision not to award Gareth Anscombe an opening half try and Scotland coming late to beat an extremely ill-disciplined French outfit at Murrayfield. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

England win but TMO dominates post game discussions

The video clip above is probably the talking point of the round this weekend and whether you are in the England or Welsh camp, you will have your points on why the try was waved away or not? It was an incredibly close call for the TMO to make. Glenn Newman had several angles. Did Gareth Anscombe touch the ball down first before Anthony Watson? Did Gareth Anscombe have control over the ball?

The fact that Anthony Watson immediately touched the ball down fully after Gareth Anscombe’s initial touch made the decision more complex for the TMO. No try was the decision but you see tries given for less than Gareth Anscombe’s effort and pressure on the ball. It was an incredibly pivotal point in the contest that England won 12-6.

If the incident does anything, it raises the topic of how much downward pressure is required to award a try from a TMO perspective. You tend to see TMO’s giving the benefit of the doubt to the attacking side in cases such as this in NH rugby. It has created a massive hole in the interpretation of downward pressure when a try is scored.

Full control is now required according to Glenn Newman, the response of the tournament organizers and World Rugby will be interested (if any) in the coming days to clarify this situation. It won’t be the first time this happens on a rugby game with high stakes involved.

The test match itself was an arm wrestle. England were very impressive in the first quarter and did not give Wales a chance of impose their will on the contest. The opening try for May was sublime. Farrell spotting acres of space in the Welsh defense to set May free who finished with precision.

The second England try was all about the imposing Joe Launchsbury who had the presence of mind to offload to the supporting May soon after with two Welsh players for company. 12-0 lead for England and it looked ominous for Wales.

Credit though to Wales whose work rate was immense throughout. The work rate was on point and the pack started to create a good platform from which penalties were being conceded by the hosts. Patchell had a mixed afternoon as England squeezed up with high defensive line speed minimizing his overall impact on the contest.

The key positive from the Welsh camp were the performance of the front row who were excellent at scrum time as well as the cameo of Gareth Anscombe when switched to ten. His flair and ability to get his colleagues over the game line was to the fore in the second half. The number ten position is very much for Anscombe after this display; assured performance.

Wales will rue the TMO decision but there was also the key try saving tackle from Sam Underhill whose tackle on Scott Williams saved a certain try. The lack of ball handling and composure at times from Wales also contributed to this loss. A key turnover just before half-time after Wales had turned down the opportunity of three points was a morale sapper.

England win this hard fought encounter; their defensive work was on point throughout. The back row stifled at the breakdown as Navidi struggled to gain a foothold in these exchanges. The half back partnership were efficient if not spectacular and Mike Brown produced an excellent performance at full back. Farrell was all action and his game management for the opening try sensational. To a man, England delivered the victory.

Ireland outclass poor Italy

Let us not beat around the bush here. Italy were shambolic. Ireland beat what was in front of them to the extent that the bench was fully cleared ten minutes into the second half. It was all very routine for Ireland as they set about dismantling the wafer thin Italian defense.

Line breaks were created with huge frequency in that opening period and it was no surprise that Ireland led 28-0 at the break. Henshaw crashing over from close range after the pack had sucked in the Italian defense. Naive Italian defending on the fringes saw Murray waltz in unopposed. Aki used his strength superbly to crash over from close range and the Connacht centre was again involved as his line break and pass saw Earls score for the bonus point try.

The fixture saw a couple of negatives from an Ireland perspective. Tadhg Furlong pulling up early doors was a concern; initial team report suggests that it is not serious but I am not so sure as the manner in which the Wexford man pulled up suggested more of a hamstring pull than a precautionary withdrawal.

Even more of concern was the shoulder injury sustained by Robbie Henshaw after his second try of the contest. The try was as a result of an intercept but the shoulder injury means a long period on the sidelines beckon. Disappointing for the player who was sharp along with Aki in their attacking duties.

Italy were hopelessly out classed but did manage to create a foothold in the contest in the third quarter as Ireland’s lack of cohesion (due to clearing the bench) saw three tries conceded in a seventeen minute spell.

The Ireland fringe players got good test match minutes. Larmour gave a glimpse of his attacking skills but also a realization that his defensive work is a work in progress. Carbery at ten looked to boss the game but lack of game minutes was evident in some questionable game management calls. Porter was superb in the front row. Marmion was efficient at nine. Stander and Healy professional in their work rate.

This game showcased Ireland’s ability to cut loose but the opposition was weak. The Georgia question and this tournament was a key thought personally in the opening period of this contest given how easy Ireland were creating and scoring tries at will. Italy can argue that they scored three tries but let us be honest, the scoreline flattered the Italians as Ireland’s continuity faded after fifty minutes. Italy lacked any guile up front and for all the back line intent with ball in hand, defensively were all at sea. Hard days to come for Conor O’Shea and management this season. 2019 RWC looks daunting already.

Ireland will look for positive fitness reports on Furlong but this was mission accomplished. Wales in two weeks time looks an incredibly tough encounter. Wales will not fear Ireland and given their personnel who will offload and create from expansive play, it will be intriguing to see how Schmidt approaches the fixture.

Sexton and Murray were excellent again. Keith Earls continues to impress; his last minute try saving tackle told you everything you needed to know about the player. Selfless, hard working, team player. The effort to save a last ditch tackle could be the difference between winning this tournament or not if points differences comes into play.

Scotland keep composure to beat France

A much needed morale boosting victory for Scotland against France at Murrayfield. The opening quarter was sensational stuff. France’s player of the season Teddy Thomas scoring a superb try to open France’s account. Their expansive approach to the contest a joy to see. Scotland facing an early period of crisis fought back well and recalled Maitland scoring well.

Laidlaw’s contribution today cannot be underestimated. The scrum-half provided experience and game management throughout, something that Finn Russell struggled with today. It was an out of sorts Russell today in terms of kicking, missing touch on a couple of key stages. Townsend down the stretch made the call to win this test match. Russell hauled off. Price on and Laidlaw switched to ten.

The move worked as Scotland’s pack started to win the 50/50 exchanges and French discipline issues surfacing at a rate of knots. John Lacey consistently pinging France for various offenses from not rolling away to offside. French composure was shot in the final quarter, such a critical juncture of the contest. The composure issues then saw some questionable game management decisions as well but by this stage, France were under the cosh. The game was as good as gone.

Laidlaw’s assured kicking securing the victory. The win was huge for Scotland; a backs to the wall week of preparation, another loss and it was curtains for the championship and would have raised questions on the recent Scottish team and their form leading into this tournament.

Gregor Townsend today delivered a message to his players on the park; failure to execute and you will be benched. To bench Russell was a massive call, it worked handsomely this time as Price was swift in his distribution speeding up play. The ten position ahead of the English clash will be duly noted. Russell needs to step up his performance levels. An intriguing two weeks to the England clash await.

For France, another test match which on another day should have seen a win. Their play in these last two games have at times being good but yet again the lack of discipline seen in the Guy Noves and Philip Saint Andre eras reared its head today. For the brilliance of the tries, France surrender penalties at an alarming rate and Lacey’s penalty count on another day should have seen a French player spend time in the sin bin.

France will argue with the officiating in these past two weekends but teams need to adapt to the officiating crew and in this second half, the discipline and pen count on show could not warrant a test match win. Plenty to address as Italy arrive to Marseilles in two weeks. France and Brunel in backs against the wall prep then.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 2 Preview

After two blow out wins for England and Wales, both sides lock horns in a highly anticipated showdown at Twickenham. Ireland fresh from their last gasp (get out of jail card) win over France in Paris play host to an Italian side who travel more in hope than expectation. Scotland and France look to gain much needed momentum at Murrayfield. Intriguing fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Can expansive Wales upset England on the road?

The key question of this weekend. Wales were excellent in their defeat of Scotland last weekend but Warren Gatland and management will be first to admit that Scotland were well below their best. It is also debatable that England defensive line speed will be as ponderous as Scotland’s last weekend which saw Patchell control affairs and unleash his back line with unerring frequency.

The back row battle at Twickenham is evenly poised. With the decision to allow James Davies to return to the Scarlets for Pro 14 action, it is down to Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric coming off the bench to grapple and torment England at the breakdown. Navidi was sensational last weekend in his breakdown work, winning ball and slowing down Scotland ball to a crawl. Tipuric continued the good on his introduction and his ball carrying was on point.

England’s back row looks solid. Sam Simmonds has taken his chance superbly at eight in the absence of Billy Vunipola. His brace of tries last weekend showed the player’s mobility, strength and speed. His breakdown work was on point as well as Lawes and Robshaw.

The half-back contest will be fascinating. Care vs. Davies. Ford vs. Patchell. The scrum-halves on show will look to create at every given opportunity so do not be surprised if there are plenty of open exchanges during this contest. Joseph’s inclusion is a key inclusion, his pace and power have caused issues for Wales in the past.

This is a contest if Wales can compete well in the scrum have a realistic chance of producing a result on the road. Can Wales then get enough ball in hand to ask questions of May defensively? It is a huge ask and England do have serious threats with May and Watson playing superbly with ball in hand.

This is the standout fixture of the round. England to shade this contest but the margin of victory could be minute. Wales will come to this fixture full of confidence, nothing to lose with everything to gain. England are the team under pressure to deliver. Intriguing fixture and subplots await.

Ireland’s back line given chance to deliver or else

The Ireland team announcement was delivered with four pack changes but significantly no changes to the back line. No expected Jordan Larmour debut? Why?

Joe Schmidt wants to keep faith with the back line who faced France, an opportunity to see the back division if provided sufficient space and quick ball to showcase their talents. The three quarter partnership is retained. Aki and Henshaw were solid defensively but there were precious little moments of attacking play and platform last weekend, hope for better this weekend.

Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale both looked dangerous with ball in hand. Earls’ contribution to the game winning drop goal cannot be underestimated. A marvelous take from an inch perfect Sexton diagonal kick, meters gained and momentum built.

Jacob Stockdale’s defensive side of play has being under the microscope this week. The Teddy Thomas try was a superb effort and plenty are pointing the blame for the try at Stockdale’s door given his missed first time tackle. Stockdale is still young and learning his craft, good to see management giving the player continuity in the position. No doubt Schmidt has worked with the player to address the defensive lapse this week.

The pack changes were spun in a strange manner. I was unclear whether Jack Conan was included or  CJ Stander dropped? Conan deserves his opportunity given his form with Leinster Rugby this season. Game time for squad members is paramount this weekend.

Dan Leavy was a no brainer inclusion in the back row. Toner gets the nod, looking to impress and probably needs with Beirne primed for international duty next season and James Ryan’s emergence as an international second row last weekend.

The prop competition between Cian Healy and Jack McGrath has being intriguing this season for club and country. Both players are driving each other on, superb to see. McGrath will relish the opportunity to cause serious damage to the Italian scrum.

The bench sees Kieran Marmion given the nod ahead of Luke McGrath, perhaps a horses for courses selection or was it based on training performance this week? Larmour will get his debut at some point and it will be interesting to see the player with space to impress. Solid team selection from Ireland.

Italy make three changes to their side, two personnel changes in the front row while Steyn comes into the back row. Ghiraldini’s lineout throwing was on point last weekend. 100% lineout success so to replace the experienced hooker will prompt Ireland to put pressure on the line out with Toner, Henderson and O’Mahoney looking to unsettle the Italian set piece.

Quaglio and Bigi will need to front up at scrum time but with Furlong and McGrath looking in ominous form, Ireland have the set piece advantage here and with it the platform to create try scoring opportunities. The back row battle will be interesting for the first three quarters but Ireland will be confident to improve their clear out work to allow Murray quicker ball despite Steyn and Parisse. Mbanda’s exclusion is a baffler.

The Italian back line showed glimpses of potential. Allan was composed with his distribution, kicking on point to unleash his back three but the back three were also guilty of some naive defensive game time decisions against England. Watson had the proverbial field day against Italy. Earls and Stockdale should follow suit. Ireland bonus point try win all the way.

Townsend wields the axe

Gregor Townsend does not do sentimentality obviously. No opportunity for the likes of Harris, Price, du Preez, Toolis and Welsh to redeem themselves after wretched displays against Wales.

Suffice to say that Townsend has gone for the shock and awe team selection to stir a reaction. The passive performance from Scotland last weekend was at odds to the side who impressed during the November internationals.

All facets of play were under par. Game management was mediocre. Price pivotal in the concession of the opening Welsh tries; intercept pass and then scrum infringement. Russell with a pack retreating could not affect influence.

The pack were second best. The scrum creaked at various points and then the line out system collapsed in the second half giving Wales ample opportunity to create a platform. Maitland, Horne did provide much needed impetus but it was not little too late. Hogg’s lack of game minutes also exposed in defensive work. A week later, will the wrongs of last weekend be remedied?

France were defeated last weekend but there was signs of optimism in their last gasp defeat. Their work rate and defensive structure remained until the final play of game. Ireland were unable to break France down in a well organized defensive display. Teddy Thomas with his only genuine cameo scored a sensational try. The young players in the side did not shirk their responsibility.

Brunel and the squad’s question this weekend is whether they can continue this work rate and defensive organization while also trying to open up their talented back line. It was not seen as Ireland did by and large control the tempo and territory last weekend.

The conditioning of the French side was on point last weekend. No last quarter collapse and the age demographic of the squad suggests that Brunel will focus on youth and players who will work hard for the cause. Machenaud again was excellent in his game management and kicking; more expected from the Racing 92 scrum-half this weekend.

Scotland are in a backs against the wall scenario. If they cannot raise their game this weekend, it will undermine everything that Scotland have built in the last two seasons. Townsend and management will be feeling the pressure and the team selection is designed to execute an open, expansive game plan whilst allowing Laidlaw to game manage when required. Scotland to win but it will not be easy.

Autumn Internationals: What to expect?

November. The end of season Southern Hemisphere tours are upon us and with 2019 Rugby World Cup looming on the horizons, these fixtures will be seen as an initial assessment on squad depth and where improvements are required. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on what we should expect in the coming weeks.

New Zealand keen to reestablish dominance on tour

A drawn series against the British & Irish Lions in July, a series where New Zealand will feel that they left behind. This tour will be a chance to showcase their talent and provide an ominous statement of intent against NH rivals. The fixture list is intriguing as the All Blacks lock horns against France twice in the space of three days. November 18th sees a trip to face Scotland with a final tour game against Wales on November 25th. What to expect from New Zealand? Squad rotation will be seen to full effect next week with the fixture in Lyon. New Zealand have abundance of talent in their ranks and the likes of Perenera, Laumape, Fifita will look to deliver and give Steve Hansen evidence to continue in the side. This is a tour where Sam Cane could be the standout back rower for the All Blacks; his ability to read breakdowns and win turnover ball will be huge in this set of fixtures. The Welsh clash for the breakdown battle will be worth the gate admission fee. You cannot see how New Zealand will be beaten in this tour. Barrett is playing sublime rugby this season both from hand and boot and with an exciting set of backs to be unleashed at any time, the tour opponents have being duly warned.

Australia looking for consistency

Victory over New Zealand last month was a much needed tonic for Michael Cheika’s side to gain confidence. Consistency issues against New Zealand have being duly punished in recent test match fixtures so it was imperative that the Wallabies competed against the All Blacks first and foremost. The win was bonus territory and Australia come into this tour on good confidence scoring sixty-three points against Japan. Defense is a work in progress as thirty points were leaked. Arguments on the merits of this point but the late try concessions will have disappointed Cheika. Australia’s tour will see fixtures against Wales (familiar foe), England and Scotland. The key performance point for Australia on this tour will be how the front five perform as an unit. Consistency issues this season and the scrum has gone backwards against all SH teams at different intervals. Australia are an exciting side to watch in full flow, their speed of pass and running lines are excellent. Kuridrani is a key player in all that Australia in early phases. His power and running style means gain line breaks. Speight is a player who if given ball will create issues for all the NH teams. If the pack can go well on this tour, 2019 RWC chances are elevated. A key tour for Cheika and team beckons.

South Africa keen to impress new coaching ticket

Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Niebaner have departed Munster and will look with interest at the progression of this South African side. They commence the tour with a much anticipated tussle against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. Recent form suggests South Africa are rebuilding nicely after a terrible shut-out loss to New Zealand this season. It was a pivotal fixture; the players have regrouped well and produce stirring performances thereafter running New Zealand to a close loss. Pride was restored in the jersey. This tour will be to identify key personnel to build the side around for the 2019 RWC. This is when South Africa typically start to show signs of promise and Ireland will be duly warned. Etzebeth and De Jager are a massive second row partnership, solid set piece execution. Jantjies at ten is developing into a world class ten. His ability to eye a pass is to the fore but his kicking game is a work in progress. Kriel provides energy and skill to the three quarters; excellent movement where gain line meters are gained. The Ireland test match will go some way to determine how South Africa approach the rest of the tour where they face France and Italy to conclude their tour. With changes to the management team, players will be keen to impress the newly joined Erasmus to the coaching ticket. Niebaner’s defensive skills will be an added boost to the Springboks; all starting to point to a revitalized South African outfit in 2018 and 2019.

Argentina looking to end season on a high note

A tough season for Argentina this season. They have competed for good stretches of test matches but have being let down by lapses in concentration and discipline have being exposed to the max. The most recent results against South Africa illustrated this point perfectly, several well worked tries scored but a red card to Lavanini (home game) opened the gates for South Africa to win with a bit to spare. Talented side with an abrasive front row who will test any side with their scrummaging ability. Creevy and Herrera are world class front row players and England have being duly warned on their prowess from last season’s encounter. Leguizamon is a superb eight, great skill set to the player and with Hernandez pulling the strings at ten, this side will not fear any opponent. England, Italy and Ireland are scheduled this month. The squad depth is a source of concern and it will be interesting to see if Argentina can reveal a couple of new players on tour to increase confidence and momentum ahead of RWC 2019. A disappointing international season but this November international series is an opportunity to end the season on a good note. Abrasive but well capable of exposing defensive weakness out wide, the Pumas deserve plenty of respect.

England look to continue improvement

Eddie Jones has being in bullish form ahead of the November internationals. His side went last season unbeaten until Ireland beat them at the Aviva Stadium in March and there was plenty of positives for Jones to reflect upon from last season. The pack were solid in set piece where Maro Itoje and George Kruis had excellent international seasons. Itoje’s work rate and pace for a forward is sublime and his versatility switching from back row to second row is such a valuable asset to England. Set piece was solid but questions remain on the hooker position. George vs. Hartley. Hartley getting the nod due in part to being captain but Jamie George has grown in stature last season and the British & Irish Lions tour has made him an even better player. Billy Vunipola’s injury will be an interesting subplot; a chance for Jones to run the rule over a couple of candidates. England’s attacking lines improved as the season progressed last year. Farrell and Youngs looking to hit back line players with pace hitting the line incredibly flat. The back line has being an interesting side-note to the international series. Yarde has being omitted. Solomona has had an opportunity to impress but it looks like May and Daly will be the key attacking threats for England. Test matches against Argentina (pack workout beckons), Australia and bankrupt Samoa will tell more about England but the key contest will be against New Zealand, all in good time.

Ireland move on without Zebo

Simon Zebo’s decision to move to France next season has seen the player omitted from the national team squad. Joe Schmidt quite clear on his intentions with Zebo, a player with creativity and flair from full back. Ireland will miss the player particularly in games where creativity is required to break up the field. Ireland’s squad selection apart from Zebo had few surprises. Sexton and Murray will be asked to control game management. Murray with his spiral kicks. Sexton looking to launch his back line at regular intervals. The front row looks excellent. Furlong is in incredible form currently and with Jack McGrath alongside, the scrum should go well. The question mark is the set piece; statistics for the Ireland hooker players are less than stellar and South Africa will look to expose this facet of play this weekend. The back row options are endless. It will be interesting to see how CJ Stander goes against his native homeland, excellent ball carrier and work ethos. This series of games will see hopefully who is best placed to fill the full back and ten positions. O’Halloran and Carbery will get game time at full back. Carbery potentially may get game time against Fiji at ten. Ireland’s weak point in recent RWC cycles has being their inability to find an adequate squad to fill multiple positions when injuries arise. Schmidt must take note of failures from the past. Argentina game will be abrasive; the pack exchanges will be interesting to observe.

Wales fresh faces looking to make impact

November has not being a good month for Wales in recent years; not many wins. Gatland has changed up the squad dropping the likes of Jamie Roberts, Sam Davies, Scott Williams and Luke Charteris from the squad. Excellent players but is this a sign that Gatland and management are switching their style of play. Australia do not seem to be buying it and are expecting physicality in ball carrying, abrasive breakdown contest. The squad dynamics though would suggest that if Wales can gain parity in the pack, a back line with the likes of Liam Willams, Steff Evans, Leigh Halfpenny must surely indicate fast ball out wide under the roof of the Principality Stadium. The back row has always being a strong area for Wales, hoping Josh Navidi gets game time as the Cardiff Blues player has being a consistent high performer in Pro 12 / 14 leagues this year. The front five will be an area where Australia and New Zealand will look to turn the screw at scrum-time. The front row looks vulnerable without the likes of Samson Lee in the ranks. Gatland looking to see new talent, will be intriguing if the players impress against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa. Does Gatland bring back the players left out this time around?

Scotland look to continue upward progression

Scotland were the most progressive NH side last season. Under the management of Vern Cotter, the RBS 6N tournament went well. Despite the mauling against England, the side competed well and earned notable scalps against Ireland, Wales and Italy with an exciting brand of rugby. The back line play of Jones, Fife, Hogg and Seymour were to the fore and with solid game management from Russell and Laidlaw at half-back, the team played with an increased attacking threat. The pack were competitive. Gray’s leading from the front but there were issues defending opposition mauls and the scrum did struggle at times against England and France. New head coach Gregor Townsend will look to address these issues but also look to build on the expansive attacking style seen last season. His tenure for Glasgow Warriors means that the national side will look to execute an expansive style of play. The fixtures look tough with visits from New Zealand and Australia but confidence should be high before this with a visit from Samoa who are financially bankrupt and the appetite of the players on national duty may not be what it should be.

Italy need to build momentum

Conor O’Shea will look for Italy to follow the lead of Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby with more determined, competitive performances. There has being an upturn in performance with the two clubs this season and it is hoped that the national side will improve as a result. Plenty for O’Shea and management to work on. The pack is a work in progress, discipline and penalty count needs to be reduced and this is the key indicator to see where Italy are at after this month’s fixture list. Increased penalty count will lead to points conceded for Italy. The back line and half-backs need to be better; lack of threat out wide meant that opposition could stifle ball carrying from the pack creating turnover ball. November is a time where Italy need to show signs of improvement in all areas of the pitch. Let us not be started on the kicking off the tee; abysmal last year. Hopefully, there will be a positive run of performances from Italy but the fixture against Fiji will make or break this side. Fiji will fancy their chances. Italy need to send out a statement of intent. Argentina and South Africa are teams which Italy will look to compete well against but this weekend is their proverbial cup final to build confidence and momentum.

France: Club vs. Country

The fact that two fixtures against the All Blacks are within a three day period says a lot on French rugby, national vs. club is rearing its head. National team has suffered due to lack of training camps during the season when compared with other RBS 6N teams. Guy Noves is facing an uphill task; he has the players now but the game plan will be conservative. It has to be given the lack of training sessions that the squad has had. New Zealand (first test) will be interesting. Can the French pack be competitive for long enough to allow the back line enough ball to create try scoring opportunities? The second fixture against All Blacks in Lyon is a bit of a mystery. Is this a representational side or an actual test match? South African game will be a true indicator of where the team is at. France, mysterious as always. The clubs are patiently waiting for their assets back to resume league action next month. The disparity between national side vs. professional club is growing by the day. Sad development.