RWC 2019: Pool C Preview

Pool C: Pool of Death

In the third part of this Rugby World 2019 preview series; Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool C. It is a pool which looks on paper to be effectively a shootout between England, Argentina and France for the two quarter final berths. 

Pool C

An intriguing pool with three marquee teams pitted together. USA and Tonga complete the pool lineup; two sides who will provide energy and passion but a distinct lack of quality when compared with the other three teams will be decisive.

England: The Eddie Jones England era hinges on this tournament

It has always been about this Japan Rugby World Cup 2019 for England and particularly Eddie Jones. The World Cup cycle has seen Eddie Jones arrive and run the rule over the best talent English rugby union has to offer; there were those infamous training camps in Brighton which caused some consternation among the clubs. There were also those heated scrummaging practice games against the Georgians. Eddie Jones has left no stone unturned for this World Cup and he will be on the front foot with his press conferences and the sound bites.

England in the last eighteen months has seen a progressive upward curve. They have demolished Ireland in 6 Nations and preseason friendly test matches. Their pack looks traditionally strong. Jamie George provides mobility, discipline and set piece line out accuracy in the absence of Dylan Hartley. The pack is at a nice age demographic. The sight of Genge, Itoje, Kruis, Curry in the pack provides energy and overall quality in all facets of pack play.

Ford and Farrell versatility to play the ten channel will be key to England progression. Youngs and Heinz if provided quick ruck ball have the ability to create havoc in the back field. I am expecting Manu Tuilagi to be a key fulcrum for England much like the Vunipola’s in the pack. Their dynamism and physicality with ball in hand is going to cause opposition untold damage.

Where are the weak points? The key question for England is can they produce a full eighty minute performance. The preseason games have seen massively impressive periods of play but there have been lulls in quality – look at the opening half performances against Ireland and Italy during preseason. England have the ability to blow away teams with their quality but the consistency of their play for an entire game remains a question mark.

The discipline question surrounding England is never too far away. England is skirting a fine line on their defensive line speed and offside at ruck time. Officiating decision making early in this tourney will determine whether these areas are a concern for Eddie Jones; if they are heavily pinged early, expect Jones to be frank in press conference settings.

On paper, this side will look incredibly far in the tournament. They are stacked with talent and provided that discipline does not become a big issue in the group games, I expect them to advance from this pool and into a semi-final match. After that, all bets are off.

Argentina: In Jaguares, we trust

One look at this squad and you see why Argentina will be an extremely tough pool opponent. Their continuity is obvious with the majority of players coming from Super Rugby finalists Jaguares. The familiarity and cohesion of the team should be on point from the opening minute of this tournament. You then throw in the players who are playing in England and France; quality operators in Figallo, Sanchez and Urdapilleta.

The Argentina defensive shape and structure has steadily improved in this year’s Rugby Championship. This was seen to good effect in their performance against New Zealand; disciplined defensive display and when provided with the opportunities were competitive at the breakdown. The line out has been solid; Creevy is a talisman hooker and his relationship with Lavanini and Alemanno will be seen to good effect in this tournament.

The back line play has evolved too. Jaguares in particular provided explosive attacking plays in their run to the Super Rugby final. Delguy is going to be a star at this tournament; outstanding back three player whose ability to snip and create from open play will be standout. The Argentinian style of pack orientated play and kick game is now complemented with the ability to offload in the tackle, set the tempo high and look for opportunities to exploit on the outside.

The issue is with the scrum. Ireland in the November series took advantage of uncharacteristic erratic Argentinian scrummaging. The pen count was high and setup huge pressure for Argentina from a defensive perspective. If Argentina can address those scrum set piece concerns (they need to France and England in this area of play), then this is a side that will advance to yet another quarter final appearance. Their kicking game is unparalleled; superb footballers who will win any kicking exchange contest.

France: Enigma

France come into this tournament on the back of an encouraging preseason win over Scotland (32-3) but this is when France were in the mood, lovely French summer sunshine at their backs to express themselves. You cannot guarantee that France will do the same when in Japan.

The lead up to this tournament has been a shambles; squad selection has been erratic at best. Brunel does not know his best squad, has decided to ditch Lopez and Parra looks hasty at best. No general shape to the pack and the front five that will lineup in the pool stage could be significantly different to the one that played in the 6 Nations this year.

What is the ethos of this side? Is it pack orientated or is it attacking / offload game? I am not sure and I do not think the French public knows either. The best thing for France is for Brunel to step aside at the end of this tournament and start afresh.

The hope is that the young guns which Brunel has vouched for deliver on the big stage. Dumbo Bamba in the front row could be a standout in the tournament; mobility and scrummaging to boot. Dupont and Ntamack tandem at half-back is potentially very good on paper. Penaud has the attacking skill but defensively is he solid enough?

This is a tournament where France have thrown the dice on squad selection. The likes of Bastareaud are removed from the squad; leaders need to step forward. Picamoles needs to be a leader in this pack but has failed to deliver in recent seasons. There are too many questions on this French side for me so I suspect pool elimination is the smart bet.

Tonga: Passion but vulnerability aplenty

The key question you have to ask yourself is how do Tonga bounce back from that absolute pasting at the hands of New Zealand last weekend? 90+ points is an embarrassing score concession and the lack of structure, conditioning and general cohesion from Tonga was a massive wakeup call.

The squad composition is varied with players based in England, France, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and Samoa. The lack of quality test match competition is undermining Tonga like the other Pacific Island nations; the club vs. country issue with player release is a continually recurring theme.

What to expect from Tonga? Expect passion, physicality in ball carrying and offloading when possible but not far behind will be disciplinary issues particularly when we get into the second half of games. The lack of cohesion is an issue for this squad. New Zealand match created massive gaps in quality on both sides of the ball.

Their key fixture looks to be against USA to secure a win and to be honest, it is going to be a struggle to see them win that encounter. Bottom place in the pool potentially beckons despite the best efforts of Piutau and Mafi.

USA: Work in progress

There is a lot to be hopeful for the long term development of USA Rugby. The establishment of their domestic league will only increase the quality of players in the country and the fact that players can play in their own country means more national training camps and more cohesion. Has this tournament come too soon?

The squad on paper has a lot to like about it when you consider the likes of Taufete’e and Lamsitele in the front row. Peterson at lock is a solid lineout operator and Tony Lamborn plays in Melbourne. AJ McGinty at ten will need to provide game management to allow USA to secure a pack platform.

The concern is the lack of squad depth in the back line to complement the performances of Cam Dolan in the back row. The Ireland November series test match showed the good, the bad and the ugly part to the USA play and the outside defense shape was at times hugely lacking.

The side will fight to the bitter end but when you compare the side with England, France and Argentina; it is a step too far. Their fixture against Tonga has cup final written all over it. A win there and some competitive outings in the pool is the goal.

Verdict:

Three teams vying for two quarter final berths. England is the standout side for me in this pool; they have the ability to beat their pool foes either in the pack or out wide. Argentina for me with their cohesion and game management will pip France to the second berth.

The five key elements for Ireland rugby to beat France at the weekend

Ireland cohesion rests on good fast ruck ball presentation!

In this blog, Hawkeye Sidekick pinpoints the five key elements which Ireland need to execute to beat France in round four of the Guinness Six Nations tournament.

1.Move the French pack around the park;

Very physical and meaty French pack (950kg at the start of the tournament), going to be a long hard slog for Ireland’s pack but if they can ball carry with pace, this French pack will lose discipline and stray offside which will create penalties and ultimately good field position to attack France deep in their own half.

2.Solid set piece

The Ireland set piece needs to be on point this weekend. France at scrum time will look to pose serious questions of our front five early so Ireland’s front five need to front up to the early onslaught. The line out malfunctions against Italy in round three cannot happen this weekend; otherwise France will have a great chance of victory on the road. Solid line out calling will be the order of the day as the weather conditions long range look mixed from Best, Ryan, Henderson and Roux.

3. Cohesion

The keyword coming from Joe Schmidt in recent weeks. Ireland have shown flashes of quality attacking play. The Keith Earls try against Scotland.
The excellent Jacob Stockdale try against Italy. The tournament so far has seen a number of promising attacks halted due to unforced errors; the final pass not going to hand. It is slowly progressing and hopefully should improve for round four of the tournament.

4.Ruck Time

A lot of people have pointed the finger at our half-backs for Ireland’s cohesion issues but not many have pointed to why the half backs have been unable to execute to their ability. The ruck time has been a mess from Ireland and clean, fast ruck ball has been in short supply for Murray and Sexton to work with. I am hoping that the clear out work is much improved from Ireland this weekend, good body positions to allow Murray to get the ball out of the ruck faster. If this happens, expect massive an upturn in Ireland’s attacking play. This French side defensively still look vulnerable and will provide gain line breaks for Ireland but it all comes down to quick ruck ball.

5.Kicking Game

An element of Ireland’s play which was not beyond reproach in the last two years has suddenly come under the microscope. The aerial kicking has being inconsistent and the open play kicking has not exposed opposition back three’s defensive so far. The kicking game was used to good effect by England in their heavy win over France. Owen Farrell consistently having space in behind the French back three to create territorial field position for which England attacked the French line out.

Guinness Six Nations Round 3 Preview: France vs. Scotland

Defining test match for France

After a week hiatus, the Guinness Six Nations tournaments roars back into action. A key test match for France in Paris against a Scottish side who despite injuries will look to secure a road trip in France for the first time since 1999. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Jacques Brunel and France need to deliver 

To say that this Guinness Six Nations tournament has been an unmitigated disaster for France would be the understatement of the year. Their Waterloo moment at Twickenham in round two has prompted Brunel to make more key personnel changes in hope than expectation.

Brunel has heaped faith on the Toulouse back line unit to come to his aid. Ramos comes into the full back slot to relieve Huget from the position. Fickou partners Bastareaud in the midfield, a better coaching decision from France. How France thought that Fickou was a world class wing is more evidence of the erratic team selection currently at play.

The half back combination is a Toulouse pairing. Dupont gets a deserved starting test match, the player has impressed for club this season but his ten partner is no other than Ntamack who has plied his trade at twelve this season for Toulouse. The player is more than capable but in the heat of a test match, this is another iffy selection from Brunel and management.

The pack looks robust, physical with the likes of Bamba, Poirot and Guirado in the front row. Lambey continues in the second row while there is a change in the back row where Lauret comes in for Camara. Picamoles and Iturria need to provide ball carrying dominance early.

The individuals are excellent but the team dynamic is entirely different question for me. Scotland will hope that this is the case and expose the frail confidence with the French camp. The exclusion of Lopez and Parra from the national team squad has wasted energy for Brunel and team when it should have been focused on the game plan this weekend.

Scotland will look to win in Paris for the first time since 1999. The task for Scotland is tough considering the injury list compounded by the withdrawal of Finn Russell at the start of the week. The perils of the player plying his trade in France came to haunt Scottish management as Russell suffered the head knock in their loss against Toulouse. A big blow considering that Stuart Hogg also misses out for Scotland; another creative force unavailable.

What to expect from Scotland? The pack need to provide a platform this weekend. It will be tough in the opening half considering the size and bulk that they will face in France but hopefully for Gregor Townsend’s side, the French pack will start to tire and could provide some try scoring opportunities. The key is to stay in the contest until half-time and then look to strike in the third quarter.

Peter Horne is entrusted to execute the Scottish game plan from the ten jersey. A talented player but at times can be a little predictable in his passing plays; interceptions are not far away. Horne’s kicking game has to be varied to keep France defensively off balance, otherwise Fickou and Huget will sense intercept opportunities.

The back line looks potentially exciting provided that they were given sufficient quick ruck ball. Kinghorn, Seymour and Maitland need to take the game to France with their ball carries. The pack is a mixed bag. Nel’s absence means less scrummaging presence which is a concern. Ireland enjoyed good periods of dominance in the set piece in round two and Scotland need to compete in the line out from minute one. They cannot be as passive as they were against Ireland.

Magnus Bradbury is a welcome addition for Scotland. The Edinburgh forward has just returned from injury; his abrasive ball carries will assist Scotland no end and should complement the breakdown nous of Ritchie and Strauss who will look to impose himself in the eight channel; looking for Ntamack at every opportunity.

Verdict:

This was a contest last weekend that I thought Scotland had a massive opportunity to win but the injury to Finn Russell has tipped the balance. I question how Peter Horne will control this test match sufficiently to see Scotland home here and coupled with Scottish pack vulnerability at the set piece, this looks to me like a France victory provided that they do not hit the self destruction button (questionable to say the least).

Guinness Six Nations: Round 1 Preview

Two home wins, one road win predicted

Hawkeye Sidekick has tried to temper his excitement for the start of this tournament all week but tonight resistance has been futile. Hawkeye Sidekick is akin to a child waiting for presents on Christmas Day. Time to call these opening round fixtures.

Welsh consistency to beat unpredictable French 

Wales are my tip for the championship. They will start the tournament with a road trip win in Paris. France are truly coming into this tournament with zero momentum after a miserable November test series, zero selection policy from a head coach who is throwing options at the wall hoping that it sticks.

What happens if Romain Ntamack does not deliver tomorrow night? Does Jacques Brunel persist with the player or shun him? Where does Mathieu Bastareaud come into the equation? Does Mathieu Bastareaud have a future in the national side? The vibes from the French camp leading into this fixture is frenzied panic. Individual talent usurps any cohesive unit here and that is a massive concern. Dupont omission from the squad is a baffler too.

Wales on the other hand have gone for players who are on form and the lineup has a consistent feel to it. A strong twenty-three man squad selected by Warren Gatland. I like the pack setup, their mobility and work rate will cause a beefy French pack no end of issues. The Welsh set piece should run well with Ken Owens calling the line out and with a host of world class jumpers in Jones, Beard to chose from.

The half back partnership is exciting. Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe are having excellent seasons. They are been pushed hard for their places by Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar. A great problem for management to have. The back three and three quarters are potent with ball in hand, defensive solid under the aerial ball and have kicking options in Parkes and Davies to steady the ship when required.

The bench impact for me is weighed towards the visitors. France at the breakdown look vulnerable as Navidi and Tipuric will look to isolate Iturria early doors. If Wales can settle and execute efficiently, they should be able to win this test match. France will provide the flash of brilliance but the cohesion issues in the pack and three quarter defensive vulnerabilities due to a net new partnership makes Wales a strong bet for a win here.

Scottish pack to provide platform for victory 

This is an exciting side named by Gregor Townsend. A lengthy injury list has not diluted the quality in the side with Sam Johnson getting his debut in the twelve jersey. The back three looks potent with Hogg, Kinghorn and Seymour primed to impress with ball in hand. Hogg hitting the line should have devastating results for Italy at the weekend.

The half back partnership has vast experience. Finn Russell has had a superb opening to his Racing 92 career. Greig Laidlaw is consistently a high performer and his kicking game and shrewd game management will provide the pack with assured leadership.

The front five has evolved and is progressing well. Nel scrummaging and overall play has been excellent for club and country this season. Gilchrist and Toolis will bring physicality, work rate and set piece execution to proceedings. Hamish Watson’s injury means an opportunity for Jamie
Ritchie to impress and if the player impresses, it provides Townsend with another player to call upon in the depth chart.

Italy come into this tournament looking for much needed momentum. The emergence of Benetton Rugby in Guinness Pro14 and European Challenge Cup pool performances coupled with Zebre Rugby improvements means that Conor O’Shea should have a player base who are playing with confidence and belief in their ability to win matches.

The strengths are in the pack for the Azzuri. Ghiraldini wins his 100th cap, a selfless performer for his country. Sisi and Budd form a potentially promising exciting second row partnership while Sergio Parisse is the focal point of the back row with his ball carries and creativity from the base of the scrum.

The issues for Italy continue to be their cohesion between half backs and back line. The back line and particularly back three need to step up to the party as their defensive performances have fallen short of the standard required in test rugby. Their aerial ability at times is poor and provides opposition with easy pickings. Their attacking threat is a mixed bag and can sometimes squander chances when patience with ball in hand is required.

For me, Scotland hold all the aces here. Despite Italy running Scotland close last season, I sense Scotland have moved on a further level since then. Italy continue to flounder looking for an elusive 6 Nations win. Scotland with a bonus point try win; the key aspect of this game is the three quarter partnership and whether Jones and Johnson defensively and offensively can provide the quality required to suggest Scotland are genuine title challengers.

Ireland disciplined approach the key to victory

This test match could be the story of the full backs selected for the Ireland / England fixture. Daly and Henshaw have question marks over their selection. Daly and his abilities to deal with the aerial game have been called into question in recent weeks. His inclusion instead of Mike Brown has raised eyebrows.

Robbie Henshaw plays in a position where he impressed in as a Connacht Rugby player a couple of seasons ago. Whoever provides their side with assurance in this position could be a key positive and factor in who wins this game.

The England pack is Saracens led. Vunipola’s, George, Itoje and Kruis should provide cohesion in the set piece. The scrum and line out should be on point and look to pose questions on Ireland’s line out in particular. The back row is abrasive but whether they have the breakdown nous to unsettle Ireland is an entirely different question.

The back three options for England ball in hand look potent. Nowell has shown well in recent weeks. May’s pace and creativity unquestioned. Their ability under the high ball will be tested; will the England back three have learned from their encounter with Ireland in Twickenham last March?

Ireland apart from the Henshaw full back selection has little surprising news. The side on paper is along predictable lines. A strong Leinster Rugby contingent in the pack. A potent back row with O’Mahony, Stander and Josh van der Flier looks well balanced and with Sean O’Brien to be summoned from the bench, the pack looks strong.

The three quarter partnership of Aki and Ringrose continues to flourish, one of the reasons why Henshaw is playing in the full back berth. The full back depth chart is stacked for Ireland. Larmour, Addison, Conway and Carbery could fill the void. Henshaw’s versatility is been tested this weekend.

This game comes down to two key points. Discipline and the kicking game. England are vulnerable of getting on the wrong side of officiating crews; offside indiscretions setting the tone early. They need to nip this in the bud. The kicking game will be the key point. Ireland’s ability to box kick and win the kicking game has provided the platform for the side. England need to provide variation in their play but I do not see it in this selection.

Manu Tuilagi at twelve is an asset with ball in hand but at times defensive and discipline issues can surface. It will be fascinating to see how Aki and Ringrose look to expose Tuilagi in open play with ball in hand? A brutally physical test match beckons, slight edge to Ireland given their defined and disciplined style of play but they need to hit the ground running from minute one.

Guinness 6 Nations: France vs. Wales Preview

Paris Friday Night Lights

The 2019 Guinness Six Nations tournament kicks off under the lights of Paris on Friday night as Wales look to prey on French frailties and lack of confidence. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the team selections.

Team News:

France: Maxime Medard; Damian Penaud, Wesley Fofana, Romain Ntamack, Yoann Huget; Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado, Uini Atonio; Sebastien Vahaamahina, Paul Willemse; Wenceslas Lauret, Arthur Iturria, Louis Picamoles.

Replacements: Julien Marchand, Dany Priso, Demba Bamba, Felix Lambey, Gregory Alldritt, Baptiste Serin, Gael Fickou, Geoffrey Doumayrou.

Wales: Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis; Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones; Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty.

Replacements: Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Samson Lee, Cory Hill, Aaron Wainwright, Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin.

Talking Points:

France: Confidence Low

Selection policy unknown

Jacques Brunel has given Romain Ntamack and Paul Willemse their debut test match caps in this fixture. Ntamack has impressed with Toulouse this season and his inclusion means that
Mathieu Bastareaud is omitted from the match day squad entirely.

Paul Willemse debut is to run the rule over the Montpellier player and see if he complements Vahaamahina who has struggled for second row partners in recent games. I am not sure if Willemse is the answer; his performances in European Cup action have been a mixed bag. The jury is out on that selection truth be told and is an area where Wales could completely exploit.

The pack is beefy to say the least with the decision to include the likes of Atonio and Poirot in the ranks. The back row looks abrasive with the guile of Iturria at the breakdown and the ball carrying of Picamoles and Lauret who has played well in a strong Racing 92 outfit this term.

The half back pairing looks well balanced. Parra and Lopez will orchestrate the kicking game. It will be interesting to see if the half back pairing can evolve and launch their three quarters more than previously seen in recent fixtures. Ntamack demands quick ball to use his fast movement to create gain line breaks.

Wales: Well Balanced Selection

Well balanced side named by Warren Gatland

I do like this selection from Warren Gatland. He has rewarded players on form with the half back pairing. Tomos Williams gets the nod ahead of Gareth Davies, the scrum half has been excellent this season.

Gareth Anscombe when I have seen the player this season has been impressive for Cardiff Blues and Wales. It is an exciting half back pairing and their quick game management should create space for Parkes and Davies in the three quarters to exploit inexperience in the French three quarter partnership.

The pack named has a solid, consistent look to it. The front row of Evans, Owens and Francis will provide a solid scrum set piece, fancy them to turn the screw on the French front row in the second quarter.

The second row contains the mercurial leader that is Alyn Wyn-Jones and Adam Beard who has impressed this season. The back row of Navidi and Tipuric at the breakdown should edge this facet of play. Ross Moriarty’s lack of game time is a question mark but if fit will be his abrasive best with ball carries, tackle count and defensive work.

The back line has an exciting look to it. Josh Adams and George North pace on the wings. Liam Williams coming into the line will provide additional headaches for France in the back three defensive channels. Davies and Parkes at three quarters; complement each other well. Their ability to create with ball in hand coupled with an excellent kick game if required to manage a game time scenario will ease the pressure on Anscombe and Williams.

Verdict: Wales 

As I have said in previous blogs in recent weeks, this Welsh side is well setup to win this tournament. Their unbeaten record to this fixture will only inspire confidence in the ranks. The side looks more solid, more cohesive than a French side whose selection remains up in the air. I am wondering if Brunel knows what his best side is? A loss here and France are in complete free fall.

Wales’ bench looks stronger on paper. The sight of Biggar and Davies at half back to close out the contest in the final quarter is enough for me. The rest of the bench will provide the required impact. France’s squad bench individually looks the part but there is a lack of cohesion here on the selection. Demba Bamba should be starting this test match but is not. France could shock everyone (including yours truly and themselves) but this is a fixture which Wales need to provide a statement of intent early. A cohesive performance is expected from Wales. Wales for me win this fixture by seven points.

Guinness 6 Nations Preview: Team Expectations

Team expectations vary

The opening weekend of the tournament is fast approaching with a couple of standout fixture. France entertain Wales on Feb 1st and on Saturday, Scotland host Italy before Ireland and England clash in a game which looks like a massive physical contest already. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at each side’s expectations for this tournament.

Ireland: The side to be shot at 

Reigning tournament kingpins. The side who toppled New Zealand last November. The side are on the pedestal and will be shot at during this tournament. E

The expectations will be to retain the championship but it is a tough ask with progressively improving England, Scotland and Wales on the schedule. No grand slam this year.

If the championship is off the table, perhaps it would be wise to get more game time for squad members who are vying for those final spots for RWC 2019; solidify squad selection ahead of Japan later in the year.

The scrum half options are looking stretched with Marmion, McGrath out of the selection plans for now. Blade comes into the squad as third choice and it is an superb opportunity for John Cooney to secure valuable ground on Marmion and McGrath in the battle for the backup scrum half berth.

Wales: Serious championship contender

The final goodbye for Warren Gatland and this tournament. An end of an era for Wales this season as Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones take over the national team reins after RWC 2019.

I sense that this will be a superb championship campaign for Wales. A couple of injuries but the squad has the right blend of youth and experience. The pack looks formidable with Owens, Lee, Jones, Tipuric in fine form at present.

The half back options look really good with an explosive back line containing Jonathan Davies in the three quarters to game manage and then you see Jake Ball coming back from injury against Leinster Rugby last night, squad depth will be boosted by the end of the tournament.

They would be my pick for the tournament. No grand slam but they have Ireland at home which could be a winner take all fixture finale. Gatland may get his hands on the 6 Nations in his season finale with Wales.

England: Eddie Jones Show  

England have the talent pool to be a viable contender for the championship but discipline issues still are a question mark for me. The back three will need to improve their aerial ability; it will be tested next weekend in Dublin.

The plus point is the pack setup. Their set piece should be extremely strong with Maro Itoje playing superbly well for Saracens this season. The pack contains the Vunipola brothers who will provide platform ball for the half backs. The fitness of Owen Farrell is a concern heading into the tourney.

Eddie Jones will look to unsettle opposition teams and officials with pregame comments; there will be some good sound bites too but the pressure is on Jones ahead of the RWC 2019. Another mediocre tournament showing here and his position could be under serious threat before departing for Japan.

Scotland: Squad progression key 

The injury list is big and Gregor Townsend has been forced to shuffle the squad personnel for this tournament. I think it is a blessing for Scotland; make decisions on the RWC 2019 squad and further confirm the depth charts across the side.

What to expect from Scotland? High tempo attacking offload game. The players are well suited to the game plan and they will look to expose defensive lapses from anywhere on the field with Stuart Hogg and Blair Kinghorn in the ranks.

The issue is potentially the pack. The set piece at times could be under considerable pressure from the likes of England, France and Ireland. How will Scotland improve their maul defense? It was exposed last season in this tournament. A strong showing against Italy next weekend is a must.

France: Destination Unknown 

Serious limbo. Serious anarchy in the French national side. Brunel is throwing the dice with this squad selection with Ntamack leading the squad selection sheet as a marquee player even though he is yet to be capped.

We are fully aware of France’s player pool, talent and ability to play off the cuff but the squad and team have suffered so much in cohesion issues in recent years. Players come in, players go out. No continuity and the team has suffered.

What am I expecting? Strong set piece execution with a mixed bag in open play. The half back pairing is up in the air. Who does Brunel go for? Less than twelve months from a RWC and there are still massive questions on the first team selection let alone the squad.

Wales at home on Friday night is the most important game for France in over four decades; a loss here and this spirals out of an uncontrollable tailspin. A nation will look on with interest, fear and intrigue all in equal measure!

Italy: Improvement the key 

Italy will not win this tournament. Italy probably won’t finish in the top three but for Conor O’Shea, there needs to be viable signs of improvement and optimism going into the RWC 2019.

The Benetton Rugby’s resurgence this season should provide momentum for the national side but the international test match arena is a different animal and their defensive organization was cut to ribbons in November. Abrasive pack phases but precious little in attacking play in the back line.

Scotland on the road to start the tournament. A key fixture to see how Italy fare; they will be buoyed by their performance last season when the two sides met but lack of composure and game management to close out the fixture was punished by Scotland’s late push.

Improvement is the key here, otherwise Italy enter into the run in for the RWC 2019 with minimal confidence and optimism. Let’s hope for the tournament organizers that they can win a game here; otherwise the Georgia debate will surface yet again!

Predictions:

  1. Wales
  2. Ireland
  3. England
  4. Scotland
  5. France
  6. Italy

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 C

An interesting group on paper. A group where France, Denmark, Australia and Peru will lock horns. A group where France should be the clear favorite to top the pool but the other three teams will pose different looks which makes this group an intriguing one to predict.

France

The squad is loaded with depth and talent in all positions. Lloris, Varane, Umiti, Pogba, Kante and Griezmann to name but a few of the star studded squad assembled for Le Bleu. The key point is the harmony between management and players as in tournaments past, all has not being so rosy in the French camp leading and during major tournaments, look no further than the South African World Cup when the French side under-performed and infighting in the camp was rife.

A nice group for France to evaluate their chances of World Cup success starts with a fixture against Australia. The Danish fixture potentially is the game to decide top spot. Hoping France produce a high tempo game plan where the likes of Lemar revel out wide to supply the likes of Griezmann who will look to end speculation om his club future with an TV cameo in Spain tonight.

France personally are another dark horse in this tournament; their speed and pace is a live threat for anyone if the team are in the mood. They will top this group with a bit to spare.

Denmark

The Danish challenge needs to be respected. Their performance in their second leg playoff demolition of the Republic of Ireland was evidence that given the time and space, they will punish teams. The team is centered around Christian Eriksen, the mercurial midfielder looks destined to have an excellent tournament. His passing range, ability to create chances for colleagues and to score goals from runs from deep or long range efforts is the standout threat. Delaney as well fresh from his transfer to Borussia Dortmund can also contribute from a midfield perspective.

The team is defensively solid with the likes of Schmeichel, Christensen and Kjaer in the ranks. The issue for Denmark is if teams target Eriksen, what is the alternative Plan B. There were indifferent performances in the qualification phase of play when teams flooded the midfield area and nullified Eriksen’s influence as a result.

Their fixture against Peru who will be cagey and defensive will test Denmark’s patience and nerve to keep composed. If they can win their opening fixture, they are primed to qualify for the second round but France personally have too much in squad depth for this group of players.

Peru

The case of Paolo Guerrero has captivated all World Cup preparations for Peru. The inspirational Peru captain is now free to play in the tournament and is a timely boost for a team who will need goals to advance from this group. They have live threats upfront with Farfan and now the available Guerrero but question marks abound on the midfield creativity of the side.

Peru will look to play on the counter in these pool games and if teams do not respect Peru’s pace on the counter attack could get caught out. A potential star for Peru in the engine room of midfield is Tapia, a versatile player who plays in midfield for Feyenoord but can also play full back and center half as well. Peru’s inability to supply their key strikers could be the key impediment to qualification; defensively they are solid evident in their South American campaign.

Australia

The Socceroos will enter this group with nothing to lose. The squad is filled with domestic league players as well as players plying their trade in European leagues. The EPL and SPL representatives will need to set the tone for others to follow. Tom Rogic, Miles Jedinak, Matt Ryan have impressed with their clubs and need to show the same form in this tournament.

Aaron Mooy needs to be the play maker for this side and his performances will be an excellent gauge of how this side fare. The squad depth is a concern particularly defensively if suspension issues arise in the first two fixtures but expect Australia to provide pool opponents with plenty of issues in physicality and work rate.

Tim Cahill’s cameos to nick a goal may be required once or twice in this tournament. Australia are the underdogs in this group but there is an upset result in this group of players; not enough to advance but may dash another side’s hopes of second round progression.

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.

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.