Six Nations Preview: Scotland

Head Coach: Vern Cotter

Stadium: BT Murrayfield (Capacity: 67,800)

Captain: Greig Laidlaw

IRB World Ranking: 7th

Last Season: 4th

Prediction: 3rd

Scotland are a much changed outfit to the one that used to try and avoid the wooden spoon and that is mainly down to the influence of new head coach and former Clermont Auvergne guru Vern Cotter.

The autumn was another tough one for Scotland once again losing narrowly to Australia, much like the World Cup fiasco and to lose by one point against a team that ran riot against Wales was not a bad effort.

They followed this with a three point victory over Argentina and then they ran riot against Georgia clinching a 43-16 win in their final autumn test. Not a bad November for Scotland.

The pack is strong and does the basics extraordinarily well, the scrum for Scotland is a very positive area and that was shown against Argentina in a formidable performance.

Scotland could mount a serious challenge this year and look the most in form northern hemisphere team bar England and Ireland who are a cut above this season.

Jonny Gray is becoming an all singing, all dancing lock and he is real leader for Scotland on the field. Also a top line out option and providing some ballast at the scrum.hogg

In the backs there is the sensational fullback, Stuart Hogg, a counter attacking nightmare, he tears defences open with his fast feet and agile reflexes. His kicking game is also just one more trick to terrorise the opposition’s backfield cover players.

Scotland have the luxury of three home games this year, they come against Italy, Ireland and Wales. Two of those games should be Scotland’s for the taking. Italy and Wales won’t hold much fear for Scotland. Away trips to Paris and London will always be tough.

Cotter knows how good his team is and the fact they have three home games will breed confidence in the camp. If they play like they know they can that tie against Ireland and the trip to London could be interesting propositions.

Fixtures

v Ireland, BT Murrayfield, 14:25, Saturday 4th February

v France, Stade de France, 15:00, Sunday 12th February

v Wales, BT Murrayfield, 14:25, Saturday 25th February

v England, Twickenham Stadium, 16:00, Saturday 11th March

v Italy, BT Murrayfield, 12:30, Saturday 18th March

My Scotland XV

1 Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh) 2 Ross Ford (Edinburgh) 3 WP Nel (Edinburgh) 4 Richie Gray (Toulouse) 5 Jonny Gray (Glasgow) 6 John Barclay (Scarlets) 7 John Hardie (Edinburgh) 8 Josh Strauss (Glasgow)

9 Greig Laidlaw (Captain, Gloucester) 10 Finn Russell (Glasgow) 11 Sean Maitland (Saracens) 12 Duncan Taylor (Saracens) 13 Huw Jones (Stormers) 14 Tommy Seymour (Glasgow) 15 Stuart Hogg (Glasgow)

England Injuries Mount

England’s training camp earlier this week in Brighton has given Eddie Jones some serious selection headaches.

Three players from three leading clubs have suffered injuries, Sam Jones (broken leg), Anthony Watson (broken jaw) and Jack Nowell (ankle) will be sidelined for some time.

watson

The England winger suffered a broken jaw in Brighton.

It seems all three will miss England’s opening test against South Africa, a team Stuart Lancaster never defeated.

Add to this list the fact Owen Farrell, Dylan Hartley and Ben Te’o have not proved their fitness, Farrell and Hartley are yet to play this season.

Long term injuries to Manu Tuilagi and James Haskell must also be a worry for Eddie Jones.

England have now lost both first choice wingers from the tour to Australia in the shape of Nowell and Watson, discussion turns to replacements, Only two other names were named in the 45-man August squad (Semesa Rokoduguni and Jonny May).

Rokoduguni has to play, he has been sensational for Bath again this season, his raw power and undoubted pace make him a real threat which Todd Blackadder seems to be getting the best out of.

Jonny May, not exactly setting the world alight at Gloucester this season, and although he is frighteningly quick, he can tend to run away from support and get isolated. He also is not the best at creating space something Watson especially is a genius at.

One man that has been in impressive scoring form is Wasps’ Christian Wade. Wade is undeniably quick and he beats defenders at will, his defence though, satisfactory at best. My concern is if he has to face up to a South African running at him would he make the tackle? Maybe.

That once again may force Jones to look at Marland Yarde, quick and powerful, he seemed to do a good job against Australia in the first test.

itoje

Itoje could end up in the back row.

The back row is another conundrum, following Jones’ injury and the lengthy lay-off for Man of the Series James Haskell it may force Jones to experiment.

Maro Itoje could be a key part of this, his athletic ability means he could well be moved the back row, and take up the blindside role. This would also allow Jones to bring in Courtney Lawes or Joe Launchbury to partner George Kruis.

My England 23 to face South Africa (assuming Hartley and Farrell recover):

15 Mike Brown (Harlequins) 14 Semesa Rokoduguni 13 Jonathan Joseph (both Bath) 12 Owen Farrell (Saracens) 11 Marland Yarde (Harlequins) 10 George Ford (Bath) 9 Ben Youngs (Leicester)

1 Mako Vunipola (Saracens) 2 Dylan Hartley (Captain, Northampton) 3 Dan Cole (Leicester) 4 Courtney Lawes (Northampton) 5 George Kruis 6 Maro Itoje (both Saracens) 7 Chris Robshaw (Harlequins) 8 Billy Vunipola (Saracens)

16 Jamie George (Saracens) 17 Joe Marler (Harlequins) 18 Paul Hill (Northampton) 19 Joe Launchbury  20 Nathan Hughes (both Wasps) 21 Danny Care (Harlequins) 22 Henry Slade (Exeter) 23 Alex Goode (Saracens)

Five Players for Summer Tour

England, Grand Slam champions have achieved what they set out to do, now they have done that all eyes are on their June tour to Australia.

England face three tests down under in the summer against the team that knocked them out of the World Cup and if they are to win what will be a testing series a few things will need to be ironed out from the Six Nations performance.

I think these five players could make a difference to the England squad.

  1. Sam Underhill (Ospreys, 19 years old, Uncapped)

The 19 year old is currently plying his trade across the Severn having left Gloucester to play in Wales for three years. He has quickly established himself as one of the back row superstars of the league.

The young flanker is quick, powerful and athletic and could offer some balance to the England back row joining Robshaw and Billy Vunipola.

Underhill is your typical scavenger back row not unlike David Pocock from Australia, a figure England missed desperately in the World Cup as Australia and Wales beat them at every breakdown.

He is sure to be one of England’s new stars as Eddie Jones builds to 2019.

Verdict: As good as in the squad as Eddie Jones looks to use the exceptional circumstances clause. Cap Potential: 40-50+

2. Kyle Eastmond (Bath Rugby, 26 years old, 6 caps)

The league convert is electric for the West Country club, his turn of pace and electrifying step make him undeniably difficult to defend against.

The centre can beat people one on one but can also act as a second playmaker, having returned from injury recently he looks back to his exciting best for Bath.

Eastmond offers something a little different to Tuilagi or Slade the other two contenders for the 12 shirt that is if Daly is to remain at 13.

He was never given enough of a chance under the old regime it would be nice to see Eastmond cut loose.

Verdict: Depends on who else Eddie Jones takes and if he thinks Eastmond can offer something different. Cap Potential: 15-20

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Nathan Hughes qualifies on residency grounds in June.

3. Nathan Hughes (Wasps, 24 years old, Uncapped)

The Fijian number eight qualifies in June through residency which frankly is a ridiculous rule but one that England should make the most of.

The number eight is not just strong but for a big man can shift, he has pace to burn as well as an abrasive edge so can he beat defenders any which way he chooses.

In defence a star turn able to make the big hits and a force in the ruck.

His height also makes him a hugely valuable asset in the lineout, he is sure to provide some competition for the outstanding Billy Vunipola.

Verdict: If he misses out a great injustice will have been done. Cap Potential: 40+

4. Dominic Barrow (Leicester Tigers, 23 years old, Uncapped)

The Leicester lock has been brilliant for Leicester this season replacing Parling as he now plys his trade on the south coast with Exeter.

A strong lock that is hugely valuable in defence and a rangey attacker full of power and ballast.

Barrow is making a real name for himself at Welford Road and is surely the type of abrasive forward Eddie Jones is looking for.

Verdict: Unlikely to feature which is a shame but I expect him to make the squad at some point. Cap Potential: 15-20

harry thacker

Harry Thacker has impressed for Leicester.

5. Harry Thacker (Leicester Tigers, 22 years old, Uncapped)

Another Tiger really impressing this term, his athletic ability is enough to match that of Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie.

He also offers a strong base at the set piece and a really useful weapon coming round the corner.

His form is undeniable the only problem is hooker is such a competitive spot at the moment with Hartley, George, Cowan-Dickie and Taylor also vying for a spot on that plane.

Thacker will have to hope for an injury that could earn him a call-up.

Verdict: The options are just too strong for Thacker to play this summer but by next year he will be a real contender should this form continue. Cap Potential: 30-40+

England’s Summer Fixtures

vs. Wales, Twickenham Stadium, Sunday 29th May

vs. Australia, Suncorp Stadium, Saturday 11th June

vs. Australia, AAMI Park, Saturday 18th June

vs. Australia, Allianz Stadium, Saturday 25th June

Six Nations Half-Term Report

So we are halfway and already two clear frontrunners have emerged, England and Wales are clearly head and shoulders above the other four.

Italy are looking like the wooden spoon favourites whilst the other three look to scrap it out for a place in the top half with each of them playing at least one of the others over the remaining two weeks.

Two new coaches, very differing starts, Guy Noves, the former Toulouse head honcho started with what can only be described as two stale wins over Italy and Ireland relying on late scores to win both.

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Guy Novés, France head coach.

Jules Plisson’s long range effort and Maxime Médard’s sensational finish were the only difference between two losses in the French capital. These wins were hugely important especially as they only have one more match in Paris against leaders, England.

Cardiff was their first away game and their first real test which materialised into a tough defeat for France.

One good thing has come out of France’s campaign so far and that is the giant Fijian winger Virimi Vakatawa, his try against Italy in the opener was something you can’t teach the beautifully timed step inside rather than powering over was a showcase of his talent within 20 minutes of international rugby.

Roberts has emerged as one of a number of Wales stars, Dan Biggar has had a couple of great performances and along with Gareth Davies he has controlled the games against France and Scotland.

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Dan Biggar in action for Wales at the World Cup.

It’s no coincidence that the only game Wales did not win was the game in which Rhys Priestland played the majority.

That is not to say the Bath out half is a bad player it’s a testament to just how good Dan Biggar is. His World Cup form has continued so far with his clever attacking game and solid defensive display.

Scotland have finally broken their duck with the win over Italy in Edinburgh, Scotland have had some really influential players so far in the Championship and none more so than Willem Nel.

Nel has been outstanding for Scotland, the prop is an anchor in the scrum and important in the line out. WP Nel has also been a totemic ball carrier and an enthusiastic defender and often stays on for 80 minutes.

The backs are starting to play some incredibly entertaining rugby and it is lighting up the Six Nations.

Tommy Seymour has ignited the fields he has taken, his pace is electric, he beats defenders on the outside with ease. His try against Wales was a picture of beauty with the leaping finish.

He has added some spice to a backline that already had the audacious Stuart Hogg, the evasive fullback is fast, agile and a talented footballer.

STUART HOGG

Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg on the attack.

Hogg is one of the best fullbacks in the world, he has a skill set similar to that of an in-form Israel Dagg. Dagg was the best 15 in world rugby, Hogg is near that standard.

Italy have found a new star in Carlo Canna, he was the star against France with his scything breaks and tactical kicking. The fly-half knows how to control the game something the Italians have lacked since the mercurial Diego Dominguez.

Outside Canna we have Campagnaro who has been an important carrier and has made so many breaks for Italy. His pace and upper body strength make him a hugely important player for Italy and Jacques Brunel.

And of course Parisse who did not stop against France right to the last even stepping up to try and win the game with what was ultimately a wayward drop-goal.

He was shackled by England but once again a huge presence against Scotland, they couldn’t stop him making breaks or breaking the gain line.

Ireland are under pressure and the injury list will not stop growing they are missing the stars. Jared Payne just one of the added casualties to the already long pre-tournament injury list that contains names like O’Brien, Bowe and Fitzgerald.

The loss to England proved to them that they are not the force they were last year, with crucial games against Italy and Scotland to come, these are games the Irish simply have to win to claim to be a credible force still in Europe.

It looks as though Schmidt’s plan could have the cracks start to appear. An extremely worrying idea for Ireland and their fans.

England are looking unlike France in good health. Eddie Jones is shaping a revolution but is using pragmatism at the same time something we heard form Phillipe Saint-André four years previous on the other side of the channel.

Billy Vunipola has been the best eight so far, with two man of the match performances he has impressed, England the only team still in with a chance of winning the Grand Slam which is words that will only be uttered should England beat Wales in a clash of the titans at Twickenham in less than two weeks.

Billy Vunipola

Billy Vunipola has been impressive for England.

The new captain Hartley is also looking very strong for England and his leadership has been superb so far. Heads have not once dropped and he has very much led from the front.

Maro Itoje has been immense since his debut against Italy and along with other newcomers Clifford and Hill have been impressive.

The Ford-Farrell combination looks like it may be clicking as well, there were signs the two were in tandem against Ireland and Italy.

My Six Nations Team of the Tournament so far: 15 Stuart Hogg (Scotland) 14 Virimi Vakatawa (France) 13 Jonathan Joseph (England) 12 Jamie Roberts (Wales) 11 Tommy Seymour (Scotland) 10 Dan Biggar (Wales) 9 Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)

1 Rob Evans (Wales) 2 Dylan Hartley (England) 3 Dan Cole (England) 4 Jonny Gray (Scotland) 5 George Kruis (England) 6 Sam Warburton (Wales) 7 James Haskell (England) 8 Billy Vunipola (England)

Notable mentions must go to George North, Michele Campagnaro, Carlo Canna, Gareth Davies, Edoardo Gori, Joe Marler, Eddy Ben Arous, Samson Lee, Alun-Wyn Jones, Devin Toner, Richie Gray, Maro Itoje, Chris Robshaw, Justin Tipuric and Sergio Parisse.

Eddie’s New England

The appointment of Eddie Jones and this new revamped idea of England and how this no holds barred, shackles off style of play will be employed echoes the promises of Stuart Lancaster we had four years ago.

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Eddie Jones was appointed following England’s disappointing World Cup.

The same old promises, the same sense of excitement among self proclaimed rugby connoisseurs, this fresh English approach, the supposed way forward. How does this ‘new age’ differ from the corporate, professional, emotionless, jargon loaded monologue we were fed four years ago?

The first big difference is the fact we have a rugby mad coach at the helm. This is no longer the schoolteacher and his pupils. Eddie Jones breathes rugby and has success in the sport running in his veins his teams have dominated headlines in three of the last four World Cups.

In 2003, Australia hosted a great tournament from an English perspective, Australia also made the final. A very tough semi-final encounter against the All Blacks was possibly the best game I had seen Australia play over the course of the tournament. They won at a canter.

2007 saw Eddie Jones with another finalist, this time though he won with Jake White’s Springboks and Eddie Jones had his revenge over England. This was a side that dominated rugby with players like Habana, Du Preez and Smit all now recognised as some of the best players to have graced the game.

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Bryan Habana in action for South Africa at 2011 World Cup.

This year Jones once again showed what his teams can do on the global stage with Japan. They announced themselves in England in dramatic fashion securing their first World Cup victory over South Africa. Inspired by the likes of Ayumu Goromaru, Fumiaki Tanaka and Michael Leitch saw them go on to also beat Samoa and USA, only losing to Scotland.

Despite this impressive record indeed winning more games than England they failed to qualify for the quarter-finals due to bonus points. That went down to the final game of the pool as Scotland scraped past Samoa to secure a place in the last eight.

These three wins were impressive in themselves, most importantly the win over South Africa a feat England have failed to achieve over the past four years. Eddie Jones had masterminded a win over one of the greatest rugby nations on the planet it was quite some feat for the Brave Blossoms and one that will live long in the memory.

Eddie Jones also elevated national Japanese players to new heights despite former coach John Kirwan’s desire to make it a Japanese Barbarians sort of team with little national identity.

Tanaka is plying his trade with the Highlanders in New Zealand and fullback Goromaru is due to play for the Queensland Reds when the 2016 Super Rugby season begins and his name is being muttered in hushed tones to replace Leigh Halfpenny at Toulon when the Welsh maestro leaves either to return to Wales or to link up with former Cardiff coach Dai Young at Wasps.

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Goromaru scored a try against South Africa.

Eddie Jones has been handed arguably the biggest job in world rugby right now to a premature fanfare. So let’s stop the corporate, professional talking and stop the speculation about where England will be in four years. Stop all the reflection on the past and why it didn’t work out for Lancaster. It’s time to see what England can do and that starts with Scotland on 6th February.

England Six Nations Fixtures

06/02/16, Scotland, Murrayfield
14/02.16, Italy, Stadio Olimpico
27/02/16, Ireland, Twickenham
12/03/16, Wales, Twickenham
19/03/16, France, Stade de France

Number of New Stars Promising for England

England have a number of young players in wonderful form and recently Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson have had people within the game purring.

This weekend two more backs hit the scene competing for places, Ben Spencer of Saracens reminded of the class he possesses but rarely gets to show due to the depth at his club.

The scrum-half was blinding. His kick over the top to send Ashton over was masterful you could even argue perfect.

Vision like that is something you cannot teach. A quick look up after a clever break was all Spencer needed to send his winger away.

He added to this with a try of his own. This was created by his fleeting feet and made him stand out.

In the later Twickenham game there was one teenager who stood out. London Irish centre Johnny Williams was outstanding and scored a brace in a game which showed very little positive for the Exiles.

Williams has an excellent record recently with four tries in just three games bagging two tries in the Challenge Cup with one each against Grenoble and Agen.

The centre has only just turned 19 and has a number of age grade appearances for England.

The speedy centre’s tries were not that straight forward either, they were quite sensational. The strong fending and bravery of Williams makes him a very exciting prospect.

The fact that every weekend a new name is popping up as a potential England candidate is only promising for the game in this country.

Spencer and Williams are sure to be around for years and if they can continue their current form there is nothing to stop them being England stars.

Bath Must Take Chance to Take Place at Europe’s Elite Table

Bath Rugby, a club steeped in history much like their opponent in Saturday’s semi-final Leicester Tigers. Bath have finally got their wish with their first home semi-final in the Premiership and it seems as though the cash of millionaire Bruce Craig and the recruitment of Mike Ford is paying off.

With Bath’s playmaking stars of George Ford and Jonathan Joseph have been stars for not only Bath but also England. Add to that a deadly cocktail of Anthony Watson, Kyle Eastmond and Semesa Rokoduguni and the power of skyscraper Matt Banahan and you have a backline most clubs would die for. The entertaining and potent backs have racked up 72 tries and have only lost one league game at home this season and that was to Northampton Saints during an international window that meant Bath were missing key players, of course Northampton were as well but without Bath having a real back-up for the Premiership player of the year George Ford they struggled to get any go forward.

Matt Banahan  making a break against Mogliano

Matt Banahan making a break against Mogliano

Bath have also developed a pack that are nasty something every pack needs, a pack that could rival the pack that contained players like Borthwick, Grewcock, Mears and Humphreys but now Bath have players like Louw, Attwood and Burgess and of course Bath’s standout forward this season. Australian number eight Leroy Houston who won the most recent forward of the month award. With their first choice tight five they have driven some of the best packs in Europe into the ground such as Toulouse and Glasgow. Having had NRL convert Sam Burgess turn his hand to being a flanker has only added to this vicious pack as Sam Burgess showed powering through the Gloucester defence to score last weekend.

Sam Burgess has been a revelation at flanker

Sam Burgess has been a revelation at flanker

Bath Rugby now have a shot at winning the title when they take on Leicester Tigers at the Recreation Ground. Last time Leicester came to play their bitterest rivals at the Rec Bath thumped the Tigers 45-0 in a thrilling contest when the lethal backs tore apart a rather mediocre Leicester defence in a powerful, absorbing display which showed what this red hot Bath side are capable of.

Bath have not won the league title since 1996 when professionalism was at a primal stage in it’s development following this transformation in 1995. Leicester have reached the play-offs ten times a record. The Tigers often roar into the play-offs and will not be an easy task for this Bath side. Bath have a huge chance this year to take their place as on of Europe’s elite by winning the most competitive league in the world.

Bath the only side with a clean bill of health in the play-offs and they have a home semi-final as the season comes to a close. The West Country side have also played the best brand of rugby out of the top 4 and have shown how powerful and precise their forward pack can be. They also now have a maturing fly-half whose inconsistency of last term a now just a memory as he marches his team around the field allowing the Bath forwards to get the ball rolling before the brilliant fly-half unleashes the tricky footwork of Joesph, the pace of Watson or the power of Banahan as defences can only look on.

George Ford scores against Scotland.

George Ford scores against Scotland.