Aviva Premiership Preview: Bristol Rugby

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: Andy Robinson

Captain: Jack Lam

Stadium: Ashton Gate (Capacity: 27,000)

Last Season: Promoted

Prediction: 10th

The long wait was finally over for Bristol, they secured promotion back to the Premiership at the seventh time of asking and they have made some serious progress.

There are a number of star names in the Bristol camp, a man with Gavin Henson’s CV is always going to be a talented player pair that with the new duo of Jordan Crane and Tusi Pisi and the squad has quality.

lam

Bristol captain, Jack Lam.

Bristol have a creative backline led by Samoan fly-half Pisi and the creative midfield should give space to the pace and flair of the quicker players out wide such as former Leicester and Wasps winger Varndell.

The pack is match for most Premiership sides without having any big names and lacking internationals. They should not encounter much in the way of trouble.

THREE TO WATCH

Gavin Henson

Position: Fly-Half/ Centre  Nationality: Welsh  Age: 34  Height: 1.83m  Weight: 100kg

The playmaker has it all as an inside centre, he kicks, passes and tackles well, his pace is not quite what it used to be as he enters his mid-thirties but his playmaking ability make him a valuable player.

Henson also brings international experience and a big game knowledge to a team lacking much of that, he is among a splattering of internationals brought in by Andy Robinson to help Bristol acclimatise to the high level Premiership and Challenge Cup games they will face.

Jack Lam

Position: Flanker  Nationality: Samoan  Age: 28  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 103kg

A ferocious tackler who’s size makes the tackle area a really difficult area to establish any dominance against the Bristol skipper. This coupled with effective breakdown work sees the Bristol captain dominate the immediate tackle situation.

Lam is also no stranger to attack and is more than happy to pop up on the inside shoulder of a fly-half to terrorise opposition tens.

Tom Varndell

Positon: Wing  Nationality: English  Age: 30  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 101kg

Varndell is an absolutely unbelievable finisher, up there with the likes of Cueto and Hanley he can score from anywhere due to his pace. He adds some ‘X Factor’ to the Bristol backline.

VARNDELL.jpg

Varndell in action for Bristol.

The 30 year old will be Robinson’s main attacking outlet this season, and it is a joy to ahve the talented winger back in the Premiership.

TRANSFERS

IN (13)

Luke Arscott (Bath Rugby, ENG)

Ryan Bevington (Ospreys, WAL)

Jordan Crane (Leicester Tigers, ENG)

Nick Fenton-Wells (Bedford Blues, ENG)

Jon Fisher (Northampton Saints, ENG)

Will Hurrell (Doncaster Knights, ENG)

Giorgi Nemasadze (Tarbes, FRA)

Thretton Palamo (Saracens, ENG)

Tusi Pisi (Sunwolves, JAP)

Martin Roberts (Ospreys, WAL)

Soane Tonga’huia (Oyonnax, FRA)

Jordan Williams (Scarlets, WAL)

Rhodri Williams (Scarlets, WAL)

OUT (10)

Tommaso Benvenuti (Benneton Treviso, ITA)

Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers, ENG)

Craif Hampson (Wasps, ENG)

Darren Hudson (Released, REL)

Marco Mama (Worcester Warriors, ENG)

Matthew Morgan (Cardiff Blues, WAL)

Josh Ovens (Released, REL)

Dwayne Peel (Retired, RET)

James Stephenson (Released, REL)

George Watkins (Jersey Reds, ENG)

Tusi Pisi is a good signing providing them with talent at fly-half. Arscott also has a lot of top level experience making him a clever capture along with number eight Crane. Everyone knows what Tonga’huia is capable of.

PISI.jpg

Pisi lining up a kick for the Sunwolves.

Genge is a hot prospect and will be missed especially as he is now gaining recognition from Eddie Jones. Mama is a good player and could have been hugely influential for Bristol. What a way for Dwayne Peel to end his career and a glittering one at that.

My Bristol Rugby 23

15 Luke Arscott 14 Tom Varndell 13 Will Hurrell 12 Gavin Henson 11 David Lemi 10 Tusi Pisi 9 Will Cliff

1 Soane Tonga’huia 2 Ross McMillan 3 Gaston Cortes 4 Mark Sorensen 5 Ian Evans 6 Jon Fisher 7 Jack Lam (Captain) 8 Jordan Crane

16 Chris Brooker 17 Ryan Bevington 18 Anthony Perenise 19 Joe Joyce 20 Olly Robinson 21 Martin Roberts 22 Thretton Palamo 23 Charlie Amesbury

Bristol will not be challenging for the top half but relegation doesn’t look likely.

Advertisements

England Series Significance

England have secured what could be possibly their biggest achievement since winning the World Cup in 2003 as they stormed to a 3-0 series victory in Australia.

England have been transformed by the brilliant Eddie Jones, he has made England a force among the best in the world. Of course the All Blacks are still number one but England are leading the chasing pack.

Players have also emerged from the tour as greats, Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell are all now world class, I think you could argue at least two would get into the All Blacks team right now.

hask

James Haskell stood out over the course of the series.

The third test was by no means perfect, but neither was the first or second, but England won the games so none of that matters. England will grow and are already early favourites to win the Six Nations which will follow England’s four tests in November against South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia.

The back row were mightily impressive, Haskell and Robshaw are well and truly redeemed following this tour. Both were very high on the tackles made list every week and both showed such a huge amount of heart throughout June.

Couple those two flankers with the immense power of Billy Vunipola and there you have a world class back row. Vunipola has been England’s best player since Jones took over, his carrying and powerhouse runs give England some much needed go forward at vital points.

This tour has also seen the return of George Ford, the Bath fly-half was in inspired form for the duration of the tour. Since he replaced Burrell in Brisbane he grew, kicked well, managed the game well and got England playing in the right parts of the field.

Joe Marler will be ruing his decision to miss the tour, Mako Vunipola was sensational for the tour he was on fire, his carrying around the park have always set him apart but his tight game has improved so much over the last year.

forddddddd

Ford looked reborn in Australia.

The fact that as this was happening the England Saxons stormed to a 2-0 series win in South Africa and the Under-20’s won the world championship is a hugely encouraging sign for England and Eddie Jones.

England may have a break now but the hard work is not over, come November the journey continues as England push for supremacy in their four matches at Twickenham, all roads lead to Tokyo and Jones is very much aware of how he is going to get there.

My England 23 to play South Africa

15 Mike Brown 14 Anthony Watson 13 Jonathan Joseph 12 Owen Farrell 11 Jack Nowell 10 George Ford 9 Ben Youngs

1 Mako Vunipola 2 Dylan Hartley (C) 3 Dan Cole 4 Courtney Lawes 5 George Kruis 6 Maro Itoje 7 James Haskell 8 Billy Vunipola

16 Jamie George 17 Joe Marler 18 Paul Hill 19 Chris Robshaw 20 Jack Clifford 21 Danny Care 22 Henry Slade 23 Manu Tuilagi

Three Lions Without Heart

England have been dumped out of Euro 2016 at just the last 16 stage having been defeated 2-1 by Iceland in Nice.

England did not deserve and more so they have shown nothing to suggest they are a good side over the course of what has been at best a mediocre tournament for most teams.

England showed no desire, no bravery, no will to win. It was not good enough and has never been good enough. The players showed no willing to change the game to become heroes, they have come up against four teams all of whom showed more desire and bravery than England did.

Roy Hodgson’s reluctance to play Jamie Vardy who has changed things every time he came on including the equaliser against Wales led to this. His dropping of Adam Lallana hurt England, his loyalty to Joe Hart lost the game, his faith in Raheem Sterling sealed England’s fate.

hart.jpg

Joe Hart has had his critics over the tournament.

His resignation sums up England really, resigned, underachieving, overpaid. A team picked from a country approximately the same size as Leicester.

Roy Hodgson leaves his post and that should improve England to an extent, it may bring excitement and pace to this England side. England need to look at the blueprint of what Eddie Jones has done to the national rugby team.

Bring back England’s traditional strengths and bring through the young players, players like Lingard, Rashford, all of those players that Gareth Southgate had faith in.

England have to start again drop the players that failed their country Hart, Rooney, Sterling, the new era is here and must be ushered in.

 

England On The Rise

England have done, they’ve won a series in Australia. That game in Melbourne may well be the most significant moment in English rugby since England’s last win in Australia which just happens to be the 2003 World Cup final.

Eddie Jones has taken England from eight in the world rankings to second in a matter of months. Just back in October Australia were competing for the World Cup against the All Blacks whilst England were trying to work out how 2015 had gone so badly wrong, nobody expected this.

Not only has pride been restored to England but they have thumped the Wallabies and are now building a seriously powerful, abrasive, young squad.

One part of the squad that is doing particularly well is England’s back row trio. Following Jones’ appointment there were cries including from myself to drop Robshaw and Haskell, how wrong was I? They are the two best players from the opening two tests by a mile.

hask

Haskell has been standout.

Haskell has been totemic in defence and a handful in attack at the breakdown and around the fringes. The Wasps openside seems to have picked up a slight knock following the test in Melbourne but he has certainly played a significant part in wrapping up the series.

Chris Robshaw, a man reborn, many believed that once the Six Nations was over he would discard the Harlequins man along with Haskell. After the win in Melbourne how can he? Robshaw showed all the heart and dedication we have come to expect from him as a player. He also seemed to be a bit fiery in the game clashing with Australians on more than one occasion.

Joe Marler may well rue his decision to sit out the tour as Mako Vunipola has been superb, his scrummaging greatly improved yet still offering himself up as a crash ball carrier along with his hugely talented brother, Billy.

In the backs a partnership is flourishing between Saracens out half Farrell and Bath fly-half Ford. For a long time the 10-12 channel has been a problem for England but it seems Jones has fixed that problem.

He has adopted a New Zealand like system playing another playmaker at 12 which can be referred to as a second five eighth. Ford and Farrell both playmakers in their own right but offer different things in attack and defence.

Ford looks more relaxed with Farrell on the field, Farrell takes the kicking duties allowing the young fly-half to play his natural attacking game. Farrell can sit deeper with Ford at 10 which suits his style more allowing him time to make decisions bring his big forward runners into the game.

both

Ford and Farrell. friends on and off the field.

This is all down to Eddie Jones, Monday to Friday the week is fine tuned to give England the opportunity to win games every seemingly throw away comment, every training exercise, every selection call is engineered to help the team win the game.

Jones is an expert he manipulates the media, he man manages to perfection, the praise he has heaped on Haskell and Ford has seemed to push both of them to new levels in an England shirt.

He tells others to work harder and that has worked to with players such as Billy Vunipola and Marland Yarde now blossoming.

He has built a core of around 23 or 24 players he knows what they can do and they can rest assured should they continue to perform they will continue to play. Eddie Jones can thank Lancaster for introducing the likes of Watson, Farrell, Ford, Kruis, Vunipola and Nowell to international rugby but let himself make them international superstars.

It will be interesting to see if Jones is willing to take a gamble on any players in the third test. I’d like to see one or two given a go but with the core to remain the same. A whitewash would be truly something.

My England 23 for the final test

1 Mako Vunipola 2 Dylan Hartley (Captain) 3 Dan Cole 4 Maro Itoje 5 Joe Launchbury 6 Chris Robshaw 7 Jack Clifford 8 Billy Vunipola

9 Danny Care 10 George Ford 11 Marland Yarde 12 Owen Farrell 13 Jonathan Joseph 14 Anthony Watson 15 Alex Goode

16 Jamie George 17 Ellis Genge 18 Kyle Sinckler 19 Courtney Lawes 20 Teimana Harrison 21 Ben Youngs 22 Henry Slade 23 Elliot Daly

Problem Solved?

Over the past few years, England has struggled to put together a midfield trio that can play against the best in the world.

Now though England have an embarrassment of riches at fly-half and centre. When you have a squad that at fly-half is so good you can afford to leave out Danny Cipriani that is practically the definition of strength in depth.

Even without Manu Tuilagi the centres in the squad are a highly entertaining and talented set of players. All the centres also will be around come the 2019 World Cup that is of course bar injury or ban.

After the first test though a clear partnership has emerged at fly-half and inside centre between George Ford and Owen Farrell.

fordy

George Ford changed the game in the first test.

Both fly-halves by trade, Ford started on the bench in Brisbane but after 29 minutes the 23 year old entered the fray due to a tactical decision by Eddie Jones. It changed the game.

Burrell was not quite up to speed with the defensive system, Farrell’s move to 12 sured this up and Ford at 10 propelled England’s attacking game to a new level, as he set up two tries. Farrell also kicked well only missing one attempt at goal.

England look set to start with the same combination come the second test which kicks off on Saturday in Melbourne and could secure England a first ever series victory in Australia.

Jonathan Joseph seems assured to hold on to the 13 jersey for the foreseeable future even with the form Elliot Daly has been in for Wasps. With international rugby at the moment there is very little room to experiment with new combinations which means Daly may not get a chance unless Joseph suffers an injury.

George Ford’s outstanding passing game and vision in attack added to Farrell’s metronomic goal kicking and superb game management allows England to create space for the real speedsters out wide.

Anthony Watson and Marland Yarde are super quick and given space they are among the most dangerous finishers in the northern hemisphere and both have an extraordinary international strike rate.

faz

Farrell has finished at 12 for every game under Eddie Jones.

Farrell and Ford are both still young as well at 24 and 23 respectively. They look like the long term solution to the midfield problem that has blighted England for years. A combination that can secure a series victory in Melbourne.

Expected England XV: 15 Mike Brown 14 Anthony Watson 13 Jonathan Joseph 12 Owen Farrell 11 Marland Yarde 10 George Ford 9 Ben Youngs

1 Mako Vunipola 2 Dylan Hartley (Captain) 3 Dan Cole 4 Maoro Itoje 5 George Kruis 6 Chris Robshaw 7 James Haskell 8 Billy Vunipola

One-Nil

Scorecard

Australia 28

Tries: Hooper (2), Folau, Kudridrani

Cons: Foley

Pens: Foley (2)

England 39

Tries: Nowell, Yarde, Joseph

Cons: Farrell (3)

Pens: Farrell (6)

England’s 39-28 victory over Australia is a huge step towards success in 2019 with their first win down under with Eddie Jones at the helm.

Firstly, James Haskell, doubted by many including myself has grown into one of the leaders since Eddie Jones took charge. Haskell was a target along with back row partner Robshaw following the World Cup.

Today the Wasps captain was immense in defence one hit he made on David Pocock was huge and a number of other crucial hits were made over the eighty minutes. Haskell also won a number of turnovers against Australia, the fact that Australia toor practically the same team apart only eight months ago is hard to believe after today.

The difference Eddie Jones has made to the team is immeasurable. He has changed what was a hugely underachieving back row into one of the best units in the world. Hartley has become a totem of self-control, Watson has evolved into one of the most dangerous finishers in world rugby, Vunipola is the best eight north of the equator and the second row pairing of Itoje and Kruis is unstoppable.

hask

James Haskell has been outstanding since Eddie Jones took over.

Today England opted to start with the power pairing of Owen Farrell and Luther Burrell, the fact Jones was not afraid to make the change early in the game the confidence he had to bring on Ford made the game.

Most coaches would not have had the courage to take Burrell off during the first half, the centre came off though and England bloomed. The playmaking skill of Ford and Farrell opened Australia up. Ford himself setting up two tries, one with a floated pass to Yarde and the subtle chip through for Nowell.

The Grand Slam winning combination has now beaten Australia in Brisbane, England’s highest ever total in Australia. The demons of the Tour from Hell look to have been put to bed now. The Suncorp Stadium has been conquered.

Farrell was outstanding off the tee only missing one kick, his passing game was beautiful it flowed allowing England to unleash the dangerous wide backs of Watson and Yarde. His defensive game was greatly utilised when Ford entered the fray, it allowed Farrell to step up and stop Kerevi and Kuridrani terrorising England.

fordy.jpg

Despite not starting Ford played a large part of the first test.

Another selection that is hugely controversial was that of Marland Yarde on the wing rather than Exeter’s Jack Nowell. Yarde though was excellent today his raw pace gave him a try and couple of important half breaks. His performance has surely won him a place in the team despite Nowell’s outstanding finish for England’s third try.

The series is not over and the second test will be a monumental battle as with the third, Australia will not just lie down. England though look to be improving at a rate of knots, the series is well and truly underway.

My England 23 for the second test:

1 Mako Vunipola 2 Dylan Hartley (Captain) 3 Dan Cole 4 Maro Itoje 5 George Kruis 6 Chris Robshaw 7 James Haskell 8 Billy Vunipola

9 Ben Youngs 10 George Ford 11 Marland Yarde 12 Owen Farrell 13 Jonathan Joseph 14 Anthony Watson 15 Mike Brown

16 Jamie George 17 Matt Mullan 18 Paul Hill 19 Joe Launchbury 20 Courtney Lawes 21 Danny Care 22 Luther Burrell 23 Jack Nowell

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

nathan-hughes-wasps_3382712

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

The Big Debate: George Ford versus Owen Farrell

England have won the Six Nations for the first time since 2011, a feat former head coach Stuart Lancaster never achieved. England are 80 minutes away from their first Grand Slam in an astonishing 13 years.

England-win-grand-slam-007

The class of 2003.

For years the biggest problem for England coaches has been who to pick in the midfield, that problem is still there today but not due to the lack of international quality players but more and overwhelming number of players fighting for the 10,12 and 13 jerseys.

All of them seem to be under the age of 26 as well with Henry Slade, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Kyle Eastmond, Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Joseph, Sam Hill and Ollie Devoto all competing for just 3 places in a starting line-up add in a couple of older players such as Danny Cipriani and Luther Burrell, then the youngsters coming through such as Johnny Williams and Joe Marchant and you have a plethora of options.

It really is a headache, but a nice one to have for Eddie Jones and his esteemed team of coaches.

Fly-half, a pivotal role to any team, especially at the high level of test rugby, so far George Ford has been Jones’ fly-half and his main competitor for the shirt Owen Farrell has been shifted to 12 for the previous four games.

both.jpg

George Ford and Owen Farrell.

Both have had fairly quiet campaigns going about their business relatively well without much fuss, that is of course apart from last week, where this partnership seemed to click into place.

Ford and Farrell in tandem which we saw glimpses of against Italy and Ireland blossomed into life against Wales. Ford looked confident behind his giant pack with the Saracens playmaker outside him.

The return however of Tuilagi and the form of Daly and Slade could threaten to upset this glorious partnership in the England midfield if not now then certainly when England travel to Australia in June.

There are already calls from some quarters to oust Ford for Tuilagi next week, but how can that be the case after what can only be described as a strong performance from the Bath out half.

He made two line breaks, made a try saving tackle on George North, kicked well out of hand and took the ball to the line therefore capitalising on Wales’ blitz defence. He looked like an international fly-half for the first time since last season.

ford

George Ford scoring a try in last year’s championship.

Ford was immense his only mistake coming when Dan Biggar who is in blisteringly good form himself charged down a poor kick from Ford.

The attacking mastermind surely has given Eddie Jones a thought of how to deal with this situation he finds himself with Ford pitted against Farrell.

Owen Farrell did kick well against Wales and his defence was as usual solid. Farrell is different to Ford, he doesn’t offer the attacking flair that Ford does which frankly is nigh on impossible to teach. The same way Ford doesn’t offer unflappable goal kicking or big hits.

Farrell was by no means perfect on Saturday his lack of vision resulted in a wasted try opportunity which would have put England out of reach heading into the final quarter.

faz

Farrell in action for England.

Neither deserve to be dropped, both have performed incredibly well, but Jones has to ask himself if one is to be dropped, flair or pragmatism, attacking or defence, Ford or Farrell?

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.

Guy_Noves-300x258

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.

biggar

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.

Six Nations Preview

Six Nations Preview

The Six Nations is looming and this year it looks to be a close run affair as Wales and Ireland will look to build on relatively successful campaigns, Scotland try to carry on their World Cup form, England and France rebuild and Italy attempt to recover from a disappointing autumn.

Ireland are the favourites having won the last two championships under Joe Schmidt, a canny operator and he knows which players get the men in green to tick. To add to the old guard are a crop of youngsters coming through such as Ringrose who could add something to an already strong side.1390761721_0

Wales seem to have built a team that can beat anybody at the moment and with many of their home grown players back playing for a top side has given them optimism even. Warren’s Law could affect them down the line but they still look like they will be mounting a title challenge.

Scotland were one refereeing decision away from a World Cup semi-final, it seems Vern Cotter’s style is beginning to rub off on Scotland as they continue to build. This Six Nations could be a defining tournament for the men north of the border.

England are an unknown quantity under Eddie Jones, he has said he wants to base England’s game around their traditional strengths like the scrum, his selection though seems some very exciting talents in the squad.

France also have a new coach in former Toulouse boss Novés, he has reshaped the team and hopefully can bring back some je ne sais quoi. Saint-André’s pragmatic nature stifled what was once the best team in the world to watch.

Italy will look to this championship as a chance to redeem themselves, the World Cup ran to the script for Italy and saw them crash out after the group once again. They need to find something special if they are to get anywhere near the title this year.
Englandeng.jpg

Head Coach: Eddie Jones
Stadium: Twickenham Stadium, London (82,500)
Last Season: 2nd
Prediction: Champions

Fixtures

Scotland, BT Murrayfield, 16:50. Sat 6th February
Italy, Stadio Olimpico, 14:00, Sun 14th February
Ireland, Twickenham, 16:50, Sat 27th February
Wales, Twickenham, 16:00, Sat 12th March
France, Stade de France, 20:00, Sat 19th March

England have faced some pretty tough criticism recently after their World Cup. This lead to the appointment of Eddie Jones.

eddie-jones

England head coach, Eddie Jones

The squad has been named and has a blend of experience and youth, on paper it looks competitive. If England can get their pack moving forward and pick an exciting backline with distributors and finishers this England team could be brutally efficient.

I expect England to pick up wins in Rome and Edinburgh, they should be routine for this England side. I think playing at Twickenham could give them the edge against wales and Ireland but the trip to Paris looks a game too far for this developing English side.

Billy Vunipola

Vunipola on the charge

This Six Nations is a stepping stone for bigger things for the likes of Itoje, Daly, Beaumont, Clifford and Paul Hill. It looks as though they will be key in England’s future joining the likes of Ford, Farrell, Joseph, Launchbury and Vunipola all still young but players that could have 40 to 50 caps come 2019.

My England XV
1 Mako Vunipola (Saracens)
2 Dylan Hartley (Captain, Northampton Saints)
3 Paul Hill (Northampton Saints)
4 Joe Launhcbury (Wasps)
5 Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints)
6 Maro Itoje (Saracens)
7 Matt Kvesic (Gloucester Rugby)
8 Billy Vunipola (Saracens)

9 Danny Care (Harlequins)
10 George Ford (Bath Rugby)
11 Chris Ashton (Saracens)
12 Owen Farrell (Saracens)
13 Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby)
14 Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby)
15 Mike Brown (Harlequins)

FranceFédération_Française_de_Rugby_logo.png

Head Coach: Guy Novés
Stadium: Stade de France, Paris (81,338)
Last Season: 4th
Prediction: 3rd

Fixtures

Italy, Stade de France, 14:25, Sat 6th February
Ireland, Stade de France, 14:25, Sat 13th February
Wales, Principality Stadium, 20:05, Fri 26th February
Scotland, BT Murrayfield, 15:00, Sun 13th March
England, Stade de France, 20:00, Sat 19th March

France like England have been criticised for not just results but what has been dubbed a boring and drab style in attack and bring weak in defence.

Guy_Noves-300x258.jpg

New France boss, Guy Novés

Novés’ first squad suggests a very extreme change in tactics and a more of a swing towards that attacking play we have loved to watch in the past. With the reintroduction of Médard in the backline and Gaël Fickou coming in there is some flair there.

I think France can pick up wins over Italy and Ireland despite the strength in Ireland’s squad I think Paris will be tough to win in. I think they will also defeat England at home. Tough away trips to Edinburgh and Cardiff could be their undoing.

Maxime-Medard--008

Maxime Médard scoring a try against Scotland.

Flair in the backs and power in the forwards could be a glorious combination. This fresh approach could be either brilliant or horrendous. I for one hope that it brings a new era of running rugby with the likes of Médard and Fofana providing excitement.

 

 

My France XV

1 Eddy Ben Arous (Racing 92)
2 Guilhem Guirado (Captain, RC Toulon)
3 Rabah Slimani (Stade Français)
4 Alexandre Flanquart (Stade Français)
5 Yoann Maestri (Toulouse)
6 Damien Chouly (Clermont Auvergne)
7 Bernard le Roux (Racing 92)
8 Louis Picamoles (Toulouse)

9 Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92)
10 François Trinh-Duc (Montpellier)
11 Benjamin Fall (Montpellier)
12 Wesley Fofana (Clermont Auvergne)
13 Gaël Fickou (Toulouse)
14 Maxime Médard (Toulouse)
15 Scott Spedding (Clermont Auvergne)

Irelandirfu-social.gif

Head Coach: Joe Schmidt
Stadium: Aviva Stadium, Dublin (51,700)
Last Season: Champions
Prediction: 2nd

Fixtures

Wales, Aviva Stadium, 15:00, Sun 7th February
France, Stade de France, 14:25, Sat 13th February
England, Twickehham, 16:50, Sat 27th February
Italy, Aviva Stadium, 13:30, Sat 12th March
Scotland, Aviva Stadium, 17:00, Sat 19th March

Ireland won the championship last year and put in some impressive displays at the World Cup including a memorable win over France. This year they look to retain the title.

With Ireland’s squad due to be announced next week at some stage it is a fairly settled image we expect to see despite some high profile retirements and injuries for Ireland to come to terms with.

poc.jpg

Ireland legend, Paul O’Connell

Ireland should win all three of their home games against Wales, Italy and Scotland. Hoever away trips to Paris and London could be tough games especially as both England and France will be smarting after a tough World Cup.

Among the players Ringrose is an exciting prospect and big things are expected of the centre. Henshaw is in the form of is life at the moment and the pack will see who can fill the void left by O’Connell.

garry-ringrose-scores-a-try-6-752x501.jpg

Garry Ringrose scores for Leinster

My Ireland XV

1 Cian Healy (Leinster)
2 Sean Cronin (Leinster)
3 Mike Ross (Leinster)
4 Donnacha Ryan (Munster)
5 Devin Toner (Leinster)
6 John Muldoon (Connacht)
7 Sean O’Brien (Captain, Leinster)
8 Robin Copeland (Munster)

9 Conor Murray (Munster)
10 Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
11 Craig Gilroy (Ulster)
12 Robbie Henshaw (Ulster)
13 Garry Ringrose (Leinster)
14 Simon Zebo (Munster)
15 Rob Kearney (Leinster)

ItalyItaly_rugby.png

Head Coach: Jacques Brunel
Stadium: Stadio Olimpico, Rome (73,000)
Last Season: 5th
Prediction: 6th

Fixtures

France, Stade de France, 14:25, Sat 6th February
England, Stadio Olimpico, 14:00, Sun 14th February
Scotland, Stadio Olimpico, 14:25, Sat 27th February
Ireland, Aviva Stadium, 13:30, Sat 12th March
Wales, Principality Stadium, 14:30, Sat 19th March

Italy had a disappointing World Cup and still are struggling to give that extra 20% that could take them from also rans to join the top table of international rugby where Argentina now dine and Japan are approaching.

Sergio+Parisse+YLd4oyqJdJ_m.jpg

Sergio Parisse

Italy have announced their squad and it really is a mixture of the Italian stalwarts and a few new names as Brunel will try to make Italy competitive it’s a strong enough side.

Italy have two home games against England and Scotland, I don’t think they will win either of those England should have enough to win convincingly and Scotland too. I think repeat heroics in Paris or Cardiff are also unlikely whilst Ireland is a tough trip for any team let alone Italy.

susio.jpg

Marco Susio is one of 18 uncapped players

Italy have picked an astonishing 18 players in a 38 man training squad that convened in November in Treviso assuming the squad will be cut with the France and England based players also to be added.

My Italy XV

1 Dario Chistolini (Zebre)
2 Davide Giazzon (Benneton Treviso)
3 Lorenzo Cittadini (Wasps)
4 George Biagi (Zebre)
5 Qunitin Geldenhuys (Zebre)
6 Alessandro Zanni (Benneton Treviso)
7 Paul Derbyshire (Zebre)
8 Sergio Parisse (Captain, Stade Français)

9 Edoardo Gori (Benneton Treviso)
10 Carlo Canna (Zebre)
11 Gio Venditti (Newcastle Falcons)
12 Luca Morisi (Benneton Treviso)
13 Michele Campagnaro (Exeter Chiefs)
14 Marco Susio (Rugby Calvisano)
15 Luke McLean (Benneton Treviso)
ScotlandScotlandlogo

Head Coach: Vern Cotter
Stadium: BT Murrayfield, Ediburgh (67,144)
Last Season: 6th
Prediction: 5th

Fixtures

England, BT Murrayfield, 16:50, Sat 6th February
Wales, Principality Stadium, 16:50, Sat 13th February
Italy, Stadio Olimpico, 14:25, Sat 27th February
France, BT Murrayfield, 15:00, Sun 13th March
Ireland, Aviva Stadium, 17:00, Sat 19th March

Scotland’s World Cup heroics may be the turning point and rugby in Scotland could be headed for a period of success, this Six Nations they’ll be hoping to kick on.

laidlaw.jpg

Greig Laidlaw has been important for Scotland

Scotland are yet to announce their squad but are due to towards the middle of next week. I expect Cotter will retain the vast majority of his World Cup squad who performed so well. There may be a couple of additions after seeing how well Edinburgh are playing this season.

Scotland should be able to beat Italy in what has for a long time become the wooden spoon decider. I also think that at Murrayfield they should be too much for the French. Trips to Cardiff and Dublin are tough and England should be able to beat them.

gray.jpg

Gray brothers

Scotland’s second row is the frightening Gray brothers who the pack is being built on add to that some pace in the backs they will be formidable opposition.

My Scotland XV

1 Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors)
2 Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby)
3 WP Nel (Edinburgh Rugby)
4 Richie Gray (Castres Olympique)
5 Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors)
6 Josh Strauss (Edinburgh Rugby)
7 Blair Cowan (London Irish)
8 David Denton (Bath Rugby)

9 Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester Rugby)
10 Finn Russell (Captain, Glasgow Warriors)
11 Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors)
12 Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby)
13 Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors)
14 Tim Visser (Harlequins)
15 Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors)
WalesWru_logo.png

Head Coach: Warren Gatland
Stadium: Principality Stadium, Cardiff (74,500)
Last Season: 3rd
Prediction: 4th

Fixtures

Ireland, Aviva Stadium, 15:00, Sun 7th February
Scotland, Principality Stadium, 16:50, Sat 13th February
France, Principality Stadium, 20:05, Fri 26th February
England, Twickenham, 16:00, Sat 12th March
Italy, Principality Stadium, 14:30, Sat 19th March

Wales will be enthused after a strong World Cup that meant they would only crash out thanks to a sumptuous offload from Duane Vermeulen.

north.jpg

George North

The core of the squad is settled and is due to be announced soon although the exact date is not set in stone. The squad will be much unchanged from the team last year.

Wales face tough trips to Dublin and London which I can’t see them winning however they should be able to see off the challenges of France, Italy and Scotland at home. Although Scotland and France could go either way.

sammmmy.jpg

Wales captain, Sam Warburton

Wales have the old guard such as Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones in their ranks they know how to perform on the big stage there is very little room for manoeuvre in the current squad.

My Wales XV

1 Paul James (Ospreys)
2 Kristian Dacey (Cardiff)
3 Samson Lee (Scarlets)
4 Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys)
5 Luke Charteris (Racing 92)
6 Dan Lydiate (Ospreys)
7 Sam Warburton (Captain, Cardiff)
8 Taulupe Faletau (Dragons)

9 Gareth Davies (Scarlets)
10 Dan Biggar (Ospreys)
11 George North (Northampton Saints)
12 Jamie Roberts (Harlequins)
13 Jonathan Davies (Clermont Auvergne)
14 Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff)
15 Liam Williams (Scarlets)