England’s Forwards Conundrum

England look set to field a new look pack in their Six Nations opener with a number of frontline players injured for the start of the tournament.

Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, George Kruis, Jack Clifford and Joe Launchbury could all be missing, Chris Robshaw will also now be missing after picking up a shoulder injury at the weekend.

Nathan Hughes looks set to step up at number eight following impressive displays in the autumn. His power and athleticism make him a useful attacking player. He will not be making the hard yards like Vunipola but will be lurking in the wide channels similar to Tom Croft.

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Hughes looks set to replace Vunipola.

James Haskell made a very brief return to action at the weekend but assuming his concussion isn’t too bad he should start at openside against France.

The blindside is a bit of a tough one, Tom Wood played fairly well during November but there is the option of Maro Itoje moving to the blindside flanker position, this option was one Eddie Jones looked willing to explore before Itoje picked up an injury prior to the Autumn Internationals.

The only problem with moving Itoje into the back row could be the fact that England already look short in the second row if Kruis and Launchbury cannot prove their fitness, Courtney Lawes, Dave Attwood and Charlie Ewels all played in November though and have been in good form for Northampton and Bath.

The loose head prop position could also be an interesting one, Ellis Genge has been replaced in the squad by Bath prop Nathan Catt and Joe Marler is still in the squad.

Marler may have the experience but the question is who would offer more to an England squad. Catt has for a long time been knocking on the England door, his scrummaging is powerful and his work in the loose is strong.

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Catt has been included ahead of Ellis Genge.

Catt would be my pick to take Mako Vunipola’s place as England’s starting loose head. Marler is a good player but his discipline problems in the past and his sporadic form for Harlequins count against him.

In the second row is a tough one, Kruis and Launchbury could yet prove their fitness, but if not then Itoje moving to the back row becomes a tough option, Launhcbury looks set to certainly miss the opening weekend. With this in mind Charlie Ewels and Lawes could start as the only two fully fit locks excluding Itoje included in the squad.

Potential England 23 to face France

1 Nathan Catt 2 Jamie George 3 Dan Cole 4 Charlie Ewels 5 Courtney Lawes 6 Maro Itoje 7 James Haskell 8 Nathan Hughes

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

16 Tommy Taylor 17 Joe Marler 18 Kyle Sinckler 19 Tom Wood 20 Mike Williams 21 Danny Care 22 Ben Te’o 23 Elliott Daly

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.

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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.

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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)

Likely Lads for 2017 Tour

So, Warren Gatland will lead the British and Irish Lions for a second time following his series win over Australia in 2013.

Across the four nations, debates are being had and one of those debates is who should captain this team? There are only two contenders really either Cardiff back rower Sam Warburton or Grand Slam winning captain Dylan Hartley.

Hartley has to skipper the Lions, he recently led his England side to a 3-0 win over Australia as for Warburton he failed to tour due to injury.

I think it is fairly widely assumed Eddie Jones’ all conquering England squad will dominate the 34 man squad that is due to be announced towards the end of the season.

France based players is another contentious issue due to the fact the French season finishes comparatively late it is unlikely some players will be able to join up with the squad at the right time. This therefore means some France based players could effectively miss out on selection.

Head coach of Wales Warren Gatland celebrates after beating Ireland in their Six Nations rugby match at Croke Park in Dublin

Gatland will lead the Lions in New Zealand.

New Zealand is the pinnacle, a series win over the All Blacks is going to take something seriously special, you could even argue miraculous.

These are the 34 players I think could maybe win that series.

Props: Dan Cole, Joe Marler (both England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), WP Nel (Scotland), Mako Vunipola (England)

Hookers: Rory Best (Ireland), Jamie George, Dylan Hartley (Captain, both England)

Locks: Jonny Gray (Scotland), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England)

Flankers: John Hardie (Scotland), James Haskell (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Sam Warburton (Wales)

Number Eights: Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Billy Vunipola (England)

Scrum-Halves: Conor Murray (Ireland), Rhys Webb (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)

Fly-Halves: Dan Biggar (Wales), Owen Farrell, George Ford (both England)

Centres: Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Duncan Taylor (Scotland)

Wings: Jack Nowell (England), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England)

Fullbacks: Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Liam Williams (Wales)

Squad by Nation

England: 15

Ireland: 6

Scotland: 6

Wales: 7

That is my pick but with a year to play plenty of time for players to play their way in or out of Gatland’s plans.

Aviva Premiership Preview: Northampton Saints

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: Jim Mallinder

Captain: Tom Wood

Stadium: Franlins Gardens (Capacity: 15,500)

Last Season: 5th

Prediction: 8th

Northampton were disappointing last season, everyone expected them to be in the play-offs having finished first before the play-offs the season before.

Northampton have some star quality in the pack with England captain Dylan Hartley at hooker, Courtney Lawes at lock and England new boy Teimana Harrison also part of the club.

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Teimana Harrison is a key player.

Northampton Saints have developed a rather substantial pack full of heavyweight, international stars. Hard carrying, hard tackling machines in what is an explosively powerful eight. They give what the backs front foot, clean ball.

The backs are also big men, George North, Luther Burrell, George Pisi, big, physical players who like to run hard and tackle aggressively. Physical backs give Northampton thrust to go forwards and punish the opposition. They can however be one dimensional.

THREE TO WATCH

Ben Foden

Position: Fullback  Nationality: English  Age: 31  Height: 1.83m  Weight: 93kg

Ben Foden was the best fullback in the country at one point. He is fast and the Northampton man has quick feet defenders can be beaten one-on-one by the quick, agile fullback.

Foden’s kicking game is also very useful as an exit strategy, he can be used as an extra playmaker in attack.

Teimana Harrison

Position: Flanker  Nationality: English  Age: 23  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 106kg

The hard running Saints flanker has gained caps against Wales and Australia he looks as though he will be a force in the future for England.

His work in the loose is hugely effective, he is one of the most defensively sound players in the league and his influence in attack makes him a valuable member of the Northampton squad.

Louis Picamoles

Position: Number Eight  Nationality: French  Age: 30  Height: 1.92m  Weight: 116kg

Picamoles is now widely regarded as one of the best number eights in the world along with the likes of Kieran Read and Taulupe Faletau. His power when he carries is quite extraordinary.

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France international, Picamoles.

Picamoles is devastating off the back of a scrum and brutal coming round the corner. The French powerhouse can effectively take the game to the opposition using his brute force.

TRANSFERS

IN (5)

Charlie Clare (Bedford Blues, ENG)

Juan Pablo Estelles (Club Atletico del Rosario, ARG)

Nic Groom (Western Stormers, SAF)

Campese Ma’afu (Provence, FRA)

Louis Picamoles (Toulouse, FRA)

OUT (6)

Alex Corbisiero (Sabbatical, SAB)

Jon Fisher (Bristol Rugby, ENG)

Kahn Fotouali’i (Bath Rugby, ENG)

Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi (London Irish, ENG)

Patrick Howard (Dragons, WAL)

Matt Williams (Worcester Warriors, ENG)

Picamoles is a marquee signing and will be hugely beneficial to the squad, he is the type of player Northampton breed. Groom is also a tidy addition to the squad, he passes well and his pace is exceptional.

CORBISIERO

The England prop will take a sabbatical.

Fotouali’i is a loss and he moves to Premiership rivals, Bath. Corbisiero is taking a year out that should not be too much of a trouble he is not the player he was three years ago.

My Northampton Saints 23

15 Ben Foden 14 George North 13 George Pisi 12 Luther Burrell 11 Jamie Elliott 10 Stephen Myler 9 Lee Dickson (Captain)

1 Alex Waller 2 Dylan Hartley 3 Paul Hill 4 Courtney Lawes 5 Michael Paterson 6 Jamie Gibson 7 Teimana Harrison 8 Louis Picamoles

16 Mike Haywood 17 Ethan Waller 18 Kieran Brookes 19 Christian Day 20 Calum Clark 21 Nic Groom 22 Harry Mallinder 23 Ken Pisi

Northampton Saints will be powerful and use forwards to build a platform, the worry is their signings indicate no change of strategy very little other than the power plays, teams like Exeter and Wasps with their quick backs could trouble them.

Likely Lions

With approximately a year to go until the Lions tour New Zealand I analyse my XV that I would have if the first test were to be played tomorrow. Following English and Scottish test series wins and Ireland’s victory in their first test, the northern hemisphere looks to be recovering from the World Cup.

  1. Mako Vunipola

It has to be the English prop. Jack McGrath is very close behind. The Saracens man has a hugely improved scrummaging game and his work in the loose is wonderful. This man carries as much as and makes as many tackles as any back row. Streets ahead of any of his home nation compatriots.

2. Dylan Hartley (Captain)

The England skipper has led England to nine wins in nine games. His abrasive nature and dogged determination make him a hugely influential player. He has to go and he has to go as captain. He has tempered the fiery nature that saw him pick up 54 weeks worth of bans and has become a totem of self control and power. He leads from the front and he won’t be found wanting in the desire category either. Does his bread and butter of the set piece to perfection.

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Dylan Hartley winning the Calcutta Cup.

3. WP Nel

Nel is a hugely important part of Scotland’s scrum as well as being a key defensive cog in Scotland and Edinburgh’s systems. Dan Cole is very close to the South African born prop. The scrum will be key in New Zealand and Nel is possibly the best scrummaging tighthead in the world.

4. Maro Itoje

Anyone who thinks Itoje should not go on tour with the Lions must have been living under a rock for the last year. The Saracens lock is fast, strong and in form. His work over the park in the loose is wonderful. He is so talented he has become one of the best in is position in the world and just thinking about him matching up against Retallick is a mouth watering battle.

5. Alun Wyn Jones

Jones gets in due to the contribution he can give in terms of experience. He is a physical player and will add another lineout option for the Lions. Jones is one a very few Wales players that has played well in New Zealand. Kruis, Toner and both the Gray brothers aren’t far away.

6. Chris Robshaw

The Harlequins man has been redeemed well and truly since Eddie Jones took over, the best blindside England have had for years. His tackle rate and the amount of work he gets through is monumental. Lydiate is close but after this man’s performance in Australia he is impossible to leave out. England now have one of the finest back rows in the world and Chris Robshaw is a huge part of that.

7. James Haskell

The Wasps man is the man of the series despite only playing in two of the tests in Australia. Led on a path of redemption by Eddie Jones, he has come to the forefront. He is a fighter, he has eclipsed Warburton this year. One of England’s top performers in the Six Nations as well, he is well and truly nailed on to start on the Lions openside flank.

8. Billy Vunipola

The eight has been up there with the best this year. It seems as though he is finally becoming the player we always knew he could be. Another powerful ball carrying forward and a man that can go toe to toe with Read. Vunipola powers over players but contrary to popular belief has a bit of speed to himself as well. Faletau isn’t far away.

9. Rhys Webb

Webb is electric, his pace and sniping breaks make him the frontrunner for the ‘9’ jersey, he has a pass too. Webb has been one of Wales’ stars for the last couple of years and has inspired Wales to a few massive wins lately. Youngs’ kicking is superior but Webb just nicks it.

10. George Ford

Only one player could displace this player at the moment however he’s at 12 but we’ll talk about him later. Ford’s game management is becoming superior to any other player. His decision making is growing as well. The Bath fly-half has been among England’s top performers in Australia and his tackle counts would suggest his defensive frailties are no longer such a concern.

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Ford is back to his best for England.

11. Liam Williams

The Welsh winger had to be included after his performances against the All Blacks he terrorised Fekitoa in the first test, he could not be stopped, he tore through at pace. His abrasive edge and pace make him a lethal weapon in the wide channels. Would have had him at fullback but a certain Scotsman has that nailed down.

12. Owen Farrell

The Saracens centre is the best fly-half in the northern hemisphere, only problem with that is he’s also the best inside centre in the northern hemisphere. He works miracles for England here with Ford inside him. He is the best goal kicker in the world, that makes him priceless at international level. He is also a hugely influential defender, his desire is huge and his appetite to be the best is insatiable.

13. Robbie Henshaw

Could just as easily be Joseph but Henshaw’s power is important if we don’t have a powerful carrier at 12 we need one at 13. Henshaw is a hugely important player for Ireland and if given space by the two English playmakers inside him he will be given acres of space to wreak havoc in New Zealand. His defensive capabilities also make him important, defence will be key against the All Blacks.lions logo.png

14. Anthony Watson

Deadly, lethal two words that perfectly describe the Bath flyer. His feet are electric and his pace scintillating. He is also very capable under the high ball and he uses this to his advantage leaping up for cross field kicks which will be implemented due to his club mate Ford is being deployed at 10. Watson can score at will and he will score tries down under.

15. Stuart Hogg

Jared Payne unlucky to miss out but the fullback is truly sensational, his speed makes him an asset to any team he plays for. Hogg is one of the most exciting fullbacks in the world, he attacks with verve and pace. The Six Nations player of the championship is going to be a massively important man for the Lions should he play.

So the player count is hugely skewed in England’s favour but surely after the Grand Slam and Australia series that is justified. England have nine players, Wales have three, Scotland two and Ireland just one.  Let’s just hope whoever is named can produce the result we got in 2013 in Australia.