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

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Aviva Premiership Preview: Sale Sharks

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: Steve Diamond

Captain: Josh Beaumont

Stadium: AJ Bell Stadium (Capacity: 12,000)

Last Season: 6th

Prediction: 7th

Sale Sharks overperformed last year with a solid pack providing some quality ball for a backline lead by the maverick Danny Cipriani.

Sale despite having lost a few big names have a squad with some special players finally getting the recognition they deserve. Mike Haley and Sam James provide the excitement whilst Josh Beaumont is developing into an elite back row forward who is now captaining Sale.

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Sale fullback, Mike Haley.

Sale’s strike plays from deep make them hugely dangerous, the ability to attack at pace and without structure makes them deadly from 60-70 metres out. Sale use their pacey wingers and centres to score tries.

Sale have done exceptionally well to become such a successful club near Manchester having to compete with football and rugby league. The defence built by director of rugby Steve Diamond is excellent, they make hit after hit and can absorb pressure and work their way out of trouble.

THREE TO WATCH

Josh Beaumont

Position: Number Eight  Nationality: English  Age: 24  Height: 2.01m  Weight: 113kg

The captain is unlucky to be around at a time where Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Ben Morgan are playing. Beaumont is around the England squad and will fight his hardest as do his club to grab a place.

He will lead by example his work around the field are beneficial to the signature strike plays as he runs off the first and second receiver offering an effective crash ball carrier in the midfield.

Mike Haley

Position: Fullback  Nationality: English  Age: 22  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 91kg

Mike Haley is a very dangerous fullback, he can attack with loose ball and that puts him up there with the very best fullbacks in the league. Haley has an attacking mindset and it makes him the focal point for Sale.

The fullbacks also has an abrasive edge and he certainly has time on his side having only turned 22 in June.

AJ MacGinty

Position: Fly-Half  Nationality: American  Age: 26  Height: 1.85m  Weight: 95kg

MacGinty won the Pro12 with Connacht last season and with him bringing that winning mentality and also a big game mentality to the club.

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AJ MacGinty lines up a kick for USA.

The international fly-half will hope to ignite the Sharks backline and get them firing in the absence of England international Danny Cipriani. MacGinty can act as a playmaker and one of the strike runners.

TRANSFERS

IN (11)

Halanki Aulika (London Irish, ENG)

Josh Charnley (Wigan Warriors (rugby league), ENG)

Curtis Langdon (London Irish, ENG)

Kieran Longbottom (Saracens, ENG)

AJ MacGinty (Connacht, IRE)

Bryon McGuigan (Exeter Chiefs, ENG)

Dan Mugford (Nottingham, ENG)
Laurence Pearce (Leicester Tigers, ENG)

Mike Phillips (Racing 92, FRA)

Lou Reed (Cardiff Blues, WAL)

Rob Webber (Bath Rugby, ENG)

OUT (10)

Tom Brady (Leicester Tigers, ENG)

Danny Cipriani (Wasps, ENG)

Vadim Cobilas (Bordeaux Begles, FRA)

Chris Cusiter (Retired, RET)

Mark Easter (Retired, RET)

Viliami Fihaki (Edinburgh Rugby, SCO)

Joe Ford (Yorkshire Carnegie, ENG)

Phil Mackenzie (San Diego Breakers, USA)

Nick Macleod (Dragons, WAL)

Tommy Taylor (Wasps, ENG)

The signing of MacGinty is huge, he couples playmaking with serious pace and will be key to Sale’s play off chances. The recruitment of Aulika, Longbottom and Webber in itself is a frightening front row they add depth to Sale. Phillips is also a massive coup for the northern powerhouse. And as for Charnley…Jason Robinson comes to mind.

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Former Wigan Warrior, Josh Charnley.

The loss of English duo Taylor and Danny Cipriani will be big misses. Chris Cusiter brings his illustrious career to a close having represented his country 70 times and the Lions on one occasion. Tom Brady heading to Leicester depletes the wingers slightly, and losing Macleod sees the club have few playmakers left.

My Sale Sharks 23

15 Mike Haley 14 Tom Arscott 13 Johnny Leota 12 Sam James 11 Nev Edwards 10 AJ MacGinty 9 Peter Stringer

1 Ross Harrison 2 Rob Webber 3 Brian Mujati 4 George Nott 5 Lou Reed 6 David Seymour 7 TJ Ioane 8 Josh Beaumont

16 Neil Briggs 17 James Flynn 18 Halani Aulika 19 Andrei Ostrikov 20 Magnus Lund 21 Mike Phillips 22 Will Addison 23 Josh Charnley
Sale’s squad has very few star players. They do have a team that compliments each other and I believe a stronger team than last year, then again who does not this season will see them challenge for Champions Cup rugby.

Aviva Premiership Preview: Wasps

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: Dai Young

Captain: Joe Launchbury

Stadium: Ricoh Arena (Capacity: 32,609)

Last Season: 3rd

Prediction: 4th

Wasps played some good rugby at times last season. The Coventry based club have been through a lot including moving home from Adams Park in Wycombe to Coventry.

They have some seriously impressive backs such as Christian Wade whose speed is just incredible, the young centre Elliott Daly is also a massively talented player. Dan Robson has become an exceptional scrum-half and even overtaken Joe Simpson in the Wasps pecking order.

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Daly dives over for a try.

Wasps eagerness to play expansive rugby is admirable and the way they use their playmaker to open space is remarkable. The wide spaces are there to attack and Wasps do this perfectly using the power of Halai and the pace of Wade.

The balanced midfield last term was perfect however the recruitment of Kyle Eastmond and Kurtley Beale suggests a move away from a 12 in the mould of the now retired Ben Jacobs or international Siale Piutau.

THREE TO WATCH

Nathan Hughes

Position: Number Eight  Nationality: English  Age: 25 Height: 1.96m  Weight: 125kg

Hughes is a key man for Wasps at the line-out and open play. The number eight can make metres for the Wasps using his frightening turn of pace. His ability to change a game make him invaluable.

His incredible form has seen him called up to the England squad after qualifying on residency in July although Eddie Jones sees the giant Wasp as more of a flanker than a number eight.

Willie le Roux

Position: Fullback  Nationality: South African  Age: 27  Height: 1.85m  Weight: 90kg

The Springbok star joins Wasps on a short term deal and as currently one of the best counter attacking fullbacks on the planet along with Israel Dagg, Israel Folau and Stuart Hogg. He has electric feet and blistering pace.

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South Africa fullback, le Roux

le Roux also has quality in the air with a great ability at diffusing a situation using his powerful legs to control the skies.

Christian Wade

Position: Wing  Nationality: English  Age: 25  Height: 1.73m  Weight: 86kg

The winger is absolute pace and his speed has seen him on the peripheries of England on more than one occasion. He can beat defenders one on one no problem and his appetite for scoring tries is insatiable.

Defending remains a concern but make no mistake Wade is still brilliantly exciting as ever and he remains a constant threat.

TRANSFERS

IN (13)

Guy Armitage (London Welsh, ENG)

Kurtley Beale (NSW Waratahs, AUS)

Danny Cipriani (Sale Sharks, ENG)

Tom Cruse (London Irish, ENG)

Nick de Luca (Biarritz Olympique, FRA)

Kyle Eastmond (Bath Rugby, ENG)
Marcus Garratt (Cornish Pirates, ENG)

Craig Hampson (Bristol Rugby, ENG)

Wille le Roux (Natal Sharks, SAF)

Marty Moore (Leinster, IRE)

Matt Symons (London Irish, ENG)

Tommy Taylor (Sale Sharks, ENG)

Tom Woolstencroft (Bath Rugby, ENG)

OUT (12)

Lorezo Cittadini (Bayonne, FRA)

Bradley Davies (Ospreys, WAL)

James Downey (Retired, RET)

Carlo Festuccia (Zebre, ITA)

Ruaridh Jackson (Harlequins, ENG)

Ben Jacobs (Retired, RET)

Alex Lozowski (Saracens, ENG)

Andrea Masi (Retired, RET)

Charles Piutau (Ulster, IRE)

Ed Shervington (Retired, RET)

George Smith (Suntory Sungoliath, JAP and Queensland Reds, AUS)

Jamie Stevenson (London Scottish)

Two signings from the southern hemisphere stand out in the shape of le Roux and Beale adding real star quality. Danny Cipriani is also an impressive coup for the club. In the pack England hooker Taylor and Ireland prop Moore should bring some stability to the scrum and Symons is brilliant in the air. Furthermore captures of de Luca and Eastmond add depth to an already frightening backline.

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New signing, Kurtley Beale.

The departures of George Smith and Piutau will hurt as they were by far their best players last season. Davies will also be a loss and it is sad to see Masi, Jacobs and Downey into retirement. The losses of fly-half duo Jackson and Lozowski could hurt Wasps.

My Wasps 23

15 Willie le Roux 14 Christian Wade 13 Elliott Daly 12 Kurtley Beale 11 Frank Halai 10 Danny Cipriani 9 Dan Robson

1 Matt Mullan 2 Tommy Taylor 3 Jake Cooper-Wooley 4 Joe Launchbury (Captain) 5 Matt Symons 6 James Haskell 7 Thomas Young 8 Nathan Hughes

16 Ashley Johnson 17 Simon McIntyre 18 Marty Moore 19 James Gaskell 20 Sam Jones 21 Joe Simpson 22 Jimmy Gopperth 23 Sailosi Tagicakibau

Wasps will be deadly in attack but defence could prove to be a problem.

Barclays Premier League Previews (SO-SU)

Barclays Premier League Preview: Southampton

Manager: Claude Puel

Stadium: St. Mary’s Stadium (Capacity: 32,505)

Captain: Jose Fonté

Top Scorer: Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mané (11)

Biggest Signing: Nathan Redmond (£11 million)

Last Season: 6th

Prediction: Safety

Southampton have overachieved over the last two years and Koeman has built a squad capable of challenging the best..that is until he left this summer.

Although the club have seen a large number of departures over the last two years it feels as though the loss of Koeman could be the one that is felt the most on the south coast.

Southampton have an ability to play an attacking, exciting brand of football with a talented set of midfielders and attacking wide players offering width and pace. This coupled with prolific finishers made Southampton a feared force last year.

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Austin will be hoping to start more this season as Pelle moves to China.

They have lost many of their core players that were there to create the chances whilst also losing both their top scorers, it will be interesting to see if they have ready made replacements or if they may become a poor man’s Arsenal, all this talent and excitement but without the glue to hold it all together.

Saints will not be threatened by relegation but I also think the top half will be unattainable for the club. A lot of this though will depend on the man management and gameplan utilised by new manager Puel.

In terms of recruitment the outgoing list dwarfs the incoming one, they have lost some seriously talented players that were key to Southampton’s outstanding 6th placed finish this season.

IN

Nathan Redmond (Norwich City, £11 million)

Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg (Bayern Munich, Undisclosed)

OUT

Sadio Mané (Liverpool, £34 million)

Graziano Pelle (Shandong Luneng, Undisclosed)

Victor Wanyama (Tottenham Hotspur, Undisclosed)

Juanmi (Real Sociedad, Undisclosed)

Gaston Ramirez (Middlesborough, Released)

Kelvin Davis (Retired)

Southampton will be looking to bolster their squad further with them currently looking at goalkeeper Alex McCarthy.

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Redmond could be an important capture.

My Southampton XI (4-2-3-1): 44 F.Forster; 2 C.Soares, 6 J.Fonté (Captain), 17 V. Van Dijk, 21 R.Bertrand; 16 J.Ward-Prowse, 8 S.Davis; NA N.Redmond, 7 S.Long, 11 D.Tadic; 28 C.Austin

 

 

 

 

Barclays Premier League Preview: Stoke City

Manager: Mark Hughes

Stadium: Brittania Stadium (Capacity: 27,902)

Captain: Ryan Shawcross

Top Scorer: Marko Arnautovic (11)

Biggest Signing: Joe Allen (£13 million)

Last Season: 9th

Prediction: Mid-Table

Stoke have made some impressing strides of late and have clambered up to being a fairly consistent mid-table side even if they did start the season struggling to find goals.

When you have quality like Xherdan Shaqiri and Ibrahim Afellay you can produce some good football whoever your opponents may be.

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Shaqiri is one of Stoke’s stars.

Stoke have the following to keep building and keep striving to outdo their nearest rivals with some good football and entertaining attacking coupled with strong defending makes them a formidable side.

They have leaders across the pitch, Shawcross, Adam, Crouch all of whom have huge amounts of experience and have given this team a real identity.

In terms of transfers Stoke have made the most of their money brining in two acquisition to make a difference whilst cutting the deadweight loose.

IN

Joe Allen (Liverpool, £13 million)

Ramadan Sobhi (Al Ahly, £5 million)

OUT

Ben Barber (York City, Free)

Yusuf Coban (1899 Hoffenheim, Free)

Dominic Kurasik (Brentford, Free)

Alex Grant (Perth Glory, Released)

Peter Odemwingie (Released)

It looks as though much of Stoke’s business is now completed, the chase for Berahino has gone cold now. It remains to be seen what else could be done before the season starts.

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Joe Allen could make a real difference.

My Stoke City XI (4-2-3-1): 1 J.Butland; 8 G.Johnson, 20 G.Cameron, 17 R.Shawcross (Captain), 3 E.Pieters; 4 J.Allen, 6 G.Whelan; 10 M.Arnautovic, 14 I.Afellay, 22 X.Shaqiri; 18 MB Diouf

 

 

Barclays Premier League Preview: Sunderland AFC

Manager: David Moyes

Stadium: Stadium of Light (Capacity: 49,000)

Captain: John O’Shea

Top Scorer: Jermain Defoe (15)

Biggest Signing: Not Applicable

Last Season: 17th

Prediction: Safety

Sunderland did very well at the tail end of last season as Allardyce steered them to safety sending Newcastle and Norwich down on the penultimate match of the season.

One man that was instrumental in Sunderland’s survival was former Tottenham striker Defoe who picked up a healthy 15 Premier League goals last season for the Black Cats.

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Defoe has a stunning strike record.

Sunderland have lost Sam Allardyce to England and must rebuild under Scotsman Moyes who takes his first job since being sacked as Real Sociedad manager. Sunderland are much a club in the Everton mould when Moyes first took over there.

The squad is full of experienced international players who most of whom are past their best but possess a wealth of knowledge regarding the Premier League.

Sunderland should have enough quality to see off other strugglers like Bournemouth and Swansea and if Defoe is kept well supplied up front there is no reason the veteran striker cannot score the tally he racked up this season.

Recruitment wise it has been very poor, no new faces plus a bunch of high profile departures, Sunderland’s transfer strategy has been woeful.

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David Moyes is the only new face.

IN

OUT

Emanuele Giaccherini (Napoli, £2 million)

Santigo Vergini (Boca Juniors, £1.5 million)

Steven Fletcher (Sheffield Wednesday, Free)

Martin Smith (Kilmarnock, Free)

Danny Graham (Blackburn Rovers, Released)

Wes Brown (Released)

Steve Harper (Released)

They have lost some big names there, Giaccherini will be missed the most, failure to pull in any other players and with very few rumours, panic buying may be Moyes’ strategy come August.

My Sunderland XI (4-1-3-1-1): 25 V.Mannone; 2 B.Jones, 16 J.O’Shea (Captain), 15 Y.Kaboul, 3 P. Van Aanholt; 6 L.Cattermole; 14 J.Gomez, 8 J.Rodwell, 7 S.Larsson; 22 W.Khazri; 18 J.Defoe