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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Not Quite a Summer Holiday

This June England, Wales and Ireland travel to take on the undisputed best three international teams in the world.

Ireland go to South Africa with a list of high profile injuries. Rob Kearney will be a big miss, South Africa have a very good kick chase game, losing the man that can diffuse those situations with his prowess in the air could see Ireland suffer.

Although Rob Kearney will be missed, the biggest miss for Ireland is likely to be the fly-half Jonathan Sexton. Sexton has been such an important player for Joe Schmidt at Leinster and Ireland his absence is a cruel blow for Ireland.

Being clinical will also be crucial especially when faced with the likes of Mvovo, Habana and Pietersen. Ireland are also missing three first team wingers Bowe, Fitzgerald and Dave Kearney all of whom are unavailable for the tour.

In the forwards things are no better with Ireland missing their two best opensides, destructive carrier O’Brien and the speedy Van der Flier will not take any part in the tour.

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Sean O’Brien on one of his trademark charges against France during the World Cup.

The final casualty is Leinster prop Cian Healy but following a strong scrum in the Six Nations many now believe McGrath is Ireland’s best loosehead prop and it looks as though the 26 year old could remain first choice for years to come.

South Africa will see this tour as a chance to build a new order under new coach Coetzee following Meyer’s departure. The coaching staff is much the same as it was under Meyer which will give South Africa some stability in preparation for the tests.

Ireland looked off colour in the Six Nations and their confidence will not exactly be high, this tour does look like a step too far especially without Sexton and Rob Kearney to combat South Africa. A win is possible yet unlikely.

Prediction: South Africa win series 3-0

My Ireland XV: 1 McGrath (Leinster) 2 Best (Capt, Ulster) 3 Ross (Leinster) 4 Henderson (Ulster) 5 Dillane (Connacht) 6 Stander (Munster) 7 Ruddock 8 Heaslip (both Leinster)

9 Murray (Munster) 10 Jackson 11 Trimble 12 Marshall (all Ulster) 13 Henshaw (Leinster) 14 Gilroy 15 Payne (both Ulster)

Wales know how tough the challenge facing them is, New Zealand are undeniably the best side in the world and have been for the last nine years or so.

The Welsh team will carry some optimism that it is a fairly new New Zealand team, Ma’a Nonu, Daniel Carter, Conrad Smith, Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu are all no longer playing for the All Blacks.

Wales have some injuries to contend with themselves despite the swift recovery of skipper Sam Warburton who is widely expected to captain Wales when they face New Zealand in Auckland on Saturday.

Dan Lydiate’s injury sustained against England at Twickenham will rule him out of the entire tour as is the quick Tipuric. Leigh Halfpenny is still recovering from a long-term injury which saw him miss out on the World Cup and Six Nations, however it looks as though he could return for the November internationals.

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Dan Lydiate’s injury at Twickenham rules him out of the tour.

Alex Cuthbert is also missing the tour, the giant wing has had some pressure put on him recently by Liam Williams and Hallam Amos both of whom have been hugely impressive in the absence of Halfpenny.

New Zealand should win the series and Wales know they are great underdogs. New Zealand have some excellent players coming through and this series is a stage for them to succeed the greats of their homeland over the coming years.

If Wales’ powerful defence can hold New Zealand out and Wales don’t suffer the slow starts they are so susceptible to, there is hope for a win but even if they are at their best the All Blacks have not lost at Eden Park since 1994, 22 years.

Prediction: New Zealand to win the series 3-0

My Wales XV: 1 Evans (Scarlets) 2 Baldwin (Ospreys) 3 Lee (Scarlets) 4 Jones (Ospreys) 5 Ball (Scarlets) 6 Moriarty (Gloucester) 7 Warburton (Capt, Cardiff) 8 Faletau (Bath)

9 Webb 10 Biggar (both Ospreys) 11 Amos (Dragons) 12 Roberts (Harlequins) 13 Davies (Scarlets) 14 North (Northampton) 15 Williams (Scarlets)

It is undoubtedly England that have the best chance in their tour. The Grand Slam champions have confidence and self belief they can win in Australia.

The win over Wales proved how much depth this squad have, they scored five tries, five tries against their nearest challengers in this hemisphere and that was without eleven players named in the squad. Not just from the wider playing squad either six of those players that started against France did not play in the Wales game (Itoje, Kruis, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Farrell and Nowell).

England are growing and beginning to develop a really powerful, precise, quick game that could make them one of the strongest teams in the lead up to the 2019 World Cup.

England will be missing very few players compared to Ireland and England, Joe Marler made himself unavailable and understandably so following a very tough season for the Harlequins prop.

The only other injury is that of wrecking ball Tuilagi, his injury means that Eddie Jones has been given a real selection headache at inside centre. Sade, Te’o and Farrell will have to fight to replace the injured Leicester centre.

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Ben Te’o is the latest league convert to be included in the England squad.

For England this is their toughest test since Jones joined England and they know that. England know this will test them like no other opposition has tested them before. England face Australia in what will be a testing yet enjoyable series for the young squad.

England fans and the players will be confident of at least one win down under, and rightly so their efforts in the Grand Slam and against Wales proved they are a side not to be doubted.

My Prediction: England to win series 2-1

My England XV: 1 M Vunipola (Saracens) 2 Hartley (Capt, Northampton) 3 Cole (Leicester) 4 Itoje 5 Kruis (both Saracens) 6 Robshaw 7 Clifford (both Harlequins) 8 B Vunipola (Saracens)

9 Care (Harlequins) 10 Ford (Bath) 11 Nowell (Exeter) 12 Farrell (Saracens) 13 Joseph 14 Watson (both Bath) 15 Goode (Saracens)

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Liverpool Preview

Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Stadium: Anfield
Captain: Jordan Henderson
Top Scorer: Steven Gerrard (13)

Liverpool will be disappointed with their campaign last season after a slow start they were given life after Christmas by none other than their captain and hero Gerrard. A crazy finish saw the Anfield club finish 6th a finish that surprised many including Rodgers who will have been surprised considering his team was lacking in goals.

Liverpool had a dream a dream to send Steven Gerrard off with that 1 trophy missing from his personal trophy cabinet laden with honours including captaining England and a Champions League. Alas it was not to be for the Reds. The run of 3 straight defeats in November to Newcastle, Chelsea and Crystal Palace highlighted the difficult opening few months for the club. This saw them only net 2 goals and concede 6. The lowest point came in the grudge match at Old Trafford as their nemesis won 3-0.

Steven Gerrard walking out for his final game at Anfield.

Steven Gerrard walking out for his final game at Anfield.

This was followed by an outstanding run from 21st December until 16th March as Liverpool failed to lose a game and managed some tough away wins against Swansea and Southampton both of whom were strong at their respective homes last season. But this run was ended by Manchester United who did the double with a 2-1 win at Anfield in March stalling the progress made by Liverpool in the preceding months of wins and draws. A stuttering end to the season saw many Liverpool fans experience a case of deja vu as Crystal Palace took a 3-1 win before Stoke bullied Liverpool into submission by beating Gerrard in his last Premier League game 6-1 at the Brittania Stadium.

The elephant in the Liverpool dressing room will be can anybody step up and replace Gerrard. The candidate that many have cited is of course Jordan Henderson, but it’s not the same it never will be as the last giant of Liverpool leaves and heads for Hollywood and the MLS. Henderson will obviously have a large part to play in the coming months and seasons should he stay at Anfield unlike Raheem Sterling. There is also big things expected of Sturridge who has an injury plagued season last season which saw him struggle and deprived Liverpool of the goals as Balotelli and Lambert failed to hit the target. If Liverpool are to succeed they will need to improve in front of goal and find that player that can change the game from the middle of the park.

Last season there were few players to choose from that really performed bar Gerrard and Sterling. Lazar Markovic turned up more often than not for the club with some good attacking displays and a varied passing game he was one of the shining lights in Liverpool’s darkest times. Adam Lallana had a fairly good second half of the season with some good displays at times as he finally replicated some of the form he had shown at St Mary’s on the south coast. Phillipe Coutinho also had a sterling run of form as the season and closed and many fans hope he can continue in that vein when the new season kicks off.

Phillipe Coutinho celebrates scoring a goal with Gerrard.

Phillipe Coutinho celebrates scoring a goal with Gerrard.

Liverpool have been busy in the transfer market bringing in 7 players all high profile names whilst offloading 6 players that have played a part in Liverpool’s recent history. Liverpool have decided that they need goals and have brought in 2 new strikers and an attacking midfielder in Ings, Benteke and Firmino all of whom will provide goals. Former Villa hitman Benteke scored managed 15 goals last season, Ings netted 11 goals for Burnley whilst Brazilian Firmino scored 10 goals. Rodgers will be desperate that the new boys can score their goals and win games. He’s also visited his favourite hunting ground Southampton and snapped up Nathaniel Clyne, right back being a problem position for Liverpool Glen Johnson never really made that shirt his own. The England right back could be a really good signing should he perform to his best ability. James Milner and Ádám Bogdán are 2 experienced players to bring in Milner could bring that professionalism and high standard in training that Gerrard offered, that air of confidence and experience that Gerrard exuded. Ádám Bogdán comes in as back-up and adds some experience to the squad.

Nathaniel Clyne in action for England.

Nathaniel Clyne in action for England.

The league’s worst kept secret was that England midfielder Gerrard was thinking of leaving, he left the club to join MLS side LA Galaxy. Another secret was Raheem Sterling wanted to leave and win trophies, his transfer saga went on too long before he finally made the move to Manchester City. Glen Johnson also leaves the club after a difficult couple of seasons at Anfield as his performance level dipped leaving him being dropped by Roy Hodgson for his replacement at Liverpool Clyne.

IN: Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton, £10 million)
Joe Gomez (Charlton Athletic, £3.5 million)
Roberto Firmino (1899 Hoffenheim, £21.3 million)
Christian Benteke (Aston Villa, £32.5 million)
Ádám Bogdán (Bolton Wanderers, Free)
James Milner (Manchester City, Free)
Danny Ings (Burnley, Tribunal)

OUT: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City, £44 million)
Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo, £5 million)
Sebastián Coates (Sunderland, £4 million)
Steven Gerrard (LA Galaxy, Released)
Glen Johnson (Stoke City, Released)
Brad Jones (Free Agents, Free)
Javier Manquilo (Atlético Madrid, Loan Cancelled)

Liverpool will be different without Gerrard and will be a completely different prospect with the team. They have also lost their most complete, creative, attacking player Sterling to Premier League rivals. Their squad and recruitment make them a tough team to face this season and they will be confident of being able to fight but they will struggle to compete at the top of the table.

Steven Gerrard celebrates scoring against Leicester.

Steven Gerrard celebrates scoring against Leicester.

My Liverpool XI (4-3-3): 22 S.Mignolet; 2 N.Clyne 37 M.Skrtel 17 M.Sakho 38 J.Flanagan; 20 A.Lallana 14 J.Henderson (C) 10 P.Coutinho; 11 R.Firmino NA C.Benteke 15 D.Sturridge

Bench: 34 Á.Bogdán 6 D.Lovren 18 A.Moreno 4 K.Touré 23 E.Can 50 L.Markovic 28 D.Ings

Last Season: 6th

Prediction: 7th