Six Nations Preview: Ireland

Head Coach: Joe Schmidt

Stadium: Aviva Stadium (Capacity: 51,700)

Captain: Rory Best

IRB World Ranking: 4th

Last Season: 3rd

Prediction: 2nd

Ireland had a fairly average tournament by their high standards last season finishing behind England and Wales.

Ireland had an outstanding autumn which started with a historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago, and although they were beaten by New Zealand two weeks after that, the result is a significant one.

They also managed a win over Australia and thrashed Canada in their other two internationals over the course of November.

The pack was outstanding, tireless defence with pace and aggression was the foundations for the win in Chicago. The set piece is also a very strong part of the Irish game.

Ireland do look well ahead of many of their opponents with England looking like the only other realistic title contender after strong years for both sides.

In the forwards CJ Stander just keeps improving, his defence is powerful and his attacking runs are extremely important, puncturing holes round the fringes, making the hard yards for his club or country.henshae

Robbie Henshaw is well and truly in control of the Lions midfield as we head towards the Six Nations. The centre is a proper centre, strong on the ball and a distributor able to open up space for his dangerous wide men.

Ireland only have two home games but they have the massive advantage of playing England in Dublin, that is a hugely beneficial result for Ireland. The trips to Cardiff, Edinburgh and Rome should not pose too much of a challenge.

Ireland will feel they can win this tournament and Joe Schmidt will be targeting a Grand Slam, the game against England will likely be a tournament showdown to decide the champion what a wonderful way that would be for Ireland to cap a truly outstanding year. South Africa, defeated, New Zealand defeated, Australia, defeated, England, maybe.

Fixtures

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

v Italy, Stadio Olimpico, 14:25, Saturday 11th February

v France, Aviva Stadium, 16:50, Saturday 25th February

v Wales, Principality Stadium, 20:05, Friday 10th March

v England, Aviva Stadium, 17:00, Saturday 18th March

My Ireland XV

1 Jack McGrath (Leinster) 2 Rory Best (Captain, Ulster) 3 Tadhg Furlong (Leinster) 4 Iain Henderson (Ulster) 5 Devin Toner (Leinster) 6 CJ Stander (Munster) 7 Sean O’Brien (Leinster) 8 Jamie Heaslip (Leinster)

9 Conor Murray (Munster) 10 Jonny Sexton (Leinster) 11 Andrew Trimble (Ulster) 12 Robbie Henshaw (Leinster) 13 Jared Payne (Ulster) 14 Simon Zebo (Munster) 15 Rob Kearney (Leinster)

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Six Nations Preview: Scotland

Head Coach: Vern Cotter

Stadium: BT Murrayfield (Capacity: 67,800)

Captain: Greig Laidlaw

IRB World Ranking: 7th

Last Season: 4th

Prediction: 3rd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixtures

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

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

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

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

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

My Scotland XV

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

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

Six Nations Preview: Italy

Head Coach: Conor O’Shea

Stadium: Stadio Olimpico (Capacity: 70,634)

Captain: Sergio Parisse

IRB World Ranking: 13th

Last Season: 6th

Prediction: 6th

Italy are looking like a huge improvement on the side that got dismantled by Wales, Ireland and England last year.

Italy managed a historic first ever win against the Springboks in November and they will look to carry that form through to the Six Nations, especially with France and Wales not looking the sides they were last year.

They also suffered a narrow loss to Tonga in Padua and a thrashing by New Zealand in Rome. This is another problem for the Italians they struggle to constantly get the numbers to fill their big stadiums with only one of their games being played in Rome over the autumn period.

O’Shea is putting together the team that have for long time been the growing world rugby power but are still yet to materialise as a genuine Six Nations contender.

As always Sergio Parisse looks to be the key man four weeks out from the opening game for the Azzuri.

Italy's captain Sergio Parisse (L) runs

Parisse in action for Italy.

In the backs Exeter centre, Michele Campagnaro is a standout name, his upper body strength and leg power make him a real force going forward in the midfield and with dangerous runners outside him, Italy are a real threat.

Italy have three home games this year and they face arguably two of the weaker teams at home in Wales and France. France always find it tough in Rome and Wales will not be as confident as they have been in recent years. The trips to London and Edinburgh will be tough though and I expect Ireland to beat the Italians comfortably.

O’Shea will believe his team can win games and they can, home ties will be massively important to Italy and should they get at least one win in their opening two games we can expect a big tournament from the Italians.

Fixtures

v Wales, Stadio Olimpico, 14:00, Sunday 5th February

v Ireland, Stadio Olimpico, 14:25, Saturday 11th February

v England, Twickenham Stadium, 15:00, Sunday 26th February

v France, Stadio Olimpico, 13:30, Saturday 11th March

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

My Italy XV

1 Sami Panico (Calvisano) 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini (Toulouse) 3 Lorenzo Cittadini (Bayonne) 4 Marco Fuser (Treviso) 5 Quintin Geldenhuys (Zebre) 6 Franceso Minto (Treviso) 7 Simone Favaro (Glasgow) 8 Sergio Parisse (Captain, SFP)

9 Edoardo Gori (Treviso) 10 Carlo Canna (Zebre) 11 Giovanbattista Venditti (Newcastle) 12 Luke McLean (Treviso) 13 Michele Campagnaro (Exeter) 14 Giulio Bisegni (Zebre) 15 Edoardo Padovani (Zebre)

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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Summer Tours: Can the North Compete With the South?

All six European giants travel south this June to take on some form of opposition whilst England, Wales and Ireland all have three match test series, Scotland and France have two matches against their hosts and Italy have three assorted matches.

Italy- Tour of Americas

Italy have three tests this summer to see where they really are after a scathing Six Nations campaign in which they were thrashed by Ireland, Wales and England whilst also losing to Scotland convincingly and coming ever so close to France.

They face a very tough test against Argentina firstly before playing the USA and Canada. The Argentina game should be the hardest match for Italy, a fantastic World Cup campaign and with their Super Rugby franchise, los Jaguares playing well Argentina are in good health.

Italy seem to have found a new general at fly-half with Carlo Canna, a talented fly-half, he has some real pace and is not afraid to take on defenders using his pace and skills to punish defenders.

The man in midfield is able to direct play as well as he showed against France, his brain is switched on and making up his little partnership with Gori is exciting Italian fans.

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Carlo Canna lines up a kick.

Gori had an indifferent Six Nations and you could argue that Palazzani is the man to take Italy forward, his distribution was certainly slicker than Gori’s and he offers a turn of pace that Gori is simply incapable of.

One other back that was stand out is Michele Campagnaro, the Exeter centre was powerful using his upper body strength to swat away defenders that were left trailing in his wake.

Campagnaro is key player for Italy on this tour if he stays fit Italy have a prominent ball carrier in the backs, the backline can be built around him and add something to the traditionally strong pack.

What has not been said about Sergio Parisse, the leader, a man that is Italian rugby, he can at times try too hard to be the hero as was evident against France with his wayward drop goal.

Elsewhere in the forwards, lock Biagi looks an exciting prospect, the giant lock was athletic in the line out and has a high work rate around the park.

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Biagi on the charge.

Italy must win the tests against USA and Canada to have any real credibility following this tour.

My Italy 23: 1 Andrea Lovotii (Zebre) 2 Davide Giazzon (Treviso) 3 Lorenzo Cittadini (Wasps) 4 George Biagi (Zebre) 5 Joshua Furno (Newcastle) 6 Francesco Minto (Treviso) 7 Simone Favaro (Glasgow) 8 Sergio Parisse (Captain, Stade Français)

9 Guglielmo Palazzani 10 Carlo Canna 11 Leonardo Sarto 12 Gonzalo Garcia (all Zebre) 13 Michele Campgnaro (Exeter) 14 Giovanbattista Venditti (Newcastle) 15 Luke McLean (Treviso)

Fixtures

vs. Argentina, Estadio B.G Estanislao Lopez, Santa Fe, 11th June

vs. United States of America, Avaya Stadium, San Jose, 18th June

vs. Canada, BMO Field, Toronto, 26th June

Predictions

Argentina (LOSE) USA (WIN) Canada (LOSE)

France- Tour of Argentina

France one again disappointing at the Six Nations despite Guy Noves becoming the new head coach, he has not done what Eddie Jones has. No rapid transformation and very little to suggest France are back.

In recent years it’s been too much about this powerful yet rarely effective forwards game. If France are to become a world force again they need to get back the flowing rugby, the backs scything open defences with ease. They certainly have the personnel.

Maxime Médard, what a player, dazzling feet, electric pace and an eye for the half gap. The fullback is a really high quality player and one man that can change the game given half a gap.

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Maxime Médard scoring a try.

Another mesmerising talent is Wesley Fofana, once the greatest inside centre in the world, now confined to the odd start for his country after this change in strategy which has coincided with a downturn in form for France.

The centre has the most unbelievable step and grace that can turn players inside out or stand them up in spectacular fashion. He has to be playing for France come the tour to Argentina.

Those are just two men who will have to be at their best if France are to get anything in their tour to Argentina.

Argentina will feel they have this series won, two tests against a poor French side should be a win for the Pumas.

That powerful pack and a backline with the likes of Cordero and Imhoff in it is a pretty scary prospect for France and their new coach Guy Noves as they visit South America.

The best player over the course of the Six Nations was most definitely fly-half François Trinh-Duc, every time he came on he changed the game, he is a sensational talent. he kicks well out of hand and the attacking game he brings is unmatched by any other option the French have.

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François Trinh-Duc the all action fly-half.

In the forwards there is just one player that has been a top player for them, that was Toulon hooker, Guilhem Guirado. The skipper epitomised the determination of a France side wanting to be the side they used to be.

He led by example over the course of the championship, an undoubted talent at hooker, he excelled as captain and will be key if France are to win this tour.

My France XV: 1 Eddy Ben Arous (Racing) 2 Guilhem Guirado (Captain, Toulon) 3 Rabah Slimani (Stade) 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina (Clermont) 5 Yoann Maestri (Toulouse) 6 Damien Chouly (Clermont) 7 Bernard Le Roux (Racing) 8 Louis Picamoles (Toulouse)

9 Maxime Machenaud (Racing) 10 François Trinh-Duc (Montpellier) 11 Virimi Vakatawa (France Sevens) 12 Wesley Fofana (Clermont) 13 Maxime Mermoz (Toulon) 14 Yoann Huget 15 Maxime Médard (both Toulouse)

Fixtures

vs. Argentina, Estadio Monumental José Fierro, Tucumán, 18th June

vs. Argentina, Estadio Monumental José Fierro, Tucumán, 25th June

Predictions

Argentina (LOSE) Argentina (LOSE)

Scotland- Tour of Japan

Following Japan’s impressive showing at the World Cup and that win over South Africa in what was an outstanding achievement for Eddie Jones and his troops. Wins over Samoa and USA followed.

The Sunwolves have also recently claimed their first scalp over the new Argentine franchise, Japan have a growing rugby pedigree, Dom Day the latest European star to join the Japanese top tier, a league saturated in money.

They are growing and with players like Tanaka and Goromaru in the backs and Leitch and Mafi in the forwards they have real pedigree and will provide Scotland with a real test in June.

Scotland seem to have discovered a set of strike runners to add to Glasgow star Hogg they now have Seymour and Visser two extremely talented wingers. They also have some great ball players in the middle of the park.

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Stuart Hogg in action.

Bennett is becoming a real asset, his pace make him a seriously valuable player to have at 13 and with a selection of players to have inside him, the midfield is becoming really strong and depth is developing.

Laidlaw is a wonderful leader and has given Scotland some direction in terms of leadership, his goal kicking is up there amongst the world’s best. He also doubles up as one of his country’s best playmakers.

In the forwards the double act of Jonny and Richie Gray is something that really cannot be overestimated, the locks are sensational coming round the corner and are quite brilliant at the lineout and they provide some real drive at the scrum.

Richie has for years been an important part of Scotland’s engine room but it seems as though Jonny is going to be even better, he is being tipped by some as the next Scotland captain.

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Jonny Gray a key cog in the Scotland team.

Scotland will have a real test on their hands against Japan, the improving ‘Brave Blossoms’ will want to continue to build on their win over South Africa. Scotland did beat Japan at the World Cup but a test in the far east is a much tougher ask than beating them on a one off in England.

A defining series for both sides, Scotland could show some real intent to become one of the leading sides in the northern hemisphere and Japan could show they will be a ‘Tier One’ nation. June will tell us the full story.

My Scotland XV: 1 Alisdair Dickinson 2 Ross Ford 3 WP Nel (all Edinburgh) 4 Richie Gray (Castres) 5 Jonny Gray 6 Josh Strauss (both Glasgow) 7 John Hardie (Edinburgh) 8 David Denton (Bath)

9 Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester) 10 Finn Russell (Glasgow) 11 Tim Visser (Harlequins) 12 Duncan Taylor (Saracens) 13 Mark Bennett 14 Tommy Seymour 15 Stuart Hogg (all Glasgow)

Fixtures

vs. Japan, Toyota Stadium, Aichi, 18th June

vs. Japan, Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo, 25th June

Predictions

Japan (WIN) Japan (WIN)

Ireland- Tour of South Africa

Ireland, a team in transition that suffered a number of high profile injuries going into a Six Nations which was overall disappointing. Ireland have to accept that now they are playing catch up to England and Wales who are most certainly leading the northern hemisphere pack now.

CJ Stander was a revelation over the Six Nations, a powerful carrier able to power over at least on defender, his offloading game can also open space for the quicker men such as Bowe or Zebo.

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CJ Stander has been outstanding for Ireland.

The Munster flanker will come in for some competition in the back row which looks very strong for Ireland at the moment, especially at blindside.

Another revelation was Ultan Dillane at lock, the 22 year old has been huge for Connacht in their awesome season. Dillane is looking like the real deal and with the likes of McCarthy and Toner stepping up due to the loss of Ireland legend O’Connell, Dillane is the up and coming star of Irish rugby.

A playmaker may take some searching, Sexton is getting on a bit but his all round game is still superior to the majority of options available. Sexton’s kicking game and attacking ability is quite something.

Teenager Ringrose is making quite a splash down in Dublin at the moment, his turn of pace and good hands make him a contender to join the touring party in South Africa. Starting is unlikely looking at the options Ireland have available but exposure to the elite squad can only aid his development.

The aerial ability of Rob Kearney is still unrivalled and his ability to break the line make him a good asset if the Irish back row can force teams to kick long. He really is the definition of a strike runner, against a heavy South Africa team with a kick chase game he could be hugely influential.

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Rob Kearney has been a very influential player for Ireland.

South Africa will be a high pressure environment, they place a huge onus on the kick chase and with wingers like Habana you can understand why. The breakdown will be really tough, Louw, Alberts, Burger are all powerful and strong at the breakdown, Ireland will have to try and combat the green Springbok machine.

Another challenge for Ireland will be the altitude, Johannesburg’s Ellis Park is the stadium furthest above sea level in the world at 1,753 metres. The game in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth should not be as much of a problem.

The effects of the altitude can be a real challenge, Johannesburg will see Ireland facing nausea, anaerobic breathing which will increase the build up of lactic acid and other adverse effects on the body as well as a very tough South African team.

Ireland will believe they can win in South Africa and last year they were in a good place and most certainly the strongest of the northern hemisphere but after the Six Nations they have had it is not looking promising.

My Ireland XV: 1 Jack McGrath (Leinster) 2 Rory Best (Captain, Ulster) 3 Tadhg Furlong (Leinster) 4 Iain Henderson (Ulster) 5 Ultan Dillane (Connacht) 6 Peter O’Mahony (Munster) 7 Sean O’Brien (Leinster) 8 CJ Stander (Munster)

9 Conor Murray (Munster) 10 Jonathan Sexton (Leinster) 11 Luke Fitzgerald 12 Robbie Henshaw (both Leinster) 13 Jared Payne 14 Tommy Bowe (both Ulster) 15 Rob Kearney (Leinster)

Fixtures

vs. South Africa, DHL Newlands, Cape Town, 11th June

vs. South Africa, Emirates Airline Eliis Park, Johannesburg, 18th June

vs. South Africa, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth, 25th June

Prediction

South Africa (WIN) South Africa (LOSE) South Africa (LOSE)

Wales- Tour to New Zealand

Wales are arguably going to New Zealand at the best possible time, some of the stars are gone and New Zealand will have to go through some pretty serious reconstruction in certain ares, they will be by no means weak but they are the leat settled they have been in 12 years.

If Wales can rattle the All Blacks in the first test and they crumble the series win is on for Wales. New Zealand have some really exciting talent coming through though and with players like Israel Dagg also looking red hot this task is not an easy one.

Definitely the most settled squad of the squads touring and with veterans such as Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Luke Charteris. The experience could give them a real edge in the first test should the All Blacks be undercooked.

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Wales captain, Sam Warburton.

Wales’ George North has been out of form for Northampton for the vast majority of the season but he did look at his best in the red of Wales during the Six Nations. Wales will look to get the ball to him as quickly as possible especially if he is up against a lightweight winger for example Habana.

Dan Biggar has emerged as the best fly-half in the northern hemisphere following a very strong Six Nations and consistent performances for his franchise, the Ospreys. Biggar’s attacking game either from kicking or him taking the ball to the line make him a real threat.

Roberts has been outstanding his powerful running lines make him a deadly threat, he proved that against Scotland. His size allow him to punish defenders is he is allowed to get up to speed. If he is marked closely and hit hard he will come down.

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Dan Biggar performing the famous Biggar Shuffle.

In the forwards there is the awesome Faletau, the Dragons eight is an absolute machine he moves fast and is powerful. The back row is certainly key to Wales and he will be relishing a battle with the unbelievable Kieran Read.

Samson Lee looks to be the answer to all Wales’ prayers at scrum time since the loss of Adam Jones. Lee is becoming a world class prop and although he is not the quickest around the park his set piece work make him dangerous.

Fekitoa and Ngatai look to be making up for the loss of Nonu and Conrad Smith who have left to go and make their money in France.

The All Blacks are a team to be wary of, they are a tough side to beat even though the stars of Nonu, Carter and McCaw are gone. The depth is scary and with players like Ardie Savea, Beauden Barrett and Ngatai waiting in the wings they are not short on talent to come in for the stars.

My Wales XV: 1 Rob Evans (Scarlets) 2 Scott Baldwin (Ospreys) 3 Samson Lee (Scarlets) 4 Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys) 5 Luke Charteris (Racing) 6 Dan Lydiate (Ospreys) 7 Sam Warburton (Captain, Cardiff) 8 Taulupe Faletau (Dragons)

9 Rhys Webb 10 Dan Biggar (both Ospreys) 11 George North (Northampton) 12 Jamie Roberts (Harlequins) 13 Jonathan Davies (Clermont) 14 Liam Williams (Scarlets) 15 Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon)

Fixtures

vs. England, Twickenham Stadium, London, 29th May

vs. New Zealand, Eden Park, Auckland, 11th June

vs. Chiefs, FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton, 14th June

vs. New Zealand, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, 18th June

vs. New Zealand, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, 25th June

Predictions

England (LOSE) New Zealand (WIN) Chiefs (WIN) New Zealand (LOSE) New Zealand (LOSE)

England- Tour to Australia

Australia announced themselves as back at the top at the World Cup powering their way into the final led by Michael Cheika and their fly-half Bernard Foley being in inspired form for the Wallabies.

Australia are back to being one of the world’s best and despite the majority of their franchises struggling they will be tough to beat for any side and although they won the Grand Slam let us not forget they are still learning to work with Eddie Jones as head coach.

England have riches aplenty in the backs, Alex Goode is in scintillating form, his attacking game is something to behold, one of the few Saracens players to have that flair and with that gives his strike runners like Ashton space to score the tries. A varied kicking game is also very welcome in a back three which will likely be all out pace.

One of Bath’s positives this season has been the rising stock of Anthony Watson although he is better deployed at fullback than wing with Goode in such good form it looks as though the youngster will be playing at wing for the duration of the tour. His electric pace and lightning footwork is something that is frightening for the rest of the league.

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Watson in full flight for Bath.

In the pack it looks as though England have nailed their second row pairing with George Kruis and Maro Itoje looking like the real deal, both are strong in the air and powerful in the scrum, their work rate is just incredible and they will be key in Australia.

Another Saracen, Billy Vunipola is a hugely influential player for England, his impressive outings for England during the Six Nations will mean the Australians will know what he can do. The number eight raw power and defensive capability will see him ripping into the heart of Australia to open space out wide that with the runners England have they can exploit.

Hartley, the contentious captain, he led England by example kept himself squeaky clean thought the campaign and handled the media duty very well. His performances spoke for themselves, his work around the park was evident and the set piece was almost flawless.

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Hartley with his first trophy, the Calcutta Cup.

Australia do have their own threats one of which being Israel Folau, an athletic powerhouse and with the likes of Kuridrani and Mitchell around him Australia are not short on fast players.

In the forwards players such as Hooper and Pocock have under performed in Super Rugby, they will likely improve in time for the tour but the way they have been playing will not fill Cheika with hope.

They have a scrum to be feared now after years of struggling to get to grips with the complex art of scrummaging they now have a front row that are both powerful and capable when it comes to scrums.

My England XV: 1 Joe Marler (Harlequins) 2 Dylan Hartley (Captain, Northampton) 3 Dan Cole (Leicester) 4 Maro Itoje 5 George Kruis (both Saracens) 6 Chris Robshaw 7 Jack Clifford (both Harlequins) 8 Billy Vunipola (Saracens)

9 Danny Care (Harlequins) 10 Owen Farrell (Saracens) 11 Christian Wade (Wasps) 12 Manu Tuilagi (Leicester) 13 Jonathan Joseph 14 Anthony Watson (both Bath) 15 Alex Goode (Saracens)

Fixtures

vs. Wales, Twickenham Stadium, London, 29th May

vs. Australia, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, 11th June

vs. Australia, AAMI Park, Melbourne, 18th June

vs. Australia, Allianz Stadium, Sydney, 25th June

Predictions

Wales (WIN) Australia (WIN) Australia (LOSE) Australia (WIN)

 

Six Nations 2016 Team of the Tournament

So England have won the Grand Slam, an excellent achievement for Eddie Jones’ side winning the championship at the first time of asking. So which players impressed during the course of the tournament.

  1. Rob Evans (Wales)

Really powerful in the scrummage, made life hard for all opposition tightheads he faced. He is one of the reasons the Welsh scrum was so good, Gethin Jenkins is not missed.

2nd Choice: Joe Marler (England)

2. Dylan Hartley (England)

The English captain has led excellently, awesome in the tight making England’s set piece impenetrable. Always happy to take on the ball himself, a real leader.

2nd Choice: Guihelm Guirado (France)

3. WP Nel (Scotland)

The adopted South African has become a hero for Scotland, a scrummaging powerhouse and a rock in defence.

2nd Choice: Dan Cole (England)

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Nel in action for Edinburgh against Ulster in this year’s Pro12.

4. Maro Itoje (England)

A star has most certainly been born. Athletic, quick, strong the Saracens second row will be an England star for years to come.

2nd Choice: Richie Gray (Scotland)

5. Jonny Gray (Scotland)

The young Scot is on of the reasons for the rejuvenated Scotland side that have impressed over the course of the Six Nations.

2nd Choice: George Kruis (England)

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CJ Stander on one of his trademark carries.

6. CJ Stander (Ireland)

The Munster flanker’s carrying has been one of the best things about Ireland’s ultimately disappointing campaign.

2nd Choice: Chris Robshaw (England)

7. James Haskell (England)

He has proved himself after the World Cup where the back row came in for criticism but it looks as though Jones is forging a back row capable of competing with the best in the world.

2nd Choice: John Hardie (Scotland)

8. Billy Vunipola (England)

Undoubtedly the best eight, possibly the best player in the championship. Powerful and abrasive for England. So hard to stop.

2nd Choice: Taulupe Faletau (Wales)

9. Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)

Kicked well for his team and led from the front. Laidlaw had his critics but he has been a key cog in the Scotland team.

2nd Choice: Gareth Davies (Wales)

10. Dan Biggar (Wales)

The fly-half has been absolutely sublime this championship, his attack has been wonderful and he has become one of the leaders in the Welsh team. Bigger is also now among the best fly-halves in the world.

2nd Choice: Johnny Sexton (Ireland)

11. Jack Nowell (England)

Called slow on many occasions by his critics but has been one of England’s strong wingers over the course of the championship.

2nd Choice: Tim Visser (Scotland)

12. Jamie Roberts (Wales)

The Harlequins centre has been hugely influential for his side over the course of the championship. His power has played a huge part in Wales’ fairly successful last four years.

2nd Choice: Alex Dunbar (Scotland)

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Campagnaro on the charge for Exeter.

13. Michele Campagnaro (Italy)

The centre is up there on the defenders beaten chart and metres made charts. His upper body strength is something to marvel at.

2nd Choice: Duncan Taylor (Scotland)

14. George North (Wales)

He is bang back in form. Need I say more.

2nd Choice: Anthony Watson (England)

15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

The best attacking fullback in the northern hemisphere, his pace is unbelievable and he has one hand firmly on the Lions 15 jersey.

2nd Choice: Mike Brown (England)

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Stuart Hogg in action for Scotland.

Six Nations Half-Term Report

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

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

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

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Guy Novés, France head coach.

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

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

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

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

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Dan Biggar in action for Wales at the World Cup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STUART HOGG

Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg on the attack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Vunipola

Billy Vunipola has been impressive for England.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)
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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.

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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.

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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)

 

Next Up, World Cup

England’s warm-up games ended with a win over Ireland in London, an important win with England opening their World Cup campaign against Fiji in 11 days time.

England have answered loads of questions in their win over Ireland and Lancaster will now have a very clear picture of who will take to the field to play Fiji on 18th September. England dominated the match against Ireland and although they scored 2 tries they could easily have had 2 more had Youngs passed backwards or Farrell had the vision to throw the right pass.

Pool A is most certainly the toughest of the 4 pools, England look sharp and being at Twickenham gives them a huge advantage going into the ‘Group of Death’. Wales are strong and although Rhys Webb is a huge doubt and Halfpenny is out of the World Cup following injuries when they faced Italy they still pose a threat. Australia are always dangerous and their win over the All Blacks a few weeks ago demonstrated just how deadly they can be.

Australia score a try as they beat England.

Australia score a try as they beat England.

Even Fiji look good and their massive victory over Canada is a sign that they are not a write off and could challenge the big 3 of Pool A. Uruguay are likely to be the whipping boys of the group, they could be the victims of 4 heavy defeats and stand little chance of winning any game.

England look like they could be on the brink of going some way in this 2015 World Cup, maybe even to the final and there is a very real possibility of that happening should they top this tricky pool. The win over Ireland has shone a light on which players must be in that dressing room as the roar of the fans brings Twickenham to life at the start of 7 weeks that will change the face of world rugby in some way.

Jonny May has to be picked on the wing, Watson will start that much is assured but May must get the nod over Nowell. His try against Ireland was wonderful a display of power from the Gloucester flyer sees him surely shoot into the forefront of Lancaster’s mind. The devastation he can cause defences is both delightful and scary at the same time he makes light work of even the best defensive wingers. His try against the All Blacks in November and his performance against Ireland show this.

Mike Brown must remain as fullback despite the efforts of Alex Goode, yes Goode did play well against France but the mercurial Brown has to stay at his best he is among the best fullbacks in the world. The Harlequins star could well be the difference between a win or a loss. He is something special and along with Watson and May could form a worryingly devastating back three.

Tom Wood and Ben Morgan surely will start, Wood must start after his massively impressive game at Twickenham. He is undoubtedly a talented flanker with much in his armoury that England have only scratched the surface of. Morgan proved his fitness and budged his way into the squad ahead of the massive Vunipola who can be deployed as an impact player off the bench. As a Wales back with tired legs you don’t want Vunipola running at you that would scare the living daylights out of any player in that pool bar possibly giant Fijian Nadolo.

Tom Youngs finally answered his critics with a big game, the line out was better if scrappy as was the scrum. He will start but George may well overtake him over the course of the tournament as he gains more caps. The Saracens hooker is looking more like an international hooker with every minute he plays and Bath’s Webber is being edged out the squad rightly so.

The final question was answered overwhelmingly by the Bath maestro Ford. He was sublime, his sumptuous kick to Watson for England’s try was art, it was beautiful I as an avid rugby fan and self proclaimed connoisseur could say that kick was the epitome of fine art, the Michelin star dish of tries. It was something special. Ford has this little bit of pace this silky running and flair filled fun game that just sparks a team to life which was shown by the the way Bath played last season. One point in the game where it showed why Ford should start was when he wasn’t even on the field. Farrell (a good fly-half in his own right) threw a bad (because it was behind him) and poorly judged miss pass to Mike Brown. Had Ford been on the field England would have probably scored he would never dreamed of throwing a miss pass when he could instead exploit the shortage of Irish numbers so Brown could walk over the line.

Ford makes a break against Ireland for England.

Ford makes a break against Ireland for England.

England are there they have their answers, they know now who they must pick to make their way to Twickenham in 31st October when (hopefully) England will be playing in their 4th World Cup final.

The race to Twickenham is well and truly on.

My England 23 to face Fiji: 1 J.Marler 2 T.Youngs 3 D.Cole 4 C.Lawes 5 G.Parling 6 T.Wood 7 C.Robshaw (C) 8 B.Morgan
9 B.Youngs 10 G.Ford 11 J.May 12 B.Barritt 13 J.Joseph 14 A.Watson 15 M.Brown

16 J.George 17 M.Vunipola 18 D.Wilson 19 J.Launchbury 20 B.Vunipola
21 R.Wigglesworth 22 O.Farrell 23 A.Goode

Stoke City Preview

Manager: Mark Hughes
Stadium: Britannia Stadium
Captain: Ryan Shawcross
Top Scorer: Mame Biram Diouf (12)

Stoke City seem to have surprised many in recent years by not being involved in the basement battle which has seen many good sides go down. Stoke always seem to be able to achieve that safe mid-table finish.

Stoke’s squad is built around having technically gifted midfielders they are solid and reliable but lack the attacking spark of say Everton or Spurs teams with a similar budget but a different play style. The gameplan has not changed much since the departure of former manager Pulis who was the man that built this side into the team that don the red and white today. They started last season with an indifferent run of form really setting the tone for the season. Their away form looked good until the 4th October when a trip to Sunderland derailed that as Stoke were beaten 3-1 with Adam scoring the only goal for Stoke. Their most promising early season display was a great win over Manchester City as Stoke won 1-0 courtesy of Diouf, it was made all the more impressive with the game having been at the Etihad Stadium.

Mame Biram Diouf celebrates a goal against QPR.

Mame Biram Diouf celebrates a goal against QPR.

Stoke’s life in mid-season was made more difficult by a tough run of 3 games against Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. After 2 losses to both Liverpool and Manchester United, Stoke were on a run of 3 straight losses, an emphatic 3-2 win over Arsenal at the Brittania Stadium saw Stoke pick themselves up and give their team a fighting chance of European football, the end goal for Stoke in any given season. This win however was avenged on 11th January as Arsenal won 3-0 in the return leg. Undoubtedly Stoke’s best football was played at the end of the season smashed Tottenham 3-0 before a draw with Burnley followed by the 6-1 destruction of Liverpool ruining Gerarrd’s leaving party.

Cup runs seem to be a thing of the past for Stoke, the FA Cup threw up what seemed a routine game against Wrexham which Stoke were losing until the final 10 minutes as Stoke fired home 3 goals in the final 10 minutes the 2nd coming 2 minutes from time and the 3rd in the 4th minute of stoppage time both thanks to former Manchester City player Stephen Ireland. They eventually crashed out to Blackburn Rovers who slaughtered Stoke 4-1 in the 5th round.

The best player for Stoke last season has to be Charlie Adam, the midfielder was in inspired form especially following Christmas. Ryan Shawcross may be the captain but the midfielder has a role to play in leadership of the club. Adam is tireless and fits the Stoke mould of a powerful, solid midfielder with little creativity, he is the heartbeat of the Stoke midfield offering himself as the man to go through linking the solid defenders with the towering strikers. His passing game is something to be admired whether you are a Stoke fan or a neutral Charlie Adam is a player to watch.

Charlie Adam after his outrageous long range effort against Chelsea.

Charlie Adam after his outrageous long range effort against Chelsea.

Business in the market has seen Stoke snap up 6 new faces and part company with 8 first team players. The signing of Irish keeper Given is big news having lost Begovic to title holders Chelsea resources were looking rather thin on the ground with Butland the only first team keeper but Stoke have boosted the ranks by signing the Irish veteran and the Danish 23 year old Jakob Haugaard. They have also signed England right back Glen Johnson, it was inevitable he would the leave the club what with Nathaniel Clyne moving to Anfield. Johnson will add experience to this squad and bring a wealth of Premier League knowledge. Stoke have also brought in Afellay from La Liga giants Barcelona. The midfielder has 50 Netherlands caps to his name and could be a hugely exciting player to watch should he play a big role in Stoke’s forthcoming campaign.

Shay Given making a save for former club Aston Villa.

Shay Given making a save for former club Aston Villa.

The loss of keeper Begovic is huge for the club, he was a massive asset and he will be missed by fans at the Brittania Stadium but with the pulling power Chelsea have the move was never in doubt especially after the departure of Cech. Steven N’Zonzi is also on his way out the midfielder has been a big part if the club for so many years and was impressive last season for The Potters he will be missed by the club as he leaves for Spain. They have also lost another club stalwart in Robert Huth the 30 year old spent 6 seasons at Stoke and established himself as 1 of the 1st names on the team sheet, he will be missed.

IN: Jakob Haugaard (FC Midtjylland, Undisclosed)
Phillip Wollscheid (Bayer Leverkusen, Undisclosed)
Shay Given (Aston Villa, Free)
Glen Johnson (Liverpool, Free)
Joselu (Hannover 96, £5.75 million)
Ibrahim Afellay (Barcelona, Free)

OUT: Asmir Begovic (Chelsea, £8 million)
Steven N’Zonzi (Sevilla, £7 million)
Charlie Ward (Free Agents, Free)
Tom Sorensen (Free Agents, Free)
Andy Wilkinson (Free Agents, Free)
Wilson Palacios (Free Agents, Free)
Robert Huth (Leicester City, Undisclosed)
Jamie Ness (Scunthorpe United, Free)

Stoke have recruited well and could well mount a challenge for Europe this season they must try and make the Brittania Stadium a fortress and if they can find a plan B alternative to the ‘long ball’ game they have made their own.

My Stoke City XI (4-3-1-2): 24 S.Given; 8 G.Johnson, 17 R.Shawcross, 26 P.Wollscheid, 12 M.Wilson; 16 C.Adam, 6 G.Whelan 7 S.Ireland; 14 I.Afellay; 18 MB. Diouf 25 P.Crouch

Bench: 1 J.Butland, 2 P.Bardsley 3 E.Pieters 15 M.Van Ginkel 21 S.Sidwell 10 M.Arnautovic 11 Joselu

Last Season: 9th
Prediction: 13th