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)

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)

Likely Lads for 2017 Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gatland will lead the Lions in New Zealand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squad by Nation

England: 15

Ireland: 6

Scotland: 6

Wales: 7

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

Likely Lions

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

  1. Mako Vunipola

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

2. Dylan Hartley (Captain)

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

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Dylan Hartley winning the Calcutta Cup.

3. WP Nel

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

4. Maro Itoje

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

5. Alun Wyn Jones

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

6. Chris Robshaw

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

7. James Haskell

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

8. Billy Vunipola

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

9. Rhys Webb

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

10. George Ford

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

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Ford is back to his best for England.

11. Liam Williams

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

12. Owen Farrell

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

13. Robbie Henshaw

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

14. Anthony Watson

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

15. Stuart Hogg

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

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

What does Dan Carter’s Admission Mean?

Dan Carter earlier this week is rumoured to be looking for a way out of Parisian club, Racing 92 after only joining the club after winning the World Cup for a second time in October.

Dan Carter is willing to move to any non-French club that can afford to buy Carter out of his lucrative deal that made him the best paid player in rugby.

The big question is who can afford him? And on top of that why does Carter want to leave a club that he is playing so well at alongside former All Black team mate Joe Rococoko?

A number of clubs look to be able to afford Carter, in England Bath, Wasps, Saracens are among a number of super rich clubs that could buy out the New Zealander’s contract. With the new rules coming into play as well could help pave the way for an English club to make an audacious sweep for the fly-half.

A return home for the fly-half seems unlikely, the past few years have seen a mass exodus from Super Rugby as southern hemisphere stars have sought out a big money move to France or England.

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Is Dan Carter unhappy in France?

It’s a tough one, we don’t actually know how much money his former club the Crusaders have to spend and with Todd Blackadder leaving at the end of the season will the new coach want Dan Carter back in Christchurch?

I think Carter if the rumour is true I must add would probably favour a move back home rather than plying his trade this side of the channel. Then again a couple of seasons in England would be hugely beneficial to not only his back account but his CV if the fly-half does want to move into coaching.

I’m sure we will soon either hear that Carter is on the move or that the rumour was untrue the next few days should tell us more.

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.

canna

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.

trinh-duc

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.

hogg

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.

kearney

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)

 

The ‘French’ Way

France, a nation that prides themselves on having that little bit of class, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi.’ A nation that in sport brings the flair, the dazzling beauty, the spectacular piece of skill that oozes not just class but astounding physical beauty and makes any other wondrous moment seem so insignificant. Players from both rugby and football have shown us this outrageous talent for coming up with the showstopping brilliance when it matters.

In rugby France have always been the unpredictable yet brilliant to watch team. They bring an air of confidence that if they play well they can beat any challengers. This was shown at it’s best in the 2007 World Cup, a warm night in Cardiff, the hosts France having been close to their best for most of the tournament come up against the overwhelming favourites a team that had blown away all comers in their pool and blessed by the boot of the mercurial Dan Carter.. and all of a sudden that’s it Carter limps off. France win.

New Zealand fly-half, Dan Carter.

New Zealand fly-half, Dan Carter.

They have a knack for producing the big moments when it matters most, this happened 4 years later. It’s 2011, New Zealand are on home soil, but this time France meet England once again at the quarter-final stage. The Auckland air is humid and France having scraped through the pool after a horrific display against Tonga face an England team that have failed to dazzle yet have scored tries. And from nowhere France produce a stunning product, that is high on power and pace with that little electricity that courses through the veins of a Frenchman, that French way, that touch of Parisian class, that hint of French devil, that one thing that makes France French. France win.

England look dejected after losing to France in World Cup quarter-final.

England look dejected after losing to France in World Cup quarter-final.

France are without doubt one of the most talented teams in the world, they have players that make you stop and take a breath, they make your heart skip that beat, they make you fall in love with the game. Gaël Fickou showed this exact moment that player took charge in the 2014 Six Nations. England come into the game with every hope of snatching a win in France. France are low on confidence after a bruising autumn and there a huge question marks over the suitability of former Sale coach Saint-André. England lead going into the final minute, Saint-André’s last roll of the dice is to throw on the young Toulouse centre. Fickou gets the ball and then it comes as if divine intervention has sparked inside the young back, he skips past defenders leaving the English grasping at air. He glides through the defence with an aura of self belief and the glamour that you see on a fashion runway. He turns past the last defender then comes the roar of the Parisian crowd as the centre ends the game with a flourish of French ability and with such French swagger as all England do is watch the jaw dropping, mindblowing talent. France win.

Gaël Fickou scores match winning try against England.

Gaël Fickou scores match winning try against England.

This year France have had a torrid time after beating Australia things were looking up that was until a week later where Argentina bludgeoned them to win 18-14. France came into the Six Nations and can only manage wins against an ageing Italy and a very weak Scotland. France have always performed in World Cups and that showed 4 years ago in Auckland when they beat England and in the final when they lost 8-7 to hosts New Zealand in a game that they should have really won. The chips are well and truly down for France as they travel to England in September, their backs are up against the wall and once again Saint-André has failed to select the 3 Maxime’s (Machenaud, Mermoz, Médard.) France though have a chance, we know that, we know what they can produce, that fantasy land of daring, that paradise of beauty, that state of untouchable glory. If the French can play like France then they have every chance of winning the 2015 World Cup.

France head coach Phillipe Saint-André has come in for criticism over his selection.

France head coach Phillipe Saint-André has come in for criticism over his selection.

My France XV (assuming all are fit and selected):
1 Vincent Debaty (Clermont Auvergne) 2 Guilhem Guirado (Toulon) 3 Eddy Ben Arous (Racing Metro) 4 Yoann Maestri (Toulouse) 5 Alexandre Flanquart (Stade Français) 6 Thierry Dusuatoir (Captain, Toulouse) 7 Fulgence Ourdraogo (Montpellier) 8 Louis Picamoles (Toulouse)

9 Morgan Parra (Clermont Auvergne) 10 François Trinh-Duc (Montpellier) 11 Teddy Thomas (Racing Metro) 12 Wesley Fofana (Clermont Auvergne) 13 Gaël Fickou (Toulouse) 14 Yoann Huget (Toulouse) 15 Maxime Médard (Toulouse)

Why England Need To Look South

The three best opensides in world rugby right now, David Pocock, François Louw and Richie McCaw, all three of which ply their trade in the Super 15. They are what us here in England would class as a ‘classic’ 7 or ‘southern hemisphere’ openside.

We have a ready made man to join the three best in the world that man is the Toulon flanker, Stefan Armitage who has been one of the rouge et noir’s star players over the past few seasons as they have become European powerhouses. Unfortunately England continue not to pick the flanker due to England’s selection policy of only picking players based in England.

You only have to look at the Premiership though to see that we need a southern hemisphere style 7. The top 4 teams at the moment all have a player in that mould, Calum Clark at Saints, Burger for Saracens, Louw at Bath and Julian Salvi at Leicester, while current England captain and opened Chris Robshaw’s Harlequins languish in 8th. At Harlequins they have another option much like Armitage, Luke Wallace who in November made the breakdown a living hell like Michael Hooper and David Pocock can for opposition.

It may be time for Chris Robshaw to move on, the man has had his day, and yes his commitment to the cause in unquestionable, as a leader, captain and role model he is second to none but as a 7?

The World Cup is just around the corner and Lancaster would be foolish not to select the Harlequins flanker as his captain for this World Cup or would he? With 2 of the finest opensides in the world David Pocock and Sam Warburton lying in wait in the group stage it could be tough for Captain Chris. Pocock is not alone as a great Australian 7 they also have Michael Hooper who has been Australia’s choice as of late due to Pocock’s injury nightmare.

It is high time Lancaster used the ‘exceptional circumstances’ clause on selection policy and brought Steffon Armitage into the World Cup squad, he doesn’t have to start the Toulon flanker but if Robshaw is having rings run round him by Pocock or Warburton they will need an alternative and that alternative should be the Toulon openside.

Well Lancaster it’s up to you but England are going to need to adapt and bring in an ‘old school’ 7 at some point whether it’s now or after the World Cup is a question only Lancaster can answer.