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)

 

Five Players for Summer Tour

England, Grand Slam champions have achieved what they set out to do, now they have done that all eyes are on their June tour to Australia.

England face three tests down under in the summer against the team that knocked them out of the World Cup and if they are to win what will be a testing series a few things will need to be ironed out from the Six Nations performance.

I think these five players could make a difference to the England squad.

  1. Sam Underhill (Ospreys, 19 years old, Uncapped)

The 19 year old is currently plying his trade across the Severn having left Gloucester to play in Wales for three years. He has quickly established himself as one of the back row superstars of the league.

The young flanker is quick, powerful and athletic and could offer some balance to the England back row joining Robshaw and Billy Vunipola.

Underhill is your typical scavenger back row not unlike David Pocock from Australia, a figure England missed desperately in the World Cup as Australia and Wales beat them at every breakdown.

He is sure to be one of England’s new stars as Eddie Jones builds to 2019.

Verdict: As good as in the squad as Eddie Jones looks to use the exceptional circumstances clause. Cap Potential: 40-50+

2. Kyle Eastmond (Bath Rugby, 26 years old, 6 caps)

The league convert is electric for the West Country club, his turn of pace and electrifying step make him undeniably difficult to defend against.

The centre can beat people one on one but can also act as a second playmaker, having returned from injury recently he looks back to his exciting best for Bath.

Eastmond offers something a little different to Tuilagi or Slade the other two contenders for the 12 shirt that is if Daly is to remain at 13.

He was never given enough of a chance under the old regime it would be nice to see Eastmond cut loose.

Verdict: Depends on who else Eddie Jones takes and if he thinks Eastmond can offer something different. Cap Potential: 15-20

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Nathan Hughes qualifies on residency grounds in June.

3. Nathan Hughes (Wasps, 24 years old, Uncapped)

The Fijian number eight qualifies in June through residency which frankly is a ridiculous rule but one that England should make the most of.

The number eight is not just strong but for a big man can shift, he has pace to burn as well as an abrasive edge so can he beat defenders any which way he chooses.

In defence a star turn able to make the big hits and a force in the ruck.

His height also makes him a hugely valuable asset in the lineout, he is sure to provide some competition for the outstanding Billy Vunipola.

Verdict: If he misses out a great injustice will have been done. Cap Potential: 40+

4. Dominic Barrow (Leicester Tigers, 23 years old, Uncapped)

The Leicester lock has been brilliant for Leicester this season replacing Parling as he now plys his trade on the south coast with Exeter.

A strong lock that is hugely valuable in defence and a rangey attacker full of power and ballast.

Barrow is making a real name for himself at Welford Road and is surely the type of abrasive forward Eddie Jones is looking for.

Verdict: Unlikely to feature which is a shame but I expect him to make the squad at some point. Cap Potential: 15-20

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Harry Thacker has impressed for Leicester.

5. Harry Thacker (Leicester Tigers, 22 years old, Uncapped)

Another Tiger really impressing this term, his athletic ability is enough to match that of Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie.

He also offers a strong base at the set piece and a really useful weapon coming round the corner.

His form is undeniable the only problem is hooker is such a competitive spot at the moment with Hartley, George, Cowan-Dickie and Taylor also vying for a spot on that plane.

Thacker will have to hope for an injury that could earn him a call-up.

Verdict: The options are just too strong for Thacker to play this summer but by next year he will be a real contender should this form continue. Cap Potential: 30-40+

England’s Summer Fixtures

vs. Wales, Twickenham Stadium, Sunday 29th May

vs. Australia, Suncorp Stadium, Saturday 11th June

vs. Australia, AAMI Park, Saturday 18th June

vs. Australia, Allianz Stadium, Saturday 25th June

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.

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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)
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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)

 

Will Roy’s Boys Roar in France?

The Euro Championships are always a great occasion for all football fans over the continent.

England travel to France in June with a raft of new players likely to be in the mix since the previous Euro’s back in 2012 which prompted some soul searching following an indifferent campaign.

With the likes of Jamie Vardy banging in the goals this season for Leicester including of course surpassing the record of the great Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Jamie Vardy Leicester City

Vardy celebrates scoring a goal for Leicester City.

The emergence of Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson has also looked promising as he is becoming a well rounded captain. His passing game and control make him invaluable to Klopp’s new Liverpool and if he can finally make himself an England regular we could start to see England reap the benefits of Henderson.

The young Jesse Lingard has been a really exciting player to come through the ranks up at Old Trafford and his stunning rise saw him earn a call-up to Hodgson’s most recent squad.

Add in to the mix a host of young stars in the under-21’s Loftus-Cheek, Redmond, Chambers, Ibe, Ward-Prowse and Targett all looking to break into the top squad having made themselves regulars at their respective clubs.

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Jordon Ibe celebrates scoring pre-season.

England have been drawn in a group that is certainly winnable with ties against Wales, Slovakia and Russia to look forward to in France.

Games against Slovakia and Wales shouldn’t be too much of a problem despite the undeniable talent of former Spurs key player, Gareth Bale. Russia’s talented squad could prove a slight problem for England though.

The road to Paris so far though has been as smooth as you like with England bagging a 100% win record in their qualifying group, admittedly the likes of San Marino, Lithuania and Estonia are nowhere near the likes of a nation obsessed with football such as England.

Greg Dyke has issued a warning to Roy Hodgson saying that England have to get out of their Euro group and I for one would agree, if England fail to emerge from what is a relatively simple group questions will have to be asked about the coaching staff and players.

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Roy Hodgson has been issued a warning by the FA.

My England XI (assuming all are fit):

(4-2-3-1)

Joe Hart (Capt., Man City); Kyle Walker (Spurs), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), John Stones (Everton), Luke Shaw (Man Utd); Eric Dier (Spurs), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool); Raheem Sterling (Man City), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal), Jordon Ibe (Liverpool); Harry Kane (Spurs)

England Out But Hope On Show

England had a tough World Cup campaign and it finished with flattery against Uruguay as a stale performance saw England win 60-3, a flattering scoreline for the host nation.

Jack Nowell crosses the line for one of England's 10 tries.

Jack Nowell crosses the line for one of England’s 10 tries.

The performance though did have some pleasing elements, for one the performance of Exeter’s playmaker Henry Slade who has been unbelievable for his club and it is a mystery as to how he has been overlooked until England’s final ‘dead rubber’ as it were. Slade’s passing and running game was quite something to behold and outside Ford who finally got his chance once again was good with the ball in hand if he did falter off the tee.

Henry Slade scores for Exeter against Harlequins.

Henry Slade scores for Exeter against Harlequins.

Farrell kicked well as he always does, a masterful display of kicking. Joseph’s introduction saw England change, the midfield now looked sharper and an unbelievable piece of inspiration from the Bath centre set up Watson’s 2nd try against the minnows. Joseph’s pace and feet make him a real threat and it is a shame we did not get to see more of his dazzling skill in this World Cup.

Another player who looked good was the Saracens fullback, Alex Goode, he has had no chances in this World Cup despite a stellar season for the Premiership champions. He added a playmaking option to the midfield already laden with Ford, Farrell and Slade.

England showed some sort of attacking intent and hunger which had not been seen against Wales or Australia. Some flair, bravery and guile, a hunger to win and win well. They looked in control with flowing passing, good running lines and a couple of wonderful tries.

The performance had it been against any of the other top teams in the world would have been a horror show but the glimpses we saw of Ford and Slade combining along with the magic from Watson, Joseph and Nowell may well have been the dawn of a new English backline.

Anthony Watson in action for Bath.

Anthony Watson in action for Bath.

Forget the power based game, England need a team that can attack, so Manu Tuilagi and Luther Burrell are good players. But what would you rather England produced a crash up the middle or scything breaks round the outside? I know what I would rather watch, I may be slightly biased but after witnessing some amazing backs interplay last night I think it’s clear which way England must go following this World Cup’s conclusion and the likely resignation of Lancaster.

The forwards need a complete reshuffle and need a nasty streak, something that other teams fear, they need to emulate the fear factor Johnson, Dallaglio, Vickery and Back provided in 2003. England have some of those figures ready to step into the breach.

They need their scavenger, the Toulon exile Armitage, they need to find a way of bringing him into the squad without seeing an exodus from the Premiership. Burgess is a back row and he can be played there England need to address that as well. The back row has been a real point of weakness for the last 4 years.

The coaches all need to go, Lancaster has failed, Rowntree’s scrum has been bullied by Australia, Wales and France, Farrell has been involved in refereeing disputes and there is the obvious nepotism claim (which has been heard loud due to rumours of Ford, Slade and Goode running rings round Barritt and Burgess) and Catt’s bust up with Cipriani leaves him out of the set up.

Rob Andrew and Ian Ritchie also have to call time on their stays at Twickenham, they have to leave and England have to bring in Sir Clive Woodward as a Director of Rugby, he is the only man for the job a sentiment echoed by Dallaglio. England have deep rooted problems that must be sorted out there is a long list of people to shoulder some of the blame but last night we saw a glimpse of a brighter future.

My 33 Man Squad for Six Nations

Props Dan Cole (Leicester), Alex Corbisiero (Northampton), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), David Wilson (Bath)

Hookers Ross Batty (Bath), Jamie George (Saracens), Dylan Hartley (Captain, Northampton)

Second Rows Dave Attwood (Bath), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Geoff Parling (Exeter)

Flankers Steffon Armitage (Toulon), Dave Ewers (Exeter), Will Fraser, Maro Itoje (both Saracens)

Number Eights Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Ben Morgan (Gloucester)

Scrum-Halves Danny Care (Harlequins), Joe Simpson (Wasps)

Fly-Halves Danny Cipriani (Sale), Owen Farrell (Saracens), George Ford (Bath)

Centres Kyle Eastmond, Jonathan Joseph (both Bath), Henry Slade (Exeter), Manu Tuilagi (Leicester)

Wings Matt Banahan (Bath), Jonny May (Gloucester), Christian Wade (Wasps), Anthony Watson (Bath)

Fullbacks Mike Brown (Harlequins), Alex Goode (Saracens)

That brings both a balance and some excitement along with some nasty forwards, this is of course if form is the same as last season only time will tell.

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

Swansea City Preview

Manager: Garry Monk
Stadium: Liberty Stadium
Captain: Ashley Williams
Top Scorer: Bafétimbi Gomis (10)

Swansea are looking sharp and after another over performing season for the Welsh club they look as though they will only keep on getting better and hopefully they can continue to produce the performances that have even worried the big boys in the league.

Swansea’s opening day win at Old Trafford was a huge moment for Monk and his team it sent shockwaves through the Premier League, United a club in crisis, Swansea hard to beat. Goals were something Swansea didn’t struggle with netting 46 times. They enjoyed August with 3 wins which was followed up by a catastrophic September as they failed to win a game losing to Chelsea 4-2 a particular low point. November brought them another impressive scalp this time Arsenal as the creative club won 2-1 at home which over the season became a very tough place to visit with Swansea only losing 5 times at the Liberty Stadium over the course of last season, rather impressive whichever way you look at it.

Skipper Ashley Williams on the ball for Swansea.

Skipper Ashley Williams on the ball for Swansea.

They entered the year in 9th place following a harrowing 4-1 thrashing by Liverpool at Anfield which was a dampener for them to end the year on. This was the first match of 4 games that Swansea failed to win which ended with their worst result of the season Chelsea beating them 5-0 at the Liberty Stadium a result that hurt the club. They went on a run until the end of the season then as they only lost a further 6 games and claimed some impressive wins such as complting the double over Manchester United by winning 2-1. They also claimed their last win of the season over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium winning 1-0 undoubtedly their best result over a so-called top 4 team over the season the clean sheet a particular bonus considering their defence was caught lacking somewhat over the season.

They made people sit up and take notice last season though with their rather attacking style of football that of they can improve upon this season could make them one of the most intriguing teams to watch. They play with passion, guile and a sense of calculated risk. Their attacking play was shown off with their big wins over the likes of West Bromwich Albion (3-0) and Hull (3-1) games that should have been more of a contest. If their captain Ashley Williams can rally the rearguard and add a defending aspect to their locker they could threaten the league order this season.

Swansea’s key player left last season as Manchester City captured Bony’s signature with him gone there were so many players to choose from. Gylfi Sigurdsson has become a key player for Swansea his attacking runs and intelligence over the park make him a key man for the Welsh outfit. He offers a creative outlet to create space for the finishers like Gomis and Michu. He imposes himself on the game with his creative spark that leaves defenders wondering how he effortlessly creates space for his teammates. He will be key for Swansea if they are to go 1 step further than last year and qualify for Europe.

Sigurdsson celebrates a goal against Manchester United on last seasons opening day.

Sigurdsson celebrates a goal against Manchester United on last seasons opening day.

Swansea have seen 1 senior player leaves and they have brought in some excting additions with Monk not afraid to spend over the summer adding a few attackers and giving Fabianski some competition by bringing in some keepers to keep the Polish stopper on his toes. André Ayew is an interesting signing for the team a player that can play up front or just in behind your 9. He offers something different to the Swansea strikers that played last season. He is likely to be deployed in that hole and his pace make him a player to watch. Eder an expensive addition and another forward, his shooting range make him deadly and exciting to watch. His midfielders will relish having the Portuguese man to pass to as he is not one to miss good chances, a player that will definitely add some goals to Swansea over the season. The other high profile new man in Tabanou a defender from St Etienne, fans will be hoping he can at least go some way to stemming the flow of goals that led to Swansea conceding 49 last season it would have been more if not for their brilliant keeper Fabianski.

André Ayew holds a shirt following his high profile move to Swansea.

André Ayew holds a shirt following his high profile move to Swansea.

Leaving the club is 1 player, Jazz Richards not a huge loss for the club and a player that they don’t need to keep smart business all round from Monk.

IN: Éder (SC Braga, £5 million)
Frank Tabanou (St Etienne, £3.5 million)
Kristoffer Nordfeldt (Heerenveen, £600,000)
Gerhard Tremmel (Resigns, Free)
André Ayew (Marseille, Free)

OUT: Jazz Richards (Fulham, £500,000)

Overall it looks as though if Swansea can iron out the creases it is a matter of when not if Swansea qualify for Europe.

My Swansea City XI (4-3-3): 1 L.Fabianski; 22 Á.Rangel 6 A.Williams (C), 2 J.Amat 3 N.Taylor, 4 K.Sung-Yeung 8 J.Shelvey 23 G.Sigurdsson; 20 J.Montero 18 B.Gomis 10 A.Ayew

Bench: 13 K.Nordfeldt 26 K.Naughton 19 D.Tiendalli 24 J.Cork 15 W.Routledge 9 Michu 17 Éder

Last Season: 8th
Prediction: 5th