Rugby World Cup 2019: Week One Picks (20th September-23rd September)

With the World Cup finally arriving this weekend on Friday we take a look at the first set of games and pick out the three we think are definitely worth a watch.

Pick One: France v Argentina, Pool C, Tokyo Stadium, 05:45 (UK Time), Saturday 21st September

This clash could very well decides who advances from Pool C with England also in this pool. The unpredictable France could very well turn up like they did against Scotland in Paris and blow the Pumas away although France have never travelled excessively well.

They have a strong squad and some really exciting backs behind a well oiled, large pack that won’t shy away from what will be an attritional and physical battle with Argentina’s forwards.

70503990_379340136076027_7228588581442696991_n
Credit: Instagram (@lospumasuar)

Argentina have selected some of their overseas stars which has allowed them to include their star fly-half Nicolas Sanchez and Saracens prop Juan Figallo further bolstering a largely Jaguares based squad that advanced all the way to the Super Rugby final.

Although Argentina lost all three of their Rugby Championship games they will be confident that if they play the way they know they can then France will be in serious trouble.

Players to Watch: Antoine Dupont (France), Nicolas Sanchez (Argentina)

Pick Two: New Zealand v South Africa, Pool B, International Stadium Yokohama, 10:45 (UK Time), Saturday 21st September

I mean there is very little to say about this clash that hasn’t already been said.

Two absolute heavyweights of world rugby, world number ones and current World Champions, New Zealand need no introduction and as for South Africa, who have won the cup twice themselves also need no superlatives to emphasise just how good they are as a team.

The most intriguing battle may come at fly-half if New Zealand revert to picking the wildly talented Beauden Barrett at 10 as he would then face off against possibly the most underrated fly-half in the world right now Handre Pollard.

67152433_172746923759322_6579588973333091149_n
Credit: Instagram (@handrepollard)

Then again if we focus on that individual battle it may take away from Brodie Retallick against Even Etzebteh, Dane Coles v Malcolm Marx, Aaron Smith versus Faf de Klerk, a Rieko Ioane S’busiso Nkosi footrace, Kieran Read challenge Duane Vermeulen and the list goes on.

This is going to be engrossing, enthralling and above all brutal. Neither of these teams ever take a backward step.

It would take a brave man to put money on either of these giants in the playground of International rugby. So rather than putting money on it just sit back and enjoy the best the southern hemisphere has to offer.

Players to Watch: Brodie Retallick (New Zealand), Siya Kolisi (South Africa)

Pick Three: Ireland v Scotland, Pool A, International Stadium Yokohama, 08:45 (UK Time), Sunday 22nd September

The big one from the hosts pool. Ireland current world number one despite being thrashed by England just a few weeks ago. They play their Six Nations rivals, Scotland.

Scotland are arguably one of the most exciting teams as shown by their extraordinary Calcutta Cup draw way back in March. Down 31-0 at half-time they then scored 38 points before George Ford scampered over to spare England’s blushes.

66179883_135582827648432_7848271383262664224_n
Credit: Instagram (@finnrussell92)

Finn Russell the mastermind behind this aided by his capable lieutenants Stuart Hogg and Ali Price in Scotland’s impressive armoury of backs.

Ireland more than have the pedigree to match and will fancy their chances against what is a fairly light pack north of the border. Johnny Sexton is key to Ireland’s chances with Joey Carbery injured and Jack Carty fairly new to the trial and tribulations of test match rugby if Ireland want to progress they are going to need the playmaker to be on top form.

Players to Watch: Johnny Sexton (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

These are just three of the best there are of course other games this weekend with Japan in action against Russia on Friday, then on Saturday Australia kick off their campaign against Fiji, Sunday starts with Italy v Namibia before England get underway against Tonga which is followed by Wales first taste of the action as they play Georgia on Monday.

Potential XV for Gatland’s 2021 Tour

The British & Irish Lions will be coached by Warren Gatland for a third successive time when they tour South Africa. The tour is still two years away and there is a lot of rugby to be played between then and now including the Rugby World Cup and two Six Nations championships and both Ireland and Wales will definitely have new head coaches after the World Cup and Eddie Jones’ future following the World Cup is unclear.

We take a very early look at who could start the first test in South Africa two years from now.

  1. Mako Vunipola (England)

Arguably the best loosehead prop in the world and a key part of the extremely successful Saracens side. Works hard in the loose and over the last couple of seasons has greatly improved his set piece. He will be 30 when the tour rolls around.

2. Jamie George (England)

He has taken full advantage of Dylan Hartley’s absence this season and cemented himself as England’s first choice and will probably retain the shirt for the World Cup. Another powerhouse in the loose. He will also be 30 for the next tour.

3. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)

A very good prop. Excellent in the set piece and useful in the loose. Ireland and Leinster rely so heavily on him and he performed well in New Zealand two years ago. He is the youngest of this front row and will be 28 with his best prop years ahead of him for 2021.

4. Maro Itoje (England)

This man still has the chants of “Oh Maro Itoje” ringing in his ears from that famous night in Wellington. Undoubtedly world class and a potential captain for both his country, England and he is still improving all the time. He will be in his prime at 26 for the next tour.

USO - Saracens - 20151213 - Maro Itoje
USO – Saracens – 20151213 – Maro Itoje

5. James Ryan (Ireland)

He has been the standout performer in the Champions Cup and greatly impressed on the international stage having emerged as a key man for Ireland. His age gives him the edge over the older Alun Wyn Jones. He will be just 24.

6. Peter O’Mahony (Captain, Ireland)

Our pick to captain our potential side. A key cog in Munster’s excellent European campaign as they went all the way to the semi-final before being knocked out by Saracens. Physical and inspirational. He will be the other side of 30, at 31 years of age in two years time.

7. Tom Curry (England)

England’s standout man during the Six Nations and he has continued that form for his club, Sale Sharks. Very good at the breakdown both winning turnovers for his side and slowing the ball down for the opposition. And he certainly has age on his side, the youngest pick so far he will be just 22.

8. Billy Vunipola (England)

A fourth Saracen in Anglo-Irish pack. Vunipola carries very well using his powerful leg drive and big frame. A competent defender and an explosive force from the base of the scrum. He will be two years younger than his brother and 28 for the South Africa tour.

9. Conor Murray (Ireland)

An all court scrum-half, the best box kicking scrum-half in the world and has the height and strength that Gatland values. He has become a leader for Munster and should be a valuable deputy to his fellow Munsterman O’Mahony in South Africa. He will be 32.

10. Owen Farrell (England)

It’s no contest, Farrell has proved over the past few years that he is a class act. A metronome off the tee, a good defensive leader and has the big game experience with both Saracens and England to make him world class. He will still be under 30 at 29 years of age in South Africa.

USO - Saracens - 20151213 - Owen Farrell
By Clément Bucco-Lechat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46847661

11. Liam Williams (Wales)

The first Welshman on the list. Liam Williams has come on leaps and bounds since joining Saracens (are you starting to spot a theme?) unflappable in the air and quick enough to trouble defenders when he counter attacks. He will be 30 when Warren Gatland names his team.

12. Huw Jones (Scotland)

The Scottish centre is more of a natural 13 but could definitely slot in at 12. He’s a powerful runner and has the upper body strength to beat any weak, high tackles. Having that power and explosiveness allow him to open holes in midfield. He will be 27 for the next tournament and therefore gets in ahead of that will be a 31 year old Hadleigh Parkes.

13. Jonathan Davies (Wales)

One of Wales’ best players during their current 14 match unbeaten run, he was also key for the Lions in New Zealand. No doubt one of the British Isles most potent, attacking threats, he has the pace and defends well enough to fill the 13 jersey. He will be 33.

14. Jonny May (England)

Out and out pace. He has matured greatly over the past two to three years and his finishing ability make him a match winner. May has become better in the air and improved his positioning. He would be given plenty of opportunities with the Jones-Davies combination inside him. He will be 31.

15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

Injury robbed the brilliant Scot from playing on the 2017 tour. Still very much one of Scotland’s biggest stars and most exciting players. Pace and a wicked step make him a pushing attacker and he competes out lethal back three. He has been around a while but will be just 28 for the 2021 tour.

There we have it England lead the way with seven players, five of them being Saracens. Ireland have four players and Scotland and Wales have two each.

Who would you have in your team? Let us know in the comments section.

How Good Are Saracens?

Saracens claimed a 37-34 comeback victory over Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership final. Jamie George was the star man, backed up by the brilliant Maro Itoje, the masterful Owen Farrell, a committed Alex Lozowksi and the totemic George Kruis.

It was one of the greatest finals any supporter could have wished for, the early try for Exeter Chiefs a sign of what was to come.

Saracens managed to turn the irrepressible tide that had solely been behind the men in white at Twickenham.

Owen Farrell’s inch perfect kick for Liam Williams coupled with two touchline conversions following two first half misses was the mark of man that has come to personify the wolfpack, warrior spirit of Saracens.

USO - Saracens - 20151213 - Chris Ashton, Owen Farrell and Marcelo Bosch
By Clément Bucco-Lechat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46847556

Saracens bench with the likes of veteran scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, hat-trick hero from the semi-final Nick Tompkins, fast developing Nick Isiekwe and South African flanker Michael Rhodes further reinforcing the red machine.

This is not to take anything away from Exeter who know how they want to play and have become incredibly successful at it, their pick and go gameplan the blueprint for their first half barrage of tries.

This final was a mark of just how high intensity the Premiership is. The perceived notion that Super Rugby or the Top 14 is a higher quality competition can be scoffed at by anyone who witnessed the display put on by England’s two greatest sides on one of Saracens’ greatest days.

This club match was reminiscent of any test match with the level of commitment, physicality and pace on show. Club rugby is well and truly alive and kicking.

It will take something special to dethrone the English and European champions, they are now synonymous with success, the benchmark to which all others aspire to.

This was a show of what Saracens can do and the worrying part is their stars are still some way off leaving this dynasty that has dominated the domestic scene.

Three Players That Deserve an England Recall

With the sun having set on a great European season as Saracens downed Leinster and with awards season already upon us and the World Cup just up ahead this is the time to stake your claim for a spot in your international team’s colours.

For England a settled core group of players will already be packing their bags for Japan but with Eddie Jones being Eddie Jones there are bound to be a few surprises when he names his squad for England’s summer exploits against Wales (twice), Ireland and Italy.

Here are three surprises we would love to see on Eddie’s team sheet.

  1. Danny Cipriani

What a season this man has had for Johan Ackermann’s Gloucester as they have found their way into the play-offs. His excellent form has seen him bag himself the RPA Player of the Year award.

Cipriani is one of those players that tries things other players wouldn’t dare, he’s not just on a different page but a different planet to England’s incumbent fly-half, Owen Farrell. That’s not to say he should start ahead of the Saracens playmaker but Cipriani would make a good game breaker off the bench.

The ability to see things others don’t set him apart and his outrageous talent mean he’s more than capable of executing the improbable at the most unlikely of times. Surely after the season he’s had he will have George Ford looking over his shoulder.

2. Alex Goode

The Saracens fullback has done it again. He’s won European Player of the Year and another Champions Cup with Mark McCall’s Saracens. Alex Goode is one of the Premiership’s best fullbacks but not England’s apparently.

640px-USO_-_Saracens_-_20151213_-_Alex_Goode
By Clément Bucco-Lechat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46847541

It’s true he’s had his chances in the past and not made the most of them but with his brilliant kicking game, defensive stability and counter attacking vision he is everything you could want in a fullback and far more experienced there than Elliot Daly and if his Champions Cup form is anything to go by more than capable of competing at the highest level he will have stiff competition at 15 though with a fit again Anthony Watson firing and Mike Brown still very much in the mix.

3. Don Armand

England seem to have finally found an openside flanker in Tom Curry and a very worthy deputy in Sam Underhill but blindside is yet to be nailed down, Brad Shields, Chris Robshaw, Mark Wilson have all donned the shirt but none of them have made it their own.

Armand has once again been one of Exeter’s most consistent performers over the course of another table topping season. It is a crime that he is stuck on just one appearance for England in the 2018 Six Nations he could be a real asset for England out in Japan if he is offered that all important recall.

Armand has the ability to make the six shirt his own and offer some balance to a back row that is likely to include Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola.

We think with these three stars Eddie Jones could definitely have a shot in Japan later this year. Who do you think deserves an England recall? Let us know in the comments!

Opinion: Bath Should Break the Bank to Land Pollard

Bath Rugby will be losing Wales veteran, Rhys Priestland at the end of the season, and with just two specialist fly-halves contracted for next season Bath have been linked with three high profile names to replace the outgoing ten.

South African Handre Pollard, 50 cap All Black Aaron Cruden and most recently Gareth Anscombe.

It’s been a while since Bath had a clear first choice fly-half with the shirt being shared between the departing Priestland and Freddie Burns as Bath have lingered in mid-table and failed to live up to any sort of hype.

Aaron_Cruden_2016
By Stemoc – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49998625

If Bath are serious about competing for the title Handre Pollard is their only option. The 24 year old international would be unavailable for the start of each season as he fulfilled commitments in South Africa but the quality he would provide for he rest of the season would offset this.

Pollard has kicked well in the past, a vital part of any fly-halves game, kicks can win games. Pollard would provide a safe pair of hands in that department.

Can you imagine the havoc Girvan Dempsey could cause if Blackadder handed him a resource like the Bulls star? Pollard is very good in attack, a master, he has pace and his passing game and playmaking ability make him dangerous, Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel thrive outside him for South Africa. If he can replicate that with Bath’s selection of senior centres it could really set their game alight.

Pollard also is a strong defender, he doesn’t miss many tackles and he’s a physical tackler. Defence has been a focus for Premiership teams over the past years with the majority clubs seeing how well basing success on defence has worked for the ever improving Saracens.

The final thing that sets Pollard apart from Cruden and Anscombe is his age. Pollard is 24, three years younger than Ansombe and six years younger than Cruden.

The Springbok playmaker has his best years ahead of him.

South Africa are determined to keep him at home but with Bath’s large cash reserves, if they really want him they should be able to get him.

Our opinion, Bath should do whatever it takes to make him theirs next season.

Have England Finally Found Their First XV?

England’s win over Ireland was by some way the best performance of the weekend. Ferocious line speed, ruthless attack and brutal physicality whilst executing the perfectly formulated gameplay was enough for England win 32-20 and take the full five points in Dublin.

England have long been searching for their best team. The centre has been a particular area of concern even with Owen Farrell being the first choice twelve for Eddie Jones at the start of his tenure it was only ever meant to be a stop gap until something better came along or in Manu Tuilagi’s case regain fitness.

Manu_Tuilagi_2011
By George Olcott – Flickr: Seeing The Gap, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16995621

The axis of the powerful Manu Tuilagi and the playmaker Henry Slade worked perfectly. Tuilagi’s power was enough to keep the duo of Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose occupied defensively, and Henry Slade’s two try performance including the interception of Jonny Sexton’s pass to wrap up the bonus point was the best he’s ever played in the white of England.

In the back row Tom Curry came in for the injured Sam Underhill and there is a debate to be had about who offers more. Both are young, traditional open side flankers, they will likely be battling it out to be England’s first choice for years to come but the Ireland performance would suggest it’s advantage Curry.

Alongside Curry was the return of Saracens number eight Billy Vunipola. The rampaging back rower makes such a difference to England he’s on another level to Nathan Hughes and Mark Wilson who took up the mantle for England’s autumn campaign.

IMG_4726
By Charlie from UK – IMG_4726Uploaded by stemoc, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28727588

Vunipola adds that carrying ability that is so important for forwards in the modern game. You would not want to be the player having to drag down 130 kilo behemoth.

On the blindside was Mark Wilson who was the standout for England against South Africa and Australia in the autumn. His hard work and tireless effort make him the player every team needs. He offers much more than Wasps New Zealand import Brad Shields who has barely got out of second gear since arriving in Coventry.

The final position there was doubt over was Elliot Daly, many including us here at Rugby360 were expecting to see Mike Brown start against Ireland to diffuse the expected aerial bombardment of the half backs Conor Murray and Sexton.

Daly was exceptional. He was excellent in the air. Daly did miss one important catch in the second half but other than that he was masterful.

Daly is quick, has good footballing ability and there is no other kicker in world rugby that you would want stepping up to nail a long range penalty.

Eddie Jones may have finally found his best XV with just months until World Cup, have England timed their run to 2019 to perfection? Jones will certainly hope so and a win over France at Twickenham on Sunday would be a massive step towards the Grand Slam in a World Cup year and the last time that happened well….a certain Jonny Wilkinson wrote himself in English rugby folklore.

Six Nations Preview: England Squad

With Eddie Jones set to announce his latest squad on Thursday it’s time we took a look at who could be in Eddie Jones’ squad for what will be England’s last matches before they begin their warm-ups for the World Cup in August.

At the front end of the squad the Saracens prop Mako Vunipola is back fit following an injury that ruled him out of the Quilter Internationals back in November. Vunipola is among the best loosehead props in the world and walks in to Eddie Jones’ squad.

Behind him is undoubtedly the outspoken Ellis Genge who has put a good run of performances together, he is another who missed the November tests through injury. That leaves England’s starters in November, the Exeter duo of Alec Hepburn and Ben Moon battling it out for what may be the last place at prop.

On the other side if the scrum there is a clear frontrunner in British & Irish Lion, Kyle Sinckler. His abrasive style and work around the park make him a real asset.

IMG_0251
By Charlie from UK – Kyle Sinckler, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35386171

With Eddie Jones only likely to take five props it could be a straight fight between veteran Dan Cole and Harry Williams.

Rugby360’s Picks: Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers), Ben Moon (Exeter Chiefs), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs)

In between there is one player that has to start following a strong showing in the autumn and with him being one of Jones’ co-captains. That is of course the physical, New Zealand born Dylan Hartley. He starts.

dylan_hartley,_twickenham_cropped (1)
By Blackcat – Derived from Diliff’s Dylan Hartley, Twickenham – May 2012.jpg, released with same licence, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24066490

Behind him the options are also fairly straightforward, Saracens Jamie George is very good around the field and his link with mainstays Maro Itoje and George Kruis at lineout time is an advantage. And for back-up there are two main options in Exeter’s Luke Cowan-Dickie or Worcester’s Jack Singleton. Both would be fine choices as back-up for England.

Rugby360’s Picks: Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs), Jamie George (Saracens), Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints)

Saracens’ Maro Itoje is a shoo-in for England, he’s powerful and master of line speed. We saw him pile the pressure on Handre Pollard and Beauden Barrett in November. Alongisde him there is his teammate George Kruis, a lineout specialist.

Wasps are welcoming Joe Launchbury at the moment and he adds his considerable talent to what is a well stocked second row division for England.

With Dave Attwood consistently overlooked his Bath teammate Charlie Ewels is in the running to complete the options at lock, he’ll have stiff competition from a resurgent Ed Slater, Leicester’s promising Will Spencer and another Bath player in Elliot Stooke who was in the squad last year.

There are of course the looming presences of Courtney Lawes and Nick Isiekwe but currently they are more suited to England’s back row.

Rugby360’s Picks: Maro Itoje, George Kruis (both Saracens), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Ed Slater (Gloucester Rugby)

One notable absentee from England’s back row is Sam Underhill who announced himself to the world with a barnstorming performance against New Zealand, a personal highlight was watching the flanker turn Beauden Barrett inside out for the try that was ruled out by TMO Marius Jonker.

However his absence will be offset by the return of Saracens’ Billy Vunipola. Vunipola is a monster and along with his brother is regarded as one of the finest in his position, he will be key piece of Eddie Jones’ World Cup puzzle if he can stay fit.

IMG_4726
By Charlie from UK – IMG_4726Uploaded by stemoc, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28727588

The back-up number eight options are outstanding even with Sam Simmonds out of action with an ACL injury. Nathan Hughes has returned to fitness recently and Zach Mercer continues to impress when he plays for Bath.

To replace the crocked Underhill the frontrunner is clearly Sale’s Tom Curry, a breakdown specialist but he lacks the raw power of his Bath counterpart. Chris Robshaw would be an option but his strengths lie at blindside rather than openside in my mind and he’s still not quite fit but should be ready for England’s opener with Ireland.

Former Hurricane Brad Shields is the man currently in possession of the six shirt but there is stiff competition from versatile second row Courtney Lawes who would offer the physicality England lose without Underhill and he provides a third lineout option.

The same could be said of Saracens youngster Nick Isiekwe. The star of the autumn was undoubtedly Mark Wilson and his ability to play across the back row make him a crucial part of England’s squad. Saracens Michael Rhodes is also in the mix.

Then there’s Harlequins’ current superstar, Alex Dombrandt, he’s fast and he knows how to link play. Dombrandt could be a very good addition for England at the World Cup but he needs to get that experience under his belt if he is going to be anywhere near Eddie Jones’ thoughts.

Rugby360’s Picks: Tom Curry (Sale Sharks), Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Brad Shields (Wasps), Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Mark Wilson (NewcastleFalcons)