Scotland: Dark Horses at the World Cup?

Scotland had a very mixed Six Nations a loss to France were offset by an impressive win over Italy and that frantic draw against England. It was hard to gauge where Scotland are under Gregor Townsend as well with many of Scotland’s star players absent for at least some of the Six Nations.

Scotland face a fairly tricky pool with Ireland, hosts Japan, physical Samoa and minnows Russia.

Scotland do have the talent, Exeter bound Stuart Hogg is an excellent player, his broken field running, siege gunner boot and playmaking brain make him one of the best fullbacks currently playing international rugby.

66383583_165820897789619_308641186694198352_n
Credit: Instagram (stuarthogg21)

Alongside Hogg is Racing 92 playmaker, Finn Russell. Undeniably talented, his kicking out of hand is at times laser accurate, he is also quick for a fly-half and he has a talent for unlocking doors for his midfield at both Racing 92 and for Scotland.

The other outrageous talent in their backline is former Stormers centre, Huw Jones. This man single handedly dealt England a blow last year as Scotland made England look amateur at Murrayfield. His balanced running and upper body strength allow him to ride tackles and put Scotland on the front foot.

Credit: Instagram (@hrfjones)

In the forwards there is the younger of the Gray brothers, Jonny, a stoic leader and inspirational captain. His contribution to games is best summed up by one statistic from a Glasgow match last season in which the 25 year old made 41 successful tackles and missed none. 41 tackles in one match, that requires some engine.

Openside flanker, Hamish Watson is another one of Scotland’s diamonds in the rough. Watson combines all the traditional attributes of an openside with carrying of a number eight and the work rate of a blindside. There is marked difference to Scotland when the 25-cap Edinburgh back rower is playing.

53814375_265140764408351_3866698499319776158_n
Credit: Instagram(hamishwatson07)

Now Scotland’s biggest test in the group stage will undoubtedly be the 22nd September meeting with Six Nations rivals, Ireland in Yokohama. Last time out Ireland beat Scotland 13-22 in the Six Nations outscoring Scotland three tries to one, although the Sam Johnson try was a very well worked one.

Ireland won for two reasons, an extreme effort from the Irish duo of Peter O’Mahony (man of the match) and Jack Conan who secured Ireland safe ball whilst causing Scotland’s ruck and maul all kinds of problems. The second was that in the opening quarter they caught Scotland cold, Conor Murray and Jacob Stockdale giving Ireland a 12-3 lead inside 17 minutes before fly-half, Jonny Sexton hobbled off in the 24th minute to be replaced by the excitable Joey Carbery.

51026408_599017333859320_5674218675971619276_n
Credit: Instagram (@joeycarbery)

Scotland’s next biggest challenge will be their last game when they play Japan on 13th October again in Yokohama. This will be a challenge for two reasons, Japan are hosts and it comes just four days after Scotland’s tie with Russia whereas Japan will have had eight days to recover from their match with Samoa.

Scotland should be wise to the challenge Japan pose, England struggled to put away Japan at Twickenham way back at the end of last year until the second half, in the end English power prevailed. Japan though will be determined to make this the year they finally make it out of the pool stages in front of a home crowd which would be almost as shocking as their brutal dismantling of South Africa in Brighton four years ago.

Whilst Samoa will pose a physical challenge Scotland are firm favourites and against Russia it’s more of a question of by how much than who will win.

How Scotland Could Line-Up Against Ireland in Yokohama

1 Allan Dell (Irish) 2 Stuart McInally 3 Simon Berghan (both Edinburgh) 4 Sam Skinner (Exeter) 5 Jonny Gray 6 Ryan Wilson (both Glasgow) 7 Hamish Watson (Edinburgh) 8 Josh Strauss (Bulls)

9 Ali Price (Glasgow) 10 Finn Russell (Racing 92) 11 Sean Maitland (Saracens) 12 Sam Johnson 13 Huw Jones (both Glasgow) 14 Darcy Graham (Edinburgh) 15 Stuart Hogg (Exeter)

16 Fraser Brown (Glasgow) 17 Jamie Bhatti 18 WP Nel 19 Ben Toolis 20 John Barclay (all Edinburgh) 20 Greig Laidlaw (Clermont) 22 Adam Hastings (Glasgow) 23 Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh)

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.

Should England Centrally Contract Their Stars?

Central contracts seem to be a hot topic at the moment in Ireland and for some of Wales’ top performers the central contracts have made huge differences.

Central contracts mean stars in Ireland like Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and Peter O’Mahony have their contract controlled by the IRFU. The IRFU then loan these players to the provincial sides.

This has a massive effect on player welfare, as we saw following the 2017 Lions tour, Ireland’s biggest stars were given time off from club duties when they returned, this allowed Ireland and Wales to have their best players fighting fit in European competitions and more importantly for the international sides the Six Nations and Autumn Internationals.

This was not the case for England’s Lions contingent who were straight back into action for their clubs. It’s been the same this season, England players racking up far more minutes than their Celtic cousins.

With player welfare being such a huge issue is it time the RFU should look to centrally contract some of their most prized assets and loan them back to their clubs?

The problem with that is that England’s clubs are rich and powerful, super rich owners like Bruce Craig (Bath), Nigel Wray (Saracens) and Steve Lansdown (Bristol) are pumping money into their clubs and they want to see a return on their investments by having their best players available each week.

There could also be an argument that the central contracts allow Ireland in particular to build depth. This was seen last summer, the young fly-half/ fullback Joey Carbery was struggling for game time at Leinster with two seasoned internationals, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney ahead of him in the pecking order despite him being the obvious successor to Sexton.

ireland-2803347_1920

The IRFU took the decision to move Carbery to Munster where he is first choice and has become a key part of the Cork based provinces assault on the Pro14 this season.

It is unlikely we will see the RFU centrally contracting their players anytime soon as there is still a less than perfect relationship between them and Premiership Rugby’s stakeholders. If it does happen it could be a move that benefits the national team in the future.

World Cup Countdown: State of Play

We’ve seen a great autumn of rugby so far including the dramatic ending to England’s victory over South Africa, Wales’ 74 point rout of Tonga and Ireland defeating New Zealand for the second time in three games.

With one week left and just under a year before the World Cup we take a look at the contenders for next year’s showpiece event.

New Zealand are still top of the tree despite their loss to Ireland but their position looks less stable than it has in recent years. South Africa and Ireland have beaten them, England ran them extremely close as did South Africa in the second leg of their Rugby Championship tie.

Steven Hansen was quick to label Ireland favourites for the World Cup but I think it’s safe to say New Zealand will still be fancied by the bookmakers to claim their fourth World Cup title.

Steve_Hansen_2012
By Government of NZ – http://gg.govt.nz/content/mike-eagle-christchurch-onzm-services-rugby, CC BY 3.0 nz, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59328418

Rassie Erasmus is doing a terrific job with South Africa, they defeated England 2-1 in the June test series which is a massive boost. Siya Kolisi is magnificent captain and with the dangerous duo on the wings of Sbu Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi have emerged as two of the most in-form wings in the world maybe just behind Jacob Stockdale and Rieko Ioane.

Their narrow loss to England showed they do have some weaknesses, despite Malcolm Marx’s work in the loose he is still unreliable at the set piece, his lineout issues at Twickenham handed the second half initiative to England as they trusted in Owen Farrell’s boot to guide them to victory.

Ireland, all conquering in the 2018 Six Nations which was followed up by a series win over a very disappointing Australia outfit before swiftly dispatching of Argentina and then dismantling New Zealand. Johnny Sexton is a remarkable player, he directs play, Beuaden Barrett got taught a real lesson in Dublin.

Peter O’Mahony he stops at nothing to deliver the win, tenacious, hard working and physical. Tadhg Furlong is the best tighthead prop going, you can argue all you want it won’t change fact that he is tremendous. Joe Schmidt has taken his time moulding Ireland into the team he wants them to be.

Jonathan_Sexton_2015_RWC
By Warwick Gastinger – Rugby World Cup 2015 DSCN4929, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43622816

Schmidt has built a group that knows what it feel like to win, they know how to win, they certainly have the credentials to be crowned champions in Japan. That is if they get past New Zealand.

Their Celtic cousins Wales have had a great November series, they started it off with a free flowing, open win over Scotland in Cardiff. They then scraped past Australia before expertly punishing Tonga by scoring loads of tries.

Warren Gatland now has a group of players from the Scarlets that love to attack, gone are the days of ‘Warrenball’, Gareth Anscombe is transforming the backline, he’s fast, skilful and can expertly manage a game.

Then there Is England. People may laugh after the year they’ve had but the world should be wary of Eddie Jones’ charges. The writing seemed to be on the wall this autumn, but England roared back into life despite it taking them 40 minutes to get into the South Africa test.

England-rugby (1)
By DIALLO 25 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57847156

They gave New Zealand one hell of a game, make no mistake they rattled Hansen’s cage, the Six Nations opener against Ireland is going to be an amazing game. Owen Farrell is leading the charge and they’ve finally found an openside in Sam Underhill and Tom Curry isn’t far behind.

There we have it the five frontrunners just under a year out from the World Cup. New Zealand leading the charge but the others aren’t far behind.