Well, what a week or more accurately 10 days it has been!!!! First there was the bombshell that Wallabies Coach Dave Rennie had been sacked and replaced by former England Coach Eddie Jones after his own summary execution by the RFU last month. Then there were the announcements of the Six Nations squads as the tournament gets set to kick off in less than two weeks. Finally we were treated to a thrilling weekend of European rugby as the last round of European Champions Cup pool games took place which decided who will make it to the first round of the knockout stages at the end of March.
Consequently there has been rather a lot to digest and more than a few issues to keep our pints frothy over the last fortnight. So without any further ado here’s what kept the commentary lively over the last few days in our rugby corner.
Is Eddie really the saviour that Australia think he is and hasn’t Dave been rather harshly judged?
OK let’s get the cat out of the bag here – we’re not happy about this one. Unlike the people running Rugby Australia, we liked Dave Rennie and despite his poor results in 2022 felt he was getting the Wallabies on the right track to make them a genuine smoking gun come the World Cup in September. He managed to unearth and embed in the Wallaby squad a raft of exciting new talent that seemed to have a coherent idea of the type of rugby they wanted to play. Australia narrowly lost a series to England, came within a whisker of beating New Zealand, and managed to beat Argentina and South Africa. Despite a truly grueling end of year tour to Europe they beat Scotland, lost by a mere point to the number 2 ranked side in the world France and two weeks later put world number one Ireland under enormous pressure, and kept the green machine to a low scoring game which the Wallabies only lost by three points. They finished the year with one of Test Rugby’s greatest comebacks to put Wales to the sword in the second half.
Compare that to Eddie Jones’ record last year, who according to his new employers is “the best Coach in the world”. First off there was England’s dismal Six Nations and which is still a wound that stings for many an English supporter. Sure there was that series win in Australia, that in reality was an intensely hard fought contest over three matches that all had to go to the wire. Then there was England’s wretched Autumn campaign which saw them lose to Argentina and South Africa, while settling for a draw against New Zealand in a match that they should of and could of won had they decided to play with purpose for more than the final ten minutes.
If you look at Australia last year their Achilles Heel was some appalling discipline, but the rest of it was looking extremely promising. Given that England themselves under Eddie Jones in the last two years have become a disciplinary laughing stock, we really struggle to see what he can fix that Rennie couldn’t. Rennie seemed to have the buy in and support of his players, while avoiding for the most part the annoying media baiting that Jones is famous for. In short, he generally kept his mouth shut and got on with the job at hand without the media sideshows that Jones seems to revel in and regard as so crucial to game management, and which generally have backfired spectacularly on him and his team in the last two years.
In conclusion we’ll sound like a broken record, and although Jones does have a track record of having a remarkable effect on teams in the short term, we can’t help feeling that in the long term it’s a decision Australia will regret. He’s a divisive persona, and we’re not sure that a Wallaby side big on ambition but low on confidence will respond positively under pressure to his management style.
Time will be the judge but from all of us here, our genuine commiserations to Dave Rennie who we definitely feel has been given a raw deal on this one, and best of luck to him for the future.
While everyone appears to be looking at Ireland as a team that has peaked too soon – is France perhaps a more pressing case in point?
Are Ireland finally being given some room to breathe and step out of the limelight of being the number one side in the world by France? Every pundit and Irish supporter across the globe are watching and waiting to see if Ireland have once again peaked a year too early ahead of the World Cup. After watching the last two rounds of the Heineken Cup however, we feel that the microscope when it comes to this question is now being focused on tournament hosts France – at least until this year’s Six Nations comes to a conclusion on March 18th.
Last year France were unbeatable, sweeping all before them in the Six Nations, in their tour to Japan and in the November Internationals. In the space of 12 months they managed to beat the three sides that are looking most likely to upset their ambitions of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in the Stade de France on October 28th. New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa all fell to the Men in Blue. While Ireland may be the number one side in the world at the moment, few could argue against the fact that playing at home France would appear to be the side to beat when the Webb Ellis festivities get underway this September. French clubs also dominated European Competition last season with La Rochelle and Lyon lifting the silverware in both tiers of the European Club competition.
So why the alarm you say? Despite the fact that last year’s Heineken Cup Champions La Rochelle look truly ominous and comfortably dominated their pool, the last two rounds of the pool stages saw the other 7 French sides struggle. In Pool A all four French teams occupied the bottom rungs of the Pool standings and failed to qualify for the knockout stages. In Pool B, Toulouse managed to finish second but despite the presence of their all star International halfback pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, they struggled to put away an impressive Munster outfit at home in one of the heartlands of French rugby. Last year’s Challenge Cup champions Lyon only showed up in their final game against the Bulls by which time it was too late. Montpellier looked far from convincing throughout the tournament and must surely feel lucky to have squeaked into the knockout stages where they have the unenviable task of a road trip to Exeter. As for the rest including traditional giants like Racing 92, Clermont Auvergne and Bordeaux they just weren’t at the races. In the Challenge Cup apart from Toulon French teams fared no better.
While there have been injuries aplenty many of which have affected French Coach Fabien Galthie’s selections for the Six Nations, we have to confess to starting 2023 being far less in awe of French rugby than we were at the end of 2022. This will be a World Cup defining Six Nations for all the participants, but of all the teams expect France to be the one most under the microscope. Right now the image looks a little blurry! The age old question is back folks – “which French team is going to turn up next month and beyond?”
New England Coach Steve Borthwick chooses familiarity over radical change despite some surprising inclusions and omissions
We have to be honest and say that we don’t exactly envy the task that new England Coach Steve Borthwick has been handed. Nine months out from the World Cup he has been given a rather daunting to do list. Somehow he has to turn England from being a side only able to win two of their Six Nations games last year, into a force to challenge for this year’s silverware and build on that to make England a title contender for the World Cup only five months after that. It may be too much of a tall order to get the Men in White beyond the Quarter Finals in France come the fall, but a strong showing in the upcoming Six Nations is certainly a realistic ambition. Apart from difficult trips to Cardiff and Dublin, England has a relatively favorable draw with the bonus of having to face France at Twickenham. Furthermore England will have the opportunity to settle under Borthwick in their first two games by being at home. However, their opener against Scotland is a potential banana skin and has provided for some genuine thrills and spills in the last few years.
In the forwards the big surprise for us was the inclusion of veteran prop Dan Cole, but then Borthwick is familiar with him from his time at Leicester and there has been a trend to pack his squad with some trusted club faces. Cole has value added no doubt but whether or not he is fit enough to withstand the rigors of five weeks of Six Nations competition remains to be seen. We’re not overly thrilled with the second row selections and surely David Ribbans deserved a spot. The back row does look solid and possibly for the first time in many a year actually balanced. The half back offerings look tested and exciting, especially with the addition of debutant Fin Smith.
It’s in the centres and the back three where we’ve been scratching our heads. We would have thought Guy Porter would have deserved a shot, and despite Borthwick seemingly persisting with the belief that Manu Tuilagi is England’s “Messiah”, we’ve seen absolutely nothing this season from the Sale Shark to convince us that such convictions have any merit. Lastly in the back three surely with a view to the World Cup there is a place for Harry Arundell – although Elliot Daly’s injury may make room for the young speedster.
It’s a competitive side that is likely to see some major tweaking with an eye to the future as the tournament progresses. It will be fascinating to see how Borthwick adapts to his new role given all the hype surrounding him as well as how his charges accept what he brings to the table and his vision for the future. Either way we have a hunch that the misery of the last two years for England can start to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Coach Fabien Galthie’s French selection leaves us with more questions than answers as he takes a gamble on depth
There is no question that injury has forced Coach Fabien Galthie’s hand to a certain degree for this Six Nations. In our view the biggest omission is Cameron Woki, who along with Ireland’s Tadgh Beirne is perhaps the best second rower in the Northern Hemisphere right now. However, in our view the more pressing concern for Galthie and his team is the rather poor showing by French clubs in European competition this season, with only La Rochelle turning in consistent performances week in week out.
The front five selections with the exception of the outstanding Cyril Baille and Julien Marchand haven’t exactly had us sitting up and taking notice but as a depth development exercise it’s likely a good set of calls. It’s a capable if not flash set of second row selections, but certainly there is redemption in the shape of the back row choices. We have a hunch that Sekou Macalou will really cement his spot in the French squad with a view to the World Cup, especially given the fact that he can actually put in a genuinely handy shift on the wing if needed. The fact that Gregory Alldritt could be rated as the best number 8 in the world and Charles Ollivon is back to his bruising best will also bring comfort to Galthie and French supporters.
In the halfbacks the injury count is telling and even superstar Antoine Dupont has not looked all that flash so far this season – brilliant at times but opposition sides are clearly starting to figure him out and how to contain him. One to watch could be the Racing 92 input from Nolan le Garrec who looked so sharp against Leinster last weekend in the nine jersey, despite being part of a losing cause. In the fly halves it’s steady as she goes with some genuine proven depth, though all of them need to up their game after some less than stellar club performances. In the centres we’d rate their threat on par with England, but in the back three there is excitement aplenty. One to watch for us will be Ethan Dumortier of Lyon who definitely looks like a potential find of the year for Les Bleus.
France are still clearly one of the favorites, and if they do end up lifting the silverware as defending Grand Slam Champions this year, then the rest of the world needs to live in fear come September. If France performs with this squad then they know they head into the World Cup with some genuine world class depth at their disposal.
While it looks an exceptionally strong Irish side heading into this Six Nations, a few of Andy Farrell’s selection choices have raised eyebrows
It’s an impressive list of names that Andy Farrell has assembled for Ireland’s Six Nations challenge, but no good list would ever be without its surprises. Clearly the two big talking points are Joey Carberry’s loss and Jacob Stockdale’s gain. The Munster fly half has been a conundrum for the Irish selectors – a development player racked by injury problems and generally not living up to the expectations his Coaches have had for him. He’s not a bad player by any stretch of the imagination and has put in some useful efforts in a green jersey. However, consistency is not his strong suit.
Despite a good run of form of late with Munster under their new Coach Graham Rowntree, it’s clear that there are other upstarts challenging Carberry for his place who are making more of an impression. Carberry’s erratic form off the tee as evidenced last weekend against Toulouse and which could have swung the game clearly in Munster’s favor, also hasn’t helped his cause. While we feel it’s a bit harsh that he has been dropped, we’ve been saying all along that Farrell simply has to learn as much about his fly half options ahead of the World Cup as possible. As a result Carberry’s Munster teammate Jack Crawley gets given the nod which we have to say we are delighted by, provided he gets some genuine game time against some of Ireland’s easier opponents such as Italy. Ross Byrne’s form at Leinster has also ensured that he simply had to be on the bus to Cardiff next weekend.
The other surprise in Farrell’s selection was the return of Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale to the Irish fold. After turning heads in 2018 the winger has dropped off Ireland’s radar, not helped by distinctly average performances at club level and ongoing defensive frailties. However, the talent that turned heads five years ago must still surely be in there somewhere. Nevertheless we’d have thought that there would have been a place for his Ulster teammate Robert Balacoune rather than Stockdale. Either way it’s our hope that this Six Nations is the chance Stockdale needs to finally get back to his barnstorming best. You’d have to argue that if he doesn’t then it’s unlikely he’ll feature in Farrell’s World Cup plans, so there is more than just a little pressure on the 26 year old’s shoulders.
As for the rest of the squad it looks more than capable of giving France a run for their money at Six Nations glory as well as any other pretenders to the crown. Ireland should be dominant in the front row, but we can’t help feeling that despite the presence of Dan Sheehan, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong, Ireland’s scrum is the one area that doesn’t look as sharp as it could be despite the world class talent in its ranks. Nevertheless, their work in the loose is always something to behold and expect to see Hooker Dan Sheehan in particular causing absolute mayhem over the next two months. Their second row looks mean and hungry with Tadhg Beirne rapidly becoming the Lineout’s favorite player no matter who we support – expect him along with Sheehan to be one of Ireland’s primary agents of chaos. It’s a back row the envy of the world and a set of half backs who on their day can make a game of rugby look like a finely tuned orchestra.
In the backs we like the look of the centre offerings and are particularly excited to see how newcomer Jamie Osborne’s club form at Leinster translates to Test level, even if the lack of Robbie Henshaw due to injury is a bitter blow. We also would have liked to see Ulster’s James Hume in the mix. Lastly in the back three we’ve already mentioned our surprise over Stockdale. While some are also raising their eyebrows over veteran Keith Earls, in a green jersey he is always something else and turns up when Ireland need him most. Reliability is the term that comes to mind when we think of Earls and although he may not be Ireland’s most dynamic player we always feel a little uncomfortable if we don’t see his name on the planning sheets. We also expect this to be a massive tournament for Leinster sensation Jimmy O’Brien. The only omissions that caught us by surprise here were that of Robert Balacoune and Michael Lowry from Ulster despite their side’s recent struggles in both the URC and the Heineken Cup.
Ireland look good on paper, with the inevitable question swirling around their preparations being did they peak too soon heading into this Six Nations as the number one ranked side in the world? We’d argue it’s different this time around, and despite some lingering concerns particularly around the fly half berth and what kind of team Ireland really is without Johnny Sexton on the pitch, we have a hunch that they find themselves in as good a place as they could hope to be in a World Cup year. So bring on the Six Nations and let’s see where the Northern Hemisphere really stands!