Obviously at the highest profile event in World Rugby there won’t be many players that are completely unknown and without a single warm up game being played or any coaches naming their final squads for the tournament selecting any sort of team from the players who may feature would be lunacy, so here goes –
1. Keita Inagaki – the Japanese loose head is a Melbourne Rebels player and is very mobile for a man tipping the scales at over 18 stone, he may well bag a few tries in Pool B
2. Nicholas Klappenbach – Uruguay’s Captain is a qualified doctor and while they may struggle as a collective he should be a stand out player, he might be wearing 2 but he plays like a 7
3. Titi Lamositele – A former High School Football star the 20 year old from Samoan heritage plays for Saracens and is the youngest player to be capped by the Eagles.
4. Nico Esterhuyse – Namibia’s veteran lock forward stands 6 feet 9 inches tall, the stuff of nightmares for New Zealand, Georgia, Argentina and Tonga’s hookers who will have to avoid him at lineout time
5. Leone Nakarawa – Everybody who’s seen Glasgow Warriors play knows in the last 2 seasons knows what he can do but that doesn’t make his 7’s handling any less spectacular or stoppable, expect no look passes and confused defenders
6. John Moonlight – the Canadian 7’s Captain has scored 3 tries in just 13 starts for the 15 a side team, expect dynamism and pace to frighten most opposing forwards
7. Renaldo Bothma – he’s played 5 games for Namibia and scored 5 tries. The South African born has scored 22 tries in 90 games for the Steval Pumas, he’s a try machine.
8. Danny Barrett – He’s the USA 7’s Captain and he’s relentless, prominent in the Eagles win at World Rugby 7’s series in Twickenham this year he’s got speed to go with the stamina.
9. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne – This one’s in more in hope than belief, he’s been the best scrum half in Scotland all year but Greig Laidlaw is the current number 9 and as skipper he’ll be hard to depose.
10. Ben Volavola – The Waratahs player might not play at 10 for Fiji but his pace and dancing feet will open up space or the destructive outside backs they’ve got wherever they fit him in.
11. Zack Test – The Loughborough University student and USA 7’s specialist will be tricky for defenders to stop as he is 6 feet 3 inches tall and he’s fast enough to have scored 108 tries in 46 7’s appearances
12. Kotaro Matsushima – Born in South Africa he was the first player to join the Sharks academy before moving to Suntory Goliath and then onto the Waratahs. The diminutive 22 year old has got plenty of air miles in the bank.
13. JC Greyling – Namibia’s 24 year old tackles like a 6 and runs like an 8, there’ll be a few bruised bodies in Pool C when the former Valke Currie Cup player is finished with them.
14. Tamaz Mtchedlidze – There’s nothing original about a 6 foot 5 inch, 17 stone Georgian, unless he’s playing on the wing. He plays in Pro D2 in France for SU Agen and everyone in Pool C has been warned.
15. Catalin Fercu – Romania’s Captain has been a crucial member of Saracen’s LV Cup team and their ‘A’ team Saracens Storm this season, he missed the last RWC in New Zealand because he didn’t fancy the long flight to New Zealand (yes, really) so he’s got plenty to make up for and his 143 points in 78 matches suggest he’s more than capable of doing that.
An honourable mention should go to Scottish flanker John Hardie, the 27 year old is so surreptitious that nobody in Scotland has actually seen him play regional rugby, having left the Super Rugby Champions the Highlanders to pursue his dream of playing for Scotland (no laughing at the back) and as yet the S.R.U haven’t decided whether he’ll be an Edinburgh player or a Glasgow Warrior in the coming season.
Japan and Samoa begin the defence of their respective World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup conference titles (snappy name, eh?) in a week’s time and while this is probably the most confusing competition in professional sports (it changes format on a seemingly annual basis and occasionally the teams competing in it differ too) the fact that three of the main protagonists will clash to qualify from Rugby World Cup Pool B in about 10 weeks makes this a fascinating tournament. Without trying to explain how the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup will be won or lost, or trying to decipher why last season teams competed in intra-conference fixtures while this year all fixtures are inter-conference (did I mention it was confusing?) now would be an apt time to consider how the USA, Japan and Samoa may fare at the RWC in September and hopefully into mid October if they progress to the RWC knock out stages.
Pool A at the RWC has been awarded the hyperbolic moniker “Pool of death” by those who claim to know these things because there is a real chance that one of the team’s who appeared in the 3rd and 4th place play off at 2011’s RWC will fail to progress to the Quarter Final stages as a result this Pool will be scrutinised in microscopic detail over the coming months, however Pool B is far more intriguing. Samoa, Japan and the USA not only all finished in the top 2 of their PNC conference’s (a tournament where an average of 6.17 tries were scored each game) last year but all 3 sides are separated by just 7 places and just 8 ranking points in the current World Rugby rankings (fellow Pool B competitors Scotland are also ranked between Samoa and the USA but I have a bad feeling about their chances of progressing to the Quarter Finals given their 2015 6 Nations embarrassment).
USA are able to call on players who have been more than catching the eye in the Aviva Premiership in recent seasons not least Samu Manoa (who has just left Northampton to join Toulon and win a boat load of trophies) and Saracens utility back Chris Wyles (who has won his fair share of trophies during his time playing for the North London club). Manoa was called “perhaps the finest number 8 playing the game in the northern hemisphere” by ESPN Scrum and he amassed 130 points in his 122 games for the Saints, the rather unfortunate thing about ESPN’s description is he’s more likely to feature at Lock for the USA with the hirsute USA 7’s star Danny Barrett battling it out for a starting spot at 8 with Cardiff Blues new signing Cameron Dolan. Barrett is not the only member of the 7’s side represented in the Eagles squad, Fijian born Andrew Duratolo, former Saracens (now London Welsh) Centre Thretton Palamo and Zach Test who is uncapped by the 15’s side were all part of the USA team who recorded their first tournament victory on the World Rugby 7’s circuit in May, at Twickenham where the Eagles will hope to feature in the Quarter Finals (probably against the hosts England). The success of the 7’s side illustrates how dangerous the Eagles will be with ball in hand (Takudzwa Ngwenya didn’t feature for the 7’s side but he’s been one of the most electric wingers in European rugby for 8 years and Blaine Scully was the top try scorer in last year’s PNC with an impressive 5 in 2 games) so their progression through the tournament will largely depend on how successful they are at securing possession with which to launch their open field runners, the back row will be vital in this endeavour and when Samu Manoa has to play in the tight five to allow Barrett or Dolan be joined in the back row by talismanic captain Todd Clever and the 29 times capped Scott Lavalla who plays in Paris for Stade Francais you know the Eagles will compete effectively at the breakdown. The main area for concern for the Eagles will be the front row at scrum time, but with so many differing interpretations available to officials and different officials looking for different offences at the scrum that will be an area of concern for everybody come September.
Samoa are ranked by World Rugby and last season won the Pacific Island conference of the Pacific Nations Cup by virtue of their first win over Fiji in 16 years. However Samoa’s players are amongst those who have been subject to pressure from their clubs regarding International availability. In May this year Daniel Leo retired from International rugby and claimed that up to 13 of his fellow Samoan teammate’s may be feeling similar pressure to place their club career ahead of their International aspirations in order to receive new contract’s. Stade Toulousain’s Fabien Pelous expressed “surprise” that their 34 year old prop Census Johnston played for Samoa against the All Blacks in the historic Test match this week as they understood that Johnston had retired from International rugby in April, so off the field things have not been simple for Samoa which is a shame when they potentially have so much talent from which to select their RWC squad. Against New Zealand they started a front row who were just 7lbs away from a collective mass of 60 stone, Johnston alone accounted for over 20 of those stones so his inclusion would solidify their scrum. Samoa’s 2 main areas of weakness are at Fly Half where they have traditionally struggled for an accurate kicker from hand and team discipline, they lost the Test against the All Blacks having scored the same number of tries as them, with New Zealand converting 6 penalty kicks compared to the 3 by Samoa.
Japan won the Asia/Pacific conference of the 2014 World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup and are ranked 3 places higher than the USA in World Rugby’s current rankings and whilst they will probably have the most experienced squad of the so called minnows in Pool B they have only ever won 1 RWC game and that was back in 1991. It’s obviously difficult to write off the reigning PNC champions but the emergence of Japan’s “Top League” as a go to destination for foreign rugby players who are attracted by the relatively short season and the inflated salaries which are on offer must be a detrimental factor for rugby union’s development in the land of the rising sun. Just 6 of Eddie Jones’ 37 man RWC squad currently play outside Japan and not all of them regularly feature for their respective Super Rugby franchises. Again a lack of a quality Fly Half will surely be a problem for Japan but their biggest stumbling block may be their style of play, they like to play high tempo attacking rugby but so do the other teams in Pool B and 4 of them may just do it better.
Pool C features the perennial number 1 team in the World in New Zealand and nobody else in the top 7 teams of the current World Rugby rankings, so the All Blacks should cruise through as the top team. Argentina (who are ranked 8th in the world) however always save their best performances for World Cup games against the Kiwis, so there is 1 potential banana skin for Richie McCaw’s boys to avoid. Argentina should be the other qualifier in this group as the other 3 teams in Pool C are Tonga, Georgia and Namibia who all have excellent players in their ranks but not in the depth that the All Blacks and the Pumas (Jaguars. Tomato, tomato. yadda, yadda etc). Tonga vs. New Zealand at St James’ Park on a Friday night in October is almost certain to be a fiery affair and with Argentina’s last group game being against Namibia the All Blacks could need a convincing win to secure top spoor in the group. Jacques Burger leading his Namibian side against the All Blacks at the Olympic Stadium will be scintillating viewing too, if World Rugby’s player of the year Brodie Retallick didn’t know who Courtney Lawes was before the All Blacks played England last summer then he won’t know who Burger is. He definitely will by the 25th of September.
Only 15 ranking places separates the team’s in Pool D, with Ireland currently ranked 3rd , France standing at 7th, Italy 15th, Canada 17th and Romania 18th. Ireland have been in a phenomenal run since Joe Schmidt took over as their head coach picking up consecutive 6 Nations titles for the first time ever and won 17 out of 25 Test since the start of 2013 beating South Africa and Australia along the way. Ireland are not always at their most comfortable during World Cup tournaments though but with 2 games in London where there will surely have a raucous following should make them feel slightly more at ease than they have done in previous World Cups in France and New Zealand. France are the most unpredictable team in World Rugby, the fact that their coach will be leaving following this tournament should be an indication of exactly how disappointing they have been recently though. They should have enough to get past Canada and Romania although the Canadian back row and outside backs could well pose more than a few problems for a French backline who are regularly tinkered with by Phillipe Saint-Andre and the Romanian forwards will relish the challenge that Les Bleus forwards will provide them, so that might be a bit of a dog fight in the Olympic Stadium. Italy will have to battle the fact that they have a fairly old squad now with the occasional sprinkling of youth and with 4 games in 22 days they will do well to keep the squad intact let alone compete in every outing. The one they have got going for them is that their first game will be at Twickenham against the French so they should be able to give their Garibaldi Cup opponents both barrels and if they can upset Les Bleus then the Azzuri may very well finish 2nd in this group.
The first Quarter Final will almost certainly be contested between New Zealand and France in the Millennium Stadium, so if Wayne Barnes is reffing the ALL Blacks are toast! In all seriousness I can see France pulling out all the stops to upset the apple cart in Cardiff à la 2007. I can’t imagine that New Zealand will want a repeat of that result, but with the possibility of a few ageing bodies in their squad having to play 4 games in 19 days (finishing off with a bruising tussle with Tonga), no Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett coming off an injury spoiled season they are far from infallible. For the purpose of this flight of fancy we’ll say that the All Blacks will make it past the French and advance to a semi final in Twickenham. The second Quarter Final will in all likelihood be between South Africa and Wales in Twickenham (well it saves travelling too far for the semi’s) and while Wales have recently made a habit of getting dangerously close to the Springboks (and putting my own personal optimism to one side) they have never beaten them outside of Cardiff so I suspect the team who will face the daunting prospect of a meeting with the All Blacks in West London will be South Africa, with so many Springboks unlikely to play in another RWC they won’t to go out with a whimper in the first knockout phase. Quarter Final 3 will be played in Cardiff and should see Ireland take on Argentina, which could be tricky for an Irish side who won’t want to become embroiled in a forward battle with the Pumas I imagine the team who maintains discipline will be the victor here and while that will be a bit of a lottery and largely dependent on who is refereeing I’ll say Joe Schmidt will guide Ireland through to the semi final in Twickenham where they will meet England who should do a number on Samoa on their home field.
South Africa and New Zealand in a RWC semi final in Twickenham is a mouth watering prospect and certainly worthy of a RWC Final (remember 1994?) they have played some absolutely fantastic matches in the last 3 seasons and if Nigel Owens is refereeing then it might be time to get the abacus out to keep score. I think South Africa might just have enough forward power to upset the favourites (this is a World Cup remember, there has to be an upset somewhere along the lines) and advance to the final. In the second semi final England could actually face the prospect of playing a RWC semi final on their home pitch whilst being underdogs. Ireland have beaten England in 8 of their last 13 meetings and while England squeaked past the Irishmen 13-10 the last time they played at Twickenham I’m backing Ireland to send England to the Olympic Park for a 3rd and 4th playoff against New Zealand.
South Africa v Ireland in the RWC final then, since the 12th of June 2004 they have played each other 8 times and both have 4 wins so this could prove to be an intriguing finale to any tournament. You’d say South Africa would be favourites having had a more difficult path to the final but after battling with New Zealand having played Samoa and Wales they very well be depleted by the time they get to Twickenham on the final day of October so if Ireland are to win their first RWC this would be a perfect time. I still can’t shake the feeling that experience is more vital in a World Cup final than it is in any other big game so the trophy should be headed south of the equator as the Springboks scoop the big prize for a third time.
Oh yeah, does anyone care who “wins” 3rd place? No? I didn’t think so.
Group B seems to be more of a one horse race than Group A with South Africa seemingly destined to easily win the group and progress to a Quarter Final in Twickenham. The battle for second in the group however is much more interesting with the teams ranked 9th, 10th, 13th and 16th all in with a chance of sneaking into the Quarter Finals. Samoa are the highest ranked of the teams battling it out for second place. They stand 1 place ahead of Scotland with Japan currently ranked 13th and the USA in 16th, although there are less than 8 ranking points separating all four of the sides.
Samoa are one of the Pacific Island teams who, like Fiji are bursting with talent but struggle to adapt to the structured nature of International rugby. However they have beaten Wales (who they could face in the Quarter Final stage) twice in previous World Cups and once more as recently as November 2012 in Cardiff, so they certainly won’t fear any opposition this autumn. If they can manage to compete at set piece time then a backline including the likes of former New Zealand 7’s representative Tim Nanai-Williams, Northampton Saints’ brothers Ken and George Pisi and the cousin of the late, great Jerry Collins Newcastle Falcons Sinoti Sinoti (who has notched up 10 tries in 27 appearances this season) will threaten opposing defences from all angles.
It’s difficult what to know what to expect from Scotland, in the Autumn of 2014 they were talked about as being a resurgent force under the stewardship of Kiwi coach Vern Cotter but during the 6 Nations they were beaten by everyone and ended the tournament with a resounding 40-10 thumping at the hands of tournament winners Ireland. Cotter responded by including 8 uncapped players in his initial World Cup training party including South African born W.P Nel and Josh Strauss and New Zealand born Hugh Blake who has only played 3 professional games in Scotland since he moved there last year. Scotland’s main problem is that their best 4 players are all scrum halves and they can’t seem to find an outside half who can consistently provide the structure needed to provide scoring opportunities for their potent outside backs like Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser.
Japan and the United States are in similar positions as the Pacific Island nations in as much as they have an array of talented players but they are spread across a large number of foreign countries as they ply their trade in different top flight league’s so they often struggle for consistency both in selection and in terms of team cohesion. The USA however have made serious improvements in recent years and with 7’s now being an Olympic sport Rugby Union is becoming increasingly popular and the money on offer for playing top flight rugby is attracting the interest of athlete’s who do not quite make in more traditional American sports like American Football and Athletics, particularly sprinters like Carlin Isles and Perry Baker who have been recently seen ripping defences to shreds on the IRB 7’s tour. If Rugby continues to enjoy support in the States and it should do after they won the Twickenham leg of the IRB 7’s series this year then the USA will become a serious threat in future World Cups.
South Africa would have suffer an unusual number of injuries to not win all of their group games and qualify for the Quarter Finals and I think that Samoa should have the individual flair to finish second, but as all the other teams really have the same weakness, a lack of organisation and a 10 who can consistently make good decisions and provide an accurate tactical kicking game there really is a Quarter Final spot up for grabs in this group.
Predicting who will win a tournament that doesn’t start for over 3 months, a full month before the Rugby Championship has even began in the Southern Hemisphere and when no coaches have even finalised their squad’s would be utter madness, but hey there’s not much going on in my world at the moment, so here goes.
Group A seems a logical place to start and when it was drawn it was immediately given the moniker “group of death” (original, eh?) but for me it has since become more of a group of opportunity with the winner facing a Quarter Final against either Samoa, the USA or Scotland and a possible Semi Final against Ireland. 3 of the top 6 teams in World rugby will be vying for 2 qualification spots so one of the big teams will miss out and with Fiji currently 11th in the world rankings and Fijian players standing out in Super Rugby, the Top 14, the Pro 12 and the Aviva Premiership it’s hard to rule them out of contention in the group either.
Australia, England and Wales are 3 of the top 6 teams in the World at the moment (according to the World Rugby rankings) and as somebody who’s taken a keen interest in the Super Rugby season I can honestly say I can’t remember a more disappointing showing from the Australian franchises in recent times. Australia are currently ranked 6th with Wales 5th and England 4th, so theoretically Australia should be the team to miss out however English player’s are doing their damndest to make Stuart Lancaster’s coaching job neigh on impossible.
Between Wales selecting players who could have been in England’s squad and English players getting themselves injured, banned or arrested England (who should be favourites with home advantage) are now having to cobble together a team from players who even 6 weeks wouldn’t have been expecting to make the training party let alone starting against Fiji in a little under 15 weeks.
This leaves Wales who showed why it’s impossible to predict what they will do in this year’s 6 Nations tournament. After a mediocre last 60 minutes against England which resulted in a 16-21 loss in Cardiff they improved progressively, building to a crescendo when a Liam Williams inspired team thrashed Italy 61-20 in Rome in the final round of games.
The major concern for Wales is the injuries they have accumulated over the last season. Samson Lee was injured in their first 6 Nations game and has been recuperating and rehabbing from an Achilles tendon operation for 5 months, fellow tight head Rhodri Jones has not played during the second half of the season after dislocating a shoulder, Outside Centre Jonathan Davies has been ruled out of the World Cup after rupturing his cruciate ligaments playing for Clermont and the highest profile injury (possibly in World rugby) George North. He’s the youngest Welsh player to win 50 caps at the unfeasibly young age of 22 has not played since March after suffering a 3rd concussion in 4 months and as he’s yet to pass all the concussion protocols his health is rightly taking precedent over his career. Injuries are probably less of a concern for Wales than they are for most teams though because their current style of play is designed to be more about the system than the personnel in that system, the one area of real concern is the front row and if Samson Lee and Rhodri Jones are unable to play any part in the tournament then Welsh chances will almost evaporate in front of them.
Fiji are and always have been a team comprised of fantastically talented individuals who are not always able to become a team that matches the sum of their parts. If they can maximise their talents then with players like the 6ft 5 inch and 20 plus stone Nemani Nadolo, 6ft 5 and near 19 stone Taqele Naiyarovo will be almost unstoppable for opposing wingers, just as they have in Super Rugby this season.
Beyond the fact that they have 2 players who ply their trade in Pro D2 in France and that they only have 2 players over the age of 30 in their squad there’s not really much to say about Uruguay but hopefully this tournament will serve as a learning experience for their young squad or maybe a shop window and more of them will be seen playing in top European league’s in the not too distant future. For the very near future though I fear they will be the whipping boys of the group.
I’m hoping that the Wales are at full strength and their level of performance in all of their group games is the same one they met in Rome in March, but as everyone knows Wales, good fortune and major tournaments are very rarely in the same place so I suspect home advantage will be enough to see England topping the group of death (I’m also predicting no actual deaths will occur in the group). The second place team will have a terrifically difficult Quarter Final ahead of them, probably against South Africa who love a World Cup and the likely winner of this dubious prize will be whoever wins when Wales meet Australia in Twickenham on Saturday October the 10th. Unless Australia’s players have a serious turnaround in form and fortune then Wales should be the ones who get to look forward to the tough Quarter Final at Twickenham the following Saturday.
Wayne Barnes replacing Steve Walsh on the whistle is probably the biggest news ahead of this game, let’s hope it doesn’t affect the outcome of the game (although I am minded of a recent game Wales played in Cardiff against Australia where Barnes avoided awarding a scrum for 45 minutes because, possibly as a result of his own lack of confidence when it comes to judging the set piece). Shaun Edwards claimed this week that Ireland deliberately avoided choke tackling English players in their previous match because they didn’t fancy their chances at scrum time, so both front rows and refereeing interpretation could have a bearing on the final result. Statistically Wales have had the better scrum so far in the tournament with a success rate of 87% on the their own feed while Ireland’s success rate has been slightly inferior at 80%, when it comes to line out time though the Irish have a formidable 90% success rate on their own throw compared to a rather worrying 78% success for the Welsh.
Presumably Wales will look to use the scrum as their most potent attacking weapon but as Ireland have the worst tackle completion rate in the tournament it would be prudent if Wales allow their back’s to use the first phase ball their scrum should secure rather than trying to milk penalties from a pushing contest. Robbie Henshaw missed a rather worrying 30% of the tackles he attempted last time out against England so Wales would do well to try to get some of their better ball carriers like Taulupe Faletau and Jonathan Davies into the 12 channel early on Saturday (although under Howley’s rather vanilla “attack” coaching Wales mainly rely Jamie Roberts).
The lineout has been Wales’ stumbling block on more than 1 occasion in recent memory against Ireland and with Paul O’Connell winning his 100th cap this weekend he’ll definitely be looking to tear it apart again. Unfortunately the only way I can see the line out not being a problem for Wales is if they can avoid having any particularly in their own half and the inclusion of Liam Williams in the back 3 may help them to field and return as many of Ireland’s kicks as possible but if they drop 2 players into the backfield every time Ireland have the ball then Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney will have acres of space to run into so there will certainly be a fine line for Wales to tread in defence.
“Modified training” was a pretty choice of words when the Irish camp described Jonny Sexton’s return from a hamstring problem this week and the return of Jamie Heaslip from “3 fractured vertebrae” seems bordering on the miraculous (maybe he’s walking from Dublin to Cardiff too) but in Ian Madigan and Jordi Murphy Ireland certainly have more flair on the bench than Wales do and Joe Schmidt has shown that he’s not afraid to use his substitutes, unlike Warren Gatland who one imagines would only let Rhys Priestland on the pitch if it were a matter of life and death (probably Gatland’s own).
Wales have scored more tries than Ireland in the Championship so far so there’s always that glimmer of hope to hang on to, that’s not the only chink of light for Welsh supporters either, remember when Jonny Sexton had the chance to put the final nail in the All Black’s coffin in the Aviva Stadium and he missed the posts? If it comes down to a nervy penalty kicking contest between Halfpenny (or Biggar) and Sexton (or Madigan) then you’d be tempted to favour the British Lion and last year’s Pro 12 player of the season. On the subject of penalties, a lot will depend on the refereeing interpretations of one Mr. Barnes and last week in Bath when they played Sale nobody (watching or playing) really understood what Wayne was doing in the middle so expect a certain measure of controversy. For what it’s worth Wales have given more penalties than Ireland (who have the best discipline in the tournament, although it could be argued they’ve got the plum draw of referee’s too) this year 34 to 26.
I’m not making any predictions but unless Sam Warburton actually proves that he’s deserving of the title “Wales most captain” then Ireland and Sean O’Brien along with Peter O’Mahony will be the benefactors of the sort of dour, trench warfare that saw them see off England comfortably last time out.
Even Brian Moore thinks England have no chance in Cardiff and with their many and frequent injuries there will certainly be chances for Wales to exploit a number of new English combinations, but if there’s one accusation that could be levelled at England and in particular the English coaching team in recent times it’s that they may have become a little stale so the enforced changes could freshen them up. With the furore surrounding the roof (of all things) there’s a few personnel aspects that seem to have gone slightly under the radar.
For a start one can’t help feeling that Warren Gatland has missed a trick by not selecting Gareth Anscombe for his Welsh debut on this game, albeit it would have been off the bench but England’s incumbent number 10 George Ford has 1 very bad memory of Anscombe from the 2011 Junior Rugby World Cup final when Anscombe’s New Zealand U20’s side aka the Baby Blacks came from behind to beat Ford’s England team with Anscombe scoring 18 points. A more pressing concern for Welsh fans in Gatland’s omission is that he has instead chosen Rhys Priestland whose talent’s should by no means be discounted but when Anscombe & Priestland met head to head in the Pro 12 Anscombe scored 11 points as the Blues ran out 21-9 winners. Another worry for Priestland is that when he has played without a creative force in midfield, usually in the shape of Gareth Owen the Scarlets’ attacking play has looked severely blunted this season and the Welsh midfield is a lot of things but creative is not in their lexicon. If Wales need somebody to change the game in the last 20 minutes you could argue an ex Baby Black would bring the little bit of assurance and even swagger needed to wobble what is sure to be a determined and resolute English team. It would seem to prudent to mention in passing that Owen Williams has been very impressive at 10 for Leicester Tigers for almost 2 seasons now but his omission from the entire 6 Nations squad and not just the game day 23 must be entirely politically motivated.
The addition of a rejuvenated Danny Cipriani to England’s match day squad is more than a slight headache for both of Wales’ Fly Halves who would both rather defend against a less dynamic number 10, preferably one who is just going to guide his forwards around the pitch with his tactical kicking a la George Ford. If Cipriani is to be England’s Superman then Wales’ defense coach and Cipriani’s former head coach (and before that backs coach) at Wasps Shaun Edwards may well be his kryptonite, Edwards will surely have a few tricks up his sleeve to negate Cipriani’s potency (if he was going down the predictable route he may well just throw Justin Tipuric on to add to some extra pace to the Welsh cover defence). An outside half who actually challenges the defensive line provides more difficulties than a midfield ball carrier would since Wales’s defensive Captain is inside centre Jamie Roberts and both Roberts and centre partner Jonathan Davies (who have 107 caps between them) are experts on knowing when to drift or blitz and in doing so preventing any incisive breaks in midfield. Wingers George North and Alex Cuthbert have come in for some, mainly unwarranted criticism for perceived defensive frailties but the back 3 players who have scored tries against Wales in the last 12 months are a pretty impressive group; Wille Le Roux, Cornell Hendricks, Israel Folau and Julian Savea have all had a pretty exceptional 12 months so to criticise defenders for not stopping such clinical finishers seems like carping for the sake of it. Fullback Lee Halfpenny is becoming known for his trademark try saving commitment, which as often as not ends up with him relying on his body more than his technique and occasionally results in him popping off the pitch for a quick “head injury assessment”.
With such a solid Welsh defence out wide the close quarters battle between each team’s respective packs will be key and Warren Gatland’s decision to leave out Bradley Davies who has been in a rock in the Wasps pack this season is strange unless it’s a purely politically driven decision (although Luke Charteris who has taken the 3rd lock spot is another who plays his club rugby outside Wales in Paris for Racing Metro). Davies has been an expert at splitting driving mauls when defending for Wasps and along with England’s blind side (although he’s clearly a more destructive force as a 7) James Haskell he’s been one of the main reasons that Wasps sit 4th in the Aviva Premiership. Davies has been key in Wasps scrums too this season in the “engine room” and when he hasn’t been on the field their scrum has looked a lot less stable. Incidentally Haskell will be one of the most influential players on the field and unless Wales can open up the English defence and score some tries the penalties that Haskell is bound to win at the breakdown may well give George Ford the chance to win the game with his boot.
Possibly Wales brightest star in the squad is tight head prop Samson Lee who is set to make his 6 Nations debut in this game, Lee is a fierce scrummager and if the pitch (which has been replaced at a cost of £1.7 million to the tax payer, allegedly) can hold up and French referee Pascal Gauzere can establish a grip at the set piece Lee may well be the cornerstone for a dominant Welsh pack. Lee has good memories of playing against England loose head Joe Marler as his Scarlet’s team met Marler’s Quins in the last Heineken Cup with Lee’s side providing the upset of the tournament as the Scarlets turned over Quins at the Stoop 26-33, although he did get a yellow card in that game so he’s no angel.
Although the roof is a massive red herring the atmosphere inside the Stadium will undoubtedly be electric and extremely noisy (Stuart Lancaster can’t seriously think, or even hope opening the roof will instantly turn it into a library) but this doesn’t always play into the home team’s hands. Wales have been known to feel the wrath of the local fans and particularly against their bitterest of enemies if they don’t get off to a fast start by playing some exciting rugby (which is not always Gatland and Howley’s forte) then 70,000 supporters (we’re letting a few away fans in, right?) will voice their displeasure. I for one hope the home team are lifted by the fervour and noise and not crushed under the weight of expectation, but don’t believe all you read it’s definitely a 2 horse race.