It’s been a few months since club rugby returned and just over a week since International Test rugby resumed as global lockdowns began to ease across the world.
First up was the Super Rugby Aoteaora competition, which highlighted the sheer depth of quality New Zealand holds, with some old and new stars brining in some outrageous performances, most notable that of Richie Mo’unga, Caleb Clarke, Will Jordan and Jordie Barrett.
Following their Kiwi brothers was Super Rugby AU. Admittedly, the first few weeks led many fans across the world to question the quality of rugby being played in a country dominated by league, AFL and cricket. However, as the competition got on and watching the Wallabies first two Tests of this season, it has been very beneficial for Australia; the Brumbies and Reds have star-studded quality and many forward options now competing for Tests spots, while the Rebels and to a lesser extent the Tahs found some form in patches during the season.
Fortunate to have crowds like in NZ, the competition unearthed some genuine Wallaby talent such as Harry Wilson, Matt Philip, Filipo Daugunu, Noah Lolesio and Liam Wright to name a few, as well as James O’Connor showing he has a part to play in Test rugby pulling the strings at first receiver.
While the Brumbies and Crusaders winning their respective competitions were probably the most likely options to happen, both tournaments were awesome to watch from the UK and gave plenty an insight into how the ANZACS will fare at both Test and club rugby level in this next World Cup cycle.
Club rugby in the UK and Europe finally followed suit for their domestic seasons to return, which provided some classic Heineken Cup games. Leinster undoubtedly won their yearly PRO14 title but their Champions Cup campaign, which was surely going to be theirs, was dramatically ended by a pumped-up Saracens without their talisman Owen Farrell, who faced a five-match ban for a reckless challenge against Wasps.
When many people fancied Saracens to cap off the toughest series by winning the Champions Cup and bowing down to the Championship to occur, this dream was ended by the Racing 92 duo of Finn Russell and Vrimi Vakatawa in a slick chip try in the last stages of the game to take Racing 92 to a European Cup final. Meanwhile, Saracens’ arch-rivals Exeter were creating some of their own history.
Sandy Park became a fortress both in the Premiership and Champions Cup with a stunning win over a very good Toulouse side sending Rob Baxter’s men into a date with Racing, which they won just two days ago in a final for the ages. They now face either Wasps (their scheduled opponents for the final) or possibly Bristol Bears, also fresh off their European Challenge Cup success at the weekend as Wasps have seen a rise in COVID cases, potentially putting their participation at risk.
Exeter’s brilliant rise has forged the likes of the Simmonds brothers, Dave Ewers and many other players to stand out to Eddie Jones for selection.
Now our attention turns to the upcoming northern hemisphere season which, after the loss of South Africa from the Rugby Championship, will surely be a more competitive Six Nations final day and Autumn Nations Cup than the prospect of New Zealand, Australia and Argentina competing in a deflated three nations series.
First up, I will look at how Eddie Jones’ men could line up given the call for many new players such as Alex Dombrandt, the Simmonds brothers, the Willis brothers and many other players with awesome club form to potentially come into the white strip.
15. Elliot Daly
Becoming England’s Mr Reliable; sharp and brilliant kicking game both in play and as a long-range option. Still has defensive concerns but he is looking more improved in defence and under the high ball. Electrifying pace too.
14. Anthony Watson
Serious athlete, he has been phenomenal for Bath since the restart. Physical, solid in defence and can also cover 15 with great competence. Someone to look out for is his teammate at Bath, Ruaridh McConnochie has looked slick and also named in Eddie Jones’ training squad for this autumn.
13. Henry Slade
He has been brilliant for Exeter and England in the last two and a half years, and he makes my team for his playmaking, distribution and improved defensive game in his preferred position. Injury caused him to not start in England’s World Cup games against New Zealand and South Africa, but with Manu Tuilagi’s absence, Slade is sure to slip in at 13. He has a good kicking game too and is sharp in open space.
12. Ollie Lawrence
He is the first bolter of the team. The absence of Tuilagi means George Ford-Farell-Slade as a midfield partnership is inconceivable given the defensive issues with the three, despite Slade’s improving defence. Lawerence is built of the crash-ball mould and has the physicality to play 12. He was brilliant for Worcester this season and one worth investing for under Eddie Jones.
11. Jonny May
One of the first names for Eddie Jones’ team sheets I imagine. Can’t stop scoring. His game against France in February nearly got England close to France after being outplayed by Les Bleus.
10. Owen Farrell (c)
Rugby’s David Warner and pantomime villain. As an England fan, I highly rate and like the aura of hostility every team has for him; it epitomises why everyone loves beating the English. Even the most ardent of England fans will have to concede Farrell’s tackling is technically flawed and nearly dangerous, but some of these tackles and his leadership do add some edge to Saracens’ and Englands’ defensive system.
(Kaz Photography/Getty Images)
Farrell is not a 10 who knows he has a defensive weakness, it is one to which his on-edge and sometimes illegal tackling acts as one of his strength. Tackling aside, he has brilliant on play and goal kicking and fantastic distribution. Always consistent, he has been one of Rugby’s best operators since the 2015 World Cup.
9. Ben Youngs
He will bring up his 100th cap soon, which will be a milestone for a fellow Norfolk man (he attended my rival school, however). He has been very consistent and was awesome in England’s wins against New Zealand in the semi-final, then Wales and Ireland this year after a difficult World Cup final and game against France. Dan Robson and Jack Maunder are doing all they can to raise their arm for selection but I imagine for now in the short term, Ben Youngs is England’s number 9.
8. Billy Vunipola
For now, Big Bill starts for me. There are a lot of questions about his work rate and even lack of physicality when he hasn’t got the ball in hand. Dombrandt and Simmonds will be breathing down his neck, but I can only imagine Eddie Jones to keep Vunipola for now – his philosophy is to pick the best and most experienced players even if they’re out of position, hence Tom Curry at eight and JJ on the wing.
Simmonds has only a handful of caps and Dombrandt could be named at blindside, but their first games together will likely be off the bench or against Italy or Georgia. This sounds a bit disrespectful for two players who have been brilliant, but I think Jones will not throw them in at the deep end just yet; or if Billy has a poor few games in the Autumn, only then will he immediately turn to Dombrandt and Simmonds.
7. Sam Underhill
Big unit, awesome work rate at the breakdown and his partnership with Curry has been brutal. Both of them put in by far the most dominant tackles as a pair. Underhill will look to continue his brilliant World Cup after an injury in the last week of Six Nations.
6. Tom Curry
He has been the best flanker in the world alongside Pieter-Steph du Toit, Underhill, Michael Hooper and Sam Cane. Curry can play across the back row and, although I never want to see him at no.8, he quickly adapted to the role. What a gem England have in him.
5. Joe Launchbury
Enough experience and good form for Wasps alongside the injured Courtney Lawes mean that Launchbury is in the team. Has been ever consistent for England under Jones and is so reliable, never has a bad game.
4. Maro Itoje
Super Maro. Don’t really need to say much about why he’s here, he’s that good. Does give a way the odd rash penalty though.
(Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)
3. Kyle Sinckler
Delicate handling and strong scrummaging will ensure Sinckler to be in the Lions set up. Fantastic energy and loves a scrap too.
2. Jamie George
Like Sincks, England are blessed with having such skilful front rowers, especially with ball in hand. George is super-likeable and has had consistent set-piece performances for England under Jones. Easily in the top three hookers in the world.
1. Mako Vunipola
Mako rediscovered some form after the World Cup where his scrummaging came under question. However, he has found form with Saracens and always tops the carrying charts for England, he is definitely needed for England.
Marler and Harry Williams will likely be the front row replacements alongside Luke Cowan-Dickie. The only other capped lock in England’s training set up is Charlie Ewels who I suspect will be the bench replacement.
Ted Hill and Dave Ribbans have performed well enough to be in the squad, and I suspect they will feature at some point during the campaign. The back row is fiercely competitive and the options include Wilson, Ben Earl, who has been brilliant for Bristol, the Willis brothers, Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds. The only way Jones can really introduce all of these new caps at the same time for me is against weaker teams or one by one of the bench. However, their club form is certainly good enough for inclusion in any game which is why it is hard to predict how Jones will use them.
Replacement scrumhalf looks certain to be Willi Heinz although Maunder and Robson will surely join the squad after the game. Utility replacement back options are Jack Nowell and Jonathan Joseph due to their ability to cover wing and centre. Joe Simmonds has been a standout player in the club scene, however, Eddie Jones rates Ford highly. If he is not starting at 10 and Farrell 12, Ollie Lawrence may move to 13 and Slade can cover bench, with Joe Simmonds the replacement back at 10.
All in all, it will be interesting to see what XV Jones goes with given the wealth of talent at his disposal.