What a brilliant couple of weeks of junior internationals we have had, with internationals being played from U16 through to U20.
It has also been noteworthy for the number of nations at all of those levels who have proved to be competitive this year. Few, if any, of the other Six Nations sides would argue to much with the statement that England usually dominate the junior age-groups of the six, France occasionally are up there too, but it is often a fairly closed shop.
That has not been the case so much this year though, where things have been seriously competitive, perhaps nowhere more so than in the recent U20 RBS 6 Nations Championship.
Wales were triumphant there, winning a first Grand Slam since 2005, and doing so in style. England by contrast finished fifth, having lost to everyone bar Italy. Scotland finished above in fourth, a very good effort that included wins over England and Italy, and very nearly included one over Wales, despite spending much of the tournament without their key players duo to pro commitments.
Ireland did superbly well to finish in third; while France in second were also outstanding, actually outscoring Grand Slam champions Wales.
What it told us though was that Wales, in particular, have some highly promising talent coming through. So too do many of the other sides in what was a highly competitive tournament.
So too was the inaugural U18 5 Nations Festival in Wales, featuring Wales, England, Ireland, Italy, and Scotland.
The tournament is reviewed elsewhere in the Weekend Review, but once again the competitiveness of most of the games showed how strong rugby at this level is right now.
England were in form at this age-group where they were not in the U20s, winning the competition, but what was perhaps the biggest story was Italy, who won two of their three games, beating Ireland and England U18 A, an Ireland side, by the way, who thumped Scotland and very nearly beat England.
Ireland had a good shift at U19 level too, were they beat France 32-21 earlier in the week, following an 18-9 loss to the same side the week before.
Scotland had an odd couple of games at U19 level, beating Japan one week but then losing to them the next. It looks as though the rise of Japanese rugby is not just at senior level, they might be a side to watch in Manchester at the World U20 Championships in June.
Back to the U18s, we also recently had the U18 Tri-Nations, with Ireland U18 A hosting England Counties U18 and France U18 Poles Espoires, a wonderful chance for players just a step down the ladder to put their hands up and show their talent.
Again the tournament is reviewed elsewhere in our newsletter, but it was once again very competitive. France were the dominant side, but both England and Ireland had their chances, before meeting in a thrilling final game that went right down to the final play.
The U16 action is still underway over in Conwy in Wales. Owing to a shake up of age-grade rugby in England, the BMW Wellington International Festival, is now an academy festival for the Premiership Academy’s U16s.
That meant there was a need for a new international festival, and the Conwy U16 International Festival is the result. Hosted in Wales, there are to Welsh sides, Welsh Academicals and Wales RGC, two Scottish side, Scotland U16 Blue and Scotland U16 Red, two French sides, France U16 West and France U16 East, and two Italian sides, Italy U17 and Italy U17 A.
Tomorrow sees the last round of games take place, with both Wales RGC and Italy U17 unbeaten in their first two games, while both Scottish sides are yet to pick up a win.
Once this is over though, there is still one big U16 game to come, England U16 v Wales U16 at Wales’ training base in Caerphilly on Sunday 17th April. England have already named their squad, which was picked from the Wellington Academy week, where the various academy sides played each other and trained with each other.
It has been a quite brilliant couple of weeks, the standard of rugby on show has been outstanding. Without doubt though the greatest strength has been that each nation has shown itself to have talent at various age-groups. Some have struggled at some ages, but all have performed well in at least one, which bodes well for the future health of the game.
Now for some self indulgence. We have all seen various Lions XVs around ever since the end of the RBS 6 Nations, I thought I might have a stab at both a Test team and a touring squad of 37. Here are my picks:
Looseheads – Mako Vunipola (England), Cian Healy (Ireland), Jack McGrath (Ireland)
Hookers – Jamie George (England), Dylan Hartley (England), Rory Best (Ireland)
Tightheads – Dan Cole (England), WP Nel (Scotland), Samson Lee (Wales)
Locks – Maro Itoje (England), George Kruis (England), Joe Launchbury (England), Jonny Gray (Scotland), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales)
Back Row – Billy Vunipola (England), Sean O’Brien (Ireland) Peter O’Mahoney (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Sam Warburton (Wales)
Scrum Halves – Connor Murray (Ireland), Gareth Davies (Wales), Rhys Webb (Wales)
Fly Halves – Owen Farrell (England), George Ford (England), Jonny Sexton (Ireland)
Centres – Jonathan Joseph (England), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Mark Bennett (Scotland), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Jonathon Davies (Wales)
Back Three – Anthony Watson (England), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), George North (Wales)
I have gone with 21 forwards and 16 backs, if an extra player were added (given that they are necessarily 6 props going), then an extra winger would probably be the call to make.
The split sees 12 Englishmen chosen, with 8 Irishmen, 12 Welshmen, and 5 Scots. There are a number of players not included that could definitely make a big impact, Scottish loosehead Alisdair Dickinson for one, especially with an only just fit again Cian Healy included, while Irish lock/blindside Ian Henderson could make a huge impact, and free up space for an extra back with his ability to cover both the second and back rows of the scrum.
Based on that squad, here is my Lions team – it would be interesting to hear what yours look like, I know this one will look different in my head within seconds of this being published! Tweet me at @AngusSavageXV with your teams.
Grieg Laidlaw, Danny Care, and Ben Youngs are unlucky at scrum half, so too Finn Russell and especially Dan Biggar at fly half. Manu Tuilagi might well force his way in by next year, while Alex Dunbar might push too. Mark Bennett makes it despite a disappointing 6 Nations.
15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathon Davies, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 George North, 10 Jonny Sexton, 9 Rhys Webb, 1 Cian Healy, 2 Dylan Hartley, 3 WP Nel, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 6 Dan Lydiate, 7 Sam Warburton, 8 Toby Faletau.
Replacements: 16 Rory Best, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Jonny Gray, 20 Sean O’Brien, 21 Connor Murray, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Tommy Seymour.
The second row was definitely one of the toughest positions, on form George Kruis is very unlucky to miss out. So too in the back row, where Billy Vunipola misses out altogether. I went for Faletau at 8, and wanted a replacement who could cover mores of the back row, hence Sean O’Brien sneaks in. Up front Cian Healy is in on the assumption that he finds his best form.
Scrum half was a tough call, and it might be that with that backline Connor Murray makes more sense, but a bench spot will do.
The toss up between George Ford and Owen Farrell on the bench would go Ford’s way if he were in form but goes Farrell’s for now. His kicking also makes Halfpenny unnecessary on the bench as Watson can move to full back if there is an injury, with Farrell able to cover centre, that means the final sub can be a winger. If Ford is on the bench I might pick Halfpenny with him, and ask North to step into the centres in the event of an injury.
It would be great to hear what you all think!
By Angus Savage