Warm-up Takeaways: Neil Back, Wainwright and Aki

Rich Dore
09 September 2019

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For anyone not yet excited about the World Cup, consider that the very first Saturday features Australia v Fiji, France v Argentina, and the small matter of New Zealand v South Africa.

All decisive pool matches. Throw in the Sunday showdown between Pool A favourites Ireland and Scotland and you’re left with a weekend in front of the TV.

In the build-up it’s been hard to know exactly what to take from the warm-ups, but some players made big impressions over the weekend and pecking orders have certainly been adjusted – here’s our take.

BACK SCOTLAND’S CENTRES

It wasn’t that long ago that the Scottish centre conversation, and a pretty positive one at that, was based around Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett, Matt Scott and Huw Jones.

But Gregor Townsend has been ruthless in turnover in this area. Not one of those four is over 30 yet they have all been jettisoned, and in relative new-boy Sam Johnson, Townsend may have found a star.

He has been consistently excellent – grabbing his latest try on Friday against Georgia.

Intense squad competition almost always produces excellent performances and it’s for this reason we suspect one of the tournament’s stars will be found here.

Johnson is a good bet, so is Duncan Taylor – a centre of the very highest class if he can remain fit. Chris Harris and Pete Horne are the other men selected, don’t wager against Huw Jones (no player has scored more tries for Scotland since the previous World Cup – 10) or the unfortunately overlooked Rory Hutchinson making an injury impact also.

A NEW HOPE

Breathe again Ireland fans. Just a few weeks ago, after a heavy defeat to England, some supporters in green were whispering: “I just hope we don’t lose to Japan” – the he exact antithesis to what was being whispered at the end of an incredible 2018 for Joe Schmidt’s men.

But now, after back-to-back wins, the feeling is Ireland are contenders for the Webb Ellis Cup again.

As they look to get past the quarter-finals for the first time, there remains the fairly sizeable prospect of New Zealand or South Africa looming but there are many reasons to be cheerful.

Based on the warm-ups Bundee Aki looks an unflappable leader in the backs, James Ryan really is that good, and Robbie Henshaw’s strong showing in Dublin means Garry Ringrose may struggle for a starting berth.

GATLAND’S TOUGHEST CHALLENGE

It’s been a topsy-turvy warm-up period for Warren Gatland and Wales. On one hand, three defeats in four and some serious injuries, and on the other a brief topping of the world rankings and impressive win over England.

But with Wales needing to find a ruthless attack, that injury to Gareth Anscombe presents Gatland with both a serious blow and problem – he’s spent two years developing his team around Anscombe only to lose him at the last.

But if anyone can negotiate the issue it’s the Kiwi master tactician – his major player boost has been superb Dragons back row Aaron Wainwright.

They seem to have the support of the locals, too:

ENGLAND’S SEVEN FIX

Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Sean O’Brien, Hamish Watson – long have England fans looked around the home nations and been jealous of out-and-out openside talent.

While the likes of Richie McCaw and Michael Hooper racked up dozens and dozens of caps England have never really replaced Neil Back, and for anyone doubting Hamish Watson’s inclusion in that list go back and watch him destroy their breakdown at BT Murrayfield in 2018.

But in time for the World Cup England may well have found the fix. We have absolutely no idea whether Mark Wilson, Tom Curry or Sam Underhill will start at seven in games against France and Argentina, but the warm-ups have shown all three are up to the job.

SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE DOMINANCE

Nothing has happened in the World Cup warm-ups, Rugby Championship or Bledisloe to stop New Zealand and South Africa being favourites in Japan.

Four years ago, all four semi-finalists were from the southern hemisphere, surely that can’t happen again? But the build-up to the RWC has served to build the Springboks’ reputation and show chinks in the All Black armour.

Contenders everywhere, this tournament looks to be the most open for some time – bring on weekend one.


Cardiff City Stadium will play host to the 2020 Guinness PRO14 Final on June 20 as one of the most exciting days in the club rugby calendar comes to Wales!

General sale tickets are available from http://bit.ly/PRO14Cardiff2020 and prices start at just £13 for concessions and £26 for adults (subject to booking fees), that’s a 15% early bird discount. Family ticket (2 adults / 2 children) prices begin at £64 and fans are encouraged to buy early to get the best value tickets.

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