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Under-fire Eddie Jones, Ireland seek history, underdog Wales, Scotland aim for depth: July’s key questions

Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong, England’s Maro Itoje and Wales’ Dan Biggar will all be key men this summer, live on Sky Sports

We look at the key questions facing each of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland as they embark on three-Test tours of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina respectively, live on Sky Sports this summer.

Under-fire Jones needs series victory in Aus | Improvements required across the board

England head to Australia off the back of a 2022 Six Nations campaign which is difficult to label as anything other than a disaster.

The passing of time since the end of the championship in March may have diluted the strength of feeling towards England’s disappointing showings, and of the want for Eddie Jones to depart, but a series defeat in Australia would go some way to bringing them back.

The Six Nations saw England lose a Test in Scotland in Round 1 they really should have won, stutter to a home win over a poor Wales side by four points after a routine win in Rome, defend valiantly in a heavy defeat at home to Ireland after going down to 14 men just 84 seconds in, and then never look like winning in Paris despite some bright moments.

For the richest union in the world, paying the highest coach salary of any nation, two wins and a third-place finish some 11 points behind second-placed Ireland is nowhere near good enough.

Eddie Jones gives his thoughts on his latest England squad, as well as looking back at the defeat to the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday

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Eddie Jones gives his thoughts on his latest England squad, as well as looking back at the defeat to the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday

Eddie Jones gives his thoughts on his latest England squad, as well as looking back at the defeat to the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday

England also finished fifth in the 2021 Six Nations after just two wins as well, and finished fifth under Jones in 2018 too. In truth, were it not for England’s stunning run to the 2019 World Cup final, Jones would very likely no longer be the head coach.

His campaigns in charge have been too haphazard, too inconsistent and the style of play extremely poor at times. Too often, Jones’ England have deployed aimless, incessant kicking, been stunted in attack, and a team riddled with indiscipline and on the wrong side of referees.

Courtney Lawes and England begin their tour of Australia on July 2, live on Sky Sports

Courtney Lawes and England begin their tour of Australia on July 2, live on Sky Sports

The Wallabies are not as strong as they have been, and a summer tour to face New Zealand or South Africa would likely be worse news for Jones, but England will need to play well to win two of three Tests in Australia.

England getting torn apart by a 14-man Barbarians side at Twickenham was hardly ideal preparation either.

With Owen Farrell’s return to fitness, the big hope lies in partnering the hardy back with the talent of Marcus Smith in a dual-playmaking axis – much like Jones did with Farrell and George Ford previously.

Jones admitted as much this week before departing for Australia, where a series defeat would ramp up negativity to a new level.

Jones says he plans to partner Marcus Smith with Owen Farrell against Australia

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Jones says he plans to partner Marcus Smith with Owen Farrell against Australia

Jones says he plans to partner Marcus Smith with Owen Farrell against Australia

The return of a rejuvenated Danny Care too could bring some zip and tempo back for England, while Billy Vunipola is likely to return from his peculiar Test exile and provide increased power and ballast to what Jones thinks will be an “aggressive tour”

“We’ve got to go after them. We’ve got a whole intention of going after them,” he said.

“There will be really hard, flat tracks and abusive crowds. They are in the face, the Australians. The media are going to be in our face – they are aggressive.

“It’s a really aggressive environment. You can learn so much about your players and your squad on those tours and we’ve missed that.”

Farrell and Ireland seek to make history | Injuries/form to hamper them?

Ireland may have got the better of the All Blacks in Tests three times since 2016, but they have yet to win a Test on New Zealand soil in their history.

Granted, Ireland haven’t toured New Zealand since 2012, but off the back of an autumn victory over the All Blacks in November in which Ireland bettered their illustrious opponents across the pitch, now is surely as good a chance as any? Or maybe not.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell had his side playing a fantastic brand of rugby this season

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell had his side playing a fantastic brand of rugby this season

Andy Farrell’s Ireland may have been extremely impressive in the autumn, and also played superbly during the Six Nations to capture silverware in the form of a Triple Crown, but their provincial club sides ended the season flatly as each of Leinster, Munster and Ulster fell out of trophy contention.

It has left somewhat of a malaise over Irish rugby in the country, and it will take another positive display vs the All Blacks to bring back some of the positivity that had been generated.

A central part of the pessimism from some parts that has emerged as Ireland depart for the southern hemisphere revolves around the different space within which their front-row is operating.

Leinster had a very disappointing season, which finished trophy-less

Leinster had a very disappointing season, which finished trophy-less

Back in November and during the Six Nations, it was Ireland’s front-row of Andrew Porter at loosehead, Ronan Kelleher at hooker and Tadhg Furlong at tighthead that was pivotal to their success. In fact, the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and several others posited that Ireland had the best front-row in the world.

Shifting Porter from back-up tighthead to starting loosehead appeared inspired, with Furlong and Porter dovetailing as powerful carriers but also subtle distributors, offering a noticeable point of difference, and an increased ruck speed. Hooker Kelleher then added another layer of carrying potency, as well as set-piece solidity.

Yet, cracks have since emerged. Kelleher picked up a shoulder injury against France and has barely played since, suffering a recurrence of the injury on his return for Leinster. Porter has been given a tough time at scrums, and been regularly penalised by referees in Europe, while Furlong’s consistency of excellence has shown signs of wavering.

Andrew Porter, while a superb performer in the loose, struggled at the scrum as the season went on

Andrew Porter, while a superb performer in the loose, struggled at the scrum as the season went on

The Leinster trio all failed to perform to their monstrous best in the European Cup final defeat to La Rochelle in Marseille, and as Leinster lost at home to the Bulls in the URC semi-finals.

The All Blacks may not be known for possessing the most lethal scrum in the sport, but if they sense a weakness in Porter or Furlong, they will go after it relentlessly, and Ireland’s main strength could turn into a glaring weakness.

That being said, Ireland scored a history-making 24 tries in the 2022 Six Nations, finished way out in front on points difference on 105, compared to France’s 68, made more linebreaks than anyone else (30), and played a brand of rugby all watching could appreciate, linking forwards to backs superbly and attacking at will.

Johnny Sexton, who will turn 37 during the tour of New Zealand, remains so important to the way Ireland perform

Johnny Sexton, who will turn 37 during the tour of New Zealand, remains so important to the way Ireland perform

Heading to New Zealand and securing victory is the toughest assignment in the sport – just twice since 2009 have the All Blacks lost at home. One of those did come from a British and Irish Lions team containing five Irishmen in 2017 though…

Wales’ Pivac under pressure heading to SA | An ageing squad needs refreshing and better structure

For Wales, head coach Wayne Pivac believes his side face “probably the ultimate challenge” in tackling world champions South Africa away from home at altitude.

Wales are on the back of a dire Six Nations campaign that ended with a dismal home defeat against Italy three months ago, while Pivac has guided Wales to two fifth-placed finishes in the championship in his three years in charge to date.

Wales head coach Wayne Pivac has struggled at several points throughout his tenure in charge

Wales head coach Wayne Pivac has struggled at several points throughout his tenure in charge

The campaign in the middle saw an unlikely Six Nations title in 2021, but it is one classed as perhaps the strangest title wins of all time, with three of their four opponents suffering red cards – Ireland and Scotland at game-changing moments – while several other refereeing calls went in their favour too.

The 2021/22 season saw Wales experience something of a reality check, as an ageing and misperforming squad registered defeats to New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, England, France and Italy, and were extremely fortunate not to be beaten by Fiji in Cardiff too.

Wales rounded off a dismal 2022 Six Nations campaign by losing at home to Italy

Wales rounded off a dismal 2022 Six Nations campaign by losing at home to Italy

They now face Test matches in Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Cape Town – the opening two encounters at altitude – with Wales returning to a country they last visited eight years ago and where they have yet to beat South Africa in their history following 10 previous attempts.

“In Test rugby, you want the ultimate challenge as players and coaches, and this is probably the ultimate challenge with South Africa at altitude and us coming off the back of our Six Nations and where they are at in their game,”
Pivac said.

“From our point of view, it is a huge challenge. We are playing the world champions in their own backyard at altitude in the first two Tests in front of their own fans for the first time since they won the World Cup (in 2019).

“We are certainly going there with things we want to achieve on the tour. I think we will be a step up from where we were in our last match.”

Despite the return to the squad of Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar was named as captain

Despite the return to the squad of Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar was named as captain

Wales, perhaps more than any other Six Nations side this summer, are enormous underdogs, with very few expecting them to pick up anything by way of a result vs the Springboks.

A victory would do wonders for Pivac, but his time in charge to date has largely been characterised by poor performances, bereft of any consistency.

He needs to blood new players in, come up with inventive strike plays to attack from, and work long hours on the training pitch at their set-piece, where they could be destroyed if they do not improve at scrum and lineout.

Scotland seek to build depth minus Hogg and Russell

Gregor Townsend’s Scots have arguably the best chance to pick up a series victory this summer, facing an Argentina side that has struggled to threaten at the top level, by and large, for some time now.

Townsend sprung a surprise by leaving out skipper Stuart Hogg and playmaker Finn Russell, however, but did so most likely with the hope of building much-needed depth to his squad 15 months out from the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.

Gregor Townsend will seek to build depth vs the Pumas in Argentina

Gregor Townsend will seek to build depth vs the Pumas in Argentina

Having made a positive start to the 2022 Six Nations, beating England at home, Scotland’s Six Nations petered out in familiar fashion: three defeats from five leaving them well short of anything resembling a title challenge.

So often in recent years, Townsend’s side have picked up marquee victories, only to fail to take advantage by losing when opportunity next knocked.

In the end, they were firmly dispatched by the tournament’s top two France and Ireland, while they also lost in Cardiff a week on from their win over England – that Test a huge chance to stake a claim at the top of the table, but one missed.

Grant Gilchrist captains Scotland in Argentina in the absence of Stuart Hogg

Grant Gilchrist captains Scotland in Argentina in the absence of Stuart Hogg

Inconsistency remains the main thorn in Scotland’s side, with their performance in Round 5 vs Ireland illustrating the talent and ability they do possess: broken-field running, quick, attacking backs, but ultimately their flaws too: power differential, set-piece inaccuracy, needless indiscipline.

Indiscipline on the pitch in the form of avoidable penalties, but indiscipline and headlines off it returned too, with Hogg and Russell involved.

Off-field drama aside, Scotland lack the sort of impact power off the bench that Ireland, France, England and others are able to regularly call upon. Put simply, their starting XV is often able to mix it with opponents, but then regularly unable to sustain it.

Townsend needs to strike a balance this summer: Win a Test series, but also try new players and new modes of attack/defence: “It gives us an opportunity to look at more players that perhaps wouldn’t have got into the Six Nations squad,” he said after naming the squad.

A comprehensive series defeat would not be good for morale either though.

Bumper July of rugby on Sky Sports

Wednesday, June 29

Maori All Blacks vs Ireland – live on Sky Sports Action from 8am (kick off is at 8.05am)

Saturday, July 2

New Zealand vs Ireland – live on Sky Sports Action from 7:30am (kick-off at 8:05am)

Australia vs England – live on Sky Sports Action from 10:15am (kick-off at 10:55am)

South Africa vs Wales – live on Sky Sports Action from 3:30pm (kick-off at 4:05pm)

Argentina vs Scotland – live on Sky Sports Action from 7:30pm (kick-off at 8:10pm)

Saturday, July 9

New Zealand vs Ireland – live on Sky Sports Action from 7:30am (kick-off at 8:05am)

Australia vs England – live on Sky Sports Action from 10:15am (kick-off at 10:55am)

South Africa vs Wales – live on Sky Sports Action from 3:30pm (kick-off at 4:05pm)

Argentina vs Scotland – live on Sky Sports Action from 7:30pm (kick-off at 8:10pm)

Tuesday, July 12

Maori All Blacks vs Ireland – live on Sky Sports Action from 8am (kick off is at 8.05am)

Saturday, July 16

New Zealand vs Ireland – live on Sky Sports Action from 7:30am (kick-off at 8:05am)

Australia vs England – live on Sky Sports Action from 10:15am (kick-off at 10:55am)

South Africa vs Wales – live on Sky Sports Action from 3:30pm (kick-off at 4:05pm)

Argentina vs Scotland – live on Sky Sports Action from 7:30pm (kick-off at 8:10pm)



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