Tuilagi Move Signals Power-Shift Back to the North

As an 18 year-old whose memory doesn’t stretch back as far as 2006 my experience as a Sale Shark’s fan has been dominated by mid table obscurity and the revolving door of academy talents moving to the South in search of playoff rugby and England caps. In the last 5 years 4 academy graduates moved just to the London Wasps as Tommy Taylor, Kearnan Myall, James Gaskell and Rob Miller all moved to Wycombe to push for England selection. Furthermore, even Sale academy graduates who broke into the England squad while at the club, players such as Charlie Hodgson and Richard Wigglesworth, moved away to further their international careers, both moving to title challengers Saracens in 2010 and 2011 respectively. And who can blame them, a Northern team hasn’t won the Premiership since Sale in 2006 and the only other time before that was Newcastle in 1998. In addition, the England team is dominated by Southern players and players from Southern clubs, in fact, before Tom Curry the last Sale academy graduate to win more than 1 England cap was Mark Cueto in 2004! And yet, this week Sale did something I never thought I’d see in my life time and signed a seasoned England international, and not just any seasoned England international, a British and Irish Lion and arguably the best player in the world in his position, Manu Tuilagi. So how did Sale go from the Premiership’s feeder club to the club that many are labelling the odds on favourites to win the Premiership this year with a playoff spot all but secured and a squad teeming with marquee stars and internationals? These are the 3 steps of what I like to call, ‘The Steve Diamond Rebuild’.


I mentioned in the introduction how Sale’s academy used to be a conveyor belt for other Premiership clubs and unfortunately although Bristol have proved that the English salary cap allows for a team of 15 foreign superstars, to win a Premiership, or even make the playoffs, you need competent backups to fill numbers 15-30. Therefore, it was vital that Sale were able to retain their academy graduates on cheap contracts. So in the same month that Mancunian’s Will Addison and Mike Haley left for Ireland in February 2018 Diamond re-signed fellow academy graduates Sam James, Josh Beaumont and Ross Harrison to multiyear deals. However, the big move came a year later when prodigies Ben and Tom Curry signed 4 year deals for reportedly, criminally cheap contracts. The key to this was to build a core of Premiership quality players that would be loyal and focused on performing well for Sale. Sale fans will argue that it is a travesty that the likes of James and Harrison haven’t been capped by England but this just means they are available and fit 12 months a year while teams such as Saracens and Leicester lose half their squad for 6 weeks every year during Six Nations season.


Sale used to be known for signing over-the-hill veterans for short contracts at the end of their careers, think of Sebastian Chabal, Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel. However, after building his core of academy players in 2018 Diamond started signing younger foreign internationals on longer deals so he could get 5+ years of them in their prime. Faf De Klerk joined as South Africa’s 2nd choice scrum-half and after a year in Manchester was the best scrum half in the world. He was quickly followed by Lions teammate Rohan Janse Van Rensburg and then by the raid of the Cell C Sharks with Oosthuizen, Van Der Merwe and the 3 Du Preez twins, Rob, Jean-Luc and Dan, all aged 26 and under. The South African invasion was completed with World Cup winner Lood De Jager and now Sale had stars who could win games, shown by them elevating to 2nd in the Premiership table after years of scrapping for top 6.


Which brings us back to this week as Manu Tuilagi travels up the M6 to Manchester. Sale are now winning games and playing eye-catching rugby to the extent where they can now attract England internationals to the rainy AJ Bell Stadium and so don’t be surprised if Tuilagi is now followed by others with double-figured caps to their name.

To conclude, rugby in England is often accused of being weighted in favour of the South, last year there was only 1 club out of 12 from the North in the Premiership and the England 2019 World Cup Squad of 31 players only included 4 from the North. However, from the ashes and from a recurring state of limbo Steve Diamond has built a formidable powerhouse in Manchester and with Newcastle back in the Premiership next season, may have just shifted power back to the North.

My 2021 Lions XV

Although the immediate rugby calendar is shrouded with doubt and uncertainty one major event which seems set to transpire is next summer’s British and Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa. Destined to be a monumental event, South Africa has long been a favourite tour destination of Brits due to its devoted rugby culture and fierce reception of foreigners, and journalists and pundits alike will soon begin flocking to draft and predict their strongest composite British test team. Therefore, I have chosen to get my opinion in early. This team is predominantly hypothetical with no real game plan or theme as I have a mix of form and experience and power and pace, furthermore, this team has made me realise that I have an apparent prejudice against Irishmen so please forgive me for that

  1. Loosehead Prop: Mako Vunipola

Mako had an average 2020 Six Nations after being demolished in the scrum in the World Cup final however, historically he is a powerful and valuable ball carrier and defender and has surprisingly soft hands and vision. In addition, Mako has played in all 6 of the Lions tests since 2013 so his touring pedigree cannot be denied. Sutherland or Genge will provide the spark-plug off the bench.                                                                 

Also on Tour: Rory Sutherland, Ellis Genge

2. Hooker: Jamie George

An easy decision partly due to horrific lack of competition and partly due to George’s accuracy and consistency over the last 5 years. His lineout throw is unmatched with 95% in last year’s Champions Cup and 97% in the World Cup and his ball carrying has been key to the success of Saracens and England leading me to summarize that George is a born winner.

Also on Tour: Stuart Mcinally, Rob Herring

3. Tighthead Prop: Tadgh Furlong

Furlong is the quintessential modern prop with brutish power combo-ed with freakish speed and fitness. He is a threat at the breakdown as well as a solid srummager and one of the world’s best ball carriers who could strike fear into even a South African forward. Sinckler is unlucky to miss out but will provide a great intensity boost off the bench.

Also on Tour: Kyle Sinckler, Tomas Francis

   4+5.  Locks: Maro Itoje, James Ryan

Maro is the first name on the team sheet and will undoubtedly be a Lions captain at some point. He effortlessly fuses unbearable physicality and intensity with dynamism and speed and not to mention no one in the world is better at stealing the ball. As for Ryan, he has been an Irish stalwart and key player for about two years now and his defence and lineout prowess will be invaluable against the Springbok second row juggernauts. Unfortunately, I can’t consciously let a 34-year-old Alun Wyn Jones face the South Africa pack even if he is the Wales captain.

Also on Tour: Courtney Lawes, Jonny Gray

    6+7.  Flankers: Justin Tipuric, Tom Curry

Sam Warburton says in his book that Justin Tipuric would be one of the best outside centres in international rugby and I think he’s probably spot on. He is your standard international 7 with outstanding work-rate and defence and a great eye for a turnover but also adds the ability to create something out of nothing in the backline with his freakish speed, vision and offloading. Tom Curry is the second name on the team-sheet and will be the key to victory in SA. Another flanker that could easily play outside centre, his work-rate, intensity, defence and turnovers will be essential if we are to obtain a series victory and he can easily cement himself as the best 7 in the world with commanding performances over Siya Kolisi and Peter Steph Du Toit.

Also on Tour: Josh Navidi, Sam Underhill, Hamish Watson, CJ Stander

     8. Number 8: Billy Vunipola

Faletau is unlucky to miss out as he is the quicker and more athletic option and was immense in the Lions shirt in 2013 and 2017 however when Billy plays well he is simply uncontrollable and unstoppable. His performances in last year’s Champions Cup semi-final and final were irresistible and his ability to get over the gain line and generate momentum off the back of the scrum will be vital to Lions’ success

Also on Tour: Toby Faletau

     9. Scrum-Half: Gareth Davies

The age old rugby selection dilemma of form vs experience. Gatland can either go with the calm heads and test match pedigree of Murray or Youngs, both of whom have looked awfully out of form recently, or with the young livewires Davies, Williams or Cooney who are in tremendous form. I have taken the risk and gone with Davies as form can’t be superseded on a Lions tour as at the end of the day the players turn up on the day and play and Davies has proven time and again he can pull out big moments such as his intercepts vs Scotland and Australia. Cooney is my bolter/dark horse pick off the bench

Also on Tour: Tomos Williams, John Cooney

    10. Fly-Half: Owen Farrell

Another easy decision, Farrell is the best 10 in the northern hemisphere and a fierce and belligerent leader who as captain will fire up the boys in the changing and direct them round the pitch like a chess grandmaster. His distribution and vision is superb, his kicking from hand is destructive and precise and his kicking for goal is second to none with 86% success off the tee at the World Cup and the added bonus of always coming good in the big moments just as in the second and third tests in 2017 against New Zealand. He is just as capable at 12 however I believe his best position is at 10 and I need him at 10 so I can fit both of my centres into the team.

Also on Tour: Finn Russell, George Ford

    12+13. Centres: Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Davies

Tuilagi is another whose ability to get over the gain line on crash ball and generate momentum for strike plays will be crucial, when he is fit he makes England infinitely better and dangerous from anywhere on the park and when he is injured they inevitably struggle. Tuilagi has the ability to give De Allende absolute hell and make him look very average and if he does the Lions will be well on their way to a series victory. Jonathan Davies is what would happen if you asked scientists in a lab to create the perfect modern rugby outside centre, he is built like a back row with a huge frame and ruthless strength along with surprising pace and turn of speed which saw him chase down Ngani Laumape after an intercept in game 3 of 2017’s tests. Furthermore, he’s also one of the best defenders in the world, has a howitzer of a handoff which has embarrassed the likes of Johnny Sexton and Malakai Fekitoa and has a superb attitude and discipline which are essential for a Lions tour.

Also on Tour: Bundee Aki, Henry Slade, Garry Ringrose

    11+14. Wings: Jacob Stockdale, Jonny May

In my opinion top level international wings are essentially interchangeable as all they need to do is finish so you basically can’t go wrong. These two stand out above the rest as being particularly good finishers due to their speed, determination and explosive power and their try scoring stats speak for themselves with 16 in 28 tests for Stockdale and 29 in 55 games for May. Josh Adams is especially unlucky to miss out due to my lack of Irish players.

Also on Tour: Josh Adams, Anthony Watson, Jordan Larmour

        15. Fullback: Liam Williams

The hardest pick in the whole team. Hogg is an enigma who can turn up and set the world on fire on his day but go missing on others. I’ve gone with Williams who is one of the safest pairs of hands in the game and single-handedly diffused England’s kicking game in the 2019 Six Nations. The high ball will be key vs South Africa and we need our fullback to have a 100% bomb defusal rate. In addition, Williams also has the ability to create tries and line breaks as we all know from Sean O’Brien’s try in the first test in 2017. Bear in mind there is 5 warm up games before the first test and this club season still needs to be finished so Hogg and many others could still force their way into the team.

Also on Tour: Stuart Hogg  

Rugby’s Roots- How Colonialism Shaped Rugby

Have you ever wondered why the Rugby World Cup and the IRB World Rankings are occupied by tiny Pacific Island nations and world sporting minnows such as Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Namibia and yet world superpowers and sporting powerhouses such as Spain, Germany, Brazil and China are completely absent? Everyone knows the story of Rugby schoolboy William Webb-Ellis picking up the football and running with it in 1823 but what fascinates me is what happened afterwards, how did rugby go from Rugby to Buenos Aires, to Toronto, to Tokyo and to Tbilisi and become the cultural presence and geographical mismatch that we see today.

The most common way rugby was spread was through colonialism. Simply put, British ex-pats introduced the game to members of the British Empire while living there. This can be seen transparently today as 12 of the 20 top teams in the rugby world rankings were part of the British empire including dominant nations such as Australia, New Zealand and the USA. However, the most interesting example is Fiji, one of the most miscellaneous and arbitrary nations to the untrained eye but familiar to the common rugby fan and a dominant force in world rugby. Fiji are not only one of the few countries in the world to not have a national football team, they also only have one Olympic medal in their history, a gold one, in Rugby Sevens. So is it that Fijian’s don’t like other sports? No, it is simply that they weren’t exposed to other sports. Rugby was first played in Fiji in 1884 by British soldiers stationed on Viti Levu Island at the Native Constabulary at Ba when they noticed how genetically perfect the Fijian soldiers were for the physicality and pace of the new game. After that rugby took off on the pacific island, initially it was just played by Fijian soldiers and British ex-pats but soon a Fijian Rugby National Governing Body was formed and they played their first international vs Samoa in 1925 which kicked off at 7am so that the players had enough time to shower and change and be in work on time and the field also had a giant tree on the halfway line. Today Fiji are 11th in the rugby world rankings with recent competitive victories over Wales, Scotland, France and Italy and they dominate the Sevens circuit with 3 series wins in its 20-year existence. A similar story occurred in Namibia where rugby was introduced due to British and allied victory in World War One when the British commonwealth nation South Africa took control of Namibia which had been a German colony.

However, rugby wasn’t just spread through colonialism, Uruguay recently broke into the top 20 of the rugby world rankings and competed in the last two Rugby World Cups and they were introduced to the game by Christian missionaries from the UK who came to enforce religion. Furthermore, the Eastern European country of Georgia adopted rugby because it was so similar to the traditional Georgian game of ‘Lelo’ in which men of rival towns competed to carry a ball over a large field into the opposing team’s creek, hence why the nickname of the Georgian rugby team today is the ‘Lelos’.   

To conclude, if you asked an average person, say a football fan, to find Fiji or Namibia on a map they would undoubtedly fail, they probably wouldn’t even know that Samoa and Tonga even exist, however a common rugby fan could find Fiji on a map, tell you it’s capital city and tell you the names of 20 famous Fijian’s. There is a native Fijian in almost every major tier one rugby nation with England’s recent examples including Joe Cokanasiga, Nathan Hughes and Semesa Rokodunguni while Fijian’s litter every major rugby league with around 34 in France’s Top 14 in 2017 and over 20 in the English Premiership including this summer’s big money signings of Semi Radrada and Nemani Nadolo. How many Fijian’s play football in the English Premiership? I don’t think you need me to tell you it’s 0. In summary Fijian’s are core blocks that hold together the world of rugby, not just Fijian’s but also Samoan’s, Tongan’s and New Zealander’s and none of this would have happened if a British colonist hadn’t one day passed them a rugby ball (and yet the Kiwi’s, Aussies and Saffa’s still have the cheek to beat us at every World Cup). Rugby today is defined by those early Victorian colonies and without them maybe rugby might have never left the shores of England.

Who is England’s Next Fly Half?

Rob Andrew, Paul Grayson, Jonny Wilkinson, Charlie Hodgson, Toby Flood, Owen Farrell. England have been blessed with many great fly half’s in their history and currently there is a plethora of young talent primed to usurp the incumbents and become the next great legend as standoff is quickly becoming England’s deepest and most competitive position. In this article I will go through the list of potentials and give my opinion on their chances of wearing the white and red.

Marcus Smith:

Age: 21, Premiership Appearances: 79, Predicted Caps: 50-80

My favourite player to watch in the premiership today, Smith combines speed, flair and footwork with meticulous vision and distribution. Smith has the advantage of being personally scouted and touted by Eddie Jones when he played for Brighton College as a schoolboy so has a good chance of breaking into the national team while Jones remains the head coach. Furthermore, Smith played in the 2018 U20 World Championships taking England to the final before turning down a second appearance in the youth championship to play in the senior England non cap game against the Barbarians with a man of the match performance. He has also cemented himself as the starting fly half at Quins and as one of the best 10’s in the league which has earned him numerous call ups to England training squads as an “apprentice player” and the accolade of top Premiership points scorer in the 2019-2020 season. In my opinion, Smith has a long England career ahead of him as he has the finesse and skill of a Quade Cooper type player but has also already developed his passing and kicking game to become an extremely well rounded and reliable player that can hold his own against any 10 in the world.

Joe Simmonds:

Age: 23, Premiership Appearances: 45, Predicted Caps: 20-40                             

Simmonds is easily the calmest and most composed 23-year-old I have ever seen play, he barely even smiles or even flinches so he definitely has test rugby DNA. He has solidified himself as Chiefs starting 10 ahead of club legend Gareth Steenson and has become one of the league’s best goal kickers with an 84% conversion rate this year. However, he also has a taste for the try line with 4 tries in his short Exeter career including one in a Man of the Match performance in last year’s Semi Final win vs Northampton. As of yet Simmonds has no England training squad call ups or age grade honours but I expect this to change quickly as he keeps getting better and more of a leader with every game and I expect he would have been blooded in this summer’s tour to Japan had it not been cancelled by COVID-19. Furthermore, Simmonds plays for the Chiefs who have many more years of Premiership dominance and championships ahead of them which will play into Simmonds favour and performances.

Jacob Umaga:

Age: 21, Premiership Appearances: 10, Predicted Caps: 0-15

The dark horse of the bunch, Umaga has bags of potential, regardless of the fact he is related to All Blacks legend Tana Umaga the fact is that Jacob has ran the Wasps attack this year in his debut season scoring 4 tries in just 8 starts and forcing All Black star Lima Sopoaga to be dropped and then moved to fullback to make room for him. Furthermore, Umaga was included in England’s most recent training squad in this year’s Six Nations as an “apprentice player” ahead of the more experienced Simmonds and Smith. If Umaga can develop his kicking game and stay fit, I can easily see him playing for England in the next 3 years however he could just as easily be on the fringe his whole career without that extra step up.

James Grayson:

Age: 21, Premiership Appearances: 25, Predicted Caps: 1-5

The long shot of the group Grayson has capitalised on 9 starts in the 10 shirt for Saints this year after Dan Biggar’s injury and has been in fine form. In addition, he has also been to the final of an U20 World Championships with England and is the son of England standoff legend Paul Grayson. Apart from this I don’t see Grayson as anything more than a fine goal kicker and distributer, far from the mercurial talents of Smith and Umaga, and he will have to fight for the 10 shirt with Biggar at Saints for the next few seasons so will struggle for development and game time however he may prove to make a few caps off the bench if selection is stretched.

In conclusion, as you can see Smith is my top pick for England’s next great fly half. Although Ford and Farrell have many years of caps ahead of them expect Smith to make his debut as early as the Lions tour next summer and he will keep on improving in the Quins shirt next year. Also I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 10-12 axis of Simmonds and Smith in 5 years time as Smith would be a more than capable inside centre due to his speed, sound defence and distribution.                                                      

The Stuart Hogg Paradox

Stuart Hogg is the current Scotland captain with 20 tries in 76 international caps as well as two British and Irish Lions tours and two Six Nations player of the tournament awards. However, he has never been the unarguable best player in the world in his position and unless things change in the closing years of his career he will not go down in history as one of the world’s greatest fullbacks; in this article I will underline the reasons why.

The first main reason that Stuart Hogg’s legacy will forever be mired is down to his country of heritage, in other words, the fact he plays for Scotland. Throughout Stuart Hogg’s career Scotland have been an average to disappointing Six Nations side with a wooden spoon title, two 5th place finishes and having never finished above 3rd. Furthermore, during Hogg’s tenure Scotland have never broken into the top 5 in the IRB world rankings and haven’t advanced further than the World Cup quarter finals with a group stage exit to boot. This mediocrity has served to continually dampen and undermine the stunning individual performances of Hogg who seems to nearly always score great tries or have man of the match performances in losing efforts, in the two years he won Six Nations player of the tournament Scotland finished 4th. This raises the question, can a player truly be great, a legend, on a poor team? The question has been raised in relation to Italian Sergio Parisse for years and doesn’t seem to have a clear answer however off the top of your head think of the most well-known and obvious rugby legends in history; Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter, Richie Mccaw, Martin Johnson, George Gregan, John Smit, what do all these players have in common? They are all World Cup winners of course. After all, personal accolades create respect but team accolades create legacy. It can be argued that Hogg will never be recognised as a true great of the game because of the fact he played for a mostly poor Scotland side however i believe that Hogg performs far better when he is the leader and the shining light of a poor team when the system and the game plan is tailored to his style of play and he has the freedom to play as such. Furthermore, there is evidence that Hogg does not perform in teams full of stars when he is not the leader or the main offensive outlet and thus has less freedom. This is the Stuart Hogg paradox; he will never be recognised as a true legend just playing for average teams but when he plays in good teams full of stars he can’t perform as well. Which brings us to the tragedy that is his British and Irish Lions career. The 2013 tour to Australia came too early for a young 20-year-old Hogg well before his peak and he played 5 warm up games failing to make a test team but when the 2017 tour came around Hogg was in his peak and the nailed on starting fullback for the majority of fans and pundits alike. In a cruel twist of fate Hogg had an underwhelming first game and a half before being injured by an accidental stray elbow from team mate Connor Murray instantly ending his tour and his chance to prove himself on the big stage in a star studded team. Hogg himself must have realised this strain on his legacy as after 9 years at an average Glasgow Warriors team that he led and was the shining light for for many years (granted he won one Pro 12 title) he moved to English champions Exeter this past summer to play with other stars such as Henry Slade, Nic White and Sam Simmonds and to compete for titles in England and Europe. However, he has struggled to reciprocate his Glasgow and Scotland form for the Chiefs this season only showing glimpses of his class and in another cruel twist of the fate the season was postponed/ cancelled with Exeter in the top spot poised to go to the final and probably win another premiership. It is possible that Hogg could have gone on to have a man of the match performance in the final which probably would have put to bed the doubts of his quality but sadly not yet, we will have to wait.

If you are still sceptical simply think back to all of Scotland’s best performances and biggest wins in recent years; the narrow loss to Australia in the 2015 World Cup quarter final, the 2017 summer and autumn tour wins over Australia, the destruction of England in the 2018 Six Nations and the following 38-38 comeback draw with England, Hogg was quiet by his standards in all of these games. What else do all of these games have in common? Finn Russell was immense and ran all of the games. When Scotland run their game through Russell Scotland win, or at least play very well, and Hogg steps to the background. Russell is someone known for performing under pressure, it seemingly doesn’t affect him, look at his recent performances under the bright lights of Racing Metro’s ‘Paris La Defense Arena’, is it possible that Hogg can’t perform under pressure, even wilts underneath it? And he only plays well when the pressure is off and his team is losing hence giving him more freedom? History would tell us so. Need any more evidence? Simply look to this year’s incomplete Six Nations with Russell banned and out the team and Hogg first handed the captains armband it was his chance to lead one of the better Scotland teams and they were poor, losing to England and Ireland with Hogg even dropping the ball over the line for a game winning try vs Ireland, of course this was a mere lapse of concentration, an anomaly, but the point is valid. The 2019 World Cup is another good example as Scotland had decent expectations for the first time in years with a solid squad going to Japan but they crashed out losing with bad performances to beatable Ireland and Japan teams and Hogg was metaphorically absent in both games.

There is no doubt that Stuart Hogg is a world class player but it remains to be seen whether he is a world class individual or world class team player, he still has many years left in his career at a powerhouse Exeter team and with a Lions tour to South Africa next year and i hope he proves me wrong.