With many British and Irish rugby fans caught up with events going on in New Zealand, it is easy to forget that the four home nations are also preparing for their own respective tours. With all four nations missing key players away on Lions duty, this summer’s tours represent a big opportunity to blood youngsters and give some of the fringe players an opportunity to see whether they can cut it at test level, and with the World Cup in Japan fast approaching time is running out for players to make an impression before the Lions stars return home.
How will Eddie’s England bounce back against the Pumas?
Having seen his long unbeaten run as England coach come to an abrupt end in Dublin just over two months ago, Eddie Jones will be looking for his side to get back to winning ways on their two-match tour of Argentina. With 16 players having been called up for Lions duty the task awaiting Jones and his team was hard enough even before Billy Vunipola’s injury led to Jones losing yet another key player as James Haskell was called up as a Lions replacement. World Cup semi-finalists in 2015, Argentina are formidable opposition and although they endured a tough year last season Daniel Hourcade’s side will be a tough nut to crack on home soil, especially with so many players missing for England. With players away on Lions duty, many England fans were eagerly anticipating the announcement of Jones’ squad and potential new caps. Unsurprisingly there was a fresh feel to Jones’ squad with 15 uncapped players called up to the 31-man squad, including back-row forwards Ben and Tom Curry (both Sale Sharks), centre Joe Marchant (Harlequins) and winger Joe Cokanasiga (London Irish). Fresh from winning this year’s Six Nations the likes of Chris Robshaw, George Ford and Mike Brown will provide the experience along with captain Dylan Hartley. With Jones choosing to overlook Premiership regulars Christian Wade, Danny Cipriani and Semesa Rokoduguni in favour of a number of youngsters with little senior experience at club level, it is clear that the England coach is looking to throw these players into the deep end of international rugby with one eye on Japan 2019. Highly-rated teenagers like Cokanasiga, the Curry brothers and Saracens lock forward Nick Isiekwe will learn a lot from playing in as passionate and hostile an atmosphere as Argentina where they will be coming up against Super Rugby stars and seasoned internationals. Jones will be anxious that his side get back to winning ways as soon as possible as they continue their relentless march towards the World Cup but with so many young players on tour this summer’s tour will be a massive test of character for the youngsters. The performances in this test series will be just as important as the results to Jones as he looks to build more strength in depth within his England squad.
10th June – Argentina, San Juan
17th June – Argentina, Santa Fe
A new exciting dawn for Scottish rugby
Having enjoyed their best Six Nations in over ten years, Scottish rugby said an emotional farewell to national coach Vern Cotter in March as the Kiwi coach ended his three-year reign by guiding the Scots to fourth in this season’s championship, finishing off with a resounding 29-0 win over Italy at Murrayfield. The man chosen to replace the New Zealander, former Scotland and Lions fly-half Gregor Townsend takes over the helm having helped restore the fortunes of Glasgow Rugby, having guided Glasgow to a Pro12 title as well as the Champions Cup quarter-finals in his five years as Head Coach at Scotstoun. The recent success of the national team as well as the appointment of Townsend has generated new optimism and excitement for Scottish supporters especially with a young generation of stars coming to the fore. Townsend begins his reign with a three-match summer tour, beginning with a clash against Six Nations rivals Italy in Singapore before travelling to face Australia and Fiji respectively. Whilst many Scotland fans may have been unhappy to see just three Scotsmen included in the Lions squad off the back of their best Six Nations finish in years, Townsend will no doubt have been delighted that he had a near-full strength squad to choose from. In the absence of Lions scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, flanker John Barclay will captain a squad including just four uncapped players as Townsend looks to build upon the good foundations laid by his predecessor. Injuries to Huw Jones, Mark Bennett, Richie Gray and Al Dickinson in addition to the absence of Lions trio Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Laidlaw may leave Townsend missing key players but the core of the Six Nations squad remains in Finn Russell, Jonny Gray and Hamish Watson whilst Sean Maitland and WP Nel will boost the ranks having returned from injury. Scottish fans are likely to give Townsend time to settle in before judging him but with as many as 17 Glasgow players in the squad he shouldn’t need that long to get his message across, and with a strong squad he will fancy his chances of getting off to a good start this summer.
10th June – Italy, Singapore
17th June – Australia, Sydney
24th June – Fiji, Suva
Schmidt goes with youth in USA and Japan
Off the back of a mixed Six Nations campaign, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has chosen to blood the youngsters for Ireland’s three-match summer tour of the United States and Japan. With 11 players away on Lions duty there were always likely to be big changes to the touring squad and with eight uncapped players included, Schmidt is clearly looking to give young Irishmen the opportunity to stake an early claim for places at the 2019 World Cup. In what is a youthful squad, experience will be provided by former Lions Cian Healy, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo whilst in Paddy Jackson, Rhys Ruddock and Kieran Marmion there are fringe players used to surroundings at test level. Injuries to Leinster trio Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Sean Cronin have robbed Schmidt of more experience on tour, but compared to the other home nations Ireland look to have the most comfortable set of fixtures to integrate the new caps. The tour itself will offer Schmidt an invaluable opportunity to delve deeper into Ireland’s playing resources ahead of the World Cup and see which young players can handle the pressure at test level. One player who looks destined for the top is Leinster back Joey Carbery who enjoyed a spectacular debut season for his club where he thrilled supporters with his exciting attacking and running game. Such was Carbery’s form towards the end of the season that some people even wanted him to go on the Lions tour. Gatland’s loss will prove to be Ireland’s gain this summer however and having played much of his rugby at full-back this season, Rob Kearney’s injury has opened the door for Carbery to further enhance his international prospects. Having seemed a bit flat in attack during the Six Nations, Schmidt may well expect his young side to show a bit more adventure this summer against weaker opposition. The tour will also give Ireland an early opportunity to scout their World Cup opponents having been drawn in the same group as Japan for the 2019 showpiece, and the chance for young players to familiarise themselves with the surroundings will surely make them more determined to not waste their chance to impress as the countdown begins to Japan 2019.
10th June – USA Eagles, New Jersey
17th June – Japan, Shizuoka
24th June – Japan, Tokyo
Depleted Welsh look to make up for lost ground
Stripped of both playing and coaching resources by the Lions tour, Welsh interim coach Robin McBryde looks to have the toughest job of the lot this summer as he takes an inexperienced side to face Samoa and Tonga. With 12 players as well as coaches Warren Gatland, Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins away in New Zealand, former Welsh prop McBryde has picked a squad containing 13 uncapped players with two-time Lions tourist Jamie Roberts as captain. Facing two of the Pacific heavyweights with the core of the first-team missing will be a huge challenge for McBryde and his young group of players, and off the back of Wales’ worst Six Nations championship in many years confidence is at an all-time low. Despite that this tour will offer up opportunities for young players to make their international debuts as preparation for the World Cup, something which Wales have been guilty of overlooking. Whilst other international teams have slowly integrated new players in since the last World Cup, Wales have by and large stuck with the same group of players who got to the quarter-finals in 2015, with just three players – Sam Davies, Ellis Jenkins and Cory Hill – making their international debuts since the World Cup. As a consequence there is little strength in depth, and going into a tour with so many players away on Lions duty, there is a distinct lack of experience. Travelling to face Samoa and Tonga is a tough enough prospect with a full-strength squad, so going with a youthful inexperienced group is an extremely daunting task. Saying that however Welsh rugby received a significant boost with Scarlets winning the Pro12 playing an expansive attacking game that has thrilled pundits and supporters alike, and with a number of Scarlets in the squad the hope is that those players can maintain this form and inspire their international team-mates to play in a similar way. A side that have come in for criticism in attack over the last few years, the inclusion of exciting backs such as Keelan Giles, Tyler Morgan and Steff Evans should encourage this Welsh side to show more adventure in attack. Having caught the eye of Welsh fans with his appearances for the Ospreys and a few cameos for Wales, Sam Davies should be given the opportunity he deserves at fly-half with Dan Biggar away. A more creative fly-half than Biggar who likes to take the ball to the line, many within Welsh rugby hope Davies will be the catalyst to breathe new life into the Welsh attack and this summer’s tour will be an ideal opportunity to do that on a tour which back home may be judged more on performances than results.
16th June – Tonga, Auckland
23rd June – Samoa, Apia