Retirements, half-retirements, forced retirements, career milestones… it’s been a busy week in the rugby world. Squad changes aplenty, injury in and outs, leading point scorers, here’s what you should know!
IN BITS AND PIECES
Literally, or very nearly anyway. Manu Tuilagi nearly had his lower ear lobe ripped off in a tackle on a rampaging Louis Picamoles early on in the match at Twickenham. No problem, he said, just tape it back up and I’ll get on with things. He later needed 19 stitches to be patched up. Check out the gruesome injury here, and the sewing job here. These Tuilagi blokes are made of something different.
IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR
Retirement has been the talk of the town for the past week or so, and for various different reasons. Stephen Jones announced that he would be retiring from professional rugby at the end of the season, and Ronan O’Gara was unceremoniously dumped from the Irish squad which surely signals the end of his international career, despite the protests of this ridiculous article, and another preposterous suggestion that he might return. Anyway these two individuals deserve a piece on their own, so more on that later.
It seemed like the curtain on world class Springbok flanker Juan Smith’s career had finally been pulled as his long-damaged achilles flared up again in pre-season, prompting Smith to immediately announce his retirement. Many had feared this day would come after his ill-advised initial delay in getting proper treatment for the injury first suffered in early 2011, and after four operations and two years of no rugby there was little reason to think he would ever make it back. The tributes started to pour in but then out of the blue Smith has announced that he will have a new surgery in a last ditch attempt to stave off his premature exit. Whether it will be any more successful is anyone’s guess, but here’s hoping we get to see him in Cheetahs colours once more.
OLD TIMERS AND WHIPPER SNAPPERS
There have been a few key career milestones achieved thus far in the 6 Nations. First and foremost a hearty congratulations to Italy’s Andrea Lo Cicero who won his 100th international cap against Scotland, becoming the second Italian to do so. Should he be selected again this week, which seems likely, he will become Italy’s all-time most capped player, just edging former captain Alessandro Troncon. “Il Barone” (the Baron) made his first international appearance in the first ever 6 Nations tournament of 2000, when he came up against England and Leicester tighthead Darren Garforth, also coincidentally nicknamed “The Baron”, who was making his final test appearance in Rome. Amazing stuff.
More kudos go to Irish character Donncha O’Callaghan, who became his country’s most capped second row while winning his 93rd cap against Scotland, just passing Malcolm O’Kelly old mark of 92. Big Mal still has the most test starts, however, as he sits on 80, tied with Donny’s long time Munster engine room mate Paul O’Connell.
Four players have joined the 50 cap club during the tournament, which at one time was a pretty select group but nowadays with expanded test series’ and tactical substitutions is more like receiving a master’s degree – still a fine achievement, but not quite worthy of deity status just yet. Italy hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, Wales centre Jamie Roberts, and Scottish duo Euan Murray and Alastair Kellock are the anointed ones, while another four could yet join them over the next two weekends. Morgan Parra and Eoin Reddan look certain of bringing up 50 this weekend, and while Andrew Trimble has been recalled to the Irish squad it will still be a tight call to see whether he can get the one remaining cap he needs as well. James Haskell sits on 48 and is probably a good bet to see 50 in Cardiff.
TICKING THEM OVER
The scoring race has been narrowed down to three men. Owen Farrell leads the way with 42, but his injury absence from this weekend should see him overtaken by Leigh Halfpenny, just three behind on 39. Greig Laidlaw is in third with 34 points. Alex Cuthbert has joined Stuart Hogg as the only players to score a pair of tries thus far.
Let’s start with Scotland for our squad updates. Several players have been called up to training, but it looks as though only two changes will be made to face Wales. Alasdair Strokosch has made a rapid recovery from a cracked orbital and should take the place of injured David Denton on the bench, while the reverend Euan Murray returns from the parish, though it remains to be seen whether he will start at tighthead given the fine performance of Geoff Cross in his stead.
Welsh loosehead Gethin Jenkins is doubtful with a calf problem, so Paul James should step into his spot with Ryan Bevington coming into the reserves. Alun Wyn Jones is expected to return at lock in place of Andrew Coombs, which is desperately unlucky for the Gwent man who has been in fine form, and Sam Warburton could be in line for a recall at the expense of Justin Tipuric.
Declan Kidney has thrown caution to the wind in what is likely his penultimate team selection as Ireland coach, dispersing of Ronan O’Gara and Tom Court and calling new names in Robbie Diack and Eoin O’Malley to the party. Neither are expected to feature in the side to face France in Dublin, but Diack could be in the running to win a debut cap against Italy. Injuries continue to be a big problem as both Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy are questionable, meaning it’s anyone’s guess who could start at lock with O’Callaghan, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, and recalled Dan Tuohy all in the squad. Jonny Sexton is almost certainly out again, so Paddy Jackson should have another go with Ian Madigan deputising from the bench in place of O’Gara. Cian Healy returns from suspension to reclaim his loosehead prop position, and Craig Gilroy’s troublesome groin sees Trimble on standby for a wing spot.
Meanwhile France are, incredibly, less chaotic this week, as the only injury withdrawal is Dimitri Szarzewski who is replaced on the reserves bench by Guilhem Guirado. Two players, Jocelino Suta and Benjamin Fall, have been dropped for indifferent performances, allowing Sebastien Vaha’amahina and Maxime Medard to be called in their place. Medard could start at either wing or fullback depending on Philippe Saint-Andre’s confidence in Yoann Huget, normally a winger but looking surprisingly comfortable in the no15 jersey. In any case, there are no other changes to the starting XV expected.
England are expected to make a few changes against Italy, with Stuart Lancaster looking to “freshen up” his side, including a first test start for Mako Vunipola at loosehead, and a possible debut for “little” brother Billy. The failed experiment of Courtney Lawes at blindside will be over, with either James Haskell returning to the side or Vunipola coming in at no8 and bumping Tom Wood back to the flank. Danny Care and Toby Flood should be the new halfback pairing, with Freddie Burns coming into the squad in place of the injured Farrell. Surgically repaired Tom Croft has been recalled and could make the bench, and his former Leicester clubmate Billy Twelvetrees could earn another start. The impressive impact of Tom Youngs against France could see him recalled to the hooker spot, which would be a bitter blow to Dylan Hartley’s Lions aspirations.