Rugby union health check for 2022: Which stars are waning, who is on the rise and what is the looming crisis?

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Which stars are on the wane?

There is a line in Eddie Jones’ new book that suggests that of the England side that lost to Ireland in Dublin in March, five would not play Test rugby again. On the evidence of his selection for the autumn campaign, it would suggest he was thinking of George Ford, the Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako, while Jamie George only earned a late recall because of an injury to Luke Cowan-Dickie. With Freddie Steward emerging with such aplomb at full-back, one also wonders how easy it will be for Elliot Daly to return to the side. 

It will be a fascinating narrative in 2022 to see if these senior players, stalwarts of the Jones tenure, can force their way back into contention. Even more intriguing will be the position of Owen Farrell, who survived Jones’ cull last year despite a year when his form appeared to have been detrimentally affected by Saracens season in the Championship. The ankle injury he sustained against Australia will deprive him of game time ahead of the Six Nations, and with Marcus Smith laying claim to the No 10 shirt, for the first time in a long time his return to the starting XV cannot be seen as a guarantee.

Manu Tuilagi, who is also struggling with a hamstring injury, and Henry Slade formed a formidable midfield partnership during the autumn and if everyone is fit, and with Ford also playing the rugby of his life for Leicester, Farrell will know his dip in form cannot continue for much longer.

Which stars are on the rise?

Marcus Smith was the shooting star of 2021 – spearheading Harlequins’ remarkable victories in the Premiership semi-final and final, forcing his way into the Lions squad as an injury call-up and then delivering a match-winning contribution as part of England’s starting XV against world champions South Africa.

He left Eddie Jones with no reason for him not to continue in the England No 10 shirt for the opening game against Scotland in Murrayfield in February.

Yet while he is the poster boy of Jones’ new-look England side, it is Freddie Steward who will go into 2022 as England’s stand-out new face. The Leicester full-back made a seamless transition from club to international stage and looks equipped with the skills and physique to become the dominant force in England’s back three. Distribution remains a work-on but his ability in the air is formidable and he brings an X-factor to England’s attacking game, a potent mix. Steward may not attract the same attention as Smith but he was the star of the autumn campaign and England supporters will hope he can maintain that form into the Six Nations.

Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks confirmed their status as serious contenders for the championship and Caelan Doris could emerge as one of the stars of the tournament if he maintains his autumn form that saw him named player of the series. One to watch from the fringes is Ulster centre James Hume who has had a stunning season and will be pushing hard for a place in Andy Farrell’s squad.  

Hottest ticket of 2022

France v England, March 19, Stade de France, Paris. Has ‘Le Crunch’ taken on a greater significance since Mick ‘The Munch’ Skinner upended Marc Cecillon in the 1991 World Cup quarter-final in Paris?

It is likely that Ireland will have a significant say in this, in terms of the championship at least. Andy Farrell’s side, buoyed by their victory over New Zealand in the autumn, will travel to Paris before then, on Feb 12, and an Irish victory against the championship favourites would blow the race for the title wide open. Yet the fact that Le Crunch is scheduled to be the last game of the championship and with England hoping to lay down something of a marker ahead of the World Cup in 2023 and underscore their credentials after a significant make-over in the last six months, this will be a game that promises to be as momentous as it will be gladiatorial. 

England’s win in 1991 marked an era of dominance over Les Bleus, founded on the fearsome power of Will Carling’s side. The question is – can Jones’ side impose themselves in a similar fashion? We can only hope that a capacity crowd will be able to attend the Stade de France on what promises to be a classic ‘Super Saturday’ finale.

A looming crisis in the sport is…

The Champions Cup is in desperate need of an injection of support from clubs and administrations. The impact of Covid again this season looks like the tournament is going to be squeezed again and with the South African franchises due to enter the tournament next season, one can only hope that concerns over travel restrictions are a thing of the past by then. The new format, that was born as a response to the lockdown in 2020, must be overhauled and a return to the traditional pool structure leading into quarter-finals and the final should be switched to the final game of the season to enhance its status and allow for proper marketing of the event as Uefa do with the Champions League.

One prediction

Steve Borthwick will be groomed as the next England head coach. If Leicester Tigers go on to win the Premiership this season, it will represent one of the most remarkable upturn in fortunes since they finished second bottom in 2020 and would have been relegated had it not been for Saracens’ salary cap breaches.

Borthwick ticks all of the Rugby Football Union’s boxes, having had international experience with Japan and then with England where he was assistant coach under Eddie Jones for four years. Jones is almost certain to be consulted about his successor and is likely to endorse Borthwick’s credentials, which is likely to carry some weight at Twickenham. His work ethic and attention to detail is phenomenal and he was regarded as the glue that kept the Jones tenure together during the last World Cup cycle. 

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