The Northern Hemisphere Rugby season may now be drawing to a close - but with the summer tours starting next month there is still plenty to play for…
Soon, the crème de la crème of the Northern Hemisphere’s teams will venture forth on a mighty tour to meet the Southern Hemisphere’s top teams, where traditionally they haven’t had huge success: Nevertheless, the Home Nations and France will no doubt be optimistic that they can claim a scalp or two this time around!
This summer’s tours will be the first opportunity for Scotland Head Coach, Vern Cotter, to properly assess the players in close quarters. The players will, no doubt, be keen to impress and stake a claim for the starting line up in the countdown to the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The lads in blue will have to endure a lot of travelling over the coming weeks:
First, Scotland faces off against the USA on 8th June, followed by Canada on 14th June.
Next, the team are set to take a trip down to Argentina on 20th June.
Finally, the team will see itself journeying across the Southern Atlantic to face South Africa on 28th June.
For this reason, at least in part, Vern Cotter has named two squads for the summer:
Half will play in North America;
The rest will journey to Argentina and South Africa.
Only nine players have been included in both touring squads. Some players, particularly from Glasgow, were always going to be excluded from the first squad due to club commitments, and also, because a few (such as Sean Lamont) will be competing in the Commonwealth Games.
Scotland fans are hopeful that their team can achieve a triple-whammy victory run against The USA, Canada and Argentina, (Especially in light of the fact that Argentina has recently announced a weakened squad, so that they can rest senior players for the Rugby Championship);
The biggest test of Scotland’s progression is likely to surface in their match against South Africa (Following the infamous 28-0 defeat which The Springboks dished out back in November 2013): Scotland will be hoping to push South Africa close to show signs of true improvement.
This Scotland team may be going through a period of transition, but many fans are hoping that this lengthy, extensive tour will be used as a platform for a strong and stable squad for the 16 remaining matches which line their way on the road to the World Cup.
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The England team faces a hugely challenging task by playing the reigning world champions (and, arguably, the best team in the world) New Zealand.
Their four match tour, starting on 7th June and finishing on 21st June, includes 3 tests against the All Blacks and a match in Canterbury against the Crusaders, providing the ultimate challenge for an England side that is constantly improving.
England will no doubt take inspiration from their famous victory in November 2012, but any win in New Zealand would be a fantastic achievement, putting down a marker for the World Cup to come next year.
There are, however, some potential setbacks which might throw a spanner in the works for England:
For a start, the squad for the first test is depleted.
Anyone involved in end of season playoff matches, (that is the Premiership semi-finalists and finalists, along with European competition finalists) have been ruled out to allow enough recuperation time.
The first test will be particularly difficult in the absence of first choice players, such as Farrell, the Vunipola brothers and Mike Brown.
England will also be without some first choice players due to injury, for example George Ford and Jack Nowell. The strength and depth of their squad will be put well and truly to the test.
England will be eyeing at least one win against the All Blacks on their travels, but will hope for a series win.
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Meanwhile, the Wales squad is also facing a tough set of fixtures, which include the daunting task of taking on the physical strength and power of the South Africans on 14th and 21st June.
Wales have had a tough run of results in recent years against Southern Hemisphere teams, but will desperately try to break their duck.
Warren Gatland has taken a controversial approach to establish what his strongest squad will be for the tour by deciding to play a ‘Probables’ vs ‘Possibles’ match: Some have speculated that this could prove to be a masterstroke, since every player has to fight hard for their place – a factor which, Gatland hopes, will bring out the best of each and every player.
The contest for the fly-half role will be particularly interesting; Dan Biggar (a ‘Probable’) will oppose the talented and flamboyant misfit, James Hook (‘Possible’); The match will go some way to deciding the test match squad for South Africa.
Wales are facing the tour without some of their regulars, most notably their inspirational leader, Sam Warburton, as well as last year’s Lions’ man of the series, Leigh Halfpenny: Whilst Wales will be confident that they have a squad which possesses the depth and talent to cope, these players will be missed.
Success for Wales will be winning at least one match. To have a hope of moving into the World Cup year with hope of winning, they have to start winning the ultimate tests: beating the Southern Hemisphere sides.
That leaves us to move on to Wales’ Celtic neighbours, Ireland: A team brimming with confidence following their impressive Six Nations victory.
Ireland will have to complete their two test summer tours of Argentina for the first time without Brian O’Driscoll, who will retire following Leinster’s Pro 12 final with Glasgow; Ireland will still have plenty of talent to call upon, but filling that void will not be an easy task. Robbie Henshaw is viewed as a long term replacement, but in the short term, there has been talk of Jared Payne taking on the responsibility among others.
The Ireland squad is generally settled, with only four uncapped players in the 30 man touring party.
Ireland will be expecting two victories from the tour.
As the reigning Six Nations Champions, they are the best team in the Northern Hemisphere, and added to that is Argentina, as already mentioned, are fielding a weakened squad for their matches this June.
Lastly, France is set to face a three-match tour of Australia. The French squad has plenty of outstanding individual talent, such as Fofana and Picamoles, but the real test for them is to play as a unit, and not simply rely on the brilliance of one or two to pull them through: An issue which many have accused France of being guilty of in the Six Nations.
A boost for the squad is the return of Dusautoir, who will provide some much needed leadership. Kayser has had to pull out of the tour due to injury, but the French nonetheless have a strong team, at least on paper. It will be a very interesting set of fixtures for the neutral.
Both teams had very poor 2013 seasons, although recently there have been signs of progress and improvement. The matches will be difficult to call, but with Australia on home turf, they will be viewed as favourites to win the series. France will not be put off by this. If they play as a team more than they have done recently, there is no reason why they can’t force at least one victory.
The Northern Hemisphere sides traditionally find it very difficult ‘Down Under’, and it looks set to be a similar story this year. For each side, however, there is the prospect of promising victories, which will build confidence going into next year’s World Cup.