Who’s hot and who’s not: Landmark week for Italian and Georgian rugby, Zach Mercer’s omission and concerning new tournament

Adam Kyriacou

Italy U20 anthem and Zach Mercer training.

It’s time for our Monday wrap of who has their name in lights and who is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons after the weekend.

THEY’RE ON FIRE!

England squad inclusions: The 41 players named in Steve Borthwick’s squad are now one step closer to pulling on an England jersey at the Rugby World Cup, which will no doubt create excitement in the camp. Tom Willis is one of five uncapped players named in the squad – the rest being Tom Pearson, Val Rapava-Ruskin, Theo Dan and Cadan Murley – while veteran Danny Care has been picked as one of three scrum-half options. Congratulations must also go to Owen Farrell after he was handed the captaincy, with Ellis Genge and Courtney Lawes vice skippers. The next task ahead of the Red Rose players is keep on impressing in training before Borthwick makes his final squad choice.

Italy and Georgia U20s: There were shock wins for Italy and Georgia over South Africa and Argentina respectively in the second round of matches at the World Rugby U20 Championship last Thursday. Italy caused a major upset when they secured a 34-26 victory over the hosts South Africa in difficult weather conditions at Paarl Gymnasium. The Azzurri forwards deserve plenty of credit as they laid the platform for the win with a dominant display up front. Meanwhile, Georgia were full value for their 20-0 triumph against Argentina at the Danie Craven Stadium. As the scoreline suggests, Georgia held the upper-hand throughout and eventually outscored their opponents by two tries to none.

Derick Hougaard update: The former Springbok fly-half has been in a Pretoria hospital for the past three weeks and was initially fighting for his life after being diagnosed with respiratory pneumonia. However, the 40-year-old’s situation has taken a turn for the better as he has come out of a 10-day coma, after he was found unconscious on June 10. Although Hougaard has not yet made a full recovery, his girlfriend, South African singer Nadine, revealed last week that Hougaard “is off the ventilators and has been breathing on his own”. News24 reported that there are no signs of brain damage and he is also able to talk, while he returned home on Friday. We wish Derick a speedy recovery.

Crusaders pre-season tour: Matches between club teams from either side of the equator have for a long time been something many get excited about and long for. Supporters will get their wish in February next year as Super Rugby Pacific champions the Crusaders will travel north to face United Rugby Championship winners Munster before taking on Premiership side Bristol Bears. Both meetings promise to be special occasions and credit must go to those who put their heads together to get these games on the rugby schedule. Expect sell-out crowds.

Posolo Tuilagi impresses: Like a chip off the old block, the 18-year-old second-row displayed his immense power and potential as the French U20s outfit demolished the New Zealand age-grade side last Thursday. They were physically superior to the Baby Blacks throughout the game and it was Tuilagi who set the tone. At 150kgs, he proved to be incredibly difficult to stop as he continually made ground with ball in hand. Posolo doesn’t quite have the pace of his father, Henry, but he very much looks a player to look out for over the next few years.

COLD AS ICE!

Ringfencing new tournament: We touched on this tournament after it was first reported in the Georgian media, and on Saturday it was confirmed by Six Nations Rugby and SANZAAR that it’s set to begin in 2026. As we stated last week, it’s a good idea on the face it, but when you read the small print it completely shafts tier two nations and will ultimately prevent the game from growing. Everyone is urging the two bodies to, at very least, alter the idea, while you also wonder where World Rugby are in all of this. This is a competition that’ll be owned and operated by Six Nations Rugby and SANZAAR, leaving the main governing body to control the second-tier tournament, which is just bizarre.

All Blacks World Cup jersey: Last week it was Ireland receiving flak for their Rugby World Cup jersey, but now it is New Zealand after they released their shirt for the tournament. Describe by one Twitter user as a ‘Toddler doodle’, that was a general reaction on social media, as the adidas jersey wasn’t well received. Some described it as more of a golf shirt as the new design features the silver fern prominently and was designed by Frenchman and emerging Parisian-based street-style designer Fey The Wolf. Judge for yourself but we’re clearly not a fan.

Zach Mercer a shock omission: One could probably throw Alex Mitchell into this section as the pair were two standout omissions from England’s latest training squad ahead of the Rugby World Cup. Mercer has been an absolute stand-out in the Top 14 in recent seasons and, after moving to Gloucester, many expected him to feature heavily for the Red Rose from here on in. However, Borthwick has opted for Tom Willis and Alex Dombrandt among others as his number eight options, surprising many as he leaves Mercer out in the cold. Mitchell must too be frustrated after impressing for England in his recent outings. His club’s retweeting of Mitchell’s highlights summed up their thoughts.

Handre Pollard blow for Boks: Just the news Springboks fans would not have wanted to hear as management confirmed that the fly-half will not feature in the Rugby Championship and is on the same recovery timeline as captain Siya Kolisi. Pollard is struggling with a re-injured calf and extra caution is being taken to reduce the risk of aggravating it. The Boks will have to turn to their other options with Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse the front-line options. Elton Jantjies is also the mix after a recall to the squad when Pollard’s injury was confirmed.

Mohamed Haouas gets sentenced: The France international has been handed another jail sentence following an incident in 2014. Just a few weeks ago, he was given a one-year prison sentence after he was found guilty of domestic abuse. It is just the latest in a long line of indiscretions from the tighthead, who to be honest should not be anywhere near the game after this. We’re all for second chances but his rap sheet is long, so it was disappointing to see Biarritz announce his signing and then double down when questioned on the morality of doing so.

Ken Owens latest Wales setback: Wales fans must be pulling their hair out at the situation currently impacting their squad ahead of the Rugby World Cup. After losing Alun Wyn Jones, Rhys Webb and Justin Tipuric to retirement calls before Cory Hill withdrew from the squad due to the lure of a club deal, they have now been hit by captain Owens being ruled out of the global tournament due to injury. The hooker is not alone in being ruled out as Josh Macleod and Will Davies-King followed him out of the squad as Wales’ preparations took another blow. In a pool alongside Australia, Fiji, Georgia and Portugal, it’s becoming increasingly tough to see the Welsh qualify, let alone to the table.

READ MORE: Sunday Social: U20 fever, another Tuilagi and Springbok bloopers