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A North vs South trial in English rugby?

By Alex Shaw
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The Covid-19 outbreak has taken from rugby far more than it has given, but one of the few positives to come out of the pandemic has been the arranging of two “north vs south” trial matches in New Zealand and South Africa.


Trial matches were a regular occurrence in the sport’s amateur days, though since the inception of professionalism and the burgeoning and ever increasing fixture schedule that modern day rugby players have to endure, they have largely become forgotten, outside of a few isolated incidents.

In New Zealand, this will pitch the best of the north island against the best of its southern counterpart, whilst in South Africa, the pick of the coastal sides, the Stormers and Sharks, will take on a selection from their inland rivals, the Lions and Bulls. They should prove valuable exercises for both Ian Foster and Rassie Erasmus, with the domestic seasons in both countries heavily impacted by the pandemic.

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Given that the Gallagher Premiership is desperately scrambling to finish up the 2019/20 season, with plans to play seven rounds of fixtures in just four weeks, there is no chance of a similar fixture being played in English rugby anytime soon.

That said, what would a trial match look like in England, if it were to go ahead? We have split the country along the M4 and M25, with Exeter Chiefs, Bristol Bears, Bath, London Irish, Harlequins and Saracens making up the southern contingent, whilst Gloucester, Wasps, Northampton Saints, Leicester Tigers, Worcester Warriors and Sale Sharks make up a rather spacious northern region.

Keeping true to the spirit of a trial, we have limited the players available to those with five caps or fewer for England, with head coach Eddie Jones already well aware of what the players with more appearances for him have to offer.

Up front, you could well be looking at an all-Bath front row, with Beno Obano, Tom Dunn and Will Stuart providing a particularly effective combination at the set-piece and in the loose. Ralph Adams-Hale and Marcus Street are two young props who have flashed their ability, whilst Will Capon and Harry Thacker are a handful of a one-two punch at Bristol.


There is less competition at second row, although a pairing of Exeter’s Jonny Hill and Saracens’ Joel Kpoku would be exciting to watch, and the duo of Zach Mercer and Ben Earl would be difficult to displace at No 8 and openside flanker respectively. There is no lack of options at blindside, though, where Tom Ellis, Dave Ewers, Richard Capstick, Jackson Wray, Alex Dombrandt and James Chisholm would all go head-to-head. Good luck picking a standout candidate from that group.

north south rugby
Zach Mercer has just two England caps to date, although his performances at the Premiership and European level have been excellent. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Ben Spencer would be the obvious choice at scrum-half, though both Jack Maunder and Harry Randall would seem to be dogging his footsteps with their impressive club form. At fly-half, the competition rages between Harlequins star Marcus Smith, Exeter’s composed Sam Simmonds and the surging Callum Sheedy at Bristol. The southern contingent of teams certainly have plenty of talent to pick from in the half-backs.

The midfield riches are not quite as free-flowing, with gifted options, albeit many of whom do not have too much Premiership experience. The Bath pairing of Max Ojomoh and Cameron Redpath are 12s with plenty of potential, whilst one or even both of them could yet find themselves at 13 in the long-term. Harlequins’ Joe Marchant is surely inked into the XV given his play over the last 12 months or so, though Bristol’s Piers O’Conor could and should push him hard for the spot.


Finally, we come to the back three, an area where the southern side is arguably more well-stocked than at any other position. A fit Nathan Earle would likely head the pack and be joined at full-back by one of Max Malins, Josh Hodge or Tom Parton. This leaves a vacant wing spot to be fought over by Gabriel Hamer-Webb, Gabriel Ibitoye, Cadan Murley, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Rotimi Segun, with London Irish’s Ben Loader perhaps just pipping them all to the spot as currently stands.

South XV
Beno Obano (Bath), Tom Dunn (Bath), Will Stuart (Bath)
Jonny Hill (Exeter Chiefs), Joel Kpoku (Saracens)
Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins), Zach Mercer (Bath), Ben Earl (Bristol Bears)
Ben Spencer (Bath), Marcus Smith (Harlequins)
Cameron Redpath (Bath), Joe Marchant (Harlequins)
Ben Loader (London Irish), Max Malins (Bristol Bears), Nathan Earle (Harlequins)

Replacements – Harry Thacker (Bristol Bears), Ralph Adams-Hale (Saracens), Marcus Street (Exeter Chiefs), Elliott Stooke (Bath), Richard Capstick (Exeter Chiefs), Jack Maunder (Exeter Chiefs), Joe Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs), Gabriel Ibitoye (Harlequins)

With seven of the last nine Premiership campaigns won by a team in what we have dubbed the south, it is understandable that the six teams in the north might struggle to match up to their rivals at certain positions.

Loosehead looks to be a shootout between Val Rapava-Ruskin and Ross Harrison, whilst Joe Heyes and Ehren Painter, two players with exceptional talent, will be jostling it out at tighthead. At hooker, the prodigiously gifted Alfie Barbeary could well be given his opportunity to progress and begin to challenge the likes of Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jamie George.

Options are more abundant in the second row, however, with Ed Slater and Calum Green two players who have been unlucky to miss out on caps in the past, whilst Northampton has become a Mecca for swiftly-rising locks. Nick Isiekwe has joined the East Midlands side on loan and will be taking his place alongside Alex Coles, Alex Moon and David Ribbans in what is a deep and talented group.

north south rugby
A switch to Northampton affords Isiekwe the opportunity to get out of Maro Itoje’s shadow. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In the back row, Teimana Harrison and Matt Kvesic have played roles for England previously, Ted Hill would be keen to add to his solitary international cap to date and Gloucester’s Ruan Ackermann has now qualified through residency. They will face off against the Willis brothers, Jack and Tom, at Wasps, as well as Sale Sharks’ exceptional openside, Ben Curry.

Alex Mitchell and Dan Robson would contend the starting scrum-half spot, with a three-way fight between James Grayson, Jacob Umaga and Billy Searle for duties at fly-half. Like the front row, the depth of options in the half-backs arguably does not quite match up to those on offer in the south, despite some very talented players being in the mix, nevertheless.

The northern side could steal an advantage in the midfield, though, where they can call upon an array of contrasting and complementary players. The Gloucester duo of Mark Atkinson and Henry Trinder bring experience and no lack of ability, whilst Sale can call upon their own effective pairing in the form of Luke and Sam James. Ryan Mills is finally starting to get the appreciation his performances on the pitch have deserved for a number of years now and he is also joined by an exciting tandem of Fraser Dingwall and Ollie Lawrence.

In the back three, you would be hard-pressed not to go for recent England full-back George Furbank at 15, something which would keep Jason Woodward and Freddie Steward on the sidelines for the time being. Gloucester’s Ollie Thorley would have one wing locked down, leaving the spot opposite open for one of Jordan Olowofela, Ollie Sleightholme or the Wasps duo of Zach Kibirige and Marcus Watson.

North XV
Val Rapava-Ruskin (Gloucester), Alfie Barbeary (Wasps), Joe Heyes (Leicester Tigers)
Nick Isiekwe (Northampton Saints), Ed Slater (Gloucester)
Jack Willis (Wasps), Ted Hill (Worcester Warriors), Ben Curry (Sale Sharks)
Dan Robson (Wasps), James Grayson (Northampton Saints)
Mark Atkinson (Gloucester), Ollie Lawrence (Worcester Warriors)
Ollie Thorley (Gloucester), George Furbank (Northampton Saints), Ollie Sleightholme (Northampton Saints)
ReplacementsGabriel Oghre (Wasps), Ross Harrison (Sale Sharks), Ehren Painter (Northampton Saints), Alex Coles (Northampton Saints), Teimana Harrison (Northampton Saints), Alex Mitchell (Northampton Saints), Jacob Umaga (Wasps), Freddie Steward (Leicester Tigers)


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