With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but we’ll wrap up this series with our sixth and final instalment which takes a look at how Ireland fared.

Ireland – 9/10

Whichever way you cut it, it has been a truly remarkable year for Irish rugby. Ireland got their season off to a flying start with a clean sweep of the November Internationals, followed up by a Grand Slam in the Six Nations and a season finale of a Series win in Australia. To back up the exploits of the Men in Green, Irish teams dominated European club competitions, winning both the European Champions Cup and the PRO 14. The structure in place in Ireland is clearly paying dividends, as Ireland reflect on a year that has them sitting comfortably in second place on World Rugby’s rankings table. This time last year the England/All Blacks encounter this November was being hailed as THE game of 2018, but the Ireland/New Zealand fixture a week later is now being billed as the most eagerly anticipated Test of the year.

Ireland came roaring out of the blocks in their season opener last November against South Africa. While many had written off South Africa, it was worth noting that in their last match prior to meeting Ireland, they had lost to the All Blacks by a mere point in a thrilling encounter in Cape Town. However, Ireland literally blew them off the park in a four try romp and recorded their greatest ever winning margin against the Springboks 38-3. Next up Ireland put out a developmental squad against Fiji. While they acquitted themselves well, they almost came unstuck after a purple patch of concentration at the mid-point of the match saw Fiji run in two tries. Nevertheless, it was a valuable lesson for Coach Joe Schmidt’s less experienced charges in how to salvage a win under intense pressure from a very competitive Fijian side. Their final match of November, also showed a worrying trend of losing concentration, as they took on a struggling Argentinian outfit. Although by the hour mark, Ireland were comfortably in charge and in a dominant position on the scoreboard, they appeared to take their foot off the gas and could have paid dearly for it as Argentina scored two tries in the final minutes. Even though Ireland never looked like they were going to lose the match, they could ill afford such lapses in intensity against teams like New Zealand or in the upcoming Six Nations.

On that note, Ireland’s start to the Six Nations was a tense affair which almost saw the Men in Green record their first loss of the season. Ireland traditionally struggle to record a win in Paris and this year’s Six Nations opener was no exception. As the game headed into injury time, France were ahead by a point. However, in a remarkable display of composure and discipline, Ireland kept the ball for an extraordinary 41 phases, ultimately passing the ball to fly half extraordinaire Johnny Sexton for the drop goal to seal the win for Ireland 15-13. Once again in the second half Irish concentration had dipped allowing a try from French winger Teddy Thomas which appeared to have sealed the deal in France’s favor, especially as the French defence seemed impervious to repeated Irish assaults. It was a nail biting finish, but that run of possession by Ireland was a foretaste of how they would come to place a stranglehold on matches when they most needed it.

Ireland then returned to Dublin for three home games, starting with Italy. Italy put up a brave fight but were utterly eclipsed by Ireland who comfortably won the match 56-19. Next up it was a tight and intensely physical contest with Wales, but as the match wore on Ireland were clearly the side in charge. Furthermore the match highlighted the ability of winger Jacob Stockdale to seemingly score tries at will, as the youngster ran in two fine tries which would ultimately set him on the path to be the tournament’s top try scorer. Ireland’s last match at home was against a Scottish side buoyed by two superb wins against France and England. However, Ireland by now had really hit their stride in the tournament and completely shut down Scotland’s renowned attacking prowess with Stockdale continuing to be a try seeking missile. With a match in hand, their 28-8 defeat of the Scots meant Ireland had the Six Nations title in the bag. All that remained was the scintillating prospect of taking a Grand Slam at England’s expense at Twickenham.

Ireland’s Grand Slam decider at Twickenham was a fitting end to a remarkable Irish performance in the Six Nations. With the usually reliable Owen Farrell seeming unable to hit a barn door for England in the kicking department, Ireland controlled a thrilling match and put in a complete team performance which gave England very little opportunity. The Irish defence was outstanding, while once again their strike runners continued to cause havoc for their opponents. Ireland looked focused and disciplined for the full eighty minutes, and made an increasingly frustrated English side pay dearly for their mistakes. Ireland were starting to look unstoppable, with extraordinary depth across the park, and the only question that remained was could they take this remarkable form on the road and record a series win on a tough three Test end of year tour to Australia?

In a nail biting opening Test in Brisbane, Australia looked the fitter and hungrier side. Ireland just couldn’t unlock the Australian defence and all their strike threats out wide, who had proved so devastating during the Six Nations, seemed to struggle to find work in the series opener. In the end, Australia emerged comfortable winners at 18-9. Many had predicted that as good as Ireland were, this tour would be the bridge too far that burst the bubble of euphoria surrounding Irish rugby. However, the second Test proved the critics wrong as Ireland got themselves right back into the series. It was a Test for the ages, as both sides went hammer and tongs at each other and the match was on a knife edge for long periods of a thrilling eighty minutes. However, it would be Ireland who would ultimately get the edge on composure and put in a classy finish to see them emerge the winners at 26-21, setting up an epic series decider in Sydney the following weekend.

Ireland’s final game of a remarkable year showed just how important Irish fly half Johnny Sexton is to this Irish side. Just as he set up Ireland’s road to the Grand Slam at the death in the Six Nations opener against France, his goal kicking abilities and composure under pressure would ultimately be enough to nudge Ireland ahead of an exceptionally spirited Australian challenge. In a game that had fans around the world, regardless of who they supported on the edge of their seats, Ireland would squeak the win and the series 20-16. In this final hurrah of the season, they learnt a great deal about their own depth as well as the class and quality of their veterans against an exceptionally worthy and difficult opponent who had pushed them to the limits in all three Tests. To do this a long way from home and at the end of a long hard season, made the victory and Ireland’s achievements this season that much sweeter.

As we head into the upcoming season, there are a myriad of questions surrounding Ireland. Have they peaked too early? Will they ultimately bow out of next year’s World Cup with a whimper as history has dictated up till now? Do they finally have the depth to cope with the inevitable injuries and make them a real contender with the All Blacks for World Cup glory? The list goes on.

However, we think that this time Ireland does have the players and experience to go the distance, not only this season but also at the World Cup. We doubt they have peaked too early and feel that many of the younger players who stood out this year are only just getting into their stride. As for the depth issue, with the possible exception of back up for scrum half extraordinaire Conor Murray, Ireland appear to be exceptionally well stocked. There is the nagging worry that without Murray and Sexton on the field Ireland are only half the team they could be, but with Carberry likely to get much more exposure this year as Sexton’s understudy then at least some of that concern is being put to rest. Even without Sexton and Murray, Ireland has a forward pack that is the envy of the world, and a set of backs that can mix it with the world’s best in defence and on attack. In short, Ireland’s roll call for this coming season would be the stuff of fantasy for a majority of top Test team selectors. Ireland are in fantastic shape and provided they can keep building on the momentum of this past season, it is going to take a very special team to knock them off their perch. Coach Joe Schmidt’s down to earth focus is likely to keep the players in check mentally and thus prevent them from falling prey to the hype surrounding the team. As a result we very much doubt complacency is likely to be an issue with this rather extraordinary and committed team.

Match of the year – England vs Ireland – Twickenham – March 17th – England 15/Ireland 24

We were rather spoilt for choice in making this selection, as Ireland put in so many memorable performances this season. However, securing a Grand Slam at Fortress Twickenham is always a rather special achievement and one to be savored. Ireland looked the part from start to finish in a tough encounter as they sought to make history. It’s coping so well with this kind of pressure, especially away from home, that will hopefully make them a genuine contender next year in Japan.

Player of the year – Tadgh Furlong

Once again, an almost impossible choice here as there were so many brilliant individual performances that contributed to the way Ireland played this year. While Johnny Sexton may have been the glue that held this remarkable team together this year, allowing them to shine as individuals and as a unit, we just felt we had to give Furlong the honor this season. The Tighthead Prop is in our opinion the best in the world at the moment at his trade, and Furlong seemed to be in the thick of everything extraordinary that Ireland did this year. He seems to embody all the qualities that have become so impressive about this Irish squad, power, intensity, committment and a work rate that appears impervious to fatigue. Furlong had a massive year for Ireland and was one of our talking points after every Irish performance. Like many of Ireland’s new generation of players he seems to be just getting into his stride and we look forward to watching the chaos he is likely to cause opposition teams this coming season.

Player to watch in 2019 – James Ryan

Once again another tough call here with so many brilliant individual performances. However, it seems remarkable that this was only the 22 year-old lock’s first full season in the green jersey – such was the impact he had. A truly impressive talent who has a future ahead of him that is surely likely to equal that of Irish greats like the legendary Paul O’Connell. Expect him to be even better this year after the experience he has gained this past season.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Ireland’s best match of the year in our opinion. Their Grand Slam decider against England at Twickenham was a special victory, as it was only their third in the tournament’s history, and to secure it away from home was a genuine achievement. In a high pressure match with everything to play for, Ireland put in a complete performance that personified the very high levels of composure, discipline and execution that have now become trademarks of this team. Ireland are not second in the world by a judicious roll of fortune’s dice and last year’s fixture list.  They have earned every last inch of it, and look set to continue to be the benchmark Northern Hemisphere team in 2019. They will need to push themselves even harder though and continue to raise the bar, as England and Wales will likely be snapping hard at their heels, with the dark horses of France and Scotland never very far away.

That concludes our look at the Northern Season – we’ll be doing the same for the Southern Hemisphere and Canada, USA, Fiji and Georgia at the end of the year. But for now bring on the Rugby Championship!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 5 where we take a look at how Wales fared.

Wales – 7/10

It’s been a good year for Wales make no mistake, and with them sitting at third place in the World Rankings – why have we only given them a 7/10 you may ask? Yes it has been an outstanding season for Wales, but their place on the world rankings table is likely to change fairly quickly once the Rugby Championship gets underway next weekend, as Australia and South Africa are likely to climb quickly on the global pecking order. There have been some outstanding performances by Wales this season, but look at the maths and then you may understand how we have had to temper Wales place on the world rankings with a dose of reality. Yes they only lost four Tests this past season, but of the eight they won, four of those matches were by less than seven points. The win against Georgia, at the beginning of the season was also far from convincing. Lastly their summer tour was against two sides deep in the process of transition – not that that takes away from three excellent Welsh wins, made more impressive by the fact that they were delivered by what was essentially a developmental squad. In short, it has been a year in which Wales have learnt a great deal about the depth they have at their disposal. While the results may not have been as convincing at times as some may have liked, Wales have used this season to lay some excellent ground work for the World Cup in Japan next year. On that basis we feel that Wales have had a very good year and should feel exceptionally confident going into 2019.

Wales got their season off to a blistering start in the November Internationals against Australia. While they may have lost the game, they played some outstanding attacking rugby but at times they looked fragile defensively. It was a fast and very physical game, with the Welsh forward pack, particularly the loose forwards Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi putting in a huge shift. However, the pace at which Wales played meant that at times they were left wrongfooted in defence. Australia were clinical at spotting the gaps and making Wales pay for them. Furthermore, in the exuberance Wales fluffed a few key chances, while their goalkicking also left them bereft of some key points. Still it was an impressive display that hinted at some great performances to come from Wales as the season unfolded.

Although they won their next match against Georgia, much of the optimism surrounding their performance against Australia quickly evaporated. It was a scrappy and at times cynical effort from Wales, and they were lucky to win a match that was from a spectator point of view instantly forgettable. Georgia matched them physically and pushed them to the limit and were unlucky to lose. They then went on to face New Zealand, and despite having the lion’s share of possession and territory they were able to do a lot less with it than the All Blacks. New Zealand were simply better at turning what little opportunity they had into points on the board. Although Wales played some brilliant rugby in the second half and scored some outstanding tries, their finishing still left much to be desired. As a result, despite a solid effort they still found themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard at the final whistle by 15 points.

Wales would finish the November Test window by putting on another superb display of high-speed attacking rugby in the first half against South Africa. However, alarm bells would start ringing again as they failed to maintain the momentum, allowing the Springboks right back into the match towards the end of the first half and ultimately for the rest of the match. Welsh fans breathed a sigh of relief as Leigh Halfpenny stroked a penalty over the posts with ten minutes to go, and put Wales back into a two point lead which they would maintain till the final whistle. Once again an impressive start was let down by a less than convincing finish despite the win.

Wales started their Six Nations campaign against Scotland by laying down a marker that they would be a force to be reckoned with. Once again they got off to a remarkably fast start which clearly unhinged a Scottish side renown for playing an equally quick brand of rugby. Wales ran out resounding winners in what was their best all round performance of the year, and one which they were able to maintain for the full eighty minutes. Wales then travelled to Twickenham where they took on England in a match they were desperately unlucky to lose, made worse by not being awarded a try which could have clearly swung the match in their favor. England were distinctly average for much of the match, though once again Wales failed to capitalise on some golden opportunities that went begging. Perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of the Welsh performance was a bizarre obsession with a kicking game in the opening stages of the game that was clearly not working for them. The minute they stopped kicking the ball away, England started to look vulnerable. How different the result might have been had they stuck with this approach from the outset.

Wales then made the journey to Dublin to take on an Irish side that was building some impressive momentum that would take them all the way to a Grand Slam. What we were privileged to witness was one of the best games of the tournament as both sides went at each other hammer and tongs. Fast and physical for the full eighty minutes, Wales were ultimately unable to contain Ireland who managed to exert increasing control over the match as it wore on. Wales got themselves back into the match with the final quarter to go, but once again Ireland were able to put a stranglehold on proceedings despite sustained Welsh pressure and it was Ireland who stole the show at the end with a brilliant intercept try.

Wales returned home, to thump Italy and then in a scrappy and difficult encounter, struggled to get past a resilient France, winning the match by one point. The French dominated possession in the second half, but a resolute Welsh defence held firm. Luckily for Wales, France didn’t bring their kicking boots with them and as a result Wales would squeak the match by the slimmest of margins.

Wales would end their season taking a developmental squad full of new caps on a three Test tour of the Americas. They got proceedings underway in an exhibition match in Washington, DC against South Africa. It was South Africa’s first game under new Coach Rassie Erasmus, ahead of a three Test series at home to England. Both sides were highly experimental but Wales can feel well pleased with the way Coach Warren Gatland’s new charges stood up to the challenge. It was a dire match at first, but from the 20 minute mark, the game picked up its tempo and Wales got into their high-speed attack mode scoring two quick tries. However, as we saw all year, at times they struggle to keep that momentum for the full eighty minutes. South Africa came storming back into the match in the second half and the contest went to the wire, with Wales making a superb charge down on a South African kick deep in the Springbok 22 and scoring a try to seal the match in their favor 24-22.

Wales then headed to Argentina for a two Test series and Gatland’s young charges excelled themselves. Admittedly Argentina were poor and lacked focus, but there is no denying that Wales completely outplayed the South Americans in a master class display from an impressive crop of less experienced Welsh players. Wales boarded the plane for the long flight home knowing that they head into the coming season and preparations for Japan with some serious depth. Depth that is likely to get better with increased exposure in the year ahead.

Our only concern with Wales is consistency, particularly in terms of lasting a full eighty minutes. They are playing a vastly expanded game compared to years gone by and it seems to suit them, even if defensively they have been found wanting at times. Fast and powerful with some outstanding loose forwards, Wales look exceptionally dangerous providing they can finish off the opportunities they are creating. In Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler, Wales have one of the best and most dangerous back row partnerships in International Rugby right now. Fix the consistency, improve the defence and cut down on the errors and Wales are more than capable of getting to the final four in Japan next year. Whatever happens they are an exciting side and we look forward to watching them build on the momentum of a season which reflects a job well done by the players and coaching staff.

Match of the year – Wales vs Scotland – Cardiff – February 3rd – Wales 34/Scotland 7

Wales completely outplayed a highly vaunted Scottish side in their Six Nations opener. Unfortunately they were unable to maintain this level of intensity and efficiency for the remainder of the tournament, but it showcased the skill set that Wales now have, especially with this looser and more open style of game they seem to have adopted. When they get it right the rest of the world will be more than just a little anxious about facing them.

Player of the year – Josh Navidi

Tough call here, as Navidi’s back row partner Aaron Shingler also stood out all season. However, it was Navidi’s powerful runs throughout the year that really caught our eye starting with Wales’ opening Test against Australia. Perhaps more than any other player Navidi epitomised the speed and power which this new look Welsh side seem to now thrive on. It was Navidi’s work rate in the loose and his explosive breaks that set up so many of Wales’ attacks through their backs this season.

Player to watch in 2019 – James Davies

While not exactly a youngster, at the age of 27, the flanker really stood out on Wales’ summer tour of the Americas, proving that Wales have some genuine depth in the back row. Expect to see more of the energetic blindside causing havoc in the midfield in 2019.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Wales’ best match of the year in our opinion. Their Six Nations opener against Scotland laid down a real marker of Welsh intent, as well as a showing a more polished and expansive style of play perfected from the November Internationals. Although they may have struggled to maintain it throughout the tournament, they still managed to finish second on the table, and on tour in the Americas in June it was very much on display with a crop of new talent. If Wales can make this their modus operandi throughout 2019, they will be a force to be reckoned with and well prepared for the global showdown in Japan.

Up next – we conclude the series with Ireland!

 

 

 

 

 

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 4 where we take a look at how England fared.

England – 6/10

There’s no getting away from it, it’s been a difficult year for England and how far the chariot has fallen since England were number 2 in the world less than a year ago. They now find themselves in fourth on the rankings table, which in itself would not be so bad were it not for the fact that two of their other Six Nations rivals Wales and Ireland are ahead of them, with the Irish being comfortably so. England’s form since the Six Nations has left many wondering if a further slide down the table is not imminent, especially as of 11 matches played this past season (we are not including the Barbarians match), England lost five in a row.

While it is clear that all is not well with the structure underpinning the Men in White, we feel it needs a sense of perspective. Yes, by England’s lofty standards it has been an exceptionally disappointing season after the highs of 2016 and 2017. However, take a closer look at the results, despite the losses, they were never really taken to the cleaners in a manner akin to the Springboks 57-0 drubbing by the All Blacks last year. They had a number of solid wins, and their biggest losing margin was the 25-13 loss to Scotland in this year’s Six Nations. They have been competitive make no mistake, what they have lacked is the finishing necessary in big matches and a real lack of direction in selection policy. Furthermore, Coach Eddie Jones has been guilty of sticking with combinations that either don’t work or are in desperate need of some fresh blood. Does he have enough time to develop the depth and resources of new talent he needs before England take a shot at the World Cup next September?

England got their season off to a shaky start in the November Internationals against Argentina. After the shock of losing to Ireland in their final match of the Six Nations in 2017 and the end of their longest ever winning streak, England really needed to make a statement in their November Internationals opener. Unfortunately no such statement was made. England got the win but that was about all that could be said about it. It was a poor performance from both sides, but given England’s calibre they should have won the game by a far greater margin than 13 points. Had Argentina managed some decent goalkicking the scores would have been much closer. England then redeemed themselves against Australia in a performance that reflected the standard we had come to expect from them. Nevertheless, in the first half they struggled to capitalise on numerous chances and as a result the score was only 6-0 in favor of the Men in White. Nevertheless, defensively they looked rock solid, especially given the multiple strike threats that Australia possessed. England’s defence withheld enormous pressure from some spectacular and relentless Australian attacking play, while at the same time England’s bench really came to the party in the final quarter. Ultimately England would score three tries and emerge the winners by 30-6. They ended their November Test window with a comprehensive thrashing of Samoa, and looked well set to be the number one contenders for Six Nations glory.

To that effect they got their Six Nations campaign off to a robust start in Rome against Italy, running in seven tries and comfortably putting themselves at the top of the table after the first round. From there however, dramatic cracks started to appear as they took on Wales at Twickenham. It was a messy game from both sides, but once more England looked far from convincing and the scoreline was a bit too close for comfort. England then made the journey to Murrayfield to take on a Scottish side brimming with confidence after dispatching France. Much like in Dublin almost a year ago, the wheels fell off the England bus in a rather dramatic fashion. Scotland threw the kitchen sink at them and looked the more polished and committed side for the full eighty minutes. Scotland matched everything England brought to the encounter, especially in the forward battles and were clearly the better side. England were completely outplayed especially up front and the English back row was proving to be dysfunctional, despite some impressive individual performances, while the half back pairing of George Ford and Danny Care was misfiring badly.

Things then went from bad to worse as England travelled to Paris and another dismal error strewn performance plagued by ill discipline followed. England simply failed to show up, and France who had problems of their own, especially in terms of discipline, still managed to be more effective when it mattered most. England experienced their second consecutive loss, and the wind had clearly gone out of a side that had, along with New Zealand, dominated the International Rugby headlines in the first two years following the 2015 World Cup. In their final Six Nations match England needed to redeem themselves at Fortress Twickenham, and attempt to rob Ireland of a Grand Slam, just as Ireland did to them the previous year. It wasn’t to be as once more the English forward pack were bossed off the field by Ireland, and the Irish defence snuffed out any opportunities the English tried to create. Even the traditionally reliable Owen Farrell playing at fly half couldn’t seem to find the answers needed to unpick Ireland’s game plan. England would score three impressive tries, but an inability to convert any of them would ensure that Ireland would end up winning comfortably. England as they have for much of the year seemed to struggle with pressure and, in such a big match as this, even at home it was clear that they singularly failed to cope with it and rise to the occasion – something their visitors from across the Irish Sea seemed much more comfortable with.

England would wrap up their season with a daunting three Test series in South Africa. After their disappointing Six Nations adventures which saw them finish fifth, just above wooden spoon holders Italy, Coach Eddie Jones and his men looked ill placed to take on a Springbok outfit under new management and looking to make amends for two dreadful years following the last World Cup. The decision to train at sea level, when the first two Tests were to be played with the infamous altitude of the High Veld as a factor, left everyone including ourselves utterly bewildered. England came storming out of the blocks in the first quarter, but then proceeded to essentially run out of gas while South Africa steadily built momentum. To be fair, despite the players often looking dead on their feet they scrapped to the end, and it is to England’s credit that although they lost, it was only by three points. It was close, and a Test match for the ages but England will only have themselves to blame for blowing an early 21 point lead. In the second Test also at altitude, England once again ran out of puff after a bright start and the Springboks ground out a gritty but convincing win, in which England’s forwards and half backs once again struggled to assert any kind of control over proceedings. It was ultimately a poor performance from England, and with it went the series as South Africa made it 2-0.

In appalling weather, England pulled their socks up in Cape Town for the third and final Test and to their credit gave their best performance of the season. It was a fitting end to an otherwise forgettable year, as England demonstrated that this team can triumph in adversity, and furthermore is blessed with some remarkable talent, perhaps most fittingly epitomised in winger Jonny May. England ran out worthy winners and salvaged some pride from a tour that had clearly given them more to think about than perhaps they had hoped.

In short, while it may have been England’s annus horribilis, provided they can learn from the mistakes made in sufficient time, it could end up being the best possible preparation for next year’s World Cup. The complacency that often comes with a long winning streak, if it ever was there, has surely been tossed out the window from a dizzying height in the case of England. As mentioned above, it would be ludicrous to write them off as anything other than serious contenders for the World Cup. In a country with the depth of talent and resources that England has, they simply won’t be down and out for long. While many feel, and we tend to agree, that Coach Eddie Jones was not the saviour of English rugby that he was made out to be, and perhaps not the ideal long-term solution for the problems England found itself with after the last World Cup, he will hopefully address with vigor the weaknesses that this season has exposed. He has the talent at his disposal, so surely it is only a matter of time before England are once again reasserting themselves as a dominant force in International Rugby. Whether or not he himself has the skill set and willingness to affect the changes needing to be made remains to be seen. As a conclusion, England may be down but they are definitely not out and as we saw in the rain and mud of Newlands at the end of June, there is still plenty of fire in the belly of the English Rose.

Match of the year – South Africa vs England – Cape Town – June 23rd – South Africa 10/England 25

Some of you may be surprised to see us pick this as England’s best this past season. However, for us it showed the grit and character of this English team with their backs against the wall in tough conditions and a long way from home. They may have lost the Series but what a courageous last stand to set the tone for next season. They were the better side on the day, when everyone had written them off. South Africa although having won the Series would not have taken their foot off the gas, as the prospect of a Series whitewash would have been too tempting. However, England proved the better side at mastering the conditions and staying the course, and ultimately salvaged some much-needed pride and inspiration from what had otherwise been a year to forget.

Player of the year – Jonny May

With 20 tries to his name this season, he was the one player who consistently turned up for England all year. With his defensive abilities vastly improved, it was his ability to make England devastating out wide in every match they played that makes us hand him the accolade of England’s most accomplished and reliable player of 2018. England will be looking to him for more of the same this year.

Player to watch in 2019 – Tom Curry

England’s back row problems of the last year have been exhaustively documented by us and others. For us Curry is the breath of fresh air that England so desperately needs in this part of the park. The twenty year old openside flanker has a huge future ahead of him, and in a tour that needed inspiration, Curry provided it by the bucket load. If Eddie Jones is serious about addressing England’s problems then giving Curry as much game time as possible between now and Japan will be one his first steps in the right direction.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of England’s best match of the year in our opinion. The final Test against South Africa that took place at the end of June, had all those gritty qualities and never say die attitudes that you associate with the English jersey. It was pride restored with a long to do list between now and the World Cup next year, but showed us that to write England off would perhaps be foolhardy to the extreme. England will be back and may just end up peaking at exactly the right time in 2019!

To be continued – up next Wales!

 

 

 

 

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 3 where we take a look at how Scotland fared.

Scotland – 7/10

Scotland have consistently gone from strength to strength in the last eighteen months. The departure of former Coach Vern Cotter at the end of the 2017 Six Nations, had many wondering if the renaissance he’d brought to Scottish rugby could continue under his successor Gregor Townsend. The short answer to that would appear to be that such concerns were completely unfounded! Townsend saw his side finish strongly in this year’s Six Nations, after a very successful November series of home Internationals, and end the year with a satisfying tour of the Americas which saw plenty of development in terms of depth. Scotland are a contender make no mistake, and they are more than capable of making it to a semi-final berth in Japan next year.

Scotland’s season got off to an encouraging start in November with a high scoring win against Samoa, but despite the victory it was a confusing and at times unsettling performance for Scotland and their fans. Scotland were leading 32-10 at the fifty minute mark. Somehow though in the next 15 minutes they would let Samoa right back into it as the Pacific Islanders would score two tries. The final quarter of the match was a frenetic affair with both sides seemingly scoring at will and Samoa in it right till the death. Given that 11 tries were scored and Scotland bagged six of them, it was worrying that Scotland found it so hard to put Samoa out of the game until literally the final whistle. Defensively at times they looked naive, a trait which has caught them napping more than once this year.

Scotland clearly spent a lot of time looking at the video footage of the match and the effort they put in against New Zealand the following weekend was vastly improved. For us in many ways it was Scotland’s most memorable performance of the year, despite the narrow loss. It was a thrilling match that had everyone on the edge of their seats till the final whistle. Scotland were brave in attack, but truly epic in defence. If Stuart Hogg’s desperate last-ditch pass had gone to Scottish hands in the final minute after a fantastic breakout, then Scotland would have made history. Sadly though it wasn’t to be and Scotland could only imagine what might have been. Nevertheless, it had been a thrilling performance which saw Scotland dominate the All Blacks for large chunks of the match.

Scotland’s final encounter of the November fixture list was an absolute blinder as they recorded a staggering 53-24 win over the Wallabies, who themselves were looking much improved having just beaten New Zealand a few weeks previously. Scotland completely outclassed Australia and ran in an astonishing eight tries, some of which were sublime to watch. What was even more heartening for Scottish supporters was that this was all without talismanic fullback Stuart Hogg.

The start of Scotland’s Six Nations campaign, however brought them back down to earth with a resounding thump, as Wales comfortably cruised past a Scottish side that once again looked at sixes and sevens defensively. The following week, in front of an ecstatic Murrayfield crowd, Scotland regained their groove despite being sorely tested at times by a French side clearly going through their own renaissance. Although the Scots were made to work hard, they still ended up being the better side and walked away with a hard-earned 32-26 victory. Greig Laidlaw’s boot also ensured that France would pay dearly for their growing lack of discipline in the second half. The momentum continued a fortnight later as Scotland played host to Six Nations champions England. It was the Scots first Six Nations victory over England in 10 years. Scotland opened proceedings with an emphatic first half performance that ultimately left England with too much to do.

Scotland would head out on the road for their final two encounters of the Six Nations, and despite some brave efforts the wheels started to come off the bus. They are clearly a side to be reckoned with at home, but as a travelling side they still need to convince. They were thrashed comprehensively by Ireland in Dublin, by an Irish side that was rapidly building momentum for their ultimate Grand Slam Six Nations campaign. For Scotland’s final effort in Rome, they struggled to contain a feisty Italian side desperately attempting to salvage some pride from an otherwise disappointing campaign. Scotland squeaked the win and ultimately 3rd place in the Championship, but it wasn’t pretty and once again defensive frailties and over ambitious playmaking by fly half Finn Russell almost cost them dearly.

Scotland would end the year with a tour to the Americas which saw them take a development squad to Canada, the USA and Argentina. While there were very few surprises at them walking over a hapless Canadian side, eyebrows were raised as the USA gave them a real run for their money and emerged the winners by one point. Scotland would bounce back though as they went on to demolish a rudderless Pumas side 44-15. Although they will have been unhappy with the loss to the USA, the tour unearthed plenty of new and exciting talent ahead of their final year of preparation for next year’s World Cup in Japan.

There is no question that Scotland is in a good place heading into the 2018/19 season. A strong showing in November will give their rivals plenty of food for thought. If they are able to continue that form into another positive Six Nations performance which sees continued development of some of their newer players, then Scotland should be in an excellent position to provide a real challenge in Japan.

However, doubts remain about the consistency of their defence, as well as their ability to pull off big wins away from the hallowed ground of Murrayfield. Furthermore, as talented as he is, Scottish fly half Finn Russell may not have as much of a role in Scotland’s efforts this year as he will be playing his club rugby in France. Scotland, have consistently been brilliant one week and then rather average the next. They will really need to address this in 2018/19 as well as find some depth at fly half should Russell not be able to play the kind of role they would like. This may in itself not be such bad news as we have felt that although he is a remarkable player, Russell has a tendency to be overly ambitious at times and lacks the execution needed to pull off some rather adventurous plays. Therefore if Scotland can use this coming season to find a reliable back up for Russell as well as strengthen their defensive abilities then it should be another excellent year for them. We certainly hope so, as we hold to our view that they are without a doubt one of the most exciting attacking teams in International Rugby at the moment.

Match of the year – Scotland vs Australia – Murrayfield – November 25th – Scotland 53/Australia 24

In a truly emphatic win over the Wallabies, the “new” Scotland was on display at its best. The eight try epic by the Men in Blue was enthralling to watch and the fact that they achieved it without arguably their best player, fullback Stuart Hogg, on the field says a lot about where this Scottish side is headed.

Player of the year – Stuart Hogg

We really struggled with this one as there were so many impressive performances from Scottish players across the park this season. Nevertheless, the turbocharged fullback continues to light up pitches around the globe with his extraordinary line breaks and counter attacks. Hogg guarantees excitement and unpredictability and is clearly one of Scotland’s most daunting strike threats and a perpetual headache for opposition defences.

Player to watch in 2019 – George Turner

The Hooker who really stood out on the tour to the Americas this year, made us sit up and take notice from the minute he came off the bench against Canada. He backed that up with two solid performances against the USA and Argentina. Fast, powerful and able to cover vast amounts of the park, in the best tradition of New Zealand Hooker/utility back Dane Coles, we feel there is a very bright future ahead of this young man in a Scottish jersey and hope to see more of him this season.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Scotland’s best match of the year against Australia, in which they showed us that they can mix it up with the Southern Hemisphere and rack up some big points in the process. Scotland mean business and with the depth they are starting to develop are only going to get better. It still may be early days, and there are still some outstanding issues as mentioned above, but Scotland will be a force to be reckoned with this season and ultimately in Japan just over a year away.

To be continued – up next England!

 

Super Rugby comes to a close, as we eagerly await the start of the Rugby Championship in just over two weeks. New Zealand teams, and the Crusaders in particular, have once again dominated the competition, but its latter stages also showed that this year’s Rugby Championship should be a much more open contest than in previous years. There have been some very strong showings from South African teams, and with the Springbok renaissance that took place recently against England, we’re hoping for a competitive Championship this year. This year’s Super Rugby final should give us a tantalizing look at what we might expect to see when the Springboks and All Blacks clash heads next month.

This year’s final is a repeat of last year’s with the only difference being that the Lions are racking up the air miles en route to New Zealand, whereas last year it was the Crusaders making the long trek to Johannesburg. Given the travel factor and the small matter of the Crusaders essentially being an All Black undercover squad, it is hard to imagine the Lions upsetting the odds tomorrow in Christchurch. We are hoping for plenty of thrills and the South Africans have some real game breakers amongst their ranks. Malcolm Marx, Kwagga Smith, Marnus Schoeman and Aphiwe Dyantyi are all players who can in a heartbeat turn a match on its head. However, as we saw last weekend in the Crusaders semi-final clash with the Hurricanes, the Christchurch outfit can create opportunities and capitalise on them from anywhere on the park, and their counterattacking ability from deep is rather alarming to say the least.

Despite this match perhaps ending up as a bit of an anticlimax after two thrilling semi-finals last weekend, we are still looking forward to it. As mentioned above, we’re more than just a little curious if for no other reason than it being an exciting teaser for the Southern Hemisphere heavyweight showdown starting in a fortnight’s time.

Crusaders vs Lions
Saturday, August 4th
Christchurch

We haven’t had much time to chat about this one so, as a slight departure from our usual form, here’s a brief summary of our talking points leading up to the match.

The Lions rolling maul. Once it picks up speed it seems to have a life of its own that other teams struggle to contain. The Crusaders have a formidable forward pack, but provided the Lions are match fit and not overly jet lagged, the New Zealanders will find managing this weapon in the Lions arsenal exhausting.

Defensive liabilities of the Lions especially in the backs. The Lions have too many missed tackles going against their names in this competition for our liking. When you consider the quality of the Crusaders backs, especially what we saw from them last weekend, brilliantly orchestrated by fly half Richie Mo’unga then this could in the first quarter be the death of the Lions tomorrow. Given that the Lions seem to put themselves in a position of having to play catch up rugby, this could well be their undoing.

Elton Jantjies. Fly half Jantjies has failed dismally in this role at Test level, and let’s face it for all intents and purposes tomorrow is a dress rehearsal for the Springboks upcoming Tests in the Rugby Championship. While he performed well at home last weekend, we fear that his tendency to kick perfectly good ball away under pressure will be the Achilles Heel for the Lions as it is so often for the Springboks when Jantjies is wearing the number 10 jersey. He is a class player at Super Rugby level, and we hate to appear negative, but like many have serious concerns about his ability in matches like these especially a long way from home. He simply is no match for the Crusaders Richie Mo’unga, and we fear that the Lions could really lose the plot here tomorrow and struggle to exert any kind of control over the match.

Is he fit enough to do this again?

There is no question that winger Aphiwe Dyantyi scored the try of the weekend in Johannesburg last Saturday, and possibly of the tournament. However, the cost was a hamstring tweak that may still be giving him grief. Nevertheless, if he can bring this kind of impact off the bench in the final quarter, and the Lions are in it with less than a score separating the two sides, then bring on the fireworks!

Richie Mo’unga and the All Blacks. We feel that this match will be Mo’unga’s calling card to wrestle a starting slot at number ten for the All Blacks away from incumbent Beauden Barrett in the coming weeks in one or two of New Zealand’s Rugby Championship encounters. No pressure Richie and we’re sure your primary focus will be on the job at hand.

Our prediction. We’re really hoping that this ends up being one of those finals for the ages. However, looking at the up and down form of the Lions this season and the clinical efficiency of the Crusaders barring one or two blips, it’s fairly clear that the South African squad have more on their plate to deal with than the home side. Is an upset in the making? We’d love to see it for the history books, but reality sets in and leaves us with the conviction that the Lions will bring plenty of heart and spirit, but the home town heroes are going to wrap this up comfortably and thus the Crusaders to bring the trophy home by 12 points!

Endnote

If you follow us on Facebook, they’ve made it harder to link this to our resident scribe’s profile so we have created a Facebook page for the Lineout, so please feel free to check it out: https://www.facebook.com/pg/therugbylineout/posts/

We’re even toying with the idea of YouTube come October…………….watch this space!

Last weekend’s Super Rugby quarter-finals certainly did not disappoint in terms of thrills and spills. The Hurricanes were lucky to hang on to a narrow one point victory against the Chiefs, with the latter setting the final three minutes of the match alight and giving Hurricanes supporters serious blood pressure problems. There were few if any surprises in Christchurch as the dominant team of the competition, New Zealand’s Crusaders cruised past South Africa’s Sharks.

Meanwhile in Sydney the Waratahs looked done and dusted by the end of the first half as the Highlanders had run rings around them. In the second half we were treated to the comeback performance of the tournament, as the Waratahs would rebound from a 23-6 deficit, and put 24 unanswered points past the Kiwi outfit to win the match 30-23. Finally in Johannesburg, it was clearly a bridge too far at altitude for the underdog team of the tournament, Argentina’s Jaguares. Despite an exceptionally strong showing in the second half of the tournament which saw the South Americans clinch their first ever spot in a Super Rugby playoff round, taking on the Lions on their own ground was always going to be a big ask. The Lions, as they have done for the last few years, really seem to come into their own at this stage of the tournament and last weekend was no exception, with a superb all round performance comfortably securing them a spot in this weekend’s semi-finals, and a home game to boot.

So let’s have a look at the two mouth-watering fixtures we are being treated to this weekend in closer detail.

Crusaders vs Hurricanes
Saturday, July 28th
Christchurch

The question really comes down to can anyone stop this season’s top form team the Crusaders? If any team is likely to do it then the Hurricanes probably stand the best chance. They’ll be upset about their defensive lapses in the final quarter last weekend against the Chiefs which almost saw them lose their semi-final spot. Nevertheless, the Hurricanes possess some of New Zealand’s best rugby talent in their ranks and as a result despite the seeming invincibility of the Crusaders, they will be more than up for the challenge.

What we are in store for this weekend is a battle royale between two exceptional sides. The Crusaders are back to the type of form that saw them mop up the competition year after year, and as Super Rugby’s most successful franchise they clearly have a solid track record on which to build. The Hurricanes have been the one side that has consistently snapped at their heels over the years, and as a result the rivalry on show this Saturday will be well worth the price of admission.

The Crusaders forward pack boasts a wealth of experience and talent that the Hurricanes will be hard pressed to beat, and in the front and second rows, we are fairly certain that it is going to be the Crusaders who will be dictating proceedings. The Crusaders front row is for all intents and purposes an All Black platform, and the familiarity of these three with each other under pressure will be a formidable asset. With Kieran Read back in the mix for the Crusaders, and seemingly back to his best from the moment he walked onto the pitch earlier this month, it will be difficult for the Hurricanes forward contingent to match up to the experience that the Crusaders will possess under the leadership of Read in the forward battles.

Despite the Crusaders likely dominance up front, once it comes to the question of who is pulling the strings behind the scrum and at half back, the Hurricanes suddenly come into their own. The Hurricanes half back pairing is absolutely world-class in the shape of scrum half TJ Perenara and fly half Beauden Barrett, even if the latter has lost some of his customary flair this season both in a Hurricanes and All Black jersey. We think that TJ Perenara based on form may well pip regular All Black stalwart Aaron Smith for the starting 9 jersey in next month’s Rugby Championship, such is the form of the feisty scrum half. The Crusaders offering is perhaps less well-known but has proved this season that they will be names to watch in the future. Richie Mo’unga in particular is likely to figure in All Black Coach Steve Hansen’s plans for both the upcoming Rugby Championship and the World Cup, especially as depth at fly half has been a problem for New Zealand.

In the backs, the two sides will be much more evenly matched, and this is where the most sparks are likely to fly on Saturday. In a very tight contest we are tipping our hats in favor of the Hurricanes here by the slightest of margins. Winger Julian Savea, aka “the Bus”, seems to be back to his barnstorming best in his final season in New Zealand before the lure of the Euro next year in France takes him away. Meanwhile his partner out wide Ben Lam has the potential to shred the best of defences. With Jordi Barrett and the exceptional Ngani Laumape at centre and speedster Nehe Milner-Skudder at fullback, this is an exciting set of options in the backs. Much as one would see the Crusaders forward pack being a starting All Black contingent, one could say the same of the Hurricanes offering from 9-15. The Crusaders also have some exciting talent on offer, but the sheer pedigree and class of the Hurricanes in this part of the park will really take some beating.

In short, hard to call but we think that home advantage and the consistency of form for the Crusaders will see them take a tight and exciting contest. Despite the Hurricanes prowess in the backs, we expect to see the Crusaders forward pack slam the door on the kind of possession that the Hurricanes would need to unleash their strike weapons at the back. Furthermore, as we saw last weekend, the Crusaders ability to create turnovers under pressure and then turn them into counter attacks from deep is extraordinary. The Hurricanes will be up for the challenge and should make this a spectacle well worth watching, but ultimately the Crusaders to take it by a converted try and thus seven points!

Lions vs Waratahs
Saturday, July 28th
Johannesburg

The Waratahs comeback last weekend against the Highlanders was without question one of the highlights of this year’s Super Rugby season. We had to confess that at half time we had written the Australians off, as it seemed to mirror the poor form of Australian sides in the competition in the last few years. However, we perhaps forgot to factor in the utterly remarkable ability that three Waratahs players have to completely turn a game on its head. Fly half Bernard Foley, centre Kurtley Beale and fullback Israel Folau are extraordinary players, and Beale in particular has consistently been front and centre of our pick for a World XV in the last two years. Beale’s ability to create opportunities in the blink of an eye is exceptional and he is just as good at doing it for the Waratahs as he is for the Wallabies. In short the man is a magician. The Lions will be desperately trying to figure out how to contain him for a full eighty minutes, especially with Folau and Foley set to be some of the rabbits he is likely to pull out of his hat.

That being said however, the Lions have their own secret weapon in the shape of Hooker Malcolm Marx. Much as Beale is to our World XV in the backs, Marx has a similar role in the forwards. A truly exceptional player who can also create opportunities out of thin air, coupled to an ability to generate turnovers at will. If you need further evidence, just flip over to our TV listings page where we have video highlights of the Lions/Jaguares match last weekend.

Up front, at home and with the altitude we are putting our money wholeheartedly on the Lions. Even Ruan Dreyer who was the weak link in the Lions and Springbok front row last season seems to have finally got his technique right, making the Lions a significant threat at the coal face of the scrum. The Waratahs also look solid but the Lions with Malcolm Marx front and centre should easily get the best of the contest here, ably supported in the second row by Franco Mostert whose work rate last weekend was exceptional. The Lions dominance should also continue in the back row, with Captain Warren Whiteley back to his best form after a lengthy spell out with injury, and Kwagga Smith possessing more X-factor than most defenses know what to do with, despite a rather quiet showing from him last weekend. The Waratahs will be competitive here, make no mistake, but the Lions should have the upper hand by a comfortable margin.

Much like the Crusaders/Hurricanes match up though things start to even out, once you start looking at the back and half back pairings. Bernard Foley at number ten for the Waratahs has had an outstanding season and was superb last weekend against the Highlanders. While his opposite number for the Lions Elton Jantjies also had an excellent outing last weekend, we still feel he is a liability under pressure. His weaknesses in a Springbok jersey despite his obvious talent are well documented, especially if he starts kicking away possession and putting high balls up for Israel Folau to run riot with.

The sheer genius of Kurtley Beale at centre and fullback Israel Folau will be what the Waratahs will be counting on at Ellis Park to get them out of jail. Taqele Naiyaravoro is also likely to cause all kinds of problems for the Lions defences, as will Beale’s centre partner Curtis Rona. However, Ruan Combrinck on the wing for the Lions and Harold Vorster at centre were outstanding last weekend and will provide plenty of challenge of their own for the Waratahs defences. Winger Aphiwe Dyantyi caught our eye in South Africa’s recent demolition of England in June, and Andries Coetzee looked very good against the Jaguares last weekend, despite blowing somewhat hot and cold this season.

Once again, another fascinating contest awaits, and the battle of the halfbacks on Saturday will be key. However, even if Jantjies has a wobble we still feel that the Lions at home will be a bridge too far for a Waratahs side that has built some remarkable momentum this season. There will be plenty of sparks and moments of genius from both sides, but our money is firmly on the Lions to set up a repeat of last year’s final with the Crusaders. The Lions to grind out a win over a classy Waratahs side by four points!

Endnote

We’ll end this with a shout out to Gareth Mason and his YouTube channel. If you want passion and enthusiasm about the game, then give the G-Man a bit of your time every week. We thoroughly enjoy his enthusiastic musings on our great game, and his output is remarkable. So give his preview of the weekend’s action a thumbs up!

Yes we apologise to our Southern Hemisphere friends. We haven’t forgotten you and are VERY much aware that there has been a rather exciting tournament going on over the last six months, despite our focus on the Six Nations and the June Internationals. The new slimmer Super Rugby format with just fifteen teams as opposed to the botched and cumbersome 18 team arrangement of last year, has provided a much better competition.

While New Zealand continue to dominate the tournament, there has been some real heart and enterprise from South African sides, and the recent long-awaited promise of Argentina’s Jaguares has finally started to emerge. Australian sides have even managed to pick up on some of the energy displayed by the Wallabies in the last 12 months. In short, it’s been a much more competitive and exciting tournament this year. This weekend’s semifinals should provide some great contests and we can’t wait, especially as the next three weekends will give us a fascinating insight into what we can expect for the forthcoming Rugby Championship in August. We haven’t had much of a chance to catch this season’s action but have every intention of committing to the remainder of what should be a great tournament.

Hurricanes vs Chiefs
Friday, July 20th
Wellington

Two of the competition’s most exciting sides of the last few years go head to head in what should be an absolute cracker of a match – with even the notorious Wellington weather set to co-operate. It may be a New Zealand derby, but there should be sparks aplenty between these two North Island rivals.

For the Hurricanes, the players we are really looking forward to seeing are the centre pairing of Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett, especially as we have traditionally only seen Barrett in the fullback role. Also will this be winger Julian Savea’s swan song in New Zealand before he heads to Toulon and France. Lastly we always enjoy seeing the exceptional Nehe Milner-Skudder who takes the fullback role on Friday night, and sincerely hope he can remain injury free for the Rugby Championship.

For the Chiefs, we are looking for thrills and spills aplenty from fly half Damian McKenzie and centre Anton-Lienert Brown. We’re also looking forward to seeing lock Brodie Retallick back in action after his absence for the All Blacks during the June Internationals.

An exciting match in prospect but one which we think the Hurricanes will just sneak, especially given the threats present in their backs. It will be close but the Hurricanes to edge it by four!

Crusaders vs Sharks
Saturday, July 20th
Christchurch

With their place in the knockout stages sealed early on, it would seem that the Crusaders took their foot off the gas in the final pool stages of the competition. However, expect them to ramp it up once more come Saturday. It will be a very hard task for South Africa’s Sharks to overcome the Kiwi Super Rugby juggernaut at home in Christchurch, but they certainly have some speedsters in the backs as we saw in the recent exploits of the Springboks against England, and a gritty front row looks set to pack down against the Crusaders front three.

We are excited to see Keiran Read back in action for the Crusaders, as like Brodie Retallick he was not present during the All Black series against France. However, what we are really looking forward to seeing is Crusaders centre Jack Goodhue in action, as we have heard nothing but good things about the youngster and are curious to see if his performances will merit an All Black call up for the Rugby Championship. Lukhanyo Am really made the headlines at centre for the Springboks this June, so expect the Sharks to look to him for some magic on Saturday along with Lwazi Mvovo on the wing. The battle of the two front rows, should also be one of the best contests of the match as both teams have proven match winners here.

Nevertheless it’s hard not to see the Crusaders coming away with a convincing win, given it’s home ground and their form for the majority of the season. The Sharks will put up a brave fight but ultimately it will be the Crusaders day by 16 points!

Waratahs vs Highlanders
Saturday, July 20th
Sydney

Australian teams have had a bit of a resurgence in the latter stages of the competition and the Waratahs in particular. However, New Zealand’s Highlanders are always difficult to beat especially in high stakes matches like this one.

To be honest we haven’t seen too much of these two teams to really judge other than what we know of their international players. On that note though, despite it being in the Waratahs backyard we feel that the Highlanders have the slight advantage given the calibre of Internationals in their ranks. Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and Liam Squire pack some serious pedigree. Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau do the same for the Waratahs, but the Highlanders still seem to have the bigger numbers in terms of star internationals. Consequently we’re handing this one to the Highlanders by six points!

Lions vs Jaguares
Saturday, July 20th
Johannesburg

For us this could be the most fascinating contest of the weekend. The Jaguares have surprised everyone in the last half of the competition, while the Lions have gone off the boil somewhat.

On paper we actually, perhaps to the surprise of some, feel that the Jaguares have the better team, despite the presence of Lions superstars like Hooker Malcolm Marx, lock Franco Mostert, flanker Kwagga Smith,  and wingers Aphiwe Dyantyi and Ruan Combrinck.

However, the Jaguares have looked a very balanced and cohesive side of late from 1-15. They have an exceptionally solid front row which appears well-disciplined. We were surprised to see Marcos Kremer shifted from the back row to the second row, where he has been outstanding all season, especially with Matias Alemanno and Tomas Lavanini on the bench as second row replacements. Guido Petti as Kremer’s partner in the second row has been exemplary and was one of the few players who made a name for himself in Argentina’s recent dismal two test series against Wales. However, it’s those Jaguares backs that are likely to be the Lions biggest concerns, especially a gentleman on the wing by the name of Bautista Delguy and Emiliano Boffelli at fullback. We have thoroughly enjoyed watching Delguy in action and expect to see big things from this young man come Argentina’s campaign in the World Cup.

It should be a close and thrilling encounter. However, have the Jaguares got one more game at altitude left in them? Let alone the travel schedule ahead of them if they do go through to the next round. The Lions traditionally turn on the pressure in front of the Ellis Park faithful, and it’s hard to see them let this one slip them by. Furthermore, the Jaguares have not fared well in their last two matches on the road in South Africa and we can’t help feeling that this is likely to be a bridge too far for them. A thrilling game at times with some spectacular running rugby in prospect from both sides, but the Lions to have the upper hand at the final whistle by five points!