The Lineout Calls of the Week

It’s that most WONDERFUL time of the year again – as the song goes. Yes it’s the Rugby version of Christmas with, as our good friend Squidge Rugby likes to say, Friday being Sixmas Eve. Sure we love the Rugby Championship and the World Cup is something we all eagerly build up to over four years, but somehow the next two months of Test Rugby strike a special chord in our hearts. For all its faults the Six Nations is without a doubt the highlight of our annual Rugby calendar. The drama, the pomp and ceremony, the age old rivalries, the personalities and the exuberant, passionate and colorful crowds make this tournament unique. It’s dubbed as “rugby’s greatest championship” and although we think that’s pushing it a bit, it’s not far off the mark. What it does do though year in year out is give us memories shared with our rugby mates that live on for decades – and measured against that criteria it takes some beating.

So sure there have been other things going on in the rugby world this week, but we haven’t been able to think about anything else other than the Six Nations. So here’s what kept our debates raging as we looked ahead to what should be a tournament that has the potential to be one for the ages. With a World Cup just around the corner, this is the last big hurrah before the global showdown in September for all six participants. Consequently there is so much at stake in terms of final preparations, lessons to be learned, game plans to be honed and Coaches hoping to settle on the groups that they will be handing out tickets to for that trip to France come September. So we broke it down into where we think the teams will finish and what they need to get out of this Six Nations apart from winning it. We pick the most critical game for each of the six sides and the player most likely to influence it.

Naturally all this may be completely academic by Super Saturday, March 18th, as the inevitable injuries take their toll and upsets that we just didn’t see coming turn the table upside down. But for now after much agonising over numerous frothy pints here’s our look ahead to the Six Nations in the order in which we think the teams will finish, though just like last year even though we got it wrong we don’t think there will be anyone pulling off a Grand Slam this year.

Ireland – 1st but no Grand Slam

Ireland will want to win the Six Nations, and although many tip Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton’s troops to claim a Grand Slam we think that is less important than consolidating the platform they need to achieve their first ever trip to a World Cup semi-final and possibly beyond

Ireland enter this Six Nations feeling full of confidence but for most Irish supporters there’s that ominous sense of deja vu once more. Just like in 2019 Ireland looked on top of the world only to crash out spectacularly in the World Cup later that year in Japan. Furthermore while Ireland had a successful Autumn Nations campaign last year dispatching South Africa, Fiji and Australia there were times when they looked far from convincing. Adding to the concern was the fact that none of those wins were overly emphatic. Even in the Fiji match which had the most positive scoreline Ireland looked shaky at times. Against South Africa and Australia, Ireland ensured through some stellar defence that they were low scoring affairs but struggled to make their own attacks stick. In short, despite holding up well in a massive physical contest with South Africa Ireland’s Autumn Nations campaign failed to light the imagination after the euphoria of the first ever series win in New Zealand earlier that summer.

Nevertheless Leinster, from which a large chunk of this year’s Ireland Six Nations squad originate, are sweeping all before them in Europe and look on target to be one of the favourites to lift the Champions Cup in May. Munster are starting to click as well, while Ulster and Connacht have plenty of talent but lack consistency. However, Irish depth is ridiculously strong with only the halfback positions leaving us with some unanswered questions. In Johnny Sexton and Jamison Gibson-Park they have one of the best 9/10 combinations on the planet but should either of them succumb to injury then it remains to be seen if Ireland’s rank as the number one team in the world is truly justified.

What they need from this Six Nations: While winning the Championship, especially with a Grand Slam would be an enormous confidence booster in a World Cup year, we’d argue it is not Ireland’s most important priority over the next two months. It is common knowledge that without a firing Johnny Sexton on the pitch Ireland are a very different beast. It’s that nagging uncertainty that has caused them to come unstuck too often. Furthermore despite the fact that Sexton is considered perhaps the greatest Irish player of his time, when he has a bad day his whole team suffers.

As a result Ireland need to find his understudy and someone who can stay the course under pressure. It would appear that Leinster’s Ross Byrne is the chosen successor, but his appearances in the green jersey have not been convincing unlike his masterful performances in the blue of Leinster. Munster’s Jack Crawley is rapidly being touted as the next best thing in a 10 jersey but Ross Byrne’s brother Harry is also a potential candidate.

Meanwhile at scrum half the debate rages with Munster’s Conor Murray seemingly past his prime and fellow teammate Craig Casey considered too small and inconsistent despite a blistering speed of delivery and ability to seize opportunities that are presented to him. Even Leinster stalwart Jamison Gibson-Park is still not back to his best after injury.

In short, Ireland need this tournament to provide them with a convincing Plan B for both these positions. That means that in addition to Gibson-Park and Sexton Ireland need to get as much game time as possible for their respective understudies without jeopardizing their chances at Six Nations silverware. These players need pressure game time in some of the big games, if Ireland are truly serious about getting past the Quarter Final stage of the World Cup in eight months for the first time in their history.

Most important game: Ireland vs France – There is no denying that this along with possibly the England game at the end of the tournament will be this year’s Championship defining match for Ireland. If Ireland put in a convincing performance against Wales in the cauldron of the Principality Stadium in the opening weekend, then a confidence boosting win at home in front of the Aviva faithful against World Cup favourites and potential quarter-final opponents France will be critical to not only their Six Nations chances, but also their preparations for the World Cup. With two relatively straightforward trips to Italy and Scotland to follow this match, only a rejuvenated England back in Dublin on the final weekend could spoil Ireland’s Six Nations party. As number one in the world meets number two the pressure will be intense for both sides, and as a result this is probably the most eagerly anticipated game of the tournament for both supporters and neutrals alike.

Most important player : Johnny Sexton – We simply cannot understate the importance of the 37 year old veteran fly half to Ireland’s aspirations in 2023 both in the Six Nations and the World Cup six months later. Despite his age he appears to defy the ravages of time and is probably playing his best rugby of an exceptionally distinguished career. The desire and ambition to end on a high note for both himself and his country is clearly there for all to see and his teammates feed off his motivation. Without him on the pitch, Ireland need its other leaders to step up, and should Sexton succumb to injury which is always a concern Ireland has to find a way to maintain the shape and direction he provides them. While Ireland will need to find their Sexton Plan B this tournament, his importance to Ireland’s aspirations over the next eight months is paramount. How he is managed as a result will be fascinating to see.

France – 2nd as some very classy runners up

Although many consider France Captain and scrum half Antoine Dupont the world’s greatest rugby player at the moment, we have a hunch that Coach Fabien Galthie is more focused on seeing how well his exceptional charges deal with the mounting pressure on them ahead of their own World Cup and how to use the remarkable depth of talent that French rugby seems blessed with

As last year’s Grand Slam Champions, World Cup hosts and number two ranked side in the world France have EVERYTHING to prove this Six Nations. Undefeated in 2022 and blessed with a depth of talent across the pitch that is the envy of every International Coach, France look the business in this World Cup year. However, a raft of mounting injuries and a disturbing lack of form in European club competition this season have raised some uncomfortable questions for the Men in Blue, most pressing being have they peaked too soon ahead of the World Cup? This question has tended to be reserved for Ireland in recent times, but there is no denying that France perhaps more than their rivals in green need to lay down a marker this Six Nations.

Their saving grace is an almost abundant depth of talent across every position. France can at any time choose between three world class players no matter what the number on their jersey. Perhaps their only concern this tournament is finding a bit more proven depth in the centre channels, but everywhere else their stocks are plentiful, despite the mounting casualty list. They may not necessarily be this year’s Six Nations favourites but they are not far off it, and whatever work is done over the next two months will be excellent preparation to iron out whatever wrinkles and doubts they may have ahead of the World Cup.

What they need from this Six Nations: French clubs’ lack of form in Europe at the moment can in part be put down to the injury crisis sweeping French rugby and causing Coach Fabien Galthie and his selectors such headaches. However, what France seem able to do better than any other team at the moment is take a third choice player and elevate him to world class in the space of a few matches. Expect to see a lot of that this Six Nations, and while winning it will be as important as ever to Galthie and his charges, consolidating their depth when it comes to selection choices will be equally important. France will want to head into the World Cup with a Plan A,B and C for every position, and we’d argue that this Six Nations will be the proving ground for a lot of players aiming to stamp their ownership on a World Cup jersey. France along with Ireland are clear favourites to win this year’s Championship but a Grand Slam won’t be the driver it was last year. Consistency of performance and lessons to be learnt in terms of depth ahead of the World Cup are likely to be more important concerns.

Most important game: England vs France – This will be the big one for Les Bleus. While the game in Dublin will be of huge significance, if France come short at the Aviva this game will be critical to righting their Six Nations ship. Lose this one if things have gone badly against Ireland, and France’s Six Nations aspirations are over and their preparations for the World Cup will take a serious knock. Twickenham although a difficult place to travel to can be a happy hunting ground for the French and a win here will set them up nicely for a home Championship decider on the last weekend of the tournament against Wales.

Most important player: Antoine Dupont – The Toulouse scrum half is regarded by many as the best player of his generation and is already being venerated as one of the greatest to grace the international game in its long and colorful history. Much like Ireland’s Sexton, when Dupont fires France take their game to an almost existential level. France are good without him, but with him they look unstoppable. His ability to read a game almost three plays in advance is uncanny and means that he is constantly able to put his team one step ahead of the opposition defences. Ally this to a turn of pace and an eye for opportunity, and it’s easy to see why his teammates dub him the “little magician”.

England – Third but potential finally unleashed

New England Coach Steve Borthwick is handed the unenviable task of righting England’s sturdy but leaky ship only eight months out from the World Cup. He’s stuck with some familiar faces most notably Captain Owen Farrell but the goal of this Six Nations is how to fit all of England’s individual pieces of considerable talent into a cohesive unit

England start a new chapter in their troubled recent history as Coach Steve Borthwick takes charge of his first Six Nations campaign as the man in the hot seat. Hopefully, the inconsistent and at times baffling selection decisions regardless of form made by his predecessor Eddie Jones are a thing of the past. In the process what English supporters hope will emerge is a settled side that has a clear idea of the game they want to play and which suits their colllective abilities, particularly in attack. England need a game plan and the discipline to execute it properly. Their at times laughable disciplinary record under Jones has to be a thing of the past. Borthwick, although sticking with some of England’s golden oldies has already shown a refreshing penchant to really unearth and fast track the younger generation of talent seen at club level in English rugby.

Consequently, England and their supporters should feel more than a little optimistic about their chances this Six Nations. While asking Borthwick to turn around the fortunes of the Men in White in the space of a mere five weekends and win the Six Nations is probably too much of a tall order, expect England to put in a much more consistent and disciplined Six Nations challenge than in recent years.

What they need from this Six Nations: England need to get three things out of this Championship plain and simple. First get some consistency in selection decisions and really embed an exciting younger generation of players into England’s plans for not only the World Cup but the future beyond it. Second develop an attacking game plan that all the players can buy into, understand and which suits their individual and collective skill sets. Three improve England’s overall discipline and put a halt to giving away silly and mindless penalties.

That’s it Steve – pretty simple really so have at it! If you do we fancy England will once again be a side on the rise and one which can pose a genuine threat come September in France.

Most important game: Ireland vs England – If England have done well by the time they get to Dublin by dispatching France at Twickenham and overturning the Welsh in Cardiff, then this their final game of the Championship will be a watershed moment for Steve Borthwick in his first tournament as the new England boss. If the two aforementioned games have gone in England’s favor then all of a sudden there is everything to play for on the final day of the Championship. England would then find themselves in a realistic hunt for the silverware with only eighty minutes left on the tournament clock, especially if Ireland have had a Championship that is a flashback to their 2019 Six Nations effort. Dublin on the last day of the Six Nations is a place few people would want to end their campaign, but what a potential feather in the cap for Steve Borthwick and his charges if they could knock Ireland off their perch. If things have gone well for England this Six Nations expect their motivation to be off the charts when referee Jaco Peyper blows the whistle for kick off at the Aviva.

Most important player: Jack van Poortfliet: Surely it’s Marcus Smith we hear you say. We’d argue that although Smith is critically important to England’s plans for this Six Nations and beyond, it’s the Leicester scrum half who really needs to shine in a white jersey. His talents are there for all too see, but his lack of game time at this level has been evident, most notably during the Autumn Nations series which clearly rattled his confidence. Veteran scrum half Ben Youngs is not the player to take England to the World Cup and beyond. England need van Poortfliet’s pace and speed of delivery as well as his ability to surprise opposition defences. Ben Youngs game is both ponderous and predictable allowing opponents to read England like a book. Van Poortfliet just needs to develop confidence in his role and alongside Marcus Smith England could well end up with a genuine world class halfback axis.

Scotland – Fourth but everybody’s banana skin

Scotland have a highly capable Captain in Jamie Ritchie but whether Coach Gregor Townsend has the backing of his players is very much up for debate. Scotland will trip several teams up over the next two months, but a lack of consistency in how they do it from one weekend to the next will leave them as frustrated as they are every year

Scotland are the Six Nations greatest conundrum – they can be brilliant and on any given weekend beat any of the Six Nations competitors. The problem is they just can’t do it with any degree of consistency – spectacular one weekend and then a disaster the next. Until Scotland fix this they’ll always be seen as the team that will upset other teams’ title aspirations but never be a genuine contender themselves. Add to that some obvious friction between key players and Coach Gregor Townsend which causes Scotland to trip up when they and the rest of us least expect it. They seem to have adopted the trait of French teams of old, as we find ourselves asking each weekend of the tournament which Scottish side will show up?

Scotland are a frustrating side to watch. For a country with a relatively small player pool, they still manage to turn out some extraordinarily gifted players and as a team they are often a joy to behold in action. At times their running game is akin to the Northern Hemisphere’s version of Fijian rugby. The problem is they just can’t seem to replicate it week in week out. Scottish rugby is a great product make no mistake, you just never know which version you’ve just bought.

What they need from this Six Nations: Consistency – That’s it nothing more to be said. Sure some injuries have got in the way for this Six Nations, most notably superstar winger Darcy Graham, but there’s enough talent in this Scottish squad to deliver it and still leave us wanting for more. Scotland often seem to want to try and play a different style of rugby every week, and what they need to do this Six Nations is just be Scotland – plain and simple. Don’t try and be New Zealand one week and South Africa the next. The players and Coaches need to be reading from the same script for the five weekends of the Championship. Do that and all of a sudden Scotland are no longer that banana skin that might catch you unawares, but instead a side that poses a genuine threat week in week out and has a real chance of finally getting their hands on some Six Nations silverware.

Most important game: France vs Scotland – In our humble opinion Scotland’s Six Nations campaign will be decided in this fixture. Paris is never an easy place to visit at the best of times. However, if France have come unstuck prior to this match against Ireland then they will be wounded and perhaps lacking in confidence. If Scotland manage to once more turn over England at Twickenham in the opening weekend, followed up by teaching Wales a lesson at Murrayfield then all of a sudden it’s game on for their Championship hopes. If they can do the unthinkable and defeat a French side harboring some doubts in the Stade de France in Round 3, they then can await Ireland’s visit to Murrayfield with a fair degree of optimism prior to hosting Wooden Spoon specialists Italy. Lose badly in Paris and Scotland’s trend of imploding in the latter stages of the tournament will be reinforced, leaving them vulnerable to not only a rampaging Ireland but an Italian side who knows how to win away from home against all the odds on Super Saturday.

Most important player: Finn Russell – Scotland’s maverick fly half along with his relationship to Coach Gregor Townsend is the key to whether or not they go deep into this tournament or lose the plot from the outset. What we have noticed of late is that Russell’s play is more measured – though never predictable. His ability to keep defences guessing is still world class, but the reckless risk taking appears to have been toned down. If his teammates can keep up with him and click with his remarkable vision then Scotland could finally become the team we’ve all been waiting for in the Six Nations.

Wales – Fifth as “Warrenball” takes its toll on a side with plenty of talent

Captain Ken Owens and former Coach Warren Gatland who has been parachuted in at the eleventh hour somehow need to stay clear of the malaise affecting Welsh rugby and its future

Wales head into this Six Nations once more reeling from an injury list and a governing body that much like England’s seems woefully out of touch with the game it is supposed to be managing. Wales may be low on confidence but are not short on talent. Even though Welsh club rugby is a mess, Ospreys’ recent resurgence in the URC and the European Champions Cup will give Welsh supporters some confidence heading into a tricky Six Nations.

The Coaching reshuffle that has brought in Warren Gatland after Wayne Pivac’s summary dismissal at the end of 2022 has raised some eyebrows. Gatland may know more about Welsh rugby than any other Coach out there, and may be more familiar with its nuances than how to renew his New Zealand passport, but there’s no denying that the aura surrounding his Coaching talents has dimmed somewhat since the last World Cup. If anything his sides have looked ponderous and predictable.

However, despite the problems racking Welsh rugby, the Six Nations is a tournament in which, despite whatever is happening at club level, the Men in Red seem to rise to the occasion for. We expect no less this year and as a result opponents will write them off at their peril. Their fixture list may not be ideal, but if they can start well then Wales’ problems of last year may suddenly seem like a distant memory at least for the Six Nations.

What they need from this Six Nations: Stay injury free as much as possible – plain and simple. Wales have assembled a talented Six Nations squad, but if the stretcher bearers start depleting the ranks too early there is simply not enough depth to carry Wales through to the end of the tournament. Given that the injury lists are are already relatively full and even some of the current squad have injury concerns, Wales have a tricky two months ahead of them. Add to this some genuine problems with the set pieces and disciplinary lapses and Warren Gatland has a long to do list coupled with some sleepless nights fretting over the fitness of some of his key players. “Warrenball” Welsh style needs to evolve from what worked in the past and rotation of his player base will be key in ensuring that Wales survive this Six Nations intact and in a position to prepare for the World Cup in six months time.

Most important game: Italy vs Wales – If Wales’ campaign has gone badly by the time they arrive in Rome by having lost to Ireland, Scotland or England you can be sure that Italy will smell blood looking to repeat their Six Nations redemption heroics of last year. As a result this game could see Wales staring at the handle of the Wooden Spoon should they lose to Italy as well. If that proves to be the case then they only have a difficult trip left to Paris a week later in which to attempt to rescue some Six Nations pride. The games against Ireland and England will be challenging enough even if they are being played in the cauldron of the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, and a road trip to Murrayfield to face the Scots is always a difficult proposition. Consequently this, their last but one match of the tournament, will be critical as a second consecutive loss to the Azzurri would be anathema to their supporters and leave them heading into their World Cup preparations in a crisis of confidence.

Most important player: Justin Tipuric – Any regular reader of this blog over the last few years will know that we regard Justin Tipuric as one of the greatest Welsh players to don the red jersey this century, a fact that until recently seems to have gone unnoticed by his fellow countrymen. Back from injury with a vengeance, the back rower with one of the highest workrates in the International game is once more lighting up the pitch for his Ospreys club in the URC and the Heineken Cup. The seemingly tireless loose forward has reversed the fortunes of the Ospreys in both the URC and Europe. His presence is an enormous source of inspiration to his teammates and he is rapidly becoming the talisman that up until recently has been the sole preserve of the legendary Alun Wyn-Jones. He simply pops up everywhere on the pitch and is at the heart of everything that Wales and the Ospreys do well. A player who just never gives up will bring enormous confidence to a team in desperate need of some good old fashioned never say die attitude.

Italy – Sixth with the Wooden Spoon once more but one that has the potential to stir the odd upset along the way

Anyone remember the last time Kieran Crowley laughed this much? Italy’s Kiwi Coach has plenty of reasons to feel cheerful this Six Nations despite still being tipped for yet another Wooden Spoon. Any team that takes Michele Lamaro and his troops lightly over the next two months is likely to come seriously short

Yes we know we’re falling into the annual trap that catches so many observers of the International game. You’ve all heard it before that this is the year that Italy’s dismal Six Nations record finally becomes a thing of the past. Italy looked exceptionally competitive at times last year, and no-one will forget their heroics in Cardiff at the end of the Six Nations. Although still a long way from the finished product, Italy under Kieran Crowley are no longer a pushover, and their opponents will need to take them seriously. We have a hunch that the days of Italy being an easy points haul for the teams trying to secure a points difference advantage on the table are a thing of the past. Italy actually look like they are enjoying their rugby at long last, and Benetton are becoming a tricky side in the URC especially at home. Kieran Crowley who hardly ever cracked a smile while he was coaching Canada, is now prone to sudden outbursts of genuine merriment. In short, something positive is happening in Italian rugby at long last.

What it means in the long run and whether or not it will change the fact that Italy are still likely to be clutching the Wooden Spoon on March 18th remains to be seen. The difference this year, especially with a favourable fixture list which sees them with three home games, is that Italy looks organized with a young and talented squad who know what it’s like to win big games under pressure. There’s still a long way to go, but nobody will be taking Italy for granted this year.

What they need from this Six Nations: Some big wins plain and simple. They got one last year and this year they need to up it to two. That may be a tall order but they simply have to win one of their home games at the very least most likely against Wales. They find themselves in a Pool of Death at the World Cup, which makes it almost impossible for them to get to the Quarter Finals as to do so they would have to beat either New Zealand or France. However, a strong third place Pool finish will be vital to ensure that this young squad can build with confidence for Australia 2027, having guaranteed automatic qualification. Consequently this Six Nations will be seen as the platform to achieve that goal as a bare minimum and ensure that Italy is seen as a genuinely competitive and tricky side to deal with.

Most important game: Scotland vs Italy – Some might think that getting back to back victories over Wales, especially given that they play the Men in Red at home, would be Italy’s target for this year. There is no doubt that this will be at the forefront of their planning. However, we’d argue that if Italy are to really make a statement that they are now a force to be reckoned with, another Six Nations win on the road at the end of the tournament is of paramount importance and will stand them in excellent stead for their preparations for the World Cup. If Scotland have imploded in the latter stages of the tournament as they have had a tendency to do in recent years, then Italy will once again see an opportunity that bears an enormous similarity to the situation they found themselves in last year in Cardiff, but now benefitting from having the experience needed to win such games. Italy have beaten Scotland at Murrayfield twice since joining the Six Nations so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

Most important player: Paolo Garbisi – When we learned that the star Italian fly half and playmaker was set to miss at least the first three matches of the tournament, we couldn’t help but consign Italy to the fringes of the tournament despite a squad boasting some genuine talent. However, it’s Garbisi that brings it all together and makes it sing. Possessing a wisdom and understanding of the game well beyond his 22 years and 21 caps, Garbisi is vital to Italy’s plans to finally turn a corner in their rugby fortunes. If he can keep fit, and furthermore catch France by surprise in their tournament opener in Rome, especially given the fact that France have a tendency of forgetting to get out of bed for their first Six Nations fixture, we all may well find ourselves having to rewrite these predictions. We can’t wait to find out!

Well that’s it folks, only three more sleeps till referee Karl Dickson blows the whistle in Cardiff to open this year’s festivities. We can’t wait and as always you can catch it here in Canada on DAZN and Premier Sports Asia. A tournament that always surprises and never fails to entertain awaits – let the games begin!!!!!

The Lineout Calls of the Week

Well, what a week or more accurately 10 days it has been!!!! First there was the bombshell that Wallabies Coach Dave Rennie had been sacked and replaced by former England Coach Eddie Jones after his own summary execution by the RFU last month. Then there were the announcements of the Six Nations squads as the tournament gets set to kick off in less than two weeks. Finally we were treated to a thrilling weekend of European rugby as the last round of European Champions Cup pool games took place which decided who will make it to the first round of the knockout stages at the end of March.

Consequently there has been rather a lot to digest and more than a few issues to keep our pints frothy over the last fortnight. So without any further ado here’s what kept the commentary lively over the last few days in our rugby corner.

Is Eddie really the saviour that Australia think he is and hasn’t Dave been rather harshly judged?

Despite a 38% win rate in 2022 Dave Rennie was getting the Wallabies headed in the right direction, and we’re not sure what extra value added Jones brings to the table

OK let’s get the cat out of the bag here – we’re not happy about this one. Unlike the people running Rugby Australia, we liked Dave Rennie and despite his poor results in 2022 felt he was getting the Wallabies on the right track to make them a genuine smoking gun come the World Cup in September. He managed to unearth and embed in the Wallaby squad a raft of exciting new talent that seemed to have a coherent idea of the type of rugby they wanted to play. Australia narrowly lost a series to England, came within a whisker of beating New Zealand, and managed to beat Argentina and South Africa. Despite a truly grueling end of year tour to Europe they beat Scotland, lost by a mere point to the number 2 ranked side in the world France and two weeks later put world number one Ireland under enormous pressure, and kept the green machine to a low scoring game which the Wallabies only lost by three points. They finished the year with one of Test Rugby’s greatest comebacks to put Wales to the sword in the second half.

Compare that to Eddie Jones’ record last year, who according to his new employers is “the best Coach in the world”. First off there was England’s dismal Six Nations and which is still a wound that stings for many an English supporter. Sure there was that series win in Australia, that in reality was an intensely hard fought contest over three matches that all had to go to the wire. Then there was England’s wretched Autumn campaign which saw them lose to Argentina and South Africa, while settling for a draw against New Zealand in a match that they should of and could of won had they decided to play with purpose for more than the final ten minutes.

If you look at Australia last year their Achilles Heel was some appalling discipline, but the rest of it was looking extremely promising. Given that England themselves under Eddie Jones in the last two years have become a disciplinary laughing stock, we really struggle to see what he can fix that Rennie couldn’t. Rennie seemed to have the buy in and support of his players, while avoiding for the most part the annoying media baiting that Jones is famous for. In short, he generally kept his mouth shut and got on with the job at hand without the media sideshows that Jones seems to revel in and regard as so crucial to game management, and which generally have backfired spectacularly on him and his team in the last two years.

In conclusion we’ll sound like a broken record, and although Jones does have a track record of having a remarkable effect on teams in the short term, we can’t help feeling that in the long term it’s a decision Australia will regret. He’s a divisive persona, and we’re not sure that a Wallaby side big on ambition but low on confidence will respond positively under pressure to his management style.

Time will be the judge but from all of us here, our genuine commiserations to Dave Rennie who we definitely feel has been given a raw deal on this one, and best of luck to him for the future.

While everyone appears to be looking at Ireland as a team that has peaked too soon is France perhaps a more pressing case in point?

While France and French teams seemed unstoppable in 2022 on both the International stage and in Europe, the success of French clubs in this year’s European competitions is not sending a positive signal to French supporters only eight months out from their own World Cup

Are Ireland finally being given some room to breathe and step out of the limelight of being the number one side in the world by France? Every pundit and Irish supporter across the globe are watching and waiting to see if Ireland have once again peaked a year too early ahead of the World Cup. After watching the last two rounds of the Heineken Cup however, we feel that the microscope when it comes to this question is now being focused on tournament hosts France – at least until this year’s Six Nations comes to a conclusion on March 18th.

Last year France were unbeatable, sweeping all before them in the Six Nations, in their tour to Japan and in the November Internationals. In the space of 12 months they managed to beat the three sides that are looking most likely to upset their ambitions of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in the Stade de France on October 28th. New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa all fell to the Men in Blue. While Ireland may be the number one side in the world at the moment, few could argue against the fact that playing at home France would appear to be the side to beat when the Webb Ellis festivities get underway this September. French clubs also dominated European Competition last season with La Rochelle and Lyon lifting the silverware in both tiers of the European Club competition.

So why the alarm you say? Despite the fact that last year’s Heineken Cup Champions La Rochelle look truly ominous and comfortably dominated their pool, the last two rounds of the pool stages saw the other 7 French sides struggle. In Pool A all four French teams occupied the bottom rungs of the Pool standings and failed to qualify for the knockout stages. In Pool B, Toulouse managed to finish second but despite the presence of their all star International halfback pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, they struggled to put away an impressive Munster outfit at home in one of the heartlands of French rugby. Last year’s Challenge Cup champions Lyon only showed up in their final game against the Bulls by which time it was too late. Montpellier looked far from convincing throughout the tournament and must surely feel lucky to have squeaked into the knockout stages where they have the unenviable task of a road trip to Exeter. As for the rest including traditional giants like Racing 92, Clermont Auvergne and Bordeaux they just weren’t at the races. In the Challenge Cup apart from Toulon French teams fared no better.

While there have been injuries aplenty many of which have affected French Coach Fabien Galthie’s selections for the Six Nations, we have to confess to starting 2023 being far less in awe of French rugby than we were at the end of 2022. This will be a World Cup defining Six Nations for all the participants, but of all the teams expect France to be the one most under the microscope. Right now the image looks a little blurry! The age old question is back folks – “which French team is going to turn up next month and beyond?”

New England Coach Steve Borthwick chooses familiarity over radical change despite some surprising inclusions and omissions

Borthwick’s Six Nations squad had a few surprises in it to say the least but showed a reluctance to rock the boat too much

We have to be honest and say that we don’t exactly envy the task that new England Coach Steve Borthwick has been handed. Nine months out from the World Cup he has been given a rather daunting to do list. Somehow he has to turn England from being a side only able to win two of their Six Nations games last year, into a force to challenge for this year’s silverware and build on that to make England a title contender for the World Cup only five months after that. It may be too much of a tall order to get the Men in White beyond the Quarter Finals in France come the fall, but a strong showing in the upcoming Six Nations is certainly a realistic ambition. Apart from difficult trips to Cardiff and Dublin, England has a relatively favorable draw with the bonus of having to face France at Twickenham. Furthermore England will have the opportunity to settle under Borthwick in their first two games by being at home. However, their opener against Scotland is a potential banana skin and has provided for some genuine thrills and spills in the last few years.

In the forwards the big surprise for us was the inclusion of veteran prop Dan Cole, but then Borthwick is familiar with him from his time at Leicester and there has been a trend to pack his squad with some trusted club faces. Cole has value added no doubt but whether or not he is fit enough to withstand the rigors of five weeks of Six Nations competition remains to be seen. We’re not overly thrilled with the second row selections and surely David Ribbans deserved a spot. The back row does look solid and possibly for the first time in many a year actually balanced. The half back offerings look tested and exciting, especially with the addition of debutant Fin Smith.

It’s in the centres and the back three where we’ve been scratching our heads. We would have thought Guy Porter would have deserved a shot, and despite Borthwick seemingly persisting with the belief that Manu Tuilagi is England’s “Messiah”, we’ve seen absolutely nothing this season from the Sale Shark to convince us that such convictions have any merit. Lastly in the back three surely with a view to the World Cup there is a place for Harry Arundell – although Elliot Daly’s injury may make room for the young speedster.

It’s a competitive side that is likely to see some major tweaking with an eye to the future as the tournament progresses. It will be fascinating to see how Borthwick adapts to his new role given all the hype surrounding him as well as how his charges accept what he brings to the table and his vision for the future. Either way we have a hunch that the misery of the last two years for England can start to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Coach Fabien Galthie’s French selection leaves us with more questions than answers as he takes a gamble on depth

The loss of Cameron Woki to injury for this Six Nations is a huge blow for France, but Galthie’s selections for the tournament, many forced as a result of a worrying injury count, could be perhaps the boldest experiment in depth of any of the teams hoping to lift the Webb Ellis silverware in nine months time

There is no question that injury has forced Coach Fabien Galthie’s hand to a certain degree for this Six Nations. In our view the biggest omission is Cameron Woki, who along with Ireland’s Tadgh Beirne is perhaps the best second rower in the Northern Hemisphere right now. However, in our view the more pressing concern for Galthie and his team is the rather poor showing by French clubs in European competition this season, with only La Rochelle turning in consistent performances week in week out.

The front five selections with the exception of the outstanding Cyril Baille and Julien Marchand haven’t exactly had us sitting up and taking notice but as a depth development exercise it’s likely a good set of calls. It’s a capable if not flash set of second row selections, but certainly there is redemption in the shape of the back row choices. We have a hunch that Sekou Macalou will really cement his spot in the French squad with a view to the World Cup, especially given the fact that he can actually put in a genuinely handy shift on the wing if needed. The fact that Gregory Alldritt could be rated as the best number 8 in the world and Charles Ollivon is back to his bruising best will also bring comfort to Galthie and French supporters.

In the halfbacks the injury count is telling and even superstar Antoine Dupont has not looked all that flash so far this season – brilliant at times but opposition sides are clearly starting to figure him out and how to contain him. One to watch could be the Racing 92 input from Nolan le Garrec who looked so sharp against Leinster last weekend in the nine jersey, despite being part of a losing cause. In the fly halves it’s steady as she goes with some genuine proven depth, though all of them need to up their game after some less than stellar club performances. In the centres we’d rate their threat on par with England, but in the back three there is excitement aplenty. One to watch for us will be Ethan Dumortier of Lyon who definitely looks like a potential find of the year for Les Bleus.

France are still clearly one of the favorites, and if they do end up lifting the silverware as defending Grand Slam Champions this year, then the rest of the world needs to live in fear come September. If France performs with this squad then they know they head into the World Cup with some genuine world class depth at their disposal.

While it looks an exceptionally strong Irish side heading into this Six Nations, a few of Andy Farrell’s selection choices have raised eyebrows

While we feel for Joey Carberry being excluded from Andy Farrell’s Six Nations plans, we also looked slightly askance at the inclusion of Jacob Stockdale

It’s an impressive list of names that Andy Farrell has assembled for Ireland’s Six Nations challenge, but no good list would ever be without its surprises. Clearly the two big talking points are Joey Carberry’s loss and Jacob Stockdale’s gain. The Munster fly half has been a conundrum for the Irish selectors – a development player racked by injury problems and generally not living up to the expectations his Coaches have had for him. He’s not a bad player by any stretch of the imagination and has put in some useful efforts in a green jersey. However, consistency is not his strong suit.

Despite a good run of form of late with Munster under their new Coach Graham Rowntree, it’s clear that there are other upstarts challenging Carberry for his place who are making more of an impression. Carberry’s erratic form off the tee as evidenced last weekend against Toulouse and which could have swung the game clearly in Munster’s favor, also hasn’t helped his cause. While we feel it’s a bit harsh that he has been dropped, we’ve been saying all along that Farrell simply has to learn as much about his fly half options ahead of the World Cup as possible. As a result Carberry’s Munster teammate Jack Crawley gets given the nod which we have to say we are delighted by, provided he gets some genuine game time against some of Ireland’s easier opponents such as Italy. Ross Byrne’s form at Leinster has also ensured that he simply had to be on the bus to Cardiff next weekend.

The other surprise in Farrell’s selection was the return of Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale to the Irish fold. After turning heads in 2018 the winger has dropped off Ireland’s radar, not helped by distinctly average performances at club level and ongoing defensive frailties. However, the talent that turned heads five years ago must still surely be in there somewhere. Nevertheless we’d have thought that there would have been a place for his Ulster teammate Robert Balacoune rather than Stockdale. Either way it’s our hope that this Six Nations is the chance Stockdale needs to finally get back to his barnstorming best. You’d have to argue that if he doesn’t then it’s unlikely he’ll feature in Farrell’s World Cup plans, so there is more than just a little pressure on the 26 year old’s shoulders.

As for the rest of the squad it looks more than capable of giving France a run for their money at Six Nations glory as well as any other pretenders to the crown. Ireland should be dominant in the front row, but we can’t help feeling that despite the presence of Dan Sheehan, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong, Ireland’s scrum is the one area that doesn’t look as sharp as it could be despite the world class talent in its ranks. Nevertheless, their work in the loose is always something to behold and expect to see Hooker Dan Sheehan in particular causing absolute mayhem over the next two months. Their second row looks mean and hungry with Tadhg Beirne rapidly becoming the Lineout’s favorite player no matter who we support – expect him along with Sheehan to be one of Ireland’s primary agents of chaos. It’s a back row the envy of the world and a set of half backs who on their day can make a game of rugby look like a finely tuned orchestra.

In the backs we like the look of the centre offerings and are particularly excited to see how newcomer Jamie Osborne’s club form at Leinster translates to Test level, even if the lack of Robbie Henshaw due to injury is a bitter blow. We also would have liked to see Ulster’s James Hume in the mix. Lastly in the back three we’ve already mentioned our surprise over Stockdale. While some are also raising their eyebrows over veteran Keith Earls, in a green jersey he is always something else and turns up when Ireland need him most. Reliability is the term that comes to mind when we think of Earls and although he may not be Ireland’s most dynamic player we always feel a little uncomfortable if we don’t see his name on the planning sheets. We also expect this to be a massive tournament for Leinster sensation Jimmy O’Brien. The only omissions that caught us by surprise here were that of Robert Balacoune and Michael Lowry from Ulster despite their side’s recent struggles in both the URC and the Heineken Cup.

Ireland look good on paper, with the inevitable question swirling around their preparations being did they peak too soon heading into this Six Nations as the number one ranked side in the world? We’d argue it’s different this time around, and despite some lingering concerns particularly around the fly half berth and what kind of team Ireland really is without Johnny Sexton on the pitch, we have a hunch that they find themselves in as good a place as they could hope to be in a World Cup year. So bring on the Six Nations and let’s see where the Northern Hemisphere really stands!

The Lineout Calls of the Week

This week we primarily focus on events taking place in the United Rugby Championship. There was some thrilling action this past weekend but a couple of things stood out for us and caused some rather heated debate. Some poor tackling by Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton gave rise to yet another debate as to how the game is being officiated, as well as ongoing concerns around Sexton’s health ahead of the Six Nations given his critical importance to Ireland’s ultimate World Cup aspirations later this year.

We were shocked to see URC favorites Ulster suffer yet another defeat this time to Benetton as well as their two losses in the Champions Cup. Ulster have played thirteen games so far this season across the two competitions but so far have only managed a 50% win rate and the problems seem to be getting worse. Meanwhile Glasgow seem to have suddenly found their mojo, after a disappointing start to the season. Of their thirteen games they’ve won 9 including both their Challenge Cup games. They currently sit right behind Ulster in 5th on the URC table and it would appear to be onwards and upwards for the Men in Blue.

Lastly we can’t help noticing the impact of Argentinian players in Europe this year, but particularly in the English Premiership. While Argentina as a team may not be getting much time together as a unit ahead of the World Cup, a core contingent of their players are getting to know their fellow Pool D partners England very well indeed as well as others lighting up pitches in France and Scotland.

So without any further ado, here’s what kept our pints frothy this week.

No-one wants to see Ireland’s most important player injured, but does it present a short term opportunity that Ireland simply has to seize with both hands as they seek to find some depth in the ten jersey?

Irish fly half Johnny Sexton’s clumsy tackle on Connacht’s Jarrad Butler over the holidays resulted in the Leinster and Ireland fly half requiring facial surgery which at one point appeared to jeopardize his participation in Ireland’s upcoming Six Nations campaign

Sexton, a bit like Owen Farrell has occasionally had issues with his tackle technique – often tending to be a touch too upright for our liking. In the holiday derby with Connacht, he had to retire from the field after yet another ugly tackle which saw him, rather than his opponent Jarrad Butler, come off worse for wear. Sexton later required facial surgery to his cheekbone, and question marks hung over his participation in Ireland’s rapidly approaching Six Nations campaign.

Fortunately for himself and Ireland, it would appear that the Leinster maestro will be fit for duty when Ireland meet Wales on February 4th in Cardiff. However, given his ongoing issues with injury and the absolute necessity that he is fit for the World Cup if Ireland are ever to hold a hope of getting beyond the quarter finals stage for the first time ever – then surely perhaps now is the time to rest the old warhorse and let his understudies really show their stripes this Six Nations? Although Sexton is Ireland’s Plan A, there is a worrying lack of an effective Plan B should he falter.

So we got out our pencils this weekend and had a look at what we think Ireland Coach Andy Farrell has to do this Six Nations in order of his starting fly half and the bench replacement for all five games. A lack of proven depth at fly half is Ireland’s only genuine depth deficiency and the Six Nations is not only a golden opportunity to address it ahead of a World Cup – it’s also a necessity.

Wales vs Ireland – Joey Carberry to start with Ross Byrne on the bench. Ireland vs France – Ross Byrne to start with Johnny Sexton on the bench. Italy vs Ireland – Harry Byrne to start with Joey Carberry on the bench. Scotland vs Ireland – Ross Byrne to start with Jack Crowley on the bench. Ireland vs England – Johnny Sexton to start with Ross Byrne on the bench.

Bold we think or perhaps even foolhardy we hear you say, but fortune favors the brave and in the buildup to the World Cup Ireland needs answers and needs them fast. Winning the Six Nations in our view should be second to learning some valuable lessons that can be used to fill in the missing gaps ahead of the big show in France later in the year!

Once again England’s Owen Farrell is in the spotlight for yet another dangerous tackle, while still being allowed to help his team to victory – begging the question where is the consistency in what constitutes a dangerous tackle and the issuing of a card?

Owen Farrell’s winning penalty kick at the death over Gloucester and the resultant celebration seemed in rather poor taste, given what had happened only a few minutes earlier with the scores tied and his notoriously poor tackling technique once more brushed under the carpet

While it’s hard to deny Owen Farrell’s value to England’s cause, it’s fairly easy to once more shake your head over the liability he poses to the Red Roses’ efforts as a result of his ongoing issues with tackling technique. It’s sadly becoming a bit of a broken record, but Farrell’s deficiencies in the tackling department once more highlight the much larger issues with an ongoing lack of consistency in how the tackle laws are applied on the pitch – especially if the ultimate goal of World Rugby is to safeguard player welfare.

Referee Karl Dickson appeared to be basing his decisions on the fact that play had moved on since the offence and could not be taken back for it. Quite frankly this is ridiculous, as literally every pundit we have read this week felt that it was a red card all day long. The fact that Farrell has since been cited for it post match in our view is irrelevant, despite its negative consequences for England’s Six Nations campaign. The player should have been booked on the field plain and simple. The fact that Farrell was then able to continue play and kick the winning penalty goal just adds insult to injury, and we can only imagine the ranting that must have gone on in Gloucester pubs after the game.

As we approach a critical Six Nations campaign for all six competitors in the build up to the World Cup later this year, we can only hope that somehow the nonsense we witnessed in Gloucester on Friday night is stamped out once and for all. Foul play is foul play and must receive the necessary punishment on the field and not after the fact!

Can Ulster stop their dizzying fall from grace in time to rescue their season?

While injuries, awkward travel arrangements and bizarre venue choices haven’t exactly helped Ulster’s cause of late – alarm bells are starting to ring in Belfast

What on earth is going on at Ulster? They were semi finalists in the URC and gave a strong showing in the pool stages of last year’s Heineken Cup. This year however, Ulster are starting to look a million miles from the form that got them to such lofty heights in 2022. Despite a strong start to this year’s URC campaign they have fallen off the boil dramatically in recent weeks and as for their Heineken Cup challenge, it is essentially over before it’s even started. 13 games into the season and they can only manage a paltry 50% win rate even if they still somehow manage to be clinging on to 4th spot on the URC table. However, with a tough Champions Cup game on the road against La Rochelle this weekend, followed by England’s Sale Sharks at home in Belfast things aren’t going to get any easier for a side clearly struggling to find its groove. And if that’s not enough their last game of the URC before the Six Nations sees them hosting last year’s defending Champions the Stormers.

Looking at Ulster’s stats and general trends emerging from games, what’s wrong is fairly obvious. Their scrum is genuinely starting to creak and their goal kicking is leaving far too many valuable points out on the pitch. The lack of a genuine top flight European fly half is also hampering their playmaking and restricting the talents of some seriously talented backs. Their discipline is starting to slide badly and they are falling off tackles at key moments, making them start to look defensively frail. They often look disjointed in attack and much of that can be put down to the lack of a top notch playmaker calling the shots in the ten jersey. Injuries are also wreaking havoc amongst their ranks which further hampers the cause.

It should be fixable as there is still talent aplenty in this Ulster side, but it is clearly not gelling the way it needs to or in the manner it did with such success last year. Ulster’s backs are unable to express themselves and players like James Hume and Michael Lowry who made such an impression last year are often nowhere to be seen. Time is running out, and perhaps with their European campaign in tatters it is now time to focus all their energies on getting their URC campaign back on track and giving the Kingspan faithful something to cheer about once more.

All Hail the Warriors once more!

Glasgow’s slide into URC misery last year and a faulty start to this season has clearly lit some fires of late as they suddenly seem unstoppable

Glasgow fizzled out of both the Heineken Cup and the URC last year. Their start to this year’s URC competition appeared to indicate they were headed for more of the same as they received a genuine schooling from Italian side Benetton in their opening game. They then entered a stop start phase of being brilliant one game and then an utter shambles the next. In December though all the lights appear to have come on at maximum intensity. Glasgow now find themselves on a six game winning streak heading into this weekend’s Challenge Cup fixtures.

Last month they thumped Zebre Parma, then travelled to Bath for their first Challenge Cup fixture against Bath and emerged the victors. They followed that up with an impressive at home win against French side Perpignan. However, perhaps most important of all, was their two back to back wins over Edinburgh in the URC over the holidays and with it the 1872 Cup which means they will once again be Scotland’s representative in the Champions Cup next year.

Although they face a tough trip to Perpignan this weekend, they have the luxury of Bath at home before their final URC fixture and the start of the Six Nations. That sees them with an easy home fixture against URC bottom feeders the Dragons. With the likes of Huw Jones, Sebastian Cancelliere, Rory Darge, Sam Johnson, Rufus McLean, Kyle Steyn and Sione Tuipolotu in their ranks it’s no wonder they lead the league in defenders beaten, as well as looking rather flash in the metres made and clean breaks numbers as well. They also sit second in the number of turnovers won.

In short, Glasgow could be one of the big surprises of the second half of the URC season and its resulting business end. Either way they have become one of our favorite teams to watch in the last six weeks and it’s a fitting return to form for a side that has been such a force in the tournament in the last few years.

Pumas adjusting well to the greener pastures of England and Scotland

Santiago Carreras of Gloucester, Sebastian Cancelliere of Glasgow and Juan Martin Gonzalez of London Irish are just a few of the group of outstanding Argentinian players lending some serious weight to their UK based clubs

By the time the English Premiership wraps up this season, World Cup Pool D opponents England and Argentina will have a very good idea of their individual strengths. The Pumas may not actually get together much before the summer if at all, but there is no question that the majority of their squad are at the forefront of top flight European club rugby in England, Scotland and France and the European Champions Cup.

Gloucester’s all star Argentinian trio of Matias Alemmano, Santiago Carreras and Santiago Socino are making their presence felt in Gloucester’s Premiership campaign. So valuable are they to the team that it was elected to rest them for their European Champions Cup clash with Leinster, which Gloucester limped away from in a 57-0 thrashing. You have to wonder how they might have fared if these three had, along with some other key players who were absent, been able to lend their hand in that match.

An electric trio of Argentinian backs are lighting up Newcastle’s efforts in the Premiership, and the names Moroni, Orlando and Carreras are becoming part of Tyneside rugby folklore. Meanwhile London Irish are also packing some serious Pumas heat, especially in the form of the exceptional back rower Juan Martin Gonzalez. Julian Montoya continues to be a powerhouse for Leicester Tigers and north of Hadrian’s Wall Emiliano Boffelli continues to slot the ball between the posts for Edinburgh with effortless ease while Glasgow’s Sebastian Cancelliere is carving up pitches across the URC.

Don’t get us wrong we are not saying that these Argentinian players are single handedly shaping the fortunes of their club sides, far from it and all these teams boast some outstanding English and overseas talent in their ranks as well. However, it is noticeable the impact the Pumas are making in their respective squads. Given the highpoints of Argentina’s International season last year, Pumas Coach Michael Cheika must surely have a lot of reasons to feel cheerful this New Year as he no doubt looks on with a rather large grin on his face, even if he and his charges will not see much of each other until the summer.

Well that’s it for this week folks – some great Champions Cup action to look forward to this weekend and even more exciting a World Cup defining Six Nations is only three weekends away. Happy New Year from all of us!

The Lineout Calls of the Week

The big talking points of the week took place off the field, as the heads rolled in the Coaching boxes in Wales and England. While Wayne Pivac’s exit stage left seemed inevitable in Wales, there were still many, ourselves included, who felt that in England Eddie Jones, despite feeling the heat, would somehow manage yet another stay of execution. It was not to be and the executioner’s blade has swung and both Eddie Jones and Wayne Pivac now find themselves updating their resumes. 10 months out from the World Cup as difficult as the results have been in the last two years for both sides, we can’t help feeling that sacking your coaches at this stage is a mistake. Another Coach who has been under the most intense scrutiny in the last twelve months has been Australia’s Dave Rennie, however despite a mixed bag of results and in many ways the same winning record as Wayne Pivac, Rennie keeps his job and in our opinion rightly so. In the case of Wales and England, although Pivac and Jones have had their issues, we can’t help feeling that there is a slight case of a knee jerk reaction by the management of both Unions to find a scapegoat to mask deeper problems crippling the game in both countries.

However, on a more positive note, we look forward to what should be two cracking weekends of European Champions Cup action. If you’re like us you’ll be fascinated to see how the three South African sides get on in this their first year of European competition.

So without any further ado, here’s what kept our pints frothy this week.

Pivac catches the first flight out of Cardiff as Gatland gets parachuted in

Pivac’s imminent departure seemed inevitable but can Gatland, as Wales’ apparent patron saint of rugby, really fix the problems that lie at the heart of Welsh issues in only nine months before the World Cup

Even though we question the logic of replacing your national coach only nine months out from a World Cup, in the case of Wales, logic aside it seemed that the decision had already been made prior to the recently concluded Autumn Nations series. Despite that historic first ever win on South African soil for Wayne Pivac and his men this summer, it wasn’t a pretty victory and still didn’t leave you with the feeling that Wales were turning a corner. In reality Wales have always looked like they are just managing to keep their head above water during Pivac’s time in charge. One inspiring performance is then let down by a series of mediocre follow ups and Wales never really look like they are developing into a side with any kind of cohesion or identity in terms of exactly what kind of game they want to play and perfect. Sadly for Pivac the numbers don’t lie and in his time in charge since 2019 Wales have only managed to win 13 of 34 Tests. The losses this year to Italy and Georgia in the citadel of Welsh rugby at the Principality Stadium were the swords that Pivac would ultimately fall on.

In Pivac’s defence his tenure has been plagued by injury lists that would be the stuff of most Coaches’ worst nightmares, and as a result he has often had to cobble together matchday squads from the outpatient wards of Welsh hospitals. In our view, here lies one of the deep seated problems with Welsh rugby. While it may upset Welsh supporters to hear this we can’t help feeling that much like Scotland, Wales can in reality only support two provincial franchises as opposed to the four it currently has. The present structure is a mess with Wales’ limited player resources spread too thinly across four clubs. As a result it means more players exposed to injury, less player rotation and overall weak sides – all of which feeds negatively upwards into the efforts of the national side.

Consequently whatever Pivac’s failings were as a Coach he was often forced to fight with one hand tied behind his back. In our opinion Wales, like Scotland should be fielding two strong sides in the URC consolidated from the four existing clubs of Scarlets, Cardiff, Ospreys and the Dragons. We appreciate that all four clubs have long and proud traditions, but in the professional era sadly resources need to be consolidated if Wales as a national side are to return to their glory days of old.

As for Gatland himself, with only nine months to go before the World Cup, while his knowledge of Welsh rugby is probably better than anyone else having led the Men in Red for 12 years from 2007 to 2019 is he really the fix Wales need? In that time he led them to four Six Nations Titles three of which were Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-finals. Whichever way you cut it from a Welsh point of view that’s an impressive resume. However, since leaving Wales his track record has not been as illustrious. Super Rugby side the Chiefs had a woeful record of losses under his tenure and as for the Lions Tour he led to South Africa in 2021, well we think most of us have consigned that to the dustbin of history as one of the most uninspiring Lions Tours ever to leave the shores of the British Isles. Things may improve slightly with Gatland steering the ship for Wales, but the deep rooted problems facing Welsh rugby as a whole are still likely to cause it to founder on the rocks at crucial moments.

Love him or hate him the RFU have made a dreadful short term mistake

The sacking of controversial English Coach Eddie Jones could not have come at a worst time for a side reeling from perhaps their biggest crisis of confidence in recent history

Whether or not you’re a fan of former England Coach Eddie Jones, his sacking this week smacks of a knee jerk reaction from an RFU so out of touch with the game it is charged to manage that it is laughable. With only nine months to go before the start of the World Cup, sacking your Coach defies all logic, and while Jones’ recent results have set alarm bells ringing across the land, there is still no denying that up until the last two years he has been England’s most successful Coach to date. Much like Wales, the game lurches from one crisis to another in England. Famous clubs going bankrupt, a lack of a structured development plan for up and coming English players to be fed into the national side and in general haphazard oversight of the integration between club and country.

In short, the RFU come across as the stuffed suits they are caricatured as. Out of touch with the modern game and how it is evolving and essentially incompetent – that’s the modern day snapshot of the people running the RFU. To cover up for their inadequacies Eddie Jones has conveniently lined himself up in their crosshairs, and made himself the scapegoat for everything that is wrong with English rugby. The social media frenzy around Jones has not helped his cause and the English rugby public has to take some responsibility for Jones’ dizzying fall from grace.

While Eddie Jones may not have helped his situation by some of his own behavior and comments there is still no denying that until recently he knew how to make England win, even if a lot of the time it wasn’t particularly pretty. He led England to a World Cup final, three Six Nations titles and an unprecedented 18 game winning streak when he first took over in 2016. His overall win rate despite the recent issues stands at 73% which no-one else can touch. His loyalty to players is well documented and perhaps lies at the heart of his undoing, but to a certain degree you have to respect it even if it has cost England dearly at times. However, his seeming inability to develop and blood new talent until it is almost too late in England’s World Cup cycle no doubt played a part in finding the sword that he ultimately has fallen on.

As for his potential replacement in Leicester Tigers Coach Steve Borthwick, while boasting an impressive resume, there is no denying that in essence the RFU are throwing him from the frying pan into the fire. Having recently rescued Leicester from the abyss of English club rugby, to then ask Borthwick to do the same with the much more complicated beast that is the national side in a mere nine months ahead of a do or die World Cup seems beyond reasonable. The pressure could well break and ruin one of England’s most promising national Coaches in the making. While Jones had openly admitted that he would be moving on after this World Cup, surely it would have made more sense to bring in Borthwick as an understudy for the next nine months to support and help Jones and learn the ropes of coaching at Test level with the Australian’s unrivalled experience at his disposal?

In short, we feel that in sacking Jones England have made a mistake that they will come to regret come the World Cup in France in September, and possibly even sooner with the Six Nations in February. Coaching at Test level is not a popularity contest and Jones never set out to win it but at this stage in England’s World Cup cycle we can’t help feeling that better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Time will tell!

Dave Rennie manages to put a stop to the speculation about his future

Despite a tough year, the Australian Union have stood by their man Coach Dave Rennie and it’s the right call

As Wayne Pivac and Eddie Jones find themselves trawling the help wanted columns of International Rugby, Australian Coach Dave Rennie has weathered the storm of a challenging year and secured the backing of Australian Rugby to lead the Wallabies through to next year’s World Cup. In our humble opinion, unlike in England and Wales, at least in Australia common sense has prevailed.

Like Pivac, Rennie’s win rate with Australia since taking charge after the last World Cup has been less than stellar and is the same at 38%. However, the difference is that his attempt to forge a Wallaby identity in how they want to play the game and the players they feel they need to do so is clearly evident during his tenure. Rennie has developed young talent and provided them with experienced and capable veterans to support them. The results haven’t always been there, but the intent clearly is on show. He has the backing of his players old and new, and let’s be honest Australia even in defeat have shown some remarkable resolve and played some thrilling rugby.

Yes there are still problems, most notably the Wallabies crippling issue with discipline and at times difficulties with the set pieces, but there is more to like than dislike about this emerging Wallaby outfit in terms of where it is headed in the future. With a favorable side of the draw for their initial path through the World Cup, Australia and Rennie have the right to feel optimistic about their chances of at least a semi final berth in next year’s global showdown in France. The squad boasts some serious talent, both young and old and as we’ve seen this year even with the odds stacked against them this Wallaby team plays for each other and just refuses to lie down and quit. Their final game of the year against Wales and that extraordinary comeback is proof enough for us that this is a side that will need to be reckoned with come September in France. Also look at this end of year tour and, despite the one point loss to Italy, put it in perspective. They played the two best sides in the world, France and Ireland, and lost to both by only one point to the former and three to the latter while remaining exceptionally competitive in both for the full eighty minutes.

Australia have shown common sense and we’re delighted to see Rennie being given the benefit of the doubt, and feel that England and Wales could ultimately wish they’d seen the wisdom of Australia’s ways in the months to come.

The European Champions Cup gets some added muscle and spice!

The European Champions Cup has always been a classic tournament, but with the addition of three South African sides its international appeal has suddenly grown tenfold

Put your hand up if you’re excited about the start of this weekend’s European Champions Cup and the introduction of South African sides, the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks. We’d imagine that we’d be seeing a big show of hands in any pub or bar where we asked that question. The Heineken Cup has always been one of the highlights of our rugby viewing calendar, but this year it’s gone to another level. The clash of French, English, Irish and now South African styles of rugby is a truly mouth watering prospect and we for one can’t wait. Even better for the first time ever it’s fully accessible here in Canada in terms of being able to watch the games live and on demand without breaking the bank.

The introduction of the three South African sides is a huge boost to an already high quality tournament. Last year’s URC champions the Stormers face off against traditional French giants Clermont in their opening fixture, followed up by hosting underdogs London Irish in Cape Town. The Bulls who narrowly lost to the Stormers in last season’s URC final open their Champions account by hosting dangerous French outfit Lyon and then travel to England’s West country to wrestle with Exeter. Meanwhile the Sharks tackle English Premiership legends Harlequins in the Shark Tank in Durban before travelling to France and meeting a tricky Bordeaux side.

It could be said that, despite their success in their first year of European competition in the URC, the South African sides may face a much steeper mountain to climb in European Club competition. However, we can’t help feeling that they will once again surprise their critics and make an already outstanding tournament even more captivating. So wherever you are this weekend, and whatever the weather fire up those braais and let the games begin!!!!

Could this be the best European competition we’ve seen since it all began back in 1995

We have a hunch that this year’s European Champions Cup or Heineken Cup as it is better known may well end up being the best in the competition’s 27 year history

As mentioned above, we’re pretty excited about this year’s edition of our beloved Heineken Cup and it’s not just because of the addition of three South African sides to the main tournament and one to the Challenge Cup. The quality of competition across the board is so high and looks set to make for some thrilling match ups that are likely to be at an intensity akin to Test level rugby.

There are underdogs aplenty most notably in the shape of England’s London Irish and Gloucester, French outfits Bordeaux and Lyon, Ireland’s Ulster and South Africa’s Sharks. There are the traditional giants of the competition such as Ireland’s Munster and France’s Clermont even though both sides have until recently this season in their own domestic competitions struggled for form. And then there are the six pedigree racehorses all of whom are reckoned to be in with a chance of lifting the silverware in the following order and based on our good friend Two Cents Rugby’s (see video on the TV Page) odds:

Ireland: Leinster – 23.5%

France: Toulouse – 10.5% and La Rochelle – 9.5%

England: Saracens – 8.7%

France: Racing 92 – 8%

England: Leicester Tigers – 4.5%

We’re going to resist the temptation to make our own predictions, even if it’s pretty hard to deny that Leinster on paper would appear to be the favorites, but then look what happened to them last year given that they were also tipped to lift the trophy. Either way you’re in for a treat over the next two weekends. So make excuses to your family, take your wives and husbands to a five star meal on Friday night as appeasement and lock yourselves in front of the TV for two days of unadulterated rugby pleasure starting Saturday morning!!! In short, you won’t want to miss a second!

The Lineout Calls of the Week

Despite all the action going on in the Men’s game last week, there is little doubt that the highlight of the weekend was the Women’s World Cup Final. Quite frankly it was a game for the ages and New Zealand emerged worthy Champions over a brave and resolute English team who remained an exceptionally hard side to beat right to the end. History was made as we witnessed the biggest crowd ever seen for a Women’s game with the legendary Eden Park in Auckland being completely sold out. It was a thrilling final that showcased just how far the Women’s game has come in the last ten years and the promise it holds for the future.

In the Men’s Game, it was a weekend of thrills, spills and a few surprises. Italy made a statement in Florence by snatching a historic victory over Australia. Wales finally got back to winning ways against Argentina and England fixed their wobble against the Pumas by cruising past Japan. The dustup in Marseille between France and South Africa lived up to its billing and was an edge of your seat affair. It was a big physical encounter, complete with some seemingly inevitable controversy and a red card being seen by both sides, with France just squeaking past their bruising visitors. Lastly on Sunday, Scotland looked set at one point to finally break their All Black Hoodoo, but Murrayfield hearts got broken once more as the visitors righted their ship in the final quarter.

So here’s what kept our pints frothy in an action packed weekend!

A glorious tournament ends with a rousing finale leaving the world hungry for more!

New Zealand were crowned World Champions in a thrilling final that will stay on our highlights reel for many years to come!

Wow – what a thriller is all we can say!!!! The Women’s World Cup Final surpassed our expectations and then some. World Cup Finals often tend to be slightly dour and anticlimactic affairs at least in the Men’s Game. Well not so in the Women’s game – the silverware showdown at Auckland’s Eden Park in front of a sellout crowd between hosts New Zealand and England was a genuine spectacle from start to finish. That was some of the most exciting rugby between two teams that we’ve seen in quite some time. In short we were riveted to our televisions screens as a game unfolded that was a fitting finale to six glorious weeks of rugby. The only negative being we have to wait another three years for the next one.

England came into the match on the back of an unprecedented 30 game winning streak, while New Zealand simply shifted it up another gear every game they played. By the time the Black Ferns arrived at Eden Park last Saturday, a season of testing was over and they were in race day form and then some. As predicted England’s rolling maul wreaked havoc and accounted for three of their five tries. Twenty minutes into the first half and English winger Lydia Thompson unfortunately saw red in an awkward tackle on New Zealand’s Portia Woodman. The first half was played at an unbelievable pace with seven tries being scored by the two sides and left us exhausted just watching. The fitness levels of both teams was nothing short of extraordinary.

The second half started with a roar as New Zealand went for a sprint start and scored in the first 30 seconds. The game continued at much the same pace with New Zealand mounting a continuous assault on the English lines ultimately resulting in another try giving them the lead, but England would strike back through their seemingly unstoppable rolling maul and regain control of the scoreboard once more. With fifteen minutes left on the clock, New Zealand would see a yellow card and the teams were even in terms of bodies on the field. However, on the 71st minute a try through an audacious kick squirted through the English defenses showcased New Zealand’s ridiculous skills sets at speed and pace. Winger Ayesha Let-l’iga dotted down the winning try and gave the Black Ferns a slim three point lead. England launched their own final assault on the Black Ferns line for the remainder of the game but their wonder weapon rolling maul was finally undone in the eightieth minute and the rest is history.

But what a history it’s been! Like we say our only regret is that it’s over for another 3 years, until many of these remarkable women meet again in England. However, the good news is that the interest levels in the Women’s game that this tournament has given rise to, look set to continue and grow. Women’s Rugby is now very much on the World Stage and can hold it’s own against the Men’s game in terms of skill and excitement. Many of the players are likely to be snapped up by professional clubs in England and France, meaning that the exposure to professional rugby is likely to grow even more for many of the teams who participated in this year’s tournament. While there were many pitfalls to the the Men’s game turning professional, and the Women’s game is likely to stumble over many of the same speed bumps – the future for Women’s Rugby looks exceptionally bright and rather exciting to say the least!

Not quite the ending Canada wanted, but the challenge is now to seize the momentum that has been created and build on it!

Canada were clearly distraught at their 36-0 loss to France in the bronze medal match, but after the disappointment should come a massive sense of optimism for the future

The image above perhaps sums up what an extraordinary tournament the Women’s World Cup has been, and how rugby’s core values of humility and camaraderie were championed at every twist and turn of a competition that left us all with plenty of feel good factor. As we feared, the sheer enormity both physically and emotionally of Canada having to lift themselves for one more match after giving England such a valiant fight in the semi-finals was going to be a bridge too far. Especially when you consider that it was up against a French side who only lost to the eventual Champions New Zealand by one point.

The semi-final had clearly left Canada’s tank slightly empty, whereas France seemed almost energized by their narrow semi-final loss to New Zealand. Although Canada won the hearts and minds of many at the tournament, France’s fully professional squad looked just that – a side that just doesn’t quit and is surely already striking fear into their Six Nations opponents next year. France clearly had a point to prove that come the next global showdown in three years time, they want to be seen as the side that everyone has to beat. It was a clinical and at times almost effortless performance that left the Canadians without answers.

Once again Canada’s problem with getting their tackle success rate above 80% hurt them, as France constantly put them under pressure physically and out wide on the fringes. A tired but valiant Canadian squad missed 31 tackles compared to France missing only 12, and at this level that can be the kiss of death as France ran in five tries. Add to that France’s rather efficient and effective use of the boot especially when kicking between the posts, and Canada were always going to be playing with one hand tied behind their backs.

While Canada will want and need to put this match behind them, they can reflect on an extraordinary tournament that showcased just what Canada can do if the momentum gained is built on. While Women’s Rugby in this country is unlikely to go professional during the next World Cup cycle, it will be imperative for Rugby Canada to build on the achievements made. Canada will need more regular International games both at home, in order to grow the support for the game, as well as overseas to increase the experience of this exciting group of young players. Support with getting our players professional contracts in Europe also needs to happen, while increasing facilities for training and resources to enable the squad to be together more often need to be made available. Given the success of Major League Rugby, there is a chance that there may be room for expanding it to the Women’s game, but we have a hunch that may be a longer term proposition and in the meantime should not detract from the previously mentioned priorities in the run up to the next World Cup.

In short, from all of us here in Canada, a huge shout out to our Canadian Women and what they have achieved in the last six weeks at the World Cup and to what they can do going forward. Be proud Ladies – you’ve earned it and then some!!!!

Italy’s Child Assassin breaks Australian hearts and in doing so gives the Azurri the faint glimmer of a new dawn

Italy’s sensational fullback Ange Capuozzo is one of the genuine finds of International Rugby this year, but can he and his team really herald a new dawn in Italian Rugby?

Yes we know, it’s customary to talk Italy up ahead of the Six Nations to only see it vaporize by the end of the tournament. However, as jaded as you may be by such statements, there is no denying that, under Coach Kieran Crowley, Italy are humming along rather nicely (imagine what he could have done with Canada had he been given the resources). In short, they are a genuinely exciting team to watch that finally seems to have composure and organization allied to some rather extraordinary individual skill sets. This year has been pretty special for the most part for Crowley and his blue clad charges. Their Six Nations culminated in that famous win over the Welsh in Cardiff, and now there’s an Australian scalp to add to the honors list along with an absolute field day against Samoa.

However, before we all get too carried away, there is one elephant in the room that needs to be mentioned. Many of the players who lit up the Florence pitch last Saturday, unfortunately didn’t have what could be called a pleasant summer vacation. Italy’s summer tour took in the three European contenders for their often disputed place in the Six Nations and it didn’t quite turn out the way they wanted. They struggled against Portugal and only won by a converted try. They then redeemed themselves against Romania but proceeded to implode against the biggest threat to their Six Nations status Georgia.

Italy can take heart in the fact that their remarkable exploits last Saturday were achieved without star kicker and playmaker Paolo Garbisi. A lot of their set piece work was excellent, especially at lineout time and in the scrums and their tackle success rate and overall defense was superior to that of Australia. However, Australia let themselves down and handed Italy endless opportunities with the Wallabies’ ongoing crises with discipline and slightly porous defenses out wide which the Italians exploited to the full. Had Italy had a decent goalkicker last Saturday, given Australia’s disciplinary indiscretions then the score line could have been much more emphatic. As it was Italy missed half of their shots at goal. Australia didn’t fare much better but had the unfortunate Ben Donaldson not been handed the biggest pressure kick possible for the Wallabies on debut at the death, then we would be having a very different conversation.

It was a great result for Italy last weekend even if fortune favored them at the final whistle, but a much sterner Test awaits in Genoa in the shape of a wounded Springbok side reeling from two narrow defeats, and needing a confidence booster ahead of their final Autumn Test against England. It will be hard for Italy to continue to throw the form book out the window this weekend against South Africa, but if they can keep it close and acquit themselves well then there could be reasons to be cheerful this Christmas ahead of the Six Nations for the Azurri and their supporters.

Another one goes awry for South Africa while France continue to surprise but not amaze

So the rumors are true, French lock Sekou Macalou is as much of a threat in the back line as he is in the second row. Macalou impressed in a difficult game for both sides but which saw France do enough to get the better of a Springbok side that looks exceptionally capable yet slightly unsettled.

Remember how last year we were being constantly amazed by France and their exploits on the pitch. We would marvel at some seemingly impossible play executed with almost childlike ease as Les Bleus jostled with Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa for the number one spot in the rankings. Next year’s World Cup hosts are still an awesome unit, make no mistake but somehow they’re just getting the job done as opposed to leaving us speechless. Perhaps in many ways that is exactly what you want a year out from the World Cup.

However, we can’t help feeling that to a certain degree there is a very slight element of luck favoring the French these days. We are not for a minute wanting to get into the post match officiating debates that seem to be plaguing this game. We really do wish South Africa’s Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus would give his Twitter account a break, even if referee Wayne Barnes who is undoubtedly one of the world’s best, perhaps didn’t have his most stellar performance in Marseille last Saturday. On the plus side in terms of refereeing player welfare, both teams saw red for offences over which there was absolutely no debate whatsoever, as gutted as we were for Springbok back rower Pieter-Steph du Toit who is not by any stretch of the imagination a “dirty’ player. France were in our opinion the marginally better team on the day in a contest between two excellent sides.

France are winning when it matters, but we just don’t feel it’s as emphatic as some of their victories were last year. If anything they seem to prefer leaving it to the death to right the ship this Autumn Nations Series. France were behind against Australia 24-26 until the 74th minute and the exact same scenario unfolded against South Africa, with les Bleus also trailing the Springboks 24-26 until the 74th minute. Whether or not this is some remarkable coincidence or a Coaching ploy by Fabien Galthie and his team to teach France how to dig deep at the death, a skill which has traditionally abandoned them in the past, is debatable. We think not, and somehow France have evolved into efficient tradesmen this year rather than the spectacularly well organized magicians of last year. While many would say that’s the quality you want in the runup to a World Cup, we’d argue that last year’s French wizards were just as adept at their individual trades along with their spell casting skills, making them a lethal and much more fearsome outfit.

Either way it’s all academic now until the Six Nations, as after Japan’s implosion against England last weekend, we doubt we’ll learn much more about France this year when they play their last Test of 2022 against the Brave Blossoms on Sunday in Toulouse. Remember the old adage of “which French team will turn up”? We have a hunch we’ll be revisiting that question a lot more next year than we have recently.

A match that most of the world probably has no idea is happening, but for us here in North America is of crucial importance

Portugal and the USA face off in the deciding game this Friday to determine who gets the last World Cup berth up for grabs

To say that, from a North American perspective, Friday’s final World Cup qualifying game between Portugal and the USA in Dubai is probably THE most important game of this World Cup cycle is the understatement of the year. For the first time since the tournament’s inception in 1987 there is the very real threat that there will be no North American representation at the global showdown next year in France.

Both sides have beaten the other teams vying for that final World Cup berth, Hong Kong and Kenya, and now it’s a clear foot race between the USA and Portugal. They both sit equal on the points table at 10 points each, however Portugal sits atop the table on points difference. Consequently it’s winner takes all tomorrow, with the Portuguese outscoring the Americans in the try department. In short, this game could really go either way, and there is no doubt that Portugal are highly motivated and feeling rather confident. The Americans by contrast don’t seem to be enjoying their day jobs quite as much. On paper you’d think this is a contest the Eagles should be able to edge, but there really are no guarantees.

If the USA fails to qualify then it has enormous implications for rugby as a whole in this hemisphere. Despite the development of the MLR it appears to be operating in a vacuum and has added nothing to the efforts of the Canadian and American national sides, and if anything they have taken a step backwards as a result on the International stage. Some of that may be in part due to the fact that it is still hard to attract domestic based players, with many MLR matchday squads having very high foreign based player contingents. This does wonders for their own national sides but little for Canada or the USA – Chile and Uruguay being a case in point with both having already qualified for the World Cup and many of their players in the MLR. Consequently, Friday’s match has huge bearing on where the game is headed in this part of the world. Although the USA has hosting rights to the 2031 tournament, the next four years could see the game lost in the wilderness in this part of the world if both Canada and the USA have to start from scratch in terms of qualifying for the 2027 tournament in Australia.

We think you may want to glance nervously over your shoulder at events unfolding in Dubai tomorrow. You’ll be able to do so on the Rugby Network for free, see TV page for details. The game kicks off at 1030 AM Eastern, and we think that most of you may have a device surreptitiously streaming somewhere on your desk tomorrow – just don’t tell the boss.

The Lineout Calls of the Week

Much like last weekend we were spoilt for choice regarding what to spill our pints over this past weekend. It got off to a rip roaring start on Friday with the two Women’s World Cup semi-finals, the quality of which in many cases was superior to many of the men’s offerings. Canada gave everything they had against one of the tournament favorites England in a thrilling contest which saw both sides in it till the final whistle. New Zealand and France then duked it out in an equally high octane match which saw the hosts pip their Gallic opponents by a mere point. It’s the final many predicted, but those two semi-finals will stay with us for a long time as their quality was outstanding and showcased just how far the Women’s game has come. France and Canada still have to put their disappointment behind them and rally themselves for the bronze medal game, which we always regard as perhaps the hardest game in the tournament to play psychologically.

Meanwhile in the Men’s game it was full throttle throughout Europe and more than just a few surprises. Scotland got the fright of their lives from a continually improving Fiji and Italy looked rather sharp against Samoa. In many ways there were few surprises as Wales were handed yet another hiding from the All Blacks. The dustup in Dublin lived up to its billing in a huge and closely fought physical encounter, which left the Springboks ruing the lack of a goalkicker as Ireland edged it by the narrowest of margins.

But there were surprises aplenty at the Stade de France and Twickenham. The contest between Australia and France in Paris was a messy affair at times in terms of execution and discipline from both sides, but what a contest we were treated to from both teams. France got a wake up call of note as a result of their one point win over the Wallabies, with the Australians running it to the wire in a thrilling match that had us all on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes as the lead changed hands almost continuously. Lastly on Sunday, Argentina in a similarly messy match at times with England, showed that they have the potential to ruin England’s World Cup party next year as the two share the same pool. Their one point victory was completely unexpected, especially when you consider that their Coach Michael Cheika had been doing double duty on Friday night with Lebanon in the Rugby League World Cup.

Heartbreak Hotel for Canada – but the future looks so bright we really do have to wear shades

While Canada were gutted at their 26-19 loss to England in the Women’s World Cup semi-final, they can be immensely proud of their outstanding performance against one of the tournament’s firm favorites that made for a thrilling semi-final and which could have almost been one of the biggest upsets of the year!

Canada gave it their all and then some in their semi-final match against England and came agonizingly close to upsetting the odds. It was a pulsating game from both sides, and Canada made a relentless assault on England’s defenses in the second half. However, much as they have all tournament England held firm and sealed the win.

Canada’s exemplary Captain and one of the undisputed stars of the tournament, Sophie de Goede, clearly found the emotions in the post match interview tough going. We have to admit that we shared her heartbreak and were also having to reach for the tissues. Given that only half of Canada’s World Cup squad play professionally and have a mere fraction of the resources both financial and technical that are available to England, their achievements in this tournament are nothing short of extraordinary. To acquit themselves as well as they did against arguably the best Women’s team in the world is something we can all be exceptionally proud of. It was one of the best games of rugby we’re likely to see all year, and Canada’s Women need make no apologies whatsoever.

The future does look exceptionally bright for Canada’s Women, and we imagine that French and English club talent agents were rushing round post match with their cheque books looking to sign Canadian players. As it is the tight five that played in the semi-final are all signed to English Premiership Clubs. We fully expect to see flanker Fabiola Forteza signed up with a European club within in the year. De Goede is already a star for Saracens, but if they want it we’re sure that it won’t be long before the halfback partnership of Alex Tessier and Justine Pelletier head across the Pond based on their performance this tournament. In the backs Maddy Grant caught the eye and a contract with a big club is surely in her future, and we’re amazed that Sarah Kaljuvee hasn’t been snapped up already. Alysha Corrigan was one of the revelations of the tournament and Saracens will be delighted to have her back. We could go on as these are just a few of the outstanding performers in the red jersey over the past five weeks, but all of the squad stood up and were counted.

What is certain is that Canadian Women’s Rugby is on a fast track to success and the likely increased exposure to full time professional rugby for Canadian Women that this tournament will generate bodes well for the future. Canadian Women’s Rugby unlike the Men’s team has been quietly cementing its place on the world stage and after this tournament, our status in the top echelons of the game must be reinforced. We sincerely hope based on this World Cup that Canada’s future home games can generate big turnouts – imagine a full house at BMO Field in Toronto or BC Place in Vancouver and what that could do for the game in this country!

However, big dreams aside there is still some unfinished business left to deal with in this World Cup. Canada and France have to shrug off the bitter disappointment of not making the final and raise themselves mentally for arguably the most difficult game psychologically in a World Cup – the bronze or third place final. We’re not sure how you summon up the motivation to play in a game that is seen by many as a sideshow to the main event taking place the following day. Still rankings are at stake and statements need to be made by two excellent teams. Both will want to claim the honor of at least being among the top three teams in the world. However, we have a hunch that given where Women’s rugby is in Canada, that status may mean so much more to the Canadians this Friday night. France will have the Six Nations in a few months time to prove their worth but for Canada this is the last chance, for several months at least, to show how far they’ve come.

We’re hoping for a memorable bronze final match, with both teams proving that it is still a game worth playing. We have a hunch that Canada may want the result just that little bit more, but to dismiss this impressive French team would be beyond foolish. May the best side win and let’s give credit to both for giving us some awesome rugby over the last five weeks!

Meanwhile the biggest game this weekend awaits!

While there are some pretty tasty offerings in the Men’s game coming up this weekend, we can’t wait for a World Cup final that showcases an extraordinary five weeks of Women’s Rugbyour only regret being it’s the end of a tournament that has been one of the absolute high points of this year’s Rugby Calendar.

Sure there’s a bunch of Men’s Internationals going on this weekend, but we have a hunch a lot of you will be warming up those PVRs in the wee hours of Saturday morning, or even keeping the espresso machines going to stay up for this one. New Zealand have been electric and England absolutely resolute. The Red Roses head into this match on the back of a truly extraordinary unbeaten 30 game winning streak. In short that’s unheard of in either the Men’s or Women’s game. Surely they must be tournament favorites?

However, New Zealand have got better and better with every game. There is no denying that France ran them down to the barest of wires, and had French fly half Caroline Drouin been luckier with that final kick then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Nevertheless there seems to be an almost inevitable momentum growing in this Black Ferns side. Eden Park which is a Fortress for their male counterparts could well become the same for the Ferns on Saturday. Apparently it’s set to be the biggest crowd ever recorded for a Women’s International, and expect the locals to be rather loud to say the least. It all makes for a great spectacle as two teams with very different, but equally effective styles of play go head to head in what should be a thrilling Final. Finals in the Men’s World Cup are often a bit of an anticlimax, with the best games usually reserved for the quarters and semis. However, we have a hunch that in the Women’s game it’s likely to be slightly different.

As we’ve said over on the Podcast we find the Women’s game to resemble a fascinating hybrid of the sevens and fifteen a side game. It’s going to be an arm wrestle of note with England trying to physically suffocate New Zealand and the Black Ferns running the ball from every inch of the park in an effort to exhaust the Red Roses into submission and costly mistakes. In short we can’t wait. As gutted as we were for Canada and France missing out on the final, it is hard to argue against this being the Final that many expected and wanted. Either way we simply can’t look away!

A worthy experiment but one that somehow didn’t work

A bad night at the office for two highly talented players, as South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe and Damian Willemse don’t appear to be the Springboks Plan B when it comes to goalkicking

Much has already been said about South Africa’s lack of a goalkicker last Saturday against Ireland so we don’t want to belabor the point. South Africa switched Cheslin Kolbe off the wing to fullback to help out with the kicking duties and reduce the pressure on Damian Willemse at fly half. In fairness to both, fullback is not Kolbe’s natural position and a Test level goal and place kicker he is not. Willemse on the other hand we feel does have a natural talent for the 10 jersey, but sadly goal kicking is simply not his forte and is unlikely to be so. Sadly, we felt he was under so much pressure regarding his goal kicking that his playmaking abilities suffered at times against Ireland.

In short, South Africa need a goal kicker that can relieve Willemse of some unwanted pressure and allow him to focus on the other core duties of the fly half position, and for which he has shown some impressive aptitude at Test level. Many pundits are expressing growing frustration with the fact that Stormers fly half Manie Libbok is not getting a look in at the 10 jersey. The Springbok Coaching staff have elected to keep Willemse in the starting jersey for their clash with France but, to many South African supporters relief, Libbok is finally granted a place on the bench. Kolbe moves back to his natural berth on the wing and Willie le Roux comes in to save the day for South Africa in the 15 jersey – a role he increasingly seems be given in the run up to the World Cup. Let’s face it while consistency is not always Le Roux’s strong suit when he’s on song he is one of the best counterattacking fullbacks in Test Rugby, and his playmaking skills can genuinely take some of the pressure off Willemse.

It’s an exceptionally strong looking South African side that travel to Marseille to take on a French outfit that looked distinctly vulnerable and rusty at times against Australia last weekend. The tweaks being made to the side may finally strike a balance that South Africa has been looking for all year in terms of both physicality and attack. In short, along with the Women’s World Cup Final this is the game of the weekend and you won’t want to miss it.

France get lucky against a Wallaby side that couldn’t care less about World Rankings

Australia clearly decided to throw the form book out the window as they caused France all sorts of problems on Saturday night in Paris and it was only that rather pesky fellow Damian Penaud who, as he so often does, saved France at the death

Whichever why you cut it that was an exceptionally impressive Wallaby performance last weekend in Paris, that clearly rattled the French and required them to dig very deep into their vault of skill sets. The Wallabies were clearly not fazed by facing off against the number 2 side in the World in their own backyard in front of 70,000 delirious French supporters. Continuing with the above theme of the dustup in Marseille being THE game of the weekend along with the Women’s World Cup Final – France know they need to step up a few gears on Saturday if they are to get past a genuinely awkward and physically dangerous Springbok side. Winger Damian Penaud, as he so often does for France, got them out of jail with one of his trademark “how does he do that” tries. It was remarkable in that it not only sucked in Tom Wright out wide but also Jock Campbell and ultimately Jake Gordon inside of him, as Penaud simply changed direction and burned up a path between the three of them fending off defenders seemingly at ease.

France traditionally start their campaigns slowly and warm to the task as they progress, whether it’s the November Internationals, Six Nations, Summer Tours or ultimately the World Cup. We doubt they’ll look as rusty this weekend, especially as this is a dress rehearsal for a possible quarter final at next year’s World Cup. They will take positives from the fact that they edged the possession and territory stats last weekend and were able to exploit Australia’s ongoing issues around defense. Although they leaked two tries to the Wallabies their ability to win the collisions and dominate the rucks and breakdowns as well as get decent returns from their lineouts still remains exceptional, and they’ll need them to be against South Africa. However, they will be seriously concerned at how their scrum creaked against an opponent not necessarily known for their abilities in that department. If they can’t compete at scrum time then they will be in for a world of hurt when the “Bomb Squad” and company arrive in Marseille.

However, France do seem, unlike in days of old, able to fix their issues fairly quickly mainly due to consistency in selection by Fabien Galthie and their Coaching staff. If they do that and tidy up some silly disciplinary errors, then the arm wrestle in Marseille against the Springboks should be just as enthralling and intense as that in Dublin a week ago. Like we say if you only watch two games this weekend then you’ll want to make sure this is one of them!

“So where do we go from here Eddie – now that all of the children are growing up?”

England Coach Eddie Jones’ selection policies once more seemed to trip him and his charges up this weekend against Argentina

Now that so many of England’s impressive crop of youngsters have grown up, you can’t blame them for wondering why they simply can’t make it into Eddie Jones selection policies, as the English Coach still favors his OAP gang of that ill fated World Cup final. Some people seem to think that he’s been suffering PTSD ever since England’s loss to South Africa in the World Cup Final three years ago, and never really recovered. Others say he’s hiding a bunch of cards up his sleeve to flash out at the World Cup leaving us marveling at England’s charge to the Final – however, that plan didn’t quite work out last time did it when it mattered most.

Given the resources and talent at Jones’ disposal his selection policies defy logic. Whether he and his charges blatantly underestimated the threat Argentina brought to Twickenham last Sunday is probably a debate that will rage on long after this November series, but trip up they did and some of the blame for that lies at Jones’ ongoing issues with selection. While he may be experimenting with combinations ahead of the World Cup, you could argue that if he doesn’t know what they should look like at this stage a year out from the global showdown then England could well find themselves adrift next October.

England simply lacked pace, direction and energy for the most part against Argentina. Apart from the scrum England dominated every single statistic last Sunday, and in most cases by quite some margin, yet at the final whistle still found themselves a point adrift of the Pumas. Argentina simply were far more efficient, enterprising and clinical with what little ball they had, allied to the unshakeable reliability of Emiliano Boffelli’s boot.

Jones decided to stick with a lumpy and misshapen back row that just wasn’t balanced. Maro Itoje is a phenomenal second rower but he simply doesn’t slot seamlessly into the back row like Courtney Lawes. Billy Vunipola is not the bundle of energy he once was, with a raft of talented number 8s in the Premiership snapping at his heels. Ben Youngs pedestrian delivery at scrum half was highlighted in the blink of an eye as his replacement Jack van Poortvliet came on and scored a try in less than a minute. Marcus Smith is clearly growing tired of having Uncle Owen as his babysitter and the 10/12 axis simply isn’t firing, especially as Farrell still clearly plays as if he was wearing the pivot jersey. Eddie Jones’ great savior Manu Tuilagi was kept out of the fray lest he picks up an injury ahead of the encounter with New Zealand making his presence essentially pointless.

There were some highlights with Joe Cokanasiga looking like a genuine gas man out wide – but hang on let’s drop him completely for a game against a side like Japan who also love to run the ball. At least Freddie Steward was his usual outstanding self at fullback. We also thought Alex Coles made an impressive start in the second row and are glad to see he gets rewarded with a spot on the bench against Japan, with Jones also blooding some impressive new young talent in the shape of David Ribbans this weekend.

On the plus side Eddie and England do seem to be taking some notes from last weekend’s upset. Van Poortfliet gets a start at scrum half, Jonny May makes his return on the wing while the impressive Guy Porter gets to partner Owen Farrell in the midfield. However, Jones just can’t let go of his beloved golden oldies as Ben Youngs gets the bench in a match England should win and consequently deny the likes of in form Northampton youngster Alex Mitchell some much needed game time. Billy Vunipola continues keeping the bench warm along with brother Mako and Tuilagi also gets some apparently valuable time on the sidelines.

Eddie Jones and England proved themselves wily operators in the runup to the last World Cup, but it is getting increasingly hard to see a repeat performance come next October. It just looks muddled, confused and smacks of opportunities wasted and lost with England’s impressive raft of youngsters. While there may still be time, it’s increasingly looking like too little too late. England will be under huge pressure to improve on this year’s dismal Six Nations performance come February so don’t expect too much in the way of new talent there and then there is very little game time left prior to France. England have a real chance to showcase where they want to go against a challenging and exciting side like Japan this weekend, and while they are likely to emerge on the right side of the score line at the final whistle, we can’t help feeling that apart from a win a golden opportunity for the future will have been wasted.

Enjoy the rugby everyone this weekend and for those of you in Toronto – Hemingways is the place to be if you’ve been lucky enough to reserve a seat!

The Lineout Calls of the Week

So continuing on from last week’s change in tack with the Lineout’s way forward in terms of how we get our musings out, here is our second go at a weekly whip round of what got us talking. In many ways we were literally spoilt for choice with the start of the Autumn Internationals this weekend and Canada’s Women heading into the semi finals of the World Cup. However, we decided to focus on a big international as well as one that nobody seems to want to talk about, Canada’s shot at World Cup glory, the continuing frustrations around officiating and player welfare. So hopefully there’s something in here that sparks your interest and keeps your pints as frothy as ours this week.

The one that EVERYBODY is talking about this weekend

Number one in the world Ireland, if the rankings are to be believed, take on World Champions South Africa in one of the biggest clashes leading up to next year’s World Cup

As the Autumn Internationals return with a vengeance this weekend a year out from the World Cup, there is plenty at stake and lots to talk about. However, without a doubt the most keenly anticipated fixture this weekend is the Dublin dustup between Ireland and South Africa. Ireland currently ranked number one in the world take on World Champions South Africa, who themselves are ranked third. It is indeed a clash of titans in green, though Ireland for reasons best known to themselves have decided to choose a jersey that is likely going to make it extremely difficult at times to know who’s doing what on the pitch. It’s also likely to lead to some confused officiating at times from the otherwise excellent Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli and his team. Oh and if you plan on watching it in black and white don’t bother.

However, apart from the poor choices in jersey fashion made by the IRFU, it is a mouth watering contest that we can’t wait to watch unfold. Irish supporters have been here before a year out from the World Cup ,with their team riding high only to then crash into oblivion in the early stages of the global showpiece twelve months later. No matter how well Ireland do this Autumn and the Six Nations next year there is still an ominous sense of deja vu. Concerns linger around Ireland’s complete lack of tried and trusted depth in the playmaker position of fly half even though Johnny Sexton is, in the twilight of his career, probably playing the best rugby of his life. However, one critical injury to Sexton and all of a sudden Ireland looks dramatically out of shape despite the enormous depth it can field in every other position on the pitch. If Sexton stays fit until 28th of October 2023 and Ireland doesn’t suddenly implode on the big stage as in tournaments gone by, then these are truly heady days for Ireland and their supporters who have the right to dream big dreams.

It’s an exceptionally solid looking Irish outfit trotting out at the Aviva with most of the big names there including Sexton leading the troops. Interestingly, Ireland have decided to give the wise head of veteran scrum half Conor Murray the start for this one, with superstar of the last twelve months Jamison Gibson-Park warming the bench. Also with a view to development, Ulster’s rock star winger Robert Baloucoune gets a start on one of the biggest possible stages prior to the World Cup.

South Africa have had an inconsistent run since the World Cup and lifting the Webb Ellis trophy. Question marks linger around selection and tactics, as well as leaving it rather late to develop some of the extraordinary new talent that has emerged from the United Rugby Championship. However, on their day the Springboks are still capable of producing absolutely massive performances that revolve around their rather awe inspiring physicality and a degree of organization that looks exceptionally reliable, even if it may not be as enterprising as that of some of their opponents.

South Africa bring their all star forward pack to the Aviva on Saturday in an attempt to completely suffocate any sense of Irish enterprise. Jaden Hendrikse’s excellent form in the Rugby Championship, where we felt he outperformed stalwart Faf de Klerk, is rewarded with a starting berth at scrum half, while the Damian Willemse experiment continues at fly half. Unlike Ireland, South Africa appear committed to being able to field some depth in the 10 jersey come the World Cup. We can only see one real weakness in this Springbok outfit and that’s the center pairing of De Allende and Kriel which we feel can’t hold a candle to Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose who are two of the slickest and most imaginative operators in the business.

In short, this is set to be an epic tussle of two impressive forward packs, wily halfbacks and electric backs. It’s the game of the weekend by a country mile and will tell us a great deal about what to expect in a year’s time at the World Cup, especially given that these two Test powerhouses will also have to face off against each other in the Pool stages. In terms of preparation for the “big one”, Coaches Andy Farrell of Ireland and Jacques Nienaber of South Africa couldn’t ask for better preparation, all aided and abetted by the fact that all these players will get continued exposure to each other over the course of this year’s United Rugby Championship. By the time the World Cup rolls around these two teams will know each other inside out, making Saturday’s dress rehearsal for their Pool clash a year later one of the most fascinating fixtures of 2022.

And the one that strangely nobody wants to talk about given its implications

This weekend’s start of the qualification process for that last spot up for grabs at next year’s World Cup has somehow slipped under the radar, as the US desperately seek to unseat Portugal and ensure that there is a representative of the game in North America at the tournament

The qualifying tournament for that last coveted berth at next year’s World Cup which will be taking place in Dubai over the next three weekends has huge ramifications for the global game and North American Rugby in particular. Consequently we are rather perplexed that we can hardly find any news of it – and trust us we have gone digging. It features four teams in a competition spread over three weekends. Of the four teams participating, USA, Portugal, Kenya and Hong Kong – the Americans and Portuguese are the clear favorites ranked 19th and 20th respectively.

Portugal are one of the best emerging European nations and in the recent Rugby Europe annual tournament, which is like a Tier 2 Six Nations, Portugal finished fourth. However in the last twelve months they have put in some big performances. They have beaten Canada, given Japan a scare, drawn with Georgia and also gave Italy the fright of their lives. Portugal have participated in one World Cup in 2007.

The Americans meanwhile lurch from one crisis to another. Although they beat Canada in their initial attempt to qualify for the World Cup, they then lost to Uruguay. In their second attempt to qualify they were beaten out by Chile. They were then humiliated by New Zealand 104-14 and then in the warmup for this tournament lost both their games to South African provincial sides the Cheetahs and Pumas. In short they are low on confidence, something Portugal seems to have in spades. If the USA fail to qualify for the World Cup it will be the first time since the tournament’s inception that a North American side will not be represented, and only the second time the Americans have missed the party. It’s hardly a good advertisement for growing the men’s game in this part of the World. We can thank Canadian and American Women’s rugby for righting the ship in that regard, but given that the US is scheduled to host the Men’s global showpiece in 2031 it’s rather a poor advertisement for the sport in this part of the globe if we have to wait another four years to be represented.

So whether you’re a Canadian or American supporter we have a hunch that for the love of the game in this part of the world you may well be humming the “Star Spangled Banner” into your pints over the next three Sundays.

A legend is born as Canada’s Women face the toughest challenge of all this weekend in their semi-final against tournament favorites England

Canadian Captain Sophie de Goede has been one of the stars of the Women’s World Cup and an exemplary Captain of a team that has certainly made people sit up and take notice

We can hardly wait for tomorrow night and seeing our outstanding Canadian women take to the pitch at Auckland’s legendary Eden Park to face off against World Cup favorites England. As Canada’s exemplary Captain Sophie de Goede has pointed out, despite the David and Goliath nature of the contest the Canadians are not daunted by the Red Roses, and to a woman have all made huge personal sacrifices to make it to this point. While many of the Canadian team may still be amateurs their motivation and dedication to purpose is 110% professional. Although an increasingly large number of the Canadian team are now playing in England’s professional league, with Sophie de Goede herself being a regular match day starter for Saracens, many of the players running out tomorrow have had to make some incredibly hard choices to play the game between careers, families and friends.

England may seem invincible and head into tomorrow’s match on an unprecedented 29 game winning streak, but there are aspects of Canada’s game that could cause them problems. Canada will have to be giant slayers tomorrow if they are to progress to a final date with either New Zealand or France, but they seem rather comfortable with the underdog tag. In terms of physicality they can give as good as they get and they are just as competitive as England in the set pieces. England have tended to favor a very physical game so far that relies heavily on rolling mauls, an area where Canada have tended to be defensively strong. If England do decide to vary it up and employ a running game which they are no slouch at either, only being outdone in meters made so far in the tournament by New Zealand, then they could target Canada’s one big weakness so far.

Canada have one Achilles Heel that got exposed in their two matches against the Americans and that is their tackle success rate. It only averaged 77% over the two games and if they are to take on a side like England, especially if the Red Roses open the game up, that has to be in the mid to high 80s at a bare minimum if they are to stand a chance. If they can’t fix it then they simply have to physically pressure England into mistakes and lapses of discipline where they can punish them with the boot. Sophie de Goede was exemplary at the kicking tee in Canada’s quarter final against the USA and she’ll need to bring that accuracy to this match, as any points left begging could well make or break the outcome of this match if Canada are able to remain in the hunt. Canada will have to control the restarts, and really test England under the high ball and gain some traction in the aerial contests if they are to stand a chance tomorrow night allied to their strengths in the set pieces and at the breakdown.

Some are saying that this could be a bridge too far for De Goede and her charges, but whatever happens she and her teammates will all have carved out their own bit of history and will still have a shot at a third place finish should they stumble against England. Sophie de Goede has been an outstanding Captain and has already ensured that she can walk with the best in the modern game as well as claim her place amongst the greats of Canadian rugby.

Once again blatant inconsistency in officiating and interpretation of the rules makes a mockery of our game!

Sorry but we’re utterly baffled how it’s a Yellow card for Scotland’s Glen Young and Red Card for New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick, while player welfare seems to be thrown under the bus once again

We are not ones to nitpick over official’s decisions, or to say that they cause games to be won or lost. However, we can no longer stand by and watch some of the outrageous recklessness that could cause players to suffer injuries that may have serious implications in later life. Watching the first two Autumn Internationals we were literally gob smacked at the inconsistency in decision making by the officials at the expense of player welfare.

In the first instance in an attempt to clear out a Japanese player from a ruck, New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick charged directly into the back of Japan’s Kazuki Himeno’s head and neck with his shoulder. Admittedly Himeno was low, which made it difficult but it was still irresponsible and could have had serious consequences. Georgian Referee Nika Amashukeli after consultation with his team and the TMO adjudicated it a red card and Retallick is now unable to participate in New Zealand’s Autumn tour till possibly their final match against England. It was the right call – plain and simple and Amashukeli and his team are to be applauded for “interpreting” it correctly.

Now fast forward twelve hours later to Murrayfield and Scotland’s game against Australia. In a mirror image of what happened in Tokyo, Scotland’s Glen Young commits exactly the same offence attempting to clear out Australia’s Tate McDermott. The incident is made worse by the fact that Young makes contact at almost twice the speed that Retallick was at. You can see McDermott’s head visibly snap back from the impact. English Referee Luke Pearce, who in general we find very consistent and solid in his duties, after discussion with his team and the TMO decides to lower the danger to yellow as Young led with his bicep even though his shoulder ultimately connects with force to McDermott’s head. We’re sorry but in no universe can we find this decision sensible and in the interests of player welfare, especially given the fact that the force of impact was almost twice that of Retallick’s.

This “interpretation” by the referees aspect of officiating really needs to be made consistent, especially where any contact with force to the head is made. In a world where Mums and Dads are increasingly worried about the long term impacts of such collisions on their little Jimmys and Susans, we’ve simply got to stamp it out. The kind of inconsistency in arbitration witnessed on Saturday has to be arrested and quickly if we genuinely want our game to grow in popularity and get more youngsters involved at an early age. We’re pretty sure that most parents watching those games Saturday, who were on the fence about whether their kids should play rugby or not, were probably not shopping for rugby boots on Sunday. While physicality is a cherished aspect of our game, safety has to be paramount. Perhaps we can learn something from the Women’s game and some of their tackle techniques. Have you noticed how fewer HIAs there have been in the Women’s World Cup so far?

Two of rugby’s most recently maligned characters admit they’re far from perfect and need to change but also highlight the damaging effects of their faults being hauled in front of the firing squad of social media

Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and Australia’s Nic White have been in the media spotlight lately for all the wrong reasons, but these candid interviews open up the fact that they are only human and like all of us make mistakes under the pressure of the spotlight. Sadly the misguided media hysteria that often follows is hurtful and damaging to not only them but their families and makes us forget that these are two highly skilled players vital to their respective teams’ ambitions

If you’ve followed the media in the last few months there has been outrage over the antics of Australia’s Nic White milking a penalty by diving to ground feigning injury in a match against South Africa in the Rugby Championship. He became public enemy number one in an instant, and social media was replete with images of him in a tutu and a tiara. While we didn’t agree with his actions and certainly don’t want to see the type of antics and play acting that plague football become part of our game, the resultant persecution of him in both the press and social media was out of bounds, as it started to take aim at his personality and carried over to his family. That is unacceptable whichever way you cut it, and we have to profess that perhaps even we got caught up in the initial negative reaction to the act that put Nic White in that position in the first place, and for that we feel we have to apologize.

In the same vein, Ireland’s Johnny Sexton has also been in the crosshairs of social media and the rugby public, and recently found himself being labeled “a petulant child” by some rugby critics and media pundits. Much like with Nic White, while we have grown slightly weary of Sexton’s constant outbursts against the officials, the media then generated a backlash against a player who for all his faults has been a stellar servant to his country and is held in high regard by his teammates. The vitriol is both damaging and hurtful to not only the players but also their families. Test Rugby is a pressure cauldron of note and in Sexton’s case the added responsibilities of the Captaincy can make it almost impossible at times to be perceived as a reasonable individual.

These are gifted players plain and simple who are integral and important parts of their respective teams. We recently came across these two interviews on YouTube, that helped give us some perspective on these players as individuals and the fact that at the end of the day they are normal human beings who just like us make mistakes. In both, Sexton and White admit to their failings and the fact that they need to address them but without the spiteful artillery barrage of social media goading them into it. Sexton openly admits that he needs to change the way he deals with referees heading into the Autumn Series and beyond, while White admits he wishes he hadn’t made such a meal of a seemingly harmless incident in the grand scheme of things. His colleague Tate McDermott could have made a much bigger deal of a genuine act of thuggery this weekend but to his credit let the officials do their job and got on with the game, even if they got their decision wrong.

In both these interviews, White and Sexton come across as decent blokes just trying to do the right thing by their teams. So let’s give them credit for that and move on, and celebrate them for the extraordinary players that they are. We strongly recommend you watch both interviews and as we have done judge for yourselves. The Nic White interview is on Rugby Pod on YouTube with Jim Hamilton and the Sexton interview is on the IRFU YouTube channel.

So that’s it for this week. Take care everyone and here’s to an absolute feast of Men and Women’s Test Rugby this weekend!

The Lineout’s week that was 17 – 23 October

So as mentioned over on the Podcast, we’re changing things up a bit this week and for the foreseeable future. With all the Rugby going on right now, Women’s World Cup, Autumn Internationals to name but a few big ticket items, we have to confess to be struggling to keep up. We barely have enough time to watch all the games, let alone write them up along with the demands of day jobs, families and life in general. In short, in order to not let this blog stall at such a key moment one year out from the World Cup, we will be limiting our musings every week to some key points that came out of the previous week’s action and which provided the most discussion and kept the pints frothy. So from now on much like over on the Podcast, we’ll be doing a weekly wrap-up here as well, although the subject matter will often be different.

So on that note with the Autumn Internationals just around the corner and a weekend of thrilling Women’s Rugby World Cup quarter-finals coming up, here’s what got us talking.

Canada’s women revel in a job well done but now the really difficult part of the World Cup begins for the Ladies in Red

It’s all smiles for now but Canada’s outstanding women know their World Cup journey gets dramatically harder after this weekend

First and foremost – heartfelt congratulations to Canada’s women at the Women’s World Cup in New Zealand. They won all their pool matches relatively comfortably, and finished as the second seed coming out of the Pool stages. That’s an impressive achievement whichever way you cut it and something that we can all be immensely proud of. However, now we’re at the business end of the tournament forgive us for thinking that perhaps Canada would have benefitted from a slightly more challenging route to it. Sadly playing the Americans once more in the Quarter-Finals is probably not the best preparation to take on our likely semi-final opponent England.

As impressive as Canada’s journey has been so far in the World Cup, the fact that we didn’t get to cut our teeth in the Pool stages against an opponent like England, France or New Zealand is in our opinion a slight handicap. You could argue that New Zealand is in the same boat but they still had the benefit of a plucky Australian side and, third place finishers in this year’s Six Nations, Wales to contend with as a warmup for their likely semi final with France. Canada should get past the Americans once more in the quarters but to take down tournament favorites England a week later in the semis, they will need to cut down their handling errors, improve their goalkicking and up their tackle success across the board by 40%. That’s a very tall order in the space of two weeks and while the game against the Americans will help this process it’s unlikely to really tell us where we stand in relation to the Kiwis and the two European juggernauts of France and more importantly England.

Like we say this is by no means an attempt to take any of the shine off the performance by Canada’s women in this tournament which has been outstanding, and one which we can all be rightfully proud of. There are plenty of strengths to build on such as the fact that our lineout is the best in the competition along with New Zealand, we have the most successful scrum record, and are second behind New Zealand in our success rate at ruck time. However, our tackle success rate is the worst amongst the eight quarter finalists as is our goalkicking. Given the way England are carving up pitches in this tournament we simply have to be more successful in the tackle department and simply can’t afford to be leaving kickable points to chance. There is no question that our physicality is a force to be reckoned with in attack but defensively we need some urgent and critical care. Two weeks is a very long time in international rugby, but Canada’s women know that the really hard work has to now begin in earnest and those impressive pool performances have to go up another few gears.

Who can stop the Red Roses?

England’s remarkable winning streak continues as their defeat of South Africa in the final Pool game of the Rugby World Cup saw them extend their winning streak to an unprecedented tally of 28 straight victories

To be honest we’re not sure anyone can. France gave it a really good go in the pool stages, and did show us that the Red Rose juggernaut can be slowed considerably, but even they failed to grind it to a halt. This weekend England take on Australia in the quarter finals, and the Wallaroos will be noble and valiant opponents but ultimately England are likely to continue their seemingly inevitable march to the final. Assuming things go according to plan against Australia they will then have a semi final date with Canada, which will see them attempt to claim their 30th consecutive victory, and if that’s not motivation enough ahead of a World Cup final then we don’t know what is.

England don’t really dominate any of the statistics outright, but then they are playing so cohesively as a team they don’t need to. Their only weak point is perhaps their goalkicking at a 63% success rate but that’s still the third best in the competition, and an area which all the teams have struggled with. However, they’ve run an astounding 2052 metres so far in three matches which is an average of 684 metres a game. New Zealand takes top honors in this department by quite the margin, but England are clearly the next best team in this regard by a country mile. Although the coaching staff would perhaps like to see the scrum and tackle success rates get slightly higher, there are no alarm bells ringing just yet. England look composed, confident, focused and apart from the encounter with France utterly untested so far.

However, the French game did show that when the chips are down this English team’s staying power and ability to get the job done is second to none in the competition. But therein lies the rub, if France do manage to conquer their likely semi final opponents New Zealand, then could les Bleus be wise to England’s tricks a second time round in a final? If you ask us that’s the most the most tasty plot line we can think of in this World Cup!

Clearly not a group to mess with!

As the hosts of this year’s Women’s’ Rugby World CupNew Zealand along with England will be exceptionally hard to beat

If the Black Ferns Haka isn’t frightening enough this Halloween then we don’t know what is. Not to exaggerate but we find it infinitely more spine chilling than the Men’s version. However, one Haka does not a World Cup trophy make as the saying goes and this Black Ferns side are just as terrifying on the pitch over eighty minutes as they are in their pre match warmup. As the hosts they are clearly enjoying playing in front of a rapturous home crowd, and putting behind them what has been a difficult year leading up to the World Cup. Under the new Coaching regime of the legendary Wayne Smith, New Zealand’s troubles are very much a thing of the past, and they now boast a unified squad of outrageous talent and depth who are clearly thoroughly enjoying their day jobs.

As far as we can see it their only potential Achilles Heels are their goal kicking and the scrums. Even their scrum in the final pool game against Scotland went from a 33% success rate in their opener against Australia to 100%. In short, this is a team that can adapt and fix it’s apparent weaknesses in the blink of an eye. Add in a second row that is clinically efficient, a back row that boasts the remarkable talents of Sarah Hirini and Alana Bremner allied to a halfback partnership that can read each others’ minds. Then there is that set of backs that highlights the almost insane talents of Ruby Tui and Portia Woodman and the Black Ferns are simply the most dangerous side in the competition plain and simple.

However, the pressure of winning your own World Cup in front a rugby public that is renown for accepting nothing less may be a stumbling block that New Zealand may struggle to clear against France in the semis or England in the final, should Canada fail to unseat the Red Roses. New Zealand are clearly favorites and seem to be getting better with every outing leading to an almost unstoppable momentum. Once again it seems to all point to France having to break the mold of a script that seems to have been written quite a while ago – as New Zealand and England look set to contest the final. Guess we’ll all be watching the first quarter final between France and Italy this weekend with rather intense interest!

These guys need to share a pint and have a chat

Coach Gregor Townsend and Fly Half Finn Russell need to settle their differences as until they do Scotland will suffer

It’s been one of the hottest topics of debate this week, and it’s been hard to look away. Love him or hate him – Scottish fly half Finn Russell finds himself out in the cold this November as Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend chooses not to include him in his Autumn Nations plans. The fact that the two seemingly don’t see eye to eye appears to be well documented, with Townsend’s “my way or the highway” clearly clashing with Russell’s impish maverick nature.

Anyone who has read these pages knows we have some sympathy with Townsend’s dilemma in recent times. Russell is a genius in the ten jersey of that there is no doubt. Just watch his performance in a Racing 92 jersey against Montpellier this weekend. However, therein lies the problem. Much of what Russell engineers is risky to say the least. When it works it is sheer brilliance in its audacity, but often it doesn’t and puts his team completely on the backfoot and struggling with damage limitation in the blink of an eye. What needs to happen is that Russell’s infinite and renegade talents get blended into his side’s game plan. However, Townsend is not the man to do it and sadly the resulting clash of egos and wills is set to continue at Scotland’s expense.

Scotland’s current offerings for the Autumn Nations campaign in the ten jersey are no slouches and will get the job done, albeit in a relatively predictable manner. Opposition sides are unlikely to be surprised, whereas with Russell they would likely have been kept guessing from start to finish. Russell’s play style either opens up opportunities for the opposition as a daring and reckless play goes awry, or they are constantly on the backfoot trying to figure out what’s coming next. It’s a gamble but at times one Scotland will need to take, if they are to go toe to toe with sides like New Zealand, Argentina and Scotland – let alone Fiji which is almost a team made up entirely of Finn Russells. In short, without Russell, one of Scotland’s key strengths of forcing opponents to expect the unpredictable is gone. In the interest of Scotland having an ace up their sleeve, Russell and Townsend need to put their differences aside and make it work plain and simple for the greater good and an eye to the World Cup.

The Return of a Legend

The Wallabies will be better off for Michael Hooper’s presence on the field once more, even if he won’t be wearing the Captain’s armband this November

We can’t begin to express how delighted we are to see one of our favorite Wallabies of the last decade back in the gold jersey this Saturday against Scotland. Furthermore, in addition to saluting his courageous decision to take himself out of the spotlight and look after his own mental health which had suffered as a result of the relentless physical and mental pressures of Test rugby, we’ve been really happy to see the support and respect he has been given in the process. Although the Captain’s duties will remain with James Slipper, the sheer presence of Hooper on the field will lend a stability to the team which they clearly lacked at times during the recent Rugby Championship. Hooper knows when and how to challenge some of the decisions in terms of officiating that got in the way of Australia’s recent matches, he also lends a sense of composure to his teammates in the face of adversity. In short, he’s a talisman that Australia have sorely missed in the last three months.

It’s a strong side that Australia are putting out on the pitch at Murrayfield this Saturday, even with some notable omissions due to injury. However, even though this match falls outside the official Test window, Australia will need all their ducks in a row as Scotland field a very dangerous side. Scottish bolters Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham out wide will pose a serious threat to the Wallabies often tenuous defense on the fringes especially with Marika Koroibete out of the equation for this Autumn series. In a match that could go either way for both sides, the calm head and experience of “Hoops” is likely to be Australia’s most valuable asset on Saturday in a fast paced and open game.

Welcome back Michael from all of us!!!!

In a Rugby Championship that keeps ripping up the form book, this weekend’s games are do or die affairs for the original favorites – New Zealand and South Africa!

Put your hands up if this year’s Rugby Championship has caught you by surprise – we’d imagine that we’d be seeing a pretty consistent show of hands. What a glorious tournament it’s turning out to be for the traditional underdogs Australia and Argentina. If Argentina pull off the unthinkable this Saturday in Hamilton and beat the All Blacks for a second time in a row and thus place one hand firmly on the tournament’s silverware, it would perhaps be the biggest shakeup of the global game in quite some time. Meanwhile in Australia, the Springboks almost look destined to be unable to break the curse of not winning on Wallaby soil since 2013. Both the All Blacks and the Springboks seem to be suffering a deep rooted crisis of confidence. Australia despite an injury list from hell simply will not lie down and Argentina look more ominous with every outing as their preparation for the World Cup picks up pace.

Quite frankly there is everything to play for in a tournament that until this year was in danger of becoming a tad stale and inconsequential in relation to its Northern counterpart the Six Nations. Not so this year, and we have been glued to our television screens since the beginning of August and are hungry for more. So here’s what got us talking ahead of Round 4 of this roller coaster tournament.

New Zealand may be struggling but they have some key strengths which they simply have to use to their advantage on Saturday

All Black Hooker Samson Taukei’aho has been a bright spark in an otherwise gloomy landscape for New Zealand, and his strengths in the set pieces and in crossing the whitewash could be key in turning the screw on Argentina this Saturday

If New Zealand are going to win on Saturday, then this man is likely to play a key part in it. Scoring one of New Zealand’s two tries in an otherwise lackluster performance for the All Blacks last weekend, Taukei’aho has proven that he is a deadly operator. Sent to the bench far too early in our opinion for the completely ineffectual Codie Taylor, we couldn’t help feeling that had he been allowed more say in proceedings last Saturday then we might be writing a different story after last weekend. New Zealand’s efficiency at lineout time dropped dramatically once Taukei’aho left, and given the fact that in the scrums New Zealand were dominating Argentina, expect to see them look to the young hooker to provide the same kind of traction again this week, but hopefully for longer.

New Zealand need more Dalton Papali’i sadly at Sam Cane’s expense

While Sam Cane gets another shot at redemption, the calls for Papali’i to be more involved in the All Blacks efforts is growing louder by the day.

We don’t really want to revisit the debate about Sam Cane’s captaincy, but it is hard to argue against his understudy Dalton Papali’i’s value to the All Blacks as a solution to some of the back row issues they are facing. If New Zealand are to win against Argentina on Saturday, then they simply have to be more efficient and quicker at the breakdowns than the Pumas, and snuff out the opportunities for the Argentinian jackalers like Matera and Montoya. Sam Cane and Shannon Frizell were simply too far off the mark at doing this last Saturday, but Papali’i offers New Zealand some real speed and strength in getting to the breakdown and in the loose is as good as any of his Pumas counterparts. In short, expect Papali’i to see more game time than Cane, and the Captain to most likely have not much more than a starting cameo, especially if New Zealand cannot dominate the contact areas early on.

Argentina’s smiling assassins have plenty of reasons to be cheerful

Argentina’s Julian Montoya and Pablo Matera can afford the swagger in their step after their exploits against both the Wallabies and All Blacks

Captain and Hooker Julian Montoya and back rower extraordinaire Pablo Matera have plenty to feel good about last weekend, and if the All Blacks are to reassert their traditional dominance over the Pumas, then negating the impact of these two individuals especially at the breakdown will be key. Along with the rest of their forward pack, these two stopped New Zealand dead in their tracks and were outstanding in marshalling an almost impenetrable Pumas defense. They simply stopped New Zealand getting quick phase ball – plain and simple. The All Blacks will surely have done their homework on these two and the Pumas defense as a whole, but reduce the efficiency of these two men in the contact areas and New Zealand will be well on their way to unpicking a resolute and highly organized defense.

While he may be defying age limits at club level doubts remain about him doing it at Test level

At 36 going on 37, fly half Ben Urdapilleta may have some pulling the age card, but there is no denying he had an electric season with French Top 14 side Castres this year

While many are questioning the Springboks fascination with old age pensioners, you can understand the eyebrows being raised over the selection of Urdapilleta as the replacement fly half for Santiago Carreras in such a crucial match for the Pumas’ title aspirations. We’ll be honest we didn’t really feel that Urdapilleta’s spectacular form with Castres in the French Top 14 translated to Test level standard during the last World Cup. Still given injuries to Nicolas Sanchez and the fact that Carreras is still learning the role, some experience is needed and in Urdapilleta they certainly have that. If he plays anything like he did this year in the Top 14, then given the missteps of late by both Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett, New Zealand could find themselves in a spot of bother.

While we have nothing against the “olden but golden” principle – at least play such players in positions they have shown form in recently

Although South African Coach Jacques Nienaber has sensibly chosen to start Malcolm Marx in the Hooker position, the choice of veteran Deon Fourie as his replacement is questionable especially given the fact that he hasn’t played the role now for quite some time

We’ll be honest, South African Coach Jacques Nienaber’s selections for this tour to Australia have left us scratching our heads. In our opinion they smack of desperation and golden opportunities lost. This would have been an ideal time to really showcase the younger talent that has performed so well in the URC. Where are Johan Grobelaar, Ruan Nortje, Elrigh Louw, Salmaan Moerat and Evan Roos to name but a few outstanding next gen forwards? Instead Nienaber has decided to opt for some admirable Springbok pensioners. We don’t mean to dismiss Fourie who had an excellent season with the Stormers, but for pretty much the entirety of that season he played in the back row. Consequently, imagine our jaw dropping disbelief to see a player in the twilight of his career be suddenly parachuted into a position that he hasn’t played regularly for quite some time in a match of critical importance to South Africa, even if it is only from the bench. We’re not really sure that’s even fair to Fourie. We wish him well but feel that he is almost being set up to try and achieve the impossible.

At least one opportunity is being seized but it’s a pretty daunting debut when the man marking you is Australia’s human missile Marika Koroibete

Given Wallaby Marika Koroibete’s at times controversial tackling technique last weekend, despite his brilliance we have concerns that outstanding Bulls winger Canan Moodie’s Test debut could end prematurely

Like we said in the podcast earlier this week, we had concerns about Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete’s tackle technique last weekend, brutally effective as it was. His Exocet missile tackle on Makazole Mapimpi was heroic and something to be seen to be believed but still borderline legal at best. The attempt at wrapping with the arms clearly appears as an afterthought when you watch the replay in slow motion. The fact that Mapimpi didn’t end up seriously injured is probably more down to luck than anything else. Moodie is fast and powerful but we fear he may simply be no match for the Wallaby Fijian powerhouse and could come off worst for wear both physically and mentally on this his Test debut. Nevertheless if he emerges from Saturday’s encounter unscathed and able to show off his abilities by getting points on the board, then expect to see the 19 year old youngster get fast tracked into the Springboks’ plans for the World Cup.

Australia will need more of Nic White’s playing skills and less of his Oscar winning acting this Saturday

Although Nic White may have had numerous offers from professional football clubs and Hollywood this week, it’s his skills in the nine jersey that he and Australia really need to bring to the fore this Saturday

We’ll be honest, after Wallaby scrum half Nic White’s Oscar winning performance last weekend, we sadly lost a lot of the respect we had had up to that point for Australia’s feisty number nine. We still think he’s a great player and a valuable servant to the Wallaby cause, but his performance in milking the mildest of penalties last weekend took the shine off a fascinating contest and was a rather poor advertisement for the game in general. Hopefully lessons have been learnt, words have been had and that’s the last we see of it. While we appreciate that to a certain degree scrum halves are always there to play the referee and carry “the chirp” to another level – there have to be limits. Sadly for White and the Wallabies, his antics last weekend will have set him and his colleagues up as enemy number one for a wounded Springbok side. Expect the Springboks to make his life a genuine misery this weekend.

In the absence of Captain Michael Hooper a star is born

While the Wallabies may still be missing their inspirational Captain Michael Hooper, they have lost nothing in terms of skill and commitment on the pitch in the shape of his stand in Fraser McReight

Australia may be counting the days till word of Michael Hooper’s possible return to the Wallaby fold, but in the interim they have unearthed a player who is rapidly making them forget that they are without their inspirational Captain. As the tournament and Australia’s leading try scorer, in McReight Australia have unearthed a genuine weapon and he’s only going to get better. A menace at the breakdowns, packing some weight to the back of the scrums and posing a genuine threat in the loose with an eye for the narrowest of gaps close to the try line, South Africa and Siya Kolisi in particular are going to have to keep a very close eye on the Wallaby flanker if they are to keep Australia in check.

In short, what a weekend we have in store and are there further turns and twists to be had in what has so far been a thrilling tournament and glorious advert for a competition that appeared to be losing some of its luster? We can’t see South Africa stumbling a second time to Australia especially given their need to strip Nic White of his Oscar. Furthermore, we’re just not convinced that Australia are as good as that Round 1 result against the Pumas and last weekend’s at times scrappy win over the Springboks would appear to indicate. As for Argentina and New Zealand, we also find it hard to believe that the All Blacks will trip up a second time on home soil against an opponent they have tended to dominate in the past. Nevertheless this is a Pumas side on fire, which is something you simply can’t say about the stop/start nature of the All Blacks at the moment. Consistency finally seems to be a term the Pumas are comfortable with and one that New Zealand is struggling to master.

So strap yourselves in and brace for what should be two bruising and enthralling encounters. Best of all for us here in Canada they are being served up on a choice of three viewing platforms – see TV page for details. So get the braais and barbis out for one last gasp of summer before the kids go back to school and enjoy what promises to be a fascinating Saturday of Test Rugby!!!

In a year that is providing us with some truly vintage Test Rugby, the Rugby Championship looks set to add its name to the honor roll!

This year we’ve been treated to an enthralling Six Nations, a memorable series of Summer Tours and now the Rugby Championship looks set to provide us with another four weekends of thrilling entertainment! The first two rounds of the Southern Hemisphere’s annual dustup, have given us plenty to talk about, turned the form book on its head and best of all treated us to some spectacular rugby – and the party has only just got started.

The opening round saw South Africa seemingly sink another inevitable nail in the coffins of All Black Head Coach Ian Foster and Captain Sam Cane, but a week later New Zealand turned the tables upside down in one of the most spectacular All Black/Springbok tussles at the hallowed ground of Ellis Park that we can remember in recent memory. It means that New Zealand and South Africa sit in fourth and third respectively in the world rankings, with Ireland and France dominating the number one and two spots. Not something you often see at the start of the Rugby Championship.

Meanwhile in Argentina, a Wallaby side bereft of their inspirational Captain Michael Hooper, played their hearts out to honor him and took apart an Argentinian side still coming to terms with the emotions of playing at home for the first time in three years and a new Coach. But just as what transpired in South Africa, Argentina turned the tide in the most dramatic fashion a week later by blowing the Wallabies out of the water in no uncertain terms. Perhaps even more remarkable the South Americans now find themselves at the top of the Championship table after two rounds for the first time since joining the competition in 2012 – heady stuff indeed!

So here’s what got us talking after an exceptional two opening rounds of the Rugby Championship.

Trying to stay positive while holding the All Blacks  seemingly Poisoned Chalice

After staying the executioner’s blade by their respective performances last weekend at Ellis Park, All Black Head Coach Ian Foster and Captain Sam Cane have raised more questions than answers about how the All Blacks are managed by the New Zealand Rugby Union

The New Zealand Rugby Public are brutal – plain and simple! Whatever we may think about the efficacy of Ian Foster and Sam Cane in their respective roles, the public lynching they were subjected to while on tour in South Africa by the media and general public back home in New Zealand was, in our opinion, in rather poor taste to say the least. Add to that the bumbling indecision by and lack of support from their bosses the New Zealand Rugby Union, and the subsequent outstanding win by Foster and Cane’s charges in the Second Test at Ellis Park makes the indignity of it all that much harder to stomach. Cane and Foster were already under huge pressure as were their teammates. In short, they should have simply been allowed to get on with the task at hand without a raft of speculation ably assisted and fueled by the New Zealand Rugby Union as to whether or not either of them had a future after last Saturday’s match at Ellis Park – one of the toughest arenas on the planet to tour as a Test Rugby player.

In the week leading up to the match, the players to a man stood behind their leaders and that should have been good enough. Some solid work was done during the week leading up to the Test at Ellis Park, and with a combination of some simple fixes and errors in selection by the Springboks, New Zealand put in a performance for the ages that saw them get the better of their greatest rivals in a comprehensive manner. Whether or not you can attribute that to Foster or Cane, is a debate we could have till the cows come home. However, as we said in last week’s podcast, we simply couldn’t see the value of changing the Coach a year out from the World Cup, and as Captain, Cane silenced his critics by leading from the front and putting in arguably one of his most inspirational performances in the black jersey to date.

All Black management have conveniently ignored the problems that were creeping into the national setup since 2017 when Steve Hansen was still Coach, and to simply throw Foster under the bus now to atone for their own mismanagement seems cheap indeed. Foster may not be perfect and may not have been the best choice at the time, but his players clearly respect him as they do Sam Cane. With some tweaks to the Coaching setup, most notably in drafting in Jason Ryan as the forwards Coach and Joe Schmidt as the attack Coach from now until the World Cup, Foster will have the support he needs to build on the momentum of last weekend’s win at Ellis Park. It may still not fix all of the All Blacks current problems, but what they need now is less speculation and more focus on the task at hand – preparing for next year’s World Cup. When that’s done and dusted then it will be time to review their options but for now, let us see this sordid debate closed.

Are these the two most important men in the All Black squad?

Fly half Richie Mo’unga and Back Rower Ardie Savea were instrumental in righting the All Black ship last weekend at Ellis Park and are arguably the most influential players on the park for the Men in Black right now.

There were some outstanding performances across the park last weekend in black jerseys, but two men in particular stood out and their influence in the coming months may well prove to be the key to how successful the All Blacks will be in restoring their ship onto a steady course.

Incumbent fly half Beauden Barrett may well be one of the greatest players the modern game has seen, but of late his style of play enables the individual talents of a highly skilled team to shine. However, as an organizer of the All Blacks’ collective strengths Richie Mo’unga, as evidenced on Saturday, is the master. It was that calm and disciplined foresight and organization that the All Blacks lacked in the first Test against the Springboks and in the series loss to Ireland. Do the results on Saturday, as we think they should, point to Mo’unga increasingly getting the nod as the All Blacks starter in the 10 jersey with Barrett becoming the impact player off the bench either at fly half or fullback? We can’t wait to see what the new Coaching brains trust of Foster, Ryan and Schmidt think of how to use these two hugely influential players most effectively.

One man who has consistently not let his side down so far this year, is back rower Ardie Savea. His work rate is simply off the charts, and with it he becomes a genuine inspiration to his teammates. Loyal as evidenced by his unwavering support under fire of Ian Foster and Sam Cane these past two weeks, and an absolute warrior for the cause on the pitch, the case for him playing a greater supporting role to Sam Cane’s Captaincy has never been greater. Furthermore, to take some of the pressure off Cane, awarding Savea the Captain’s armband from time to time as was done during Cane’s absence may be a tactic worth considering. Just watching Savea’s superhuman energy and total commitment, makes us want to get back on a rugby pitch it’s that inspirational. He simply embodies the definition of go forward ball for his team and as such, if New Zealand need a talisman for the challenging months ahead, they’d be hard pressed to find a more obvious candidate. Build some of your game plan around what Savea can create and you add a whole new level of danger to your forward pack.

The danger of not trusting your gut instincts

Springbok Coach Jacques Nienaber might listen to public opinion a bit more in future after the error of not selecting outstanding Hooker Malcolm Marx to start against New Zealand last weekend at Ellis Park

We said, in last week’s podcast previewing the showdown at Ellis Park, that Springbok Coach Jacques Nienaber had provided New Zealand with some opportunities to be exploited in his selection decisions. We weren’t proven wrong, as the All Blacks did exactly that. No matter how poor the All Blacks may or may not be at the moment, you always have to take two things into account. When their backs are against the wall they are one of the most committed rugby teams on the planet and secondly they still have the ability to reinvent themselves faster than almost any other Test Rugby team we can think of. All of those things happened at Ellis Park last Saturday, and when that happens that last thing you want to do is allow the All Blacks a fast start and an early lead. Well that also happened and chasing a game against the All Blacks is never something you really want to do even if it is in your own backyard.

There was almost a public outcry in South Africa when early in the week Nienaber named his squad for last Saturday’s match. Injury had forced him into selecting relative newcomer Joseph Dweba at Hooker in place of regular Bongi Mbonambi. However, what shocked everyone the most was Nienaber opting to have Dweba start in place of the first Test’s Man of the Match Malcolm Marx. Marx had been instrumental in ensuring that South Africa set the tone right from the get go in the set pieces that so unhinged the All Blacks in the First Test. In many ways it simply wasn’t fair to Dweba who was clearly out of his depth last Saturday and was having a torrid afternoon in the green jersey. After 35 minutes Marx came on in Dweba’s place, but by that stage it was a question of playing catchup against an increasingly confident All Black side. Marx did what was asked of him, but New Zealand had found the breathing room they needed to settle their own game plan.

There were other errors, in terms of Ox Nche also not really fronting up alongside Dweba and Jesse Kriel being put onto the wing when in reality he is at best an average center. Kriel was replaced relatively early on as just like Faf de Klerk, he fell victim to Caleb Clarke’s knees, which appear to be one of New Zealand’s new secret weapons. Lukhanyo Am shifted to the wing and showed that his truly extraordinary talents can be just as useful out wide as in the midfield as he put on a performance for the ages. You have to wonder though, had utility back Aphelele Fassi been selected instead of Kriel, allied to Am in the center, what extra magic might have been created? To be honest what more does Fassi need to do to impress Nienaber?

Is this the best player in the world right now?

South Africa may have stumbled against New Zealand last weekend, but extraordinary center Lukhanyo Am needs to make no apologies for two simply brilliant back to back performances in the opening two rounds of the Championship

In a match where New Zealand fixed their problems with the kick and chase along with their comfort and ability under the high ball, Springbok centre Lukhanyo Am didn’t quite have the field day he could have had, but his efforts to do so certainly left us and the rest of the rugby world in awe. He may have been part of a losing cause and a Springbok side suffering from poor selection choices, a touch of complacency and in some cases a lack of fitness compared to their opponents, but Am was truly magnificent. At times he came close to singlehandedly pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in recent Test Rugby history.

Imperious in the air, possessing a strength that seems three times his actual stature, and possessing an ability to read the game and create opportunities from nothing Am is a rugby phenomenon. What’s even more astounding is that he makes the impossible look almost effortless. While much of the world these days seems to only have eyes for France’s Antoine Dupont, we’d argue that Am is just as good if not better even though they have completely different roles for their respective teams. When the two sides face off in Marseille this November, we imagine the debate will have reached fever pitch.

Michael Cheika is clearly perfecting more than just the tango in his new role as Pumas Coach

Cheika has obviously lent more than just his colorful persona to his interpretation of Argentina’s national dance, and has revitalized a team that always has the potential to put on a show

We had this horrible sense of deja vu after watching the first Test between Argentina and Australia in the Rugby Championship, that this could end up being another tournament that faded into obscurity for the Pumas. Still something told us that we still should back the Pumas for a comeback in the Second Test.

In short, the Pumas did not disappoint and treated us to a seven score try fest that left us hungry for more. As their new Coach Michael Cheika said, it was tough for him to watch his charges demolish his former side so mercilessly, but he couldn’t have asked for a better start to life with Rugby’s “la vida loca”. Add organization and discipline to the Pumas heady skill sets and they will always be a team that is a joy to watch, and that is exactly what happened last weekend. Cheika may not always be the world’s most consistent Coach, but he does have a habit of churning out a year to eighteen months of solid performances. It would seem that his colorful leadership style blends well with his South American charges’ passion and high spirits. He may just be the tonic the Pumas need in their run up to the World Cup.

Australia had the edge in many of the game statistics, but Argentina were that much more organized and disciplined and made sure that the areas they did have the advantage in got translated into points on the board. Their kicking game was so much better than Australia’s and they controlled the zones where the ball was landing superbly. There was some clinical opportunism from the Pumas last Saturday, which in the past had often been scuppered by basic errors in execution, but in San Juan everyone seemed to have rehearsed their lines to a tee and knew exactly where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do when they got there. Santiago Carerras continued to develop as a world class fly half and playmaker for the Pumas while Australia simply failed to exercise any authority over the game from the ten jersey, often relying on scrum half Nic White to perform the role of both 9 and 10.

It was an outstanding team performance from Argentina, with all 23 players putting up their hands and being counted. It will stand them in good stead for a challenging tour to New Zealand, which could be a bridge too far, but given the recently exposed weaknesses in the All Blacks structure could also be a golden opportunity to create a bit of history.

Rennie puts a brave face on the loss of his inspirational Captain at the eleventh hour

Wallaby Head Coach Dave Rennie is to be commended for his support of Captain Michael Hooper’s last minute withdrawal from the Argentinian tour for personal reasons, but it is clear that it’s been a difficult pill to swallow for a team already ravaged by injury

As we said in the podcast, given the fact that player welfare is being so hotly debated these days, we were impressed by the support Michael Hooper received from the Australian Union, his Coach and his players when at the eleventh hour he left to return home for personal reasons, just ahead of Australia’s opening Test against Argentina. The importance of Hooper to the Wallaby setup cannot be underestimated, and without him they are not quite the same. However, both Coach Dave Rennie and the players stood by their leader’s decision and in the first Test to a man they played to honor their absent leader. It paid huge dividends as Australia romped to a comprehensive win even if it came at a cost in terms of increasing Australia’s already lengthy injury list, most notably fly half Quade Cooper being added to the casualty ward.

A week later though it was a different story. Australia perhaps took their foot off the gas after such an assured victory the week before, but if anything simply seemed unprepared for the passionate but highly clinical backlash from their Argentinian hosts that they must have known was coming. The mantra of playing for the absent Hooper also appeared to have lost some of its shine, and the Wallabies looked disjointed and unsure of themselves. Stand in Captain James Slipper played out of his skin as did number eight the increasingly impressive Rob Valetini, while Marika Koroibete ran at Argentina from every inch of the park for the full eighty minutes as well as tackling like a man possessed. However, without James O’Connor really owning the 10 jersey, game management increasingly fell to the overworked Nic White at scrum half. As a result Australia were simply unable to link phases together with any kind of cohesion or consistency. Argentina were suffering from no such problems.

With Quade Cooper out till probably just before the World Cup at worst, or the Autumn Internationals at best, and James O’Connor rusty since his injury spell post Super Rugby, Australia simply have to fast track Noah Lolesio as their starting number 10. It will be a huge ask for him against a Springbok side looking to make amends for the wobble at Ellis Park, but if he can get through the challenge, with the added advantage that Australia has not been a happy hunting ground for the Springboks in recent years, then all is not lost. Simply put, Australia have no choice. Get it right and the rest will come, as this is a well coached team with some excellent rugby skills but without a solid pivot at 10, their potential will remain elusive.

That’s it for now. We’ll hopefully be back ahead of Round 3 of the Rugby Championship, but if pressures of work don’t permit, feel free to have a listen to the weekly podcast wrap up on the TV listings page. Stay safe everyone and enjoy the rugby and what’s left of the summer!