Before we bash it too much – let’s all be brutally honest. While it may have struggled to fire our imaginations for the most part, in a year where we were starved of Test Rugby, the cobbled together Autumn Nations Cup did give us some worthwhile reasons to gather around our televisions, provide some heated chat sessions on our phones and down a few pints while partaking of our favorite Saturday afternoon pastime, picking apart a Test match. The quality at times was debatable, the broadcast rights for most (fortunately not us here in Canada – thanks DAZN for getting it right for once) were complicated to say the least, but there were some memorable moments.

Despite being drawn in the pool of death Georgia, proved that four back to back Test matches makes them a competitive side to the point where their final two matches were well worth watching. They made Ireland feel absolutely awful about themselves and gave us one of the best games of the tournament in their courageous struggle against a classy Fijian side. It is hoped that if we learnt nothing else from the Autumn Nations Cup it’s that this gallant group of lads from the Caucasus deserve and need continued regular exposure to this level of competition. The Georgian side that started the tournament was hardly recognizable when looking at the hardened group that were able to give Fiji a run for their money after three weeks of top level rugby.

Georgia asked Ireland some uncomfortable questions

Italy on the other hand showed us very little despite the fact that one of their matches against Fiji was cancelled. As a result the age old debate about whether the Six Nations should introduce the concept of relegation, most likely at Italy’s expense and Georgia’s benefit, is set to continue especially if Italy once again end up clutching the wooden spoon if this year’s Six Nations goes ahead. On the flip side there was plenty of talent on display from Italy, but as usual it seems almost impossible to harness it into a game winning platform. We’ll enter this year’s Six Nations making lots of promising noises about this Italian talent, but are likely to remain steadfastly skeptical about it actually producing results that can change Italy’s traditional fortunes in the tournament.

The passion is still there – but the results still sadly are not

Fiji sadly as a result of a COVID outbreak in their camp right from the get go had to forfeit their first three matches, but their one and only game against a very feisty group of Georgians was a glorious spectacle that only served to remind us of what we missed as a result of them only playing one instead of four matches. The flavour and spark they would have added to a tournament that desperately needed it would have been immense, but that magical 80 minutes against Georgia was worth the wait. We can still console ourselves with the fact that many of the Fijians that lit up our TV screens that first Saturday in December, will still be seen in Europe this year once the Champions Cup labors back into life after its COVID hiatus. Fiji like Georgia though must not be left out in the no man’s land of Test rugby as the bigger Unions tend to focus on themselves in the course of 2021 in an attempt to rejuvenate their traditional big ticket annual competitions and tours.

Come fly with us – the Flying Fijians!

Scotland were as always a feisty and unpredictable side, that when they get it right are a genuinely slippery and nuggety team to deal with. While they might not have finished as strongly as they would have liked, there was plenty of promise for a Six Nations campaign to get excited about. The traditional Achilles Heel of Scottish rugby was plain for all to see in the shape of injuries. Furthermore they only got to play three of their four scheduled matches due to the game with Fiji being forfeited. Their only win against Italy was a relatively lacklustre affair, and they were outclassed by an understrength French side and blitzed by an Irish side desperate to make a point after an embarrassing question and answer session with Georgia. However, despite lots of praise for some noteworthy individual displays we couldn’t help feeling that Scotland have some serious homework to do before their tricky Six Nations opener with England at Twickenham. The Autumn Nations Cup raised more questions than it answered as well as bringing home once more that depth is not Scotland’s strong point, which once the injuries start ramping up becomes seriously problematic.

World Class as long as the stretcher bearers stay away

Wales Autumn Nations Cup campaign was simply a reminder that 2020 was a year that they could not consign to the trash quickly enough. While they did manage to win two of their four games against Italy and Georgia, they were hardly convincing performances. Italy failed to impress throughout the entire tournament, so for Wales to lose their final match of the year against the tournament’s ultimate underachievers would just have been too much salt into an already gaping wound. Sure they held Georgia scoreless in a rather labored performance, after being thumped by Ireland in their tournament opener. But would the scoreline have been so pretty had they played the Georgians a week later by which time the Eastern Europeans were starting to warm up nicely after a year without Test Rugby? There were sparks of a Wales of old against England despite losing to the ultimate Tournament champions, and against Italy there were the beginnings of a possible Welsh renaissance spearheaded by the youngsters. But overall Wales hardly fired a shot in the tournament, and only against weaker sides.

However, we’d argue that Wales have fallen as far as they can and now it is only onwards and upwards. There is still the spine of a solid team once it has figured out how to transition to life under new Coach Wayne Pivac. Stalwarts like Justin Tipuric, who still remains a solid fan favorite here at the Lineout, were showing by the end of the year that they understood the kind of game Pivac wants them to play – even if it is a radical departure from the golden Gatland years that these veterans are used to. Add to that some very impressive young blood coming through the ranks that is only going to get better and we’d argue that by going through the crucible of 2020, the worst is behind Wales. While we still think that third place is probably the highest they can aspire to in the forthcoming Six Nations, a strong fourth place finish is definitely on the cards which could see Wales quietly but efficiently building into a problematic side for Australia and Fiji come the next World Cup. In short – watch this space!

Where there’s smoke – there will be fire once more!

Ireland are clearly the flash in the pan crew at the moment in Northern Hemisphre rugby. Brilliant one day – clueless and devoid of inspiration the next. Ireland’s performances throughout the Autumn Nations Cup seesawed between the sublime and the ridiculous. The sublime – Keith Earls performance, ably assisted at times by Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in the third place playoff against Scotland. The ridiculous – the insistence on playing winger Jacob Stockdale at fullback and ignoring completely the talents of Ulster scrum half John Cooney in favor of Jamison Gibson-Park for the entire tournament. Whether or not Ireland are gelling with new Coach Andy Farrell, or more to the point he actually knows what he is doing are debates that are likely to go on long into the night in the build up to this year’s Six Nations. What he does need to do though is take a long hard look at a few players who are clearly reaching their sell by dates, most notably fly half Jonathan Sexton, and develop some serious strength in depth – something which in reality Ireland has by the bucketload. They have outrageous depth from positions 1-8, some serious question marks around 9-10, but a raft of experienced and up and coming talent across 11-15.

Get the basics right, figure out what sort of game you want to play and there is absolutely no reason why Ireland should not be amongst the World Cup contenders on a regular basis from now till 2023. It’s the brain trust in the Coaching box that seems to be the biggest question mark and for us the jury still remains well and truly out. A great team on paper but one in danger of making the headlines for all the wrong reasons come match day. In short, of all the teams under the microscope in the coming months, Ireland are likely to feel the heat the most, both from their opponents and their supporters.

Ireland’s Mr. Nuggety – Keith Earls shows sometimes there is no substitute for experience

France – in short MAGNIFIQUE!!!!!!! Are these guys the team to watch this year, and probably for the next four years? Absolutely! As playing with the ball seems to have become a liability in the modern game, France under their brilliant Coaching brains trust and with a container ship load of young talent, have figured out a way to play a game in which possession results in points and plenty of them all scored in a fashion which is a joy to behold. As everyone else seems to want to turn our beloved game into a drudge fest of attrition, France have decided to throw the rule book out the window and be different and offer up a fast, free flowing but equally hard hitting game that is pure entertainment and a glorious celebration of our beloved sport. Despite everyone else’s best efforts to remove the word fun from rugby vocabulary, France are going hell for leather to ensure that it remains one of the sport’s guiding principles. There is so much talent in this team with the vast majority of it barely out of Test rugby kindergarten, and yet it is producing the kind of results attributed only to Test veterans.

France are already in ridiculously rude health at the start of this World Cup cycle. Is scrum half Antoine Dupont the world’s best rugby player right now? It’s pretty hard to argue against such a claim. But then there are so many other names that also spring to mind. Gregory Aldritt is probably in the mix for the world’s best number eight, Romain Ntamack for fly half, Virimi Vakatawa for the centres, Brice Dulin for fullback, Camille Chat for Hooker, Teddy Thomas for winger……the list goes on and on, and what’s more most of these guys are just getting started in their Test Rugby careers. The fact that a supposed 2nd/3rd string French side were able to give England’s very finest the fright of their lives at Twickenham and come within a hair’s breadth of throwing the form book completely out the window says it all.

Look out world you’ve been warned, and as for the Six Nations if they don’t pull off their first Grand Slam since 2010 then we may have to give up our feeble attempts at predicting the future of this noble sport. Enough said – but in conclusion if you don’t have any allegiances heading into this Six Nations we think you may just develop a penchant for the finer things in life made in France by the end of it.

It’s a kind of magic!

England ultimately won the whole thing and in short recovered spectacularly from their World Cup disappointment, but did they fire our imaginations in doing so? Sadly not with the exception of winger Jonny May who is an extraordinarily gifted athlete and always capable of single handed feats of brilliance that defy imagination. The rest of England’s gameplay however this year, although brutally effective in getting results, has put most of us to sleep. Their opener against Georgia was very impressive, but the poor Georgians thrust into the limelight after a year’s absence from Test Rugby were never going to be at the races against a World Cup finalist for their first match. Against Ireland, England got the job done, but that’s pretty much all you could say about 80 minutes of rugby which was more akin to watching two teams do their annual tax returns than an international sporting contest. The only exception in the game was winger Jonny May’s sudden realization that he actually hadn’t voted for Brexit and wanted to live and work in France.

The same approach was effectively adopted against Wales who were hardly making opposition sides lose too much sleep at night during 2020. In all of this there was a reluctance to blood new talent, especially in key positions such as the halfback berths, which is almost criminal at this stage in a country’s World Cup cycle.

England’s reluctance to play with ball in hand and simply suck the life out of opposition attacks with body numbing physicality, almost blew up in their face in the most spectacular fashion when they took on a supposedly second or third rate French team in the Final who made a mockery of the Men in White’s approach to modern day Test Rugby. England hung on, helped on occasion by some interesting officiating decisions, but we very much doubt that England’s current take on the game will get them another Six Nations title this year let alone a World Cup in four years. England had a successful if rather uninspiring 2020, but unless things change they are likely to find that everyone else has figured them out in 2021 and moved on, leaving England having to play catch up by the time the World Cup rolls around. It’s early days yet, and England has some exceptional players at its disposal, even if Coach Eddie Jones seems to reluctant to use them as much as he should. The world’s best but most boring side in 2020, and one still likely to do rather well in the forthcoming Six Nations. But if a change in tactics and personnel isn’t seen sooner rather than later England may look back on the first eighteen months of life after the last World Cup as opportunities missed rather than silverware on the shelf.

Well boys I always said filing our income tax return carefully would get us a healthy rebate cheque

We’ll be back with our usual previews of the Six Nations, provided it actually happens and COVID once more doesn’t get in the way. Till then stay safe everyone and here’s hoping that 2021 gives us the kind of oval ball year that we were all so sadly denied in 2020, albeit for all the right reasons!

Let’s be honest in general 2020 is a year that most of us can’t wait to assign to the scrap heap of history. Our beloved sport was put on hold for several months and when it did return it was forced to play out in empty stadiums in the Northern Hemisphere. On that note our compatriots in the Southern Hemisphere, as a result of taking drastic measures right from the get go, had much greater success in containing the scourge of the virus. As a result, rugby got underway much quicker South of the Equator in Australia and New Zealand. South Africa was the obvious exception unfortunately as the country was ravaged by the pandemic and Argentina found themselves with no-one to play locally in the rejigged Super Rugby tournaments which essentially become domestic competitions.

Despite all the trauma the Tri Nations held at the end of the year in New Zealand and Australia between the two countries, with Argentina taking up residence in Australia to play their matches, provided us with some memorable entertainment – most notably Argentina making history by beating the All Blacks for the first time ever. Plenty of new talent was on show, and unlike their compatriots North of the Equator the three countries enjoyed being able to play in front of large crowds due to Australia and New Zealand’s success with containing the COVID-19 outbreak from the very beginning. All sports need a crowd to lend an atmosphere, but the color, passion and good humor that rugby crowds bring to a contest are unique in world sport.

So as we look towards a New Year that hopefully promises much for our sport, we look back at the Tri Nations and what it taught us about its competitors.

Argentina have some work to do but showed they are a force to be reckoned with in this World Cup cycle

Argentina’s VERY big day out against New Zealand

When it comes to the raw emotion which is such a big part of rugby it would be pretty hard to top Argentina’s stunning win over the All Blacks in November. Sure the victory was tarnished by a media witch hunt around some comments made by some of the players which were a tad inapporpriate, but uttered in the brashness and immaturity of youth many years before this match – inexcusable but needed some context nevertheless. Captain Pablo Matera who was so inspirational to his colleagues in that memorable match, has shouldered the blame for his actions and the shame that comes with them. He and some of his teammates will undergo some awareness training to ensure that those comments were nothing more than irresponsible faux pas made by a bunch of teenagers who had yet to be seasoned by the international camaraderie of rugby union. A sport which brings players together from a wealth of different cultures and backgrounds.

All that aside, what we did learn from Argentina is that a year in the wilderness and isolated from international competition, if anything seems to have made them stronger. Coach Mario Ledesma, with some help from former Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika, has molded together an outfit that blends the best of the Pumas exports playing in top level European competition with an exciting, talented and dangerous group of new young talent. While Argentina will want to forget that 38-0 revenge drubbing from New Zealand a fortnight after that historic win, they managed to redeem themselves a week later against Australia in a hard fought draw despite the distractions of the media circus going on around them. Furthermore, let’s put it in perspective. Unlike Australia and New Zealand, Argentina had not played in a year, were a long way from home and had to play four back to back Test matches against two of the best Test sides on the planet. To emerge from that with one win against New Zealand, two draws and one loss is pretty respectable whichever way you cut it.

The talent on display, especially from the newcomers was a joy to behold at times, and Argentina look so much more cohesive than they have done in years gone by. While there are still problems with concentration and discipline at times, the Pumas look for the most part exceptionally well organised. Their scrum is once more a thing to be feared and they seem to have a factory of alarmingly talented and exceptionally powerful back rowers. Their backs are magical and there are some up and coming youngsters ready to step into the shoes of the likes of Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli and Martin Landajo. In short, what we found out about Argentina is that they are in exceptionally rude health and just getting started on their preparations for the next World Cup, something their main World Cup Pool rivals England will need to play close attention to in the next three years. Unlike the last World Cup cycle, and perhaps because of the pandemic, Argentina seem to have accepted the hand that geography has dealt them and appear set to adapt, ensuring that along with Fiji they are likely to remain one of the most popular online shopping destinations for Northern Hemisphere club coaches.

Australia very much a work in progress but watch this space!

Dave Rennie hoping he hasn’t bitten off more than he can chew

Nobody ever said the Wallaby coaching job would be easy. Take a collection of talented players who very rarely seem able or willing to follow orders, throw in a bunch of youngsters who can’t decide whether they should be playing union, league or Australian rules and new Coach Dave Rennie has probably spent much of 2020 trying to figure out where to begin. When he has got it right, Australia have looked good, and some of their new talent has really made us sit up and take notice, especially harnessed to a game plan that actually works. Unfortunately the rather rebellious streak that runs through Australian rugby managed to derail the Wallabies a few times this year despite Rennie’s best intentions. Nevertheless, what we did see him doing was welding the Wallabies into a recognizable shape and giving them a sense of definition as a team, rather than a collection of unruly but talented loose canons. When Australia clicked as in their defeat of the All Blacks, the promise of this new look Wallaby side was there for all to see. Unfortunately though we still only saw glimpses of it rather than any degree of consistency. However it’s early days and we’re fairly confident that under Rennie’s guidance the best is yet to come.

Australia still suffer from problems with discipline and some of their set piece work, most notably the lineout needs some desperate work. However, overall there were improvements across the board. Discipline was for the most part better, their scrum has improved dramatically and they have clearly got the measure of how to use explosive talents like winger Marika Koroibete to maximum effect. Defensively they are improving and with the long range seige gun capabilities of utility back Reece Hodge’s boot, Australia have plenty to be excited about heading into the New Year.

Most notable for Australia this year was the relish with which they harnessed new talent. There was a long list of names on the roll call for notable performances but here are a few that stood out for us. In the front row Taniela Tupou or the “Tongan Thor” as he is better known as has really come into his own and was an absolute nightmare for Argentina and Australia this year. Harry Wilson looks set to be an outstanding prospect for the future at number eight despite one or two deer in the headlights moments on the big stage this year. Jordan Petaia at centre has greatness written all over him, while Tom Wright proved to be the find of the year on the wing and Tom Banks looks set to answer the questions the Wallabies have consistently had at fullback for the last few years.

In short, Australia despite a mixed bag of results this year, have shown some encouraging signs in 2020 that they are going to be a force to be reckoned with come 2023. There are plenty of kinks still to be worked out, but we have no doubts that Australia in Dave Rennie have picked the right man for the job.

New Zealand – False alarms and still the team to beat

They may be angry this year – but they are still the benchmark everyone else uses to measure themselves against

Put aside all the nonsense in the media this year claiming that the All Blacks had lost their edge, question marks around new Coach Ian Foster being the right man for the job and a few serious wobbles against Australia and Argentina as nothing more than idle speculation. When the All Blacks review the footage of what they got wrong, they are still hands down the best team in the world at reinventing themselves. After struggling to get past Australia in their first Test of 2020, a week later they were able to close them out and the week after that completely blow them off the park. Sure the following two weeks were a fairly torrid time for the Men in Black narrowly losing to Australia, and then the shock defeat to the Pumas. However, their last Test of the year and ultimate 38-0 revenge over the South Americans showed a side that can finish on a high like no other, as they simply took Argentina apart piece by piece for the full eighty minutes, not allowing the Pumas to even get a word in to the contrary. It’s that ruthlessness and ability to come back from the dark places of the sport with such clinical efficiency that sets the All Blacks apart from their rivals.

The jury may still be out on whether or not new Coach Ian Foster is the man to take the All Blacks to the World Cup, where they are going to have to get past their age old nemesis in the global showdown – France. Les Bleus seem on a rocket trajectory to Mars at the moment and will take some beating especially at home. Fly half and one of the most experienced heads on the team, Beauden Barrett, will still be in his prime in 2023, but has proven his versatility at fullback to ensure that New Zealand will have a genuine powerhouse decision making duo in himself and Richie Mo’unga at fly half. Add in some truly outrageous new talent like winger Caleb Clarke and fullback Will Jordan to the spine of a very capable and experienced team, and this is still the team against whom everyone else will measure their progress. It’s the versatility of New Zealand’s players across the board that still keeps the rest of the world guessing. Dane Coles is not only one of the best hookers in the world, he’s also one of the most dangerous men out wide where he likes to get the winger in him out of the closet. Ardie Savea is the modern day equivalent of a whirling dervish, whilst across the park this group of All Blacks continue to pull off moves that seem effortless to them but often defy logic for the rest of us.

That vision of where space is or how to create it is so ingrained in New Zealand’s rugby DNA, that while they may be in transition the big wins are still likely to vastly outnumber the losses this World Cup cycle. This group of angry young men may still be smarting at their exit from last year’s World Cup at the hands of the old enemy England, but are likely to be using it as a lesson to prepare them for their ultimate potential banana skin France in three years time. Not yet perfect but showing all the signs that they will be in a couple of years!

South Africa are likely to regret not taking the trip to Australia

Is it all just ancient history now?

South Africa chose not to participate in the Rugby Championship held in Australia this year. There were various reasons for this, though mainly due to COVID-19 which has decimated the country. However, with precautions it is likely they could have made the tournament. Instead lack of playing time required to get the players match fit for a grueling Test schedule was cited as the main reason for not making the journey. Given Argentina’s exploits in Australia and that they faced similar issues, this argument seems to be rather groundless, especially when you consider that South Africa are current World Champions. Australia, Argentina and New Zealand are all looking sharp, as are England. When South Africa run out to potentially meet a powerhouse Lions squad in July of next year, it will be their first Test since the World Cup final which by then will have been almost two years ago. As Argentina showed, a year in the wilderness can be managed – but almost two years????

Consequently, we don’t have too much to say about them as at the end of 2020 we simply have no idea where they’re at. Will they regret their decision to not make the trip to Australia or simply use the Lions series as the start of preparations to defend their World title even if they find themselves on a hiding to nothing at the end of it? Little is known about the new Coaching setup for the Springboks, even if it does have the wise hand of World Cup winning Coach Rassie Erasmus overseeing it all, albeit not as closely as many would probably like. Nevertheless, from the little we have seen of the Super Rugby domestic competition in South Africa which only started in September, as well as the Currie Cup, despite the ravages of Covid 19 there is absolutely no shortage of world class talent in the country. Add to that the likes of key players such as winger Cheslin Kolbe making the front pages of every rugby publication every time he takes to the pitch with French side Toulouse and underestimate the green machine at your peril.

There is no denying that the landscape of Test rugby has just not been the same without the Springboks this year, and like the rest of the world we can’t wait for the Lions series this year, pandemic permitting. The Boks are a team that invariably rises to the occasion and regards the jersey as a symbol of national pride never to be taken lightly. They’ll be back rest assured and we hope and suspect that they will reignite the passion and the fury that caused the rest of the world to look on in awe over a year ago in Japan.

We’ll be back with our final piece wrapping up 2020, as we reflect on the end of the Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup and what we learnt from it. Till then Happy New Year and let’s hope for all of us around the globe that Covid-19 makes its way into history and our glorious game is allowed to return to the business of making it.

It would appear on paper that the supposed showpiece event of the Autumn Nations Cup is for all intents and purposes a bit of a non event. England roll out all their big guns while France are left to assemble a rag tag team of scraps from what the domestic clubs feel they can live without this weekend. Is it a case of a Humvee competing in a Monster Truck final against a Trabant, or underneath that cardboard shell is there a set of well coached but unknown quantities for an unsuspecting English side. All the bluster and talking up of the match has come from the English camp this week, while the French team have gone about their business behind closed doors quietly accepting the hand that fate has dealt them. It’s very hard to see anything other than a decisive English victory against a cobbled together French side, but we can’t help feeling that there may be one or two surprising twists left in this tale of unfulfilled ambitions. While English Coach Eddie Jones swaggers and blusters his way around the media circuit stating the seemingly obvious in an attempt to get inside French heads prior to Sunday, we’ve heard very little from France leading us to believe that old adage that it’s the quiet, silent types who are the most dangerous.

We know everything about this English team but almost nothing about France on Sunday

C’est quoi ca?

We have to confess to knowing nothing about France from numbers 1-9 this week. Sure we’ve heard rumors and brushed up on our knowledge of all things TOP 14, but in all honesty the French forward pack for Sunday and their scrum half are simply unkown quantities to us. We’ve read some positive buzz about their exploits at club level, and have a hazy recollection of flanker Anthony Jelonch in action against the All Blacks three years ago, but for all intents and purposes it will be like opening a box of mystery presents on Sunday as far as we’re concerned. What we do think is being underestimated though is this French Coaching team’s abilities to whip a bunch of relative unknowns into a competent Test side. Under Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards France seem to be thriving and we very much doubt this forward pack are likely to be the deer in the headlights that most are predicting they will be.

Is Eddie Jones despite the bluster the more annoyed of the two Coaches?

Look mate I ordered champagne not house red!!!!

In his regular rounds of the rugby press this week, we’ve sensed an underlying tone of frustration in Eddie Jones assessment of what his charges will be up against this weekend. While he has paid the customary respects to his opponents, reading between the lines, we feel he is almost more annoyed about the selections that French Coach Fabien Galthie has been forced to make for this match than Galthie himself. Jones wanted to end this rather upside down year with a victory against his biggest Six Nations threat next year France. This match would have been the ideal preparation to really get the measure of the squad who denied him and his charges the Grand Slam this year, and who clearly fancy their chances of taking the title from him next year. This group of unknowns he now has to face provides him with a possible banana skin in terms of his immediate preparations for Sunday, and at the same time denies him the opportunity to have another look at the side he is likely to face at Twickenham next March. Of the two we’d say Jones may be the more frustrated right now as a result.

A brains trust that is clearly working

An unlikely but highly effective partnership – France’s Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards

Very few teams seem to have emerged from the last World Cup with a Coaching platform that has managed to embrace change and show promise for the next global showdown. France would appear to be the exception. While it may be a slightly unorthodox partnership there is no denying that France Head Coach Fabien Galthie and former Welsh defense Coach Shaun Edwards have managed to get their house in order right from the get go. They seem to be the only team that has managed to understand the fine balance between defense and attack and merge the two into a highly effective and attractive brand of rugby. Put a Fijian engine inside an English chassis, and you have France 2020. Add to that the fact that the pair of them seem almost gleeful at sifting through France’s toybox of talent regardless of its experience like two kids at Christmas. There is a genuine thirst for knowledge to find out as much as possible about everything France will have at its disposal over the next four years and manage those resources accordingly. If you’re going to watch anybody off the pitch over the next four years, pay close attention to these two gentlemen, and their fellow Northern Hemisphere counterparts might want to do the same.

Is it a plane, is it a bird – no it’s Gabin Villiere!

Villiere Flight 001 departing for Fiji!

France’s back line however for Sunday’s match may lack experience but we’ve already seen what they’re capable of. Jonathan Danty proved to be an outstanding centre in the mold of the old bruiser himself Mathieu Bastareaud against Italy. Whether or not he can measure up to England’s Owen Farrell and Henry Slade is an entirely different question but one we are looking forward to seeing him try to answer. It was winger Gabin Villiere who really made us sit up and take notice against Italy as he seemingly burst from nowhere from behind a lineout to score a classic 7s style try. The contest between him and his opposite number Anthony Watson should prove to be one of the most entertaining of the afternoon.

It’s a match that England, benefitting from 2,000 lucky fans in attendance for the first time in the competition, can and should win. France come into the match as a relative unknown, which adds an element of danger to the whole equation for England, but at times like these there is rarely a substitute for experience and that is something Eddie Jones’ charges bring to the contest by the bucket load. After our initial disappointment on hearing it would not be a full strength French team, as the week has wore on, our interest in this match has peaked so that we have a hunch this may not be the dead rubber the pundits are dismissing it as. Either way, you are unlikely to come away without some insight into what life will be like for next year’s two Six Nations title contenders and for that reason alone we’d argue it would be worth 2 hours of your time on Sunday.

Enjoy this year’s last hurrah this weekend, and we sincerely hope it will give us plenty to talk about as we look ahead to a return to normal service in 2021!

“A made up tournament, in a desperate attempt to inject some financial lifeblood into the Northern Hemisphere’s cash starved Unions” – we sincerely hope that this weekend will enable us to write a different epitaph on the Autumn Nations Cup Tombstone. The tournament just hasn’t fired plain and simple. One of the biggest entertainment cards in the competition Fiji will be playing their only match this Saturday after being in COVID-19 lockdown for the entire pool stage phase. Georgia have been placed in the worst of possible pools that has done little to allow them to show off their talents or further their case for inclusion in the Six Nations. Wales find themselves out in the cold after having struggled to define what they are supposed to look like in the post Gatland era. Italy have done little more than unearth some promising talent for a future that is always just around the corner. Scotland have looked perhaps the most adventurous of all the sides bar France, while Ireland seem to be relying more on the supposed mythical luck of their nation than an actual game plan. England have simply bludgeoned all before them into submission, only occasionally allowing individuals like the exceptional Jonny May to experiment with one man attacking rugby. Lastly France have enthralled us but are being held hostage by their clubs and thus denying the whole competition the final it should have had. In short, would anyone really want to do this again? We think not!!!

Nevertheless, in this rather unusual year, beggars can’t be choosers and what you see is what you get and it’s better than nothing at all. While we’re not really sure what this weekend’s final proceedings will actually tell us about where the teams are heading into a year that should see a return to mostly normal service, there could be some entertainment on hand. The fact that the French Coaching staff have not attempted to talk reason to the Clubs would indicate to us that they are relishing the chance to throw a group of newbies into the frying pan and develop another level of depth to their World Cup preparations – and who knows in the final International match of the year pull off its greatest upset. England literally swagger into Twickenham as a result but we’ve all seen how quickly that swagger can turn into a drunken lurch into the hoardings if they’re not careful. Fiji and Georgia should give us the genuine winner takes all, caution to wind entertainment that this tournament has so desperately needed and the same could be said for the Wales and Italy encounter. The only game that seems to have some real weight to it would appear to be Ireland and Scotland’s showdown in Dublin. Both sides are evenly matched in terms of skill sets even if Scotland struggle with consistency while Ireland are clearly unsure of how to use the skill sets they have at their disposal. So take from it what you will but we imagine that like us you won’t be too far from your TV screens this weekend, even if it’s just out of a sense of morbid curiosity.

Georgia vs Fiji – Saturday, December 5th – Murrayfield

This is a match we have to admit we’re really looking forward to. We would have been gutted if we wouldn’t have got a chance to see box office favorites the Flying Fijians in action this tournament. Although COVID-19 has dealt them a cruel blow, they are always serious entertainment value. Unfortunately the weather is unlikely to permit the kind of free flowing game the Pacific Islanders excel at, but still expect them to chance their hand whenever the opportunity arises.

Georgia on the other hand may feel slightly more comfortable, being battled hardened after three tough matches, the last of which was a highly respectable showing against Ireland, and at long last their first points in the tournament. Regardless of the shambolic performance by Ireland, Georgia played well and it was the quality of their play itself that helped to further unstitch a rudderless and at times inept Irish side. They should travel to Murrayfield knowing that if they can keep the composure and structure they showed against Ireland it could be enough to contain their wild and spirited opponents.

Now that’s entertainment!

The most fun we’ve had all tournament!

We would just like to thank a Mr. Giorgi Kveseladze of the Lelos, Georgian national rugby team for providing one of the tournament’s best moments. This try was just magic and had us out of our seats, and more importantly showed that Georgia can excite. We had just as much fun as the Georgian commentators in the above video had watching it unfold. Georgia played a really good game and this try showed just how good they can be after three weeks of top level competition. While Georgia’s performance overall in this tournament will not have gotten them that elusive entry ticket for the Six Nations, it surely must have strengthened the argument for more regular top level competition for the men from the Caucasus. They’ve earned it, they deserve it and if they can produce moments like this then we want much more of it.

We only hope the elements hold off to allow this gentleman to do the same!

The definition of extraordinary!

Make no mistake Fiji as a team are wonderful, but there is no denying this individual is rather special. Now a patron saint of English side Bristol Bears after helping them win the European Challenge Cup and get promotion to the 2020/21 Champions Cup competition, Semi Radradra is a quite extraordinary rugby footballer. We sincerely hope that the weather threatening Murrayfield on Saturday, gets stuck irrigating the Isle of Skye instead, allowing the Fijian magician to be at his best.

Rugby’s most underrated Coach

Always welcome in Murrayfield

He may be with Fiji now, but the Islanders Coach Vern Cotter will be warmly received, social distancing permitted wherever he goes in Edinburgh. Scottish fans know that his stint as Scotland Coach, cut short far too soon in the eyes of many, laid the foundation for Scotland’s current success. As far as we are concerned he is one of the brightest minds in Test Rugby right now. Fiji no doubt count their blessings every day on the training pitch. A hard taskmaster but one deeply respected and perhaps even loved by the players under his tutelage, Cotter excels at getting the best out of his players. While he may appear a hard man on the outside, he wears his heart on his sleeve and is not shy to shed a tear or two when his boys make him proud. With several Coaching appointments in the Northern Hemisphere under the microscope at the moment, we’d imagine Cotter’s resume is at the very top of a fair few piles.

We hope the elements hold off enough to provide for an exciting match between two sides likely to play for nothing more than the sheer love of the game on Saturday in Murrayfield. Hard to call but weather permitting a potentially fascinating contest with perhaps the recently battle hardened Georgians getting the edge if the weather refuses to cooperate.

Ireland vs Scotland – Saturday, December 5th – Dublin

Ireland have to perform, and after their ramshackle effort against a plucky Georgian team last Saturday, Scotland must feel more than a little confident. For the Scots you could argue this is one of the few matches in this makeshift tournament that really matters to a side. Turn over an Irish side a bit at sixes and sevens with itself, and Scotland could rightfully claim the title of third best side in the Northern Hemisphere and the right to challenge for top honors come next year’s Six Nations. While consistency and injuries may be Scotland’s Achilles Heel, there is no denying that they are a shadow of the team that regularly duked it out with Italy for the Wooden Spoon in years gone by. Scotland sense there is a point to be made in their favor, and Ireland know that they have to turn in a convincing performance against a quality side to prove to their supporters that they are not a team in decline.

Man in the Hot Seat

Does Andy Farrell have a plan or is it all just smoke and mirrors?

The grumblings are getting louder, and Andy Farrell is looking more and more pensive. The problem is that Ireland appear to be going nowhere if not backwards and in a hurry. Sure you can’t lay all the blame at Farrell’s feet. Ireland’s biggest problem of the last two years was tunnel vision on the last World Cup and reliance on a core of players that had essentially peaked a year or two before, with no eye to their eventual replacements. Farrell and Ireland now find themselves looking desperately unprepared for the future and the succession issues it has brought up, while at the same time expected to produce results with a talented but dysfunctional team. Too inexperienced on one hand yet clearly past their sell by date on the other and often not providing the leadership needed on the field to guide the younger heads – makes the task of putting together a balanced squad almost impossible. There was much talk after the match with Georgia that Ireland needs time to refine its structures, yet based on what we saw last weekend there was very little evidence at all of any kind of structure or thought processes in Ireland’s play. Ireland may still be able to generate huge amounts of possession but their execution of the basics is becoming so poor that it makes hanging on to the ball the way they do a pointless and energy sapping endeavor. Add to the fact that Ireland’s ability to score more than two tries a match remains for the most part the stuff of fantasy, and Andy Farrell’s report card is unlikely to look good come his first annual review. He clearly wants results and consequently Ireland’s focus on the short term has increased at the expense of the long-term vision and how to get there that it really needs. We hate to sound like a broken record but we just don’t feel that Farrell will be the man to provide it. We wonder if Vern Cotter’s resume might be floating around the back offices of the IRFU……just saying.

A good team on paper – but the right team?

There are some development markers gone missing in this one

On paper most people would argue given Scotland’s lineup, that this crew in green should be more than comfortable with getting the job done. There is a good balance of wise heads and youthful talent in there, but the leaders really need to step up Saturday and provide the guidance that has so often been missing. Furthermore it’s blatantly obvious that some experiments just aren’t working. We hate to harp on about it, but Jacob Stockdale is not a Test fullback – get him back on the wing and let youngster Hugo Keenan develop in the role. We thought Keenan has in general been superb under the high ball and is clearly learning his defensive duties. Allied to Jordan Larmour Ireland could then check the fullback department off their to do list for France 2023. As Ireland’s last line of defense Stockdale is a huge liability even if he performs the role admirably at club level with Ulster.

After Jamison-Gibson Park’s absolute howler against England we once again shook our heads at his inclusion once more albeit on the bench. Surely Keiran Marmion or John Cooney are a better investment in the future. To be honest there’s only two players we’re genuinely excited to see on this team sheet, second rower James Ryan and winger Keith Earls who were the only players in our opinion who really stood out against Georgia. In reality though will Earls still be there come the next World Cup. In short it’s a meaningless tournament in the grand scheme of things so take the French approach and be bold Ireland you’re not going to get too many more opportunities before things all start to get rather serious.

Scotland the bold and the brave

Time for a bit of faith and an eye to the future

Sure you can argue it’s been forced by injuries, but Scotland’s team selection is likely to put Scotland much further ahead on the learning curve when it comes to looking at how to develop depth. We have to admit to being surprised at not seeing fly half Duncan Weir even rate a spot on the bench, but the decision to give Edinburgh fly half and South African import Jaco van der Walt his first Scottish cap, smacks of an eye to the future especially given the injury problems plaguing incumbents Finn Russell and Adam Hastings at the moment. It could well backfire on Coach Gregor Townsend, but there is no denying van der Walt is a talent worth investing in for the future irrespective of whether or not he finds himself out of his depth on Saturday.

Remember this guy?

A troublesome character but worth the risk

Sure it’s another of Scotland’s Southern Hemisphere imports, but under former Coach Vern Cotter, back rower Blair Cowan put in some stellar performances and was an extremely valuable asset in Scotland’s tool box. Agreed he had some discipline issues, but we felt that he was a player Scotland couldn’t do without. While the current crop of Scottish back rowers with the likes of Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson in particular have in many ways made the Kiwi redundant, we’d argue Scotland will benefit from his return to the squad. A partnership between himself and Jamie Ritchie could prove to be an exceptionally feisty combination and Cowan was always a rather handy fellow come lineout time.

We’d argue there is plenty at stake tomorrow for both sides, but in many ways this is a game that Scotland will really want to make their own, as the ramifications for them will complete a trajectory they’ve been aiming for this year. Yes they’ve stumbled along the way at times, but win this match and win it well and the talk of them being the Six Nations perennial dark horse of the last few years suddenly will have some substance. They will head into next year’s tournament knowing that they are ranked third in Europe’s pecking order and with key players back from injury Scotland will surely feel that fortune may well favor the brave in 2021. Ireland won’t want to lose either, but a win for them is more likely to be a sigh of relief rather than the genuine sense of accomplishment likely to be felt by Scotland and confidence in the future. Of all the contests this weekend we’d argue that this one carries the most weight.

Wales vs Italy – Saturday, December 5th – Llanelli

If you’re looking for possible upsets this weekend, is this match likely to be the one that ticks the boxes? We still think it’s an outside chance even given Wales ongoing fumblings in the dark, but it would be hard to fault the Italians for fancying their odds to do so. We know we’ve all heard it a thousand times before but Italy could be on the verge of something new under the tutelage of Coach Franco Smith. They had flashes of brilliance against France last weekend, and although it’s a fairly common theme with Italy rarely backed up by results, there are some exciting prospects here that could take advantage of a dysfunctional Welsh team.

One to watch for Italy

Autumn Nations Cup | Fischetti: There is a desire to create something  important
An increasingly potent weapon for the Azurri – Danilo Fishetti

Ever since the legendary Martin Castrogiovanni, Italy have had competent but not outstanding props. In Fishetti they may have found the successor to the great Castro. While he may not have had the best Six Nations debut, Fishetti has consistently stood out for us in this tournament and given the right encouragement is likely to have a bright future with the Azurri. The Welsh scrum is for the most part a serious weak link for Wales so expect the youngster to cause maximum havoc here. He’s also rather handy in the loose and a useful exponent of securing turnover ball.

Much like France Italy go experimental and continue to give the floor to their young guns

Is that the lineup for France 2023? Paolo Garbisi getting noticed

Italian Coach Franco Smith, much like his French counterpart Fabien Galthie has embraced the future and recognised that Italy’s path to France 2023 starts here and now. In a squad that fields relatively few of the more usual suspects in Italy’s recent lineups, youth and new talent are the flavor of the day. After a couple of false starts in the position, Italy would appear to have no trouble in recent years finding quality fly halves. Carlo Canna was competent but seems to prefer life as an inside centre and Tommaso Allan provides a steadying influence from the bench when the chips are down. But the spotlight is all on youngster Paolo Garbisi these days and for all the right reasons. This is an exciting player who is only going to get better. He provides the spark that Italy have been looking for, but it’s combined with a remarkably wise head when it comes to game management for such a young player. Alongside his scrum half partner Stephen Varney who ironically hails from Wales and is also barely out of his teenage years, Italy take some risks on Saturday but a giant leap forward in terms of squad development.

Wales in name only

We used to be good at this stuff – didn’t we?

Head scratching, fist pounding but more worrying a distinct lack of fire in the belly – these are all on field antics we simply aren’t used to associating with Wales in recent years. There’s no denying that they are a shadow of a once outstanding unit. Sure there are new Coaches to adjust to and plenty of new faces in the changing rooms – but Wales as a unit just aren’t gelling. Even the traditional leaders seem mildly disinterested in the task at hand when they’re not looking downright frustrated. Whether it’s a crisis of leadership on or off the pitch or in the Coaching box is hard to judge, but it simply isn’t a Welsh team or approach to the game that we recognize. It’s perhaps this more than anything else that Wales need to get right and get right quickly. Fix it and the rest will come, but for now they are vulnerable and other teams know it, and Italy will come wanting to exploit it to their advantage. Let’s face it Italy have given Wales some almighty scares in the past and given the present climate in Wales right now, are in the perfect position to do so again.

What works across the Bristol Channel may well work in Llanelli

Can he do with Wales what put Bristol Bears on the map this season?

We’ve talked about the impact of Fijian Semi Radrada with Bristol Bears, but Welsh fly half for Saturday Callum Sheedy was also a big part of the English club’s success this season. Quickly able to read a game as it unfolds and change it up once the opposition have got your measure, Sheedy is perhaps the breath of fresh air needed to counteract Dan Biggar’s rather jaded enthusiasm these days and constant injury niggles. Wales are a bit thin on the ground in the fly half department and Coach Wayne Pivac has recognised the need to look at life beyond Dan Biggar sooner rather than later. While Saturday’s Test may be too much of a leap of faith at this stage, it surely can’t get much worse and giving a player of Sheedy’s calibre some quality game time is money in the bank.

We’re still waiting for all the lights to come on in the Welsh camp, but feel with morale so low overall business as usual in Wales is still a ways off. Nevertheless they should eke out a win against an Italian side that is likely to provide them considerably more difficulty than the Georgians. Italy will be desperate for a win as well, but Coach Franco Smith is likely to place more value on a quality performance from the Azurri that keeps them in the hunt all the way to the final whistle. It may not be one for the ages, but as a look at what these teams have in terms of investments for the future, it’s a match you may want to have a look at.

We’ll put something out on Sunday’s final between England and France once we get the team sheets tomorrow.

Argentina’s spectacular entry into the tournament this year, with that famous victory over the All Blacks has sadly been overshadowed by the yawning pitfalls of social media traps as well as having that said high point being put into context by a 38-0 thrashing at the hands of New Zealand two weeks later. This is a wounded and battered Pumas side that takes to the field in Western Sydney on Saturday, who have experienced more highs and lows in the space of four weeks than most sides during an entire World Cup. The motivation to restore pride and respect back into the Pumas jersey has probably never been higher, but given that this will be the fourth straight Test against Tier one opposition in as many weeks, you have to wonder how much gas is still left in the Argentinian tank.

As for Australia, the Tri-Nations has also been a time of highs and lows. There was that humiliation of a 43-5 loss to the All Blacks on home soil, followed up a week later with a tight victory over their arch rivals. A fortnight later they struggled to impose themselves on Argentina, who got the better of them in the second half, and as a result they were lucky to get away with the draw. What Australia needs more than anything is consistency and a clear understanding of the kind of game they want to play and how to get there. As a result Saturday’s match is a classic case of Australia desperately trying to connect the dots and set themselves up for 2021. In short they need a win and they have to make it convincing.

A time for actions to speak louder than words

Matera, Petti and Socinothe elephants in the room

We’ll get this one out of the way first. Yes it sadly has overshadowed much of the events relating to the oval ball this week, albeit for the right reasons. However, although the comments made by the three when teenagers on Twitter were inexcusable, we do feel they have to be put into context. Let’s all be honest, many of us have probably said things we wished we hadn’t and on reflection realized that it was grossly inappropriate and offensive, especially when we were immature and brash teenagers who invariably thought the world revolved around us. In this day and age when teenagers have so much access to social media without really understanding the social responsibility that should come with it – things will get said that never should but suddenly become part of the public domain. In Matera’s defense, he has taken full responsibility for his words as well as shouldering the shame that comes with them. It is now up to all three of them, but Matera in particular as Captain, to show that they are changed men who in the scope of their careers as professional sportsmen have learnt to respect the hundreds of equally talented fellow athletes from a wide variety of social and cultural backgrounds who are now part of their larger rugby family. We probably all know people who we thought were complete jerks when they were teenagers but who, in the process of growing up into responsible adults, have changed for the better. Provided all three take responsibility for the errors of their youth and let their actions on and off the pitch speak for themselves, then we’d argue give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

Get the basics right and Australia are a good team

Winning only 80% of your lineouts just doesn’t cut it at Test level

But that’s the problem they aren’t right. Australia’s lineouts are beyond poor for a Tier 1 test team, their scrums have shown some improvement but not enough, their handling errors are the stuff of every Coaches worst nightmares and their decision making is about as consistent as a Newfoundland weather forecast. As we saw on numerous occasions there is a raft of talent in this Australian team, that if managed properly on the field could be world beating. In the two weeks since they last played it will be fascinating to see whether or not they have managed to get their rugby fundamentals right. Argentina have many of the same problems but as they showed against New Zealand in that famous victory, on their day they, unlike Australia, can put in an eighty minute performance that hits all the basics time and time again.

If they have a game plan – they’ve got game changers!

Australia’s Jordan Petaia is a smoldering menace

Jordan Petaia and Hunter Paisami have shown they are a very nuggety center pairing with the former also having a blistering turn of speed and an eye for space. In their last outing against Argentina, winger Tom Wright looked an exceptionally exciting prospect for Australia if they could just figure out how to use him. Marika Koroibete is no longer a liability on defense and if he can just get given balls he can actually catch then the winger has the potential to rip defenses to shreds – the problem being that he just hasn’t been getting enough quality ball. The return of James O’Connor at fly half should help this process and as long as his scrum half partner Nic White can focus more on the game and less on a career as an assistant referee, the Wallabies should be well set up to make some inroads against what, with the exception of last weekend, has proven to be a relatively impenetrable and well organized Pumas defense.

The Fatigue Factor vs Pride and Passion

There’s no denying that after not playing Test rugby for a year and not much in the way of club rugby either, the Pumas four back to back matches against two of the best sides in the world must be taking its toll. Add to that the off field media circus that’s been thrown into the mix this week, and Argentina are going to have to dig deep to summon up the energy for one last hoorah. Pride and respect are at stake and the right to continue to be counted amongst the world’s best. While few would argue that right is in jeopardy, Argentina know that they still need to put on one last big show to close out 2020 in style. They have their critics at home to face on their return and a drubbing at the hands of Australia will not strengthen their arguments. The pace at which the Rugby Championship (or Tri-Nations as it is this year) is played is energy sapping at the best of times when it’s usually played in the Southern Hemisphere winter. With temperatures predicted to be 26 degrees and humid with thunderstorms on Saturday in Sydney, conditions will put the teams under even greater duress from a fatigue perspective. The Wallabies will have had two weeks to recover from their last date with the Pumas, and none of the media attention that has unfortunately been focused on their Argentinian opponents. Well rested and on home ground with a crowd (unlike their compatriots North of the Equator) the Wallabies have clearly been dealt the better hand. For the Pumas, it’s the end of a long journey a long way from home that had it’s dizzying highs and soul destroying lows.

Write them off though at your peril. There is still a very good and exceptionally dangerous team here if they can keep it together for 80 minutes. Furthermore as we’ve already seen this year, belief in themselves and pride in and passion for the jersey can achieve super human feats. It’s something they perhaps harness better than any other Test rugby side on the planet, and if it fires for them on Saturday fatigue will just have to take a back seat for this one! It also may be too little too late but they may well want to pay some respect to this guy!

The Pumas have taken some heat for being perceived as not honoring fallen Argentine football legend Diego Maradona seen here cheering them on at the 2015 World Cup

Controversy aside, two great teams take to the pitch on Saturday for one last time in Sydney as Test rugby makes its curtain call in the Southern Hemisphere after a troubled year. Both teams have everything to prove to both themselves, their supporters and the world at large. On paper it’s all the ingredients for a classic. Let’s hope it is and that Southern Hemisphere Test rugby closes with a bang rather than a whimper for 2020. Impossible to call as for both sides it really depends on which teams turn up on the day mentally. If both bring their A game, then Argentina to sneak it and regain some respect.

We rather regard this round of fixtures, before next Saturday’s finals as the contractual obligation weekend. We doubt it’s going to be particularly enthralling as a competition, especially with all three results being essentially foregone conclusions. England’s bruising pack and confident seasoned veterans are likely to put a squad of Welsh new kids on the block to the sword, even with a few wise old heads in the mix to lend a hand. France are the sports car squad of the tournament, and with plenty of heart and spirit Italy may give them a run for their money at times, but once again it’s hard to anticipate too much in the way of surprises when it comes to results. Lastly Ireland aim to be the third team to ensure that Georgia despite their bravery leave the tournament completely empty handed, especially as this is likely the Eastern Europeans last game in the tournament, with Fiji’s participation essentially having become null and void. Three games that have to be played but which ultimately have little or no bearing on the way the finals will be played out next weekend.

England and France are likely to top their respective pools, and thus compete for the first place final. Scotland and Ireland will battle it out in the second final. Wales unless they pull off a miracle this weekend will meet Italy in the third, leaving the hapless Georgians to claim seventh spot due to Fiji likely forfeiting their match with them for the last two spots in terms of ranking. Consequently since there is not a great deal to get excited about this weekend, we’re just looking at the four front running teams to see what we’ve learnt about them so far.

England – Solid as a rock but somehow just not that exciting

England have been the most competent team of the tournament by a country mile, but if it wasn’t for this guy would you really have noticed them?

Many have lamented that England have not looked overly impressive as an attacking unit. However, when you have someone like Jonny May, do you really need one? That try last weekend showed off the talents of a rather extrordinary and gifted athlete. The problem is that without Jonny May, England look rather one-dimensional and flat in attack, preferring instead to use that incredible forward platform to simply bludgeon the opposition into submission. England’s forwards division is without doubt the elite in Test Rugby right now and against teams even less imaginative than England (ie most of the Six Nations sides with the exception of France and possibly Scotland), brutally effective. Until England’s rivals in the Northern Hemisphere learn how to cope with this and negate it, then England really don’t have to worry too much. But figure it out they will and as we saw so dramatically last year in the World Cup final – teams from South of the Equator are already starting to get the measure of England.

Make no mistake England are outstanding at the moment. However, are they the finished product yet -definitely not. On paper they should make short work of Wales tomorrow, but what will another resounding victory against weaker opposition really teach them? England Coach Eddie Jones, keeps telling the world that the great secret of English attacking rugby is still to be revealed – the problem is he’s been saying that for quite a while now. If we don’t start seeing it though by the next Six Nations alarm bells should start ringing, as France seem to have exclusive rights to the blueprints.

France – the tournament’s sports car finds itself equally at home in the monster truck arena

France should cruise past Italy this weekend and set themselves up for a mouthwatering final next Saturday with England. They may have all the attacking skills that England would dearly love to emulate, despite Jonny May’s one man impersonations of the entire French back line – but increasingly the Men in Blue have proven that their forward pack is a 4×4 unit that takes no prisoners. France’s back row in particular have been magnificent with Captain Charles Ollivon and Gregory Aldritt being two of the most impressive performers of the tournament. What France finally have is a team, instead of a collection of exceptionally talented loose canons. Add a solid Coaching team that the players can relate to and allow those talents to flourish when the opportunities present themselves, and there is no denying that France look good right now. What’s more they appear to be only just getting started. They are young, hungry and clearly have their eyes on the main prize – France 2023. While results clearly matter to them at the moment, development of a squad that can lift rugby’s ultimate prize with all the inevitable hiccoughs along the way that provide the necessary learning would appear to be far more important. France seem quite happy to admit that they are still looking for answers, but in the process seem to be thoroughly enjoying the journey. This weekend will provide some insight into whether their incredible attacking game can still flourish without the likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa, and in the process give us some real insight into France’s depth. But just in case you’re worried there’s always their own answer to Jonny May.

Ireland – it’s not just about possession

One thing we’ve learned about Ireland this tournament is that they sure do like to hold on to the ball and let’s face it they’re pretty good at it. The problem is that there’s not much point to all that possession if you don’t actually do anything with it. We’ve also learnt that their increasing obsession with naturalizing Southern Hemisphere talent faster than a good pint of Guinness should really be poured is also not quite the answer. To be honest we don’t really understand this recent obsession. Ireland should be building to make France 2023 the first World Cup where they actually get beyond the quarter finals. In our humble opinion the best way to do this is to harness the wealth of emerging talent Ireland has at its disposal. Drafting in foreign players who may well be past their sell by dates come 2023 in order to get short term results is short sighted beyond belief. From what we’ve seen so far this tournament it’s also not producing results. You know we are not fans of Leinster Kiwi import Jamison Gibson-Park being drafted into the Irish squad at the expense of John Cooney. We thought he had a genuine shocker against England. Sure he and fellow New Zealand import James Lowe looked good against Wales, but then anybody could almost look sharp against Wales right now. If you’re going to lose to a quality side like England then at least learn something in the process, and to be honest we felt Ireland learnt nothing last Saturday.

There were some good individual performances from Ireland last weekend. We thought James Ryan stepped up to the leadership role well, despite the loss and let’s face it Ireland didn’t exactly get hammered last Saturday by the best team in the tournament. Keith Earls has consistently been one of our top Irish performers and didn’t disappoint last Saturday, but whether he will still be at his prime in three years time is questionable. We also thought Hugo Keenan was for the most part excellent under the high ball and feel that he is definitely, along with the injured Jordan Larmour, the future for Ireland at fullback – just give him time. Ireland’s back row as always were competitive but their scrum was a disaster as were a lot of their lineouts. James Lowe’s impressive start against Wales was completely negated by England’s water tight defenses and against similar caliber opposition you have to wonder if he is the wonder weapon Ireland and Coach Andy Farrell thought he was.

This Saturday, Ireland are still relying on a majority of big guns to put a hapless Georgian side to the sword. What they will learn out of the process is questionable. Bring in a raft of Ireland’s second strings and get the win, and then you might be talking. Consequently, Sunday’s match holds little in the way of interest for many and is one that would appear to be simply making up the numbers.

His time will come

Scotland – exciting but inconsistent

Scotland have not lost their appeal, and like many we are gutted that we won’t get to see one of the contests we were most looking forward to in this tournament, their date with Fiji this weekend. In general it’s been a rather encouraging year for Scotland. A lot of what they do works, much of it is built on a relatively youthful squad, and even the seasoned campaigners should all be the right side of the age curve in three years time. In short, what’s not to like about Scotland? It’s that lack of consistency which Scotland just can’t seem to wrap their heads around that worries us. Scotland remind us slightly of Argentina in the last World Cup cycle, just when they need it the most their concentration or focus goes out the window. A gifted team that somehow just doesn’t have that 80 minute killer instinct. Drive and committment is not the problem but focus does seem to be. Even with the extraordinary talents of the likes of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell there are lapses of concentration that are still proving too costly.

Talent though there is aplenty. Fine tune it, develop a bit more depth along with the positive vibes running through the Scottish camp right now and who knows how far this team can go in the next three years. Perhaps more than anyone for us, Jamie Ritchie epitomizes everything good about this new generation of Scottish players, and if this young man doesn’t find himself at a Lions jersey fitting session next year then there is simply no justice.

Man on a Mission

We apologize for not taking a look at the bottom feeders in the tournament this weekend – Wales, Italy, Georgia and Fiji. Unfortunately, work got the better of us and sadly with Fiji there is nothing to talk about. We will endeavor to do them justice later this week, and secretly hope that Wales surprise us all tomorrow and Georgia manage to get some points on the board at long last in Dublin.

In a weekend, which serves up some rather dour Northern Hemisphere contests in the Autumn Nations Cup, there is no doubt whatsoever that the second Tri-Nations clash between New Zealand and Argentina is THE BIG TICKET item this Saturday. Can Argentina pull off the unthinkable and defeat the All Blacks twice in a row? Can you imagine the headlines across the rugby world on Sunday morning if they do manage to pull off what would clearly be one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history. Despite their remarkable heroics a fortnight ago, and the huge respect and admiration we have for the Pumas, we still have a hard time seeing them achieving a feat similar in magnitude to Moses parting the Red Sea, not just once but twice.

New Zealand may be struggling with adapting to decisions being made in the Coaching box, and have clearly lost some of their customary composure under pressure, but they are still one of the most impressive units on the planet – just watch their 43-5 drubbing of Australia this year if you have any doubts. Furthermore as is well documented, the All Blacks don’t take kindly to being beaten, and the thought of being beaten twice in a row by the same opponent is akin to rugby heresy in the land of the Long White Cloud. As they invariably seem to do, they will have regrouped since the last time they met the Pumas, and will be an entirely different proposition for the South Americans. We can’t wait to watch as in their quest to carve out a piece of rugby history, Argentina’s commitment on Saturday will be off the charts – but there is still no denying that they have one hell of a task on their hands.

Argentina vs New Zealand – Saturday, November 28th – Newcastle

With the passing of Argentine football legend Diego Maradona this week, Argentina will have some extra motivation to once more put Argentina on the sporting map as they endeavor to get a second unprecedented and successive win against the All Blacks. In the case of New Zealand rugby, history rarely repeats itself so Argentina have a mountain to climb and then some.

New Zealand have been under the microscope at home, after back to back defeats to both Australia and Argentina. There are clearly some communication and planning problems in the Coaching box and frustration and discipline issues on the field. All that aside though and the 23 players making up New Zealand’s Saturday squad would have many running for the hills even before the opening whistle. New Zealand know what is at stake, and there should be enough experience in the squad to be able to overlook whatever is not working in terms of the Coaching direction and to get this All Black squad back to a culture of winning high pressure matches. It’s one of the most well worn cliches in our sport, but nevertheless rings true every time – a wounded All Black side is something to be feared and that is certainly what this group of Men in Black Jerseys are.

In a game like this is he an asset or a liability?

All Black Hooker Dane Coles abilities as a backup winger are now the stuff of legend, along with his rather remarkable tackling ability – just ask South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth. However, lately it’s more his agent provocateur characteristics that seem to be getting everyone’s attention. He’s a great player make no mistake, but has started to feel that it also entitles him to be the master of the cheap shot. A lot of his off ball antics are clearly becoming highly irritating to both referees and opposing players. While provoking the opposition is seen as one of the unwritten rules of a front row forwards life, it can get taken too far and with Coles this certainly seems to be the norm these days. In a game where tempers and emotions are likely to be on a knife edge, keeping Coles in check on Saturday will be a key focus of All Black Captain Sam Cane – to ensure that a lack of discipline which proved to be such a large part of their undoing the last time these two sides met is not repeated.

A rather frightening Top 14 reunion in Newcastle

Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Facundo Isa all bring their Puma and French Top 14 pedigree to the party in Newcastle on Saturday. New Zealand themselves have a formidable outfit, but this Argentinian trio is something to behold. Sam Cane and Pablo Matera are no doubt looking forward to resuming the heated debates they had the last time they met, though Matera clearly had the more convincing argument. Can Facundo Isa contain the whirling dervish that is New Zealand’s Ardie Savea? We’d also argue that Marcos Kremer will probably ensure that Akira Ioane doesn’t remember his second Test Cap all that fondly. In short, this trio has no doubt contributed to All Black Coach Ian Foster’s lack of sleep this week.

“Look at least Bruni’s not playing this week – otherwise it would be four to worry about mate!”

Fatigue and the ultimate test of Argentinian depth

In that historic victory over the All Blacks, we saw something from Argentina that we rarely see – a complete 80 minute performance with the Pumas looking ready and raring to go for another 40. They were focused, they kept their shape and held on to a lead they never really looked like losing. Unlike New Zealand though, this will be their third Test match in a row, something that no matter how fit you are, must surely take a toll. As a result Coach Mario Ledesma has rung the changes, but refreshingly what it does appear to show is the depth Argentine rugby now has at its disposal. Jeronimo de la Fuente comes in at centre, and we’ve always felt he is one of Argentina’s most underrated players. However it’s the depth in the back three that really catches the eye. Santiago Carreras has had an outstanding debut at fullback this tournament, but when you can replace him with the likes of Emiliano Bofelli then you know your stocks are strong. But take a look at the selections on the wing, and when you can substitute the likes of Bautista Delguy and Juan Imhoff with names like Santiago Cordero and Ramiro Moyano, then your investments are clearly paying healthy dividends. Moyano in particular is one of our favorite Pumas players, and although he may not be the fastest man on the park, his ability to run lines that utterly confound defenses is quite legendary.

Moyano in full flight

Too much too soon?

Our heart goes out to new All Black sensation Caleb Clarke. After his brilliant debut for New Zealand against Australia, first off the bench and then in the starting XV. Clarke has been put under the microscope by the press back home and accused of being a flash in the pan. We’d argue to the contrary. It’s precisely the threat he poses, that has reduced his effectiveness. If you watch his appearances of late, opposition teams are often using two players to mark and keep him in check. When you’re getting that kind of attention from your opponents defences, then that tells you two things. One you genuinely are the threat they think you are and secondly as a result you’re not really getting the opportunity to put those talents on display. If you watch the last encounter between New Zealand and Argentina, Clarke was essentially gang marked by the entire Argentinian team, so it was highly unlikely that he was going to have much impact on a game, as well as being put under enormous pressure any time he got near the ball. Expect more of the same this Saturday, especially as we are not convinced that Jordie Barrett is a winger, allowing Argentina to concentrate more resources on the unfortunate Clarke.

All we’re saying is give the guy a chance – albeit a chance he may not get in this match. The only time he may get an opportunity to silence his new found critics is if it’s a one on one between him and his Puma opposite number Ramiro Moyano, whose bulk doesn’t quite match up to the New Zealander even if his turn of pace does.

As much as we would dearly love to see history being made on Saturday, we have to side with pundits much wiser than ourselves who are handing New Zealand a fairly comprehensive victory as revenge for that slap in the face a fortnight ago from the Pumas. However, we said that last time and were absolutely delighted by the fact that we are still wiping the egg off our faces. Either way it has the potential to shape up as another Test match for the ages between two rather remarkable teams. We can’t wait, and while we may not be getting up at 4 in the morning to watch it live, the coffee will be brewing not much later than 6 as the suspense is already killing us. Here’s to what should be an enthralling contest and to finding out how many times you can shout the word “Vamos” in eighty minutes!

We hope to do a piece on the slightly more low key Autumn Nations Cup fixtures this weekend tomorrow, but the day job has proved rather demanding this week, so will do our best but can’t promise anything.

France get their first taste of Autumn Nations Cup action, after their opening fixture with Fiji was cancelled due to COVID-19 running amok amongst the Island visitors. Scotland meanwhile dispatched Italy with relative ease last weekend, but even though both sides are lacking their first choice fly halves, Scotland know they will need to step it up a gear. France travel to Murrayfield no doubt determined to right the wrongs of their only Six Nations defeat on the same ground earlier this year. Scotland will know that France come with an agenda and are currently the form team in the Northern Hemisphere. Scotland may not have the all out wow factor of France, but their entertaining brand of rugby can definitely give their Gallic opponents a run for their money. Add to the mix a Scottish back row that is one of the Northern Hemisphere’s most dangerous units right now, some decent weather for running rugby and you have all the ingredients for an encounter that should provide some serious entertainment.

So here’s what got us talking about this one.

The French front row has oodles of talent but it would appear not in the stock of their trade – the scrum

We much preferred the look of France’s front row against Ireland in the final round of the Six Nations from a technical point of view. Sunday’s offering has very talented players, but their talents actually lay more outside the scrum than in it. Prop Demba Bamba is a very gifted player and in the loose is a nightmare for opposition sides and also rather difficult to bring down once he’s built up a head of steam. Camille Chat is much the same, but as for the stock and trade of their positions, the scrum, we feel they are less proficient. This is an area Scotland’s capable and experienced unit can target. Fraser Brown and Simon Berghan are seasoned campaigners and new South African import Ollie Kebble is an absolute menace. If Scotland can get the ascendancy in the set pieces then key momentum shifts could come the way of the Scots and force the French into costly mistakes.

Scotland tackled France off the park last time the two met in the Six Nations and will need to do so again

Both teams benefit from some very smart defensive coaches, but the last time the two teams met, it was Scotland’s ability in particular through Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie, to essentially tackle France to a standstill that gave them the match. Expect more of the same on Sunday the one difference being that France will be much wiser to it this time around. Watson and Ritchie’s gang tackling of outstanding French loose forward Gregory Aldritt back in March, negated much of the kind of authority France are now able to establish in this part of the park especially through their world class number eight. France however, are much more refined now so it is unlikely that Scotland will be able to keep les Bleus’ outstanding back row trio in check as well as they did in March. Although you could argue France now look the sharper of the two sides, Scotland’s tackling game is still one area that they should feel comfortable in. If they can slow France down and stop them building any kind of forward momentum then Scotland have as good a chance as any at upsetting the Northern Hemisphere’s flashiest outfit right now.

Is he the best number 9 on the planet right now?

We certainly think so! An unbelievably talented and gifted natural player barely out of Test rugby kindergarten. To the rest of the world – look out you’ve been warned! Enough said!

Scotland could use some big (H)air on Sunday

Knowing what Duncan Weir can do in the fly half position, we have to be honest and say we expected more last Saturday in Florence. The hair was certainly there make no mistake but it was a relatively quiet performance from the Scot, despite some flashes of brilliance and he was unlucky to not have his try awarded. The hair is likely to be even higher this weekend but he needs a greater vertical profile to his actual game than what we saw against Italy. Weir possesses a very useful kick and chase game, and Scotland will want to see him bring it on, provided their gang tackling forwards can tie enough Frenchmen up in the middle of the park to allow Weir to pinpoint some holes.

Weir’s opposite number, Matthieu Jallibert, is yet another of the new generation French 10s who know how to put on the razzle dazzle. When not doubling as a Billy Idol impersonator, Jallibert has a formidable turn of pace and ability to keep the opposition guessing and ultimately wrong footed in defence. In short, Coach Fabien Galthie is unlikely to have had too many sleepless nights over Romain Ntamack’s short term injury.

Exeter meet Toulouse in the Heineken Cup all over again

Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg knows his opposite number Thomas Ramos very well from their recent Heineken Cup semi-final. On that occasion the Scot got the better of the Frenchman, but make no mistake Ramos is a gifted footballer and although his style may not quite emulate the legendary Scot, he is a very potent strike threat in his own right. However, what Hogg is starting to show in addition to his ability to spark a blinding counterattack from deep, is an increasingly impressive defensive resume. On a tackle count Hogg is your man, while Ramos still has some lingering doubts around that aspect of his game. Both have handy boots and the aerial battle featuring these two will be one of the highlights of the afternoon.

The weather looks to favor two exciting free flowing sides. This along with the England/Ireland match the day before should be one of the tournament’s most riveting fixtures. Although Scotland will fancy their chances of upsetting France’s world class act, the Men in Blue are looking so much sharper than they did back in March we have a hard time believing it. Surely Ireland and Scotland will all be watching replays of Argentina’s exploits against the All Blacks to reaffirm that the odds are just that – odds. However, our heads favor England and France to get the job done this weekend.

Enjoy what should be an outstanding weekend of Test Rugby everyone as we appear to be heading into yet another lockdown. At least we have some quality oval ball action to keep us company this time!

The Autumn Nations Cup is now fully underway, but even though it was meant to skirt around the complications caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is affected nonetheless. Fiji’s participation in the tournament looks increasingly unlikely as the virus ravages through the Islanders’ squad, with their first two matches against France and Italy being cancelled. The other participants have played in cavernous, empty and lifeless stadiums which have done little to capture the imagination. Ireland cruised past a hapless Wales in a very one-sided match. Scotland and Italy provided 40 minutes of entertainment before the Azurri packed their bags and handed the match to Scotland in the second half. Lastly we watched England use a completely outclassed Georgian team as a training exercise in a soulless Twickenham doused by the elements. It hasn’t quite had the same luster as for example the crowds and rugby currently on display in Australia in the Tri-Nations.

Still this weekend it does offer up two encounters that are always worth watching. Scotland and France possess two squads fizzing with talent and energy, while watching England and Ireland renew their age old rivalry is always worth the price of admission. Wales look to Georgia to simply provide them with something they haven’t experienced since the start of the Six Nations – a win! It may be a tournament that is not exactly setting the world on fire, but in a year that has seen our beloved sport struggle to pick up the pieces of the pandemic and make something meaningful out of it, we should be grateful for what’s on offer and hope that this weekend will provide us with something to remember.

England vs Ireland – Saturday, November 21st – Twickenham

Despite our issues with an empty Twickenham, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t looking forward to this one. The silverware at the end of it is irrelevant, and let’s face it there’s never really any silverware on the line when the Southern Hemisphere boys come North in November which is what this tournament replaces. What’s more important is that it’s a match between two arch rivals both trying to establish their position in the global pecking order post the last World Cup. England are determined to put the memory of a final gone horribly wrong behind them and put the focus on the the fact that they are current Six Nations champions determined to be the dominant side in the Northern Hemisphere. Ireland look to start a new Chapter after a bitterly disappointing World Cup and endeavor to build a team that can harness the new talents coming through the system in time for the next global showdown in 2023. England seek to consolidate, with a few tweaks to fix the shortcomings highlighted in the World Cup, while Ireland look to finally give the next generation of Irish players the chance to claim their stake in Ireland’s future.

Consequently, Saturday’s fixture is vitally important to both sides. England may not be the world’s most exciting side at the moment, but few can deny their ruthless effectiveness. They were bitterly disappointed not to take the Grand Slam in this year’s Six Nations but will want to make a clean sweep of this tournament to fire a clear warning shot across the bows of their Six Nations rivals in 2021. Ireland have slowly started to click since their failure to revive their Six Nations aspirations in the final round against France, and although the jury is out on new Coach Andy Farrell, there is no denying that Ireland are looking a lot more lively and adventurous than they did in the Schmidt era in their last two outings. They too have their eye on the main prize next February/March and Saturday’s match will give us a good deal of insight as to how it may all play out next year.

No place for the faint hearted

Saturday’s clash sees some wise old heads and some angry young men come face to face in the front row. Ireland’s Andrew Porter simply oozes menace up against his seasoned English opponent Mako Vunipola who is probably one of the most immovable lumps of coal in the modern game. England’s Kyle Sinckler (aka Mr. Cheeky) is well practiced in the art of the wind up and the dark arts of what happens unseen at the coal face, while his opposite number Ireland’s Cian Healy excels at skirting along the very edges of the laws. Both sides pack very capable Hookers, though we have to say that Jamie George really has come of age for England in the last eighteen months to the point where we struggle to remember Dylan Hartley. Ronan Kelleher is doing great things at Leinster and that club form is increasingly being translated into Test performances of the same caliber. England though seem to be getting better results when it comes to developing a mean bench in this regard and Ellis Genge is a real thorn in any opposition side. In short, it’s going to be ugly in there on Saturday and rugby’s version of trench warfare at its best. The key will be who gets under whose skin the most and quickest, and we have a hunch that England are likely to be fastest out of the blocks in that regard, although in their eagerness Kyle Sinckler’s poor disciplinary record could trip them up.

A step in the right direction albeit on a very large stage

The best bit of news we’ve had this week, is seeing Ireland’s James Ryan’s name against the Captain’s slot for this match. As regular readers know we have tipped the outstanding second rower for the leadership role for the last two years, and have been adamant that he will be the one taking the armband to France in 2023. The only way he will get the experience needed to help him handle it, is to give him as much time as possible in the role between now and the next World Cup. Consequently, as his opening shot at glory he couldn’t ask for a bigger opportunity than England at Twickenham. It may lack the crowds on Saturday, but leading your troops against a pumped up England in their spiritual home is an extraordinary opportunity to put your skills to the test, and as baptisms of fire go it doesn’t get much bigger than this.

We think he’s up to the Test and then some, and even if he falters as he himself has admitted, he is surrounded by some wise and experienced heads, especially that of Peter O’Mahony who knows the pressure of the role on big occasions like this which should give him the support he needs. Whatever, the outcome as long as he puts in his traditional 110% effort, then the priority must be to stick with developing him in the role.

Talking of future Captains – Tom Curry your chance is now

England need to develop a future Captain and an understudy for Owen Farrell. We’ve said all along Curry is the man for the job, and Saturday is likely to be another opportunity for the outstanding back rower to stake his claim, especially as he gets to grips with one of Ireland’s wiliest characters and a Captain himself Peter O’Mahony. Paired up with his “Kamikaze twin” Sam Underhill this back row unit is quality through and through but then so is Ireland’s offering of O’Mahony, CJ Stander and the exceptional newcomer Caelan Doris. England’s Billy Vunipola though for us is past his best.

Eddie Jones continues to confound and frustrate

Some English supporters love him, others just don’t understand him. While Ireland appear more willing to take some risks in this match, not so England. It’s the same old halfback pairing that we’ve seen a thousand times before in Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell. Once again England have their younger guns at nine and ten on the bench. If Ireland are willing to throw James Ryan in at the deep end in the Captain’s role for this one, you have to wonder why England is not willing to do the same in the half back department. It’s an ideal opportunity to look to the future beyond Farrell and Youngs, but once more it looks to go begging. Some English supporters are tearing their hair out, especially as England’s young guns didn’t even get the starting berths for the Red Rose’s Saturday afternoon audition with Georgia last weekend for a famous Hollywood musical.

Ireland although injury enforced have no such issues and Ross Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park get the nod. Byrne has not exactly shone in an Ireland jersey, but Gibson-Park did excel last weekend in his debut in the green, despite our reservations. Perhaps together for Ireland they will be able to replicate the award winning form they produce week in week out for Leinster.

Ireland need to score tries and have they found an answer in James Lowe?

We thought he was an option Ireland needed to take a look at, and he didn’t disappoint last weekend against Wales. A constant threat with ball in hand, and had the delivery from his colleagues been slightly crisper he would have got more than just the one try on debut in an Irish jersey. Ireland need to score the big points rather than just chipping away at the scoreline with the boot. It cost them in the final match of this year’s Six Nations against France, as Ireland consistently fail to score more than three tries in matches and often struggle to get past two. In Paris they needed four and as usual came short of the mark. Every time Lowe got the ball against Wales he looked like scoring and as the team figure out how to use him more effectively and deliver him better ball, he could well end up being the missing key they’ve sought for so long.

If Ireland have watched the Argentina/All Blacks match this past weekend, then what’s to say a little bit of good old fashioned grit, passion and pride in the jersey isn’t enough to get them past an English side that does look rather daunting to say the least. Unlike New Zealand though, England have had the opportunity to have a long hard look at Ireland this year and even met them in person already which went rather well for the Men in White. Ireland will play a big game make no mistake and if anything seem to be relishing the kinds of freedoms not tolerated under Joe Schmidt’s tenure. However, we can’t see it being enough to get past an England side that has every intention of making this tournament theirs and theirs alone. Either way we’re in for a cracker of a match!

Wales vs Georgia – Saturday, November 21st – Llanelli

To be honest after watching Georgia be steamrollered by both Scotland and England in the last two weeks, we sadly don’t have a great deal to say about this one. Unfortunately so far Georgia appear to be in this simply to make up the numbers in a cobbled together tournament. We wish we could find more positives but sadly can’t. As we said last week, whoever decided to put Georgia in such a daunting pool, surely needs to be banned from drawing up tournament lists for life, as it is simply unfair. Georgia will play with heart, but are unlikely to emerge with much confidence from this tournament, while the side they are aiming to show up, Italy, has a relative Sunday stroll by comparison against opposition that may at least allow the Azurri some semblance of credibility. In Georgia’s Pool are all three Six Nations Champions of the last ten years – not exactly a level playing field is it? Italy in their Pool have the three Wooden Spoon Holders in the Six Nations of the last 20 years – we rest our case.

Wales may not look the part at the moment, and themselves narrowly avoided the wooden spoon in this year’s Six Nations Championship. However, they were Grand Slam winners last year as well as World Cup semi-finalists. Wales are currently on their longest losing streak in recent memory, and as a result Georgia may sense the chance for a truly historic opportunity. However, we just can’t see a Welsh side desperate for any kind of victory, as well as avoiding the kind of national crisis that a loss to Georgia would create, being the kind of early Christmas present the men from the Caucasus would so dearly love to unwrap. Furthermore, the weather forecast looks to be fairly dismal for Saturday in Llanelli, and this could well be one you may not pay much attention to unless you’re a Welsh supporter. Wales should break their losing streak in a rather bleak and uninspiring encounter for both sides while providing little in the way of a spectacle to lift the spirits of those watching. Sadly this may be more of a damp rubber than a dead rubber.

We wish both sides well, and our hearts go out to Georgia, but we’ll probably stay indoors for this one and let them muck it out in the Welsh rain and mud.

We’ll be back tomorrow with our views on France’s trip to Scotland once the team sheets are out.

What a phenomenal performance that was last weekend as Argentina made history by getting their first ever win over the All Blacks. It was a powerhouse effort, and the Pumas weren’t just good – they were magnificent! They brought their world renown physicality to the match, but with it focus, discipline, execution and in the process simply outclassed their mighty rivals in every department. Our fears over Argentina having been placed in a rugby wilderness since the last World Cup as a result of COVID-19 proved to be completely unfounded as the Pumas gave us a textbook example of how adversity breeds strength and character. Ever since the last World Cup cycle we were convinced that the Pumas first win over New Zealand was going to be only a question of time – we just didn’t expect it after a 13 month absence from the Test Arena! With that victory Argentina have suddenly made the Tri Nations all that more interesting, and we are all waiting with bated breath to see if they can add a Wallaby scalp to their collection this Saturday in Sydney and set themselves up for a genuine shot at the title!

As for New Zealand, they now find themselves in unfamiliar territory, as they reflect on two back to back losses. However, we still don’t think that the All Blacks are on some inevitable downward spiral. Sure there clearly are teething problems with the new Coaching arrangements, and Ian Foster may well be out of his depths. Nevertheless this is still a team used to a culture of winning, and there is enough experience in the squad to figure out how to do it, even if the direction from the Coaching box may be confusing. Hit the panic button at the end of the Tri Nations if they suffer any more losses, but for now they are probably at the expresso machine unravelling two powerful wake up calls and no doubt hatching a plan to get themselves back on track.

Australia on the other hand must have watched last weekend’s match with horror. Sure they have beaten the All Blacks, but only by 2 points, and it certainly wasn’t the masterclass of destruction put on by Argentina last Saturday. We can’t help feeling that despite a much improved performance, their 24-22 victory over the All Blacks a fortnight ago in Brisbane, was a little too tense for comfort for much of the match with New Zealand right in it till the end. Argentina on the other hand had their win comfortably sewn up by the 70 minute mark despite a late All Black surge. If Argentina bring the kind of intensity, discipline and execution they showed against the All Blacks, Australia could end up being in a world of pain for eighty minutes on Saturday. New Zealand seem slightly unsure of themselves at the moment as does Australia, whereas Argentina clearly do not. As a result the Wallabies will need to raise their game that much more than they did in Brisbane two weeks ago.

Argentina vs Australia – Saturday, November 21st – Broadmeadow (North Sydney)

Argentina remain unchanged in their starting XV for Saturday’s match, from the squad that caused the All Blacks so much pain. To add insult to injury for Australia they continue to bring in some heavy artillery in the shape of their overseas based players and the bench sees the welcome addition of Toulon based back rower Facundo Isa.

The Pumas were effective last weekend for a multitude of reasons, but key were an excellent kick and chase game, an absolutely watertight defence and them finally breaking away from trying to play too much rugby in their own half, which has cost them dearly in the past. In defence their tackling technique was outstanding, often with one player tackling to be followed up by another seeking a turnover. The precision and intensity was something to behold. They put the All Blacks under so much pressure that they caused the New Zealanders to make mistakes on an almost continuous basis. An example is a statistic we are not used to associating with the Pumas, but in 80 minutes the Pumas made 1 handling error compared to the 16 made by New Zealand. That speaks volumes about the kind of relentless pressure Argentina were able to put their opponents under.

Argentina are likely to bring the same kind of intensity to Saturday’s match helped by the fact that after 80 minutes of a hugely physical contest, they hardly looked out of breath and ready for another 40 minutes if necessary. Australia will have to bring something very special to the park on Saturday if they are to get past this group of exceptionally fired up South Americans, and to be honest apart from perhaps Marika Koroibete, we’ve haven’t seen too much from Australia that can match it. They may also be basking in the glow of beating the All Blacks a fortnight ago, but it wasn’t nearly as clinical as Argentina’s victory over the men from the Land of the Long White Cloud.

While there is no doubt that it has improved dramatically, the Wallabies scrum simply doesn’t pack the quality of the Pumas offering

Argentina have always been renown for their scrummaging prowess, but sadly it had taken a step backwards in the last couple of years. Last Saturday, it was back to its powerhouse best, as they simply denied New Zealand any kind of traction here. Australia may have improved their technique in this area but they are still giving away far too many penalties here, whereas Argentina were masters of composure in this regard last weekend. We just can’t see how the Wallabies are going to avoid getting bossed around up front on Saturday. Backing up the front row is that powerhouse lock division the Pumas boast in Guido Petti and Matias Alemanno, with Australia’s Rob Simmonds in particular just simply not being of the same vintage. In short, we may be proved wrong, but we expect the Wallabies to really struggle in the tight five battles and at lineout time. Puma Hooker Julian Montoya was simply outstanding last weekend and Argentina were solid in the lineouts as he consistently found his targets. If you see any kind of parity here from the Wallabies then they will have clearly done their homework well.

Look out Michael – he’s coming for you!

In many ways this expression on Captain Pablo Matera’s face after yet another outstanding turnover from the Argentinian back rower summed up the Pumas afternoon last weekend. They mean business and will suffer no fools or insults. You couldn’t ask for a more fired up and insprirational leader if you tried. Australia’s Michael Hooper is a fine Captain in his own right always leading from the front with little or no regard to his own safety, but you just don’t get the feeling that he has this kind of intensity. Argentina’s back row of Matera, Marcos Kremer and Rodrigo Bruni were nothing short of remarkable last weekend. In the past the kind of intensity that Matera and his teammates put on display last weekend, often led to disciplinary breakdowns but last Saturday the Pumas were so clinical in the way they went about things, they hardly put a foot wrong. It was a textbook performance in how a back row should work and we just don’t see Australia being able to offer the same kind of quality. The Pumas will know that Wallaby Ned Hanigan is prone to being a disciplinary liability and Kremer is going to put a mountain of pressure on him, so expect the Australian to get to know referee Paul Williams very well on Saturday.

In short a double team from hell!

Brumbies rule the scrum half position

Although Pumas scrum half Tomas Cubelli has been with the Jaguares in Super Rugby recently, he and Wallaby scrum half Nic White have both cut their teeth with the Canberra outfit, and consequently are very aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Of the two though we feel that Cubelli has the calmer head and is a more reliable ball distributor as well as having a better kicking game. Expect plenty of fireworks from the two Brumbies stablemates and one of the best contests of the afternoon.

He handled Caleb Clarke for the most part now it’s Marika Koroibete’s turn

We’d really missed Argentine winger Bautista Delguy due to injury, but he came back with a bang last Saturday, and for the most part managed to keep New Zealand’s latest tactical weapon Caleb Clarke in check, except for that consolation try at the end for the All Blacks. Delguy is going to have his work cut out containing a similar freight train in the shape of Australia’s Marike Koroibete. The Fijian is one player who in the last few weeks can certainly put his hand up and be counted, as he has put in some of the Wallabies best performances of this Bledisloe/Tri Nations series. Both players possess some magical feet and outright speed, but Koroibete brings some additional physical firepower. Nevertheless Delguy did not shy away from tackling a similar physical specimen in the shape of New Zealand’s Caleb Clarke last Saturday. The battle between these two on Saturday will be one of the most exciting aspects of Saturday’s festitivies.

The Michael Cheika sub plot

Remember this?

This famous half time rant by the former Wallaby Coach as his charges had been given a rather harsh schooling by the Pumas in Argentina a few years ago, is no doubt doing the rounds in Australia at the moment. In Cheika’s defence, he clearly put the fear of god into the Wallabies as they went out and comprehensively turned the game around and won convincingly in the end. How ironic it is that he now is an advisor to the same team that gave him so much grief once.

We’ll be honest we have never been fans of Cheika, and didn’t exactly shed a tear after his unceremonious departure from the Wallaby Coaching job. However, he and Pumas Coach Mario Ledesma are no strangers to each other. The legendary Pumas scrummager was part of the Wallabies Coaching set up from 2015 – 2017, but his relationship with Cheika goes all the way back to 2011, when the two coached with French club Stade Francais. Whatever you may say about Cheika, it was always clear that there was a strong bond of mutual respect between himself and Ledesma. That bond was very evident in the Pumas coaching box last weekend and clearly paid dividends. His role as an advisor to the Pumas during their stint in Australia is obviously a productive arrangement, and if anything he appears much more his jovial relaxed self without having the burden of the head Coach job. If the Pumas do end up pulling off the double this weekend and upending the Wallabies, then there is absolutely no doubt that noone would enjoy the snub to his former employers more than Cheika. The Pumas are fired up enough but add Cheika’s own personal motivation to the mix and they may well become unstoppable on Saturday. In short, the plot thickens.

To sum up we find it hard to see a very polished and focused Pumas side coming unstuck against an inconsistent Wallaby side who would still appear to be at the optician in terms of focus. The Australians looked a lot sharper in in that narrow victory over the All Blacks, than they did in the 43-5 drubbing they were handed by the Kiwis at the start of the tournament. They will want to build on their win a fortnight ago, but then so will the Pumas after having made history. Argentina know what they want to do and how to do it, whereas so far we can only say that the Wallabies know what they want but are still unsure as to how to go about it. Consequently, our money is on the South Americans to put themselves within reach of their first genuine shot at silverware in the Southern Hemisphere’s big show.

If you forgot to set your PVR last weekend and missed all the fun, the full match is over on the TV/Internet page, till the SANZAAR thought police remove it. Enjoy and DO NOT FORGET TO SET YOUR PVR THIS SATURDAY IN THE WEE HOURS!!!!!

We’ll be back tonight with a look at this Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup action.