It’s been a fascinating month of Test Rugby which has been highly informative in terms of what it has told us about depth, especially in terms of the Northern Hemisphere teams, with perhaps Scotland being the biggest surprise package of the month. We’ll be doing our Annual Report Cards on all the big teams starting next week and leading up to Christmas, but for now there is one more final order of business in the November Test Calendar to deal with, this Saturday’s match between Wales and South Africa in Cardiff.

Both sides need a win here in no uncertain terms. South Africa have laboured through 2017 much as they did in 2016, with Coach Alastair Coetzee’s head seeming to be on the chopping block whatever the outcome of Saturday’s match. Despite the euphoria of the clean sweep against a fractured and disinterested French side in June, the Springboks had a woeful Rugby Championship with the record losses to the All Blacks and Ireland this year being the low points of yet another season to forget. There were brief moments of respite as witnessed in the second Test against the All Blacks in Cape Town, but to be honest that’s been about the only performance to cheer about this year from a Springbok perspective. This end of year tour has highlighted a tired and disillusioned team out of touch with their Coaching staff.  Their two victories against France and Italy on this tour were joyless affairs which saw them simply batter weak opposition sides into submission. Just like this time last year the Springboks clearly want this season to end, and return home and hope that some direction will be given to South African rugby between now and when Super Rugby gets underway again in February.

Wales too have had a mixed bag of results in 2017, but none which have really left us with the impression that this is a team on the way to bigger and better things. A Six Nations campaign which should have delivered so much more, despite impressive wins against Ireland and running England close, left us with more questions than answers in terms of the kind of direction Wales was trying to take. While some Welsh players, particularly Jonathan Davies, really stood out on this year’s Lions Tour to New Zealand, it’s been an indifferent November Test series with Wales coming short when it really mattered. A poor performance against Australia highlighted how much the new talent that Wales have put through their paces this month still need to learn at Test level. This was followed by perhaps one of the most dismal Tests of the year to date, as Wales laboured past a very physical and determined Georgian side in a performance that looked woefully unconvincing. Their Test last weekend against New Zealand was clearly a step up, and there were many positives that Wales could take out of the game, but the defensive frailties of the youngsters in the squad was there for all to see. Wales clearly have some talent to work with at the moment, but much like in the Six Nations it is simply not working as a cohesive unit with any degree of consistency. However, the same could be said of South Africa, making this weekend’s contest very difficult to call.

So without any further ado here’s our preview of the matchups on the pitch this Saturday in Cardiff.

Wales vs South Africa
Saturday, December 2nd
Cardiff

It’s hard to say who needs the win here more, South Africa or Wales. For South Africa it has been such a dismal year with another set of management changes on the cards seemingly inevitable. As a result their motivation and unity may be questionable after another turbulent twelve months. As a result one could argue that Wales are the more motivated side needing to lay down a marker in front of a home crowd as they head into the Six Nations after a season of mixed fortunes.

In the front rows, despite the presence of prop Rob Evans for Wales, we think that South Africa should still have the edge here. Wales may learn much about depth through the performance of hooker Kristian Dacey and prop Scott Andrews, but for us the far more dangerous unit is South Africa. Malcolm Marx at Hooker has still for us been one of the players of the year and when he plays from the heart as seen in the second Test against the All Blacks, he is capable of a legendary performance. Stephen Kitshoff is an exceptionally dangerous prop and is no stranger to the try line, while Wilco Louw  could be the answer to South Africa’s problems at tighthead in the absence of Coenie Oosthuizen.

In the second rows, we also feel that the sheer brute force South Africa possess in the shape of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager should also prove too much for Wales, much as it did for France and Italy, despite the presence of Welsh talisman Alun-Wyn Jones. Expect the South Africans to simply wear down Wales in this part of the park.

In the back rows, we feel the contest suddenly evens out. One of the standout players of last weekend’s Test between Wales and New Zealand, was Welsh flanker Josh Navidi who had a barnstormer of a game. He put in an exemplary 80 minute performance and caused the New Zealand defences continuous problems until the final whistle. We also liked the look of his partner Aaron Shingler and Welsh number eight Taulupe Faletau once more proved his intrinsic value to this Welsh side. This is likely to be the most intense battle on the park as the Welsh three go up against an equally accomplished Springbok trio in the shape of Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, and the promising Daniel Du Preez. However, the fact that Kolisi is fresh off the plane after returning home briefly for the birth of his child and Du Preez’s lack of Test experience could make for slightly less cohesion in the South African unit, leading us to give the edge to Wales in a tight contest.

In the half backs matchup, we feel that on paper South Africa should be better placed to run proceedings on Saturday. After a long absence from the Springbok fold, fly half Handre Pollard seems to be coming back into his own and there is no question that he has talent to burn. While he may not exactly be setting pitches alight this year, scrum half Ross Cronje has been a reliable figure for the Springboks and consequently we feel that the South African unit is likely to be less susceptible to mistakes than the untried Welsh offering of Test veteran Dan Biggar at fly half and newcomer Aled Davies at scrum half. Provided South Africa don’t resort to aimlessly kicking away possession, which they seem to do under pressure, they should have the upper hand here on Saturday.

In the backs, though we feel provided the Welsh Coaching staff have attended to the defensive frailties seen in the Welsh young bloods so far this month, Wales have more of the X-factor in this part of the park going into Saturday’s Test. One of the most interesting contests this weekend will be between Welsh winger Hallam Amos and his Springbok opposite number Warrick Gelant who, after turning heads in this year’s Currie Cup, finally gets a long overdue callup to the Sprinbok starting XV.  Despite some defensive mistakes, winger Hallam Amos has consistently made us sit up and take notice this month and there is no question he is an exciting prospect for Wales’ Six Nations and World Cup ambitions. On the opposite wing Steff Evans has lived up to the hype surrounding his inclusion in the Welsh squad but, particularly from a defensive standpoint, he has shown that it is a very big step up from the PRO 14 arena to the Test level circuit, and one he clearly still needs to grow into. Dillyn Leyds despite a bright start this year has gone strangely quiet in recent outings and it remains to be seen what kind of performance South Africa get out of him on Saturday. In the centres Francois Venter has impressed this month, while Jesse Kriel has failed to gain the headlines in any shape or form this year. He hasn’t exactly been a bad player, but by the same token is not one you would notice should his name not be on the team sheet. The same could be said of the Welsh offering, as we have liked what we’ve seen from Scott Williams but newcomer Hadleigh Parkes is very much an untried commodity at this level. Lastly, the wise head of Leigh Halfpenny at fullback for Wales meets the youthful exuberance of Andries Coetzee for the Springboks. Halfpenny seems to have come back into his own since his return to Wales, and he seems to be having a much greater impact on the Welsh attack. Coetzee has been a player who has consistently given his all to the Springbok cause this year, even if the team seems unsure of how to make the most of his work rate. Given the speed of the Welsh youngsters on attack and with the wisdom of Halfpenny behind them, we hand the contest in this part of the park to a Welsh side keen to lay down some markers for the future.

This should be an intensely physical contest and hopefully a fitting end to the 2017 Test calendar, especially if both sides look to run the ball and really test each other’s defences out wide. If South Africa resort to the kind of slugfest we saw against France and Italy this could end up diminishing the quality of what should be a good contest as they simply attempt to batter Wales into submission. However we feel that Wales in front of a home crowd, have enough speed and pace in the backs coupled to a hungry back row that they should just squeak a much-needed win to close out a troubled season with a positive statement of intent for 2018. As a result we give this to Wales by four points!

Endnote

As always we end with some very solid content from the 1014’s review of last weekend’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentlemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. These two reviews give some valuable insights into where South Africa and Wales are at in terms of heading into this weekend’s Test, as well as some excellent feedback on the other teams and how they performed. For some in-depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!

The November Test window effectively draws to a close this weekend, even though there is one match in the first weekend of December when Wales hosts South Africa. However, for all intents and purposes, once the final whistle blows this Saturday in Dublin we’ll have a got a pretty good idea of the level of depth that has been developed by all the top-tier teams during the course of November. Depth has clearly been the order of the day for all the teams, and some have made greater strides than others, with perhaps England, New Zealand and Ireland leading the pack here. However, France and Wales have also made some positive strides in this department, and Italy is clearly developing the nucleus of a team for 2019 and beyond. Scotland has perhaps been the surprise package in terms of depth this month, making their matchup with Australia this Saturday a mouth-watering prospect indeed. It is perhaps South Africa, Argentina and Australia who have the least to show for their efforts in this regard. Argentina along with South Africa continue to appear to be at sixes and sevens, while Australia, although boasting an exceptional matchday 23, still appear alarmingly thin on depth once any of this group of highly talented individuals become unavailable.

Italy get us started this weekend against South Africa. They will be looking to repeat their epic win last year against the Springboks and really lay down a marker for next year’s Six Nations and beyond. Italian Coach Conor O’Shea is clearly making progress with Italy and they look a much more promising outfit since he has taken charge. South Africa have struggled as they have for the last few years on their end of year tour to Europe, and while capable of some epic performances they seem rather few and far between. After their humiliation against Ireland in the November opener they were able to eke out a scrappy win against France, but it left few of us convinced that their woes especially on the road are behind them. The crisis in confidence in this team shows no signs of letting up and a second consecutive loss to Italy would do untold damage to a team that has clearly lost its way. Italy will know this and will clearly have this game in their sights.

The game we are really looking forward to this weekend and at the top of our viewing list is Scotland against Australia. We were absolutely blown away by Scotland’s performance against New Zealand last weekend and were rarely able to sit down for the full eighty minutes. It was a thrilling Test match that showed that attacking rugby with plenty of gas is very much alive and well north of Hadrian’s Wall. As a result we can’t wait to watch Scotland in action in next years’ Six Nations. Australia can also boast some exceptional attacking prowess in the shape of a very powerful and dangerous back line, and although they came out on the wrong side of the scoreline by quite some margin against England last weekend, the intent was there for all to see and had the weather conditions been slightly more cooperative Australia would be going into this match having run England close. The Wallabies were put to the test last weekend and England based on their performance can comfortably claim their place as the second best team in World Rugby right now, but Australia are not far behind them and are only going to get better. Australia’s biggest problem would appear to be that they just don’t have the same amount of depth as England, something which Scotland much to our surprise were able to demonstrate against New Zealand.

Next up Wales take on New Zealand, with plenty of new players getting a real test against the best in the world. Wales had a fairly torrid time against Georgia last weekend and will really need to up their game against a New Zealand side also experimenting with depth but one that will also want to make an emphatic statement in their last match of the year. Before the team sheets came out, we were fearing a completely one-sided contest in favor of New Zealand, but since the squad announcements were made we are feeling much more optimistic about Wales being competitive, although perhaps not the victors. New Zealand are still likely to get a clean sweep of their November tour but will have had their charges put under considerable pressure in all three contests, something that clearly was at the top of Coach Steve Hansen’s agenda for the month.

Lastly Ireland seek to exact revenge on Argentina, as the two sides have their first meeting since that fateful day in Cardiff two years ago when Argentina comprehensively shattered Ireland’s World Cup dreams. This is clearly an Argentinian team in some disarray despite a conclusive win against Italy last Saturday. Even though Ireland’s match day 23 smacks of continued experimentation in terms of finding depth by Coach Joe Schmidt, it is still a daunting side facing a Pumas team that has struggled to fire all year. Furthermore there are enough of Ireland’s big names running out on the pitch at the Aviva on Saturday to ensure that Argentina will need to put in the kind of performance they showed in New Zealand against the All Blacks back in September. Let’s be honest we’ve seen nothing from Argentina that has led us to believe they can replicate that, especially on the road and for a full eighty minutes.

Canada also take on Fiji in France this Saturday, but after having watched Fiji almost upset the Irish apple cart last weekend in a rather spectacular fashion. While Canada struggled to get the win against Spain at times, we can’t help feeling that Canada are going to have real difficulty in containing Fiji’s turbocharged outfit. From what we could see of the Spanish game if it wasn’t for exceptional winger DTH Van Der Merwe Canada might not have been competitive last weekend in Madrid.

So as usual here’s our take on the matchups this weekend.

Italy vs South Africa
Saturday, November 25th
Padova

South African rugby may be in a state of disarray at the moment, but it is not lacking in talent. However, motivation is clearly in question as the Springboks appear to be labouring through their fixture list this month with little if any clear enthusiasm for the task at hand. Nevertheless a second consecutive loss to Italy must be considered unthinkable and as such Italy will be hard pressed to repeat their heroics of this time last year.

In the front rows, we expect to see a competitive Italian effort with props Andrea Lovotti and Simone Pietro Ferrari looking impressive at times this year. However, the presence of Tendai Mtawarira, who has been a consistent savior of the front row for South Africa this year, should see South Africa have the edge. With the exceptional Steven Kitshoff waiting to come off the bench for South Africa their dominance here should be assured.

In the second rows, South Africa should have the advantage in the sheer brute power of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager. While de Jager has not always impressed this year, there is still enough Test experience between him and Etzebeth that they should have the edge over Italians’ Marco Fuser and Dean Budd, especially given the fact that they will have a point to prove, with Franco Mostert also wanting to put his stamp of authority on proceedings from the bench.

In the back rows, South Africa should also be able to rely on brute power to overcome a feisty Italian counter-offer in the shape of South African born Braam Steyn and newcomer Giovanni Licata. Francois Louw has been around the Test circuit enough to know what will be expected of him on Saturday, especially given what is at stake in terms of South Africa’s place in Test rugby. Pieter-Steph du Toit has also been one of the few Springbok players who has consistently sought to right a floundering ship this year and we expect more of the same from this versatile and powerful forward. Lastly Duane Vermeulen at number eight for South Africa goes up against Captain extraordinaire Sergio Parisse for Italy. While Vermeulen is a class player, there is no question that his form is just not there at the moment and the French match was clear evidence if anyone needed convincing. If Parisse gets his back row trio firing on all cylinders South Africa could be in for a torrid time here. However, we feel that South Africa should win what should be the most closely contested area of the park here.

In the half backs, on paper the contest should go to South Africa, but if the Italian pair can keep their heads they could actually be the surprise of the day. South Africa’s Ross Cronje did not quite set the world alight last Saturday in Paris and fly half Handre Pollard, despite his illustrious reputation, completely failed to manage or control the game to South Africa’s advantage while practically missing every shot at goal. Italy’s Carlo Canna is developing into a reliable and courageous fly half, and his ability to get results at the kicking tee is something Italy will be banking on especially if South Africa’s discipline goes the way of the dodo on Saturday, and Pollard once more struggles to find the barn door. So perhaps to the surprise of some, Italy to run the show here on Saturday.

In the backs, based on their experience at Super Rugby level, South Africa should have this tied up, but we have yet to see it really pay dividends this year. The centre pairing of Francois Venter and Jesse Kriel did manage to get some traction at times against the French last weekend in Paris but it was less than convincing. Italy’s offering of the two Tommasos, Castello and Boni is proving to be one of the surprise packages of the month with Castello in particular making us sit up and take notice. Dillyn Leyds and Courtnall Skosan look weak defensively at times on the wing, especially Skosan and particularly under the high ball. The two Italian wingers Angelo Esposito and Mattia Bellini are likely to be better coached and as a result we give them the edge. However, for us Andries Coetzee at fullback has been one of South Africa’s few beacons this year. Rarely supported and often expected to act as a lone wolf, he nevertheless manages to put in a 110% effort every match and for this reason alone we give him the nod over Italy’s still untested Jayden Hayward. Coetzee may be naive at times but you can’t fault him for an astonishing work rate and as he continues to mature we expect bigger and better things from him.

This should be a tight contest at times, with Italy potentially having the sharper game management of the two sides. However, just like in the French match we expect to see South Africa bludgeon the Italians into submission physically. It’s unlikely to be an attractive game to watch, but one which South Africa should batter out a narrow victory by five points!

Scotland vs Australia
Saturday, November 25th
Murrayfield

Without any shadow of a doubt THE game to watch this weekend. The weather this Saturday in Murrayfield looks to be on the side of two teams who like to try to play some of the most free-flowing and high-speed attacking rugby seen at the moment on the Test circuit. As we mentioned above we were enthralled by Scotland’s performance last weekend against New Zealand and spent much of the eighty minutes constantly leaping out of our seats and screaming at the television. Definitely one of the most exciting games of rugby we’ve seen in a while and hoping for more of the same. Australia struggled against an English team that, despite some lucky bounces of the ball and calls by the referee, were still clearly the better side especially given the challenging weather conditions. Australia in many ways played more of the rugby but in doing so often overdid it and as a result were unable to pull off the execution required. England were better at taking their chances and played a much more controlled game. The Wallabies will need to be mindful of this as they seek to challenge a team that appears to want to play the fastest brand of attacking rugby after the Fijian Sevens team.

In the front rows, we were very impressed with how well Scotland’s relatively inexperienced trio stood up to New Zealand last weekend. If things have gone well on the training pitch this week we see no reason as to why they should not be able to do the same again. Australia pack an experienced outfit in the shape of Test veteran and Hooker Stephen Moore who plays his last Test in the gold jersey. His front row partners Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu are finally clicking as a unit and it will be hard for Scotland to gain some traction here. Given the momentum for Australia and the significance of Moore’s last hurrah, we feel that Australia will have the edge here initially but once the bench make their appearance we actually fancy Scotland’s chances especially if the starting three hold their own for the first sixty minutes.

In the second rows, we also hand the contest to Scotland. Without Adam Coleman we just don’t feel that Australia are as competitive here as they need to be. Scotland’s Jonny Gray is outstanding and Grant Gilchrist was part of the depth experiment last weekend that we felt really paid off for Scotland. On home ground we just feel that once the crowd get behind them Scotland should clearly get the better of the contest here.

In the back rows, the contest suddenly levels out dramatically and should be fascinating. Flanker John Barclay appears to be relishing the Captain’s role for Scotland as is Michael Hooper for Australia. Both possess extraordinary work rates and the ability to lead their troops from the front. We are huge fans of Scotland’s Hamish Watson and find him very destructive in the loose and a real handful for opposition defences, and the contest between him and Hooper should be one of the highlights of the weekend. Ryan Wilson at number eight for Scotland is another player who can also be problematic, but Australia’s Sean McMahon is in our opinion the better of the two. Consequently, despite the presence of Watson and Barclay for Scotland, we feel that because of the power of McMahon and the destructive unpredictability of Hooper, Australia should get the edge here on Saturday.

When it comes to the half back contest though we think that Scotland in front of the Murrayfield faithful should have the advantage. Scotland’s Finn Russell is simply electric at fly half and Ali Price at scrum half is rapidly proving to be his star sidekick. Australia’s Will Genia we felt didn’t have the best game under pressure against England, and Bernard Foley is simply not firing this year. Consequently expect the element of surprise to be with the Scottish pair on Saturday and as a result Scotland to be more effective at dictating proceedings.

It’s the contest between some very fleet-footed backs that should be the highlight of the match. Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg was remarkable last weekend, and if he can find it in him to put in another performance like that this Saturday then alarm bells will be ringing all over the Wallabies defensive structures. Add to the mix the exceptional centre pairing of Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, and Tommy Seymour’s pace and ball skills out wide on the wings and Australia will have to have their wits about them on defence. Having said that though the Scots will have to make sure there are no defensive slip ups as seen in their November opener against Samoa, otherwise this is an Australian back line that will make them pay dearly. There is speed and power up the middle in the shape of Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi, while out wide Reece Hodge and the brilliant Marika Koroibete offer plenty of the same package. The only possible weak link we see for Australia is Kurtley Beale at fullback. We don’t say this because we feel Beale is not a quality player, quite the opposite, it’s just that his remarkable talents seem far suited to him playing at centre, and look at the game against England if you want further evidence of this. Scotland’s Stuart Hogg however, was clearly born for the position so as a result we feel that Scotland are likely to be the better drilled of the two sides in back play on Saturday and thus have the slimmest of advantages especially in front of a home crowd likely to be heard from miles around every time a blue jersey gets a clean break.

A riveting and hopefully intensely exciting contest awaits, but our money is on home advantage seeing a better drilled Scottish side squeaking past a powerful and fast paced Australian challenge by two points!

Wales vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 25th
Cardiff

New Zealand will want to finish their year in style and sadly Wales look to be the sacrificial lambs for such a cause. However, to dismiss a Welsh challenge at home in front of a raucous Cardiff crowd would be foolish and we actually feel that this is a pretty decent if inexperienced Welsh side running out against the All Blacks on Saturday. New Zealand continue to tinker but despite the experimentation enforced primarily by injuries, it is still a rather daunting outfit and if Wales can hold their own against them, then valuable lessons will be learnt. While a result would delight Welsh fans, most are likely to want to see a solid challenge that bodes well for the future.

In the front rows, we can’t really see Wales getting the edge over New Zealand’s Kane Hames, Codie Taylor and Nepo Laulala. This trio has ticked all the boxes this year and we just can’t see their Welsh counterparts gaining much traction on it, especially given the strength of New Zealand’s bench here. Wales will be competitive make no mistake but skill wise we just think the All Blacks have the more consistent and effective combination.

In the second rows, home advantage and the talismanic presence of Alun Wyn-Jones should just see Wales through until the benches are called in, despite the influence of probably the best in the world, New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock. We have mixed feelings about Whitelock’s partner Patrick Tuipulotu, but we feel once New Zealand call Scott Barret off the bench the balance will swing back in New Zealand’s favor.

In the back rows, we feel that once more it is all about New Zealand. We thought Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler had a good game against Australia for Wales, but it is the sheer class of Liam Squire and Sam Cane that makes these two front-runners to dominate proceedings here. The only real edge we see for Wales here is at number eight in the shape of Taulupe Faletau, but then we felt he had an uncharacteristically error strewn match against Australia and will need to be better on Saturday, even if he is facing up against relative newcomer Luke Whitelock for New Zealand. The one smoking gun Wales have in this department is the appearance of Justin Tipuric off the bench. Always a game changer the tireless flanker could be the key that unlocks New Zealand’s apparent dominance in this part of the park.

In the half backs, Wales’ Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb need no introduction and to a point should be able to hold their own against New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith, but the X-factor of the Kiwi pair far exceeds that of the Welshmen. As a result this contest is New Zealand’s to win, with the All Black replacements also being of far higher calibre than Wales in the shape of TJ Perenara and Lima Sopoaga.

In the backs, Wales pack some very exciting new talent against some exceptional and proven talent from New Zealand. Sadly it is this lack of experience on the part of Wales which is likely to be their undoing on Saturday. While winger Rieko Ioane and fullback Damian McKenzie have themselves only really burst onto the Test stage for New Zealand this year, they have already made these positions theirs, whilst the Welsh are very much competing for future places. Consequently with the centre pairing of Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty really coming into its own, Ioane’s strength and pace out wide and McKenzie’s elusive catlike abilities at fullback, Wales will be hard pressed to make any real inroads on the New Zealand defences with their young and inexperienced charges. Sadly this is one area of the park we expect to see New Zealand run riot in.

New Zealand pack the better bench, have greater familiarity amongst their starting fifteen and as a result we feel that this will ultimately be the complete performance New Zealand have been looking for all year. Consequently, Wales to be a worthy and exciting opponent at times, but New Zealand to ultimately run away with it by 25 points, even though we predicted a similar margin against Scotland and were delighted to be proved so dramatically inaccurate!

Ireland vs Argentina,
Saturday, November 25th
Dublin

While to say it is a forgone conclusion that this last big test of the year is clearly Ireland’s to lose is a stretch, we still find it hard to see anything other than a fairly solid Irish win at the Aviva on Saturday. Given that the vast majority of the squad that so comprehensively dismantled South Africa a fortnight ago make their return for Ireland we feel that our bias toward an Irish win is not without some grounding. Argentina meanwhile have struggled this year to really resemble the side that derailed Ireland at the World Cup two years ago and as a result it is hard to see them causing an upset on Saturday. Nevertheless, there is enough individual talent in this Pumas outfit that any opposition would write them off at their peril.

In the front rows, it’s a powerhouse Irish trio of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong with the two props playing some remarkable rugby at the moment. Hooker and Captain Agustin Creevy will provide inspiration for Argentina but this Pumas front row is just not up to the task at the moment so expect Ireland to dominate when it comes to scrum time.

In the second rows, we’re excited to see James Ryan get a start for Ireland. Although many are comparing him to Paul O’Connell we hope the youngster is allowed to prove his worth without the shadow of the great lock. Ian Henderson also needs no introduction and has really come back into his own in the green jersey. Matias Alemanno and Tomas Lavanini are both giant figures who could potentially rule the lineout but, despite Lavanini’s vastly improved discipline, we still feel that the Irish are going to win this contest.

In the back rows, despite some really strong Argentinian talent, it seems incapable of firing as a unit, something the Irish offering seems to have no problem with. Pablo Matera has consistently been Argentina’s go to man this year, and Marcos Kremer is a very promising highlight for the World Cup along with Tomas Lezana at eight. However, Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien are world-class from start to finish and work well off each other. At number eight CJ Stander needs to be more outspoken in his influence on match proceedings than he has been so far this year for Ireland in the Six Nations and on the Lions tour, but is still world class. Argentina will be fiercely competitive here but Ireland’s pedigree should win them the day.

At half back, there is simply no comparison as Ireland boast one of the best units in Test rugby in the shape of Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray. Argentina’s Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez are more than capable of flashes of brilliance but consistency and patience in terms of execution have rarely been their modus operandi this year. Ireland pack a much better bench offering here than Argentina in the shape of Luke McGrath who is turning heads at Leinster while Ian Keatley managed to keep his cool when Ireland were on the rack against Fiji last weekend.

In the backs, once again there is talent aplenty for Argentina but it seems based on individual brilliance rather than any kind of structured game plan. Ireland’s newcomers on the other hand looked very much the finished product against South Africa a fortnight ago. Adam Byrne is Ireland’s major experimentation as the youngster gets his first start in a green jersey on the wing, but we have really enjoyed watching him so far this year at Leinster. The centre pairing also sees a relative lack of experience in Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell but, the sheer potential of these two and Schmidt’s coaching should see them get the job done against a strong Argentinian challenge in the shape of Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias and Matias Moroni. Emiliano Boffelli will pose an enormous threat for Argentina out on the wing and Adam Byrne as a result will get a superb examination of how ready he is for Test rugby. However on the opposite wing Jacob Stockdale in the match against South Africa justified his place in an Irish starting XV and then some, and we expect more of the same on Saturday. The only area where we really see Argentina gaining some traction over Ireland here is at fullback. Joaquin Tuculet has been a consistent performer for Argentina this year, whereas the jury is still out on Rob Kearney for Ireland, despite the fact he had a respectable game against South Africa. So despite Ireland’s relative lack of experience expect them to have the more productive showing here on Saturday.

Argentina certainly have looked like they just want to put this year down to experience and move on to really trying to make 2018 a year they want to remember. Consequently as their last hurrah of the year, and away from home to boot they tend to run out of gas which should make it a relatively straightforward exercise for Ireland to get a decent win provided they keep their focus and their youngsters rise to the occasion. As a result we have trouble seeing anything other than an Irish win by 16 points!

Endnote

As always we include the 1014’s preview of this weekend’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentlemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. For some in-depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!

 

We had mixed feelings about the November Internationals when they were announced as we would have liked to have seen the two leading Northern Hemisphere rivals England and Ireland have a crack at more than just one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three, despite them both getting a chance to play Argentina. Instead it would seem that Wales, Scotland and France will get that privilege and in the process really find out how much depth there is in their talent banks and where the glaring gaps are, with the Welsh being tested the most. Nevertheless the opening weekend still served up some tasty fixtures and left us with much food for thought as we look ahead to the four matches we will be focusing on this weekend.

Italy get us started against Argentina, who despite a sloppy performance against England last weekend, still managed to end the match within a respectable distance of the scoreline. Italy ground out a confidence building win against Fiji and the progress that Coach Conor O’Shea is making with his side was there for all to see. Italy will want to make a big statement about their future this weekend, and if they do so, could even contemplate another historic win against a Springbok side reeling from one crisis to another. Argentina themselves are a shadow of the side that lit up the 2015 World Cup, and seem to have more questions than answers at the moment. However they are still not a side to be taken lightly and should they click then could prove to be the surprise of the month, setting up a mouth-watering showdown with Ireland in a week’s time.

England have their BIG game of the November series against an Australian side that is literally humming with intent and danger. For us this is THE match of the weekend and will tell us a great deal about Australia’s resurgence and how sound England’s position in the World Rankings at number two really is. Let’s be honest England’s display against Argentina last weekend did not exactly leave us awestruck, and they know they will have to notch their performance up quite a few gears this weekend if they are to justify their lofty status at number two in the World rankings. There is no doubt they are likely to rise to the occasion, but this Australian side is not the one they ran rings around last summer in Australia or at Twickenham last November. Settled and having had a long period of time together over the last three months, this is a formidable looking Wallaby outfit that is lean, mean and fast. A worthy Test of England’s character and progress to date awaits this Saturday at Twickenham.

Scotland then take on New Zealand, and while their defences were a matter of serious concern against a brave and plucky Samoa last weekend, their attacking prowess was breathtaking at times. As some have said, Scotland’s seemingly self-processed aim of playing some of the fastest attacking rugby on the planet appears to have left the defensive aspect of their game somewhat lacking. However, given the solidity of their attack and given the challenge facing them this weekend, it is likely that Coach Gregor Townsend and his charges have worked relentlessly at the defensive structures in their gameplay this week. New Zealand’s back line is more than capable of shredding any team on the planet and if Scotland don’t have a healthy understanding of how to use and understand what they see unfolding in their rear view mirrors on Saturday it could turn into a long and painful afternoon for the Scots, especially if their white line fever is not tempered with some solid and well thought out defensive patterns. New Zealand ultimately pulled off a comfortable win against France last weekend, but clearly took their foot off the gas in the second half, and were exposed badly at times by an exuberant French team.

Lastly, a grudge match of epic proportions awaits in Paris as the two finalists to host the 2023 World Cup go head to head in the Stade de France. With France much to the surprise of many, ourselves included, being awarded the World Cup in six years time, South Africa will feel more than just a bit resentful. It remains to be seen if this is yet one more humiliation they will have to suffer this year, or it will inspire them to put in a performance to well and truly spoil France’s party on home soil. To be honest after the truly awful display by the Springboks against a clinical and ruthless Ireland last weekend, we can’t help feeling that such aspirations on the part of South Africa are sadly nothing more than flights of fancy. France on the other hand were a revelation last weekend against New Zealand. Once Coach Guy Noves’ team started to click in the second half, we all put down our pints and watched in fascination as one of the most exciting debutant half back partnerships we’ve seen in a while went to work in blue jerseys. To be honest we had kind of written off France, but were delighted to see that there was finally some truth to the rumor that France is once more a sleeping giant in Test Rugby!

Just before we go into our usual head to heads for this weekend, we feel we need to give a big shout out to Canada’s opponents last weekend Georgia and Scotland’s foes Samoa. Georgia dispatched a Canadian side that still seems like South Africa to be completely rudderless, and did it in spectacular style making their fixture with Wales this weekend one we are more than likely to tune into. This try by fullback Soso Matiashvili surely has to be contender for try of the year, even though the nominations are now closed. If Canada had only half this kind of commitment then their current woes could start to be a thing of the past.

As mentioned above we also give Samoa, who faced a crisis of epic proportions within their own union last weekend, full credit as they were able to rise to the challenge so heroically against Scotland. It was inspirational stuff to a man and once more displayed the character and passion which is such an integral part of our glorious sport – Canada take note!  Samoa we salute you!

Italy vs Argentina
Saturday, November 18th
Florence

Italy need to win this and win it well, to both set themselves up for their encounter with South Africa in a week’s time as well as prove that the work that Coach Conor O’Shea is doing with this side is paying dividends in making Italy a genuinely competitive side. Despite Argentina’s lacklustre performance against England last weekend, this is a quality Pumas side that simply needs to click and if it does then Italy are going to be put to the test in no uncertain terms. A fascinating contest awaits especially if Argentina really turn up.

In the front rows, Argentina need to come to the party given the experience they have while Italy’s youngsters need to face up to the challenge. Given the fact that Argentina have the vastly experienced Agustin Creevy packing down we give the Pumas the edge here, despite the fact that they can no longer count on the scrum being one of their dominant platforms. Nevertheless, expect Italy to be competitive in this part of the park.

In the second rows, we also hand the contest to Argentina, especially as we were pleasantly surprised by Tomas Lavanini last weekend. He clearly seemed to have learnt the errors of his ways in terms of discipline and put in a remarkably composed performance against England who must have had him as a clear target in any attempts to get under the Pumas skin. Matias Alemanno was also solid and these two are a daunting unit. Italy’s offerings in Marco Fuser and newcomer Dean Budd are no slouches and will give as good as they get, but we just feel if the Pumas fire, the Argentinian duo are likely to be the more destructive pairing, especially with Guido Petti on the bench.

In the back rows, we also hand it to Argentina. Despite the fact that the Pumas number eight Juan Manuel Leguizamon is getting to close to the end of his tenure, there is no denying his pedigree and influence on this team especially if he can keep his discipline. As a result the contest between him and Italian talisman Sergio Parisse will be one of the highlights of this match, although the sheer inspiration that Parisse provides to his teammates should see the Italian come out on top. However, it’s at 6 and 7 where we feel that Argentina are going to be exceptionally dangerous. Pablo Matera is one of the best in the world and is often regarded as Argentina’s miracle man when the chips are down. His colleague, the towering Marcos Kremer, has also been a player who individually has impressed all season for Argentina. Their Italian counterparts Francesco Minto and Braam Steyn need no introduction, but the mere presence of Matera alone for Argentina, along with the rest of his all-star back row cast, makes us believe that despite Sergio Parisse Argentina may just have the edge here on Saturday.

Italy boasts a solid and promising half back partnership in the shape of fly half Carlo Canna and scrum half Marcello Violi. Canna’s kicking continues to improve and he has shown himself to be more than willing to take ball in hand and throw himself into the fray when needed. A player who we feel gets better with each outing and is a genuinely bright prospect for Italy. Argentina’s pairing of Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez really needs to click in this match. They often seem impatient and out of sync with each other which sees Argentina lose possession after one or two phases. However, with Sanchez scoring Argentina’s only try after an impressive 20 phases against England last weekend, it is clear that if they work together and stop trying to pull off moves that their skill sets can’t match, the Pumas pair provide the ability to run a tight game. Italy are still learning here, and Argentina just aren’t firing so as result on home soil we are just nudging it in favor of Italy, especially if it comes to a kicking contest between the sticks, as Canna’s success rate seems better than Sanchez’s of late.

In the backs, there is definitely some speed and pace here for Italy with winger Leonardo Sarto looking very good against Fiji and we also like the look of Mattia Bellini, so much so that we think Italy has the edge here, despite the presence of the Pumas new superstar winger Emiliano Boffelli. Boffelli’s colleague Sebastian Cancelliere made us sit up and take notice in the Americas Rugby Championship this year, but the Pumas pair were simply too quiet for us against England whereas the Italians really shone against Fiji at times. In the centres the balance swings back in Argentina’s favor with Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias and Matias Orlando, even if we really didn’t see anything of them in the England game up against a relatively new Italian pairing of the two Tommassos, Boni and Castello. Italy finally seem to have a decent fullback in Jayden Hayward but Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet is a special talent and as a result should have the edge here.

It is likely to be close with both sides wanting to make a statement, but despite home advantage for Italy we just feel that Argentina’s pedigree is simply that much better, despite them really not firing as a unit this year. Consequently a gritty battle with occasional flashes of brilliance from both sides, should see Argentina clinch it by two points!

England vs Australia
Saturday, November 18th
Twickenham

This is probably the most anticipated fixture of the November Internationals. England’s epic run of back to back victories came to a screeching halt this March in Dublin as Ireland finally managed to derail the English juggernaut. Since then a successful tour to Argentina which gave many up and coming English players their first real taste of the heat of battle at Test Level, and a good performance by English players on the Lions Tour, has meant there are plenty of grounds for optimism. However, between now and the World Cup the pressure is only going to increase and the opposition be more challenging. England looked rather pedestrian at times against Argentina, and distinctly average for large periods of the game. It is unlikely that Coach Eddie Jones will tolerate a similar performance against a Wallaby side that are a mere shadow of the shambolic outfit England went up against in 2016. England will be tested to the full on Saturday by an Australian team that is gaining momentum at an alarming rate. Unlike South Africa, Australia have emerged from the nightmare of 2016 looking in increasingly fine mettle and worthy challengers to England’s position of number two in the World rankings. A battle royale between two quality sides awaits us all at Twickenham this Saturday.

In the front rows, it is going to be tight but England should have the advantage. Australia are only just emerging from the wilderness in terms of scrum prowess. Although their progress here in the last six months has been nothing short of remarkable, it is still not as settled as that of England’s front row trio of Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole and Dylan Hartley, with Vunipola being one of the few standout English performers in the match against the Pumas last Saturday. Australia to be competitive and troublesome but England to win the contest here.

In the second rows, England should also have the edge in the shape of the tried and trusted platform of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury. While we think that Australia’s Adam Coleman is someone we will all be talking about come the World Cup, his partner Rob Simmons simply doesn’t match up at the same level, especially given the English offering, and the fact that Maro Itoje will be waiting on the bench for England. England to clearly dominate here, but Coleman to cause them all kinds of problems especially at lineout time.

In the back rows, the contest suddenly levels out and the advantage swings in favor of Australia. We thought Sam Underhill was outstanding, albeit naive at times, for England last weekend and clearly a force to be reckoned with for the future. Nathan Hughes also impressed at number eight along with the ever reliable Chris Robshaw at flanker. However, Australia’s Michael Hooper and number eight Sean McMahon are just that much more dynamic and unpredictable in our opinion. The only weak link here for us is the Wallabies’ Ned Hanigan, but even he is starting to silence some of his doubters. Nevertheless despite a very solid English offering here, we hand the contest to Australia given the X-factor and sheer nuisance value of Hooper and brute force of McMahon.

In the half backs, despite the presence of the exceptional Will Genia at scrum half for Australia it should be all about England. The pairing of scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford is once more starting to settle nicely, with some real intelligence on display here.  As a unit we just think the English pair is firing better, especially in the kicking department. Furthermore despite some epic performances this year for Australia, on the odd occasion Genia has gone missing for Australia and there will be plenty of pressure on both him and fly half Bernard Foley on Saturday, something which Foley in particular seems to be struggling with of late as good a player as he is. Therefore England to run the show here on Saturday.

In the backs, it’s a hard one to call but with Owen Farrell in the mix for England at centre alongside Jonathan Joseph, England may just have the slimmest of margins in terms of which side will get the upper hand. The Wallaby offering of Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi packs plenty of power and pace, but we just can’t help feeling that the English pair have the better tactical mindset especially when allied to their half back partnership of Ford and Youngs. On the wings though we feel Australia has the edge in the shape of the remarkable Reece Hodge and Australia’s find of the year Marika Koroibete. Elliot Daly and Jonny May provide plenty of potential to light up the pitch but we just feel that Hodge and Koroibete have some useful familiarity at the moment with the latter proving to be a nightmare for opposition defences to cope with. Lastly at fullback Australia’s Kurtley Beale has shown us some real magic in the last six months and we just feel he possesses a bit more X-factor than England’s Anthony Watson, albeit not by much. The contest between the Wallaby and English back lines is going to be fascinating and often equal. If Owen Farrell doesn’t quite shine as England need him to then Australia are likely to win the margins. However, with Farrell on form and the rest of his backs stepping up we hand this to England by the slimmest of margins.

It’s England’s bench with the exception of Joe Marler, who we still regard as a disciplinary liability for England, that should seal the deal in England’s favor on Saturday, albeit not by much. As much as Marler is a liability for England, the same could be said of Nick Phipps for Australia. But overall it is a very strong bench for England with some of their brightest up and coming talent packing the ranks, whereas the Wallaby bench is much more of a mixed bag particularly in terms of form. It is going to be incredibly close at times and hopefully a spectacle of Test rugby that we will all be talking about for many weeks to come. However, at home we can’t help feeling that this is England’s match by 2 points!

Scotland vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 18th
Murrayfield

We all know that Scotland are one of the most exciting attacking teams on the planet, but they are going to have to be that and one of the best teams defensively as well on Saturday if they are to give New Zealand a genuine run from their money. As impressed as we were by Scotland at times last Saturday against Samoa, there were simply too many alarm bells going off in the defensive quarters for us to feel confident about Scotland causing an upset this Saturday. They are likely to have spent the week working on their weaknesses in this department, but given the speed and ruthlessness of New Zealand we sadly doubt it will be enough of a turnaround in the space of a mere seven days. New Zealand will be looking no doubt to put in two “complete” performances to end their year, and it would seem that Scotland and Wales could well end up being the sacrificial lambs to that cause.

In the front rows, even without the presence of Dane Coles for New Zealand, the All Blacks should still have the clear edge. Coles’ understudy at Hooker, Codie Taylor needs no introduction and is a fearsome weapon in his own right. His partners Nepo Laulala and Kane Hames have also impressed throughout 2017. Scotland will be brave here make no mistake and we are huge fans of Scottish prop Zander Ferguson and like the promise of Hooker Stuart McInally, but they will be up against it as they seek to try to keep the New Zealand trio at bay.

In the second rows, Scotland’s offering of the exceptional Jonny Gray and Ben Toolis are likely to once more put up a brave fight, but the fact that the New Zealand second row boasts Sam Whitelock says it all. Whitelock is probably the best in the world at his position and Scotland are going to be working overtime just to keep his influence on proceedings to a minimum, let alone his partner Luke Romano.

In the back rows, it’s also hard to see Scotland getting the better of New Zealand, especially if Vaea Fifita has the kind of game he had against Argentina in the recent Rugby Championship. The contest here however is slightly less one-sided as we rate the two Scottish flankers John Barclay and Hamish Watson very highly. Both possess extraordinary work rates and seem to be virtually indestructible with Watson able to cause havoc at times. However, the pedigree of Sam Cane and Kieran Read should ensure that as the match wears on New Zealand start to dominate in this part of the field, especially once the bench starts making an impact in the shape of Matt Todd and Liam Squire.

In the half backs, it will be hard for Scotland to better New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett. England, Ireland and New Zealand have without a doubt the best half back pairings in Test rugby right now, and it will be a tall order for Scotland’s Finn Russel and Ali Price to unseat Smith and Barrett’s complete control of proceedings. Having said that though we must confess to finding Scotland’s Finn Russell to be a very exciting player with scrum half Ali Price bringing some real fizz to the position that has been lacking in Scottish rugby in days gone by. There will be plenty of sparks here on Saturday, but with TJ Perenara waiting on the bench for New Zealand, it is going to be hard to for Scotland to really exert the kind of control and continuity needed here. Expect New Zealand to dictate proceedings with occasional flashes of brilliance from Scotland.

In the backs, there should be plenty of excitement from both sides. Scotland’s 12-15 axis has danger written all over it in the shape of the electric centre pairing of Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, winger Tommy Seymour and speed merchant Stuart Hogg at fullback. However, for us New Zealand just look that much more accomplished and settled in their 11-15. The centre partnership of Sonny Bill Williams and the exceptional Ryan Crotty seems to have developed an effective formula, while Rieko Ioane has proved almost unstoppable out wide. Waisake Naholo packs plenty of pace and power on the opposite wing, and Damian McKenzie’s catlike elusiveness and sense of where the gaps are coupled to some exceptional passing skills and turn of pace, mean that New Zealand have the complete package here. Once again Scotland are likely to be exceptionally competitive in this area especially for the first hour, but New Zealand look the more tried and tested unit with a solid track record since August.

Despite the fact we feel a Scottish win is sadly not on the cards, we still think it should be an exceptionally exciting match at times with some spectacular running rugby from both sides. However, New Zealand look the more accomplished and familiar side and as a result we see them taking it by 21 points in a runaway finish in the last quarter!

France vs South Africa
Saturday, November 18th
Paris

Let’s be brutally honest it has been a harsh week for South African rugby. It starts with the schooling the Springboks got in Dublin intensifying the calls for the head of Coach Alastair Coetzee. Then mid-week South Africa learns that after seemingly having the 2023 World Cup bid in the bag, they are pipped at the post by France. Now to add insult to injury a demoralised South African team has to take on France on the ground that will see the final of the 2023 global showdown. It is going to be hard for players and supporters to drag themselves out of the funk surrounding the sport in South Africa on Saturday, but that is precisely what they need to do to vindicate their standing in the World Rugby order, and show that despite the disappointment they are still one of the sport’s great competitors. It will be a tough ask against a French team likely to be bubbling over with a degree of joie de vivre, as well as confidence from a respectable showing against the mighty All Blacks last weekend.

In the front rows, all is not lost for South Africa and despite the fact that the entire front row went missing in Dublin last weekend there is some serious firepower here. Hooker Malcolm Marx if he produces the kind of game he pulled off in the second Test against New Zealand in Cape Town in October, could singlehandedly demolish the entire French forward effort. However, we also highly rate France’s front row offering especially of Hooker Guilhem Guirado and Rabah Slimani. South Africa possess the legendary Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira in support of Marx, and despite the loss of Coenie Oosthuizen to injury, we like his replacement Wilco Louw. These three really need to click for South Africa on Saturday, and with Stephen Kitshoff on the bench we just feel that provided they turn up South Africa have the edge here.

In the second rows, South Africa should also have the clear edge in the shape of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, provided that unlike last week they actually show up.  However Sebastien Vahaamahina and Paul Gabrillagues had a solid game against New Zealand with Vahaamahina catching the eye on more than one occasion. Franco Mostert could provide some salvation for South Africa off the bench, but this contest is hard to call. Based on form alone from last weekend, we are perhaps controversially handing this one to the French.

In the back rows, there is also plenty of firepower for South Africa but it too really needs to find some character and polish that was so woefully lacking last Saturday in Dublin. Francois Louw returns to the flank alongside Siya Kolisi who was remarkably quiet and even inept at times, especially given the kinds of performances he has put in so far this year. At number eight Duane Vermeulen makes a return to the Springbok jersey, but doubts remain about his fitness especially as he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire for Toulon this season. France bring two players we rate very highly in the shape of talisman Louis Picamoles at number eight and Kevin Gourdon at flanker. We thought Gourdon in particular had an excellent game against New Zealand last Saturday. In short, despite the talent they have South Africa are going to be hard pressed to match France in this part of the park especially on home soil for les Bleus.

In the half back contest, we have to confess to having been blown away by the two French youngsters, scrum half Antoine Dupont and Anthony Belleau, last weekend against New Zealand. Despite the fact that South Africa are finally starting Handre Pollard once more at fly half, it’s been a while since he has worn the number 10 jersey for the Springboks. The French half back pairing was outstanding against New Zealand, especially given their lack of experience, something that so far we can’t say about the South African unit. We know Pollard has the talent but we haven’t really seen it for a while now, and he was remarkably quiet off the bench last weekend in Dublin even though he was not playing at fly half. On X-factor alone we’re giving this one to France.

In the backs, we also feel that it is once more all about France. Teddy Thomas scored a fine try last weekend, and Nans Ducuing was a revelation at fullback. The centre pairing of Geoffrey Doumayrou and Mathieu Bastareaud also got some serious go forward traction on New Zealand, and Bastareaud’s aggressive physicality is likely to prove problematic for South Africa’s Francois Venter and Jesse Kriel. At least South Africa are not starting Damian de Allende at centre though we scratched our head over his inclusion on the bench, but even Jesse Kriel has made increasingly little impact on the Springbok cause of late while Francois Venter has little Test experience. On the wings and under the high ball Courntall Skosan and Dillyn Leyds looked exceptionally vulnerable last weekend and expect France to target both this weekend. The only Springbok player in the backs who we thought tried to make a go of it against Ireland last weekend was fullback Andries Coetzee, but as a lone wolf with no support from his teammates up against a water tight Irish defence he was able to achieve very little. We know France can be exciting here and they proved that last weekend, whereas South Africa’s backs have for the most part been a constant Achilles heel for them, and we just can’t see that changing on Saturday meaning that France should have the clear edge in the running game.

The South African bench with the exception of Franco Mostert and Stephen Kitshoff is unlikely to give France much cause for concern, especially if they have managed to gain any sort of dominance by the final quarter. South Africa simply can’t be as woeful as they were last weekend, but it is still a big ask and one which will really determine what kind of character this side and its coaches are made of. However, given the events of the last week and South Africa’s continuing dismal record away from home we think this is France’s match for the taking. Consequently we expect to see France take it by six points in front of a delirious home crowd drunk on the fever of the World Cup bid!

Endnote

As always we include the 1014’s preview of this weekend’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentlemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. For some in-depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!

The November Test window opens in earnest this weekend, with some interesting fixtures in prospect, though for most the highlight of the weekend is likely to be the clash between Ireland and a resurgent South Africa. England take on Argentina and seek to give some new caps their first taste of the International stage. Meanwhile a depleted Wales look to take on their nemesis Australia who seem to be on a solidly upward trajectory, and France desperately seek to find a squad from the casualty wards that can take on an All Black team that still has some questions to answer. For Wales and France it will be all about trying find depth rather than results, whereas for Ireland and England a performance based result will clearly be the order of the day from the coaching staff.

Ireland will need to put a disappointing Six Nations behind them, and demonstrate that they have both the depth and skill set to be the competitors everyone knows they can be in the buildup to the World Cup. Ireland will need to show the consistency they so often lack over the coming months. They are without doubt the most potent threat in the Northern Hemisphere after England, but have so far struggled to string two solid wins together on the trot. South Africa will be desperate to prove that despite a truly heroic effort against the All Blacks last month which in our opinion was the THE Test of 2017 so far, they can perform to the same level away from home. Ireland as a first attempt at proving this is a truly daunting task, and as a result this should be a Test match to remember and the highlight of the weekend.

England in the process of blooding several new caps, should learn a great deal about their depth as well as securing a comfortable win against an Argentinian team that has simply failed to fire for more than fifty minutes in any given match this year. Make no mistake Argentina will be solid and gritty competition and if England let their guard down for a minute this could end up being their banana skin of 2017, but based on the Pumas current form we think it unlikely.

Wales face a team they simply seem unable to beat in the shape of the Wallabies, and with their squad riddled with injuries and as a result missing several key players, it is unlikely the status quo between these two sides is likely to change on Saturday. Australia will be keen to show that the renaissance we witnessed during the recent Rugby Championship, is no flash in the pan despite the chaos surrounding rugby at club level in Australia.

France will learn much about the depth they have available over the coming months as the insatiable demands of their club structure have meant that Coach Guy Noves is left with little choice other than selecting a squad we hardly recognise. While this may mean that France will struggle to put in much of a performance during November, it may also be beneficial in the long run as they uncover a raft of new talent at the beginning of their preparations for the next World Cup. New Zealand may be vulnerable at the moment, but we doubt that a relatively unknown French squad will unhinge the All Black juggernaut to any great degree. However it is France, and the history between these two sides is full of memorable surprises, and as a result always a contest worth watching, with the 2015 World Cup quarter-final perhaps being the only exception.

Anyway enough of the preamble and on to our usual look at the head to head matchups of the four key Tests this weekend.

England vs Argentina
Saturday, November 11th
Twickenham

We look at this match as the warm up game for England’s big match of November which in our opinion is their game against Australia next weekend. This is not to diminish Argentina as a threat but there is no question that this Pumas side is faltering at present and as a result will give England a workout but are unlikely to trouble an all-star England team. England will want to lay down the marker that they are the best team in the Northern Hemisphere and have made the most progress in building for the World Cup in Japan in 2019, whereas Argentina will simply be looking to put in a good performance and build the confidence of some their newer players.

In the battle of the front rows, England should easily have this wrapped up. Argentina’s Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy is absolutely outstanding but England’s unit of Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Mako Vunipola packs experience and power that simply puts their Argentinian opponents in the shade. A tight battle but one that England should dominate is likely to be the order of the day. Add to the mix Jamie George off the bench as Hooker replacement for Hartley and the deal is sealed for England.

In the contest between the second rows, once again England should have the match sewn up in the shape of Courtney Lawes and George Kruis. We are really surprised to see Argentina’s biggest discipline liability, Tomas Lavanini in the starting lineup, and as much as we like Matias Alemanno we just can’t see this Argentine unit getting any traction on their English counterparts.

In the back row, the contest is a little edgier between the two teams, as we have to confess to really liking the Argentine trio of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Tomas Lezana. Lezana and Kremer have been new additions to the Pumas lineup this year and have consistently impressed. We have to admit that as a result of not having watched any of the English premiership English flanker Sam Underhill is a bit of a novelty to us so can’t really comment. However, Nathan Hughes and Chris Robshaw need no introduction and our money is on them to contain a very energetic and powerful Argentinian challenge in this part of the park.

In the half backs, Argentina just haven’t fired for us this year either with Nicolas Sanchez or the veteran Juan Martin Hernandez. Martin Landajo is a quality and gifted scrum half, but given the fact that as a unit the Argentinian half back partnership has not really clicked this year, it is difficult for us to see the two Pumas gaining any kind of authority over England’s tried and trusted pairing of scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford. So no surprises here but England to run the show on Saturday.

In the backs, despite some genuine talent in Argentina’s offerings, England just look far too dangerous. The two Pumas wingers Emiliano Boffelli and Ramiro Moyano are big fast men but England’s Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson just boast too much pedigree and experience for it to be anything other than England dictating the play here. Add to that a genuinely exciting English centre partnership of the outstanding Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph and once more England would seem to have the clear advantage.  It is perhaps only at fullback where we’d argue that Argentina have an edge in Joaquin Tuculet over England’s Mike Brown. In our opinion the Puma packs more of an X-factor than the Englishman, and as a result is likely to be the more dangerous of the two. However, overall this English set of backs just look the more complete unit and as a result we expect it to be all about England here on Saturday.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of England’s game on Saturday will be the impact of the bench from prop Harry Williams, flanker Sam Simmonds and fly half Alex Lozowski. Lozowski and Williams both made us sit up and take notice on England’s tour to Argentina this June, and Williams has been immense for the most exciting team in the English premiership Exeter Chiefs. Despite their lack of experience when matched up against an Argentinian bench boasting more caps we still predict England to have the edge here.

It should be a tight battle at times, especially in the loose, but we can’t help feeling that England are ultimately going to run away with this one by 18 points!

Wales vs Australia
Saturday, November 11th
Cardiff

As we have said already Welsh supporters need to look at this match with an eye to developing some depth in their squad at this stage of the World Cup cycle. Their first outing against a rampant Australian side, is likely going to be a very tall order and as a result getting a solid performance by some of the newer players will be more important in many ways than an actual win. Australia on the other hand will want to show that they have now moved up a few gears in their preparation for the next World Cup and the recent win against New Zealand was clear evidence of this.

In the front rows, it should be Australia’s day, as after having been one of Test Rugby’s bad jokes, the Wallaby front row now looks solid and able to mix it with the best in the shape of Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Scott Sio. The Welsh offering boasts some solid prowess in the shape of Ken Owens, Rob Evans and Tom Francis but we just feel that the Australians have really stood out this year and with the familiarity of playing together now for the last 3 months they should have the edge over the Welsh.

In the second rows, we are really looking forward to the battle between Australia’s Adam Coleman and Welsh talisman and Captain Alun-Wyn Jones. We have been one of Coleman’s biggest fans since he first pulled on a Wallaby jersey and we expect a ferocious battle between the youngster and the veteran here on Saturday. We’d argue otherwise it’s an even match between the other two second rowers Rob Simmonds for Australia and Jake Ball for Wales, with the Welshman perhaps having the edge. Consequently we think Wales just might get the better of the contest here, especially if Ken Owens is solid with the throw-ins come lineout time.

In the back rows, we’re looking forward to seeing how the two new Welshman perform in the shape of flankers Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi. Having said that though we expect to see the class and experience of Australia’s Michael Hooper at flanker and the outstanding Sean McMahon at number eight rule the day. Taulupe Faletau for Wales will add plenty of spark but may be so busy caretaking his two rookie partners at Test level that his impact may be slightly diminished. Australia should win the contest but as we said, it’s going to be fascinating to see the two new Welshman in action and what this tells us about Welsh depth in this part of the park with an eye to Japan in 2019.

In the half backs, Will Genia has been on fire for Australia since the Rugby Championship, and although Bernard Foley may have struggled at times especially with the kicking duties, there is no doubting the value he adds to this Wallaby side and his willingness to throw himself into the fray. Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies need no introduction for Wales and if these two fire they can provide plenty of sparks of their own. However, based on performance, especially Genia’s we’re handing the contest to Australia here.

In the backs, we should once more get an idea of what kind of depth Wales are developing as both winger Steff Evans and centre Owen Williams get their first call to arms at Test level against a major rugby superpower. The rest of the Welsh back line backs some serious experience and punch in the shape of winger Liam Williams who is electric, and in our opinion the most exciting player in a Welsh jersey centre Jonathan Davies, with the veteran Leigh Halfpenny shoring up the fullback spot. However, in our opinion Halfpenny is not the player he once was. As good as this Welsh five are, along with the excitement of the new talent it’s Australia’s turbocharged offering which lit  up pitches this Rugby Championship that we feel is going to carve massive holes in an inexperienced Welsh defence. Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete was one of the revelations of the recent Rugby Championship and his partner Reece Hodge is an exceptionally versatile back line player and brings with him a massive point scoring boot. Our only surprise is seeing Kurtley Beale at fullback given his stellar performances so far this year at centre. However, with Israel Folau on sabbatical it is perhaps no bad thing to give the versatile Beale some exposure at fullback, a position he has played before. Tevita Kuridrani effectively steamrolled his way through opposition defences this year for Australia and his partner Samu Kerevi, despite some defensive frailties, is electric with ball in hand. There is just too much raw talent in the Wallaby back five for it to be anything other than Australia’s day here on Saturday, but if the Welsh offering especially the youngsters can really stand up and be counted, Welsh supporters will still have a lot to cheer about.

The benches are, especially in the case of Wales, all about blooding new talent, so again lots to learn here. However, overall especially given Wales’ woeful record against Australia, we can’t see it being anything other than an emphatic Australian win by 15 points!

Ireland vs South Africa
Saturday, November 11th
Dublin

Without any shadow of a doubt THE big fixture of the weekend, and one which we will be glued to our screens for. The South African performance against New Zealand in their final match of the Rugby Championship in Cape Town was for us the game of 2017 so far, and we expect this match to be of an equal calibre. Two sides with plenty to prove, and given their respective strengths and weaknesses being essentially equal competitors. In short this could go either way and should be an absolute belter of a Test.

In the front rows, despite the presence of the exceptional Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy for Ireland, we hand the contest to South Africa, simply on the presence of Malcom Marx alone. If you’re wondering why we are so emphatic in our rating of the South African hooker then just watch this:

Add to Marx the incomparable Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen packing down alongside him and this is a truly terrifying unit. Ireland especially in the shape of Healy and Furlong will be exceptionally competitive make no mistake, but we just can’t help feeling that Rory Best is just not the match of Marx, especially at lineout time, given the fact that South Africa will be packing three second rowers in their lineout. It will be a brave struggle by Ireland here, but one which South Africa should win comfortably. Throw in Steven “the ginger Ninja” Kitshoff off the bench along with the impressive Wilco Louw and South Africa’s dominance is assured.

In the second rows, we also hand the contest to South Africa fair and square. Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth are so familiar with each other and such gigantic figures in the lineout that Ireland’s Devin Toner and the exceptional Ian Henderson are going to struggle to keep these two powerful figures in check. Add to that the incomparable Franco Mostert waiting on the bench and it is going to be hard for Ireland to contain South Africa here let alone acheive any kind of dominance, especially if Rory Best’s lineout throwing is not up to scratch.

It’s in the back rows, where things start to even up between the two sides. With CJ Stander at number eight and Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien on the flanks this is a fast and dangerous Irish loose trio. However, they will be equally matched by South Africa’s outstanding Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit, despite the latter usually playing as a second rower. Despite playing out of position, Du Toit excelled in the flanker role in the second Test against New Zealand and expect more of the same on Saturday. We just can’t pick a side that has a clear advantage here and as a result expect this to be one of the most exciting contests on the field on Saturday.

In the half backs, though the ascendancy starts to swing firmly in favor of Ireland. The Irish half back partnership of scrum half Conor Murray and fly half Jonathan Sexton is simply one of International Test Rugby’s finest and should easily completely dictate the passage of play on Saturday in Ireland’s favor. It’s also worth noting that Murray’s replacement on the bench Kieran Marmion had an outstanding game under pressure against England in the Six Nations this year and is likely to provide ample support in continuing whatever dominance the Irish are able to achieve here. Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies are a solid pairing for South Africa but they simply don’t have the X-factor and tactical skill sets of the Irish pair. Like many we are interested to see if Handre Pollard comes off the Springbok bench as number 10 or a centre and feel South Africa will learn much about who should be playing these positions by the end of this November Test series.

In the backs, we can’t help feeling that it is going to be a run away contest in favor of Ireland. This is one area of South Africa’s game which so far this year hasn’t really made anyone sit up and take notice. It’s not that they haven’t got good players, but more a question of not really knowing how to use or support them. Furthermore, we cannot for the life of us understand the inclusion of Damian de Allende in the starting fifteen at centre when there are so many more talented centres in South Africa. We just can’t see De Allende working all that well alongside Jesse Kriel who is an impressive ball carrier but like De Allende is also rather one-dimensional and fairly easy to read defensively. Ireland boast a lethal centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and newcomer Bundee Aki who gets his first start for Ireland after having lit up the Pr012/14 at Connacht for the last few years and is Henshaw’s former partner at club level. We’re very excited to see two new starts for Ireland on the wing in the shape of Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale with the latter being the talk of Irish rugby this season for all the right reasons. South African wingers Dillyn Leyds and Courtnall Skosan are exciting players in their own right but given that the Irish pair are going to have the likes of Sexton and company looking to put them into space, we just can’t help seeing Ireland running rings around South Africa here on Saturday. Lastly at fullback although we question the selection of Rob Kearney at fullback as opposed to newcomer Tiernan O’Halloran, especially as there are question marks around Kearney making it to Japan, there is no doubt that there are still some big games left in the veteran fullback. We questioned his inclusion in the Irish starting fifteen against New Zealand in Chicago last year only to have him put in a vintage performance. Nevertheless we would have at least liked to see O’Halloran on the bench, perhaps we’ll see him for the match against Argentina. South Africa’s Andries Coetzee is a fine player but if Kearney produces one of his vintage performances it will be hard for the South African fullback to really get the better of his much more experienced Irish counterpart.

This will very much be a game where if South Africa establish forward dominance and suffocate Irish go forward ball the contest will be a dead heat till the final whistle. However, if the Irish back row gets the better of the South Africans then Ireland’s more accomplished and dangerous set of players from 9-15, plus home advantage should see them home. South Africa are still desperately trying to shake the demon of performing badly away from home off their back, something we think they are likely to do this tour, but not against the second best side in the Northern Hemisphere as an opening Test. Consequently we are handing this to Ireland by five!

France vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 11th
Paris

Despite the seemingly inevitable outcome of this match there is still plenty of interest to be had. Let’s face it at this stage we know pretty well everything about this star-studded New Zealand squad but virtually nothing about this French squad, which to be fair has been cobbled together at the last-minute due to many of French Coach Guy Noves’ first choice selections littering the casualty wards of hospitals across France at the moment. Once more much like Wales, what French supporters should take from this November series is how much depth they are developing for the World Cup in Japan in just under two years as opposed to actual success in terms of results on the pitch.

In the front rows, there is some familiarity for those of us who have been watching France in the last few seasons, in the shape of Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, alongside props Rabah Slimani and Jefferson Poirot. We are big fans of both Guirado and Slimani but there is no question that they are going to be up against it when going head to head with New Zealand’s new look partnership of  Nepo Laulala, Dane Coles and Kane Hames. This is by no means New Zealand’s second string front row as was evidenced in the Rugby Championship and can easily fill in for regulars Owen Franks and Joe Moody. Solid, reliable and with the X-factor of Coles, New Zealand are going to be very hard if not impossible to beat here, with New Zealand’s bench looking to complete the destruction.

In the second rows, with the presence of perhaps the best in the world in the shape of Sam Whitelock, New Zealand will have the clear edge here and his partner Luke Romano provides plenty of firepower as well.  We know a fair bit about France’s Sebastien Vahaamahina but next to nothing about newcomer  Paul Gabrillagues having watched none of the TOP 14 this season. However, whatever talents the French pair have we just can’t see them getting the better of the New Zealand duo, especially with Whitelock in the mix. With Scott Barrett waiting on the bench for New Zealand the pain here is only likely to intensify for France.

In the back rows, it’s once again all about New Zealand though expect France to be more competitive here. Flanker Vaea Fifita was sensational in the Rugby Championship prompting many to draw similarities between him and the great Jonah Lomu. While still relatively inexperienced at Test level this remarkable player is only going to get better and more dangerous in the buildup to the next World Cup. Packing down alongside him are Sam Cane and Captain Kieran Read and France are going to have to be rather extraordinary to gain any kind of traction here. However, in the shape of Louis Picamoles at eight who is always inspirational and Kevin Gourdon who is someone we have consistently enjoyed watching, France should manage to at least be competitive here even if New Zealand are likely to dominate proceedings.

In the half backs, having not watched any of the TOP 14 we have to confess to knowing nothing about France’s two newcomers fly half Anthony Belleau and scrum half Antoine Dupont. However, New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith are arguably the best in the world at their trade to the point we just can’t see France being even remotely competitive here. We do know a great deal about Baptiste Serin who occupies the French bench as a scrum half replacement and must confess surprise to not seeing him start, as he genuinely brings some excitement and X-factor to the position for France. With New Zealand’s TJ Perenara and Lima Sopoaga waiting on the bench in the half back berth’s France’s demise in this part of the park would seem assured.

Lastly in the backs it should once more be all about New Zealand plain and simple. The names Damian McKenzie, Waisake Naholo, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane for Zealand ring like a roll call of honor in back line play in International Test Rugby right now. While names like French winger Yoann Huget and his partner Teddy Thomas may be familiar to us, they have hardly been occupying the bright lights of the Test stage in the last year like the New Zealanders have. The choice of Mathieu Bastareaud at centre for France to us smacks of sheer desperation in an attempt to contain the physicality and ball carrying skills of Sonny Bill Williams. As for the rest of France’s back line offering we simply know nothing of them and as a result simply can’t imagine them having much say in proceedings when up against the ridiculous skill sets of their New Zealand opponents.

As we said above, like Wales French supporters will need to see this match through the lens of what it shows them in terms of depth going forward in their World Cup preparations. Despite the proud history of epic matches full of surprises, between these two sides, we are hard pressed to see too many surprises in the making come Saturday. New Zealand should walk away with this without too much difficulty by 22 points, though having said that we have to confess to hoping that France may just turn the form book upside down – doubtful but fun to hope for!

Endnote

As always we include the 1014’s preview of November’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentelemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. For some in depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!

 

 

 

 

The final round of the Rugby Championship saw New Zealand emerge once more as the dominant force in this tournament by a country mile, but the last weekend did produce one of the most epic Tests of the year as the All Blacks and Springboks went to battle in Cape Town. It was a Test match that had all the qualities that make encounters between these two old rivals so special, and in doing so it made sure that one of the most anticipated fixtures on the annual Test calendar lived up to its vintage pedigree. The match between Argentina and Australia by comparison was always going to struggle to be viewed in the same light but it still provided an entertaining spectacle and while it may have raised more questions than answers for Pumas supporters, Wallaby fans can certainly look forward to a tough November tour of Europe with some degree of optimism.

So let’s look at the teams in the order they finished to try to figure out what they have learnt over the course of the last two months starting with New Zealand.

New Zealand

New Zealand may have emerged once more as all-conquering heroes, but just as we saw on the Lions tour to the land of the long white cloud earlier this year, they didn’t quite have things all their own way as well as not being at their ruthless and clinical best at times. New Zealand have clearly started their buildup to the World Cup in Japan in two years time in earnest, and as a result have used this tournament in particular to develop some depth, blood new players and experiment with combinations. While they may have occasionally tripped over their boot laces in doing so at times, we would have to say that the experiment has been successful as a whole. The raw talent that New Zealand put on display during the course of the tournament was spectacular, and while it may still be a bit rough round the edges, their arsenal of skilled players who are only going to get better must surely look terrifying to those who will be attempting to knock them off their World Cup pedestal in Japan in two years time.

New Zealand suffered their fair share of injuries during the tournament, causing them to develop a very capable and effective back up front row, which as far as we could see had absolutely no weaknesses in the shape of Codie Taylor, Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala. The regular stalwarts of Dane Coles, Owen Franks and Joe Moody are clearly Head Coach Steve Hansen’s first choice, but these three understudies mean that New Zealand want for nothing in terms of consistency and prowess once the bench is called into play.

New Zealand, in the shape of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, clearly have the world’s best second row partnership without question. However, add the figure of Scott Barrett as a partner to either of these two and New Zealand lose very little in terms of a starting XV. We’d argue that South Africa perhaps has the slightly more comprehensive depth here, but New Zealand’s premier pairing of Whitelock and Retallick has become such a benchmark in terms of a world-class second row, that it is still going to be very difficult for any team to really cause New Zealand consistent problems here.

Back row depth continues to be a huge strength for New Zealand, as it has for quite some time now. The retirement of the legendary Richie McCaw seems to have caused New Zealand very few problems. Kieran Read is rising admirably to the task of filling McCaw’s massive boots as Captain, to the point that for many of us, it’s hard to believe he has only been in the role since last year. Sam Cane, Liam Squire, Matt Todd are all household names when it comes to talking about Test Rugby back rows, and a certain Vaea Fifita made us all think that the mighty Jonah Lomu had been reincarnated.  Fifita’s Test debut in the home game against Argentina was nothing short of spectacular. Ardie Savea seems to be the impact player of choice off the bench, and his frenetic energy causes opposition defences all kinds of headaches as he simply pops up everywhere.

Just as Retallick and Whitelock take global honors for the World’s best second row, New Zealand’s half back partnership of Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett do the same for the 9 and 10 spot, with TJ Perenara making sure that nothing is lost in terms of intensity off the bench. However, as good as these two are, it does raise for us one question about New Zealand and that is where does New Zealand really stand if Beauden Barrett is not available? New Zealand rely so heavily on the young man that his understudy Lima Sopoaga, a fine player in his own right, simply hasn’t had the amount of game time that we think he should have got during this tournament, especially with an eye to the World Cup. Furthermore, Barrett’s goalkicking is a clear cause of concern for New Zealand – spot on one match and then seemingly unable to hit a barn door the next. His brother Jordi Barrett has been put forward as an answer to the goalkicking duties as has the exceptional Damian McKenzie. However, as good as Barrett is this is something which New Zealand will really need to seek some answers to in November.

New Zealand had so much talent on display in the backs during this tournament, that we actually forgot that Ben Smith only played in the opening two matches. Winger Rieko Ioane clearly came into his own in this tournament as did Damian McKenzie. Ioane’s debut on the Lions tour made us sit up and take notice and he continued to impress in this tournament – clearly a player who is just going to get better and better. The tournament also saw the welcome return of Nehe Milner-Skudder who then sadly was once more ruled out with injury. The wings are perhaps still the one area where New Zealand still looks slightly unsettled and the continuing injury count here is not helping them find solutions. In the centres the question is simply what is the long-term centre combination? Is it Ryan Crotty/Anton Lienert-Brown or Crotty/Sonny-Bill Williams? To be honest we are still unable to answer this question by the end of the tournament. It would seem that Hansen prefers the Crotty/Williams combination with Lienert-Brown being favored as the impact player off the bench. We still argue that Lienert-Brown is the more creative player than Williams but there is no denying Williams’ ability to make solid and bruising impact up the inside channels. Perhaps November will put this question to bed once and for all.

Lastly, we take our hats off to Damian McKenzie at fullback. This was his chance to really show what he can do and try to make the 15 jersey his. Sure he tripped up a few times in the process, but overall we thought he made an exceptional contribution to the All Blacks’ efforts over the last two months. Agreed his place kicking sometimes lacked some finesse, and his defensive work could occasionally be called into question, but give this guy some space and some extraordinary things start to happen on the rugby pitch. His diminutive size seems not to matter as he hurls himself into tackles on players twice his size and stature with fearless abandon, while being almost impossible to bring down himself. This is an extraordinary player in our opinion and someone who is going to feature heavily in New Zealand’s plans for Japan. He has earned his stripes and his right to be an integral part of any starting All Black XV, it now remains to be seen how New Zealand use him between now and 2019.

In summary, are New Zealand still THE benchmark team in Test Rugby? Without any shadow of a doubt yes! Are they as polished as in years gone by? Perhaps not but the lack of shine at times, given the extraordinary depth of talent at their disposal, is only a temporary illusion. To defeat New Zealand is not beyond the realm of possibility but it will have to be a rather extraordinary team that does it, and with New Zealand’s remarkable ability to regroup after any setback, don’t expect it to happen with any degree of regularity.

Australia

You could have been forgiven for thinking that Australia were potential contenders for the wooden spoon in this year’s Rugby Championship, therefore their second place finish is certainly cause for celebration by their supporters. Australia’s transformation started in the second half of the opening match against New Zealand and was confirmed in their heartbreaking loss to the All Blacks in Dunedin a week later. Australia are back and starting to look ominous once more which one could argue is the perfect trajectory leading up to a World Cup in two years.

Australia’s scrum has been the laughing-stock of Test Rugby for the last two years, but in this tournament while being a long way from dominant it has finally become a reliable platform for the Wallabies, coupled to some solid lineout throwing. The front row partnership of Sekope Kepu, Scott Sio and Tatafu Polota-Nau seems to be working and what’s more can hold its own. New Zealand and South Africa have some exceptional front row prowess and Australia showed in this tournament that they can now be competitive once more at scrum time, with their notorious ill-discipline vastly improved. On a tough November tour, we’ll get a real test of how much progress Australia have really made here.

For us one of the most exciting developments for Australia has been in the second row. We have consistently been fans of Adam Coleman, and he certainly did not disappoint in this tournament. Furthermore, put him together with Rory Arnold and the signposts to Japan could not be clearer. Australia spent a lot of time tinkering with who should partner Coleman, and the jury seems to be very much out in terms of a verdict here and likely to remain so certainly until the end of November. We prefer the Arnold option but it seems that Coach Michael Cheika seems to be in two minds, and we hope for some consistency in terms of selection decisions come November.

Australia’s back row is clearly becoming a force to be reckoned with once more, especially once David Pocock returns next year. Michael Hooper seems to be responding well to the Captain’s role, and once he got over his wobbles in the first half of the opening match of the tournament, he ended up being a wrecking ball for the rest of the tournament. Australia tinkered all Championship in terms of selecting his partner to the point where we can’t really see any clear patterns developing here, plenty of potential, but no real answers. At number eight, Sean McMahon had some really outstanding performances, but then by the same token on a few occasions also failed to show up. His departure to Japan will clearly pose the Australian selectors with some headaches between now and the World Cup.

In the half backs, consistency seemed to be Australia’s biggest problem. Fly half Bernard Foley is not having a good year, especially when it comes to kicking duties. When it does fire for him we still think he is an exceptional player, but he has struggled to string together some solid performances this year, and with no real backup for this position, Australia surely have some concerns here. Will Genia at scrum half was outstanding at times, but then other matches he appeared strangely quiet. Many, ourselves included, thought that prior to the start of the tournament he had reached his sell by date, but the second Test against New Zealand proved us all wrong in no uncertain terms. However, his replacement, Nick Phipps is still too much of a wild card for us and the November tour to Europe should have the goal of getting some consistency in terms of Australia’s abilities here as a key focus.

In the backs, Australia have experienced a renaissance harking back to the glory days of Australian rugby. The centre partnership of Kurtley Beale and Tevita Kuridrani is world-class and something we expect to see lighting up the pitches of Europe come November. Beale has transformed himself into some sort of magician since his time in England, and alongside Kuridrani who seems able to batter his way through opposition defences at will, this is a highly effective and dangerous combination. On the wings the revelation of the last two Tests was Rugby League convert Marika Koroibete. We had our doubts but were blown away by this gentleman’s speed and power – in short look out Europe! Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty, once the latter returns from injury, also look exceptional strike threats and Australia should feel pretty confident about their abilities on the park in this department. Lastly Israel Folau showed us on numerous occasions how dangerous he can be, but also he appeared guilty of not showing up for some matches and putting others on the back burner. Just like their half backs Australia need some consistency from this exceptional player.

Australia, have gone from being a bit of a laughing-stock last year, to rapidly developing into a quietly smoking gun this year. Anyone who takes the threat they pose lightly will be in for a nasty shock – England, Scotland and Wales you have been warned! We also think that the third Bledisloe Cup match, although a dead rubber, will be a genuinely interesting contest this Saturday in Brisbane.

South Africa

Like Australia, South Africa have emerged from the ashes of their nightmare 2016 season in fine fettle. There is still plenty of work to be done, but the Test against the All Blacks a fortnight ago in Cape Town was one of the best of 2017, and the Springboks must take enormous credit for making it such a spectacle. We had predicted a bloodbath and were absolutely delighted to have been proven completely wrong. It was an epic performance from South Africa and one that must surely give them enormous confidence heading into a tough end of year tour. Some have said that Springbok rugby as we know it is dead but we have to disagree. You don’t put in a performance like that against the best side in the world if you are a team in decline.

It was South Africa’s front row that proved to be one of the talking points of the tournament, and Hooker Malcolm Marx in particular. Although Marx had a shocker of a game in New Zealand against the All Blacks, in every other Test he was outstanding and in the final match in Cape Town his performance was off the charts and the stuff of Springbok legends. In short, he was for us perhaps the player of the tournament, and a fantastic weapon in South Africa’s arsenal. Tendai ‘the Beast’ Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen provided the stability to a South African scrum that proved difficult to gain any traction on. The loss of Oosthuizen to injury was a huge blow to South Africa and their performance suffered as a result, as Ruan Dreyer is unfortunately not the answer at tighthead. How they fix this for November remains to be seen, but as evidenced in Cape Town a fortnight ago it is not beyond the realm of possibility and we like the look of new prop Wilco Louw as a possible solution. Furthermore if the Beast runs out of puff, then Steven Kitshoff is a very worthy replacement even in the starting XV. To be honest his performance in Cape Town was so impressive we’d actually argue for giving him an increasing role in the starting XV as preparation for Japan.

In the second row, South Africa showed they had an abundance of depth. Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and Lood de Jaeger run on like a veritable honor roll of Test rugby second rowers. The jury is still out for us on Etzebeth in the Captaincy role and how he handles himself on the road in November will be the ultimate Test for us. Nevertheless in Cape Town we felt he really stood up and was counted, after letting the side down against Australia the week before, especially as Captain, as his infamous temper got the better of him. Furthermore, much to our surprise, given that previous experiments in this regard hadn’t worked, Du Toit showed in Cape Town that he is also a pretty handy back rower to boot.

In the back row, South Africa has got some real power and pace. As mentioned above, Pieter-Steph du Toit stood out in this role in Cape Town, and regulars like Jaco Kriel and the exceptional Siya Kolisi were outstanding. Francois Louw also made a welcome return to Test rugby and impressed both at 7 and eight, while Jean-Luc du Preez is also a real talent in the making in both positions. However, long-term questions remain regarding who best to play at number eight in the absence of regular and Captain Warren Whiteley. Debutant for this season Uzair Cassiem often looked out of his depth in the role and South Africa played better in his absence.

In the half backs, South Africa have a solid, albeit not spectacular, partnership in the shape of Elton Jantjies at fly half and Ross Cronje at scrum half. They may not have the razzle dazzle of their New Zealand, Australian and Argentine counterparts but you know what you’re going to get from these two and it often translates into reliability and points on the board. The brief return of fly half Handre Pollard in the Cape Town Test made us all sit up and take notice and it will be interesting to see how he and Jantjies share the duties come November.

In the backs though the jury still remains out for us in terms of where South Africa is at. Jan Serfontein was impressive at times at centre and Andries Coetzee made an excellent start to his Test career at fullback. However we struggled to find any patterns of play evident in the back five during the course of the Championship, whereas the developments and improvements taking place amongst the forwards were clear to see for everyone. To be honest we are hoping that where South Africa is heading in terms of its back line play will become more evident to us come the November Tests. We know that wingers Courtnall Skosan and Dillyn Leyds can be exciting players, and must confess to really liking what we saw from Leyds both in attack and defence in the last two Tests. However, these players appeared to be used almost sporadically by the rest of the team throughout the Championship. Furthermore, alarm bells continue to ring in how South Africa finds a bench that can field some impact when it comes to the backs. Sadly we are not seeing much to get excited about. If Damian de Allende is as good as it gets then that’s not really saying much and something South African supporters must be genuinely concerned about with two years to go before the World Cup.

South Africa, despite the shock and horror of the one-off 57-0 defeat in New Zealand, have like Australia made some really positive progress during the course of this tournament. For the most part, especially up front, they are in an excellent place. For us it is lingering concerns about their back line and their ability to perform outside of South Africa that remain nagging questions. The November Tour will hopefully answer at least the question relating to whether or not South Africa can translate the kind of epic display they put on in Cape Town to a string of consistent performances on the road next month. Either way though it is great to see this traditionally proud rugby nation have something to cheer about once more.

Argentina

If you have to ask the question what has Argentina learnt from the Rugby Championship, the answer is sadly not much! Right now they seem to be a sixty minute team, blessed with remarkable individual talent but a complete lack of patience and cohesion in their game play. As a result their performances look error strewn mishaps made worse by constant breakdowns in discipline as their frustrations mount. Probably the most pertinent lesson they can take from this tournament is that not being able to use their overseas based players is severely hampering the potential of Argentinian rugby to remain competitive at Test level. Furthermore, the tournament has brought Coach Daniel Hourcade into the spotlight in rather negative terms, and sadly he seems to have fallen rather dramatically from being seen in such a positive light after the last World Cup.

Argentina’s once dominant scrum prowess sadly seems to have become a thing of the past. There is no question that Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy is one of the best in the world, and the inspiration he provides to his team is second to none. However, the rest of his teammates in the front row have sadly not been able to back him up. As a result the Pumas scrum has rarely struck fear into the hearts of their opposition for quite a while now. Quite frankly we are struggling to see any long-term solutions to this.

The second row is perhaps one area where Argentina have learnt the most. Tomas Lavanini despite his passion for the jersey would seem to be too much of a disciplinary headache for the Pumas. Our heart actually goes out to him as wearing the jersey clearly means so much to him, just watch him struggling to keep the tears at bay during the national anthems at the start of their second Test against the All Blacks in Buenos Aires, but that emotion clearly gets the better of him when it comes to physical confrontation. Consequently the partnership of Matias Alemanno and Guido Petti would appear to be the way forward for Argentina, and to be fair this is a solid platform with Alemanno really standing out over the last two months. There appears to be some depth here as well in the shape of Marcos Kremer.

In the back rows, Argentina have also learnt that they can produce quality number eights. Like many we felt that the loss of the exceptional Facundo Isa to Toulon would spell the end of Argentina’s proven traction in this position. However, Tomas Lezana has clearly stepped up to the plate and performed admirably and shown plenty of promise, meaning that the loss of Isa has clearly not proven to be the national tragedy that many predicted. Pablo Matera was one of the top performers in terms of loose flankers throughout the tournament, with Javier Ortega Desio providing him with more than ample support. Benjamin Macome also made some impressive debuts, leaving us with the opinion that while there are concerns as to what Argentina’s back row unit may look like in the long run, there is no doubt that there is plenty to work with, and that perhaps can be regarded as one of the positive lessons learnt from Argentina’s Rugby Championship.

In the half backs Argentina know they have plenty of class, but increasingly lack the patience or skill set to pull off the rather elaborate type of game they are trying to play. Scrum half Martin Landajo and fly half Nicolas Sanchez are exciting players, but they are clearly not firing individually and together as a unit. Sanchez in particular appears to be struggling to find his rhythm of seasons past. However, neither of them appear to have the skill set to run the kind of game they are trying to execute. In short, they are making Argentina look over ambitious in one breath and impatient the next.

In the backs, the problems at half back are accentuated. Argentina is blessed with some wonderful talent in the backs. Fullback Joaquin Tuculet, wingers Emiliano Boffelli and Matias Moroni and centre Matias Orlando are all exceptional players, but sadly appear to be operating in an outfit that rarely knows how to use their talents. Consequently they are expected to produce miracles as individuals as opposed to operating within a clearly thought out and well executed game plan. It’s this last point which perhaps stands out the most in terms of what Argentina has learnt from this tournament. They seem to be bereft of direction both off and on the field. You would be hard pressed to identify what Argentina’s strengths are as a team. There are plenty of individual talents but you rarely see them at work in terms of a team performance.

Argentina have to find some answers and fast, but sadly we think that there is more disappointment ahead of them next month. A poor Rugby Championship devoid of results is not the kind of track record that you want to be taking on the road on a tour where you will be going up against the two best sides in the Northern Hemisphere – England and Ireland. Perhaps they will surprise us all and in the process learn the lessons that they should have learnt over the last two months. We hope that November is a positive experience for Argentina as it has saddened us to see the promise they showed in the last World Cup amount to very little in the last two years, especially given the talent they have at their disposal.

Endnote

As always we end with another excellent video from the lads at the 1014. This review of the 2017 Rugby Championship provides some fascinating insights into the tournament and the players which will give us plenty to think about and look forward to come the November Internationals. Enjoy and make sure you like and subscribe!

Just a quick round of our musings this week, as we seem to have been swept by a particularly nasty version of the fall cold that is sweeping through our kids’ schools – end result not much time or energy to talk about matters pertaining to the oval ball. So it will be a quick summary set of points rather than our usual head to head analysis this week to back up our predictions.

So no surprises here, New Zealand have once again got the Championship sewn up with a round to spare. Sure they have provided us with plenty of talking points, especially as they have used this tournament to really experiment with new players and combinations. While it may not have fired with their usual clinical efficiency they have still retained the title of the world’s only rugby superpower blessed with a depth of talent that most national coaches can only dream about.

South Africa have also had a go at experimentation, but for the most part it hasn’t worked. Sure they got wins against a fractured Argentinian side in their opening two encounters, but even those victories looked laboured at times. They have showcased some phenomenal talent over the course of the tournament but there has been a lack of cohesion in the team especially when under pressure. Lastly their ability to execute some of the key basics of the game, and turn possession into points has been a major weakness.

Australia have had many of the same problems, but their comeback against New Zealand away from home in Round 2, even though they ultimately lost, has left us with the impression that they are having more success with their own learning curve than South Africa. They are developing some solid foundations and there is the nucleus of a team there now with some proven depth and promising talent. Australia are not out of the woods yet, but they seem to have made more progress in moving on from their own nightmares of the last twelve months.

Argentina, have been a conundrum. A team blessed with individual talent that seems to lack the structure and cohesiveness needed at Test level, coupled with an inability to last much beyond 60 minutes. They have put in some brilliant performances, but sadly been unable to turn it into results. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that even though we have loved watching them at times, we have never really felt that they are actually going to walk away the winners. Something just isn’t clicking in Argentinian rugby right now, and it remains to be seen if the lessons learnt in this tournament can be translated into some positive results come November and two very demanding Tests against the best in the Northern Hemisphere England and Ireland.

South Africa versus New Zealand
Saturday, October 7th
Cape Town

We’d all love to see South Africa regain some honor after the horror show that was the 57-0 drubbing they received in New Zealand a month ago. However, given the team that New Zealand have assembled for one of the highlights of the annual Test calendar, we sadly see more pain in store for South Africa despite home advantage. South Africa in turn have assembled a squad that continues to have us scratching our heads in terms of selection choices.

New Zealand look set to annihilate South Africa once more at scrum time. The new look All Black scrum without veteran props Owen Franks and Joe Moody, has gelled into a solid and reliable unit. South Africa are without the services of Tendai Mtawarira, and continue with Ruan Dreyer at tighthead prop. Mtawarira has been one of the standout performers in a troubled tournament for South Africa, and although he is replaced by Stephen Kitshoff, who we have a great deal of respect for, it is still a new unit with Ruan Dreyer a consistent weak link at tighthead. Dreyer did score a fine try against Australia, but his bread and butter work in the scrum is exceptionally weak and a constant source of penalty opportunities for the opposition.

South Africa also put the exceptional second rower Pieter-Steph du Toit at flanker, a position he clearly is not comfortable in, and flanker Francois Louw at number 8, a role the veteran Springbok has never performed. In short, the forward pack for the Springboks reeks of far too much forced experimentation for such a crucial match against a settled and dangerous All Black unit. Add to that a very average Springbok half back and back line contingent against an absolutely lethal All Black offering and we can’t see anything other than a convincing All Black victory.

While we don’t see New Zealand having it all their own way on Saturday, given it is home turf for South Africa, it is still fairly easy to predict the winner. South Africa will manage to get some points on the board this time, but that is about all we can say. New Zealand to finish the tournament in style with another emphatic win by 22 points!

Argentina vs Australia,
Saturday, October 7th
Mendoza

Argentina should and could win this match on home soil, however sadly we haven’t seen anything this tournament from them that makes us believe they will. It should be a good contest make no mistake, but Argentina have’nt quite got the momentum that Australia seem to be slowly building.

Argentina are clearly battling at scrum time despite the presence of the legendary Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy, and this traditional wonder weapon in their arsenal is rarely giving them a platform to work with. Australia on the other hand have made huge progress with their scrum in the last two months, after it having been the laughing-stock of Test Rugby for the last year. Argentina continue to field a strong second row and back row, but Australia’s seems to have gelled more in the tournament, despite continuous tinkering and experimentation with different players and combinations. Argentina have enormous individual raw talent in their second row and back row, but it has rarely clicked as a unit.

Australia are fielding the more reliable half back partnership in the shape of Bernard Foley and Will Genia, as sadly for us Nicolas Sanchez at fly half simply hasn’t been there for the Pumas this year when they have needed him most. Australia’s back line is clearly developing into the kind of strike platform of Wallaby sides of old, with Kurtley Beale in particular showing some exceptional skill and vision at times. Australia boasts a set of fast pacy runners who all seem to have a strong understanding of how to use space and create opportunities for the rest of their teammates. Argentina have some real talent here too, but they look at lot less patient than Australia and as a result too many moves look forced and consequently the errors mount.

As we always do, we’ll be cheering on the Pumas in their last fixture of the tournament, as this team so desperately needs and deserves a win in the Championship to build some much-needed confidence ahead of a daunting European tour next month. Sadly though we haven’t seen anything from Argentina this year that leads us to believe that they can win that vital final quarter of a Test match, whereas Australia look more dangerous in this department especially off the bench. A good match in prospect in which Argentina are likely to give it their all, but sadly in doing so are likely to trip themselves up as the match wears on. Australia to be the more accomplished side and walk away with it by eight points in the last ten minutes!

Endnote

We’re including the 1014’s excellent preview of this year’s Rugby Championship on YouTube. As stated after the Lions Tour, we are HUGE fans of the work these two fine gentlemen, Steven and Gareth, are doing. So give them a big thumbs up and subscribe in order to keep this excellent content coming. Well done guys and looking forward to more!

And as always head over to our TV listings page for video highlights if you missed last weekend’s action:

https://therugbylineout.com/tvinternet-game-listings/

New Zealand have once again comprehensively got the Rugby Championship squared away in their favor this year, barring a miracle in Buenos Aires this weekend. Even if that were to happen, given the schooling they gave the Springboks a fortnight ago, it would still take a monumental effort in Cape Town next week from South Africa to make any kind of dent in the Men in Black’s complete domination of this tournament in recent years. Meanwhile South Africa desperately need to find redemption in Bloemfontein this weekend against Australia after the soul-destroying 57-0 loss to New Zealand a fortnight ago. As we feared, South Africa’s seeming resurgence this year proved fleeting once up against some serious opposition, coupled with their inability to string together victories away from home. Australia will also be seeking to make a point after a disappointing draw with the Springboks in Perth, but their conclusive win over the Pumas will mean that they may not be feeling the pressure as much as the Springboks. Lastly Argentina remain nil from four so far in the tournament despite putting in some big performances, most notably the thriller against the All Blacks in Round 3. In the first of two home fixtures they too will be seeking to make a point, but against an All Black side overflowing with talent, even if some of it is a bit raw, they are clearly going to be up against it.

Round 4 saw New Zealand completely eclipse South Africa in a textbook performance, as they dispatched the Springboks 57-0. They clearly took the threat of a Springbok side that was finally starting to show some promise seriously. In doing so though they showed once more how far ahead of the rest of the world they really are. South Africa simply imploded on the field as New Zealand ran rings around them. Wingers Rieko Ioane and the electric Nehe Milner-Skudder set the pitch alight, while for us fullback Damian McKenzie answered his critics and then some. Fly half Beauden Barrett brought his kicking boots with him once more, and New Zealand’s forwards negated any kind of threat the Springboks attempted to bring to the party. It was a complete team performance that showcased the remarkable depth of talent and skill levels this New Zealand side has at its disposal, even if it is not quite the thoroughbred stable of the 2011-2015 edition.

South Africa were found wanting and then some a fortnight ago. Admittedly their cause was not helped by the absence of three key players prop Coenie Oosthuizen, flanker Jaco Kriel and scrum half Ross Cronje, but to lose by such a record-breaking margin was hard to fathom as there was some considerable talent wearing the green and gold. There appeared to be a fundamental problem in terms of staying power, leadership and commitment especially in the final 60 minutes of the match for the Springboks. In the first quarter despite the scoreline building up in New Zealand’s favor there seemed plenty of intent from South Africa and they had the lions share of possession. However, possession was continually coughed up after a few promising phases and once the All Blacks found themselves in the open, South Africa’s weak defence especially out wide was shown up in glaring Technicolor. The pressure on them this weekend in front of one of Test Rugby’s most passionate groups of home supporters will be immense, and something they will really have to rise to in order to get themselves in the right head space for the ultimate fixture on their calendar of 2017 – the home Test against the All Blacks in Cape Town in just over a week.

Australia will feel happy with their effective demolition of Argentina a fortnight ago, but will suffer no illusions about the enormity of the task ahead of them this weekend. A wounded Springbok side at home is a very dangerous animal, especially at altitude, something which will definitely play a part in proceedings in Bloemfontein. South Africa is traditionally an unhappy hunting ground for the Wallabies and one in which they end up being the prey more often than the victor. However, with the spotlight being much more on the Springboks they may fancy their chances this weekend, and are more likely to be the calmer of the two sides.

Argentina on the other hand will not be happy with their performance a fortnight ago in Canberra. The Pumas once more showed that they struggle to be more than a sixty minute side. As always a few players really stood out, with Captain Agustin Creevy once more leading the charge and a solid performance from the back row forwards, but overall they never really looked like they were going to trouble a Wallaby side that, much like the Springboks this weekend, had it all to prove. Argentina will desperately want to salvage something out of this year’s Championship but the odds are against them this weekend, leaving them with the final fixture of the tournament, a home fixture against Australia, as the match they will realistically have to focus on as their best chance for a win.

So without any further ado let’s have a look at the matchups for another fascinating weekend of Test Rugby.

South Africa vs Australia
Saturday, September 30th
Bloemfontein

Without any shadow of a doubt this is the BIG match of the weekend. Two sides with everything to prove. The result of this match will say a great deal of who’s who in the pecking order for International Rugby. Of the two sides as we mentioned above, we think that South Africa at home will be feeling the pressure much more, allowing Australia to be able to focus much more on the business at hand. However, that being said South Africa know they have to produce a comprehensive win in order to be able to face their arch rivals the All Blacks with any degree of confidence in a week’s time in Cape Town. Strap yourselves in folks this should be one hell of a contest.

In the front rows, we buck the trend here and for once fancy Australia’s chances in this department. South Africa without Coenie Oosthuizen, and Malcolm Marx’s highly erratic form at the lineouts a fortnight ago against New Zealand, causes us to give the Australian trio the nod. Australia has struggled here of late but at the moment it seems to be gelling well and we have been impressed with Hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau in his last two outings. Ruan Dreyer is for us not the answer at Tighthead Prop for South Africa, as he struggles with his binding and discipline, and the Australian trio will bring plenty of power and pressure on Saturday to make sure Dreyer’s problems continue. Springbok Hooker Malcolm Marx is a great player, make no mistake and we are huge fans, but perhaps the pressure of the occasion a fortnight ago got to him. When you take into account that he will be under the same kind of pressure, if not more, on Saturday, we sadly have to reserve judgement on this fine player’s potential performance till the final whistle. With the benches being pretty well even, and Australia seeing the return of Stephen Moore in his swan song year we still tilt our head towards the Wallabies camp in this section of the field.

In the second rows, we hand the ball back to South Africa as we expect to see a massive performance from the lock pair of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert especially in front of a home crowd. Mostert was strangely quiet in the Test against New Zealand, something we don’t expect to see a repeat of this Saturday, while Etzebeth really needs to channel his immense physicality and power into providing some solid leadership and momentum on the field. Australia field the excellent Adam Coleman who will provide a real challenge, but much to our surprise, Izack Rodda of the Brisbane Reds gets his first Test Cap. Not having watched much Super Rugby this year we are a bit in the dark on this newcomer so will have to reserve judgement, though the Reds were’nt exactly topping the charts this season. We would have thought now would have been the time to solidify the partnership between Coleman and Rory Arnold who has played some solid rugby this tournament, but can also understand Australian Coach Michael Cheika wanting to build some depth in his squad ahead of the World Cup. It’s the bench where South Africa should have the edge in the shape of Pieter-Steph du Toit up against Rob Simmons for Australia.

In the back rows, we also feel South Africa have the edge despite the continued absence of Jaco Kriel, an absence which was plain to see for all in the match against New Zealand. This match sees the return of veteran flanker Francois Louw, who needs no introduction but hasn’t played much in a Springbok jersey since the last World Cup. Consequently his performances have varied in quality and it remains to be seen what he can deliver on Saturday. However, we can’t help feel that given his experience and alongside the powerhouse of Siya Kolisi, the Springbok duo should get the better of Australian newcomer Jack Dempsey and the veteran Michael Hooper in front of a very vocal home crowd. At number eight Australia in our opinion have the clear edge in the shape of Sean McMahon who as regular readers know, is one of our top picks for a Wallaby starting XV in 2019. He should easily get the better of South Africa’s Uzair Cassiem who is clearly struggling to find his feet at Test level. Once again the bench should see South Africa edge the contest here in the shape of Jean-Luc du Preez over Australia’s Ned Hanigan, who despite some impressive statistics has rarely stood out for us so far in the tournament.

The halfback battle for us is a dead heat, with the South African duo perhaps having the slight edge simply due to the altitude and home soil. Australia’s scrum half Will Genia has been impressive this tournament, of that there is no question, but we also really like the calm head of South Africa’s Ross Cronje. He may not be as flash as his Australian counterpart but he does seem to be able to read the game relatively well and keep his cool, something that South Africa clearly lacked in his absence from the Test against New Zealand a fortnight ago. Of the two fly halves, South Africa’s Elton Jantjies seems to be having the more productive year and should be able to read the travel of the ball at altitude much better than Australia’s Bernard Foley. We are usually big fans of Bernard Foley but have to confess to finding him rather off his game this year, however, given his quality feel it is surely temporary. Off the bench Australian scrum half Nick Phipps has clearly had an impact in this tournament, despite him not being one of our first choice players as we find him rather impetuous and ill-disciplined at times. However, there is no denying that he has put in some good work for Australia in the final quarter of all of their Rugby Championship matches this year. We also feel that although South Africa’s Rudy Paige is not starting material at Test level for the scrum half position, he seems also capable of making an impact and as a result we are happy to see him on the bench for this match which should develop his playing abilities even further, especially in such a high stakes game. In short, home advantage and altitude should see South Africa emerge triumphant here.

Once again though it’s the doubts about South Africa’s back line strengths that cause us concern when looking at the centre matchups. While they may not be as great a worry as the wings, there is no doubt that in Kurtley Beale Australia have a magician, backed up by the brute force and raw power of Tevita Kuridrani – in our view the perfect centre pairing. South Africa’s Jessie Kriel and Jan Serfontein are solid players in their own right and Serfontein in particular is renowned for breaking the gain line. However, neither player has the vision and skill sets possessed by Australia’s Kurtley Beale, which makes us think the Wallaby duo, even at altitude, will dictate  proceedings here on Saturday.  Add Samu Kerevi to the Australian mix later in the match and Australia’s dominance here should be assured, as unfortunately in our opinion Damian de Allende brings little if anything to the table for South Africa.

On the wings, we’re giving South Africa the slight edge, mainly because we know little about the Australian number 14 Marika Koroibete. South Africa’s Courtnall Skosan needs no introduction, and despite a generally poor performance against New Zealand, he is still a serious threat out wide. The Springboks also blood Dillyn Leyds for the first time in the starting lineup on the wing. Consistently impressive this season for the Stormers in Super Rugby, Leyds has some impressive speed and some handling skills that can really light up a pitch. Australia’s Reece Hodge consistently gets a solid rating from us and he will certainly put Leyds defensive skills to the test. However, on home soil, given what is at stake and the potential X-factor Leyds has, we give South Africa the edge here.

At fullback, we also think that South Africa will be better suited to the challenges of the day in the shape of Andries Coetzee than the always exciting Israel Folau for Australia. Although Folau is the more experienced of the two and arguably the better player, we just think that Coetzee’s familiarity with the characteristics of high balls at altitude should mean he will be a better line of defense when the chips are down. However, if Folau brings his A-game then it doesn’t matter what the conditions, he is exceptionally dangerous with ball in hand and is a proven master under the high ball. Nevertheless expect to see South Africa put him under pressure with deep high kicks all afternoon.

There is no question that this is going to be an exceptionally tight match between two sides needing to make a statement. A loss at home for South Africa would be catastrophic, especially given the calibre of the opposition they face in a week’s time in Cape Town. Given the damage sustained to the South African rugby pysche a fortnight ago, we fear that another humiliation could once more see the rot creep in that plagued South Africa’s season so dramatically in the latter half of 2016. Nevertheless, despite the thrashing they got a fortnight ago, this Springbok team is still a stronger and more cohesive unit than it was a year ago. As a result, in a nail biting contest, we feel that home advantage will just see the Springboks home by two points!

Argentina vs New Zealand
Saturday, September 30th
Buenos Aires

New Zealand aren’t exactly coasting through this tournament, but their dominance is doubted by few. With the Championship honors wrapped up in New Zealand’s favor for all intents and purposes, experimentation and depth building are clearly at the top of the agenda for the New Zealand coaching staff. The squad picked for tomorrow’s match against Argentina is clear evidence of this. We’d argue that this has very much been the case for much of 2017 for New Zealand, even going back to the season’s opening matches against the Lions. New Zealand are clearly looking to assemble and fine tune the squad they want to take to the World Cup in 2019. Their problem lies less in ability and more, given the depth of talent at their disposal, who to pick and how to give them enough game time between now and 2019 to make them real contenders in Japan. Argentina on the other hand, boast plenty of talent but much of it lacks the kind of experience to really compete for a full eighty minutes at this level. It is the last quarter of every match that seems to be killing Argentina, not just in this tournament but every Test they have played since the World Cup. As we saw last month in New Zealand, they can actually beat the world’s best until the sixty minute mark. Until they can find that extra twenty minutes then Argentina will continue to promise so much, but with the odd exception like the 2015 World Cup quarter-final, rarely deliver. It remains to be seen what they can salvage from these last two home games in the tournament.

In the front rows, New Zealand field no changes from the one that so effectively put South Africa to the sword a fortnight ago. New Zealand’s Dane Coles appears to be back to his best at Hooker and “support winger” and newcomers Nepo Laulala and Kane Hames were immense against South Africa. Argentina’s trio of Hooker and Captain Fantastic Agustin Creevy and props Lucas Paz and Nahuel Tetaz is an impressive unit but it just doesn’t seem to be getting the traction that is usually associated with Argentinian front rows. The New Zealand scrum looked so accomplished a fortnight ago, we can’t see it changing this week, even away from home, so the All Blacks to have the clear advantage here. It’s a strong bench for Argentina in this department, but by the same token it’s equalled by New Zealand’s offering.

In the second rows, we have to confess some surprise at seeing Tomas Lavanini back in the squad for Argentina so soon again, after his supposed “cooling off period” for disciplinary issues. Don’t get us wrong he is a powerful and intimidating second rower in his own right, but given the kind of pressure that Argentina will be under to perform in front of a home crowd on Saturday in Buenos Aires, we fear that it will get to him causing the disciplinary lapses for which he has now sadly become a household name. We prefer the partnership of Matias Alemanno and Guido Petti, but are at least happy to see Petti make the starting lineup, although strangely Alemanno doesn’t even make the bench. New Zealand bring in Luke Romano and Scott Barrett and despite home advantage for the Pumas we still expect to see the All Black pair get the better of proceedings here, with many tipping Barrett for World Cup glory in 2019.

In the back rows, we see the return of Matt Todd for New Zealand, who while perhaps not a regular starter for the All Blacks he always impresses for the Crusaders. Meanwhile the man who lit up Round 3 of the tournament, Vaea Fifita returns. The big, powerful and devastatingly fast flanker put in a jaw dropping display against Argentina in New Zealand causing him to be instantly compared to the great Jonah Lomu. Up against Argentina’s Tomas Lezana and Pablo Matera expect to see more of the same, despite the quality of the Puma pair. New Zealand’s Kieran Read and Juan Manuel Leguizamon do battle at number eight, but sadly for us Leguizamon is seeing the twilight days of his career whereas the All Black Captain is clearly in his prime. It will be a solid contest and we expect the Argentinians to give as good as they get but with the experience of Read and the X-Factor of Fifita, we expect to see New Zealand get the upper hand, especially when the All Black whirlwind of destruction, Ardie Savea, comes off the bench.

In the contest between the halfbacks, we see probably Test rugby’s ultimate combination right now, New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett, take to the field. It is perhaps a measure of the respect New Zealand has for Argentina that they choose to field these two, as opposed to giving Smith’s understudy at scrum half TJ Perenara a starting berth instead of warming the bench for the first hour. There is no question that the Smith/Barrett platform gives New Zealand such a commanding base to work from in the first sixty minutes as well as controlling any threats or surprises that opposition sides may have up their sleeves. Argentina’s Tomas Cubelli and Nicolas Sanchez are accomplished players in their own right but just not in the same league as the New Zealand pair. Bring on TJ Perenara for New Zealand in the second half and despite Martin Landajo’s brilliance and energy for the Pumas whether as a starter or off the bench, the All Black still usually has the better execution and skill set.

In the centres, we don’t feel that Matias Orlando and Jeronimo De la Fuente have really fired this season for Argentina. Brilliant at times individually, they seem to have struggled to gel into this Pumas unit as a collective in the way that perhaps the coaching staff and supporters would have liked. Meanwhile we are delighted to see Anton Lienert-Brown get a starting berth, as for us he is one of the clearest sign posts to the 2019 World Cup for New Zealand. As usual we are waiting with bated breath for the evidence that makes Sonny Bill Williams appear at the top of every selection list drawn up by Coach Steve Hansen and the New Zealand management. Yes we’ve seen the offload statistics and we also get that Ryan Crotty is being rested for the big dustup in Cape Town, but come next Saturday, unless Williams leaves us speechless in this match then we would argue that the Lienert-Brown/Crotty axis is the one New Zealand should be solidifying for the World Cup. We wait to see if Juan Martin Hernandez will come off the bench for fly half Nicolas Sanchez or for one of the centres, but with Ngani Laumape on standby for New Zealand, Argentina are going to have to have their wits about them on Saturday. Expect to see New Zealand run proceedings again here on Saturday.

On the wings, it is once more likely to be New Zealand’s party on Saturday evening in Buenos Aires. Rieko Ioane has been one of THE talking points of the International season this year and Waisake Naholo needs no introduction whatsoever to those of us who know a fast pacy back when we see one. In fairness to Argentina they also have one of the talking points of the season in Emiliano Boffelli and if he gets put into any kind of space, New Zealand are going to have to be at their best, especially given the Pumas winger’s footballing skills. Off the bench, Santiago Cordero has the potential of being an enormous X-factor for Argentina, but to be honest we haven’t seen a great deal of this quality from the young man since the World Cup. The Pumas will need him to be at his best if they hope to have any chance of competing with New Zealand.

Lastly at fullback, New Zealand’s Damian McKenzie continues to grow into the role, but as we saw in Round 3, Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet actually got the better of the Kiwi youngster. McKenzie still has a lot to learn, but he possesses such a dazzling array of skills coupled to an almost cat-like sense of where his teammates are, that we agree wholeheartedly with Steve Hansen’s decision to keep him in the starting XV despite many in New Zealand calling for the opposite. This is clearly a star for the future and consequently needs the game time now, ahead of a World Cup in which he will likely play a big part. Having said that though, and in seeming contradiction to what we feel about McKenzie, in front of a very vocal home crowd we think that this is one area of the park that Tuculet will dominate for Argentina. All eyes will be on newcomer David Havili if he comes off the New Zealand bench for either McKenzie or one of the wingers, especially as the youngster boasts some pretty impressive skills of his own and has consistently turned heads in his performances with the Crusaders at Super Rugby level.

Our biggest concern for Argentina in this match is that although it is in front of a home crowd, tradition tends to see them running out of gas towards the end of the tournament much as they seem to do in the last quarter of every Test match. It must be immensely frustrating for Argentinian supporters, and we count ourselves amongst them even as neutrals, as this is a good team and they are playing at home. We hope that they can rally themselves for these last two fixtures and get the confidence they need to prepare themselves for a tough European tour in November. Unfortunately we can’t see them emerging the winners on Saturday, but Australia a week later should be firmly in their sights. However, to the business at hand tomorrow, we hope for a an even closer and edgier contest than the one we saw between these two in Round 3, but still expect to see New Zealand pull away comfortably in the last quarter by 18 points!

Endnote

We’re including the 1014’s excellent preview of this year’s Rugby Championship on YouTube. As stated after the Lions Tour, we are HUGE fans of the work these two fine gentlemen, Steven and Gareth, are doing. So give them a big thumbs up and subscribe in order to keep this excellent content coming. Well done guys and looking forward to more!

And as always head over to our TV listings page for video highlights if you missed last weekend’s action:

https://therugbylineout.com/tvinternet-game-listings/