In a month that saw plenty of excitement, we learnt a great deal about the pecking order in International Rugby and what it means, with less than a year to go before the final whistle in Japan and the crowning of a new World Champion. There were upsets, there was controversy, but throughout we were treated to a month of Test Rugby that had plenty of excitement and which kept us glued to our TV screens.

England managed to resurrect themselves from a year which up till then they would rather have forgotten. France, showed signs of character at times, but ultimately made us think twice about how far French rugby has really progressed under new management, when they were beaten by a highly entertaining and enterprising Fijian side. Ireland led by example from start to finish and completed a remarkable year which left no doubt about their position as the number two side in the world. Italy sadly gave us and their supporters little to cheer about other than silencing their critics by defeating Six Nations aspirants Georgia. Scotland provided plenty of excitement but lacked the ability to close out a potential quarter-final opponent in the World Cup – South Africa. Finally Wales cemented their position as the second best team in the Northern Hemisphere with a clean sweep of their four internationals, including two Southern Hemisphere scalps –  Australia and South Africa.

For the Southern Hemisphere teams it was a tough end to the year. Argentina, despite their successes in the Rugby Championship, faded at the end of a long hard season which has seen very little rotation of players. As a result a tired group put up some valiant resistance at times but ultimately lost all three key matches, and most importantly their game against next year’s pool opponents in the World Cup – France. Australia were dire – plain and simple. The Wallaby ship is seriously adrift with no sign of cohesion amongst the crew and management. Australia’s end of year tour started with a loss to their pool opponents next year in Japan, as Wales finally managed to get a home win against them. The Wallabies laboured to a win over a hapless Italy, but looked a shambles against England, with the players clearly wanting nothing more than to get on the long flight home and forget yet another wasted year. New Zealand had perhaps their hardest ever November tour since the last World Cup. They had to work hard to squeak past the old enemy England in appalling weather and a week later were taught a painful lesson in game management by a clinical Ireland. New Zealand ended their tour by piling all their frustrations on Italy as they literally put the Azurri to the sword in their final match of the year. Finally South Africa continued to build on the progress shown during the Rugby Championship and that historic defeat of New Zealand in Wellington. They were unlucky to lose to England by the slimmest of margins possible, but redeemed themselves against France a week later and then again in their encounter with Scotland. However, the puff seemed to go out of their sails as they came short against a Welsh team who had simply got better and better throughout the course of the month.

Perhaps the biggest surprise and talking point of the month however was the performance of some of the Tier 2 nations. Fiji gave Scotland a challenging first half at the beginning of the month and then went on to claim a famous victory against France by the end of it. But perhaps the most pleasing performance came from next year’s World Cup hosts Japan. At the end of their first half against England, they had easily outplayed the Men in White, and although England were able to regroup in the second half, there was no question that Japan’s Pool A rivals will have to take them very seriously indeed next year. With a rapturous home crowd cheering Japan on, Ireland and Scotland will have to be well prepared if they are to avoid one of the biggest potential upsets of 2019.

So as we say we couldn’t have asked for a better month of Test Rugby one year out from the World Cup. There was plenty to talk about so here’s a quick wrap up of the key points that came out of this month’s action for us.

The gap between North and South would appear to be nonexistent

Ireland’s victory over New Zealand has meant that although New Zealand still sit comfortably at the top of the world rankings, the North/South divide has finally closed. The All Blacks still possess a remarkable ability to regroup, but they are no longer invincible and as we have seen repeatedly this year – put them under pressure and they make mistakes. There is no doubt that they will be back to their best come the World Cup, but by the same token after an intensely competitive Six Nations next year, Ireland and Wales should be humming along just as well with England catching up fast. Meanwhile, the rest of the Southern Hemisphere are very much on a level playing field with their Northern rivals. South Africa look likely to be the side to pose the most problems next year, but Argentina are also on track to pack a few surprises. It is really only Australia who find themselves out in the cold heading into the run up to the World Cup. There are simply no givens for next year’s global showdown, but one thing is for certain the Northern Hemisphere sides are looking in the most robust health since the tournament was first introduced in 1987.

There are some front-runners for World Cup glory next year but no favorites

Ireland’s victory over New Zealand was without doubt the highlight of a memorable month of Test Rugby. However, in fairness to Ireland we are not going to fall into the trap of labelling them with the burden of favorites for next year’s global showdown in Japan. Very strong contenders yes – but favorites no. While they and New Zealand may have their noses out in front in terms of the form race, there is no question that Wales could also go all the way along with South Africa. England could also end up being the surprise package of the tournament after surviving a purple patch which has provided them with a wealth of valuable experience. After this month we can only comfortably call the favorites to get to the quarter finals, beyond that it is wide open which makes it one of the most potentially exciting World Cups since the tournament’s inception 30 years ago.

England are back and Australia would appear beyond redemption

This past month saw England rise once more from the ashes, just as they did immediately after their shock exit from the last World Cup. Sure the twelve months since the end of the 2017 Six Nations and this November was not a happy time in the England camp but that appears to be behind them now. Their two big Southern Hemisphere scalps came in the shape of South Africa and Australia. At the same time they were able to hold the World Champions, New Zealand, to a one point difference, albeit on the losing side which is a significant achievement. Many were predicting disaster for the Men in White this November against New Zealand and South Africa, with the possible exception of the match against Australia being their only redemption against the Southern Hemisphere superpowers. However, they surpassed expectations and can feel exceptionally well pleased with their efforts this past month. What has perhaps been the most rewarding aspect of the whole experience has been the ability to really blood some new players. Names like Sam Underhill, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Zach Mercer have all injected some much-needed life into an English back row that had become a bad joke. Meanwhile Joe Cokanasiga had everyone sit up and take notice in the Australia match as he provided a stunning complement to Jonny May on the opposite wing. England have found the depth they need up front and in the backs, and if they get back to their form winning ways of 2016/17 then they will definitely be the smoking gun of next year’s World Cup.

The only real question for us is the Captaincy when it comes to England. While we don’t deny that Owen Farrell is a brilliant player, we still remain unconvinced that his leadership skills are what England needs under pressure. His decision-making at times leaves a lot to be desired and his tackle technique definitely needs some work. He has had a habit of costing England dearly in big matches under pressure, and we still don’t see that has really changed. Like we say we don’t deny his skill, tenacity and all round committment, we just have trouble seeing him as the calm head England needs at the helm, especially when things aren’t going their way. The problem is if not Hartley or Farrell then who? For us that is the biggest question England has left to answer.

As we saw in their final match against England, Australia are clearly at sea without a paddle. Despite a raft of talented individual players, the Wallabies as a team simply don’t work. Add to that the fact that there is relatively little depth to their squad, and it is hard to see them getting much farther than the quarter finals in Japan next year, and if Fiji play like they did against France then even that might be a tall order. Michael Cheika seems out of touch with both his players and what he wants the team to look like, and the players seem unable to understand what kind of game it is they are meant to be playing. With precious few opportunities to play again as a unit before the World Cup, we really don’t see how Australia will be able to set their ship on a straight course once more. A World Cup without a competitive Australia will be a loss to the tournament as a whole, but it is in serious danger of becoming a reality.

Scotland and France still have work to do while Italy seems to have made little if any progress

Sure Italy did enough to beat Georgia and once more silence those who wish to see them fight for their place in the Six Nations on a yearly basis with the threat of relegation hanging over their heads. However, that is about all that can be said for the Azurri’s November campaign. For them to really show that there has been some genuine progress since the last World Cup, they needed a win against a vulnerable and demoralised Australian side that were there for the taking. Sadly they fell far short of the mark. With them most likely ending up the whipping boys once more of next year’s Six Nations, Italy will once more have to look at yet another 4 years of wasted opportunity.

Scotland played some terrific rugby this month make no mistake. They showed once more that they can go head to head with some of the world’s best, however closing out big games still remains problematic. While few felt they would beat Wales in Cardiff, they really needed to beat South Africa to make a statement that life beyond the quarter finals in Japan next year is a definite possibility. It didn’t happen and Scotland know they still have plenty of work to do to make such a promising side go the distance it needs to. They are blessed with some exceptional talent across the park, and some surprising depth, however that big match temperament still eludes them to some degree. With a tough schedule of away games in next year’s Six Nations, it remains to be seen if Scotland can get their house in sufficient order in time for Japan.

France meanwhile will be pleased with their much-needed victory against Argentina, who are their pool rivals next year in Japan. However, that was the sole highlight in an otherwise depressingly familiar November. They fell at the last hurdle to South Africa, and completely lost the plot against a sparkling Fijian side. Despite some stellar and inspirational performances, especially from their Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, their wasn’t enough collective grit from France to get the job done under pressure. If significant progress isn’t made in next year’s Six Nations, then France will have a mountain to climb come September and the World Cup. Consequently, a third place finish or better in the Six Nations must be their objective for the next three months as a bare minimum.

The top Tier 2 nations are going to be a handful at next year’s World Cup and could end up being genuine banana skins for some of the Tier 1 big guns

Japan’s outstanding performance against England and Fiji’s historic victory over France, proved that the Tier 2 countries may well be some of the more traditional rugby powers’ undoing at next year’s World Cup. Japan in front of their home crowd are likely to be exceptionally dangerous, and what we saw against England is likely to prove to be a mere teaser for what they can do as hosts of the biggest rugby spectacle on earth. Both Scotland and Ireland will need to be on their guard, as a quarter-final spot is not beyond Japan’s reach.

Fiji meanwhile have always been a joy to watch. However, what really stood out in their performance against France was the fact that they have become so much more than just a flashy set of backs. They possess some exceptionally skilled and powerful forwards, and their backs remain some of the most unpredictable and dangerous in Test Rugby. Australia after their woes this month, must surely be feeling more than a little nervous about their pool encounter with Fiji next year in the World Cup. Fiji could well send Australia packing before the knockout stages have even begun. Just like Japan a quarter-final spot is not beyond the realm of possibility for Fiji next year. Even Wales are no doubt feeling slightly edgy about meeting the Pacific Islanders.

With less than a year to go to the greatest Rugby show on earth, World Rugby really needs to sort out the mess that officiating has become

There were simply too many poor calls and controversies in the officiating this November, and there is no denying that at times it detracted from the quality of rugby on display. The tackle law needs some serious revision and subsequent consistency applied in terms of officiating, as does the on field interpretation of what is and what is not an offside position. Furthermore, if the TMOs, as they are now supposed to be, are to be a last resort then that also needs to be reinforced. There were too many occasions this month where they still had a leading role in affecting referees’ on field decisions or even leading or prompting the referee to revisit a decision.

In short, the lack of consistently applied standards to the refereeing of the game detracts from growing the game for a larger global audience and those to new to the game. Furthermore, it has a negative impact on players as they are increasingly unsure of what they can and cannot get away with in the eyes of the officials, making strategy and planning almost impossible at times. Perhaps most important of all, the constant interruption and lack of clarity is energy sapping and frustrating for both players and spectators alike. While we are the first to admit that referees face by far the most difficult job on the pitch, consistency in terms of interpretation of arguably one of sport’s most complex set of rules must still be a paramount concern for both them and their superiors. In the sport’s showpiece tournament next year in Japan this has to be got right. Let’s hope that as a step on the road to ensuring this, next year’s Six Nations is the proving ground to fixing the issues to the point where we and countless others no longer have to write about it.

Endnote

Although there is no International Rugby till the Six Nations in February, we won’t be silent and have a few things we’ll be looking at between now and then. Between now and the beginning of January we’ll be putting out our annual report cards on the Rugby Championship participants – Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With Canada having just snagged the last World Cup berth up for grabs we’ll be handing out our report card on their turbulent season this year and a look ahead to next year’s Americas Rugby Championship. We’ll also be putting together report cards on the four Tier 2 nations we think are most likely to cause problems at next year’s World Cup for some of the bigger guns – Japan, Fiji, the USA and Georgia. There’s also the small matter of putting out our team of 2018, though it may take a while as this topic is hotly debated amongst us all to the point where reaching a common consensus is proving to be tricky to say the least. Lastly as the European Champions Cup pool rounds draw to a close in January we’ll be having a look at what we can expect from the next year’s Six Nations tournament as a result

It’s been a terrific year and thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read our amateurish musings over the past twelve months which has helped get our visitor numbers up to the 10,000 mark. Bring on 2019 and all the excitement it has in store!!!

 

 

 

 

Like we say the remarkable Test match in Dublin last weekend lived up to its billing and then some! While this weekend’s final round of the November Test window may not quite have the aura of that memorable occasion there is still much to capture our interest this coming Saturday. Scotland once again kick off the action as they host Argentina, and they will be looking to finish their November campaign with a bang after narrowly losing to South Africa. England then take on a Wallaby side that is still struggling to convince despite a win against Italy. England will need to sharpen their skills after looking decidedly less than flash against a spirited Japanese team last weekend. The big fixture of this weekend is without a doubt the match between Wales and South Africa. Both sides are on a roll after a successful November campaign and look to be evenly matched as the number 2 side in the Northern Hemisphere meets number two in the Southern Hemisphere.

In other November action, Ireland take on the USA, France meet up with Fiji and Italy have the unenviable task of doing battle with an All Black side smarting from their loss to Ireland the week before. Canada also take on Hong in their last match in the World Cup repechage tournament in France. With two solid wins behind them they look well placed to book their berth to Japan next year. As much as we would like to cover all these games in addition to the three main matches this weekend, we are sadly constrained once more by time and resources, so will have to focus our attention on events in Edinburgh, Twickenham and Cardiff this Saturday.

So without further ado here’s what got us talking about the upcoming action.

Scotland vs Argentina – Saturday, November 24th – Murrayfield

Scotland stayed true to form last weekend and their opening forty minutes against South Africa was played at a blistering pace. Both their tries showed some genuine brilliance on attack and their skill at getting the ball through the hands at speed on their first try was a joy to watch. However, at times they looked frail defensively and while mixing it physically with South Africa is always a challenge, it was clear that at times they were struggling to remain competitive. South Africa meanwhile clearly had the upper hand up front, and courtesy of Scotland’s fast paced game occasionally proving too ambitious, South Africa were able to play a more composed and structured game. South Africa once more were able to show a resolve similar to that shown in Paris the week before. They simply didn’t panic despite Scotland putting them under pressure continuously in the second half. Their defence held firm and they were able to turn Scotland’s mistakes to their advantage, with Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjiies’ boots sealing the deal for the Springboks.

Argentina know that they can play just as quickly as Scotland in the backs and have a fly half who is the measure of Scotland’s Finn Russell. The Pumas also boast a forward pack that can put Scotland under the same kind of pressure they got from the Springboks. However, the Pumas scrum still remains a major Achilles Heel for them and they appear to be fading in terms of overall potency after a long hard season together both at Super Rugby and Test Level as the inevitable fatigue sets in.

We know Russell’s played the position before but definitely a first for us

Finn Russell has apparently played at centre before but we are not familiar with him in the role. As a result Saturday’s contest holds plenty of interest. Relieved of the burden of game management from the fly half position we are curious to see if Russell’s quick turn of pace and unpredictability may actually be more suited to the inside channels. His partnership with the electric Huw Jones should provide plenty of sparks, as well as him being able to provide support to his understudy at fly half, Adam Hastings. Between Jones, Russell and Hastings, this could prove to be a deadly axis which Argentina could struggle to get to grips with.

Argentina’s scrum is a mess – plain and simple

Given that the Pumas Coach Mario Ledesma is a veteran warrior of the front row, it is hard to understand Argentina’s continuing problems at the coal face. But problems there are as we clearly saw against France. The Pumas either went backwards or collapsed at scrum time. There were the odd moments where they seemed to hold their ground but in general they were completely overpowered by the French. Scotland were able to hold their own for the most part against a fearsome South African front row, so we can’t help feeling that unless Ledesma has worked miracles in the space of a week from a squad clearly starting to show the strains of a long season – it could well be a troublesome afternoon for the Pumas in the set pieces.

If the Pumas debutant in the back row can hold his own, this should be one of the best contests of the afternoon

One consistent area of strength for Argentina has been their back row this year. In Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio the Pumas are rock solid and it will be interesting to see how debutant Rodrigo Bruni complements a fearsome unit. Having said that they will be up against an equally slick group in the shape of Scotland’s Hamish Watson who was outstanding last week against South Africa along with newcomer James Ritchie who the more we see the more we like. Saturday also sees the return of Josh Strauss to the starting XV back row for Scotland. One of Scotland’s most underrated players, the South African born flanker should be able to match up to the Pumas physicality with ease.

Scotland’s young bucks get a superb examination ahead of the Six Nations

Winger Blair Kinghorn and fly half Adam Hastings have but a handful of caps between them for Scotland, especially in the starting XV. However, both have the ability to impress but will need to be at their absolute best on Saturday, as they face the two players who have consistently stood out for the Pumas this November – fly half Nicolas Sanchez and winger Ramiro Moyano. Kinghorn is going to have his work cut out containing the fleet-footed Pumas speedster who is also exceptionally handy under the high ball despite his smaller frame. Meanwhile Adam Hastings will need to make sure that it is not Sanchez who is running the show on Saturday. Hastings will be ably assisted by Russell in the centre of the park, but he couldn’t ask for a better test ahead of the Six Nations as how to operate under pressure and manage a free-flowing game against one of the world’s best. The rain that was predicted for tomorrow looks to hold off till much later in the evening, so we should be in for a fast and furious match between two sides who love to run the ball.

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg may be the world’s best counter attacker but Argentina are packing a back three who can do the same in their sleep

If the end of a long hard season hasn’t depleted the Pumas’ tanks, then this could well be their last hurrah of a year that has seen some genuine success. Stuart Hogg may be the best in the world from bursting out of his own 22 and causing complete havoc, but watch the Pumas back three this season and each of them have similar abilities. Winger Bautista Delguy and fullback Emiliano Boffelli have made some extraordinary metres this year, and if they have one last big game left in them, this could well be it. We all know what Ramiro Moyano can do, and while individually none of them may be able to hold a candle to Hogg on his own, as a counterattacking unit they could well negate the presence of the Scotsman if Argentina really bring their A game.

Verdict

On paper these two sides look relatively evenly matched. However, Argentina’s ongoing problems at scrum time and the fact that they are starting to show signs of their traditional end of year fadeout, make it hard for us to believe that they are likely to really make a statement at Murrayfield on Saturday. Scotland on the other hand will want to finish their November campaign on a positive note. It has been a frustrating month for the Scots after losing their opener to Wales and then a disappointing loss to South Africa. The comprehensive win over Fiji showed the Scots in fine form, but this month will mean little without a least one big Southern Hemisphere scalp. Hence the form book would indicate, and we tend to agree that Scotland will take Argentina in the Pumas last major outing of a long hard season by five points!

England vs Australia – Saturday, November 24th – Twickenham

England will not have been happy with their opening forty minutes against Japan last Saturday. They simply looked half asleep against a team that had clearly come to play. Order was restored in the second half, but they had clearly been given a massive wake up call by a side they had grossly underestimated. That is unlikely to be the case this weekend, as they will look to claim a decisive victory over a talented but badly misfiring Wallaby side. England need a decisive victory over their last Southern Hemisphere visitor after having squeaked past the Springboks by a point and just coming agonizingly short of an historic win over the All Blacks. Australia meanwhile will seek to end a disappointing November with a win over a side that has caused them nothing but heartache since the last World Cup. While Australia got a much-needed win over Italy last weekend, it wasn’t exactly pretty and has also left them with some worrying injury concerns, most notably to flanker David Pocock.

Could the absence of David Pocock end up being a blessing in disguise for Australia

Before you start wondering what we’ve been drinking by making a such a statement, think about it for a moment. Pocock has sadly been plagued by injury this year, and to be honest has not been at his best this season. That is said with no disrespect to the great man, but we feel he has been press ganged into Wallaby duty all season and it has clearly taken its toll. Furthermore, his partnership with Michael Hooper in the back row has been questioned as together they make Australia slightly lopsided in terms of balance. As a result Australia may finally have a unit that works properly on Saturday. Jack Dempsey has the talent but really needs an opportunity to shine, but with both Hooper and Pocock in the back row he is often completely overshadowed and slightly ineffective. The big question mark lies around Pete Samu at Test level, as we all know his pedigree with the Crusaders in Super Rugby. However, if this unit fires it may end up providing Pocock with the ability to be rested for key matches leading up to the World Cup and thus ultimately return to his best just when Australia need him most.

Talking of back rows, England almost has one at long last

Number eight Mark Wilson has been one of THE standout players for England this November and Sam Underhill was absolutely immense against New Zealand a fortnight ago. We have to confess to being slightly puzzled at Zach Mercer’s implosion against Japan last weekend, as we felt he still offered much more in the long-term than Brad Shields who gets the nod in the starting XV for tomorrow. However, there is no denying that in Wilson and Underhill England have some real force and one can even start talking about balance once more in the back row. This will be a real chance for them to really make a statement that they are the way forward for England leading up to the World Cup. If they can dominate an Australian unit that is still a work in progress, then we can think of no better justification.

Morale is probably at rock bottom in the Australian camp, but who will provide the spark of inspiration?

Sticking to form we are going to look to the Wallaby second row once more. As regular readers know, we feel Australia needs some grit in the style of the great John Eales, and we’ve staked our bet on Adam Coleman to ultimately provide it. In situations this year where Australia have clearly been battling a crisis of confidence, Coleman has often been the one spark of consistency and determination in an otherwise lacklustre performance. We feel he partners well with Izack Rodda, and if the two of them can compete with England’s Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes and actually win some key battles in the air, we are willing to bet that this will spur the rest of the Wallabies on. They will be up against it, as after a generally poor year, Itoje has finally found his rhythm once more, and Lawes is coming back into his own after injury. If the Wallaby pair can disrupt the Englishmen at lineout time, especially given that Jamie George has been battling with lineout accuracy then this could be a turning point that could spark Australia out of their collective disarray on Saturday.

Cheika’s selections once more have us scratching our head

Yes we know some of it has been forced by disciplinary issues, but we were fairly certain that this year proved Bernard Foley does not operate well in the centre channels. Although Matt Toomua is effective at both number 10 and 12, he is more suited to the centre as support to Bernard Foley – not the other way round. Once more we feel that Coach Michael Cheika has dug another few feet of a hole it looks like he is unlikely to get out of, by reverting to an experiment that clearly did not work. We’re still not entirely convinced by England’s centre offerings, but still feel they are going to be more effective than the Wallaby muddle.

We may be the only ones saying so, but we are not overly concerned about Folau switching back to fullback even if it may seem tough on Dane Haylett-Petty

A bit like Adam Coleman, Dane Haylett-Petty has been one of the few Wallaby players to consistently stand out this year. Although we have traditionally felt his talents are better suited to the wing in terms of crossing the whitewash for Australia, there is no denying that he has performed admirably at fullback this year. Having said that we do not feel that Israel Folau has performed all that well on the wing and thus this is one of the few positional changes made by Chieka for Saturday’s match that actually makes sense to us. Haylett-Petty can do both, but Folau can’t and Haylett-Petty is more likely to bag a much-needed five pointer from out wide than at fullback for Australia. Consequently, we can’t wait to see if we are proved right on this one on Saturday. If we aren’t and Folau has an off day while Haylett-Petty shines, are we looking at the ultimate sidelining of Folau as Australia desperately seek to find a back row combination that gels?

Verdict

Our overall impression of Australia at the moment is that, just like this time last year, they just want to get on the plane and go home and reflect on yet another disastrous season. In their last match of 2017 they were utterly blown away by a Scottish side who clearly recognised that the Wallabies were down and out. Australia find themselves in exactly the same position, made worse by the fact that it is less than a year out from the World Cup. With Coach Michael Cheika’s tenure clearly in question, a blowout to England similar to the Scottish fiasco last year would surely spell the end for the beleaguered Coach who has sadly done little to endear himself to the public or his team. Will we see a similar rant to the one in Salta at half time which had such a galvanizing effect on his team? In the cauldron that is Twickenham we fear that such a rant would simply demoralize a team already dramatically low on confidence. With all that said, Australia clearly find themselves with their backs against the wall up against an English side that smells blood and wants to end their year with two Southern Hemisphere scalps. Despite England’s slip up against Japan last weekend, we feel they are well placed to achieve their goals tomorrow and thus give them the spoils by 8 points!

Wales vs South Africa – Saturday, November 24th – Cardiff

The number two sides in their respective hemispheres meet in this clash that is clearly being seen as the big fixture of the weekend. Wales are clearly on an upward trajectory but it is not without its purple patches. They struggled to turn a match they should have won against England in the Six Nations to their comprehensive advantage. Against Australia they struggled to cross the whitewash this month, despite getting a much-needed win. They clearly have depth and talent in abundance, but it hasn’t quite developed that killer instinct to close out big matches against quality opposition. South Africa seem to have found that ability in the last six months and more importantly have been able to take it with them on the road. It will be a fascinating test of composure for both sides and one which will tell us much about how these two smoking guns are likely to perform in the World Cup next year.

Wales have a good front row but that South African unit, especially with Kitshoff in the mix look ominous

Wales know that if they want to go the distance next year in Japan they will need to be at their best here. In Ken Owens they have a seasoned and effective campaigner with Nicky Smith and Tomas Francis providing excellent support. However, as seen against Scotland last weekend South Africa’s Steven Kitshoff is such a live wire, coupled to Malcolm Marx’s destructive capabilities that Wales are going to have to be at their very best here. Perhaps their best chance of success is to disrupt Marx’s lineout throwing, as if that goes awry, Marx’s game tends to go with it.

Wales have some of the best depth in the second row we’ve seen in years

We’ve always felt that despite the presence of the legendary Alun-Wyn Jones that the second row has been a weak spot in the Welsh set up. No longer, youngster Adam Beard is a complete firecracker and Cory Hill is a more than able replacement. Admittedly South Africa are looking equally fearsome here, but if the Welsh trio can hold their own and even gain some dominance on this part of the park it could be a very good day out for Wales, but it is still a very big ask. If they pass the test then Wales head into the runup to next year’s Six Nations and the World Cup in exceptionally fine form.

Is Justin Tipuric the new Sam Warburton?

As readers of this blog know we are some of Tipuric’s biggest fans, and felt that the formidable Welsh back rower has had to live in the shadow of Sam Warburton for too long. With Warburton’s retirement from International rugby this year, Wales lose a legend but could not ask for a better replacement. Tipuric is clearly relishing the opportunity to grab centre stage, something he needs to do as Josh Navidi and Adam Shingler are also waiting in the wings in a part of the park in which Wales is genuinely blessed with depth. However, there is something about the talismanic presence that Tipuric brings to the position coupled to a superhuman work rate that is so inspirational to the rest of his colleagues. In that vein alone he is a worthy successor to Warburton.

Wales depth continues at half back

One of the things that has impressed us most about Wales continued improvement over the last year has been the development of some genuine depth in these two key positions. In the scrum half department, in particular it has got to the point where one can hardly remember the name Rhys Webb who was Wales’ guarantee for starting at 9 up to 2017. The depth continues at fly half, with last year’s regular Dan Biggar constantly having to play second fiddle to Gareth Anscombe even for matches of this stature. All players have been shrewdly rotated to ensure that they get sufficient game time and as a result, Wales are looking very much locked and loaded in this part of the park for the World Cup.

If Aphiwe Dyantyi can contain Wales’ George North then he has surely passed his defensive apprenticeship

We all know that Dyantyi is a try scoring machine, but at the start of the year there were massive question marks around his defensive abilities. Consequently, the focus of 2018 has been on how well the elusive Springbok winger can make the tackles that count. In George North, he has a big bruising opponent who is notoriously difficult to bring down once he has built up a head of steam. What has impressed us with Dyantyi is his relative fearlessness and when he does make the tackles, they often count. He no doubt still has much to learn but if he manages to keep North in check and bring the big Welshman down at speed, then we would argue that he has graduated with honor from his year at Springbok defensive college.

Verdict

South Africa are for once looking very good in November, something we are not traditionally used to saying about them at this time of the year. The fact that they are looking this good on the road, bodes extremely well for their buildup to the World Cup. Cardiff is always a very daunting place to play and has not been a happy hunting ground for the Springboks. With a Welsh side looking very much their equal, this will be an exceptionally stern Test and will tell us how far this Springbok side has come since they narrowly lost to Wales in Washington, DC a mere five months ago. Wales will want to put a lot more points on the board than they managed against their other Southern Hemisphere opponents Australia this month. However, that was an Australian side in crisis, something their opponents tomorrow do not appear to be in. Wales will be worried that they were unable to get the points they needed against a poor Australian side to give them any genuine comfort on the scoreboard. Against a Springbok side that finally seems to be hitting all the right notes, Wales will have to put in one of their best performances of the year. What is for certain is that if Wales fix the execution issues they had against Australia and are able to mix it with the Springbok pack, then this could be a match that will rival the intensity of the Ireland/New Zealand and England/New Zealand matches earlier this month. We are really struggling to call this one, but despite home advantage for Wales, we feel that South Africa have been so well tried and tested this month that they could just sneak it by two points! However, we’re simply not putting any bets on it and think this will be a very fitting finale to a superb month of Test rugby.

Now that we’ve finally had a chance to catch our breath after the thriller in Dublin, we can put pen to paper on a few things that stood out for us after a memorable weekend. There is no question that the showdown in Dublin between Ireland and New Zealand provided the most talking points, as two fantastic sides did not disappoint in a Test match that lived up to and exceeded the expectations around it. Ireland put in a truly massive performance and in doing so proved that even without some of their key players they can go head to head with the world’s best and come out on top. There is still a lot of rugby to be played between now and the World Cup, and as delighted as we were to see Ireland turn history and form upside down this past weekend, we aren’t going to get carried away just yet and start tipping them as favorites. The players and their remarkable Coach Joe Schmidt are wisely taking it as one game at a time in terms of their focus and preparation. That in itself will put them in a very strong position for Japan next year. Ireland have been talked up before and you almost sense that the players and Coaches are reluctant to get too carried away – enjoy the moment sure, but focus on what is immediately in front of you first and foremost.

Away from the main event in Dublin, we were also treated to an enthralling game between South Africa and Scotland, and a match which saw France get a much-needed win over their pool opponents in next year’s World Cup – Argentina. South Africa once more showed remarkable composure to get the job done under pressure against an exceptionally feisty and competitive Scotland. The first half as predicted was highly frenetic with tries aplenty, while the second was a solid effort from the Springboks on defensive duty as they withstood a constant onslaught from Scotland. In Lille, France looked the more composed of the two sides in their encounter with Argentina. The South Americans had plenty of sparkle, but as the match wore on they looked increasingly tired, and the complete lack of an effective scrum was their ultimate undoing, as discipline and handling errors continued to mount. France meanwhile managed to find their rhythm and sustain it for the full eighty minutes. France will have made a statement to Argentina that come next year in Japan when the two meet in the pool stages, les Bleus have the edge, especially if Argentina are unable to fix their scrum issues by then.

Lastly from a Canadian point of view, Canada managed to draw ever closer to securing the last spot up for grabs at next year’s World Cup with a fine win over Germany. They have one game left to play against Hong Kong, but barring any major slip ups, they should be able to start looking at travel arrangements to Japan next year.

So here’s what got us talking on Sunday, with a clear focus on the events in Dublin.

Ireland finally head to a World Cup with a squad that boasts a formidable degree of depth

We genuinely believed that without the likes of scrum half Conor Murray, centre Robbie Henshaw and flankers Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien, Ireland would find it hard to go toe to toe with the world’s number 1 team for a full eighty minutes. As a result, Ireland’s emphatic win over, what for all intents and purposes was a full strength New Zealand side on Saturday night in Dublin, was a remarkable achievement. What’s more important is that it means Ireland can travel to Japan next year, knowing that they can compete with the world’s best in a tournament in which attrition will be a significant factor. They have a player base that they can rotate effectively to ensure that they can remain competitive all the way to the end. Keiran Marmion and Luke McGrath are not Ireland’s first choice scrum halves but both stepped up to the plate and put in admirable performances. Flanker Josh van der Flier also put in a massive shift and showcased the talent and skill he brings to the position. Meanwhile the first choice regulars simply outdid themselves in a performance that was one for the ages. It was a complete team effort and a credit to players and coaching staff alike. In short, in terms of a classic Test match it doesn’t get much better than that.

It was hard to single out one player, but this surely was one of the most inspirational performances we’ve seen on a rugby pitch in a long time.

As we’ve already said, it was a monumental team effort from Ireland on Saturday night, but O’Mahony’s performance perhaps best encapsulated the sheer determination that Ireland put on display in Dublin. The standing ovation he so justly deserved from the packed Aviva Stadium when he left the field on the 63rd minute summed up the impact he had on the match. The man was simply everywhere, and at times while clearly battling through the pain barrier, he still managed to be where Ireland needed him to be, effecting turnover after turnover. It was an inspirational display that clearly had a huge impact in terms of galvanizing his colleagues to even greater heights, and it captivated the imagination of 51,000 enthralled spectators in the Aviva and the countless millions watching on TV screens around the world.

You don’t often see New Zealand being held tryless and that is the biggest testimony to how effective this Irish defence has become

Admittedly the British and Irish Lions managed to do it last year in Wellington, but it is an exceptionally rare occasion. This isn’t to say that New Zealand didn’t come close to a five pointer – they did on numerous occasions. However, Ireland’s defence was truly remarkable as it never really looked like cracking. They were exceptionally well organised, and on the odd occassion when they weren’t the amount of pressure that they had managed to maintain on New Zealand for the full eighty minutes often forced the All Blacks into mistakes. That pressure was the most remarkable aspect of Ireland’s game on Saturday night. It was utterly relentless and even as a spectator you felt drained at the end of eighty minutes. New Zealand may still be the best team in the world, but put them under nonstop pressure and they suddenly become mortal. Couple that with perhaps the best disciplinary record in Test Rugby right now, and Ireland were going to be more than a handful for the world’s best. Ireland were able to exert all that pressure while still managing to keep on the right side of referee Wayne Barnes’ whistle. On top of that they were absolutely clinical in everything they did, and their execution backed them up. Throw in a crowd who utterly got behind their boys, and New Zealand were up against it from the closing bars of “Ireland’s Call”. Jacob Stockdale’s remarkable try was simply icing on the cake of a truly phenomenal performance!

South Africa once more show the resolve needed to win big matches away from home

There is no doubt that South Africa were put under the pump by Scotland on Saturday. Their performance to keep a rampant Scottish side tryless in the second half required a calmness and focus we are not used to seeing from them until this year, especially on the road. Handre Pollard had another masterclass at fly half, and once more effortlessly slotted into the centre channels once Elton Jantjiies replaced him late in the second half. Jantjies also seems to perform much better in the role if Pollard is kept on the field, and this has been a key factor in both the France and Scotland games. South Africa can also take great heart in Embrose Papier’s first real examination under pressure at scrum half. We felt he offered quick and efficient delivery and stood up well on his first major outing at Test level. There is no question that this is now an accomplished Springbok unit that is starting to hit all the right notes, and one that is blessed with a forward pack that provides them with such a solid platform. For us the only question really remains around the centre channels, but even that is starting to provide more answers than questions these days. In short, South Africa are back with a bang and should they get one over the Welsh this weekend, they will be able to look back on 2018 as a genuine success that has once more made them a real contender for World Cup glory next year!

France continue to build quietly, and may well end up surprising us all next year

No it wasn’t exactly the match of the weekend in Lille, but there were moments that were genuinely entertaining from both France and Argentina. In this match Argentina started to show the signs of a long season of playing together and a scrum that simply doesn’t work. They started very brightly, but by the end were slowly but surely going backwards and that initial spark was long gone. France on the other hand looked the part. They were for the most part efficient and worked well together as a unit. As expected they pushed Argentina around at scrum time, and their set pieces worked that much better than the Pumas. The opportunities they did create were well taken, and in the second half they capitalised on a Pumas outfit starting to run out of puff and ideas. Furthermore they managed for large periods of the match to keep Argentina’s key playmaker, fly half Nicolas Sanchez, in check. They didn’t negate his presence on the field, but they did make it difficult for him to operate with the kind of freedom he needs. Pumas winger Moyano did give the French huge problems, as evidenced by his fine try, but once he was sadly relegated to the sidelines with injury in the 63rd minute, Argentina no longer looked as much of a threat out wide. It may not have been spectacular by les Bleus but it was an assured performance, with enough sparkle at times to give them a much-needed confidence boost ahead of next year’s Six Nations and their critical World Cup opener against Argentina on September 21st.

Endnote

As you can imagine New Zealand’s Steve and Ireland’s Gareth from the 1014 on YouTube had a lot to say on the proceedings between their two countries. Enjoy yet another superb breakdown of the action by the two greatest rugby sages on the Internet, and make sure you subscribe to help them push such remarkable content to greater heights! We’d also recommend you watch the match again with their second screen playing alongside as it offers some fascinating insights as the game unfolds.

There is no doubt that this weekend’s fixture in Dublin is one of the most anticipated Tests of the year, and one which will tell us a lot about how close the number two side Ireland is to the world’s best New Zealand. Ireland know that should they lose, there can be no excuses and that they must continue to raise the bar in terms of both their depth and skill if they are genuine about their aspirations to lift the Webb Ellis trophy next year in Japan. If New Zealand come away the losers, they know that their position at the top of Rugby’s world order is still secure for the moment, but England, Ireland and South Africa will be snapping hard at their heels come the World Cup next year, by which time the gap between these four rugby superpowers is likely to be minimal at best. New Zealand will know that in order to hang onto their dominance of the global game, they will have to, as they have so often, reinvent how the game is played.

Before we get underway in Dublin on Saturday, South Africa travel to Edinburgh to take on a Scottish side that obliterated a spirited Fijian challenge last weekend. Scotland seemed to have managed the unthinkable and seem able to play a faster game than Fiji, who have been the traditional speed kings of Test Rugby up till now. Scotland also don’t seem short on the brawn factor either and should be able to match up to the fearsome physical challenge that South Africa will bring. The Springboks showed a resolve in the final five minutes against France last weekend that we have rarely seen from them on the road, and snatched the win. In Wellington earlier this year they hung on to a famous victory like men possessed, but in Paris last Saturday they knew what they had to do and calmly and efficiently set about doing it without panicking, despite the seconds clicking down on the clock.

After the dustup in Dublin, we end the day in Northern France, as Argentina travel to Lille to take on a French side reeling from the loss to South Africa at the death in Paris last weekend. Nevertheless, there were still plenty of things for France to feel positive about, but if they are to avoid the type of schooling Argentina provided Ireland with at times last weekend, then they will need to improve on that performance. Argentina may have lost to Ireland, but they made them work for it in no uncertain terms. It was only a continually creaking scrum that really let them down. It is likely to be a bruising encounter and one in which Argentina after their exploits in Dublin will fancy their chances, and if that back three from the Pumas get a sniff of space it could be a long afternoon for the French. As the last crack at a Southern Hemisphere side before the World Cup, France will know they need to make a statement on Saturday in Lille, especially as these two sides will be fighting it out in the same pool for a ticket to the knockout stages in next year’s global showdown.

In other November action, Italy taken on an Australian side reeling from one crisis to another, Wales do battle with Tonga and England get to regroup with Japan. Much like last week, while we recognise the importance of these matches, due to limited resources we sadly won’t be covering them, as well as Canada’s key World Cup Repechage tournament fixture with Germany this weekend in France.

So, here’s what got us talking about each of the three key fixtures this weekend.

Scotland vs South Africa  – Saturday, November 17th – Murrayfield

South Africa travel to Edinburgh knowing that their performance against England was just short of the mark to get the win, and while they got the job done in Paris, they left it till far too late to seal the deal. Scotland will give them no easy breaks, and given the blistering tempo at which Scotland likes to play the game these days South Africa know they are going to have their hands full, especially defensively. The only way for them to keep out of danger is to simply suffocate the ball and give Scotland’s speed merchants no room in which to operate. However, Scotland as evidenced last week can pack some physical punch of their own, and Saturday’s contest should provide plenty of entertainment across the park.

If Scotland’s forward pack can mix it with South Africa, then the keys to the match may have been found

Everyone knows what Scotland’s backs can do, but the question remains as to how effective their forward pack really is. Against arguably the most punishing set of forwards in the world, Scotland will have the ultimate litmus Test with South Africa. Scotland ultimately got pushed around by Wales up front in their November opener, and Fiji are not renown for their forward prowess. As a result, Saturday’s Test will reveal a great deal about Scotland’s stocks in this department.

Another chance for Scotland’s Sam Skinner to really shine

Skinner was one of the talking points of Scotland’s demolition of Fiji last weekend. The debutant was a lethal weapon for the Scots against the Fijians and if he can build on that performance up against a seemingly immoveable Springbok back row, then Scotland will feel well pleased. However, the 23-year-old will have to hold his own against the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen.

Pollard vs Russell – versatility meets unpredictability

After the England match, Pollard clearly got his groove back for South Africa in Paris and as the game progressed, he became increasingly confident, so much so that he slotted effortlessly into the centre channel in the last quarter of the match once Elton Jantjies took over at fly half. Finn Russell on the other hand, very rarely does the same thing twice on a rugby field making it impossible at times to read Scotland defensively. Russell’s risk taking is at times legendary, however, if the execution isn’t there then it makes Scotland highly vulnerable. Pollard is the more cautious but reliable of the two, and is less likely to try something he knows his colleagues have only a 50/50 chance of pulling off. A fascinating contest in store here between these two.

Embrose Papier’s big day for the Springboks

South Africa are once more denied the services of the exceptional Faf de Klerk at scrum half, and instead have to rely on the relatively untested merits of Embrose Papier. There is no question he packs a bit more fizz in his delivery than the slightly more pedestrian Ivan van Zyl. However, he has precious little game time at this level under his belt. South Africa know they need to develop depth in a position that will be crucial to their chances at next year’s World Cup. Papier’s slightly quicker reflexes and pace of delivery is likely to suit what should be a much faster flowing game than what South Africa experienced against England. If he performs well, then Coach Rassie Erasmus can put a big check mark against depth at scrum half on his to do list.

Another huge defensive test awaits South Africa out wide

The debate continues around whether or not South Africa still has a credible defense out wide. There will be no better test than Saturday as they attempt to contain Huw Jones up the middle, and Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour out wide, with Seymour having scored a hat trick against Fiji. There is also a gentleman by the name of Stuart Hogg at fullback for Scotland who makes a habit of shredding defences from all over the park. Much like Argentina’s back three, this group of Scotsmen are going to be coming at South Africa from all angles all afternoon, if South Africa’s forwards don’t manage to stifle Scotland’s creativity. Pass this test and Erasmus will know he’s made some genuine progress on defence.

Verdict

This is for us the hardest contest to call this weekend. If South Africa are able to continually frustrate Scotland by denying them quick ball, as well as letting their own two wingers go to work, then it should be South Africa’s day. However, Scotland play at such breakneck speed and with such panache at times, they could manage to cause enough confusion to prevent South Africa getting any kind of cohesion in their defensive structures. We saw what Scotland did to Australia last year, and South Africa are still only just emerging from the kind of wilderness that the Wallabies now find themselves utterly lost in. We can’t help but get the feeling that Scotland, in front of the Murrayfield faithful, are just that much more up for this one, despite the highly physical and daunting threat that a rapidly improving South Africa offers. If Faf de Klerk was in the lineup for South Africa we would be giving them the edge, but without him South Africa are faced with a few more unknowns than Scotland on Saturday. Just like in Paris a close and hard-fought match awaits, but one in which Scotland should just rule the day by two points!

Ireland vs New Zealand – Saturday, November 17th – Dublin

Yes, it’s finally here. While taking nothing away from the titanic struggle between England and New Zealand last weekend, this match is still the big ticket for the November Internationals this year. It’s the best of the North meeting the best of the South and as a result is without a doubt the Test of the Year. Whoever, wins or loses will not result in New Zealand falling from their lofty position at the top of the world rankings just yet, but it will tell us a great deal about whether or not New Zealand still remain in a league of their own.

While England managed to keep within one point of New Zealand last weekend, and consequently put the All Blacks under the sort of pressure they are only just becoming used to of late, it ultimately wasn’t enough to prevent New Zealand from calmly wrestling back control of the game and emerging shaken but confident victors. It’s that quality of being able to come from behind without ever really looking panicked, that has become so synonymous with their success. They’ve only looked genuinely rattled twice in the last 3 years – once in Chicago two years ago against Ireland and most recently in Wellington against the Springboks. They arrive in Dublin with a lethal looking side that will require Ireland to be at their very best.

Ireland meanwhile come into the match, at the height of an unparalleled wave of success. However, they meet New Zealand without two players who were key to that famous victory in Chicago two years ago – scrum half Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw. More to the point, Ireland know that they cannot use this as an excuse if they play poorly on Saturday and suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of New Zealand. If you want to compete with the very best in the world, especially in the endurance marathon that is the World Cup, you simply have to be able to weather the inevitable attrition of some of your key players. As many people who are familiar with our musings know, we regard the lack of game time for Ireland’s half back understudies to Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton as their one potential Achilles Heel in the buildup to next year’s World Cup. If Keiran Marmion, Luke McGrath and Joey Carberry acquit themselves well this Saturday against the World’s best, then Coach Joe Schmidt can feel he has found the last missing link in the development of an Irish World Cup squad.

Rory Best has to be his best

As we mentioned in our post action musings from last weekend, we felt that Rory Best was slightly off the mark last weekend. The veteran hooker continued to lead from the front, but his accuracy at lineout time continued to leave us with concerns. Furthermore, he just looked off the pace for much of the match. We all know what the great man can do, but Ireland need him to bring his A game on Saturday and then some. We also felt that in the final quarter, Peter O’Mahony lent a certain edge to the Captaincy that Ireland needed to get over a troublesome opponent in the shape of Argentina. New Zealand are likely to be just as unsettling and Best really needs to rise to the occasion both in terms of execution and leadership. Without a doubt the biggest game he will play between now and the World Cup.

The second row contest – one of the biggest on the park

Saturday will take us back to prehistoric times as giants will once more roam the land in the lineouts. Ireland’s James Ryan wasn’t in Chicago for that famous victory but he has become such an integral part of Ireland’s success in the blink of an eye that it is hard to believe he wasn’t. Meanwhile, Devin Toner will add another towering dimension to Ireland’s second row. Ireland will need it as they go up against the best second row pair on the planet in the shape of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Retallick singlehandedly turned the game to New Zealand’s advantage by taking complete control of the lineouts away from England last weekend. The communication between Rory Best and his jumpers has to be perfect on Saturday, if Ireland are to avoid what happened to England last weekend.

Dan Leavy could have made the number 7 jersey his once and for all – but now it is Josh van der Flier’s turn to steal the limelight

When we published this last night this was a burning question. However, on waking up this morning we learnt that Leavy is out at the last minute and in steps Josh van der Flier. Consequently this comment and its response below are irrelevant in the context of tomorrow’s match. Having said that though, if Van der Flier can also step up in place of both Leavy and O’Brien, then it will raise even more questions for Joe Schmidt as to which of these three is his regular starter for the number 7 berth between now and the World Cup. Given the quality of all three players, this is a dilemma that most Coaches would dearly love to have.

One of the sad sights of Ireland’s encounter last weekend with Argentina was Sean O’Brien once more leaving the field with injury. Still for Dan Leavy it was opportunity knocks. As gutted as we all are for O’Brien, there is no question that Leavy is far more than just an able replacement. He was a force of nature from the moment he came on against the Pumas, and seems to relish an intense physical contest while at the same time seeming impervious to fatigue. As we said earlier this week, the man appears to have no off switch, much like his second row colleague James Ryan. If Leavy puts in a massive shift against New Zealand on Saturday, then irrespective of O’Brien’s recovery time, Coach Joe Schmidt will find it increasingly difficult to not see him as a starter in his World Cup plans over the next twelve months.

Depth at nine – now’s the time!

Ireland may be without the services of talismanic scrum half Conor Murray on Saturday, but they couldn’t have a better opportunity to really see the calibre of their stocks in this position. Murray has been such an integral part of Ireland’s success since the last World Cup that Ireland find themselves unsure of how well they can cope without him. Consequently, despite the fact that Murray’s two understudies Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath now have to step out of the frying pan and into the fire, Ireland couldn’t ask for a better examination of how much they need to do to develop the needed depth in this part of the park between now and Japan next year. Marmion has proven himself under pressure in an Irish jersey, but Luke McGrath has simply never had to face this kind of test. If they pass with flying colors then much of Ireland will sleep better on Saturday night.

Ireland’s back three will face their biggest Test and we’re not talking about Jacob Stockdale’s try scoring ability

If we see one area that Ireland may really struggle with on Saturday – it’s here. Sure, we all want to see the maestro of the try line for Ireland, winger Jacob Stockdale, grab at least one five pointer. However, if Ireland are to survive on Saturday, they really need to keep New Zealand’s back three in check defensively. While Ireland are masters of possession, they have proven vulnerable to the counter attack, and in Rieko Ioane, but particularly Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie, New Zealand possess Test Rugby’s ultimate weapons. Ireland’s Rob Kearney may be one of the undisputed champions of the high ball, but will he, Stockdale and Earls be able to contain McKenzie’s bursts from deep? The diminutive All Black fullback has defenders clawing helplessly at thin air as he does his own rendition of “Riverdance” across the park. A huge Test awaits the Irish trio and if they manage to get through it, Ireland will breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Verdict

Ireland know they are up against it on Saturday, and that it is going to take a very special team effort to pull off what would still be considered an upset if they were to beat New Zealand. Even without Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw, it is a very good Irish team that is coached by one of the best, if not THE best, tactical brains in Test Rugby in the shape of Joe Schmidt. However, New Zealand haven’t been the number one team in the world for the last nine years by accident. There is no team more clinical or ruthless in its approach to the modern game. They may have had their odd wobble this year, but in our humble opinion, we’ve never felt they’ve looked all that vulnerable – occasionally rattled yes but not vulnerable. Ireland may have a game plan to put them under pressure and get them to make mistakes, but there is no team that makes better use of the twenty minutes at half time in the sheds. For their opponents the final forty minutes is a nerve-racking affair of hanging on for dear life as New Zealand figure out how to play them at their own game and turn it to their advantage. Consequently, for us, it may be down to the wire, but Ireland have more questions to answer than New Zealand does on Saturday. Therefore, despite a titanic struggle at times, the All Blacks should seal this by eight points in a final ten minutes in which Ireland learn a great deal about themselves and what they need to do before Japan! However, in order to create yet another piece of sporting history between these two great sides we hope Ireland prove us wrong.

France vs Argentina – Saturday, November 17th – Lille

In days gone by, France would have been seen as the side with all the flair and panache and Argentina the side to grind out a punishing and physical contest. How times have changed as the roles are now completely reversed. Argentina still possess a formidable pack of forwards, but their skill lies more in disruption and ball carrying than it does in bludgeoning an opposition into submission. Argentina’s backs are like French backs of old and fizz with excitement and creativity. France have become a big punishing side, with sufficient pace in some of their backs to make opposition sides pay for their mistakes. But if you’re looking for French flair on Saturday, there’s likely to be more on offer in the tango.

France will be licking their wounds after being robbed at the death by South Africa. Argentina meanwhile arrive in France, full of confidence knowing that they gave Ireland a serious workout last weekend in Dublin. Argentina really only have one documented weakness at the moment, their scrum, while this is a French team that is not nearly as coherent and familiar with each other as the Pumas. However, both teams find themselves in similar positions – teams that can and should be having more success than the results they have to show for their efforts this year. If both teams turn up full of intent and get the basics right, this should be a very worthwhile match from a spectator point of view.

We didn’t see much in the way of hope for Argentina’s scrum last weekend

We are really struggling to understand why this traditional strength for Argentina is proving so problematic of late. Sadly, we didn’t see much last weekend to convince us that a turnaround in Argentina’s scrum fortunes is on the cards any time soon. Hooker Agustin Creevy is world class, but his support seems to be creaking around him. Although France struggled at times here against South Africa, we still felt they were competitive, which sadly is not something we can say about Argentina at the moment. We hope that November provides Argentina with the insight they need to fix it, but for now it’s looking like multiple visits to the drawing board.

France are likely to battle in the second row

Although we felt he had a better game than we expected him to have, Yoann Maestri and Sebastien Vahaamahina often looked panicked and overwhelmed against South Africa. By comparison Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini and Matias Alemanno looked almost composed last weekend against Ireland, which is definitely not a quality we are used to associating with Lavanini. Lavanini’s discipline and maturity have improved leaps and bounds this year and along with Alemanno, Argentina have a devastatingly effective and mobile second row unit. France needed to be better here last weekend and this Saturday will demand more of the same.

France need three Arthur Iturrias

Don’t get us wrong, Louis Picamoles and Wenceslas Lauret had good games last weekend but Iturria kept grabbing the headlines. Every time France did something positive the flanker’s name seemed to pop up. He will be up against a genuine powerhouse Pumas back row, but expect this 24-year-old to cause Argentina plenty of headaches on Saturday.

Moyano vs Thomas – one of the best contests of the weekend

That both these individuals have plenty of pace and an ability to turn on a dime is an understatement of the highest order. The weather conditions in Lille on Saturday look to favor a running game, and these two wingers are extraordinary proponents of such a contest. Argentina’s Ramiro Moyano has been for us one of the most exciting players to watch this year in open play and some of his running lines have been truly breathtaking. France’s Teddy Thomas is of the same calibre, though we feel that Moyano is better defensively. Watching these two in action will be a thrilling prospect on Saturday, and the more dominant of the two will most likely be on the winning side. To add to France’s headaches, there is also an Argentinian who goes by the name of Bautista Delguy who has probably featured in a few of Frenchman Yoann Huget’s nightmares this week.

In with the old and in with the new – the battle at 15

The New World in the shape of Argentina’s Emiliano Boffelli meets the Old World on Saturday in the form of France’s Maxime Medard. The French veteran is playing some of the best rugby of an illustrious career while Boffelli is the rookie everyone keeps talking about. Both are huge threats in their own right, are but players with very different styles, particularly on the counterattack. However, we feel that the Argentinian is more likely to grab the headlines as he features as part of a back three that have now been playing together continuously at both club and Test level since February. Unless fatigue gets the better of them this is ultimately a highly seasoned Argentinian unit, even if France may be packing more in the experience department.

Verdict

France should win and will want to win. While the latter part of that statement is clearly stating the obvious, after the disappointment of last week it will be high on the list of their priorities. However, Argentina will also want to make a statement on this tour that they mean business at next year’s World Cup in one of their last major international outings before an abbreviated Rugby Championship next year. Two equally matched sides with plenty to prove should make for an even and entertaining match. However, because we were so impressed with how well Argentina coped with the second best side in the world last week, even if Ireland were misfiring, we think the Pumas might have the edge this weekend. Familiarity and a Coach who knows how to get results, make us lean toward Argentina as slight favourites in Lille on Saturday by four points!

Endnote

As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our posts this month with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there, subscribe and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content. In the meantime, here’s their excellent look at the kinds of tactical discussions that might be going on in the Irish and New Zealand think tanks this week.

 

It’s not often that four Test matches over a November weekend live up to their billing. However, this weekend produced two titanic struggles and two matches, which although not the prettiest to watch at times, still provided some extraordinary moments.

Our two highlights of the weekend were without a doubt the Twickenham and Paris thrillers. England have really stepped up to the plate this November, and their win over first South Africa and then a loss to the All Blacks by a mere point must surely mark a dramatic reversal in their fortunes this year. While they get a relatively easier challenge this weekend against Japan, their final match of the month sees them with the opportunity to make it two Southern Hemisphere scalps out of three, as they take on a Wallaby side in crisis. France meanwhile will be gutted with their narrow loss at the death to South Africa, but can take heart in the fact that their first outing this November produced such quality against an impressive Springbok unit.

In Cardiff and Dublin there were some great moments as Wales finally ended their losing streak against Australia, and Ireland were put under some enormous pressure by a ferocious Pumas side. We never really felt that Wales or Ireland were going to lose, but Wales will be disappointed that despite dominating Australia they were unable to really get serious points on the scoreboard. Meanwhile Ireland were made to work exceptionally hard for their win over a rampant Pumas side. The game in Cardiff was not attractive by any stretch of the imagination as two sides played highly cautious rugby, leaving little to spark the imagination. Wales may have been more effective and got a critical win, but they will be frustrated that they couldn’t turn their attacks into points.

Ireland meanwhile, although being well off their usual pace, will still regard their epic tussle with Argentina as the perfect preparation for “THE BIG ONE” this weekend with New Zealand. Ireland will need to up their game considerably if they are to take on an All Black side recently rattled by England. In fairness to Argentina, apart from their scrum they came to Dublin hell-bent on causing havoc – a task in which they succeeded admirably. The Pumas had Ireland on the rack for a good hour, and it was only in the final quarter where Ireland managed to get the measure of Argentina and start playing the kind of rugby they needed to get the win.

Even Canada managed to get a solid win over Kenya in the first of three matches in France to determine who gets the last spot up for grabs at next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Just like last weekend, there was drama and controversy aplenty but here’s what got us talking on Sunday morning.

England are back but need better decision-making as New Zealand showed them how to close the deal once more

Just as in their performance against South Africa, England had a solid effort, put under the microscope once more by a 50/50 call. Last week it went in their favor but this time it wasn’t to be. It was a borderline call that put Courtney Lawes offside and thus denied England the try that would have sealed a classic Test match. The authorities have since deemed the officials had the correct interpretation of the rules, and from what we’ve seen it is marginal, but it would appear that a miniscule portion of Lawes’ right toe is in the offside position. Tough one but there it is. Just like South Africa squandering their chances against England the week before, England were guilty of doing the same. In appalling weather, they constantly decided to kick for touch rather than take the much easier points on offer between the sticks. This seemed even more prevalent once Owen Farrell took over the Captaincy from Dylan Hartley. A slippery ball and a swampy surface are always going to make the effectiveness of your driving maul from a 5 metre lineout questionable – the ball can pop out anywhere and your forwards are struggling with traction. England, like South Africa the week before left at least 6 points out on the park, which meant they would still have comfortably won even without the disallowed try.

On the positive side of things, England are clearly back in business. To hold the world’s best team at bay for as long as they did in appalling conditions, and ultimately lose by a point is something they can feel exceptionally good about. There is finally a back row that works and a back three that looks dangerous. Ben Youngs is regaining the form that made him so valuable to England’s efforts in the scrum half department, and Danny Care is an able replacement. The second row, and Maro Itoje in particular, also seem back to their best even if they struggled to contain the super human feats of Brodie Retallick in the lineouts. England’s decision-making needs some work, and we’re not convinced about their front row, centre pairings or fly half selections, but overall the change in England’s performance compared to six months ago is night and day.

New Zealand meanwhile may have been put under the kosh by England but they still showed the class and resilience they have to get the job done, even if their supporters’ hearts were in their mouths for the final five minutes. For us it was the class and skill shown in Damian McKenzie’s try, Brodie Retallick’s remarkable efforts at nullifying England’s lineouts and Barrett’s game management and decision-making in when and how to take the points that ultimately revealed the difference between the two sides in terms of big match temperament.

Wales continue to improve while Australia slide deeper into the abyss

There were some moments in that game that had us on our feet from a Welsh perspective – essentially any time centre Jonathan Davies or flanker Justin Tipuric were in charge of events. Tipuric in particular was immense for Wales and seemed a catalyst for many of Wales’ brightest moments in the game. The same can be said for Jonathan Davies. As a collective Wales put in a solid if uninspiring performance, which ultimately saw them come out on top in a contest that clearly meant so much to them. They were cautious and at times seemed overwhelmed by the occasion, as evidenced by Leigh Halfpenny fluffing a kick at goal right in front of the posts. There was little risk taking and given Australia’s ineptitude for much of the match it made for dire viewing at times. Wales are a more exciting team than that, but the win at whatever cost was clearly putting a lid on some of their more creative attributes. They got the job done, and Tipuric and Davies sought to inspire, but for the most part it was a pedestrian match that will not be remembered for much other than the low score and a much-needed Welsh victory.

Australia on the other hand were dire – plain and simple. First of all we struggled to try to figure out what kind of game Australia were trying to play. It looked overly complicated, especially in the set pieces, and players clearly had no understanding whatsoever of how to execute whatever it was they were supposed to be doing. We thought lock Adam Coleman put in a solid effort and seemed to be the only player who had an inkling of what was expected of him. Australia’s back row, despite David Pocock, looks increasingly unbalanced and Michael Hooper’s decision-making skills in such a low scoring match beggared belief at times. Increasingly of late, we’ve really noticed the lack of a Scott Fardy type figure in Australia’s back row – ask any Leinster supporter how much the ex-Wallaby has brought to the Irish club’s efforts in the European Champions Cup. Coach Michael Cheika despite being a YouTube sensation, increasingly looks out of touch, while at the same time constantly spouting on about the learning Australia is supposedly doing – even if his players are clearly struggling to figure out what language the playbook is written in as the first step in their learning process. Australia may have a potentially soft fixture with Italy this weekend, but even that is no guarantee. Italy’s tails are clearly up after their much-needed win over Georgia last weekend, and they will sense there is an opportunity for an upset here. In short, Australia look a mess from 1-15, despite some clear and obvious talent, and it is going to take a huge step up for them to avoid a banana skin in Italy and humiliation from a hungry and revitalized England.

Ireland get off to a scrappy start and need to make some hard decisions

There were some thrilling moments in this match from both sides, and there is no question that Ireland received a schooling at times from Argentina. We always thought this was going to be a tough encounter, especially as the Pumas have a history of raining on Ireland’s parade. However, as preparation for next weekend’s assignment with New Zealand, Ireland and Coach Joe Schmidt could not have asked for better. It was big, tough, fast and physical for the full eighty minutes. Sadly it took its toll on Ireland as flanker Sean O’Brien was once more taken from the field with an injury that will see him out of action till at least the New Year. The Irish back rower has really struggled of late with injury and one has to wonder how much more he can take, especially with the World Cup less than a year away. Still O’Brien’s loss is Dan Leavy’s gain, and he made sure that he stamped a solid claim on the number 7 jersey this weekend. In our opinion given O’Brien’s ongoing misfortune with injury and resulting time away from the game, it is increasingly difficult for Coach Joe Schmidt and the Irish selectors to deny Leavy a regular starting berth at 7. When he came on for the injured O’Brien against the Pumas his impact was felt immediately and he never let up for the rest of the match. Much like second rower James Ryan, Leavy seems to have no off button.

Ireland won’t be pleased with their struggles at lineout time, something which seemed to improve dramatically once second rower Devin Toner came on for Ian Henderson. However, Rory Best’s lineout throws also left a lot to be desired, and for a while now we’ve felt that Sean Cronin actually has better accuracy in such vital set pieces. Furthermore, we also couldn’t help but get the impression that in the final quarter once Peter O’Mahony was given the Captain’s armband, Ireland’s shape changed and they seemed to hit another gear, as well as become much more clinical. None of this is meant in any way to be disdainful of Rory Best and his leadership or ability. Best is an outstanding servant of Irish rugby and a big part of their success of the last few years. However, when he does have an off day Ireland clearly suffers. Even the incomparable Johnny Sexton had a very poor game by his standards until the final quarter. Jordan Larmour as we suspected, had a tough go of it at fullback and Argentina tested him to the full defensively, so much so that he was found wanting on occasion and as a result he was given little opportunity to show off the attacking skills that had everyone talking after the match with Italy the weekend before.

It wasn’t pretty from Ireland, but they got the job done, and by the final quarter seemed to have found their rhythm once more. In addition, both scrum halves who will have to do duty next weekend, as a result of the continued absence of Conor Murray, put in solid performances and each managed to bag a fine try. Ireland know they will need to take it up another couple of gears next weekend if they are to survive a day out with New Zealand in what is rightly being billed as the biggest Test of the year. Ireland still have plenty of work to do between now and next Saturday, but it still should be one hell of a contest!

South Africa leave it till the last minute, but show a resolve we have rarely seen from them, especially on the road

France will be bitterly disappointed with their loss at the death to South Africa. It was a great Test match and France acquitted themselves very well indeed, however, in a match running so closely on the margins France committed some key errors that ultimately decided the game. South Africa were made to work for every scrap, and it is clear that France are starting to click just in time to make them a genuine nuisance come the World Cup. However, the Springboks execution was for the most part just that much better, and their focus in the dying minutes showed a calmness and confidence that wasn’t all that different to that shown by a group of men in green jerseys who visited the French capital back in February this year.

France we felt had a lot to be pleased about. Their front row may have taken a bit of a beating at times, but their second row and their back row in particular stood up superbly to a very powerful challenge from South Africa. Their halfback pairing, especially Baptiste Serin at scrum half looked the part as did the bench pairing of Anthony Belleau and Antoine Dupont. France’s backs also impressed, especially veteran fullback Maxime Medard. In short, France are clearly finding their way again and could well end up as a smoking gun in next year’s World Cup. There is still a certain naiveté about them at times, but with the European Champions Cup and next year’s Six Nations in store for many of these players, France should be in fine form come the World Cup.

South Africa managed to put last week’s disappointment behind them, and with the return of key players like scrum half Faf de Klerk, fullback Willie le Roux and second rower Franco Mostert, South Africa played with an assurance that was lacking at key moments last weekend against England. Fly half Handre Pollard’s kicking game was rock solid and he switched effortlessly to centre once Elton Jantjies replaced him at ten in the final quarter. Malcolm Marx was a shadow of the player that raised so many eyebrows last weekend in terms of missed opportunities. He hit his targets in the lineouts, made life a misery for France in the scrums and the loose, and generally got back to the kind of form we are accustomed to seeing from this remarkable player. South Africa may have been slow to get out of the blocks in the first half, but by the hour mark they were starting to fizz. Furthermore with five minutes to go they just didn’t look like panicking. They knew what they had to do and set about doing it calmly and efficiently. There is no question that replacement Hooker Bongi Mbonambi’s radar like accuracy at lineout time helped enormously and his game breaking try at the death was just reward for his efforts.

It may be premature to say – but this is best evidence we’ve seen that the gap is closing between North and South, just in time for what should be one of the most closely contested World Cups ever!

That one point difference between England and New Zealand says a lot about how quickly some of the Northern Hemisphere sides are starting to catch up to the World’s number one side, the All Blacks. There is still a long way to go, but the fact that France almost beat South Africa while England held New Zealand to the death and lost by only a point, says a lot about what we could expect from next year’s World Cup. If Ireland are able to pull off the unthinkable without Conor Murray and beat New Zealand this weekend, then it would seem to indicate that the omens for a very closely contested and open World Cup next year are looking very good indeed. Argentina seem to be peaking at just the right time, Wales are looking like they are blessed with depth and know how to win, even if last weekend’s match wasn’t the best advertisement for the latter quality. England are back and everyone knows that Ireland are good – next weekend will simply tell us how good. South Africa are starting to hum, France are rising from the ashes and Scotland continue to look dangerous. The only real question mark is Australia, and we still argue that only a fool would write them off, even if your tea leaves are telling you to do so.

In short, on what is for all intents and purposes neutral ground for Rugby’s traditional superpowers, next year’s World Cup in Japan should be one of the most open and competitive in the tournament’s history. We will know a lot more once the next two weeks are over, but have to admit we are already getting more than just a little excited!

Endnote

As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our posts this month with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there, subscribe and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content. In the meantime here’s their excellent look at the England/New Zealand game.

So now it’s official as we head into the November Test window proper, despite last weekend’s headline encounter between England and South Africa. What was once the most anticipated contest since the last World Cup, that between England and New Zealand, now has to play second fiddle to the clash between Ireland and the All Blacks next weekend, but it is still an event that has had most of us talking for a very long time. Consequently, this Saturday’s match up between England and New Zealand will give us a good indicator of how far England have managed to dig themselves out of the rut that has been plaguing them since the start of 2018, and what Ireland are likely to have to contend with as they face the world’s best next weekend.

This weekend’s proceedings kick off with Italy against Georgia, which sadly due to a lack of time and resources we will not be covering. Scotland then take on Fiji which we are also having to gloss over due to the same reasons as Italy and Georgia, with no disrespect to four great sides.

The first big encounter which has got us talking is England vs New Zealand. England managed to hold a badly misfiring South Africa at bay last weekend by the narrowest of margins (and no we are not referring to the Farrell tackle – see our previous post in relation to our thoughts on that). England battled well against a powerful Springbok unit that clearly had a stranglehold on proceedings in the first half, but somehow managed to fluff numerous golden opportunities while they were camped deep in the English 22. In the second half, English fans will have taken heart in how well some of the newer English caps got to grips with the nature of a very physical game, and while they never really looked like crossing the South African whitewash, much heart and grit was displayed in a solid workmanlike performance coupled to some resolute defence. England in their current shape are a ways off from being a contender for the number 2 spot in the world rankings, which they were when this match was first announced. As a result for the neutral supporter the match has lost some of its billing with the clash between Ireland and New Zealand next weekend likely to provide more light on who’s who in the global pecking order of Test rugby. Nevertheless, a clash between these two rugby superpowers is always something to look forward to, and while many are seeing the result as a foregone conclusion, it is still likely to provide plenty of drama and excitement.

Next up Wales take on Australia and many are predicting that they will finally break the curse of not having beaten the Wallabies in their last thirteen encounters. Australia arrive struggling to fire as a unit despite being blessed with a wealth of individual talent, especially in the backs. Wales have built a solid foundation with plenty of depth and experience, and 2018 has been an outstanding year for them, finishing second in the Six Nations and clean sweep of their June tour against South Africa and Argentina. Last weekend against Scotland they looked a classy and slick outfit, that seems to have managed to combine an enviable balance of exceptional young talent and experienced campaigners. Australia meanwhile have shown that they can come back from almost insurmountable odds, as evidenced in their final game of the Rugby Championship against Argentina. At the end of a tough tournament and a long way from home the Wallabies were put to the sword by the Pumas in the first half, but somehow after a dressing room rant from Coach Michael Cheika, came back and won the game in emphatic style. Which Wallaby side will we see for eighty minutes on Saturday in Cardiff and will they remain as Wales’ ultimate problem side?

From Cardiff we travel across the Irish Sea as Ireland take on a resurgent Argentina under new management. Argentina arrive in Europe after a Rugby Championship which had many people sit up and take notice once more after Argentina seemed to fade off the radar somewhat prior to that. However, the Pumas will be kicking themselves after their last match with Australia in which they blew a seemingly invincible lead over the Wallabies. They will be looking to make a statement against Ireland that Argentina are back and, just as they always do, starting to look ominous a year out from the World Cup. Ireland meanwhile will no doubt be slightly nervous about this encounter, as Argentina are clearly their problem side. As successful a year as it has been for the Men in Green as they sit comfortably in the number two spot in the world rankings, they know that Argentina has the ability to rattle even the world’s best. Ireland’s outing in Chicago last weekend against a feeble Italian side was merely a warm up for the real work that lies ahead of them in two tough encounters over the next fortnight. Ireland may have beat Argentina last November, but this Pumas side is a very different animal which has the skill to capitalise on any opportunities Ireland give them.

We end the day in Paris as the Springboks seek to get their November tour back on track after struggling with the play book against England last Saturday. Despite the media attention focused on the Farrell tackle on centre Andre Esterhuizen in the dying minute of the game, the Springboks know that they had essentially thrown the game well before then by sloppy and poor execution, resulting in them leaving at least a ten point lead out on the park. France meanwhile are an intriguing beast. They clearly looker sharper and more focused this year under new Coach Jacques Brunel, but consistency remains their Achilles Heel. Much like England, injury woes from their gruelling domestic competition the TOP 14 have meant that les Bleus are missing some key players for three tough challenges this month. There are a lot more veterans in this French side than youngsters, at least in the starting XV. Will France regret this opportunity to throw caution to the wind and have one last shot at building some genuine depth before the World Cup?

As a Canadian based blog, it would be remiss of us to not mention the fact that our own Canadian boys taken on Kenya this weekend in France, in the first of three matches to snatch the last remaining slot for next year’s World Cup in Japan. We have been dismayed that there has been little to no media coverage of this in Canada, so much so that we are struggling to find out any information other than the starting lineups. Consequently, as much as we would like to cover it we are clutching at straws in terms of what to base our opinions on. As a result we are refraining from saying much about this week’s fixture, and hope to comment once we get a feel of where Canada is at having watched this first of three matches. Kenya is a side Canada knows well from the Sevens circuit, and this weekend should see an interesting encounter. The odds should favor Canada, but the game is in such a mess at the national level in this country at the moment that anything could happen. So we’ll leave it at that for now till we’ve watched the opening match.

So enough of the preamble and let’s get into our five talking points for each of this weekend’s big four matches.

England vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 10th
Twickenham

Until very recently this was being billed by many as the biggest game to be played between the last World Cup and next year’s global showdown in Japan. England were riding a remarkable wave of success that saw them as unbeatable, and number two in the World rankings. A stark contrast to their Pool stage exit from the 2015 World Cup which saw them as humiliated hosts. Then one rainy afternoon in Dublin last year, the English renaissance came to a sudden crashing halt and has never really recovered since. They have been eclipsed by Ireland and Wales in the world rankings, and as a result this fixture has lost some of the hype that had originally been built up around it.

England come into the match reeling from an injury count from hell, but can take some comfort from the fact that despite being written off against the Springboks they emerged the winners last weekend, albeit by the slimmest of margins. However, as much as we were happy to see England start to find their groove again, there is no denying that if South Africa had not made as many baffling errors in basic execution as they did, England would be heading into this match in a rather different state of mind. England were not exactly brilliant last weekend, but they were good enough at the basics to keep a clearly faltering Springbok side at bay. Still it’s Twickenham and the heady mix of 80,000 supporters and one of rugby’s greatest rivalries means there is always an element of what if, even if the odds would seem against it.

New Zealand meanwhile arrive at Twickenham brimming with confidence. They have been the best side in the world now for a long time, and don’t look like relinquishing their place at the top of the ladder anytime soon. While they themselves have misfired at times this year, most notably against South Africa in Wellington, they have always managed to come back and at the end of the day have only lost three matches in as many years. Only one of those three losses was by more than five points, and that honor goes to their opponents next weekend – Ireland. Invincible they are not, but we have trouble buying into the argument that they have looked vulnerable to any great degree. They can be beaten, but it is going to take a very special side to do it and one that is in the right head space to do so. We may be proven wrong, but we’re not sure England is that team right now.

England need Ben Moon to put in another big performance in what is likely to be an even more difficult front row battle than last week against the Springboks

Once he came on last weekend for Alec Hepburn, England’s fortunes in the scrum changed dramatically, against a powerful and for the most part dominant Springbok front row. Moon provided a solid platform that really got some traction going for England in a difficult contest. They will need more of the same this weekend, as this All Black front row is a lethal combination of power and mobility. All Black Hooker Codie Taylor seems to have stepped effortlessly into the huge boots left behind by the injured Dane Coles, while newcomer Karl Tuinukuafe and veteran Owen Franks need no introduction.

How do you compete with the two best locks in the world and keep your discipline?

England’s Maro Itoje who continued to struggle with discipline issues last week against South Africa, will be pushed even harder this weekend by the most professional and skilled second row on the planet – New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. Retallick is a force of nature who also excels at getting underneath oppositions’ skins, while Whitelock is the cool, calm voice of reason in the heat of battle. Itoje managed to get himself back on track in the second half against South Africa and arguably played the best rugby we’ve seen him play all year. There is no question he is a gifted player and his colleague George Kruis is a master of hard graft. However, remaining competitive against two of the world’s best, who are likely to stay on the pitch until New Zealand have built up a lead, and keep the penalty count down will be the ultimate test of how well the English pair can measure up on the world stage.

England had a back row last weekend, but we’re not so sure about this one

England were competitive in the back row last week, make no mistake. The loss of exceptional newcomer Tom Curry through injury is a massive blow. England manage to retain the services of Mark Wilson who excelled last weekend, along with Brad Shields who should at least be familiar with his opposition and former Hurricanes counterpart Ardie Savea. Still what is baffling us is the absence of Zach Mercer who we thought was exceptional last weekend when he came on for the injured Curry. Mercer doesn’t even make the bench. Given his stellar performance you would have thought that, even though this may well be a match England are likely to lose, the experience of going up against the world’s best in preparation for the World Cup would have been invaluable. Given the explosive power of Savea and Liam Squire for New Zealand, England may regret this selection decision.

Owen Farrell is unlikely to be a match for Beauden Barrett

Owen Farrell, despite the unfortunate controversy at the end of the match against the Springboks, had a good game last weekend. However, he does have a tendency to lose his cool as frustration gets the better of him and he spends too much time trying to chew the referee’s ear off. While his goal kicking may be more reliable than Barrett’s, his speed of thinking and sense of opportunity is nowhere near that of the New Zealander’s. Furthermore Barrett tends to spend as little time as possible discussing the finer points of the game with the officials and more time playing it. Don’t get us wrong Farrell is a very fine player, but Saturday’s contest is likely to show up the gulf in quality at fly half between the two sides.

The selectors dilemma when it comes to centres, but is it logical?

We have struggled of late with the choices made by many of the big teams in this part of the park and are just as perplexed this weekend. England’s to a certain extent are understandable as they are injury driven. However, as we said last week, is Ben Te’o really the best England has to offer for such a momentous encounter? We didn’t really see anything last weekend to justify such faith. Henry Slade is not a bad choice for England and he showed some sparkle last week, even if it didn’t really materialise into points on the board. As for New Zealand, we can only assume that this is Sonny Bill Williams last chance on the big stage to prove himself worthy of his continued favor in the eyes of the New Zealand selectors. We still have seen little of him in the past year that justifies the fascination. Instead, New Zealand’s big match centre pairings look much more dynamic with newcomer Jack Goodhue, who at least makes the starting XV for this match, and Ryan Crotty with Anton Liennert-Brown on the bench. Oh well jury is out on this one and we wait with bated breath to see how both sides work on the day!

England’s back three are likely to be heroes or villains on the day but nothing in between

Don’t get us wrong, England’s back three and especially fullback Elliot Daly and Jonny May are two of our favourite players on the Test circuit right now and a genuine credit to the English jersey. Furthermore, one could argue that Chris Ashton’s place in the squad is long overdue. However, when you look at the pedigree of New Zealand’s back three then the three English lads perhaps have the most difficult task of any English players on the park on Saturday. If they can’t contain New Zealand’s three wonder weapons they are likely to be vilified in the press the next day, but if they do somehow manage to contain the All Black magicians, expect them to be paraded through London streets at the top of an open double-decker bus on Sunday morning. We simply do not envy their job on Saturday and wish them well, but fear they will have the sternest examination of any of the English squad this weekend.

Verdict

Plain and simple, even against the world’s best never write off England at Twickenham no matter what the occasion, and they don’t get much bigger than this. Despite that though we just find it hard to see England containing an All Black unit that, despite a few wobbles this year, is still humming very nicely. Despite the odd mishap, the ability of this New Zealand side to regroup is remarkable and can happen in the blink of an eye – no Michael Cheika dressing room rant required for these boys. England are clearly relishing their underdog status this week and ultimately could pull off one of the biggest upsets since the last World Cup. Nevertheless, and with no disrespect to England we feel it may be a flight of fancy. New Zealand have been looking forward to this encounter for three years and are in fine fettle to make an emphatic statement on Saturday. Consequently, New Zealand should ultimately walk away with this by 13 points. We’ve enjoyed being proven wrong against the odds a few times this year, and would be delighted for England and their supporters if we end up having to eat our words again on Sunday morning – so good luck to both sides and here’s hoping it lives up to its original billing!

Wales vs Australia
Saturday, November 10th
Cardiff

It surely must be time for Wales! After 13 consecutive defeats by Australia, Wales must surely turn the corner and reverse the tide in Cardiff on Saturday. After what we saw of them last weekend, we genuinely feel that it is likely to be the case against a Wallaby side struggling with team identity and form.

We’ve always battled with trying to fathom why Wales can’t seem to beat Australia, especially at home. Given that many of the encounters have been agonizingly close, we battle to understand why Wales can’t haul themselves over that final hill and get the win. They are in fine form this year and boast an excellent combination of sparkling young talent and seasoned veterans. Furthermore, they look well organised and sure of themselves. These are all qualities that Australia struggle with and only occasionally manage to demonstrate. The final forty minutes of their last Rugby Championship encounter with Argentina being one of the rare examples. We have a hunch that Welsh eyes will be smiling on Saturday – but it is Australia so who really knows?

Big things expected of the Wallaby second row, but it might just work

We think Adam Coleman is a standout player for Australia and have been saying so for a while, and if things go Australia’s way this should be the Tour where he really lays down the marker we feel he needs to make. Furthermore, he is partnered by Izack Rodda who has also caught our eye of late. Australia’s lineouts in particular simply have to work, and establish some kind of dominant platform for Australia, especially as we feel that once again their scrum is likely to struggle. They’ll be up against it in the shape of Welsh talisman Alun-Wyn Jones, but we feel this is one area where Australia could pack a few unexpected punches on Saturday.

Another superhero performance will be required from Wales’ most underrated player Justin Tipuric

Regular readers of this blog will know that we regard Tipuric as Wales’ contribution to Marvel Comics Hall of Fame. That he is not considered Wales’ automatic go to starter in a match day XV has always baffled us slightly, but is also a testament to the depth Wales are traditionally blessed with in the back row. However, when you want that ultimate grunt factor of putting in a massive shift against the odds, there are few players as good as Tipuric. He will be up against it as he, along with Ross Moriarity and Dan Lydiate, will have to contain two of the world’s best poachers in the shape of Australia’s David Pocock and Michael Hooper. Tipuric’s colleagues are likely to have a lot to say, but it is Tipuric who is likely to be the talisman in terms of galvanizing the Welsh response to the Australian threat in this part of the park.

Jonathan Davies vs Kurtley Beale – a contest for the ages

Well it should be – if Kurtley Beale shows up, something he has rarely done this year, even when playing his preferred position at inside centre. However, Davies has been on song since his return from injury and just gets better and better with each outing. He may not have the turn of pace or sudden creativity of Beale, but he is a better tactical thinker and outstanding distributor of quality ball to his back line. If both these two bring their A game on Saturday, this contest alone should be enough in itself to justify the price of admission.

While we can understand Dane Haylett-Petty staying at fullback we just don’t see Israel Folau as a winger

Israel Folau has often been criticised as a slightly selfish player in terms of ball distribution, and this may be the reason why Coach Michael Cheika is persisting with the experiment of keeping him on the wing as opposed to his normal role at fullback. Haylett-Petty has proven himself to be equally comfortable with both roles as well as being a superb playmaker. However, given his height Folau may once again run the risk of repeated high tackles against his smaller and nimbler opponent, Wales’ Josh Adams. We just have a horrible feeling this is going to backfire once more on Australia on Saturday.

Wales know who they are as a team but Australia still need to look deeper than the jersey

After Michael Cheika’s now infamous rant in the changing room at half time in Salta, the Wallabies found the glue that brought them together as a team and they played some of their best rugby of the year. However, once again that quality eluded them a few weeks later as they sought to avoid yet more humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks in Japan. Once again they looked lacklustre, disorganised and off the pace. Watch Welsh performances this year and you won’t see a starker contrast. Australia know that the kind of mental fortitude required to get that team synergy goes much deeper than just understanding the value of the jersey. Wales seem to have figured it out and it remains to be seen if Australia can match it.

Verdict

Write Australia off at your peril, they may be going through a crisis of confidence and form at the moment, but this is a team that always surprises. Cardiff seems to be one of those grounds on which Australia seem to excel at silencing their critics. While history favors them doing so again, we just can’t help feeling that Wales are likely to reverse history on Saturday. Wales just look too sharp and like a team really enjoying playing together and building on each successive win. In front of an intensely vocal and large home crowd a fourteenth consecutive Welsh scalp for the Wallabies is probably going to be a bridge too far. As a result we are handing Wales this one by four points!

Ireland vs Argentina
Saturday, November 10th
Dublin

Last week’s encounter between Ireland and Italy in Chicago did little more than showcase a wealth of young Irish talent. As mesmerised as we all were by the sight of fullback Jordan Larmour scything his way through hapless Italian defences and Tadhg Beirne making a mockery of Italian set pieces – a reality check was needed. It was a great Irish display by their second and third string against an Italian side that was little more than a fill in practice squad for the Irish after the first forty minutes. This weekend’s encounter against a revitalized Argentinian side under new management will be a very different prospect.

One thing is for sure that Argentina’s scrum is unlikely to be much of a factor as in days of old

One of Argentina’s traditional strengths is no longer the wonder weapon it used to be for the South Americans. Under new Coach Mario Ledesma some improvements have been seen but it still creaks. By the time the World Cup rolls around we imagine it will be getting back to its former ways, but we don’t expect to see much improvement this week in Dublin. If it can remain remotely competitive against Ireland’s Rory Best, the incomparable Tadgh Furlong and Cian Healy, then you could argue that Ledesma will have already made enormous progress. But this is one area where Ireland are likely to establish early dominance and hang onto it as a key platform.

Guido Petti in the back row – unconventional but could be a stroke of genius

Argentina will not struggle at lineout time without him as Mattias Alemanno and Tomas Lavanini are more than capable of holding the fort. In the absence of the exceptional Marcos Kremer who has had to return to Argentina for family reasons, Petti’s inclusion in the back row is a good option. Dynamic in the loose and able to turn in a blistering pace with ball in hand, Petti seems perfectly at home in the ranging loose forward role. Ireland will need to keep a steady eye on him on Saturday.

Meanwhile it could be make or break for Ireland’s Sean O’Brien in the back row

Injury has not been kind to one of Ireland’s best in recent years, and with the exceptional Dan Leavy looking over his shoulder then it may be hard to argue his place in the starting XV for the match against New Zealand the following weekend, if O’Brien fails to put in a big shift on Saturday. Having said that big Test matches seem to produce something special in O’Brien, and this may be the catalyst that brings him back to his very best.

The great Irish scrum half debate

In the continued absence of Conor Murray for Ireland, some were surprised to see Kieran Marmion get the nod as the starting nine over Luke McGrath for this match. McGrath put in a polished performance against Italy last weekend and many thought as a result he would be a shoe in for this match. However, Coach Joe Schmidt knows he needs to have seen both Marmion and McGrath at Test level before the big decision of whom to play next weekend against the All Blacks. McGrath is still a relatively unknown quantity at Test level. Marmion on the other hand has produced a few miracles for Ireland in the last two years. His first was when he played out of position on the wing in Ireland’s epic win over Australia in 2016. Then in 2017 when Murray was ruled out of the Six Nations finale against England, in a tournament in which Ireland had struggled to find their groove, Marmion stepped in and was part of the squad to finally break England’s record-breaking winning streak. The man is a proven commodity under pressure in big matches. Consequently, for us Schmidt is making the right call this weekend.

Jordan Larmour looked fantastic last weekend but this weekend is a MASSIVE step up

Yes we too were blown away by the Larmour freak show last weekend in Chicago. Make no mistake, this is an exceptionally talented young man we’re talking about. However, Italy allowed him to show off his talents and rarely, if at all, asked him any questions defensively. Argentina has one of the best back lines in Test Rugby right now and fullback Emiliano Boffelli will put Larmour under the most rigorous examination, with Bautista Delguy and Ramiro Moyano also adding their own defensive conundrums to the equation. Essentially the three Pumas will be running at Larmour all afternoon if his colleagues can’t shut them down, causing the youngster to have to think on his feet at an alarming rate. If he passes the test and Kearney is still unavailable for the All Black clash then the rest of Ireland will sleep easier on Sunday night – but talk about pressure!

Verdict

Argentina will give Ireland much more of a run for their money than they did last year, and even then they were surprisingly competitive at times. However, the Pumas under new management are a radically different beast and starting to click. If Pumas fly half Nicolas Sanchez puts in the kind of performances we know he is capable of, the Pumas forwards keep Ireland busy and their back three run riot, then Ireland could ask for no better Test prior to their meeting next weekend with the All Blacks. Ireland will have to remain alert for the fully eighty minutes and keep the scoreboard ticking over regularly. If they don’t the Pumas could provide them with some nasty surprises. That said however, Ireland are likely to make a statement that says they are ready for the Test of the Year the following weekend against New Zealand. Consequently in what should be an exciting and hard-fought contest, Ireland to ultimately pull away by 11 points!

France vs South Africa
Saturday, November 10th
Paris

South Africa travel to Paris knowing they need to put that performance against England behind them and get back to the kind of form that caused New Zealand so much trouble in the recent Rugby Championship. They have the talent of that there is no question, and with the welcome return of three key players this weekend, it is unlikely that they will come as unstuck against France as they did against England. France so far this year are still a mystery side. They came the closest to denying Ireland their Six Nations Grand Slam, and despite being ultimately whitewashed by New Zealand on their summer tour, they still showed moments of brilliance that were enough to catch the world’s number one off guard on more than a few occasions. It will be a big ask for them to beat a wounded Springbok side that seems to finally be coming to terms with how to win away from home, despite hiccoughs in Argentina, Australia and most recently England. But as everyone knows, it’s France so anything could happen!

Malcolm Marx – where were you last week?

This was the question everyone was asking this week, as we watched arguably one of the best Hookers in the world miss three crucial lineouts, and by his standards have an exceptionally quiet afternoon at the breakdowns and in affecting turnover ball. Marx’s tendency to have a bad day at the lineout is well documented, however it rarely happens in back to back matches. Consequently we don’t expect to see him have a relapse this weekend. As a result France are likely to struggle to get to grips at the breakdowns and if their forwards can’t contain Marx’s characteristic rampaging runs, then South Africa should be able to turn the dominance they had last week in possession into actual points on the board in Paris.

And for France – Paul Gabrillagues where are you?

The second rower for us was one of the heroes of France’s tour to New Zealand this summer even if France walked away empty-handed after three matches. Gabrillagues on numerous occasions seemed to be constantly in the thick of things and making some hard yards for a French team under intense pressure, especially with 14 men. As a result we find his presence on the bench baffling, as Yoann Maestri offers far less of a threat in our view. It remains to be seen how long Gabrillagues has to spend on the bench, but for France’s sake we hope we see him on the pitch sooner rather than later.

An interesting back row contest that could be the surprise package of the match

We actually think that this could be one of the most exciting and closely fought contests on the pitch. The French trio, have some remarkable experience in the shape of Louis Picamoles while Wenceslas Lauret and Artur Iturria have made us sit up and take notice every time they’ve pulled on a blue jersey this year. South Africa’s tried and trusted trio need little introduction but we felt they didn’t make the impact expected of them against a far less experienced English trio last weekend. In short, there is going to be a lot to watch here on Saturday, and could provide some key turning points for both sides.

South Africa’s centre conundrum

First up we would like to apologise to Damian de Allende. For quite a while now we’ve given the Springbok centre the short end of the stick. While we like many felt our lack of enthusiasm for the big centre was justified we still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Despite being on the losing side last weekend, he finally made us tear up our critics’ notes. He put in a truly outstanding performance and showed a maturity and skill in his game that we simply haven’t seen up to now, as he was a constant thorn in the English defence. Unfortunately we couldn’t say that of his partner Jesse Kriel who for us remains far too one-dimensional and easy to read. When Andre Esterhuizen came on the field, a much more challenging threat was created for the English defences. As a result we are surprised to see Kriel start again and Esterhuizen not even make the bench.

Teddy Thomas vs Aphiwe Dyantyi – a contest to savor

To say we are looking forward to this one would be a massive understatement. With both wingers seemingly able to create and score tries at will, this should provide plenty of entertainment on Saturday. It’s still perhaps less what they can do with ball in hand and more what they can do on defence which is still the bigger question in most peoples’ minds. For us Dyantyi would appear to have made the most progress in that department. A fascinating contest between two very gifted strike runners awaits and, much like the battle of the back rows, should be one of the most riveting aspects of Saturday’s proceedings in Paris.

Verdict

France at this stage, and based on results this year, are still too much of an unknown quantity for us to predict where they may be on the scoreboard when referee Nigel Owens blows the final whistle in Paris. South Africa have a point to prove, and a win here will do much to put a seriously flawed performance against England behind them and allow them to move on to a challenging encounter with a fast and furious Scotland. Malcolm Marx is unlikely to fluff his lines on the throw ins as badly as he did against England, and the forwards in general should be able to stifle some hearty and proven French grunt up front. If the Springboks can keep Teddy Thomas in check then they should have enough firepower in the backs to be more effective in turning possession into points on the scoreboard. As a result we think a highly entertaining contest awaits, but one in which South Africa have read the right script and emerge the victors by six points!

Endnote

The biggest question on everybody’s lips this month is – how do you beat the All Blacks? Well we thought we’d let our favourite experts answer it for you. Yes Steve and Gareth from the 1014 are back with another fascinating instalment on just that subject. We imagine if they’ve got any common sense Ireland’s Joe Schmidt and England’s Eddie Jones have it on continuous play! Enjoy and give them a big thumbs up and subscribe to their outstanding content.

Yes we know it’s not the “official” window until this Saturday, but there is no denying that this weekend, and the England/South Africa match in particular, gave us plenty to think about as we chewed over our Sunday post action brunch this morning, as well as a few heated debates. So much so we felt we had to put pen to paper as to what had us agreeing to disagree this morning ahead of the November Internationals kicking into top gear this coming Saturday.

So here are the five key points that struck us after this weekend’s proceedings.

So let’s get the elephant out of the room first – that Farrell tackle

First and foremost whatever you may think, and believe us this caused some heated debate this morning over breakfast, that incident alone did not win or lose the Test match. South Africa lost the match by leaving at least ten points out on the park, which had they capitalised on would have meant that whatever the officials decision in the 82nd minute, it would have been inconsequential to the result. Sadly the Springboks were left clutching to a 50/50 call going in their favor to win a Test match. It was an unfortunate end to what had been a fascinating and intense Test match, even if the quality on offer from both sides was perhaps somewhat lacking at times.

As for the actual tackle, like we say it is 50/50. We had a look at the multiple replays of it that appeared on YouTube this morning. We are really struggling to see much attempt at wrapping by Farrell’s right arm which leads many to think he led with the shoulder. However, his saving grace does seem to be that the contact does fall appreciably below Esterhuizen’s shoulder. For that he can be grateful that the Springbok comes in at a towering 6’4/1.94 metres. A smaller player and that shoulder would have gone straight to the head and then none of us would be having this debate as Farrell would have seen at least yellow. Consequently, we would argue it was done without malice but lacked in technique, execution and timing but as a dangerous tackle per se it can, as the officials deemed, be given the benefit of the doubt and the rest is history. Like we say, it is sad that such a fascinating and intense match will likely be remembered for that final act rather than the titanic, albeit poorly executed by both sides, struggle that it was.

Bottom line, difficult call but in itself did not win or lose the game! There were far more telling factors that ultimately influenced the result. So time to move on!

South Africa have only themselves to blame for throwing the game in the first half, despite completely dominating possession

Now that we’ve dealt with that sideshow tackle at the end of the match, it is our firm belief that South Africa lost this match in the first half despite being the dominant side. As predicted they owned the exchanges in the tight five in the first forty minutes, although their back row was not as effective as we thought it would be – more on that later from an English perspective. It was while England were defending a five metre South African attacking lineout with 14 men that South Africa really threw the game. The fact that Marx missed the mark on three occasions on the English five metre line, one of which saw only 14 English defenders, was critical. South Africa’s driving maul was, as expected, clearly wearing down the English defences and it was only a matter of time before at least one five-pointer was in the bag for the Springboks. The fact that they came away with none is simply not good enough at Test level despite some heroic English defence.  Furthermore on that 5 metre lineout with 14 English defenders, South Africa not only threw away possession but also conceded a three-point penalty which saw England get their first points on the board. Coach Rassie Erasmus will know that at this level, if you are really serious about being World Cup contenders, you simply cannot afford such kinds of lapses in concentration.

Where was Malcolm Marx?

As we said in the preview, the South African Hooker is prone to misfiring badly in the lineout, but his presence in other areas of the game is so huge that it can sometimes negate a poor performance on the throw ins. However, even that didn’t materialise yesterday. Marx was far too quiet and only effected 1 turnover, whereas on a good day five turnovers seem to be his standard fare coupled to some bullocking runs to get South Africa into the opposition half. We saw little if any of that yesterday, and that coupled to his nightmare performance at the lineout and two vital kicks missed by Pollard meant that South Africa lost a key component of the formula that makes them so devastatingly effective and difficult to play against. Had all of this worked for them South Africa would have been at least 15 points ahead of England at the 82nd minute, making the final act of the game completely and utterly inconsequential.

England seem to have found their back row

England can feel well pleased with their performance yesterday, although they will be disappointed that they were unable to garner any points from crossing the South African whitewash, and instead had to rely on the boots of Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly to get them on the scoreboard. However, for us the key finding of yesterday was that they seem to have found a back row that works. Tom Curry is worth his weight in gold but was ably replaced by Zach Mercer. Meanwhile Mark Wilson put in a highly respectable shift at number eight despite his lack of Test experience. Brad Shields was solid and may play better against his New Zealand counterparts next weekend who he is more familiar with.

It was hard to really find the spirit in the other two matches this weekend – even though they may have been invaluable warm ups for the action to come

In both the Wales/Scotland and Ireland/Italy games it was hard to find that November flavor. Certainly there was plenty of emotion in the Wales/Scotland game and it was the more entertaining of the two contests, and both players and fans alike warmed to the cause generated by the presence of Doddie Weir in whose honor it was being held. However, it was still hard to get the feeling that these were relevant November internationals.

In the Wales/Scotland game, both sides will feel pleased with their exercises in depth development. Wales blend of experience and youth was clearly the dominant side, meaning that Wales have plenty to draw on for two tough encounters with Australia and South Africa this month. Scotland may have faltered at times, but there is plenty of raw talent there in their younger charges that just needs more exposure, something that Saturday’s outing will have benefitted enormously.

As for the Ireland/Italy game, we are not sure that Italy really learnt anything from the experience. Ireland on the other hand, will feel confident that their second/third string team were comfortable enough to make an emphatic statement in Chicago that Ireland has plenty of talent to work with to build a complete World Cup squad. What impressed us the most was how well Luke McGrath answered his country’s call at scrum half, and we want to see him get a similar opportunity against Argentina this Saturday in Dublin. It still may not be enough to get Ireland through their assignment with New Zealand should Conor Murray still not be available in a fortnight’s time, but it will be a huge stepping stone in addressing what is the last missing link in Ireland’s World Cup preparations.

And as for this guy, we’ll let the video do the talking.

Enjoy and we’ll be back for the official start of November’s feast of Test Rugby!

Endnote

As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our posts this month with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there, subscribe and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content. In the meantime here’s their excellent look at depth in the Six Nations teams.