November Internationals – Europe
It’s an exciting weekend ahead for Test Rugby as the November Internationals get into full swing with four great encounters to get us started this Saturday:
Wales vs Australia – Cardiff
England vs New Zealand – Twickenham
Ireland vs South Africa – Dublin
Scotland vs Argentina – Edinburgh
Expect full throttle contests in all four matches as with a year to go before the World Cup, the next month will provide a fascinating insight into what to watch for in next year’s global showdown.
Wales vs Australia
Saturday, November 8th
As Australia start with their third coach, Michael Cheika in the space of a year, all eyes are on the Wallabies to see if the change in coaching management will finally bring a sense of stability to an Australian side bursting at the seams with potential and thus allow them to really shine. There have been numerous articles written about the “problem attitude” in the Wallaby camp and a clash between players’ egos and management and so it will be interesting to see if Cheika’s tenure will be able to gel a talented Wallaby side and allow them to play as the world class fifteen we all know they are capable of being.
Wales on the other hand, are desperate for a win against Australia and a vocal Millennium stadium crowd will expect nothing less. Wales have walked away winless from their last ten encounters with the Wallabies. Coach Warren Gatland will be keen to show that much like Australia, the off-field dramas surrounding Welsh rugby in the past year have not compromised Wales’ ability to field a world class side capable of lifting the trophy at next year’s World Cup. The roller coaster fortunes of Wales in the last few years have been frustrating for Welsh supporters – Grand Slam winners in the Six Nations one year only to battle it out for the wooden spoon the following year. When Wales dig deep and play well they are exceptional, the problem is they have become like the French – you never know which Welsh team you are going to get on any given day.
Wales should be able to match Australia up front; the question marks will arise around the battles in the midfield and backline. Although Wales has some world class players in these areas, with the exceptional Leigh Halfpenny set to match up against the danger man of Israel Folau from Australia, I can’t help feeling that Australia has the edge here. As mentioned above, one of the key battles here will be Halfpenny versus Folau, and I personally feel that the Welsh fullback has a better tactical game than his Australian counterpart. However, although Wales have quality players from 9 to 14, I ultimately think Australia’s powerhouse in this area will ultimately win them the game. The phenomenal Tevita Kuridrani alone should cause Wales all kinds of problems in defence and Australia have serious quality at centre and on the wings that I feel will ultimately outclass Wales as the game progresses.
Both teams will go into this with everything to prove and expect no quarters to be given, especially as this will be a dress rehearsal for their pool game in next year’s World Cup. Despite Wales having plenty of quality, I can’t help feeling that Australia ultimately has greater depth and will start to pull away from Wales in the last quarter. The Millennium Stadium crowd will definitely be a strong 16th man but it remains to be seen whether this will provide Wales with sufficient momentum and motivation to see them squeak past Australia for the full 80 minutes. Therefore, I predict a tight, physical defensive game with Australia eventually figuring out the key strike areas to break through and ultimately walk away with the win. Despite the physical and defensive nature of the game expect to see one or two magic moment tries from both sides. Either way I think we are in for a thrilling opener to the November Internationals.
England vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 8th
No question that this is the most eagerly anticipated game of the weekend. The Northern Hemisphere’s heavyweight meets the best team in World Rugby. Despite many thinking that England have the potential to knock the All Blacks off their pedestal especially after New Zealand’s loss in the final game of the Rugby Championship to South Africa, I for one don’t see it happening. Having watched English teams’ opening salvoes in the European Championship I didn’t see anything that could match up to the depth and quality the All Blacks have on their books at the moment. England will have everything to play for especially as many feel this could be a dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup final at Twickenham and a good showing with a year to go will give them enormous confidence. However, the All Blacks have been playing together as a unit now for the last six months and this time together and consistent track record will simply be too much for a still slightly experimental England.
New Zealand are unquestionably the finished product while England are still putting the last touches on the squad they will take to next year’s World Cup. Furthermore New Zealand have tried and tested depth of at least two players in every position on the field whereas the same cannot be said of England injuries withstanding.
Nevertheless, this match will offer plenty of excitement and there is no question that England will throw everything they have in their playbook against the All Blacks for the full 80 minutes. It is going to be close but I can’t help feeling that New Zealand will eventually pull away the winners especially in the last quarter. One thing we have seen this year is New Zealand’s remarkable ability to learn from their mistakes while playing a match and quickly adapt and rectify the situation before the final whistle. No other team in world rugby has the ability to do this consistently week in and week out. England may during the course of the half time beak be able to adjust their playing style to address any weakness or errors they may have encountered in the first half, but watch New Zealand then get the measure of this with 20 minutes to go and pull away leaving England once more scratching their heads. England is a good team, but New Zealand have shown us at the moment they are in a league of their own. With a year to go before the World Cup, England will relish the opportunity of taking on the world’s best and use the next 12 months to figure out what they have to do to win the most important match of their careers against the All Blacks just once in 2015, but it won’t happen this year. Either way, this Saturday’s contest at Twickenham will provide plenty of spectacle and showpiece the best our glorious game has to offer to the world. Enjoy!
Ireland vs South Africa
Saturday, November 8th
This is unquestionably the other big fixture of the weekend. Ireland as reigning Six Nations champions up against the second best team in the world. This is a Springbok side that is growing in confidence after their last two games of this year’s Rugby Championship which saw them demolish Australia and finally break the All Blacks’ winning streak.
For Ireland there are simply too many question marks around their squad to be able to predict anything other than a win for the Springboks. There is no doubt that Ireland boast a strong side that like the Springboks has an exciting mix of youth and experience. However this is not the Irish team that almost took down the All Blacks last November and went on to lift the Six Nations trophy. The biggest question on everyone’s lips is how will Ireland play without the legendary figure of Brian O’Driscoll? Furthermore add to this an injury list from hell that sees Ireland without the wrecking ball form of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Sean O’Brien. I don’t think anyone expects a miracle against a Springbok side that is finally starting to look like a complete outfit and one that can take the All Blacks on at their own game.
Joe Schmidt has proven himself to be a superb coach and is doing excellent work in preparing the Men in Green for next year’s World Cup, but Ireland’s first game of the season against the current powerhouse form of the Springboks is a tall ask. The untried centre pairing of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw, while boasting plenty of promise for the future is unlikely to click as smoothly as the tried and trusted combination of youth and experience in South Africa’s Jean de Villiers and Jan Serfontein. While impressive, I can’t see Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo outclassing the legendary Bryan Habana and as far as I am concerned the winger of the year Cornal Hendricks. The battle between Rob Kearney and Willie le Roux at fullback will be a fascinating contrast of styles as two of the world’s best number 15s go head to head. Johnny Sexton’s experience at number ten will be something that Ireland will be banking on provided he can keep his head in such a high pressure game and he may just have the edge over the extremely impressive Handre Pollard who really came into his own in the Springboks last two games against Australia and New Zealand. Pollard is better with ball in hand but Sexton has a better tactical vision of the game, though Pollard is catching up fast.
The one area where Ireland will definitely have the edge over South Africa is at scrum half. There is no question that Conor Murray is a contender for the world’s best number nine along with New Zealand’s Aaron Smith. His physicality and eye for how play is unfolding is on a par with his New Zealand counterpart and in my opinion far superior to that of South Africa’s Francois Hougaard. Hougaard is no slacker but not the finished product that his Irish counterpart has proven himself to be.
Up front, Ireland has some definite strengths and the lineout battles between the talismanic figures of Paul O’Connell and Victor Matfield will be the stuff of legends while Devin Toner versus Eben Etzebeth will provide another thrilling contest. Meanwhile the spectacular Duane Vermuelen will battle it out at number eight with the always reliable form of Ireland’s workhorse captain Jamie Heaslip. Add Peter O’Mahony and Jack McGrath to Ireland’s forward mix and despite the absence of Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Rory Best, this Irish forward pack is not to be taken lightly.
So the question remains can a new look Irish team go the distance against a proven Springbok side bursting at the seams with confidence and talent? Even though I will wear my heart on my sleeve and admit that I am a hard core Irish supporter, I can’t see the Men in Green getting past the Springboks on their first outing of a new season. The only thing that could sway things in Ireland’s favour is that South Africa have yet to prove that they can be a world class side away from home this year. Add to this the fact that wet and windy conditions caused the Springboks to come rather unstuck tactically on several occasions this year and there is a very remote outside chance that Ireland could end up putting in a performance on par with that against the All Blacks last November. However, I can’t help feeling that Heineke Meyer and the Springboks have learnt too many painful lessons this year to fall into such traps again, therefore a thrilling contest awaits us but ultimately one that will benefit South Africa on the day. What Irish fans can hope for is that their team goes the distance with the Springboks for the full 80 minutes and can take this into a winning performance against Australia in a fortnight’s time.
Scotland vs Argentina
Saturday, November 8th
If you are a Pumas or Scottish supporter there is much too look forward to in this fixture. Scotland have shown enormous promise at a European level so far this season as Glasgow Warriors have produced some spectacular performances in the Pro 12 and European Champions Cup tournaments. Scotland has talent and with a new coach who can hopefully get the most out of his players, Scotland’s time at the bottom of the European rugby tank is rapidly coming to an end. Meanwhile Argentina arrive at Murrayfield having shown the world during the recent Rugby Championship that they are one of the world’s most improved sides and are on the verge of great things to come – in short the perfect place to be in your preparation for a World Cup with a year to go.
There is no question that Argentina at the moment have a world class side capable of upsetting anyone, and as a result Scotland will need to dig deep to get past this South American powerhouse. Argentina really have no weaknesses at the moment. Their forward pack is the stuff of legends, their halfback pairing is solid and Nicolas Sanchez was one of the most outstanding fly halves of the Rugby Championship this year. Add to this an electric backline boasting the talents of Juan Hernandez, Marcelo Bosch, Joaquin Tuculet and Juan Imhoff and you realize that Argentina has a complete team with a solid bench to back them up. Even without the inspirational figure of Juan Martin Hernandez Lobbe barking at the back of the scrum, Augustin Creevy’s solid leadership and quiet confidence will provide strength and composure to Argentina’s efforts. Argentina have at last proved that they can play for the full eighty minutes as well as showing they are masters of all types of weather conditions, and thus the omens look good for them at Murrayfield this weekend.
Scotland however can go into this game with confidence, despite some gaps in experience when matched up against their South American counterparts. New Scottish coach Vern Cotter brings with him a wealth of experience from his time at Clermont and understands how to develop winning ways in a team. The Scottish line up for Saturday boasts a healthy presence of Glasgow Warriors players especially in the backline. In the forwards, one of the world’s best when he is in form is represented by the towering form of Richie Gray. If Scotland rise to the support of a vocal home crowd and weather the onslaught of relentless Argentine pressure at the breakdown they could pull off an upset. However, as much as I think we all want to see Scotland lift themselves out of the drudgery of their last few years, I can’t help feeling that up against an extremely impressive and highly motivated Pumas squad it may be too much to ask. Daniel Hourcade has done a fantastic job with the Pumas in the last six months and they are definitely showing signs of being the giant slayers they were at the 2007 World Cup. As a result in a potentially thrilling match with lots to look forward to for both sides, I predict Argentina ultimately will edge out Scotland in a gritty and hard fought contest.