November Internationals – Europe
It’s another exciting weekend ahead for Test Rugby as the November Internationals continue and we look at four upcoming fixtures:
Italy vs Argentina – Genoa
England vs South Africa – Twickenham
Scotland vs New Zealand – Edinburgh
France vs Australia – Paris
First up we’ll review the previous weekend’s action by England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Wales vs Australia
Final Score – Aus 33/Wales 28
As predicted a tight physical battle was the order of the day with some spectacular line breaks from both sides, but a contest that once again ultimately ended in heartbreak for the Welsh. Make no mistake Wales brought their A game but in the end it was all about finishing and in this department Australia provided their Welsh hosts with a classy demonstration of this fundamental principle of Test Rugby.
Wales fought valiantly for the full eighty minutes but it was clearly obvious that for the last ten minutes the majority of Welsh players were starting to look exhausted despite fresh legs off the bench. Australia also looked as though they had been put through the ringer, but still nevertheless managed to hold their composure better and ultimately hold up in defence and attack. The Welsh cause wasn’t helped by some critical injuries and the loss of Leigh Halfpenny before half time with his replacement Dan Biggar soon to follow.
Australia can take great heart from their first performance under new coach Michael Cheika, with Bernard Foley at fly half doing a superb job of marshalling his troops for the full 80 minutes, leaving us all wondering why there was ever any debate about making him Australia’s first choice number 10. Israel Folau was immense in this match and showed off his full range of running and attacking skills, while at the same time showing some big improvements in his defensive skills. Tevita Kuridrani continued to impress and is a serious threat to any defence in world rugby and one France will need to work hard to contain this weekend. Michael Hooper, although his usual argumentative self, was outstanding and continued to put in a 110 percent effort for the full 80 minutes.
Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb opened the Welsh account with a superb try that had the Millennium crowd feeling that this could finally be Wales’ day against the Wallabies. Sam Warburton was inspirational and deserves being singled out as Planet Rugby’s best number six of the weekend. George North provided the crowd with ample demonstrations of his potential and skill set lining Alex Cuthbert up for another superb Welsh crossing of the Wallaby white line in answer to a superb Folau try set up by Michael Hooper. As predicted last week the first half of this match provided us with some magic moment tries from both sides.
The second half however was much more a war of attrition for both teams. Although both sides made some exciting line breaks, it was a much tighter and defensive game as Wales and Australia sought to wear each other down and force mistakes. In this regard Wales seemed to have the edge over Australia as after multiple resets, ill-discipline by Australia resulted in Wales being awarded a penalty try. However, the moment Wales has been waiting for so long against Australia was not to be, as Australia’s Bernard Foley calmly took control of Australia’s tactical game and nudged Wales aside as they left him uncovered in front of the Welsh goal allowing him to take a drop goal. Ill-discipline from a Welsh side looking dead on their feet at the end cost them the penalty efficiently taken by Foley who was flawless with the boot all match, and Wales had too much to do with too little time to deny Australia the win.
It was close, it was exciting but sadly just not enough once more for Wales against their World Cup Pool opponents next year. Wales played well but Australia ultimately were better at going the distance. If Wales can take this performance and build on it going up against the All Blacks then expect next year’s repeat of this fixture at the World Cup to be close – very close. Australia under new management will be confident going up against a French team this weekend that has talent but lacks structure, and relish some excellent preparation for two tough challenges from Ireland and England.
England vs New Zealand
Final Score – NZ 24/Eng 21
The big fixture of the weekend provided much of the spectacle predicted, although the second half of the match was sadly marred by atrocious weather which New Zealand were more effective at mastering.
England started the match with flying colors with a spectacular individual try from Johnny May which showed that England has plenty of attacking power and line speed in the backline. May kept this level of performance up throughout the match and was constantly looking for gaps and opportunities in New Zealand’s defense. In the battle of the fullbacks, Mike Brown seemed slightly off form and was not as impressive as his All Black counterpart Israel Dagg. However, New Zealand showed that they were more than capable of soaking up England’s continuous pressure despite a rapturous and deafening Twickenham crowd. On that note I must say that the English crowd did not do themselves any favours throughout this match, and we were forced to bear witness to one of the most loutish spectacles of crowd behaviour I have seen in a long time in International Rugby. It was unsportsmanlike and showed the English public as being arrogant and very poor losers. The deafening booing of New Zealand Captain Richie McCaw at his post-match interview was shameful. England need to actually become the team their misguided fans so obviously believe they already are first, and such fan behaviour will not help England’s cause and it was clear that it was an embarrassment to the English players at times.
In the first half, England could feel proud of their performance they matched up to New Zealand in every facet of the game and at half time England were deservedly in front against a slightly off color All Black side. However, the second half was a completely different game in which New Zealand showed how they are masters at adapting their game plan to changing conditions, whereas England essentially lost the plot. There is no doubt that the second half was marred by appalling weather conditions and some bizarre referring by Nigel Owens, who once was one of the best referees in the game in my opinion but in recent times I feel has become a law unto himself, which had an effect on both teams’ performance. However, Nigel Owens did give England the upper hand by sin binning Dan Coles for a nasty kick which had been triggered by the equally temperamental Dylan Hartley. It was here where the difference between the two sides came to the fore. New Zealand even with a man down completely outplayed England and had them on the back foot for the entire 10 minutes. At this level of rugby if you cannot capitalise on the other team being a man down, and actually get outplayed by them then the end result is going to be inevitable which England found to their cost. New Zealand got ahead on the score line and kept England pinned in their own half. Instead of looking like a fifteen man team, England looked nervous and disorganised against a relentless and clinical New Zealand.
A game that should have been England’s ultimately slipped away, and that has been the standard headline for all of England’s meetings with New Zealand in the last year. There was much to take heart from in England’s performance but as I said last week, New Zealand are very much the finished product while England still looks far too experimental. With a huge game ahead of them against a wounded Springbok side with everything to prove, it is not going to get any easier for England. As next year’s World Cup looms on the horizon, if England want to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in their own backyard, the time is running out to find solutions. If they don’t put in a convincing performance against South Africa this weekend, then I question how much home advantage next year’s World Cup really will be for England. We continue to wait and see!
Ireland vs South Africa
Final Score – Ire 29/SA 15
This ultimately was THE fixture of the weekend, particularly in terms of us understanding where the Northern Hemisphere is in relation the Southern Hemisphere. As the second best team in the South took on the second best team in the North, rankings were at stake and the world pecking order looked set to be determined.
South Africa came into this game full of promise, fresh off two spectacular wins against Australia and New Zealand. Ireland as Six Nations champions looked good but riddled with injuries were lacking several key players. Add to this the fact that this was Ireland’s first outing without the ‘Great One’, Brian O’Driscoll and the bookies were all favouring a comprehensive win by South Africa. How wrong they were and how delighted Irish fans were to be.
Of all the performances we saw this weekend, there is no question that from a Northern Hemisphere perspective Ireland played the most clinical game and were the team of the weekend. They outplayed South Africa and played a brilliant tactical game ably marshalled by Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray who is playing out of his skin at the moment. Ireland did make some mistakes, I thought their lineout was weak at times and their scrum could have been better, but overall this was a huge Irish performance that provided us with a thrilling spectacle and a well-deserved win for the Men in Green. In short, a great start to Ireland’s season which also showed that despite their injuries Ireland is blessed with some serious depth and has enormous potential.
South Africa on the other hand it must be said played poorly. In particular, Handre Pollard, Francois Hougaard and Willie le Roux around whom South Africa build much of their game did not play well. Le Roux’s passing and handling skills were well below form, Pollard was effectively kicked into corners by Sexton and had a woeful kicking game while Hougaard had a shocker of a game. I have always said that Hougaard is a very poor choice as South Africa’s first line scrum half and this was borne out in his performance in this match. Admittedly he was put under enormous pressure from Ireland at the breakdown who were all over their South African counterparts in ferocious numbers. You could see that such intense pressure from Ireland knocked the confidence out of both Pollard and Hougaard causing them to make far too many errors reminiscent of a school playing field than an International Test Match.
Ireland effectively silenced Habana and Hendricks on the wing, providing them none of the room and space they are accustomed to working with. South Africa’s bizarre decision making to not take points on offer and instead to kick for touch, smacked almost of arrogance but more of foolishness when looking at how rock solid and well organized Ireland’s defence was proving to be.
Every single Irish player stood up and was counted, and what was encouraging was Rhys Ruddock in his first cap for Ireland crossing the Springbok white line in a brilliantly executed try. For any rugby fan watching Conor Murray surgically kick to the touch line to find a waiting Tommy Bowe to then race over for Ireland’s second try was pure magic. Ireland were brilliant and South Africa simply did not match up to them where it mattered. If this was Ireland’s second string team, we have much to look forward to once a more full strength side matches up against Australia in a fortnight.
South Africa I am sure will pick themselves up from this and dust themselves off in readiness for their encounter with England this weekend. There is no question that this was a bad day at the office for one of the world’s top sides. There was no hesitation from South Africa’s players and management admitting in defeat that they were outplayed by a tactically superior Ireland. This does not mean that they are down and out though. This is a good Springbok side which has a strong blend of exciting young talent and experienced old hands. If they can fix the problems at scrum half which I see as their biggest Achilles heel, then expect them to be a completely different team a week later against England. They have merely suffered a setback and a prudent England will hopefully realise this in their planning.
Scotland vs Argentina
Final Score – Sco 41/Arg 31
It would seem that Scottish rugby is finally out of the doldrums – spearheaded by the exceptional Gray brothers and Greg Laidlaw. Throw in a dash of Vern Cotter Top 14 experience at the coaching level and it would seem that watching rugby north of Hadrian’s Wall may once more be an enjoyable experience.
Many predicted that with Argentina’s consistently improved performances in the recent Rugby Championship the result of this game was a foregone conclusion, particularly given the woes of Scottish rugby in recent years. However, there were many, myself included, who felt that Glasgow Warriors’ outstanding efforts in European competition so far this year would form the base of a solid Scottish effort that could certainly put the Pumas to the Test. We were not proved wrong.
Scotland came charging out of the blocks in this match and showed serious intent. A new coach, some serious new talent and a will to win have finally taken Scotland out of the depths of their recent miseries. Argentina on the other hand, looked half asleep for much of the match and when they really did start taking the game to Scotland it was too little too late. They will have to shape up dramatically if they expect to come away with a positive result in Paris. Argentina seemed to lack confidence and their discipline which had been so impressive in the Rugby Championship was often seriously lacking particularly at scrum time and the breakdowns. The legendary Pumas scrum was often pushed around by Scotland which was not helped by the departure of Captain Agustin Creevy early on.
Scotland on the other hand were clearly enjoying themselves and played an expansive and exciting brand of rugby which left the Murrayfield faithful dancing in the stands. While their new found adventurism may need to be tempered when they come up against New Zealand this weekend it was heartening to see this once proud rugby nation seizing every opportunity that came their way. What particularly impressed me was Scotland’s speed at the breakdown and corresponding quick ball and line speed. Coach Vern Cotter has obviously studied the Pumas who have been particularly effective at this this year as well as taking notes from Ireland’s skill set in this area. However, all credit must go to a Scottish team that was well prepared and took their chances well.
The Gray brothers were truly immense in this game and will strike fear into any opposition that has to deal with them. Richie Gray brings a well-known pedigree to the Scottish forward pack but his younger brother amply showed that he is not just in his brother’s shadow by being first to crash across the white line for Scotland. Both brothers were tireless and were the backbone of Scotland’s defence and attack, effectively closing out opportunities for Argentina to get good quick front foot ball and helping Scotland push the fabled Argentine scrum around the park. The halfback pairing of the experienced and exceptionally talented Greg Laidlaw playing as Captain at scrum half, and newcomer Finn Russell at fly half was exceptionally effective in picking open space for Scotland to use and get behind Argentina’s defences, while Scotland’s backline were no slackers either.
Argentina had moments of brilliance and in the last ten minutes of the game seemed to dig deeper and find some of the recent Pumas magic. Their opening try in the match was also worth noting as they counter-attacked from deep within their own territory. However, there was no real spark or apparent game plan in Argentina’s performance and they often seemed disorganised and confused in defence. Perhaps this is a result of not having played together for a few weeks since the intensive time together during the Rugby Championship, and for many of Argentina’s key players having to quickly readjust from hectic club schedules in Europe since the Rugby Championship. Who knows? However, by the time they face France I am fairly certain that what we saw against Scotland will be a distant memory. This is a quality Pumas side that simply needs to find the glue that bonded them all so effectively into a complete team during the Rugby Championship. I still hold that Argentina will be one of the dark horses of next year’s Rugby World Cup.
Fixtures this weekend
Italy vs Argentina – Genoa
This fixture has been wisely moved from Saturday to Friday to prevent injury to players as a result of the torrential rains predicted to hit the area on the weekend.
As Italy’s first big match up of the month after an impressive performance against a demoralized Samoa, many people will be interested to see how this season’s version of Italy shapes up against a Puma side still reeling from their defeat to Scotland.
With Italian stalwarts like Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni in the line-up there will be some experienced and stable heads in a team with lots of promising new talent. However, Italy has had a lacklustre run of it so far this year, with poor performances for the most part, especially in the Six Nations. Argentina meanwhile will be without Augustin Creevy and instead Tomas Cubelli at scrum half steps into the Captain’s shoes. Despite the loss to Scotland, Daniel Hourcade has chosen to give some of his less experienced players a chance to shine, which surely must be some indication of the Pumas expectations and confidence going into this match. Nevertheless there are still enough names in the squad that impressed all and sundry during the recent Rugby Championship to provide Italy with a significant challenge.
Italy has strengths in the scrum and should be able to stand up to the Pumas in the forward battles as long as they can match Argentina’s pace at the breakdown, which with Sergio Parisse in the line there is certainly the potential to do. The question marks for Italy remain in the mid and back field areas. Although not playing in the starting fifteen Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez is on the bench and you can be sure he will be called in as soon as it is felt Italy is winning the midfield battle. Argentina has more proven class in their centres and backline than Italy and it is here combined with solid forward pressure that Argentina should progressively start to pull away from Italy as the match wears on. Expect Italy to start fast and full of intent, but ultimately the solid foundation Argentina has built over the last few months, despite the hiccough at Murrayfield should see them come out on top.
South Africa vs England – Twickenham
This is THE fixture of the weekend. The stakes here for both sides are huge as they both seek to turn failure into success. There is no question that England took their narrow loss to the All Blacks hard, while South Africa were left without answers as Ireland left them in the dust in Dublin. A loss for either of these two teams on Saturday will have catastrophic consequences on morale and confidence. Therefore we can expect an epic battle as these two teams seek to get their November campaigns back on track.
England have made few changes to a side that narrowly lost to the All Blacks and for the most part the side that stepped up last weekend is the same this weekend. The major difference being Owen Farrell starting at number ten instead of on the bench and Semesa Rokoduguni starting this match on the bench after his quiet but impressive start against New Zealand last week.
South Africa meanwhile have made some significant changes, mainly to their midfield pairing. The young but experienced Patrick Lambie replaces Handre Pollard at fly half, although Pollard will be keeping the bench warm. As impressive as Pollard was in South Africa’s last two games of the Rugby Championship, he lacks the presence of mind and experience under pressure that Lambie is capable of showing. Lambie’s nerves in South Africa’s final game of the Championship against New Zealand as he slotted a penalty from almost halfway were the stuff of legends, and I think Meyer is making the right call for such a critical game. Much debate has been rightly centred around South Africa’s key weakness at scrum half. Hougaard had a woeful game in Dublin, and even though he is more experienced than Cobus Reinaach I still think it is worth the risk of putting Reinach in at number nine. I have consistently in the last few months voiced my reservations about Hougaard and he has done little on the field to change that opinion. Reinaach on the other hand has shown some serious speed and solid handling of the ball under pressure as well as having a respectable kicking game that can complement Lambie’s skills in this area. If given the right opportunity to develop his skill set in big games like this I certainly think he is more than capable of delivering when it matters in a year’s time at the World Cup.
I have reservations about Meyer selecting JP Pietersen over Cornal Hendricks at 14, despite the value added of Pietersen’s physicality in the match against Ireland and his resulting try when he came off the bench. It was not that Hendricks played badly last weekend, it was just that Ireland were devastatingly effective in shutting him down. Hendricks will start this game on the bench and it will be interesting to see when and under what circumstances Meyer will choose to use him. Also of note Mohoje will start the match on the bench while Schalk Burger gets the start at flanker. Although Mohoje is an impressive stock for the future, Burger is playing some of the best rugby of his life at the moment after a few cold years and his experience will help add some stability to the Springbok pack as they face a solid English challenge.
Discipline for both sides will be key as well as hanging on to good possession and resisting the temptation to kick needlessly. If frustration sets in expect to see plenty of yellow cards with the likes of Dylan Hartley leading the charge. If this does happen then expect to see both sides trading penalty kicks to determine the winner of the match. Should this be the case my money is on Patrick Lambie rather than Owen Farrell to carry the day and the Springboks walk away the winners. Either way we are in for a really close and fascinating encounter.
Scotland vs New Zealand – Edinburgh
Let’s be honest, as heartening as it was to see Scotland raise their game against Argentina after so long in the wilderness, this is a tall ask. Expect a solid and spirited challenge from Scotland which will make the All Blacks work hard. However despite all Scotland’s considerable talent, it is unlikely they will be able to contend with the powerhouse of the All Blacks. I hope to be able to eat my hat, and we see an upset of the year take place but I somehow doubt it.
Although New Zealand have chosen to rest some of their big guns for this match and preserve them for the match against Wales, there is so much depth in New Zealand that even their C team could be any other country’s A team.
Scotland will take the game to New Zealand and expect the dynamic Gray brothers to be at the forefront of a stiff Scottish challenge. However, this new and exciting looking Scottish side has yet to face the kind of pressure that the All Blacks can put on teams. Expect a tight and gritty first half, but I am fairly sure we will see New Zealand pull effortlessly away in the second half. It won’t be a whitewash or a thrashing but anything less than a comfortable win for New Zealand is unlikely.
France vs Australia – Paris
The question on everyone’s lips for this game is which French team will turn up? We have a pretty good idea by now of what we can expect from Australia, but what does France have to match it? France’s outing last weekend against Fiji showed some promise, but at the same time against a weak opposition France still looked shaky and at times did not control the game as one would expect them to do. Against Australia this will be a concern. Australia were challenged by Wales last weekend, make no mistake but they ultimately were able to do what was necessary to win against a strong Welsh team.
France has definite potential in key areas. Scott Spedding was impressive at fullback especially when teamed up with rising star Teddy Thomas on the wing. Camille Lopez as he has so far this season in Europe was consistent at fly half and played well with the boot. However, their forward pack for me has too many questions around it. With Toulon’s Maxime Mermoz and Mathieu Bastareaud on the bench further devastating firepower is available in midfield should Coach Saint-Andre choose to use it. This match sees the return of the always impressive Thierry Dusatoir who although slightly off form always has the ability to raise his game when big occasions demand it.
Australia meanwhile have a solid side that is essentially unchanged from that which ultimately put Wales to the sword last weekend. While it is unlikely they will underestimate the difficulty of playing France at home, it has to be said their track record against Les Bleus this year after a convincing 3 match series win in Australia in June will surely leave them feeling anxious but confident about what they will be up against in Paris on Saturday. Barring a French Renaissance, I think it is safe to expect to see Australia get past a still experimental French side and use this to prepare for the serious challenges that lie in store for them with Ireland and England.