November Internationals – Europe
This weekend sees the end of an exciting month of International Test Rugby
with England, South Africa, Wales and Australia having everything to play for:
We also look back on last weekend’s action and three outstanding matches in Dublin, Cardiff and Paris, in which New Zealand as always calmly asserted their dominance over an impressive Welsh start; Argentina showed that their improvement over the summer was no fluke and Ireland set themselves as the benchmark of Northern Hemisphere rugby.
France vs Argentina
Final Score – Fra 13/Arg 18
As predicted, this was a tough battle but which ultimately favoured Argentina as they sought to prove that they are a team on the rise and look set to be a problem team to beat in next year’s World Cup. When they are fired up they are a match for any of the best sides in the world and the French experienced this first hand on Saturday in Paris.
After two initial below par outings this November, Argentina took a further step forward and came back into form guided by the skilled efforts and control of the superb Nicolas Sanchez, who ironically has now been snatched up by French Top 14 side Toulon. It wasn’t the world’s most exciting or attractive game, and as always was marred by the bizarre refereeing style of George Clancy, but Argentina played a stronger tactical game, pinpointed France’s weaknesses and ultimately outmuscled Les Bleus.
By the end of the first thirty minutes Argentina had opened up a commanding 15-0 lead through a masterful display of the boot from Sanchez and Hernandez. After this France tried valiantly for the next 50 minutes to fight back and did score the game’s only try, but for the most part looked overwhelmed by the sheer physicality of the Argentine attack and particularly heroic defence for the last quarter of the game. It was the last 20 minutes where France spent a great deal of time camped in Argentina’s 22 that the brilliance of Argentina’s defence really shone through. The Pumas threw themselves valiantly to a man at every French attack, causing the error and penalty count to grow against the French as they increasingly found themselves frustrated by their inability to find the keys to unlock a monumental Argentine defence. Despite a bizarre decision by Clancy to not allow France a penalty after he had given them advantage as the ball went to ground in the dying seconds of the game, it still doesn’t detract that Argentina hung on to the very end and ultimately won the day. Their inability to finish big games in the past now seems to be a mere memory and they can go into 2015 reflecting on a year that has seen them make enormous progress as a world class side.
Wales vs New Zealand
Final Score – Wal 16/NZ 34
Quite simply put, if you’re a Welsh supporter there are no excuses for this game. Wales should have and could have won this game. Instead they were completely blown out of the park in the last ten minutes of the game and that is putting it politely. What must be incredibly frustrating for Welsh supporters is that for 69 minutes Wales played a solid game, to then only be utterly eclipsed in the last 11 minutes. In the end, Wales were made to look like an aspiring rugby nation at the hands of a master class in the shape of New Zealand.
Ireland’s loss to New Zealand on their final game of the year in 2013 was obviously not on the required watching list for this Welsh team. It is the last ten minutes of every game where New Zealand become almost superhuman especially if they are trailing. Wales played a solid game for the first 65 minutes and of particular note was a solid Welsh defence that matched up well to their All Black counterparts. Where Wales ultimately fell down was in the finishing and playing of an eighty minute game. The first 60 minutes were a thrilling encounter which saw the ball being played in both teams’ halves as possession seemed to be on an equal footing. However, New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett at fly half showed once again as the clock wound down, why he has had such a good year and leaves New Zealand with the luxury of three first choice fly halves. Barrett’s eye for gaps in the Welsh defence and how to make the men in red have to make continuously desperate tackles ultimately saw New Zealand run in three unanswered tries in the space of 11 minutes. In short, New Zealand hit full throttle and exhausted an already tired and cracking Welsh defence.
After this match questions will have to be asked in Wales about match fitness and how to find tactical answers to the likes of New Zealand if they are to stand any chance at next year’s World Cup. Wales’ story all year has been one of so close yet so far and for a Welsh public desperate for big results this is just not good enough. The time for hard questions and even harder answers has come and I do not envy the Welsh coaching staff over the next few months.
Ireland vs Australia
Final Score – Ire 26/Aus 23
The first half alone left many in the stands, yours truly included, feeling that they had got more than their admission price with 5 tries being scored and the two sides level at 20-20. Ireland, much as they did last year against New Zealand came screaming out of the blocks with two superb tries in rapid succession. Irish fly half Johnny Sexton’s surgical precision in finding Simon Zebo on the wing to race across for the first try, while Tommy Bowe’s eye for an opportunity saw him intercept a slightly wayward pass from Australian scrum half Nick Phipps, and proceed to run unopposed from Ireland’s 22 to cross the white line. The Irish crowd were on their feet and sensing something great. Australia then struck back immediately with two superb tries of their own, even though the second came off a distinctly forward pass. However, even if the try hadn’t been awarded Australia would still have had a shot at goal as there was a lack of Irish discipline in the ruck. Foley missed the conversion but at 17-12 Australia were definitely back in the hunt. Both sides traded penalties, with Australia then throwing in a magically worked try from some superb midfield efforts by Matt Toomua and Bernard Foley to see Phipps once more crash over the Irish white line and at half time the scores were level at 20-20.
The next half while not the try fest of the first was equally exciting as both sides sought to crack the other side’s defences. The Irish crowd went deathly quiet after star fly half Johnny Sexton was taken off the field for analysis for possible concussion after a nasty collision, only to return several minutes later to a rapturous welcome from the Aviva faithful even though Ian Madigan ably took his place on the field for the last ten minutes showing once more the depth this Irish side is developing. Australia brought out the big guns of Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale to inject some more pace into an already impressive backline, but to Ireland’s credit their defence especially at the breakdown was exemplary. Despite some impressive line breaks Australia just couldn’t break the Irish defence, and given the number of times Ireland was able to get turnover ball, it was easy work for them to make the Australians have to start all over again on attack.
It was close and both sides played a great game but ultimately Ireland did enough this time to hang on to the end. Sexton kept his composure and slotted two penalties and with fifteen minutes left it was Ireland’s game to win. It was this phase of this game where Ireland really showed they had the edge unlike in the match against New Zealand last year and proved that some serious lessons have been learned by the Men in Green. On the referee’s final whistle the sound coming out of the Aviva could probably have been heard all the way to Australia. Two valiant sides had toughed it out but in the end Ireland were the deserved winners this time. Irish eyes are indeed smiling and having claimed two of the biggest scalps in International Rugby this month, South Africa and Australia, Ireland and coach Joe Schmidt can reflect on a job exceptionally well done. There is no question that Ireland are now the form team in the Northern Hemisphere and will be the team to beat come the Six Nations in February/March of next year. Like many in the Irish press after this match I will resist the temptation to look too far forward to the World Cup. Ireland still has work to do particularly in the area of lineouts as we saw in this match, before they get the full accolade of dark horse for the World Cup from me. But for now – go lads go – you’re on a roll!
Fixtures this weekend
England vs Australia
Saturday, November 29th
To say that the stakes aren’t high for both sides in this game would be the understatement of the year. England simply have to win in order to salvage something from an otherwise disastrous November campaign. Australia have to prove that the two upsets in Dublin and especially Paris, were mere hiccups in the consolidation of a world class side more than capable of challenging for World Cup honors next year.
I was interested to see the selection of Billy Twelvetrees at centre for England, and this could be a positive choice for England. He can occasionally be inconsistent but when on form is a very exciting player to watch and may provide the glue as well as the spark to hold a misfiring backline together and get them going. England should be able to outmuscle Australia upfront provided they keep their discipline. If England can dominate Australia up front for the full 80 minutes and wear them down this will make it difficult for Australia to effectively unleash their backline which is a serious concern for England. Although this English side has heaps of potential it is yet to look like a finished product, if Australia can rattle them early on and build up a convincing lead, then England will be in trouble.
For Australia despite some weaknesses that have been exposed this month, they look far more like a composed side than their English counterparts particularly in the backs. In the backline England have been easily exposed and provided Australia can challenge England up front for the full eighty minutes then they will ultimately punch holes in an indecisive English backline lacking in confidence and sound decision making under pressure. Expect Australia’s Michael Hooper to be all over the park and being a constant thorn in England’s side while probably managing to cross the white line for the Wallabies as well.
England will be under enormous pressure and in many ways more so than Australia. I hope for England’s morale they can pull off an epic performance that will help to restore some pride and confidence in the side, but I can’t help feeling that a low point has been reached that it may be too hard to rise above if Australia come out firing for the full 80 minutes. As a result, it will be close but ultimately I cannot help feeling that Australia are ultimately going to come out on top. The must win scenario for England has given the Australians an underdog status which they seem to be relishing and which England must be concerned about. Either way an intense encounter awaits!
Wales vs South Africa
Saturday, November 29th
If you’re looking for predictions this is probably the easiest one to make. If Wales can find an extra 10 minutes in their game plan, then they certainly have the skill set and talent to walk away the winners here. However, their form for the last six months would not really lead any of us to believe that this is likely to be the case on Saturday. For that matter, their form against Southern Hemisphere teams in the last several years also means that they are even more up against it.
South Africa despite the upset against Ireland and a poor showing in Italy have still shown this year that they can finish off big games when up against the wall. If you look at the starting lineup for South Africa, you can’t help but be impressed. Willie Le Roux will hopefully find his form again and with the electric Cornal Hendricks on the wing, backed up by the centre field pairing of De Villiers and Serfontein, South Africa’s backline is incredibly dangerous, even without Bryan Habana and Lwazi Mvovo in his place. Coach Heineke Meyer has wisely chosen to go with Pat Lambie at fly half given his outstanding composure in big pressure matches like this. Wales have a strong forward pack and Sam Warburton will be his dangerous self but overall it will be hard for Wales to match up to a Springbok pack boasting the likes of Bismarck du Plessis, Duane Vermuelen, Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth and Beast Mtawarira. Once again I am heartened by Meyer’s decision to start Cobus Reinaach over Hougaard at scrum half and despite his inexperience at this level he was outstanding against England. In short, this is a strong Springbok side which has learnt some hard lessons this month and one which will be hard to beat.
South Africa go into this having to win to prove that the November tour has been a success and a sound platform on which to build for next year’s World Cup. Wales on the other hand are suffering a confidence crisis similar to their English counterparts, and thus a win will be just as critical to them. However, at the end the day this is probably going to be South Africa’s day leaving Wales with some deep soul searching to do in the next few months over a long dark winter.