This past weekend, Ireland got their journey to next month’s World Cup underway with an emphatic win over a Welsh side that was not much more than an interesting experiment. This weekend preparations for the World Cup continue in the Northern Hemisphere with Ireland plying their trade against Scotland and England take on France. In the Southern Hemisphere a Bledisloe Cup match takes place between the Wallabies and All Blacks in New Zealand. Meanwhile in Argentina South Africa will attempt to get their first win of the year against a Pumas side riding high from their first ever win against the Springboks in South Africa a week earlier. As teams make their final experiments with different combinations it may mean some of the matches may not be of top drawer quality, but there should be no lack of intensity as players look to cement their places in their respective World Cup squads. Finally in New Zealand a Bledisloe Cup encounter always promises plenty of sparks and excitement.
Wales vs Ireland
Final Score – Wales 21/Ireland 35
What this game showed more than anything is that going into a World Cup Ireland has plenty of depth while Wales are really struggling to find some. The only downside for Ireland was the injury to Tommy O’Donnell right at the end of the game, considering the barnstormer performance he put in. Andrew Trimble also made a significant return to form for Ireland and his tackle on Eli Williams set up Keith Earls for the try of the game. As a result Ireland surely must be hoping as is expected that the injury Trimble picked up is only minor and he will be available for the World Cup. Unfortunately for O’Donnell though his World Cup hopes are over, but Ireland can still rest easy in the knowledge that although he would have been an enormous asset there is still enough depth in Ireland to make up for his absence.
Ireland completely dominated the first half and looked like a well-drilled machine, with very few errors while Wales struggled to find any kind of composure. Ireland should have had a try in the first ten minutes after a brilliant run from centre Keith Earls who was making his first return to an Irish shirt in two years. Perhaps rustiness or even a bit of over-complication caused Earls to squander an opportunity that was wide open. Even though he had space in front of him Earls chose to pass the ball back inside to Irish fly half Paddy Jackson but it came short of the mark as Jackson lost control of it and Wales regained possession.
However, Ireland were camped right back in the Welsh 22 in no time at all and 12 minutes in Irish Captain and number eight, Jamie Heaslip, cantered over for the simplest of tries. Heaslip had a stellar game as Captain and as he always does provided solid leadership to Ireland. It is clear that going into this World Cup Heaslip is a great deputy for regular Irish Captain Paul O’Connell – once more the depth for Ireland shines through! Ireland would strike again at the end of the first quarter through Darren Cave who was making the most of his centerfield pairing with Keith Earls who was getting better and better as the game wore on. Off the back of the scrum in the Welsh 22, Irish scrum half Eoin Reddan spotted Darren Cave in front of a giant hole in the Welsh defence and it was another easy seven pointer for Ireland.
At the thirty minute mark, Irish winger Andrew Trimble showed just how devastating in attack he can be as he read a risky Welsh pass to winger Eli Williams. Trimble made a fantastic tackle on Williams which popped the ball into the air for Keith Earls to snap up and take off unopposed to sprint down the field and pick up another easy five pointer for the Irish. Enjoy the magic moment below.
Andrew Trimble almost picked up his own try moments later as another brilliant intercept from Irish fullback Felix Jones put Trimble in space on the right wing and he was off sprinting for the try line only to be denied inches short by Welsh captain Scott Williams in an heroic last-ditch tackle.
Wales would restore some pride in the last five minutes of the first half from some sustained pressure. Welsh flanker Justin Tipuric who was one of the few Welsh players who justified his selection all night, linked up with hooker Richard Hibbard off a lineout from deep in the Irish 22, and Hibbard would profit from a rare gap in the Irish defence to get Wales’ first points of the match. Wales would almost get another five pointer in the dying seconds of the half as if to atone for his earlier mistake Welsh winger Eli Williams picked up a brilliant chip kick through from his fullback Hallam Amos. However Williams slightly acrobatic manoeuvres to get the ball down ended up with him losing control of the ball in the grounding. Half time and Wales had a mountain to climb trailing Ireland 25-7.
Ireland started the second half in much the same vein as they started the first and despite some more spirited play from Wales, Ireland were still clearly in charge and the pressure once more forced Wales into defensive mistakes as Welsh flanker Ross Moriarty was seen putting in a swinging arm against Irish winger Simon Zebo. The resulting yellow card left Wales a man short and the Irish capitalised. The victim of the offence Simon Zebo would ultimately benefit as he would be on the receiving end of some great work at the ruck inches from the Welsh try line to get yet another easy five pointer for the Irish.
Zebo would strike again as he would float a superb pass out to Felix Jones enabling the fullback to get another five Irish points on the board. The pace at which Ireland set up this last try was superlative with all their players being instrumental in creating it. They were sharp, clinical and looked as if they had been rehearsing such plays in their sleep. There was no wayward kicking, just a simple case of work the ball through the phases and keep possession, something all teams going into this year’s World Cup would do well to learn from.
Going into the last quarter sitting on a comfortable 35-7 lead, I felt Ireland took their foot off the gas slightly and were the unlucky recipient of a yellow card against replacement flanker Chris Henry. The Welsh made the most of having a one man advantage over the Irish for the next ten minutes. There was some solid play by Wales but it was that man Justin Tipuric who was easily the Welsh player of the match who would do all the work to get Wales’ try. Tipuric set it up and then finished off as his initial break got the ball moving through the Welsh back line to then find himself again at the end of the move. A superb effort and Tipuric really was outstanding even though it was too little too late with Ireland still comfortably in charge 35-14 and just over ten minutes to go.
Welsh winger Alex Cuthbert would snatch a consolation try for Wales in the dying seconds of the game but it had been Ireland’s day from start to finish. Ireland were the model of efficiency and a well executed game plan, while Wales were desperately searching for some sort of structure. As mentioned above the depth in Ireland at the moment is surely putting a song in Irish supporters hearts. They are perhaps not the most flash team out there but they are doing the basics perhaps better than anyone else right now and as a result building a very solid platform for the World Cup. They have depth and their combinations of different players are working well, with players who haven’t been in an Irish jersey for quite a while such as Keith Earls showing a very promising return to form. Wales will walk away form this match wondering what they can learn and if there is some depth to be found in such a short space of time. There were some individual standout performances but to be honest apart from Justin Tipuric, Wales didn’t have much to get excited about in this match and must surely be scratching their heads as to how they can salvage some pride in Dublin in a fortnight’s time. Unless Wales are to field their first choice XV in Dublin it could be another very painful day for the Welsh dragon.
Fixtures this weekend
New Zealand vs Australia
Saturday, August 15th
This is not really a World Cup warm-up match per se, as it is for these two rivals the much more important matter of determining who gets to keep the Bledisloe Cup this year. However, as these teams’ last outings in the Southern Hemisphere before they head North for the World Cup, and with Australia having comprehensively won the Rugby Championship in Sydney the week before, it still can be seen as their last hurrah and chance to set up for the global showdown next month.
Given their performance the week before, I was all set to give this match to Australia especially when I saw the bench for New Zealand’s selections for this game. However, on seeing Australia’s selection for their starting XV I have since revised my opinion and am handing it to New Zealand albeit by a relatively small margin. Like many I had cautioned that it would be unlikely that New Zealand would take their loss of the Rugby Championship to Australia lying down and would quickly regroup for this Bledisloe Cup encounter at home in front of an unforgiving New Zealand crowd. Therefore, I was surprised that All Black coach Steve Hansen, although picking a solid fifteen didn’t quite pick his strongest bench. For example where is Lima Sopoaga who had such a stellar debut in the cauldron of Ellis Park against the Springboks for a game New Zealand really needs to win? This is especially relevant given the fact that Daniel Carter at number ten is not quite hitting his strides at the moment. Nevertheless this is an All Black starting XV that should get most opposition sides more than just a little nervous.
For starters let’s look at the backs. Ben Smith is unquestionably the best fullback in the world right now, and is a more inventive player than his opposite Australian number Israel Folau. Nehe Milner-Skudder did not disappoint on his test debut last weekend and expect more of the same. Although the world’s most experienced centerfield pairing in the shape of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu came short in South Africa, on home soil I doubt you will see them slip up again. My only real question for the All Blacks in their back line selection centres around winger Julian Savea. Sure he is one of the best wingers around but for me he didn’t really shine in the Rugby Championship and similar to Australian all-star Israel Folau often proved very easy to read and deprive of ball. If he is allowed to weave his magic he is devastating but of late has been too easily shutdown and hence for much of the matches he has played this year in an All Black jersey been relatively invisible.
New Zealand’s halfback pairing has heaps of potential if they realise it. Daniel Carter although impressive in the latter half of the Crusaders Super Rugby campaign has yet to really shine in an All Black jersey this year. Aaron Smith is probably the best scrum half in the world right now, but even he seemed to struggle at times last week against Australia. How these two fire or more importantly don’t fire will be critical to New Zealand’s chances against Australia in Auckland on Saturday night.
The All Blacks forwards should for the most part be able to match anything the Wallabies can throw at them, but the selection of Victor Vito and Tony Woodcock are slightly surprising and should give their Australian counterparts some grounds for optimism come set piece time.
For Australia, I feel they are fielding an exceptionally strong side, but once I saw Quade Cooper starting at number ten, I felt that Wallaby coach Michael Cheika was suddenly taking a very unnecessary gamble. Anyone who has read this site in the past knows that I have a pretty low opinion of Quade Cooper and really struggle to see what value he brings to any Wallaby side. Arrogant, indecisive and poorly disciplined he is often more of a liability to any team he plays on than an asset. In his few appearance this year in a Wallaby shirt he has done very little to impress. While Bernard Foley has had trouble in his last two outings for the Wallabies this year in maintaining the composure and consistency needed at this level, I really do not believe that Cooper is the player to address the problem.
The choice by the Wallabies to start Wycliff Palu at number eight instead of David Pocock raises further eyebrows. Although playing the eighth man is not Pocock’s normal position he has fitted in to the role and works well with Michael Hooper in the number 7 flanker position. For such a critical game why change something that clearly works? Other than that though it’s a solid Wallaby outfit with Nic White at scrum half capitalising on his match winning form of the previous week along with Matt Toomua in the centre. There are questions around Henry Speight’s consistency on the wing but apart from that it’s a very solid outfit with a strong bench waiting to come to the rescue should things start to come unstuck.
The big question on the day is what impact will Quade Cooper have on the Wallabies chances? New Zealand will be up for this one and if their starting selection can get Cooper flustered and making the mistakes he traditionally does under pressure then it should allow New Zealand to build a daunting early lead. If the All Blacks can build a commanding lead in the first three-quarters of the match then it will be too much for the Wallabies bench to come to the rescue. If however, Australia can stay in the hunt till the three-quarter mark then I would argue their bench has the edge over New Zealand’s and the game is theirs for the taking. However, given my complete lack of faith in Quade Cooper and the damage he is capable of inflicting on the Wallaby cause I have to give this one to the All Blacks by 5 points!
Ireland vs Scotland
Saturday, August 15th
This fixture is probably the easiest of the four this weekend to predict. I do not mean to do Scottish rugby, which is having a resurgence of late, any disservice but the quality of the Irish side that they are going up against on Saturday in Dublin simply has too much pedigree. Scotland are making no bones about using this match to find some depth and as a result I can’t help feeling that their expectations of an upset are pretty remote.
Ireland are now faced with the luxury that they have enough depth to field two strong starting XVs, neither of which include the game-changing Johnny Sexton. The world-class Irish flyhalf will still be critical to the big games come the World Cup, but Ireland must feel comfortable knowing that at the pool stages with the exception of the game against France, they should have a comfortable ride to the knockout stages.
Sean O’Brien following his return to his combative best in the Six Nations takes on the Captaincy role for Ireland in this match. The Irish back line for this game for the most part is a first XV choice. The only slight difference here is the choice of Simon Zebo at fullback which I would argue is debatable especially as I feel that in a game which Ireland should win easily Felix Jones should have been given another chance in this position. The mouth-watering prospect of Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald on the wings, is more than enough to punch big holes in Scottish defences when backed up by Gordon D’Arcy at centre. Like most Irish supporters, the jury is still out for me on Jared Payne but he did enough in Ireland’s successful Six Nations campaign to merit his selection.
There is more than enough first choice firepower in the forwards with the likes of Sean O’Brien, DevinToner, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross to allow Ireland to easily dominate the set pieces. Add to that the likes of Paul O’Connell, Jordi Murphy and Richardt Strauss waiting on the bench and this is a pretty fearsome looking Irish outfit.
For Scotland they look to give some new players a chance to put their hands up for World Cup selection, though many Scottish fans must surely be saddened to see no place for star fullback Stuart Hogg and flyhalf Finn Russell. The back line does boast some pacy talent in the shape of Sean Lamont and Tim Visser. In the forwards David Denton at number eight had moments of brilliance in the Six Nations, and flanker Blair Cowan was outstanding in singlehandedly getting Scotland turnover ball. To be honest however, that’s about it for Scotland unless we get some revelations off the bench as the game wears on. Ross Ford, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Duncan Weir are all exciting Scottish prospects but overall this Scottish team is simply not packing the same weight as the Irish offering. Therefore and with no disrespect to the Scots I am left with little choice but to hand this one to Ireland by at least 15 points!
England vs France
Saturday, August 15th
At the time of writing the French team had not been announced for this fixture so I have to admit that I am crystal ball gazing on this one. Consequently I will simply have to call it solely on form. Therefore at home at Twickenham and in front of an expectant English crowd, England should walk away with this comfortably.
Having said that there are two key variables here. The first is, it’s a French team – enough said. They can’t stay awful forever and have an annoying habit of suddenly turning up for the World Cup just as everyone has written them off. Secondly it’s opening night nerves for England as they start their journey to the World Cup. France are unlikely to be awful as they showed with some panache the last time they played at Twickenham on the final day of the Six Nations. England do suffer from the pressure to perform and the French will be keenly aware of this. Nevertheless it’s a World Cup in England, and the Men in White although they might struggle at times will want to make a statement in no uncertain terms on Saturday night.
For me the biggest news in this fixture is that France will be playing without inspirational Captain Thierry Dusatoir, which leads me to believe it is too much of tall order for them to do anything more than cause the English a few problems at times. England’s starting XV boasts some impressive names, among them Anthony Watson on the wing and for me in particular Ben Morgan at number eight. I often felt that Morgan was one of England’s star players in their troubled November Test series and it is good to see him being given the chance to shine again. If you look at England’s forward pack as a whole there is little doubt that they should easily be able to get the measure of anything the French can throw at them. Meanwhile England’s bench looks solid enough to support any battle of attrition either in the forwards or backs.
Probably one of the biggest questions in English supporters minds is how Johnny May will perform on the wing. When he hits his straps he is one of the best but had a very poor Six Nations campaign particularly in defence. Lastly Owen Farrell at number 10 will be pushing hard to knock George Ford out of the first choice flyhalf position. I personally think Ford is the more reliable of the two and it will be interesting seeing how Farrell copes with the pressure on Saturday night. Many have said that Farrell has the X-factor that Ford lacks, but if you look at the latter’s performance in this year’s Six Nations as far as I am concerned he showed plenty of ability to surprise opposition defences.
I have little doubt that France will be competitive and may even surprise England at times especially if England suffer from first game of the season nerves. However, England are playing at home with everything to prove and some quality players in a side that although experimental packs plenty of firepower. As a result barring any French surprises I am giving England this one by at least ten points!
Argentina vs South Africa
Saturday, August 15th
After last weekend’s historic win by the Pumas over South Africa there can be little doubt that this is one of the most anticipated fixtures of the weekend. South Africa need to find some salvation in a year that has been disappointing to say the least building up to a World Cup. Argentina meanwhile are just starting to hit all the right notes ahead of the global showpiece.
So what can we expect this Saturday in Buenos Aires? Argentina are fielding an exceptionally strong side and for me the only potentially weak link in the chain is the choice of Nicolas Sanchez at flyhalf. Sanchez had a poor Rugby Championship and was not part of the superb Pumas performance last weekend in South Africa. When he plays well he is a sound flyhalf and certainly impressed for Argentina in last year’s Rugby Championship. Since then however, his form has been poor at best with the odd moment of brilliance as witnessed in the Pumas win over France in November last year. If he finds his form in this game and leaves some of the amateur dramatics he displayed in this year’s game against Australia behind then he will once again be a solid asset to the Pumas cause on Saturday night.
The rest of the Pumas lineup however is very much what we can expect to see come the World Cup. In the backs eyebrows could be raised at the exclusion of Marcelo Bosch given he was so instrumental in everything the Pumas did well last Saturday, and especially that long-range boot of his. Some chopping and changing in the forwards also throws up some questions especially on the bench, but there are enough stalwarts there such as Juan Manuel Legiuzamón and Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe to make sure that Argentina will be competitive up front. Last but not least there is that front row which caused the Springboks so much heartache last week and which remains unchanged for this fixture and is sure to do the same again. Some interesting choices by Pumas coach Daniel Hourcade for a match that Argentina will desperately want to win especially as it is their last outing before the World Cup, but a powerful side nonetheless.
South Africa on the other hand have made even more surprising selection choices for this match. The South African press has been full of incredulity regarding Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer selecting Zane Kirchner to start in the fullback position. Kirchner has done little in a Springbok jersey in recent years to impress and his season with Irish Club Leinster was anything but impressive this year. Surely a better choice would have been to put Jesse Kriel in at fullback,a position he has played at the Bulls, and put Jan Serfontein in at centre alongside Damian De Allende.
South Africa are obviously banking on the reliability and big match nerves of Pat Lambie at flyhalf as opposed to Handre Pollard’s erratic brilliance. Furthermore, coach Heyneke Meyer is keen to re-establish the centerfield pairing of Jesse Kriel and Damian De Allende which has been one of the real highlights of the Springboks performances this year. The forward pack although boasting the likes of veteran Victor Matfield and the intensity and strength of Eben Etzebeth continues to look rusty and is a series of combinations that is unlikely to impress against their Pumas counterparts, particularly if Argentina can be as effective at slowing the ball down as they were last week at the breakdowns.
In short, despite some possibly risky experimentation by Argentina, I still think that playing at home and on the back of last week’s historic win they will be the better side against a demoralised and dysfunctional Springbok pack. If South Africa can use the attacking platform of Lambie and the De Allende/Kriel partnership then it could make the difference for the Springboks. However, Pumas coach Daniel Hourcade showed last week that he and his team had done their homework to figure out how to contain the Springbok team that had been selected and I have no doubt we will see the same preparation this weekend. As a result, I am giving this game to Argentina. I doubt it will be such an emphatic win as last weekend, but there is no doubt this Pumas side is on the rise while the Springboks struggle to find some shape and direction. Furthermore given South Africa’s weak track record on the road in recent years, I can’t help feeling that they are being faced with an impossible challenge. Consequently I fancy Argentina to make it two from two against the Springboks this year as they take the game by five points.