New Zealand retain the Bledisloe Cup, while South Africa make a much needed comeback in Buenos Aires! In European World Cup warm up matches England and Ireland edge past France and Scotland but all four teams are left with plenty of homework to do!

Posted: August 21, 2015 in Rugby World Cup 2015
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As expected the All Blacks returned to form with a vengeance after their loss to the Wallabies the week before in the Rugby Championship to make sure that the Bledisloe Cup stays in New Zealand.  Meanwhile, South Africa got some confidence back after a poor start to the year by beating the Pumas at home in Buenos Aires.  In the second round of European World Cup warm-up matches, Ireland looked impressive at times but often struggled to stamp their authority on an exciting and highly motivated Scottish side.  At Twickenham, England got the job done against a feisty France and while their backs easily outclassed anything les Bleus could offer, their forward pack was regularly bossed around by the Men in Blue.  As excitement for the World Cup starts to grow, these preparatory weekends are giving us lots to ponder.

New Zealand vs Australia
Final Score – New Zealand 41/Australia 13
Auckland

As predicted, New Zealand made short work of restoring some pride to the black shirt in Auckland as they managed to keep the Bledisloe Cup in the land of the long white cloud for another year.  In the first quarter New Zealand still looked as if they were lacking some of their traditional sparkle that we have come to expect from them over the last two years.  However, once Aaron Smith got the second try for the All Blacks and also managed to land Australia’s wild card flyhalf Quade Cooper in the sin bin in the process, the New Zealanders quickly stamped their total authority on the match.  All Black fly half Daniel Carter also seemed to find his groove again by the end of the first quarter and was back to his pinpoint accuracy.  It was a masterful performance from New Zealand that showed they are still the team to beat come the start of the World Cup in six weeks time, even if there are some chinks in the armor.

As the game got underway, both sides seemed nervous and struggled to find form.  New Zealand’s opening moves bore a worrying similarity to their efforts of the previous week and far too much ball was being given to Wallaby danger man Israel Folau at fullback who was truly superb under the high ball all night even if he struggled to turn it into points for the Australians.  Australia were to get the opening points through the boot of Quade Cooper, and New Zealand were looking flustered with much of their play being riddled with uncharacteristic errors.  Then this happened!

All Black hooker Dane Coles showed to the world once more that in many ways the All Blacks are so versatile their players can pretty well play any position on the field.  Coles showed the speed and vision of a centre as he found himself in acres of space just past the halfway mark.  He then showed a burst of speed normally associated with some of the fastest wings in the global game right now.  It was shocking defence from the Wallabies but you couldn’t help being in awe of the sheer burst of speed that Dane Coles was able to produce for 30 metres – you just don’t see that normally from a hooker!  More importantly it was a superbly worked move from deep in the New Zealand half with Daniel Carter being the man to ultimately put Dane Coles into the gap that was opened up by a rapidly retreating Wallaby defence.  It was vintage All Blacks!

There was no question that New Zealand took enormous confidence from the Coles try and they started playing with an increasing sense of purpose as the errors were dramatically reduced.  New Zealand ended the first half in charge at 13-6 and Australia were certainly not looking the team they did in Sydney a week ago.

The second half was all about New Zealand and also showed how one event can turn the tide of a whole game.  As anyone who has read this blog in the past knows, I consider Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper an enormous liability, and for a game of this stature I was surprised to see him chosen as the starter 10.  In the first half, apart from being useful with the boot at penalty time he had done nothing to convince me that he was Australia’s go to man.  As one of the New Zealand commentators noted, he is one of those players who makes things that should be easy often look incredibly hard.  Six minutes into the second half Nehe Milner-Skudder who had another fantastic game for the All Blacks on the wing, and must surely have cemented a World Cup spot showed some real magic with that step of his ending in a brilliant offload to “everywhere man” scrum half Aaron Smith.  As the Wallaby defence was shredded by Milner-Skudder, a poor last-ditch tackle by Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper was rightly deemed high and thus illegal.  It was off to the sin bin for Cooper and the award of a penalty try for New Zealand.  The next ten minutes and with the Wallabies down to 14 men, the All Blacks simply pulled away and left Australia with a mountain to climb.  Quade Cooper sadly for me showed just what a liability he can be to the Wallaby cause in tight matches like these.  He adds little to the cause and whatever flashes of brilliance he may have are usually negated in lapses of discipline and concentration.  In a pool as tight as the one Australia will be in at the World Cup – you have to ask the question – can they really afford this kind of risk?

Milner-Skudder was once again involved in New Zealand’s next try as he made a brilliant kick deep into Wallaby territory and which stayed in touch.  The All Black winger was also the first man to reach his kick enabling New Zealand to retain possession.  New Zealand were able to recycle the ball until it eventually found its way to centre Ma’a Nonu whose blistering form has left many speechless all year.  With ball in hand and a bit of space Nonu has been for all intents and purposes impossible to stop this year and it was more of the same on Saturday night in Auckland.  Building up a comfortable lead with just under 30 minutes to go at 27-6 New Zealand were on fire once more.  Three minutes later it was Conrad Smith, Nonu’s centerfield partner, who would be next to score for New Zealand with Nonu himself being heavily involved in the build-up.  Quade Cooper’s 10 minutes in the sin bin was costing Australia dearly.  With the score now 34-6 for New Zealand and just over 20 minutes to go, it simply doesn’t matter how good your bench is, you are not going to turn that scoreline around against a team like the All Blacks.

For Australia the rest of the match was simply an exercise in damage limitation.  David Pocock would make an impact as he came on in the last quarter at number eight, but the mountain was too high to climb.  Israel Folau at fullback would get some reward for all his stellar work under the high ball all evening by scoring a consolation try for Australia but that was about all the Australians could get excited about.  They were a shadow of the side that put in such an impressive performance a week ago in Sydney and now have some serious soul-searching questions to ask.  For me surely the most important question must centre around putting to rest once and for all the value that Quade Cooper adds to the team.  After this performance you would think that he is out of contention for a plane ticket to England, but Coach Michael Cheika seems to have some deep-rooted loyalty to Cooper that transcends the bounds of logic.  In pool games that are likely to be decided on a penalty kicks, England and Wales must surely be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of Quade Cooper being on the pitch against them.

For New Zealand, they made an emphatic statement to the rest of the world that although not invincible their ability to bounce back and regroup is probably better than any other team in the world right now.  Many argue that an upset just prior to a World Cup is never a bad thing and quickly stamps out complacency in a team used to winning ways.  In New Zealand’s case this is probably just what they needed.  While they may not be the all-conquering juggernaut of the last two years anymore, there is enough skill and depth available to Coach Steve Hansen that New Zealand will still be the team that most of the contenders for this year’s World Cup know they will have to beat if they want to lift the Webb-Ellis trophy on October 31st!

Ireland vs Scotland
Final Score – Ireland 28/Scotland 22
Dublin

Ireland got another win on Saturday in Dublin against a Scottish side that showed plenty of promise while at the same time exposing some key weaknesses in the Irish defence.  Ireland battled at times to stamp their authority on Scotland they way they did against Wales a week earlier.  While there were some brilliant individual performances from Ireland as a whole it was clear that Irish preparations for the World Cup are still very much a work in progress.  Scotland on the other hand although shaky at times looked very much a side that has plenty of talent and is capable of some exciting running rugby, and the likes of David Denton and Tim Visser certainly put their hands up for selection for Scotland’s World Cup side.

The match got off to a shaky start with the first quarter being very much a period of settling the nerves and finding some structure for both sides.  Both teams made a series of errors and the game struggled to get into some sort of rhythm.  As the first quarter came to a close Ireland started to get some decent possession and make some positive inroads into the Scottish 22.  Chris Henry playing at open side flanker would get the first Irish try of the day, as he burrowed into the Scottish defence which had already been spread thin.  Ian Madigan at flyhalf easily converted and the comfortable win everyone had predicted for Ireland looked to be on the cards.

Scotland would strike back with ten minutes left in the first half.  David Denton who had a superb evening at number eight for the Scots would do the initial hard work of crashing through a slightly disorganised Irish defense to allow a series of quick passes that would ultimately see Scottish powerhouse flanker Blair Cowan crash over in the corner.  It was a very well constructed try that demonstrated some excellent passing and speed with ball in hand by Scotland.  The conversion was successful and all of a sudden the scores were level at 7-7 and would remain so going into the halftime break.

Scotland came out for the second half with their tails up, and another example of poor Irish defence five metres from their line saw them allow Scottish scrum half and Captain Henry Pyrgos to squirm his way across the white line for Scotland.  Ireland replied immediately with hooker Sean Cronin crashing over from a driving maul to get Ireland two points clear of the Scots with the successful conversion being made once more by Madigan.  Prior to this though Scotland had continued to cause Ireland all kinds of defensive problems and Simon Zebo playing at fullback for Ireland was lucky to avoid a yellow card. Zebo was seen making a lazy tackle that tripped Scottish winger Tim Visser as the flying Scotsman made yet another run through wrongfooted Irish defenses.  Visser had been outstanding for Scotland all night and along with David Denton and Sean Lamont would continue to test Irish resolve right to the final whistle.  Although Zebo was lucky to avoid a yellow card, apart from this one error it must be said he put in a very good body of work on Saturday night in Dublin and was really superb under the high ball, something which Scotland provided him with in copious amounts.

The Cronin try also saw the arrival of Paul O’Connell onto the field to rapturous applause from the Irish crowd.  Although Sean O’Brien was doing a fine job in the Captain’s role even though he was playing slightly out of position at number eight as opposed to his customary flanker role, there is no doubt that the presence of O’Connell spurred the team on further.  O’Brien though has to be commended for a solid outing as Captain, and can hold his own with O’Connell and Heaslip in the role.  Furthermore, O’Brien has returned to his devastating form as a loose forward for Ireland and put in a huge work rate on Saturday night.

Ireland would get another try soon after through Simon Zebo who apart from a potentially costly lapse in discipline was having a stormer of a night, and was looking much more solid in defence than he has in the past.  Dave Kearney came on as a substitute back and instantly set up Ireland’s try through Simon Zebo, with the fullback showing the type of sudden speed and acceleration that have been his trademarks in the past.

Scotland were not to be outdone though and after yet another display of weak Irish defence and a series of missed tackles, Scottish winger Sean Lamont would build up enough of a head of steam to get centre Peter Horne into space and across the Irish line.  With the successful conversion Scotland were right back in the match and we were set for a nail biting final fifteen minutes as Scotland led 22-21.

Ireland would have the last laugh though with ten minutes to go to close out the game with a piece of sheer pinpoint brilliance from flyhalf Ian Madigan.  Madigan had an absolute standout performance for Ireland all evening and has easily secured his place as the legendary Johnny Sexton’s understudy.  Spotting winger Luke Fitzgerald in space Madigan made the perfect kick to his winger – so accurate was the kick in its timing that Fitzgerald didn’t even have to break stride as he collected it and sprinted unopposed into the corner.  For any young kickers out there aspiring to greatness have a look at this and be inspired.  It was all of a sudden Ireland ahead by 28-22 and ten nerve-wracking minutes left.

Ireland would do enough for the remainder of the match to hang onto their lead despite several determined assaults from the Scots.  Ireland got the win, but in the process got a very healthy wake up call that while they did many things well and showcased some superb individual skills, as a unit they were found lacking at times particularly in defence.  Nevertheless, this is a quality side with some very astute minds in the coaching department and one of the purposes of these games is to discover any weaknesses now rather than at the World Cup.  As a result I don’t imagine that we’ll see the same kind of lapses in Ireland’s next encounter with Wales.  Scotland although the losers in this match can take great heart from their performance.  Much more so than Ireland Scotland are still a work in progress, but we got to see the foundations of some excellent groundwork.  Scotland were competitive in all areas of the game and were often able to match Ireland’s legendary intensity at the breakdown.  While they may not quite have the tactical vision that Ireland has at the moment, under Coach Vern Cotter, Scotland is really starting to show plenty of promise for the future


England vs France
Final Score – England 19/France 14
Twickenham

There were few who expected anything other than England to walk away the winners from this match, but what it showed much like the Ireland game earlier in the day, is that England is showing plenty of promise at an individual level but some aspects of their play as a cohesive unit still need some work.  Once again at this stage in your preparations for the World Cup, the learning is in many ways just as important if not more so than an actual win.  Having said that though England will obviously take great confidence from the win and I expect them to be even more positive this weekend in Paris as the French on home soil will up the intensity another gear or two.  France although unconvincing when it came to finishing off their attacking opportunities can still be pleased that they only lost by less than a converted try and certainly were able to match England for physicality especially in the scrums and lineouts.

Ironically it was France who started the match with more intent than England and they would also be the first to get points on the board.  An initial spirited attack within the first six minutes saw winger Brice Dulin just overcook a chip kick through, but the resulting penalty from an earlier England offence would still allow French scrum half Morgan Parra to give France the first three points of the game.

Five minutes later though it would be England who would set the tone for the rest of the match.  The English backs on Saturday night were exemplary and there can be little for English management to concern themselves with in this department.  The centre pairing of Sam Burgess and Henry Slade were superb.  Slade’s debut was highly impressive and must surely see him as part of England’s plans for the global showdown.  Alex Goode at fullback for me was the epitome of control and vision and would constantly get England out of jail on any French attack.  On the wings, Anthony Watson’s two excellent tries showed him to be a world-class player who will cause defences all kinds of problems come September.  His try at the eleven minute mark showed outstanding pace, strength and footwork, after an absolutely superb initial offload from Slade.

The other question mark going into this match for England in the back line was how Johnny May on the other wing would perform.  In the Six Nations he had shown plenty of individual flair and pace but often seemed out of step with the rest of his back line and looked poor when under pressure defensively.  His performance in this match negated such concerns in an emphatic matter. May’s interplay with the centres and the rest of his back line was seamless and he also showed a much greater awareness in defence and helped nullify much of the fairly inconsistent threat posed by France’s own back line.  Ten minutes after Watson’s first try May would be instrumental in setting up the second as a brilliant run would carve up the French defenses once more leaving Watson free on the right.  An excellent offload from May to Watson at speed and England were ahead 12-3 after only 20 minutes.

Nevertheless at halftime there was still not much in it, with France only trailing by 3 points as England led 13-9.  Although England were dominating the battle of the backs from 10-15, from 1-9 it was a relatively even contest in the forwards.  It was good to see English number eight Ben Morgan back in action after his return from inury, but he was wisely brought off at half time and replaced by Geoff Haskell.  In the time he was on the pitch, Morgan was more than a match for his opposite number Louis Picamoles, but the Frenchman as the game wore on would clearly get the better of Geoff Haskell and as the French pack and especially their scrum wore down the English their age-old problem with discipline once again started to rear its ugly head.  As a result France would stay in touch for the entire match and even score a try through their own forward power.

However, England would come out of the blocks firing once more at the start of the second half and at just over five minutes in winger Johnny May would make his own mark on the game by scoring England’s third try. Fullback Alex Goode, who for me had a superb game, made the perfect punt to May on the wing with no one in front of him and the English winger had a gift of a try – all down to some excellent vision and space management from Goode. As said earlier from 10-15 England worked exceptionally well on Saturday night and I imagine  we are seeing the ultimate first choice line-up with the possible exception of George Ford replacing Owen Farrell at fly half.

The remainder of the match saw France once again start to turn the screw on England in the forward department and the resulting yellow card against debut flanker Calum Clark, would see France build enough pressure to get their only try of the game. Replacement prop Uini Atonio impressed for France in the Six Nations and Saturday night was no exception. He added further power to the French scrum which on several occasions drove the English into the ground. Atonio’s hard work would be rewarded at the beginning of the final quarter as the French developed a superb rolling maul from a lineout to crash the big prop over the line.

England did manage to hold firm for the remaining quarter as the French mounted continuous assaults, but England’s outstanding backs had caused enough damage earlier in the match to just eclipse a disjointed French attack with ball in hand. The French did dominate the English up front for much of the game, but the speed and pace of the English backs had simply given England enough of an edge to get the job done. If France can fix their back line and England solidify the work of their forward pack then we should be in for one hell of a match this Saturday in Paris!

Argentina vs South Africa
Final Score – Argentina 12/South Africa 26
Buenos Aires

South Africa finally managed to end their build up to this year’s World Cup on a high note while Argentina did many things well on Saturday night in Buenos Aires, but without some of the key figures from the previous week’s victory in South Africa, they struggled at times to assert the same kind of dominance.

To say that South Africa needed this win was an understatement. Argentina were also keen to send a clear message that they mean business at next month’s global showdown but the focus seemed to be more on team development and one last look at possible combinations than a win at any cost. Injuries to certain key players and the last-minute withdrawal of prop Marcos Ayerza and Juan Martin Hernandez who had played such a vital role in the victory over the Springboks in Durban were also going to make it hard for the Pumas to really match the Springboks in intensity – especially a South African side looking for their first win of the year (sorry I am afraid I don’t really regard a win against a ragtag World XV as overly relevant).

Let’s be honest it wasn’t the most attractive game to watch, and I am really not sure which bright spark came up with the idea of having the Springboks play in white. The lighting at the field in the late afternoon was not the best and from a viewing perspective it often got a bit confusing as to who was who at times. Nevertheless, the Springboks although not exactly spectacular showed some composure and real effort at getting the basics right, with the cool head under pressure of flyhalf Patrick Lambie making a major contribution to this aspect of South Africa’s gameplay on the day. The Pumas for the first half of the game struggled to find any kind of rhythm or creativity, despite flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez making a much-needed return to form.

The first quarter of the game was a fairly torrid affair with South Africa’s better discipline at the breakdown ensuring that Patrick Lambie would get the visitors ahead 6-3. The Pumas had started the game with some real flair as the hat trick hero of the previous week, Juan Imhoff almost scored for the Pumas in the opening minutes but a brilliant cover tackle by Eben Etzebeth, who once again was immense in this game, ensured that would be the closest the Pumas would get to crossing the white line all night. Sustained South African pressure deep in the Argentinian half would see Habana completely unmarked and an easy try. Ten minutes from the end of the first half, and after some terrific passing from the South Africans, winger Lwazi Mvovo would show some real strength and pace in shrugging off three defenders to then make one last epic reach for the try line as he was brought to ground, getting South Africa their second try of the match. Lambie was successful once again with the conversion and the Springboks ended the half comfortably in charge at 20-3.

The second half lacked much of the excitement of the first. Argentina’s replacement scrum half Tomas Cubelli made an immediate impact when he came on the field and the intensity and accuracy of Argentina’s attacks increased dramatically, however the South African defence was rock solid and Lambie was always there to clear the lines. Argentina were able to narrow the deficit through the boot of a much improved Nicolas Sanchez, but South Africa perhaps aware of the fact that whenever they have had a comfortable lead this year they have thrown it away in the last quarter seemed very focused on a tight defensive game. As a result no tries were to be had in the second half but some much-needed solidity and confidence was restored to South Africa’s defensive gameplay.

In short, they got the win they needed and while it may not have been the most stylish of displays the emphasis seemed more on getting the basics right and in that department the Springboks were very effective, albeit against a weakened Pumas side. Had Argentina had players like Ayerza, Hernandez and Bosch on the field it may have been a very different game. What was most noticeable for me in this game was the overall defensive effort by South Africa was so strong that it rarely needed the brilliance of their exciting centerfield pairing of De Allende and Kriel to really come to the fore, and as a result these two were fairly quiet for much of the match with De Allende almost being invisible at times. Furthermore many had raised concerns over the selection of Zane Kirshner at fullback, but to be honest while he didn’t do anything particularly spectacular, he wasn’t really tested either so it’s hard to judge what impact he did or didn’t have on the game’s outcome.

So in short, Argentina have plenty to work with going into the World Cup, while South Africa have plenty of options but still seem unsure as to what their final team will look like. Argentina seem to have more answers than questions, while South Africa’s coaching team still seem to be staring at a desk of cluttered but exciting blueprints. While I think it’s fairly clear what Argentina’s World Cup squad will look like for most of us it’s still pretty much a matter of crystal ball gazing when it comes to South Africa. If you don’t like mystery and are a Springbok supporter then the next week or so, till Coach Heyneke Meyer announces his World Cup squad, will provide plenty of heated debates!

Fixtures this weekend

Italy vs Scotland
Saturday, August 22nd
Turin

After an impressive display against Ireland last weekend, Scotland take their World Cup warm up roadshow to northern Italy to take on the Azurri.  Scotland looks set to continue to experiment with a raft of new talent that is coming through the ranks and which Scottish Coach Vern Cotter rightly sees as the future of Scottish rugby.  Having said that though there are enough names there that should lend sufficient experience to make this a relatively straightforward proposition for Scotland particularly if they display some of the motivation they showed in Dublin last weekend.  Italy as a result of not having the player depth that Scotland has, have a slightly more traditional side running onto the field for them in Turin.

Scotland will boast the experience of Sean Lamont, alongside the proven talents of Duncan Weir and Richie Gray and Alasdair Strokosch in the forwards.  Otherwise, there are plenty of new combinations being put forward, and this match in tandem with last week’s outing should provide Cotter with a good idea of what his final World Cup selection should look like.  Few see this as an opportunity for Scotland to avenge the last-minute loss to the Italians in this year’s Six Nations fixture which ended up handing Scotland the wooden spoon and which seemed poor recompense for all the promise they showed during the tournament.  However, there is little doubt that Scotland will aim to set the record straight this time around.  Although there are 11 new faces in this squad compared to that which went up against Ireland last weekend, I can’t help feeling that as long as they don’t get overpowered in the forward battles and keep their discipline, Scotland has more than enough assets to come out on top.

For the Italians while they are packing a more star-studded line-up than the Scots, they are without key players such as talismanic Captain and one of the world’s best number eights, Sergio Parisse.  Nevertheless the team to run out onto the pitch in Turin still boasts a more traditional feel to it than Scotland’s offering.  In the backs there are relatively few surprises and plenty of quality providing they can cut out the handling errors we see all too often from Italy.  Andrea Masi, Leonardo Sarto,Tommaso Benvenuti and Giovambattista Venditti are proven commodities and should provide this new look Scottish side plenty of problems in defence. First choice fly half for Italy, Kelly Haimona is still out with injury and is replaced by Tomasso Allan which in my mind is a real blessing for Italy as opposed to a hindrance. I have never actually seen Haimona play a solid game for Italy and am always puzzled by Italian Coach Jacques Brunel’s unshakeable faith in him. Provided he keeps his head, Allan may not be flash but he is slightly more reliable. The Italian forward pack has a much more experimental feel to it, but the bench has the veteran power of Ghiraldini, Castrogiovanni, Bortolami and Bergamasco all waiting to come to the rescue should things all go horribly wrong in that department.

It will be tight and close at times, but I can’t help feeling that under Scottish Coach Vern Cotter, Scotland as experimental as they will be on Saturday have that much more motivation and fizz than Italy and as a result while learning some very valuable lessons for the new boys, should come out on top by 10 points. Italy will be competitive make no mistake but after four months off are unlikely to come out of the blocks firing on the first attempt.

France vs England
Saturday, August 22nd
Paris

The big talking point is can France compete with their equivalent of Quade Cooper starting at flyhalf in the form of Freddie Michalak? French coach Philippe Saint-Andre seems to be battling his way through the coaching wilderness at the moment along with Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer and Welsh coach Warren Gatland, despite all three coaches having a wealth of quality players at their disposal. In my opinion as misguided as it may be I can’t feeling that the answer to the above talking point is no. Michalak like Cooper has the odd flash of pure genius but they seem to be so few and far between that they can hardly be called consistent game winning qualities. The only thing Michalak has going for him over Cooper is that he doesn’t seem to suffer the disciplinary problems of his Australian counterpart.

However, France are not playing Australia on Saturday so let us return to the point. Instead they are playing an exceptionally solid-looking England team that many are arguing is what England’s starting XV will be come the World Cup in four weeks time with one or two exceptions. Captain Chris Robshaw returns as open side flanker alongside James Haskell. If I was an English supporter I would have preferred to see Ben Morgan at least get a bench spot to replace Billy Vunipola at number eight. For me Morgan is very much the future of this position for England whereas I can’t help feeling that Vunipola is slightly past his sell by date – so it will be interesting to see how well he stakes his claim to England’s starting 8 shirt in Paris.

The superhuman Courtney Lawes returns to the lock position and provided Tom Youngs can deliver good lineout ball then England’s hiccoughs at the lineout of last week should be consigned to history. Dan Cole and Joe Marler should help make England more competitive against the French scrum than they were last weekend. Lastly the backs see the return of George Ford at fly half who I found so impressive in England’s Six Nations campaign this year, barring the rumble in Dublin. Mike Brown will be competing hard with Alex Goode for the starting fullback shirt, and I have to confess although Brown has more speed and pace with ball in hand than Goode, Goode has for me a better tactical vision of the game. Johnny May gets another chance to impress on the wing alongside Jack Nowell who also had a useful Six Nations. The centre pairing of the electric Jonathan Joseph with Luther Burrell should provide plenty of fizz and excitement, while Ben Youngs returns at scrum half. There seem to be many questions around who England should ultimately play at scrum half come the World Cup, but I can’t help feeling that by the end of the Six Nations after a shaky start, Youngs was hitting all the right notes and was one of England’s most improved players so it will be interesting to see if he can carry that forward going into the World Cup.

France are packing a very solid forward pack, with equally capable replacements for them on the bench. I am particularly interested to see the performance of Benny Arous at prop as for me he was one of the revelations of France’s Six Nations campaign this year. The centre pairing packs both punch in the form of one man wrecking ball Mathieu Bastareaud and speedster Wesley Fofana who had a significant return to form this year. Scott Spedding at fullback is a powerful runner and showed some impressive touches with the ball last weekend. Noa Nakaitaci can be lethal on the wing when he gets the basics right. On the opposite wing Yoan Huget has been known to cause England problems in the past but should be easily contained by the prowess England will be boasting in their back line on Saturday in Paris, as well as Huget having a reputation for blowing hot and cold and losing his discipline. Ultimately France will struggle in the halfback battle as Ford should easily get the better of Michalak and I can’t see his replacement Rory Kockott providing much of a rescue.

It should be a slightly more exciting display from France than last week, but England has too much proven class and ultimately this game is theirs for the taking particularly if George Ford can cause Freddie Michalak to unravel. Therefore I am giving this one to England by 12 points unless France have one of their billboard busting one hit wonder days!

Comments
  1. Mick McNeill says:

    I agree and really hope Quade is a shoe-in for a first on the plane, first-class travel to the UK. It really wouldn’t hurt England’s or Wales’ chances to see him over here!!! I was quietly pleased with England’s performance and don’t think they could have done much better against a very negative French outfit and I’m not sure what the French learnt from this match as they seemed bereft of ideas going forward and had no continuity or leadership against an England team at a tad over 60% strength. I’m not saying that England exactly took their foot off the gas after three superbly taken tries, but their play was often very experimental once they knew they’d taken the measure of their opponents. France chipped away with penalities and again i’d say learnt nothing through this posturing when we’re approaching theirs and all countries most important event in a few weeks’ time. Paris next is another matter and the expectation for France to actually play a bit may count against them in front of a home crowd, let’s see.
    There’s a similarilty between the All Blacks team with many bowing out after this World Cup, and the England World Cup winning team as was, and I think their mindset will be spot on this time around. Their strength in depth is just amazing, I can’t see a position on the pitch where they are lacking star quality at either first or second selection, so watch out for a possible stellar World Cup by the “Men in Black”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Neil Olsen says:

    Absolutely Mick. Sorry this post got originally posted in an unfinished version and the above is now the complete version so excuse all the omissions. I agree Quade Cooper is every other team’s most valuable sixteenth man bring him on!

    I thought England’s backs were truly outstanding last week and I expect more of the same this weekend and much classier than anything France can offer up. I did think though England’s forward performance creaked a bit especially at scrum and lineout time, but with the lineup in Paris I would foresee this being fixed. Like you say am not sure what we will learn about France, but they are packing a bit more talent than last week and that forward pack is a force to be reckoned with and Picamoles in particular is an awkward proposition. However, ultimately the strange choice of Michalak at fly half should make it fairly easy for Ford to cause him to unravel and swing control firmly England’s way.

    New Zealand really did show us that they have the ability to regroup like no other team in the modern game. I don’t think they are as invincible as they have been over the last two years but are still the benchmark team all of us have to beat if we really want to win what I think could end up being the most exciting World Cup in the tournament’s history!

    Like

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