The World Cup warm-up matches continued apace in Europe last weekend, and while some consider these games as nothing more than experimental outings in a “phony war” before the real fireworks start on September 18th at Twickenham, they still provide us with plenty of insight as to what the teams strengths and weaknesses are in their final stages of preparation. In Paris what many considered to be an almost full strength English first side turned up and were for 70 minutes completely outclassed, particularly in the physical department, by their French counterparts which surely must be a concern for England Coach Stuart Lancaster as so much talk has been around the supposed physical dominance of the English pack. France on the other hand showed once more that they revel in the underdog tag and are at their most dangerous when everyone has written them off. They played a superb physical game that resulted in the English being pushed around the park all afternoon. Surprise selection Freddie Michalak at flyhalf showed that when he’s good he’s very good even at this late stage in his career ( a good thing as when he’s awful he unfortunately is truly awful). Scotland managed to get their first win of the year against a spirited Italian side that showed plenty of enterprise especially in attack but somehow just couldn’t finish off some brilliant moves. An experimental Scottish side made plenty of errors of their own but in defence they were really good at times especially within their own 22, and when it came to finishing off attacks, looked like the groundwork done on the training pitch in the last few weeks was paying off a bit more than for Italy. This weekend sees an exciting encounter between Ireland and Wales in Dublin, while Scotland seek to redress the wrongs of their Six Nations defeat to Italy earlier in the year against Italy in Edinburgh.
France vs England
Final Score – France 25/England 20
Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water in Paris, a pack of French great white sharks are suddenly spotted! That is surely how for all intents and purposes a starting English first XV must have felt as they dragged their battered and bruised bodies into the dressing room after eighty minutes at the Stade de France. The old saying write the French off at your peril was very much in evidence on Saturday, even though in England’s defence I hardly think they approached the game with that attitude even though many in the press were. It was a puzzling performance from England. After a solid outing against the French last weekend in Twickenham, even though the physicality of the French caused them a few problems, you would have thought with England’s big guns on hand in Paris it should have been a much easier outing for the Men in White. By contrast this English side looked a shambles for much of the game and were completely outplayed by the French, particularly in the forward battles and at the set pieces. England’s lineouts were a complete mess and in the scrum, even allowing for the appalling quality of the pitch at the Stade de France, they were pushed around the park all night by the French. England rallied in the last fifteen minutes and would have taken heart in the fact that they were to score two tries which brought them within less than a converted try. However, the player who provided much of the catalyst for this turnaround, Danny Cipriani, has been mysteriously dropped from England’s World Cup squad. England supporters must be surely be scratching their heads and hoping that Stuart Lancaster has some sort of master plan up his sleeve – let’s face it there wasn’t much evidence of one on Saturday in Paris!
The first half showed much more attacking intent from France than we saw last week at Twickenham and furthermore the skills were vastly improved. France’s work at the breakdown and the speed and vision of their passing especially through the work done by scrum half Sébastien Tillous-Borde were much better. The first twenty minutes were all about France in attack and they were ripping the English defences to pieces causing the English to give away penalty after penalty which French flyhalf Frederic Michalak would make England pay dearly for. French winger Yoann Huget almost got a try for France at the 14th minute after scrum-half Tillous-Borde’s brilliant chip kick over a shambolic English defence was just brought down by English fullback Mike Brown. It was a brilliant piece of work from Brown in an otherwise chaotic period of defensive play by England. After what seemed like an endless French attack for the last ten minutes of the first half, English flyhalf George Ford would capitalise on a rare French lapse in discipline at the breakdown and a shell-shocked England would retreat to the tunnel trailing 15-6.
The French kept up the pace in the second half and five minutes in Yoann Huget would show that, provided he can keep his discipline, he really is one of the most dangerous wingers in the world in terms of strength and speed.
It was a sublime piece of work, set up by Freddie Michalak, and a display of classic French flair which showed that this team is perhaps just starting to build again at the right time. France has this incredibly annoying habit in the last ten years of being dismal for long periods of time and then suddenly showing up at the World Cup full of intent. Get inspirational Captain Thierry Dusatoir back on the pitch and who knows what Les Bleus are capable of come September?
France would continue to dominate the game for much of the second half despite being unable to finish off their attacks with a try. George Ford although not having the best tactical night with the boot, was not missing when it came to goal kicking duties and was still managing to keep England in touch. Just before the seventy minute mark, England made a raft of substitutions and the most telling would be replacement back Danny Cipriani coming on. Some spark was needed to get England’s back line moving and Cipriani to his credit would be instrumental in providing it, making his exclusion from England’s World Cup squad all the more baffling.
Despite the English forward pack still struggling to create the kind of possession which their backs could really feed off, they did enough to allow a brilliantly timed offload from flyhalf George Ford to put Cipriani in space. Some superb sidestepping from Cipriani got him past two French defenders and all of a sudden England suddenly started playing rugby again. Another move in which Cipriani would feature heavily five minutes later, had centre Jonathan Joseph showing the form he is capable of and putting England agonizingly close to the French with the Men in Blue leading 25-20 with two minutes to go. However, France regrouped, held off the English and closed out the game and there would be few who would deny that they thoroughly deserved the win.
For England they can take heart from the fact that they outscored the French by two tries to one and were able to make a truly remarkable comeback in the final ten minutes. Nevertheless, that is about all they can take from it, and the fact that one of the players instrumental in making that turnaround happen, Danny Cipriani, is not in the World Cup squad must be of concern to English supporters. England will regroup of that there is little doubt, but they really did look exceptionally poor for much of this match and will have to work hard to fix issues like their lineout and scrum if they are to avoid the embarrassment of being knocked out at the pool stages in a World Cup in their own backyard. The defensive lapses shown by England must also surely be of concern. France on the other hand still have a mountain of work to get through before the World Cup starts in earnest, but must feel pretty pleased that this result showed that French flair is alive and well and is being matched to a powerhouse forward platform. Does the term dark horse sound familiar?
Italy vs Scotland
Final Score – Italy 12/Scotland 16
In a match that certainly wasn’t the spectacle of the one in Paris, both sides showed some enterprising rugby at times with the more experimental Scots just getting the better of a more experienced Italian side. Italy, had some promising moments of attack and if anything Scotland played a more defensive game. However, where Italy were let down was in their finishing when it came time to scoring tries. When Scotland needed it their finishing was just that much better resulting in them getting the only try of the match.
Scotland’s discipline overall was better and the first quarter saw them taking advantage of Italian lapses in discipline at the breakdown when the Scots were on attack. Scottish flyhalf Duncan Weir had an excellent night with the boot and made sure that by the first fifteen minutes Scotland had a comfortable 6-0 lead. However, Italy would not necessarily be outdone in the kicking department. With regular flyhalf Kelly Haimona out of the World Cup for Italy with injury, the baton would pass to Tommaso Allan who I personally feel is a much more reliable choice. He would not disappoint and when it came to kicking duties would score three well taken penalties for the Italians during the course of the evening to always keep them in touch. Also on the kicking front for Italy they can take great confidence from the long-range kicking abilities of centre Gonzalo Garcia who would get Italy’s first points on the board from almost fifty metres out! It was Allan’s accuracy that would keep Italy in touch right up to halftime with both sides tied at 9-9, and some intense Italian pressure on the Scottish lines in the dying minutes of the first half.
The second half was a fairly tedious affair with neither side making any headway, and a fair amount of errors on both sides. Scotland can take heart in the performance of flanker John Hardie who had a great night out, and was instrumental in both a solid Scottish defence as well as getting Scotland some useful ball in the loose. For Italy, they surely must feel enthused about the role played by number eight Samuela Vunisa who put in an immense body of work on Saturday night despite the odd lapse in discipline. Italy must take heart in the fact that they now have two world-class eights in Vunisa and their inspirational Captain Sergio Parisse.
Italy would take the lead at the start of the final quarter through Allan’s boot, but in the final ten minutes Scotland would produce some real quality that the match had often lacked. Although the initial move came from some slightly shambolic work in attack by the Scots, once winger Sean Lamont was able to get the ball out to the right to centre Matt Scott, the Scots were able to show some real finishing power. Scott sped down the right wing and a brilliantly timed offload put replacement scrum half Henry Pyrgos into space by wrongfooting the Italian defence. Weir would convert and that would be it, Scotland to record their first win of the year by 16-12 over the Italians.
I fully expect the return fixture this weekend in Murrayfield to be a much closer affair and hopefully slightly more polished and entertaining. Scotland have shown that they are developing some good depth in these matches to take with them to the World Cup, while Italy have shown that they have some ability in attack if they can get their discipline right. Furthermore the kicking issues Italy thought they might have with the absence of Haimona can surely be put to bed as Allan and Garcia are proving themselves more than capable.
Fixtures this weekend
Ireland vs Wales
Saturday, August 29th
For all intents and purposes a starting Irish World Cup XV will line up against a starting Welsh World Cup XV on Saturday in Dublin. While given the fact that both teams are playing their big guns, injury management will be a key concern and thus could detract from the spectacle of such a contest. Ireland will be looking to revenge their Six Nations loss to Wales in Cardiff earlier this year as many of the Welshmen who robbed Ireland of a Grand Slam that day will be running onto the pitch in Dublin on Saturday.
In the Irish lineup I am particularly interested to see how the combination of Robbie Henshaw and Luke Fitzgerald work. Fitzgerald is a seasoned campaigner and was one of the bright sparks in an otherwise sloppy Irish performance against Scotland a fortnight ago. Robbie Henshaw was one of Ireland’s revelations of their successful Six Nations and the blend of youth and experience will be great to see. The big talking points are the return of Conor Murray at scrumhalf and Johnny Sexton at flyhalf. As probably one of the best halfback pairings in world rugby right now they will be hard to outdo but it will be interesting to see how much game time Irish Coach Joe Schmidt gives the injury prone Sexton. Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip are the big names in the forwards and I anticipate another big performance from rising Irish star flanker Jordi Murphy. The Kearney brothers return to the back line along with Keith Earls on the wing. A solid bench with the mighty Sean O’Brien adding some real weight to it, completes a pretty solid-looking Irish lineup.
For Wales, they are essentially putting their all-stars onto the field for this one, and are keen to prove that the chaotic Welsh performance by Wales B in Cardiff three weeks ago does not detract from Wales’ ability to get out of a daunting pool in the World Cup. Some of the players who did stand out at the beginning of the month do get a spot on the bench, most notably Hallam Amos in the backs. However, all the well-known big guns, Halfpenny, North, Biggar and Webb etc wil be putting in big performances for Wales as they seek to make a statement of intent about Wales’ ambitions come September. For me the standout player of three weeks ago for Wales was Justin Tipuric at flanker and his head to head with Irishman Jordi Murphy should be a great contest.
In short, I am going to stick my neck out and say that in an effort to detract criticism away from Gatland’s performance as Coach three weeks ago, Wales are going to go all out for this one and thus take the game from an Irish side who apart from the wobbles against Scotland are still for the most part on track in terms of their preparations for the World Cup. I think injury management will be a much bigger factor for Ireland than Wales and thus as long as they get a good performance they will be happy but unlike Wales are probably not going to pursue a win at any cost even though they are playing in front of the Irish faithful. Ireland can certainly win this game, but are likely to be a little more conservative in their risk taking than Wales, and as a result Wales could just edge this one by three. Either way definitely one of the more interesting match-ups awaits us in the phony war leading up to the World Cup!
Scotland vs Italy
Saturday, August 29th
Another experimental Italian side takes on a Scottish team boasting exciting names like Stuart Hogg. In front of the Murrayfield faithful, I can’t help feeling that barring any surprises this should be a fairly straightforward outing for the Scots. In the backs, electric Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg should provide sparks and sniping runs by the bucketload while on the wing Tim Visser should continue to impress. Flyhalf Finn Russell makes a welcome return along with Greg Laidlaw at scrum half. The forward pack still has a slight experimental nature to it but there is enough firepower there to make life distinctly uncomfortable for the Italians. Meanwhile the bench boasts the impressive figure of Blair Cowan to cause havoc in the loose in the last half of the game.
For the Italians they will be looking in particular to Samuela Vunisa to build on his growing body of work at number eight and flyhalf Tommaso Allan to really stamp his authority on Italy’s kicking game. I have no doubt that the two of them will pass the test with flying colors. Luca Morisi will be a handful in centerfield and the back line will have power and speed in Luke McLean and Leonardo Sarto. Meanwhile Martin Castrogiovanni and Captain Leonardo Ghiraldini will no doubt cause some real damage in the scum.
However, given Scotland’s increasing improvement under Coach Vern Cotter, I can’t really see Italy getting the better of Scotland this time in front of a home crowd who will want to see Scotland revenge their Six Nations loss. Therefore a close contest at times with probably a much more entertaining game than the one in Turin, but Scotland by 5!