The stakes couldn’t be higher this weekend as we look ahead to the second weekend of the June Tours by the Northern Hemisphere sides south of the Equator. South Africa and Australia will be desperate to restore some pride and confidence after getting off to a poor start against Ireland and England respectively. Of the two, the task is perhaps even more pressing for the Springboks given the nature of their defeat to a fourteen-man Irish team last Saturday in Cape Town. Australia were shaken up by a clinical English display but showed plenty of promise of their own, despite being hampered by some woeful discipline as a result of concerted English pressure. Meanwhile New Zealand’s new look All Black side hit all the right gears in the last quarter and left a brave but ultimately outclassed Welsh side in the dust. Wales will no doubt display more of the same this weekend but as the All Black juggernaut continues to gain momentum the odds are very much against them. Canada get a chance to regroup after many of the ghosts of the past came back to haunt them against Japan last weekend, and should dispatch Russia fairly easily, while Argentina will also be building momentum against a depleted and tired French side.
Fixtures this weekend
New Zealand vs Wales
Saturday, June 18th
Wales will have a mountain to climb in Wellington on Saturday, and let’s be honest despite the considerable courage and promise they showed last weekend, they are likely to be scrambling for footholds for the full eighty minutes. New Zealand clicked into gear after a rusty start for the first hour but are likely to come out of the blocks all guns blazing in Wellington and keep it up all match. The Welsh will be brave and give as good as they get at times but the odds are against them. New Zealand showed in the last quarter of last weekend’s game that they look to set to continue where they left off at the end of the World Cup. The new faces are settling in well and Kieran Read as Captain looks set to carry on in the footsteps of his legendary predecessor Richie McCaw.
The New Zealand pack that provided so much quality ball for their backs last weekend, returns unchanged with the exception of the mighty figure of Sam Whitelock coming in to start in the second row. Once New Zealand started to fire in the forwards department last weekend, it rapidly turned into one-way traffic for the Men in Black and expect more of the same this weekend. Wales will dish out as good as they get in the shape of Alun-Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Gethin Jenkins, Taulupe Faletau and company, but it is unlikely that they will be able to do much more than simply absorb the relentless All Black pressure leaving them little room to generate their own opportunities.
In the backs, New Zealand look to set to shred the Welsh defences and expect to see the visitors quickly tire as they try to contain the likes of Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty and Israel Dagg. New Zealand’s halfback pairing of Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden will comfortably dictate play all afternoon, and although Wales’s Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb are more than capable of sparking something special, it is unlikely New Zealand will give them much to work with. Liam Williams shone at fullback last weekend and starts this Saturday on the wing for Wales. Williams produced some real magic of his own but New Zealand are likely to be much wiser to the threat he poses than they were last weekend. Jonathan Davies at centre continued to impress for Wales and is always an exciting player to watch but without the presence of winger George North this weekend I can’t help feeling he may not be as effective as he was last weekend.
In short, it is not going to be a question of who will win, more a case of how much will New Zealand win by? We have the utmost respect for Wales who continue to be one of the most resilient and courageous sides in Test rugby and are more than capable of providing plenty of excitement of their own. However, it is the end of a long and mostly painful season for Wales and the All Blacks at home is simply a bridge too far for the Welsh dragon. New Zealand have already built the momentum in eighty minutes that it takes most sides a month to build together so Wales are clearly going to be up against it. A brave Welsh performance, but one that is likely to implode against a full throttle New Zealand. The All Blacks to wrap up the series in this match by at least 25 points!
Australia vs England
Saturday, June 18th
Australia came out of the blocks all guns blazing last weekend in Brisbane and it looked like England’s run of form was about to come to a shattering end. However, England soon got the measure of their hosts, targeted their obvious weaknesses especially up front and proceeded to wrestle control of the match away from the Wallabies. This is an exceptionally settled and competent English side clearly benefiting from the astute tactical vision and preparation of Coach Eddie Jones. Expect more of the same this weekend, the difference being that Australia themselves should be that much better prepared and with a point to prove.
Australia has been subjected to the most rigorous of post-mortems particularly in the forwards department since last weekend’s dust up in Brisbane. Australia for the most part got torn apart up front by a quietly assured English pack. Michael Hooper and David Pocock were able to do considerable damage in the back row in the loose but once Pocock was taken off injured, despite Hooper’s heroics Australia lacked both discipline and firepower up front. Dominated by England in the set pieces, Australia’s discipline fell apart. This weekend sees the front row get a complete overhaul as Stephen Moore at hooker is surrounded by the much more reliable figures of props Sekope Kepu and James Slipper. Australia really struggled at lineout time and with the likes of England’s George Kruis and Maro Itoje once more at centre stage here I can’t see much change for Australia and if they are wise this is probably an aspect of the game they will want to keep to a minimum. Hooper will continue to be a huge problem for England in the loose but England’s James Haskell gave as good as he got and more last weekend and is likely to do the same in Melbourne this Saturday with the incomparable Billy Vunipola there to rub salt into the wound.
England soon realised last weekend that with Owen Farrell taking the kicking duties and moving to centre, the halfback pairing of George Ford and Ben Youngs really starts to click. They have wisely chosen to stick with this combination in the starting fifteen this weekend. Australia’s Nick Phipps for me is not of the same calibre and when things start to unravel rapidly looses his composure. Bernard Foley showed plenty of promise last weekend and the fly half is a real talent for the Wallabies and an exceptionally cool head, hence his nickname the “Iceman”. However, his kicking accuracy can hit some real purple patches and it is hoped that he has spent the week trying to fix this aspect of his game as had this worked last weekend the result might have been very different.
Australia has some quality backs and newcomer Dane Haylett-Petty really stood out for Australia last weekend on the wing, and expect him to have some considerable impact again this weekend. However, I feel that given his hit and miss form at the Reds in Super Rugby Samu Kerevi is not quite there yet at centre for Australia and this was painfully evident at times this past weekend. If Australia did not have a lack of depth at fullback, they would no doubt put Israel Folau in at centre where he has been outstanding this season for the Waratahs in Super Rugby. Tevita Kuridrani is an exceptionally devastating ball carrier and a constant threat to opposition defences but Australia’s centre pairing is just not as clinical as England’s offering of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph so once again expect England to dominate here. England’s Jack Nowell has been chosen to start on the wing in Melbourne, and this is one of England’s most exciting players. Fast, elusive and exceptionally strong in the tackle, expect plenty of fireworks from the Englishman on Saturday. The match up between him and his opposite number Australia’s Dane Haylett-Petty should be a thrilling contest. The wise head of Israel Folau at fullback comes up once more against British bulldog Mike Brown. Brown seemed to get the better of the contest last weekend, but I would put my money on Australia again here this weekend.
In short expect another exceptionally tight contest and Australia are unlikely to make the same mistakes they did last weekend. Australia to bounce back in a thrilling and close match with few quarters given by both sides, and take the game by three points to set up an epic series finale in Sydney next weekend!
South Africa vs Ireland
Saturday, June 18thth
After the shock result of last week, we expect most rugby fans will be glued to their televisions screens tomorrow for this one. The big question is can the Springboks rise to the occasion in much the same fashion they did after the defeat to Japan in the World Cup? I may be wrong as I was in my prediction of last week’s result between these two, but I have a hunch they will. Ireland are going to put South Africa to the test once more, but at altitude and on the hallowed pitch of Ellis Park I can’t help feeling that the pride in the Springbok jersey must surely be restored and much like the England/Australia series an epic finale will be set up for the third and final Test.
There is no question that a strong Springbok team, at least on paper, played poorly last weekend against an inspired and heroic Irish team. Debates aside about the reckless tackle by Irish flanker CJ Stander on Springbok fly half Pat Lambie, and we side with the officials on that one, Ireland outplayed South Africa and were the more intelligent of the two sides as they put in a memorable performance with just fourteen men. Up front Ireland were disciplined and focused and refused to be rattled by South Africa’s physical presence. The Irish were better organised and simply did the basics more effectively than the Springboks. Lock Devin Toner had the game of his career in the lineouts alongside the equally impressive Ian Henderson and made the normally all conquering duo of Lood de Jaeger and Eben Etzebeth seem almost nonexistent. Once South Africa brought in newcomer Pieter-Steph du Toit the Springboks fortunes improved but it was too little too late. Du Toit starts in the second row this weekend alongside Etzebeth and expect a much more dynamic performance from South Africa as a result. South Africa’s back row and number eight Duane Vermeulen failed to impress last weekend and there is no change here this weekend which I fear South Africa will regret, as in my opinion Lions number eight Warren Whiteley should be getting the starting berth especially in front of his home crowd. Ireland on the other hand mix things up moving lock Ian Henderson to the flanker position where he seems equally at home. Jamie Heaslip was outstanding at number eight for Ireland and expect more of the same this weekend. Ireland should maintain their dominance here over South Africa.
It’s in the halfback battle where there should be plenty of excitement and intrigue. Lions pair scrum half Faf de Klerk and fly half Elton Jantjies are in the Springboks starting line up at Ellis Park. These two have been consistently lighting up pitches in Super Rugby and are going to provide Ireland with plenty of headaches. While Jantjies and de Klerk found the adjustment to Test rugby last weekend a bit of a baptism of fire, they are likely to be much more settled this weekend, especially playing in front of their home crowd. The Irish pair of veteran scrum half Conor Murray and fly half Paddy Jackson who really played beyond his years last weekend, will give as good as they get, but I am giving the South African duo home field advantage in this contest.
In the backs, a thrilling contest awaits. Once again I am puzzled by the South African selection at fullback, and I cannot really accept the quota excuse that is being bandied about so much as a reason for South Africa’s failings. Willie le Roux is clearly a long way off the form of his glory days two years ago, while the Lions Ruan Combrinck has been on fire for the last two seasons of Super Rugby. That le Roux who had an absolute shocker last weekend is the starting fullback for South Africa while Combrinck is consigned to the bench defies all logic and is a decision I fear South Africa might pay dearly for. Furthermore, I cannot see for the life of me how such a decision has anything with the quota politics supposedly plaguing South African rugby – the same could apply to the Vermeulen vs Warren Whiteley starting debate. Ireland’s answer at fullback in the shape of Jared Payne ran rings around le Roux last weekend. Payne is proving to be devastatingly effective at fullback for Ireland and has the kind of class that is just a distant memory for le Roux. Ireland chooses to experiment this weekend in the centres as Robbie Henshaw gets a new partner in Stuart Olding. I applaud the risk taking by Ireland but you can’t help feeling sorry for Luke Marshall who made such a positive impression last weekend and sadly doesn’t even make the bench this weekend. However, I am really excited to see Ulster’s Craig Gilroy get a start on the wing for Ireland and he along with Marshall must surely play a big part in Ireland’s future plans. The battle of the backs really could go either way and despite Schmidt’s risk taking I am giving a slight edge to Ireland unless the Springbok unit really steps up its game from the previous week, which let’s face it is more than likely, and as centre Lionel Mapoe is also playing in front of his home crowd he’s more than likely to create some serious magic for the Springboks given any kind of opportunity.
In short a fascinating battle awaits with both sides having everything to play for. If Ireland play well, then they are likely to set the series up for a breath taking finale in Port Elizabeth a week from now. However, as the Springboks run out in front of a home crowd desperate to see them restore pride to a battered Springbok jersey it may just be all a bit too much for Ireland at times. If the Springboks can ignite the passion in themselves and the crowd that goes with the Springbok legend this Saturday, then in one of the cathedrals of International Test Rugby, Ellis Park, it should just be South Africa’s day after eighty epic minutes. A game that will swing from one end of the park to the other for the duration, but the Irish may start to tire at altitude after their heroics of the previous week. South Africa to just take the match by five points and set up a humdinger of a finale next weekend!
Argentina vs France
Sunday, June 19th
We have to be honest here, as we haven’t really followed the French domestic competition, the Top 14 this year we don’t know as much as we would like to about the French offering for this Test. We do know a great deal about the cards that Argentina is laying on the table and as a result can say with confidence that they are fielding an exceptionally strong hand. France does have some big names in this squad, but they have literally been press ganged into service and onto the plane, so it may be difficult at times for them to be as fresh to the task at hand as French Coach Guy Noves would like them to be.
Argentina were made to work hard by Italy last weekend but are unlikely to have the same problems settling this weekend. Having been reunited with their inspirational Coach Daniel Hourcade, and a good practice run against Italy to iron out the wrinkles behind them, expect the Pumas to ramp their game up considerably this weekend. This is an all star Pumas squad and should easily be able to get the better of a half baked French team. Of the names we are less familiar with from a Pumas perspective, Facundo Isa put in a stellar performance last week at number eight along with Manuel Montero at centre and Matias Moroni on the wing and expect more of the same this weekend. Meanwhile the rest of the Pumas squad boasts a significant complement of who’s who in international Test Rugby. If names like Joaquin Tuculet, Santiago Cordero, Juan Martin Hernandez, Agustin Creevy, Guido Petti, Tomas Lavanini and Martin Landajo are not part of your household rugby vocabulary then we would ask what you’ve been watching in the past year in terms of rugby.
France will pack some big guns and learn some valuable lessons about emerging talent in the process but are unlikely to overwhelm a “Super” Pumas squad at home. Louis Picamoles and Rabah Slimani will lend some much needed experience to a young and promising forward pack for France but are unlikely to overcome the Argentinian juggernaut. Jules Plisson surprisingly takes the Captain’s role at fly half but is simply no match for the brilliant Pumas fly half Nicholas Sanchez particularly when it comes to accuracy at the kicking tee. Jonathan Danty and Hugo Bonneval will add some real talent to the French backline at centre and fullback respectively, but the French backs will be working overtime trying to contain the Argentinian speedsters. Furthermore, after an exhausting domestic season the question remains as to how much gas these French players really have left in the tank?
In short it should be the Pumas day by a comfortable margin. France will still want to impress new Coach Guy Noves on his first overseas tour and provide moments of brilliance as a result. However, to defeat one of the best all round teams in Test Rugby right now is going to require something special that the French are unlikely to be able to produce. Therefore, an exciting display of Pumas rugby awaits with the Argentinians emerging as comfortable winners by at least ten points!
Canada vs Russia
Saturday, June 18th
After the disappointment of last weekend, despite some considerable promise on show, Canada will want to put in a powerful performance this weekend to clearly lay down the marker for their ultimate test next weekend against Italy.
We must confess to knowing little if anything about Russian rugby and as a result it is rather hard to talk with any kind of authority about what we might expect from the visitors in Calgary on Saturday. Despite Canada’s continuing problems at halfback and in the kicking department, none of which appear to have changed for Saturday’s match, Canada is fielding an exceptionally strong team which should more than cover for the above mentioned weaknesses.
Canada should emerge comfortable winners here, unless Russia are an unknown force waiting to be discovered. Expect another big set of performances from the forwards with Hooker Ray Barkwill and lock Jamie Cudmore providing the experience needed. As mentioned last week, Lucas Rumball at lock looks to be an exceptionally exciting and potent weapon for Canada and veteran number eight Aaron Carpenter can be relied on for another stellar shift at the coalface. Prop Djustice Sears-Duru was a force of nature against Japan and expect more of the same this weekend. If lock Evan Olmstead can get his discipline under control, then he will be a force to reckon with at scrum time and in the loose and lineouts. The back line sees little change with the exciting Taylor Paris once more on the wing and Matt Evans’ reliable boot and brain at fullback. I expect to see winger Dan Moor really cut loose in this match as he did in the Americas Rugby Championship, and the centres see Nick Blevins experience complement newcomer Mozac Samson who also caught peoples’ attention in the recent Americas Rugby Championship.
In short, barring any unexpected surprises, Canada should walk away with the match at Russia’s expense. It should be an excellent opportunity for Coach Mark Anscombe to settle his charges and really prepare them for a gruelling test against a rejuvenated Italy next weekend in Toronto. Canada to give the Russians a telling rugby schooling by at least twenty points!