In a fast and furious weekend of Test Rugby we have a quick look at what stood out for us in a superb start to the June Tours. As expected a new look New Zealand struggled to gel initially for the first hour but once they did were able to put a brave Welsh side to the sword. England continued to build on their momentum of the Six Nations and produced a masterclass display against Australia. The big shock of the weekend was without a doubt the superhuman performance of a 14-man Irish side against the Springboks in Cape Town, resulting in a first ever win on South African soil for Ireland and cracking the series wide open. Meanwhile Argentina had to work hard to silence an enthusiastic and much improved Italian team, and Canada’s new Coach Mark Anscombe, while no doubt feeling good about many aspects of Canada’s performance against Japan, was nevertheless haunted by many of the ghosts of his predecessor as Canada ultimately fell short of the mark in Vancouver.
New Zealand vs Wales
Final Score – New Zealand 39/Wales 21
As expected New Zealand were made to work exceptionally hard for the first hour, as they sought to settle in a new team. However, once they did they showed just how quickly All Black sides are able to adjust and adapt as they proceeded to tear Wales apart in the final quarter. Wales were exceptionally brave and as predicted showed an incredible resilience in handling the mounting All Black challenge, and the fact that Wales were leading 18-15 at half time just goes to show how competitive they were. New Zealand were faced with a worthy opponent in Auckland, though now that the All Blacks clearly have the measure of the game they want to play, the remaining two Tests are going to be an epic challenge for an increasingly fatigued and at times overwhelmed Welsh team.
Wales met the All Blacks head on in the first half and capitalised on New Zealand’s mistakes and uncertainties. They were worthy of their three-point lead over the All Blacks at half time. Their defence had been superb and they were able to match anything New Zealand could offer up physically. The experience and strength of Welsh prop Gethin Jenkins, lock Alun-Wyn Jones, Flanker Sam Warburton and number 8 Taulupe Faletau were immense. Rhys Webb had a superb game at scrum half with centre Jonathan Davies and fullback Liam Williams being a constant threat on attack. It was a solid team effort from Wales which really only started to flag in the last quarter. Once New Zealand had found the keys to unpick the Welsh defence, they were able to run in three unanswered tries in the final twenty minutes.
As for New Zealand, despite struggling to find their feet at times in the first half, they quickly settled and put rest to any fears that this new look team might not be made of the same caliber as the all-conquering New Zealand side of the last four years culminating in last year’s World Cup triumph. Number 8 and new Captain Keiran Read slotted easily into the mighty boots left behind by his legendary predecessor Richie McCaw, and was rewarded for his efforts by a fine try of his own. It was New Zealand’s half back partnership of scum half Aaron Smith and fly half Aaron Cruden along with the backs who really stole the show in Auckland. Aaron Cruden made a welcome return to the number 10 jersey while Aaron Smith was a constant spark for New Zealand’s attacking platform. Ben Smith at fullback was outstanding all night and showed just what an exceptional player he is in defence and attack. As he did briefly in an All Black jersey last year before being taken out of New Zealand’s World Cup plans through injury, winger Waisake Naholo was electric and clearly outshone his partner on the wing Julian Savea who still seems to be battling with some erratic form. Meanwhile the loss of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith at centre seemed to be a mere passing footnote when you have successors like Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty ready to fill their boots. The All Black bench made their presence known through Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara and in short this was an exceptionally healthy start for the 2016 edition of the All Blacks.
On a side note, one has to mention the bizarre decision by referee Wayne Barnes in disallowing a perfectly legitimate try by New Zealand. Barnes tends to display a slight arrogance at times and is not overly liked by players and coaches. Despite the clear evidence of the replay and the advice to the contrary of his TMO and touch judges, Barnes deemed a pass by All Black replacement scrum half TJ Perenara was forward. This kind of blinkered view and subjective decision making by the referee especially once he has asked for the advice of his colleagues, has no place at the top level of International Test Rugby and we can only hope that Barnes gets taken to task on the issue before he is in charge of officiating another Test match.
Australia vs England
Final Score – Australia 28/England 39
There is no denying that on the back of their Six Nations triumph, England are looking good and Coach Eddie Jones is having a dream start to his first season in charge of the Men in White. England put in a textbook performance in Brisbane which ensured they were able to completely contain and subjugate Australia while creating plenty of magic of their own. It is unlikely that they are likely to have things go so well in their favour the second time around this weekend in Sydney, but their ability to dictate the tempo of the game in Brisbane will mean that Australia will have to up their game considerably if they are to avoid a series whitewash. Australia may have been shocked by England’s finesse last Saturday, but it is unlikely they will be caught in the same traps this Saturday in Melbourne. They let themselves get bullied by England and often came off second best in the physical battles leading to a critical breakdown in discipline, as the penalty count against Australia was their biggest Achilles Heel in Brisbane.
Despite the result, Australia were clearly getting the better of England in the opening stages as they led 10-0 and were playing at a blinding pace. The key for England was that they did not panic and held their resolve and most importantly their composure under pressure. As a result, they were able to slowly turn the screw on Australia in defence and swing the game in their favor. As the game wore on England were superb in dictating the tempo of the game, and as Australia struggled to adapt their discipline started to crack allowing a better organised England to gain the ascendancy. England seemed to read and set the ebb and flow of the game much better than Australia and as a result the Wallabies were left having to constantly try and second guess England’s game plan while their own often fell apart. England were superior in the scrums, which to be honest were a disaster for Australia. England’s set piece play was far more clinical than that of the Wallabies and they just looked a more cohesive and effective unit overall. It was a complete team effort from England with possibly the only weak link in the chain being Centre Luther Burrell. George Ford made a promising return to form off the bench at fly half as Owen Farrell moved to centre to replace Burrell. Lock Maro Itoje was his usual superhuman self for the full eighty minutes and is clearly on the radar for player of the year.
There was no question that Australia played some very exciting rugby at times and are likely to only get better for the remaining two games of the series. However, they were just not as clinical or well organised as England and at times their discipline was atrocious. The scrum was an area of serious concern for the Wallabies in Brisbane and has no doubt undergone open-heart surgery this week, along with a real need to fix the lineouts. On the positives though, Australia’s back play at times, especially in the opening twenty minutes was electric, and centre Tevita Kuridrani, fullback Israel Folau and newcomer winger Dane Haylett-Petty really stood out. New Australian centre Samu Kerevi however struggled at times to make the transition from Super Rugby. Kerevi is a promising player but his inexperience at this level was plain to see at times. Fly-half Bernard Foley, although often impressive was certainly not his “Iceman” self when it came to the kicking duties, and I am often unimpressed with scrum-half Nick Phipps and Saturday night in Brisbane was no exception.
England are going to be tough to beat in this series, but Australia should rise to the challenge. It remains to be seen if the Wallabies can get the resolve needed quickly enough to level the series one apiece on Saturday night in Melbourne and catch the English off guard.
South Africa vs Ireland
Final Score – South Africa 20/Ireland 26
Of all the results this weekend this was the most surprising and let’s face it few of us saw it coming. That Ireland were able to beat South Africa on home soil for the first time ever and with only 14 men says either a lot about Ireland or a lot about the problems facing South African rugby. We’d argue it’s a bit of both. After a disappointing World Cup, in which their chances had been blown out of proportion, Ireland struggled through a disappointing Six Nations while their clubs rarely made much of an impression in Europe. Still write the Irish off these days at your extreme peril. Despite the initial World Cup hangover, there is still a growing body of up and coming rugby talent coming through the ranks in Ireland. As many hoped it would Saturday’s match showed that there is plenty of life left in Ireland after the likes of Johnny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Paul O’Connell to name but a few.
South Africa may be beset by a myriad of problems particularly at the political level in rugby, but it is still able to put together teams that on paper boast some of the best talent in the game. Saturday’s starting lineup boasted plenty of world class names that should have made this Springbok side a force to be reckoned with. While, like Ireland, some of the big names of the past are no longer there, there is a body of talent in the making that would be the envy of most countries. Despite a new Coaching regime, there were still enough players having the talent and experience required to ensure that the Springbok side that ran out Saturday afternoon in Cape Town was a force to be reckoned with, making Ireland the clear underdogs.
So what went wrong for South Africa? In short Ireland, played a smarter game especially when they were reduced to 14 men and used their opportunities when they came much more effectively than South Africa. The Springboks looked disjointed and lacking a clear idea of what they were trying to do. The fact that they could not capitalise on their one-man advantage for a full sixty minutes is hard to believe. A lot of their wonder weapons such as number eight Duane Vermeulen and fullback Willie le Roux simply didn’t fire, and in the case of le Roux played probably one of his worst games ever in a Springbok jersey. To be honest the last time le Roux stood out for me in Springbok colors was the 2013/14 season, making me wonder if he hasn’t past his sell by date. Ruan Combrinck of the Lions would for me be a much better player to develop at fullback as he has been utterly outstanding for his provincial side the Lions for the last two Super Rugby seasons. There were some positives for South Africa in the shape of new scrum half Faf de Klerk who started well in a Springbok jersey and is likely to quickly adapt to the rigors of Test Rugby. Also lock Pieter-Steph du Toit made an immediate impact once he came off the bench and clearly had the hunger that his second row colleagues Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jaeger seemed to be lacking for much of the match. Overall though it was a poor Springbok performance that more than anything seemed to lack any real conviction or purpose. These are talented and world class players and there is little if any excuse for the substandard effort that was on display in Cape Town. It is unlikely to be of the same calibre this weekend at Ellis Park. For the sake of Springbok rugby which seems rather beleaguered of late, we hope that a wounded Springbok is a rejuvenated Springbok this Saturday in Johannesburg.
Ireland on the other hand will do one of two things, implode due to over confidence or take the rebuilding process post the World Cup to another level. What we saw from the Irish on Saturday in Cape Town will be talked about for a long time to come. Going into the game as massive underdogs, few of us, myself included expected anything other than a humbling by the Springboks. What we got instead was an inspired performance that was both heroic and exceptionally intelligent in equal measures. Ireland’s blend of experienced heads and young talent produced a display that kept the Springboks in check and having to play catch up rugby for the full eighty minutes, even though Ireland had to do it with just fourteen men for sixty minutes. There has been much debate about the red card handed out to lock CJ Stander for his charge down of a kick by Springbok fly half Pat Lambie. Stander’s hip connected with Lambie’s face sending the fly half crashing to the ground, resulting in him being stretchered off. While some felt the red card did not merit the offence, I must say I beg to differ. Although there was clearly no malice in Stander’s actions his enthusiasm was clearly reckless and therefore dangerous. This is not schoolboy rugby and at this level you expect professionals to maintain a certain standard. As a result, well-intentioned but reckless behaviour has no place at this level of the modern game.
However, despite this unfortunate incident, Ireland were able to regroup and put on a masterful display of fourteen-man rugby. Their scrums were solid, and lock Devin Toner was able to dominate the lineouts for Ireland against his supposedly superior opponents. For the most part Ireland and Captain Rory Best’s decision making was outstanding. Jamie Heaslip at number eight, put in one of those special performances that only he seems capable of when he pulls on an Irish shirt – in a word inspirational. Even winger Andrew Trimble provided some sterling service shoring up the scrum on the flank after Stander’s exit. Luke Marshall at centre had a fantastic outing with his partner Robbie Henshaw and showed some real promise for the future. Henshaw himself was a key part of Ireland’s success despite his yellow card halfway through the first half. Lastly, Jared Payne at fullback showed that surely this position must now be his for the foreseeable future as he ran rings around his South African counterpart, the ineffectual Willie le Roux.
Ireland can take enormous heart from this epic performance. Coach Joe Schmidt’s planning and preparedness as usual left no stone unturned and expect the same again this Saturday from Ireland with the added factor of altitude thrown in just to complicate matters. If they’re this good against South Africa with just 14 men, what can they do with 15 for a full eighty minutes? However, this is likely to be a significantly tougher challenge as even with the problems running through Springbok management at the moment it is unlikely that South Africa will be the pushover they were last weekend. The Irish will retain the tag of clear underdogs though perhaps by not such a heavy weighting as they had last week, but we fancy they must just like it that way and it certainly doesn’t seem to do them any harm!
Argentina vs Italy
Final Score – Argentina 30/Italy 24
We must confess to having predicted a bit more of a one sided contest here, but for Italy the closeness of the score line against one of the top five teams in the world right now must be an enormous confidence booster. A new look Italy under new Coach Conor O’Shea acquitted themselves exceptionally well on their first outing in Argentina, and as a result are going to be very tough to beat for their last two opponents this month, the USA and Canada. Nevertheless, Argentina still won the match and in so doing showcased much of the talent that is likely to make life so difficult for a depleted and exhausted French side over the next two weeks.
Italy looked really good at times in this match and were able to compete for the full eighty minutes, something which they have often failed to do at this level. Their discipline once more proved to trip them up at times, and it was this that would ensure that Argentina were able to gain the upper hand in the points tally. Italy were able to match Argentina in tries scored, but it was the boot of Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez which would leave them with a rather expensive bill to pay. Still as a first start under a new Coaching regime there was a lot to get excited about. Italy’s scrums held up relatively well under the Argentinian forward juggernaut, and flanker Simone Favaro was outstanding in the loose. Carlo Canna continued to really grow into the role of fly half and put in some very useful work with the boot which kept Italy in contention all match. Winger Leonardo Sarto and Michele Campagnaro at Centre provided Italy with plenty of spark in attack with Campagnaro continuing to show why he is one of Europe’s rising stars.
Argentina, though managed to keep their calm despite the ferocity of the Italian challenge at times. Although the Pumas execution lacked some of the finesse we saw in the World Cup, it was clear that with every outing leading up to this year’s Rugby Championship they are going to improve. Argentina has an outstanding group of players, their only Achilles Heel being a continuing costly lack of discipline at times, as seen in lock Guido Petti’s yellow card. Petti was outstanding all match which makes his disciplinary lapses all the more frustrating. Flanker Pablo Matera was his usual domineering self, but number eight Facundo Isa really stood out for me. He made me sit up and take notice a few times in last year’s World Cup, and it would seem that he is grooming himself to be the excellent Leonardo Senatore’s eventual replacement. Fly half Nicolas Sanchez and scrum half Martin Landajo seemed to find the rhythm that has often eluded them in their Super Rugby exploits with the Jaguares. Meanwhile Argentina’s backs were as always a constant source of danger whenever they got the ball. There is such pedigree already in the youngsters Santiago Cordero and Manuel Montero, that International Rugby is going to be seeing a great deal of these two exciting wingers in the years to come. Joaquin Tuculet is rapidly emerging as one of the world’s best fullbacks while Juan Martin Hernandez “The Magician” lived up to his nickname alongside his exciting partner in centerfield Matias Moroni.
Argentina were ultimately the better team, although not by much, and Coach Daniel Hourcade will know that the next two weeks will be key in ironing out the wrinkles in his charges to prepare them for their big test later this summer when they start their fifth Rugby Championship. Meanwhile Italy will take great heart from their new beginnings and be keen to keep the momentum going for the remainder of a Tour that should provide them with some excellent experience.
Canada vs Japan
Final Score – Canada 22/Japan 26
There were a lot of positives in this match for Canada and I do not want to detract from that, however, unlike many who are lauding Canada’s first outing under their new Coach Mark Anscombe, I can’t help feeling that it is far too early to be reaching for the champagne. Canada played very well at times, but ultimately lost a match in which they had a man advantage. Canada’s inability to close out big games in the last quarter once more came back to haunt them with a vengeance. Add to this the fact that Canada still does not have a kicker or much of kicking game, and we are not much better off at the end of the first eighty minutes of 2016 than we were at the end of the last eighty minutes of last year.
All that aside though there were some aspects of this Canadian performance that really made you get out of your seat and feel some genuine optimism for the future. Let’s talk about Ray Barkwill at Hooker for starters. Already a tireless workhorse of Canadian rugby, Barkwill was just superb in this match and a huge source of inspiration for the rest of his young and inexperienced teammates, as was clearly evident when he scored Canada’s second try. Prop Djustice Sears-Duru put in a massive shift and his athleticism and pace at times was remarkable. It is obvious why he has been snatched up with such relish by Glasgow Warriors. Jamie Cudmore is a legend in his own time at lock and the tender age of 37, and it is obvious that he brings a certain awe factor to the game for his younger colleagues. Lucas Rumball at flanker made a huge impression on us in the recent Americas Rugby Championship and he is clearly going to be a player to watch as Canada prepares for Japan in 2019. Aaron Carpenter, despite his unfortunate yellow card, had an outstanding game at number 8 rewarded by a solid try of his own. In the backs, Matt Evans put in a solid shift at fullback with a fabulous return to form by Taylor Paris on the wing. I must say I like the look of the new caps in the back line. Dan Moor impressed on the wing in the Americas Rugby Championship and Brock Staller looked sharp at centre alongside Nick Blevins.
The biggest problem I see for Canada is the continuing lack of an effective and functional halfback pairing. Gordon McRorie is an adequate scrum half but he somehow lacks the energy and vision needed to really allow Canada to compete. Meanwhile Pat Parfrey may grow into the halfback role but at the moment he seems to be having trouble stamping any kind of authority on the position. Add to this that neither of the two provide Canada with any kind of reliable kicking option or platform and it means they are likely to continue to struggle when it comes to asserting and maintaining any kind of authority on the overall run of play. If Canada had had this in this match a win would have been a certainty. Instead at least nine points got left out on the park. If this isn’t addressed and soon, then the last quarter of every match is likely to remain on a knife edge for Canada, and as we have seen all too often over the last two years, Canada ends up on the wrong side of the chopping block.
The squad has plenty of heart and talent and under Coach Anscombe there is likely to be a greater sense of urgency to fix the problems and get results. Consequently, we feel it’s early days to be judging Canada on the basis of this performance alone. Italy will be a huge test, especially after the Azurri put in such a credible performance against the Pumas. Mark Anscombe in his first few weeks on the job has a very long to do list. However, despite the problems still persisting in Canadian rugby, based on some of the talent we’ve seen in Canada’s outings so far this year we would argue he has more than enough to work with to get the job done, providing he can find the answers to the halfback questions.