Unfortunately, the first month of summer caught us slightly by surprise here at the Lineout, and what with all the rugby to watch, school finishing and various work commitments we regrettably didn’t get to cover the momentous events taking place in International Test Rugby this past month in as much detail as we would have liked. As a result, we are going to have to do a quick whip round of the three major Test series participants this month, as well as Argentina, France, Italy and of course Canada. We regret that Scotland’s efforts in Japan this month have not been covered as we simply didn’t get to see these matches in Canada. Instead of reporting in detail on each of the matches we will make a quick two-part assessment of how we feel the featured countries fared in their last two Tests and what this means for the future. We start off by having a look at Argentina, Australia, Canada, England and France.
You have to wonder where all the remarkable promise shown last year when Argentina finished fourth in the World Cup has gone. Definitely one of the most exciting teams of last year’s global showdown they seem to suddenly be struggling to find form, made more alarming by the fact that the Pumas draw primarily from one team, the Argentinian Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares. Admittedly some of the big names such as Marcos Ayerza, Marcelo Bosch and Juan Imhoff are unavailable to the Pumas as the fact they play in Europe now rules them out of being eligible for national selection. Nevertheless, the Jaguares side boasts the majority of players who set pitches alight last year in England. As a result, the poor performance of both the Jaguares in this year’s Super Rugby tournament and the Pumas last month must surely be ringing alarm bells.
Although the Jaguares have shown plenty of flair in this year’s Super Rugby, it is perhaps their reckless sense of adventurism and simply trying to be too clever at times which is tripping them up coupled to a woeful disciplinary record. The Pumas this month regrettably seemed to show many of the same tendencies. While they struggled at times to get past a spirited Italy in their first outing, it was the Pumas’ lack of discipline which kept Italy in the match for the full eighty minutes, despite some exciting if slightly over ambitious attacking play by the Pumas. Argentina’s backline is continuing to provide excitement by the bucket load but at times their execution doesn’t match up to the speed at which they are attempting to play. Fly half Nicolas Sanchez remains a real quality player and directs play well releasing the likes of wingers Santiago Cordero and Manuel Montero who are truly world class. Argentina’s forwards continue to provide a dominant platform for both possession and the provision of a solid defence. However, in the forwards in particular there is a worrying lack of discipline which must be intensely frustrating for management given the clear level of talent they have at their disposal. Pablo Matera, Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini are all outstanding players, but are crippled with poor discipline and in the case of Lavanini his exceptional abilities are usually negated at some point in the match by a yellow card bordering on red. Unless Argentina fix this aspect of their game and fast, they are going to pay heavily come the Rugby Championship in August.
Although of their three Tests this June, Argentina managed to win two, the performance in the first Test against France was the only one where we really saw the Pumas of last year come to the fore. The Italian test was scrappy at times and marred by ill discipline. However, in the final quarter of their first match against France the Pumas were very much their old self and made short work of an under strength French team. Lock Guido Petti’s try alone was worth the price of admission. However, it was the second Test against a significantly more potent French side that surely got the alarm bells ringing for Pumas Coach Daniel Hourcade. Admittedly the pitch at Tucuman was in poor shape, but France essentially took the Pumas apart, and even Nicolas Sanchez’s normally trusty boot couldn’t get the hosts on the scoreboard as France provided Argentina with a humiliating 27-0 wake up call. Argentina put in plenty of effort but none of it really seemed to come to fruition and their usually crisp execution particularly in attack just wasn’t there. Lock Tomas Lavanini’s inevitable yellow card seemed to sum up a bad day for the Pumas. Plenty of ambition marred by poor finishing and woeful discipline left the Pumas in disarray as a quietly confident French side identified their weaknesses and targeted them relentlessly.
Despite the rather gloomy tone of this overview, there is still plenty to look forward to from Argentina for the remainder of the year. After their first outings together again since the World Cup and reunited once more with inspirational Coach Daniel Hourcade, the Pumas are likely to only get better. Hourcade will no doubt use the time between now and the Rugby Championship in August to really get to the bottom of what is not firing for the Pumas and Jaguares this year, and the continued schooling most of his charges will receive during the remainder of this year’s Super Rugby Championship will only aid the process. As the Jaguares are likely to miss the Super Rugby playoffs, it will mean that Argentina and Hourcade will have a month to prepare before their next test in the opening round of the Rugby Championship against South Africa. If Argentina can really address their disciplinary issues and once more discover the cohesion and vision that served them so well last year, I have no doubt that Argentina will be competitive in this year’s Rugby Championship and finish the year well on the fall tours of Europe. It may be unpolished at times, but there is simply too much raw young talent and enough experienced heads in this team for the future to be anything other than bright for Argentina.
It was a very tough month for Australia as they took a 3-0 series defeat against England. Although Australia looked good at times particularly in the second and third tests, there was no getting away from the fact that their discipline and performance in the set pieces particularly the scrums was woeful. This is an area that will require dramatic intervention if they are to stand any hope of being competitive in the Rugby Championship next month. England were infinitely more clinical and better organised in everything they tried to do. Australia simply got pushed around too often as England got the measure of the ebb and flow of each of the three Tests and ultimately controlled the run of play to their advantage. Australia for the most part simply looked desperate and without answers in all three Tests. In the second Test despite providing a continuous assault on the English lines especially in the second half, they simply could not figure out how to unlock a resolute and heroic English defence. In short, Australia provided plenty of entertainment at times but never really looked like coming out on top in an exciting Test series.
From what we saw, sadly there are more questions than answers as Australia on the back of middling performances by Australian teams in this year’s Super Rugby, seeks some desperate solutions over the next six weeks leading up to the Rugby Championship. There is no question that without flanker/number 8 David Pocock Australia lose a lot of their attacking edge and that was clearly evident after he was ruled out of the England series in the First Test. His back row partner Michael Hooper was a thorn in the side of England all three Tests but apart from some epic performances from the ever reliable Scott Fardy in the back row, that was as about as far as Australia’s prowess up front went. Their scrum was a mess, England destroyed the Wallabies in the lineouts and an endless tally of disciplinary mistakes cost them dearly in all areas of their forward play. Perhaps the only thing the Wallabies can take heart from here is the performance by Sean McMahon at number eight who by the time of the third test in Sydney had really come into his own and was helping to mitigate to a certain degree the loss of David Pocock.
Meanwhile in the halfbacks there wasn’t too much to get excited about either. Scrum half Nick Phipps was completely outclassed by his English counterparts while Bernard Foley lacked the composure that has given him the accolade of the “Iceman”. Of the two, Foley still managed to create plenty of opportunity for Australia and showed much more enterprise but still couldn’t match the intensity of England’s efforts in this department. As the Test series wore on you couldn’t help feeling that the pressure on Foley to produce miracles for the rest of his teammates was starting to take its toll.
In the backs, Australia without Adam Ashley-Cooper are a shadow of the backline we saw at the World Cup. There were some very exciting revelations however in the shape of new winger Dane Haylett-Petty who really lit up the pitch for the Wallabies in all three Tests. Israel Folau at fullback is clearly at his best at the moment and we feel he could also make an equally impressive impact at centre, however without any clear choice for fullback other than Folau this is unlikely to happen.
So although it is not all gloom and doom for Australia, especially as August and the Rugby Championship will see the return of Adam Ashley-Cooper among others, there is still an enormous amount of work to do. It is clear that Coach Michael Cheika’s initial euphoric reception by Australia and the Wallabies is now over and the hard work really needs to begin. Australia is still in the process of identifying the kind of team that they will need to take to Japan in 2019 and their young rising stars of the future. In that respect they are clearly well behind their rivals in Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa, but it still could be argued that it is early days yet. Of all the sides taking part in next month’s Rugby Championship, Australia will clearly have the most to learn in this respect but only a fool would write off their chances at this stage.
After much fanfare Canada got life under new Coach Mark Anscombe underway, and let’s be honest although it’s early days we still ended up seeing many of the same problems we have seen for the last two years under his predecessor. The inability to close out big games continued, discipline was still a problem and an erratic kicking game persisted. Canada should and could have won the games against Japan and Italy and a comprehensive victory over a poor Russian side is not really much of a yardstick.
I had the fortune of being present at Canada’s final Test in Toronto against Italy. The match was well attended and it was heartening to see this kind of support and turnout for rugby in this country. All the more reason to see the team start to produce the results that the public so desperately want. There were lots of positives and Canada were highly competitive against both Japan and Italy. The new players that really stood out in Canada’s positive Americas Rugby Championship campaign in March once again came to the fore. I really like the look of the new forwards, Kyle Baillie, Lucas Rumball and Paul Ciulini while in the backs it was great to see the return of Taylor Paris who adds so much to this Canadian team. I thought new centre Brock Staller is also someone we are going to see a lot of in the buildup to Japan in 2019 along with winger Dan Moor.
Of the regulars and more experienced heads in the squad sterling service was for the most part provided once more. Prop Djustice Sears-Duru had a stellar June campaign and clearly showed why he is such a hot commodity in Europe right now. Hooker Ray Barkwill played well in the first two Tests against Japan and Russia, but sadly imploded quite dramatically against Italy and his discipline at times let him down. Evan Olmstead is a solid lock but really needs to improve his discipline. Aaron Carpenter had a superb campaign at number eight and it will be interesting to see how Coach Anscombe reintegrates Tyler Ardron back into the squad alongside Carpenter come the November tour to Europe. For me the jury is still out on Canada’s halfback partnership. Pat Parfrey at fly half repeatedly showed his lack of experience and this is a weak link in Canada’s ability to manage big games at the moment, which will hopefully improve as Parfrey gets more and more exposure at this level. Scrum half Gordon McRorie had a fairly good month but his inaccuracy with the boot in the opening Test against Japan cost Canada dearly. McRorie got significantly better as the month wore on and had his best outing against Italy, but Canada’s relative lack of a reliable kicking game is a further chink in their armor. Furthermore, I just don’t see the speed of decision-making and accuracy at the breakdown needed by a scrum half at this level in McRorie often enough. There were times in the Italy match where you could almost have got out a deckchair and read a chapter of Game of Thrones in the middle of the field at the breakdown before the ball got moving again. I like the look of new scrum half James Mackenzie and think that like his brother Phil Mackenzie in the backline, who was sadly absent for this series, he will increasingly start to add the pace and fizz needed by Canada at scrum half as his experience grows.
This lack of quick thinking and ability to move the ball out wide leaves a talented Canadian backline starved of good ball. Centre Nick Blevins and winger Taylor Paris made plenty of dents in the opposition defences when they did get quick ball. The problem was they just didn’t get enough of it. Matt Evans is proving to be an exceptionally reliable fullback and overall Canada is looking to have some serious threats in terms of a backline. Bring back Jeff Hassler, the electric DTH van der Merwe and Phil Mackenzie and expect to see plenty of the magic we saw at the World Cup.
So in short, plenty of promise but the usual problems with finishing, execution and discipline continue to plague Canadian rugby at the International level. However, as we saw in the Americas Rugby Championship earlier in the year and at times in June new Coach Mark Anscombe has plenty to work with. If he can really gel his squad between now and November, then it is hoped that Canada will start to return to winning ways again. If Canada doesn’t get it right this year, then I fear that the considerable support that the sport is gaining across the country is in danger of waning. This would be a great disservice to a very motivated, hard working and increasingly talented group of young players who have a bright future ahead of them. Anscombe has his work cut out for him but let’s hope Rugby Canada and the public get behind him and his charges in the coming months so that the tone of this piece come the November review can be that much more upbeat!
They came, they saw and they conquered in no uncertain terms! England’s meteoric rise from the ashes since the agony of last year’s World Cup under the tutelage of new Coach Eddie Jones has been nothing short of remarkable. The resounding Six Nations Grand Slam by England earlier this year followed up by a series whitewash of Australia, 3-0, in June has got the rugby world taking England extremely seriously once more. Admittedly Australia is in a bit of a crisis at the moment, so it is perhaps still too early to judge how far England has really come in terms of measuring up to the rest of the Southern Hemisphere giants and sadly England will not play against the world’s best, New Zealand until November of next year. However, all that aside there is no denying the remarkable transformation that has taken place in English rugby since February of this year. The talent was always clearly there and under the clinical and no-nonsense approach taken by Eddie Jones, England is back on the world stage with plenty of fanfare and the results to back it up.
England were clearly the masters of their Australian hosts in all three Tests and were better organised and effective than the Wallabies in all aspects of their game. Furthermore, their ability to dictate and vary the pace of all three Tests was a masterclass in game management. Truly heroic in defence for the second half of the second Test when Australia literally threw the kitchen sink at them, England never lost their nerve or more importantly their discipline. Australia simply had no answers to every question England was able to put to them. In the third Test England didn’t let up in the intensity despite having won the series and calmly and assuredly made Australia do all the work while they took advantage of every opportunity that was provided to them. After the nail-biting tension of the second Test, the third Test provided just as much excitement as Australia once more hammered away at an English defence that was clearly starting to tire but ultimately held its own. In the end England were more clinical and better disciplined when it mattered most in a thrilling finale to an epic Test series.
Every English player on the Australian tour stood up and was counted. Perhaps most important was the fact that players who had been criticised for a poor season such as flankers James Haskell and Chris Robshaw and fly half George Ford, were utterly outstanding on this tour. Robshaw and Haskell were pillars of the English forward game and Haskell was simply phenomenal in defence especially in the Second Test. George Ford, once allowed to play alongside his halfback partner Ben Youngs with Owen Farrell taking the kicking duties and providing the vision needed at centre, came into his own and had a stellar tour in an English shirt. Billy Vunipola at number eight was the one-man army at times we saw so much of during the Six Nations. Meanwhile the lock partnership of George Kruis and Maro Itoje proved once more to be world class with Itoje clearly on his way to becoming one of the best players of 2016 if he isn’t there already. The front row trio of Captain Dylan Hartley, Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole was solid as a rock and tore the Australian scrum to pieces. I have to confess to being one of Dylan Hartley’s biggest critics over the years, but the way he has got his own discipline under control and really led his team by example this year deserves the highest praise as he has emerged a genuine leader of this England team.
In the backs England are providing excitement and pace by the bucket load. The decision to play Owen Farrell at centre is paying enormous dividends. Once more I have to confess to having been one of Farrell’s biggest critics in years gone by, but he has really matured into a world class centre and was constantly providing the vision and spark necessary to tear huge holes in the Australian defences as well as providing the space needed to allow George Ford at fly half to really shine. Farrell’s centre field partner Jonathan Joseph was always exciting to watch. It was only Luther Burrell who really didn’t fire for England in the centres this tour and to be honest I can’t really see him as a part of England’s long term makeup. On the wings, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell in particular are superb value for money. For me Nowell is rapidly developing into one of England’s biggest assets. Ferocious in attack and exceptionally strong in defence Nowell lends a real X-factor to England’s attack while often being the trump card in their last ditch defence out wide. Mike Brown at fullback provides the last link in the chain and as always was his usual feisty in your face self this whole series. While he may not be the most likeable character and his rather arrogant and abrasive approach to England’s efforts may be wearing at times, there is no denying that it provides England with a certain edginess that gets under opposing teams’ skins – in short annoying but devastatingly effective.
So is this the greatest English team we’ve seen since the 2003 World Cup? In our opinion without a doubt yes, and alarmingly for their opponents this team is likely to only get better as the build up to the 2019 World Cup progresses. There is always the danger that they could peak too early, and it remains to be seen how Coach Eddie Jones integrates up and coming young talent into this already very established looking squad over the next four years. However, given the talents already at his disposal and more in the making between now and 2019, English supporters are finally entitled to a long overdue sense of optimism. In the Northern Hemisphere England are likely to remain the team to beat for the next four years but the real test of how far this new look team have come will take place in November 2017 when they take on a settled and seemingly unconquerable new All Black side at Twickenham. We can’t wait!
There was a legitimate fear that in their two test tour of Argentina, a tired and under-strength French team would be decimated by a powerhouse Pumas squad. There is no question that the first Test gave these concerns some validity as despite a spirited challenge, in the last quarter of the match Argentina clearly tore away from a French team that suddenly and dramatically ran out of gas and ideas. However, few of us here expected the complete reversal of fortunes we witnessed in the second Test, even allowing for the poor weather conditions and a pitch that was clearly taking the strain of two back to back International Tests. It was France’s turn to produce the master class as they simply eclipsed their hosts 27-0. All of a sudden France looked really good and the glimmers of hope we saw at times in the Six Nations, as new Coach Guy Noves sought to find his feet and resurrect French fortunes and hopes after the wasteland of the Philippe Saint-Andre years, seem to be paying off. As Noves seeks to try and hold the rampant demands of French domestic clubs at bay and develop a platform that also allows the development of a strong national side, the second Test in Argentina certainly would have provided a strong case for his arguments. As a number of senior players were released for the final Test France suddenly looked a capable and potent side with plenty of emerging talent.
Even though they lost the first Test, France were still competitive for the first hour but their lack of a definitive fly half was once more self-evident as Jules Plisson struggled and Francois Trinh-Duc, although marginally better in the Second Test, was not much of an improvement. France looked good in the physical department with a solid scrum despite the conditions and prop Jefferson Poirot having one of the best games I have seen him have in a while. When you have the likes of Rabah Slimani on the bench to shore up the front row you are always in good hands and the second Test provided plenty of evidence of this. I really liked the look of the back row partnership in the second Test of Loann Goujon and Kevin Gourdon, with Goujon looking really good in both Tests and setting a clear marker for the future. It was great to see Louis Picamoles come storming back to form in the Second Test at number eight.
For us though, as he was for much of the European Champions Cup and during the Six Nations, the real revelation for France is Bordeaux-Begles scrum half Baptiste Serin. Exceptionally reliable with the boot and quick at the breakdown he was clearly the key to France running away with the second Test. Serin is clearly the future for France as they look towards Japan in 2019 and expect him to be a big part of the November Tests and next year’s Six Nations. It is perhaps in the backs where France is still struggling to make their mark. In the winger department, there is potential in Hugo Bonneval though he is often more effective at fullback. Despite the fact that Maxime Medard can often provide some genius at 15, it is unlikely he will be in the mix for 2019. Meanwhile I find Djibril Camara on the wing as potentially promising but far too error prone for my liking. France were missing their secret weapon out wide in Virimi Vakatawa, but given the fact that he is France’s only real threat at present in the back line this is a real concern for Noves looking towards November and next year’s Six Nations. Gael Fickou can provide some excitement at centre but seems to suffer from consistency issues, although once reunited with Wesley Fofana who was absent for this tour, France’s centre partnership should start to look much more robust. However, there are no clear answers for France yet as to who their long-term fullback, fly half and centres are likely to be and this must surely be a concern as it was hoped that this tour to Argentina would provide some clarity in terms of the younger players who might be able to step into these roles. There is potential but while France seem to have a clear idea of what 1-9 could look like, there is likely to be continued experimentation with 10-15 well into next year, with the only consistent names likely to feature in the mix being Vakatawa, Fofana, Bonneval and possibly Fickou.
Still you have to admit that France under Noves, after only 7 Tests look infinitely more robust and potentially settled than they did under four years of Phillipe Saint-Andre. It’s still early days and there are promising moves afoot to put the French clubs in their place in respect to a more balanced relationship to the development of a strong national side. There were glimmers of hope in Argentina that France while not rising from the ashes at nearly the same pace as their English rivals, are slowly but surely making the right tentative steps to building towards something much bigger than the humiliating quarter-final exit we saw at last year’s World Cup. France deserves to be back at the high table of International Test Rugby providing us with their customary thrills and spills and ability to reinvent the word flair. We wish Noves luck and expect to see continuing improvement and signs of optimism come the November Internationals this year.
To end this instalment we pay a tribute to an English character we have often criticised in these pages and perhaps along with the rest of his teammates epitomised the truly heroic efforts of the English defence in the Test series against Australia in June. All aspiring flankers take note and James Haskell we salute you!