The end of year tours to Europe by the Southern Hemisphere sides really get underway this weekend, and provide us with some highly anticipated encounters between England and South Africa, Scotland and Australia and Wales and Argentina. Italy also have the unenviable task of taking on an All Black team keen to rebound from their defeat to Ireland a week earlier in Chicago. From a Canadian perspective there is plenty of interest as Canada take on Ireland in Dublin, though sadly this is the only game that is easily accessible for Canadian viewers as the November internationals have not been picked up by any of the networks with the exception of this match which is being aired by CBC.
So as we always do, here is our attempt at gazing into rugby’s crystal ball.
Italy vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 12th
You have to feel a degree of sympathy for Italy as they face a New Zealand team that may be experiencing just a bit of road rage after their loss to Ireland last weekend in Chicago. It’s one thing to face the All Blacks under normal circumstances, but to face a New Zealand team that has been shaken and stirred in the most dramatic fashion is an exceptionally daunting prospect. New Zealand will arrive in Rome wanting to demonstrate that despite having their longest winning streak brought to an end, they are still very much the world’s best team. As a result Italy will be up against it from the get go and we fear a potentially embarrassing scoreline unless the Azurri can keep their focus for the full eighty minutes, something they have traditionally struggled with.
Although New Zealand Coach Steve Hansen has chosen to rest some of his more senior players for this match in readiness for the rematch with Ireland a week later, this is still an All Black squad that should strike fear into the hearts of most mortal rugby players. Italy are fielding their most promising front row, but New Zealand’s offering is still a highly polished unit and one that should especially in the discipline department get the better of the Italians. In the second row, Scott Barrett made an outstanding debut for New Zealand last weekend and although Italy’s Marco Fuser is an impressive commodity we still expect to see New Zealand dominate the lineouts and have a more stable scrum. In the back rows and at number eight despite the presence of Italian talisman Sergio Parisse and the excellent Simone Favaro, New Zealand is still packing a better overall unit in the shape of Sam Cane, Elliot Dixon and Steven Luatua. So despite some exciting Italian talent in the forwards New Zealand should comfortably dictate play here.
In the half backs once again there is likely to be little contest when you have the New Zealand duo of exciting newcomer Tawera Kerr-Barlow starting at scrum half alongside the experienced Aaron Cruden at fly half with Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga waiting on the bench. In short no contest and Italy will struggle here despite some promise being shown by the Italian fly halves Carlo Canna and Tommaso Allan.
In the backs New Zealand should completely dominate an inexperienced Italian back line. The All Black centre pairing of Malakai Fekitoa and Anton Lienert-Brown should run rings around anything the Italians can offer while Waisake Naholo and Israel Dagg should cause havoc on the wings. Lastly the impressive Damian Mckenzie comes in at fullback, and as we’ve seen in Super Rugby this year, this is an exceptionally gifted player who is likely to big a big part of future All Black development plans.
Still Italy will be no pushover and with the talismanic Sergio Parisse rallying his troops, Italy should be competitive for at least the first half. However, as the clock hits sixty minutes expect this All Black squad start to run riot over their Italian hosts. Consequently we’re calling this one in favor of New Zealand by 25 points.
Scotland vs Australia
Saturday, November 12th
Put aside all the rhetoric in the press leading up to this match about revenge for the World Cup and this should still be a riveting game and hopefully the spectacle it is being hyped up to be. Scotland will want to make amends for that heartbreaking loss to Australia last year in the World Cup quarter finals, while at the same time showing that there is some positive growth and development in Scottish rugby. Australia on the other hand will be feeling confident after decimating a very poor Welsh side last weekend in Cardiff. Australia have rarely looked the finished product this year, but in Cardiff they finally started to look a much more composed and settled side and there is no question that especially in the backs this is a very promising looking Australian team in the making.
Up front though Australia will still need to be mindful of their discipline and execution as these have been an Achilles Heel for the Wallabies all year. However, if they can keep their composure we are handing the front row battle to Australia despite the presence of veteran hooker Ross Ford for Scotland. The Australian trio have had a full year together now and should be the more settled unit. In the second row and the lineouts however we hand the battle to Scotland. The lock partnership of the Gray brothers for Scotland should have the edge over Australia’s Adam Coleman and Rory Arnold. Having said that though we must confess to being very impressed with Adam Coleman and feel he has been one of the finds of the year for Australia and as a result expect plenty of fireworks from this up and coming player. In the back rows and at number eight the pendulum swings back in favor of Australia, especially when you have names like Michael Hooper and David Pocock. Lopeti Timani at number eight put on a good show for Australia last week against Wales. Scotland will be competitive in the shape of Ryan Wilson and John Barclay with John Hardie waiting on the bench but the experience of the two Australian loose forwards should be enough to swing the balance in Australia’s favor.
In the half backs the contest suddenly evens up. Australia are blessed with the return to scrum half of Will Genia who really stood out in a fairly lacklustre Wallaby effort in the Rugby Championship alongside Bernard Foley who also was often Australia’s go to man in the tournament. Foley despite the criticism often levelled at him, is for us one of Australia’s best players and it is good to see him return to the number ten shirt after his stint at centre in the Rugby Championship. Often a key playmaker for the Wallabies when they seem bereft of ideas in attack, Foley is worth his weight in gold and his mistakes are often a result of the rest of the team expecting him to perform miracles singlehandedly. Scotland meanwhile field the always reliable Greg Laidlaw at scrum half while alongside him the exciting Finn Russell gets another shot at glory in the number 10 shirt. This is a very solid half back unit benefitting from Laidlaw’s cool head and experience alongside Russell’s youth and flair. A fascinating contest awaits here but we are giving Australia the edge in terms of experience.
The battle of the backs should provide for plenty of sparks and excitement as both teams boast some very talented attacking players. However, once again Australia’s unit which has been playing together now for the last six months as opposed to Scotland’s, which is coming together for the first time since the Six Nations, should have the edge. We really liked the look of winger Dane Haylett-Petty and centre Reece Hodge for Australia in the Rugby Championship. Both are exceptionally dangerous on attack and hard to bring down and add to the equation that Hodge has a thunderous boot on him from very long-range, meaning that Scotland will have to work exceptionally hard to contain these two. Centre Tevita Kuridrani and fullback Israel Folau are proven commodities for the Wallabies and were on fire against Wales last weekend. Scotland has their own danger men in the shape of the exceptional fullback Stuart Hogg who is a threat from anywhere on the park with ball in hand. On the wings the duo of the experienced Sean Maitland and Tim Visser will provide speed and strength in abundance, while the centre pairing of the very talented newcomer Huw Jones and Alex Dunbar should be a handful for their Wallaby counterparts all afternoon. We are really looking forward to this aspect of the contest even if we are narrowly tipping it in Australia’s favor, especially if Genia and Foley really click.
If the scores are close going into the final quarter, Australia could throw the game by putting in their two biggest liabilities in terms of discipline and decision-making in the shape of the half back partnership of Quade Cooper and Nick Phipps. If Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika has his wits about him and Australia can build a commanding lead by the 70th minute before this pair comes on then despite a feisty challenge from Scotland it should be Australia’s day by 12 points.
England vs South Africa
Saturday, November 12th
Springbok rugby may be in a genuine state of crisis but we’d still be lying if we said we weren’t looking forward to this match. England are clearly the form team of the Northern Hemisphere this year, well perhaps until Chicago, but South Africa are not short on talent by any stretch of the imagination. Their problem simply seems to be one of management and coaching. We don’t want to get into the politics of what is going on in South African rugby, but if England didn’t approach this match with anything other than the level of planning and preparation that Coach Eddie Jones is renown for then this match could end up being England’s banana skin of 2016. South Africa has some quality players through and through and we’d argue if they just relied on their instinctive abilities as talented players and relied less on the advice of an inept coaching team they would be much more of a threat. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating but there is no denying that despite a solid base in terms player talent the lack of a coherent game plan for South Africa coupled with some questionable selection decisions make the Springboks massive underdogs in this match, and as a result it is a polished and structured England side who are the clear favorites.
On a day that is likely to favour an approach based on a solid grind from the forwards as a result of the wet weather expected, England should be the masters. Although the Springbok front row has been solid this year and at times hooker and Captain Adrian Strauss has been inspirational along with prop Vincent Koch, the English front row trio of Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Mako Vunipola are masters of trench warfare and should get a clear edge over South Africa. In the second rows and regarding the lineout battles, we are scratching our heads at the selection policy of the Springboks. Springbok lock Pieter-Steph du Toit has been one of the few rays of light in an otherwise dismal year for the Springboks, and although he has also been devastating in the loose we cannot fathom playing him out of position as a flanker. In his place comes Lood de Jager, but the Cheetahs lock has long been off his pace and his discipline has been poor all year. Eben Etzebeth brings some real fire and brute force alongside him, but even he has had a quiet year by his standards. Consequently it’s going to be all about England in terms of who dominates the second rows in the shape of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes. With these two shoring up behind the front row we expect to see South Africa’s discipline collapse and them being shunted all over the park on Saturday. In the back row we don’t understand the selection of Willem Alberts for South Africa and, despite their talent Warren Whiteley and the out of position Pieter-Steph du Toit will struggle to make sense of whatever convoluted game plan the Springbok coaching staff will have come up with. Once again the English trio of Billy Vunipola, Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw should rule the day here.
In the half backs once more it should be England’s day. The partnership of Ben Youngs and George Ford is tried and tested and provides an exceptionally stable platform for England. Although Springbok fly half Pat Lambie brings some real reliability and composure to South Africa the jury is still out for us on Rudy Paige at scrum half and we would still prefer to see Faf de Klerk, even though he will be coming off the bench at some point in this match. For cool heads and experience the half back battle should once more be all about England.
In the backs, once more it should be England’s day especially if the weather is unfavourable. From our point of view the only name we are excited to see in the Springbok back line is winger Ruan Combrinck. The rest of the South African offering is distinctly average. Fullback Willie le Roux is way off his form of a few years ago and English bulldog Mike Brown is going to cause him to have a continuing crisis of confidence especially in the wet where le Roux is distinctly uncomfortable. Damian de Allende at centre has been a defensive disaster for South Africa all year as well as offering no imagination whatsoever in attack. England’s offerings on the other hand all boast class and excitement. The only variable for us being Marland Yarde who we must confess not to know too much about. However, England’s centre partnership of Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly have looked outstanding all year, while Johnny May sees a welcome return to the wing. We’re calling this one easily for England when it comes to the contest amongst the backs.
As you can see through no particular bias towards England we have handed them the clear advantage in all three battle lines on the park this Saturday. We sincerely hope that South Africa will play to their instincts and talents as opposed to a misguided game plan and surprise us. Sadly though we are not holding our breath and as a result we’re giving this to England by 15 points!
Wales vs Argentina
Saturday, November 12th
We must confess that this is the match we are looking forward to the most. Readers of this blog will know that we are big fans of the Pumas and the brand of rugby they are trying to develop. With no disrespect to Wales we cannot say the same of the rugby they are currently playing despite what we thought was a spirited and courageous tour of New Zealand in June. The Pumas have become the kind of team that France used to be in terms of flair and excitement. The side they bring to Cardiff is packed with players who can light up a pitch on any given Saturday. Wales however, will not be daunted by the challenge and when you have veterans like Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn-Jones in your ranks you know there will be plenty of heroics on Saturday.
In previous encounters between these two sides Wales have known that they will have to face up to Argentina in the forwards first and foremost and Saturday will be no exception. In our opinion though Wales will be up against arguably one of the best front rows in Test rugby in the shape of Argentina’s Ramiro Herrera, Agustín Creevy and Lucas Noguera. Creevy in his own right is one of the most inspirational leaders in Test Rugby and a force of nature at times. We just can’t see the Welsh front row matching the Pumas intensity here despite the presence of the exceptional Gethin Jenkins. Although Wales boast power and experience that is almost second to none in the second row in the shape of locks Alun Wyn-Jones and Luke Charteris, we still think that the Argentinian duo of Matías Alemanno and the exceptional Guido Petti are likely to spring more surprises. Consequently we are giving this contest to Argentina as well by the narrowest of margins. The battle of the back rows looks set to be an outstanding contest. The Welsh offering of Justin Tipuric and the indestructible Sam Warburton will be pushed hard all afternoon by Argentina’s Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio. However, it is the X-factor of Justin Tipuric and the brute heroics of Sam Warburton that makes us give Wales the nod here but what a contest. Shoring it all up at number eight, another epic battle awaits between Wales Ross Moriarty and one of this year’s best players the phenomenal Facundo Isa for the Pumas. Moriarty was one of the few players who really grabbed the headlines in an otherwise lacklustre Welsh performance last Saturday. However, Facundo Isa’s exceptional strength and ability to produce something out of nothing makes us think the Pumas are likely to have the edge in this aspect of tomorrow’s game.
In the half backs, the Welsh duo has just not been firing at the same intensity as Argentina’s. Wales Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies are solid but have lacked the spark that Argentina’s Martin Landajo and Nicholas Sanchez have been offering up all year. Consequently we expect the Argentinian pair to be more effective at dictating the run of play on Saturday.
Then there’s the small matter of Argentina’s backs, and Wales are really going to have to work hard to stop this lot. As a result given that conditions are likely to be wet don’t be surprised to see Wales elect to keep the roof open at the Millenium Stadium to try to somehow help slow down Argentina’s five powerful speedsters. Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny doesn’t seem to be at his best and neither does his teammate winger George North. For us the only real X-factor player for Wales in the backs is Jonathan Davies. Argentina however, have pace and power aplenty and with a player like winger Santiago Cordero waiting on the bench to come and wreak havoc in the final quarter, it could turn into a very lopsided scoreboard if the Welsh defence doesn’t tighten up dramatically from last weekend’s efforts against Australia.
We just can’t help feeling that unless the weather really plays a role in Cardiff, Wales are going to struggle to contain a Pumas side that is on the verge of becoming one of the strongest contenders for World Cup glory in 2019. We hope Wales will surprise us and their fans, but we just didn’t see much last weekend to get excited about, whereas although short on results this year, you can’t say that about the Pumas. They are on the verge of something big and as a result we give this one to the Pumas by eight points!
Ireland vs Canada
Saturday, November 12th
Ireland look to use this match to really develop some depth in their squad ahead of the big showdown with New Zealand a week later, while Canada will hope to provide a worthy challenge and acquit themselves with pride. Even with Ireland resting many of the heroes of Soldier Field for this match, this is still a daunting team for a Tier Two nation like Canada to run out against, especially when it boasts names like Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony. While the result is not really in doubt, it should provide a fascinating insight into Ireland’s long-term player base and a good idea of the kind of progress Canada is making under new Head Coach Mark Anscombe.
Ireland is fielding a host of new caps, while Canada sticks with players who for the most part are tried and tested. We’re looking to see big performances from Canada’s back row in this match of Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie who as two of Canada’s newest players have really impressed us over the past year. However, they will have their work cut out for them as they go up against Irish superheroes Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony. If the two Canadians can acquit themselves well when matched up against these two then you could argue that Canadian rugby is heading in the right direction. Canada however are still going to be up against it, especially at scrum time as the Irish front row unit packs down with Sean Cronin and Cian Healy, two of the best in the business. The forward battle should essentially be all about Ireland with Canada working hard to remain in contention, but a long afternoon awaits the Canadian forward pack in Dublin.
In the backs, it once again will be all about the Irish with Canada struggling to keep up. The half back partnership of Kieran Marmion and Paddy Jackson should run rings around the Canadian duo of the rather pedestrian scrum half Gordon McRorie and the talented and versatile fly half Conor Braid. The Canadians are likely to find it hard to match the speed and intensity of the Irish especially at the breakdown and if Jackson shows the kind of decision-making he displayed in South Africa this summer then Canada are going to find it hard going at the Aviva.
In the backs, Canada will struggle to match the sheer pace and breadth that Ireland are playing with in terms of their attacking game. However, it shouldn’t be all one-sided as Canada will be boasting the world-class DTH van der Merwe who lit up every pitch he graced at last year’s World Cup. If Ireland let him get any kind of space and quality ball then all of a sudden they may find themselves having to go back to the drawing board. Taylor Paris on the opposite wing is also no slacker and these are two Canadian players who would be a complement to any team they played for. So Ireland will need to keep a watchful eye here to make sure they lock down the two Canadian speedsters. However, the Irish back line boasts names that would be on any coach’s radar in the shape of Keith Earls, Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy while the impressive Gary Ringrose finally gets his Irish debut at centre. As a result we hope to see some magic from Canada in open attacking play but there is simply too much calibre and pedigree in the Irish offering for the scoreboard to be anything other than firmly in favour of the Men in Green.
There are a number of Irish players who will be seeking to put their hand up for a spot on the bench in Ireland’s big Round 2 showdown with New Zealand the following weekend, so expect an Irish performance lacking nothing in intensity. Canada will put up a brave fight and hopefully provide their own moments of inspiration, especially in the shape of DTH van der Merwe. It is a great opportunity for Canada to test themselves against a hungry and talented side of Ireland’s younger players. However in terms of quality Ireland clearly has the edge and as a result this should be Ireland’s match by at least 25 points!