Last weekend saw plenty of excitement as a crop of thrilling encounters took place which gave us some insight into how the New World Order of rugby is starting to emerge now the dust is well and truly settled 12 months on from last year’s World Cup. New Zealand still look the complete package in terms of depth and sheer all round ability despite their upset to Ireland in Chicago at the beginning of the month. Australia finally seem to be showing the promise that has been talked about during a turbulent year of rebuilding. South Africa sadly seem to be slipping into oblivion as a result of a coaching and management crisis of epic proportions and Argentina continue to show lots of promise but still lack the killer instinct to close out big games.
Meanwhile in the Northern Hemisphere England’s complete transformation from World Cup disaster to one of the best in the world continues apace. Ireland seem to be chasing hard at their heels as they appear to be developing some real depth, coached and nurtured by the exemplary Joe Schmidt. Scotland continue to dazzle but fall agonizingly short of the mark when it matters most and Wales remain solid and tough opposition but seem to lack the overall cohesiveness to make them world beaters. Italy meanwhile languish in rugby’s no man’s land. We didn’t get to see France play this weekend so will reserve our judgement on where they stand until we have seen them up against Australia this coming weekend.
So here are a few key observations we made once the final whistles had been blown on this weekend’s action.
Italy vs New Zealand
Final Score – Italy 10/New Zealand 68
The result here was never in doubt, we just hoped that in front of a capacity crowd of 70,000 Italy would put up a bit more of a fight in their first outing under new Coach Conor O’Shea and if nothing else there would be some positives to take forward as a new chapter in Italian rugby got underway. Sadly it wasn’t to be. New Zealand were always going to be an exceptionally tough opening challenge especially after being derailed by Ireland a week earlier. New Zealand clearly took the opportunity to give players who didn’t get a say in proceedings in Chicago a chance to strut their stuff and they didn’t disappoint, leaving Coach Steve Hansen with a formidable set of choices in how to assemble a “super” squad to face Ireland this weekend in Dublin.
Italy showed us very little of what they were capable of in this match. There was little spark in attack, with Italy spending hardly any time whatsoever in the New Zealand half, coupled with a meaningless, unstructured and poorly executed kicking game. Add to that a defence that was nonexistent and the scoreline which showed one-way New Zealand traffic was a fair reflection of proceedings and in terms of a rugby contest was for all intents and purposes a non-event.
For New Zealand the continuing development of a raft of talented players continued apace. Scrum half Tawera Kerr-Barlow looked impressive as did centre Anton Lienert-Brown, flanker Elliot Dixon, lock Scott Barrett, number eight Steven Luatua and winger Rieko Ioane. The only newcomer we didn’t really see shine as he appears to struggle to adapt to life in an All Black jersey is fullback Damian McKenzie despite his superb Super Rugby season. Nevertheless there is no getting away from the fact that given the resources at their disposal New Zealand are still boasting the most depth and range of skills of any major Test Rugby side. They will be able to field an exceptional team for the encounter with Ireland in Dublin on Saturday and as a result can still claim the title of the most complete and capable team in World Rugby right now – no argument!
England vs South Africa
Final Score – England 37/South Africa 21
There is no question that England’s transformation in the space of eleven months under new Coach Eddie Jones has been nothing short of remarkable. However at the risk of offending English supporters around the world we still feel that a sense of perspective in how far England have really come in the last year is still lacking. On the other hand the painful slide into chaos the Springboks have experienced since the World Cup is clearly there for all to see.
Don’t get us wrong we share the common consensus that England are an outstanding team and on their day could beat anyone. However, one also needs to look at what their results of the last year have been built on in terms of the quality of the opposition they have faced. Yes they won a Six Nations Grand Slam in a convincing fashion. However, Coach Eddie Jones clearly stated there was a mountain of work still to get through, coupled with the fact that overall the Six Nations this year was a poor tournament as the Northern Hemisphere sides struggled with injuries and form after an exceptionally long season post the World Cup. As a tournament it rarely impressed or caught the imagination.
Next up England won a convincing 3 Test series in Australia against a Wallaby side that was also struggling with injuries and clearly in the throes of its own initial rebuilding process. As a new look Australia’s first outing since the World Cup they looked distinctly poor and lacked a great deal in discipline, cohesion and execution. It was still a remarkable achievement for England, themselves at the end of one of the longest seasons of competitive rugby the Northern Hemisphere sides have ever seen, and it would be disrespectful to take anything away from their efforts and three masterful performances. However, they were not up against the Wallaby side we have seen this month so far which is clearly a different animal and dramatically improved.
Lastly, their win over the Springboks this weekend was yet another clinical display of professionalism, however it has to be measured in its context. The Springboks at the moment are truly dire, and it wouldn’t necessarily have taken the world’s best team to beat them – even Italy are being given decent odds against the Springboks next weekend. If anything England should have beaten the Boks by a bigger scoreline and in the post match interviews, their hard as nails taskmaster Coach Eddie Jones said as much. For us the real test of where England are will come in their final Test this year against a dramatically improved Australia. However, questions about how fit Australia will be at the end of a tough year which sees them play, for all intents and purposes a Six Nations campaign played over the mind-numbing space of five weeks as opposed to two months, are likely to cast doubt over the quality of any England victory.
Like we say we don’t mean to rain on England’s parade by any stretch of the imagination. They have been fantastic and thoroughly deserve the accolades they are getting. In this match once they began to click after a shaky initial twenty minutes they started to look invincible. The half back pairing of George Ford and Ben Youngs is back to its best. Number Eight Billy Vunipola continues to be a one man panzer division, while the England forward pack particularly the second row partnership of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes often made South Africa look irrelevant. In the backs it is fantastic to see winger Johnny May back to his barnstorming best and Elliot Daly at centre alongside the outstanding Owen Farrell is a world-class partnership in the making.
However, England were as good as they were in large part because South Africa let them be. South Africa chose to play lots of big men, but especially in the lineouts seemed unable to use them. South Africa’s presence in the lineouts was a joke, especially in defensive set pieces. Playing the exceptional lock Pieter-Steph du Toit out of position at flanker caused South Africa massive problems in defence. It was for the most part a depressing afternoon for the Springboks despite a bright start in the opening twenty minutes. They once more appeared bereft of ideas and a game plan and as usual opted to kick the ball away far too often to little if any effect. They did manage two solid consolation tries and scrum half Faf de Klerk certainly seemed to inject some much-needed pace into the Springbok attack once he replaced the distinctly average and pedestrian Rudy Paige. For us there were only three real players for the Springboks who stood up and were counted – number eight Warren Whiteley, Johan Goosen once he came on as fly half Pat Lambie’s replacement and Faf de Klerk. Fullback Willie le Roux had moments of brilliance and for the most part gets full marks for effort but at times still looked vulnerable on defence as well as displaying a worrying tendency to kick poorly at crucial moments in the game, something which his English counterpart Mike Brown was all too eager to capitalise on.
So for England a great result but one which it would seem has left their taskmaster Coach Eddie Jones less than satisfied and with plenty of questions still unanswered. Meanwhile South Africa lick their wounds and seek to make some kind of statement out of desperation more than anything else against Italy next weekend.
Scotland vs Australia
Final Score – Scotland 22/Australia 23
The cliffhanger that was the World Cup quarter-final between these two sides continued last weekend unabated as Australia did enough to close the door once more on a spirited Scottish side, in what we thought was the most exciting game of the weekend’s action. There is no question that we find Scotland one of the most entertaining sides to watch in World Rugby right now and they play a brand of expansive, fast paced rugby equivalent to that of the Pumas – making next weekend’s encounter between the two sides a mouth-watering prospect. However, like the Pumas despite all the fireworks, they seem to lack that killer instinct and skill set to close out close contests like this. Although Australia and Scotland were evenly matched last Saturday, Australia were marginally more efficient and had the composure to see the job through to the end. Despite yet another heartbreaking loss for Scotland there is still plenty to get excited about. Meanwhile Australia showed a continued improvement in execution and discipline, as well as the development of a clear and potent attacking threat which had been conspicuously absent for much of the England series in June and during the Rugby Championship. It’s still early days for Australia but the experimentation seems to be over and the results finally seem to be coming again.
For Scotland, one name dominated the headlines after Saturday. Centre Huw Jones, who remarkably was playing his first Test for Scotland, put in a performance that made him look like a seasoned veteran. Jones was outstanding from start to finish and adds even more fizz to an already pacy set of Scottish backs. His two tries were superb and along with fullback Stuart Hogg, there is no question that the Scottish attack has a significant amount of X-factor. However, in fairness to the rest of Jones’ teammates his two efforts were the work of some very solid overall execution by Scotland which once again highlighted how far this team has come in the last two years. Able to mix it with the best in attack and on defense, Scotland is a daunting prospect for any opposition, especially at home. Once again though in the heat of the moment there seems to be a slip in concentration for Scotland as emotions tend to take precedent over the clinical focus that is needed in the dying minutes of such tight matches as this one. Others that really stood up for us in this match were fly half Finn Russell who has an excellent future ahead of him with Scotland, the lock partnership of the Gray brothers and flanker John Barclay.
Once again though Scotland are agonizingly close to being world beaters, but still lack that ability to close out big games such as this one. Until this is fixed they will continue to entertain but languish in the lower ranks of the world’s top ten. With a surprising change in coaching staff coming at the end of this season, we have to wonder if Scotland will be able to keep the momentum and positive work done by current Coach Vern Cotter going once his replacement Gregor Townsend takes over. For Scotland’s sake and this talented group of players you have to hope that Townsend and his team will build on the solid foundations Cotter has built up in the last two years.
For Australia it was a tense 80 minutes but they were slightly more effective in keeping their focus and composure to close out a very tough match. Australia’s discipline has improved dramatically in the last six months, with the exception of Will Skelton’s stupidity and resulting yellow card towards the end of the match. The Wallabies scrums and lineouts have also shown a similar improvement in their accuracy and precision, though the loss of second rower Adam Coleman for the rest of the season is a huge blow. Meanwhile Australia’s attacking platform in the shape of half backs Bernard Foley and Will Genia coupled to the backs contingent of winger Dane Haylett-Petty, centre Reece Hodge and fullback Israel Folau has really come into its own, and is one of the best in Test Rugby at the moment. To be honest we really didn’t think we’d be saying that about Australia six months ago, so all credit has to be given to Coach Michael Cheika for sticking to his guns.
Australia are really starting to show the results of their rebuilding process since the World Cup and we have to admit we are becoming increasingly impressed with the results. There are still liabilities as far as we are concerned, particularly in terms of discipline and decision-making and yes we’re looking at you Will Skelton, Quade Cooper and Nick Phipps but overall this is starting to look a very promising and dangerous Wallaby side. The loss of Adam Coleman to injury though is a huge blow. His lock partnership with Rory Arnold was really starting to look promising and the two seemed to be developing a highly effective working relationship. As Australia is forced to chop and change again in this department it will be interesting to see how well this aspect of their game holds up particularly in terms of scrum and lineout stability and accuracy. We can’t help feeling it’s going to take a bit of a step backwards as for us Coleman has been one of the finds of the year for Australia. Nevertheless, Australia look to be in a much healthier state than they were at the end of the series with England this summer, and if they can pull off five wins on this tour then expect many of their critics this year, us included, to be eating as much humble pie as we can get our hands on.
Wales vs Argentina
Final Score – Wales 24/Argentina 20
We have to be honest that as much as we were looking forward to this match we were left feeling disappointed. It was an exciting match at times, but it never really quite sparked into life the way we thought it was going to. Instead we were treated to a highly physical and at times brutal contest where Wales clearly had the edge, and the expansive open game we had hoped for never really materialised. Yes there were some brilliant moments of attacking play by both sides, but ultimately there were far too many mistakes from both teams for it to be the spectacle it should have been.
Wales were the better team, but despite this they would constantly let Argentina back into the match which made for moments of tension as the game often hung in the balance. However, Argentina never really looked like they were going to take charge of the game, instead tending to benefit from errors by Wales more than any clear attacking threat of their own. The Welsh defence was much more effective than it had been against Australia and winger Liam Williams was a real revelation on attack. However, that’s where the praised ended for Wales especially if hadn’t been for Williams Wales would have had very little if any attacking play. As usual lock Alun-Wyn Jones and flanker Sam Warburton were immense in defence and centurion prop and Captain Gethin Jenkins ensured that the fabled Pumas scrum was kept in its place.
Argentina apart from the try by scrum half Martin Landajo, which was vintage Pumas, were never really allowed to open up and under immense pressure from Wales were forced into too many mistakes coupled to some poor decision-making. Their much vaunted forward pack was kept at bay and one of this year’s players of the year, number eight Facundo Isa, had an exceptionally quiet game by his standards. Argentina are going to have to notch it up a few gears if they want to remain competitive this weekend against a Scottish side still smarting from their one point loss to Australia. Scotland showed some outstanding defence and possess a group of attacking players that can rival any of the Pumas speedsters.
Wales got a much-needed win to bolster their spirits after the ramshackle effort put up against Australia, but they still look far from convincing as a unit. With their two toughest tests of the month now out-of-the-way they really need to consolidate the positives from this match and find a complete performance from a match day 23 as they prepare to take on a crippled Springbok side as their last hurrah of the month. Wales should be able to beat a Springbok side that is suffering from an even greater lack of cohesion and ideas than they are. However, like South Africa, Wales still seem very unsure of exactly the type of game they want to play and as a result the Springbok match could go horribly sideways on them. Wales should be so much better than they actually are, but how they get there still seems to be one of the great mysteries of International Rugby at the moment, even if the will and committment is there by the bucketload – watch any replay featuring Sam Warburton or Alun-Wyn Jones and you won’t doubt that for a second. However, all the heroics and committment in the world don’t often win you the big games. Ask Ireland that and until Chicago they’ll tell that if you don’t have a solid game plan in place to deal with every opponent then all the heart in the world rarely swings the balance on the day.
Ireland vs Canada
Final Score – Ireland 52/Canada 21
We have to salute the Canadian boys for their never say die attitude in what was always going to be a tough encounter with only one result. Canada played some exceptionally good rugby at times for the first sixty minutes and remained very much in the game until that point. However, once again as we have seen consistently for the last four years, Canada lost their way dramatically in the last quarter as a rampant Ireland bristling with hungry new caps ran in an unanswered 31 points. No matter how good Canada were in the first hour, and they were good, that kind of lapse of concentration and focus serves to highlight the glaring discrepancy between Canada as a Tier Two nation and a Tier One country like Ireland. As solid a performance as it was by Canada in the first sixty minutes, it is still hard to walk away from a game feeling optimistic about the future when they were essentially walked all over in the last quarter.
Despite this though Canada were worthy competitors and gave Ireland’s crop of new caps a stern test. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt will have learnt a lot about his young charges and surely must be feeling more than a little excited about the depth of Irish rugby that was on display in Dublin on Saturday. Furthermore, some of the veterans like flankers Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Hooker Sean Cronin and prop Cian Healy made a welcome return to form ahead of Ireland’s forthcoming clash with New Zealand next weekend. Of the new players, as expected centre Gary Ringrose was outstanding and proved once more the depth of talent Ireland is developing at centre, while fullback Tiernan O’Halloran’s try highlighted just what a future star for Ireland this player is, especially in a position that Ireland has had limited options up till now. Fly half Paddy Jackson made a welcome return to the form that he showed on the South African tour and Joey Carbery’s cameo appearance at fly half in the last quarter of the match proved that Ireland has one world-class fly half in Johnny Sexton and two more in the making in these two. Furthermore Ireland’s riches in the second row look set to continue as Ultan Dillane was Man of the Match and debutant Billy Holland had an outstanding first outing in the green shirt. Once the squad really started to gel and iron out the wrinkles in the second half, it became a complete and convincing Irish performance bristling with young talent. Ireland can easily field a 35 man squad that can compete with the world’s best and the World Cup is still three years away. With Coach Joe Schmidt at the reins till the end of the World Cup in Japan in 2019, Ireland looks in remarkably good health already, especially if they pull off the unthinkable next weekend and beat the All Blacks twice in a row.
For Canada, there were lots of positives in the first sixty minutes. Winger DTH van der Merwe was once again the world-class player he is rightly recognised as. His superb intercept try showed how dangerous he is along with his ability to pop up in strike positions all over the park. We thought that Conor Braid had a superb game for Canada at fly half and is clearly the way forward in this position, an area the Canadians have been struggling with for a long time now. Flankers Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie continued to impress us, especially as this is their first year in the national team. For the rest of the team however, although they were rugged and gritty competitors no one really stood out for us. The backs apart from DTH were solid but rarely spectacular. Scrum half Gordon McRorie had a good game and provided some reliable kicking options for Canada but we still felt he lacked the intensity and pace needed in this position especially when playing someone like Ireland who are becoming renown for their speed and intensity at the breakdowns. Canada’s scrums and lineouts were also distinctly average and we thought the usually impressive prop Djustice Sears-Druru was not quite up to his usual “bull in a China shop” standards, while lock Evan Olmstead is simply too much of a disciplinary liability for our liking. We don’t want to detract from a brave and courageous performance by Canada in a very tough match. As mentioned earlier there are lots of positives, especially in the shape of the flankers, DTH and Conor Braid, but there is also a lot of work for new Coach Mark Anscombe to get through before Canada take on a problem side for Canada like Romania next weekend. If Canada can get two solid wins out of their next two games this month and really take the lessons learnt in a feisty performance against Ireland, there are plenty of reasons for Canada to feel optimistic about the future.
Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of the weekend’s action, including the Wales/Argentina, England/South Africa, Italy/New Zealand, Scotland/Australia and Ireland/Canada Tests as well as some clips from France/Samoa, Munster/Maori All Blacks and Barbarians/Fiji. Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!