There is no question that all eyes will be on Dublin this Saturday as no matter who they support, rugby fans around the world will be tuning into what promises to be the clash of the year as New Zealand attempt to redress the upset of their defeat to Ireland in Chicago. Ireland buoyed by their historic victory and in front of an expectant home crowd will look to make it two for two as they seek to prove that the historic victory two weeks ago was not just a one-off. Meanwhile South Africa will desperately try to halt their descent in rugby oblivion as they take on an Italian side that despite being thrashed by the All Blacks last weekend must surely fancy their chances against a Springbok side in crisis. For us the weekend’s second most anticipated encounter will take place in Murrayfield as two of the most exciting teams in Test Rugby right now, Argentina and Scotland, do battle with everything to prove. Lastly Australia will be keen to continue their winning ways as they take on a rapidly evolving France in Paris. In short – what a weekend!
Italy vs South Africa
Saturday, November 19th
The weekend’s action gets underway in Italy as the Azurri and Springboks go head to head with both sides desperate for a positive result. The Springboks’ woes of late have been well documented and need little introduction. After a disastrous Rugby Championship which saw them narrowly avoid the wooden spoon, their efforts against England last weekend hardly made them look a world-beating side. Lacking any clear direction in terms of the game they are trying to play and crippled with inconsistent and baffling selection decisions South Africa is struggling to say the least. Meanwhile Italy are desperate to prove that under new Coach Conor O’Shea, Italy’s days of being camped firmly on the bottom rung of the Six Nations ladder are coming to an end.
We have to confess to not know as much about Italy’s squad in this tournament as we do South Africa’s. Apart from Italy’s Lorenzo Cittadini as the loosehead prop, Italy’s front row is a relatively unknown commodity and is likely to struggle up against the experienced Springbok front three of Vincent Koch, Adriaan Strauss and Tendai Mtawarira. If Italy can be remotely competitive here then Coach Conor O’Shea will feel a sense of achievement, but it should be all about South Africa in this department. Although not an even contest by any stretch of the imagination the playing field should level out a bit in the second rows, as Italy is fielding some solid talent. Marco Fuser has looked good for the Azurri and South African import Dries van Schalkwyk is an exciting prospect. However, they are up against the formidable duo of Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit, and with du Toit returned to his normal position expect the South African duo to shore up a solid Springbok scrum and dominate the lineouts at Italy’s expense. In the back rows though we tip our hats in favor of Italy. Francesco Minto and Simone Favaro are two of Italy’s best players and expect plenty of grit and fireworks from these two and they should get the better of South Africa’s Willem Alberts and Nizaam Carr at the breakdowns and in the loose. Lastly at number eight a fascinating contest awaits between Italy’s most famous warhorse in the shape of the incomparable Sergio Parisse and South Africa’s Warren Whiteley. Both are inspirational players for their teams but we are just giving the nod to Whiteley as he has been one of the few Springbok players who has consistently stood out this year for South Africa when their backs have been against the wall.
In the half backs South Africa should have the edge, especially once Faf de Klerk comes off the bench for starting scrum half Rudy Paige. While Paige is distinctly average in our opinion, de Klerk lends some real intensity to the Springbok platform, and alongside his Lions teammate fly half Elton Jantjies who is also on the bench, these two will be seeking to make a clear statement that they are the way forward in terms of a future Springbok half back partnership. Pat Lambie should be much more assured than he was against England, and as result there is simply too much experience and proven ability here for Italy to really be able to provide much of a challenge. Italy does have two promising fly halves in the shape of Carlo Canna and Tommaso Allan, but it is probably going to be too much of an ask for them to really stamp the kind of authority on the game that Italy will need here.
In the backs, Italy does boast the outstanding winger Giovanbattista Venditti who was one of the few players who lit up the pitch for Italy in an otherwise dismal Six Nations. However, up against South Africa’s Bryan Habana, Willie le Roux, Ruan Combrinck and the exciting youngster Francois Venter, Italy are going to have to produce some outstanding defence. For us the only weak link in the South African backs is centre Damian de Allende, whose continuing selection by Coach Alastair Coetzee defies all logic. Defensively weak and completely predictable in attack he offers nothing to the Springbok cause, and if Italy are to make inroads into the South African half they will do well to target de Allende to full effect, but this aspect of play should be all about South Africa.
Italy does have some promising reserves to call on from the bench, but once more South Africa is boasting a much more threatening set of replacements. Overall, we feel that South Africa will continue to make mistakes and put in yet another unpolished but ultimately effective performance. It should be a good physical battle but once the Springboks have figured out the Italian defences, expect their backs to make the difference in terms of dominance on the scoreboard. Italy will fancy their chances and will seek to rattle an already nervous Springbok side but ultimately this match should finally give South African supporters something to smile about by 12 points!
Scotland vs Argentina
Saturday, November 19th
Next up it is a match which we are looking forward to a great deal. Scotland and Argentina are playing some exceptionally exciting rugby at the moment and possess some of the most exciting attacking players in the global game. Scotland centre Huw Jones was a complete revelation against Australia and was one of the talking points of the weekend,so expect more of the same from the youngster on Saturday. However, Argentina’s backs need little if any introduction and it will require Scotland to be at their defensive best to keep them in check even if they were relatively quiet against Wales last weekend. Surprisingly, Scotland have chosen to field a relatively young and inexperienced side against a more settled Pumas pack and the South Americans as a result will have an advantage here on Saturday. Nevertheless whichever way you cut it we expect a fast paced and fascinating encounter between these two.
Argentina’s front row is vastly experienced and a proven commodity. With talismanic Captain Hooker Agustin Creevy at the helm, they should get the better of their less experienced but no less feisty Scottish counterparts at scrum time. Still Scotland’s trio look an exciting prospect for the future and will give as good as they get. Meanwhile in the second rows Scotland will be up against Argentina’s Guido Petti and Matias Alemanno who have been outstanding for Argentina this year, especially Petti. However, Scotland’s Jonny Gray has been equally impressive so expect a tight contest here, but one that should just go the Pumas way if the Argentinian duo really fire. In the back rows it should once again be Argentina’s day as the trio of Pablo Matera, Javier Ortega Desio and the exceptional Facundo Isa are world-class. Once more with the exception of John Barclay at number eight Scotland has chosen to blood some new talent, but we feel that Argentina simply has too much firepower here. In short, the forward battles should be all about Argentina albeit closely fought.
In the half backs though it is a level playing field and then some. Scotland’s wise head of Greig Laidlaw combines with the youth and excitement of Finn Russell at fly half. This is an excellent combination which can take on the world’s best. However, as we saw last week, under pressure Laidlaw’s boot is not as accurate as that of Argentina’s fly half Nicolas Sanchez when it comes to getting match winning points on the board. The Pumas scrum half Martin Landajo is a much more dynamic player than Laidlaw but his sense of adventurism at times can cause the Pumas attack to unravel compared to the more cautious but equally feisty Laidlaw. This contest could really go either way and is almost impossible to call, as both units are highly creative and unpredictable. After the lessons of last week, and on home ground though we feel Scotland might just have the edge here by the very narrowest of margins.
However, once it comes to the back lines overall we feel Argentina has the advantage despite the phenomenal talents of Scottish centre Huw Jones and fullback Stuart Hogg. Let’s not forget winger Tommy Seymour who played such a big part in Scotland’s World Cup campaign last year and the impressive centre Alex Dunbar. In short there are no slouches in Scotland’s offering here and we are looking forward to an exciting afternoon of running rugby. Argentina though as a unit look the slightly more settled of the two in terms of time together and boast some real quality and experience in the shape of the “Magician” Juan Martin Hernandez at centre. Add to the mix the strike threat of winger Santiago Cordero, despite a relatively quiet year for the Pumas speedster, and the bruising form and pace of Matias Moroni on the opposite wing and Scotland will have to be at their defensive best on the fringes. Centre Matias Orlando looked good in the Rugby Championship and fullback Joaquin Tuculet is outstanding in defence and under the high ball. In short, a tough nut for Scotland to crack here. Given the time the Pumas backs have spent together this year we are giving them the nod over an equally talented set of Scottish players. However having said that we are hopefully going to be treated to an epic contest of running rugby.
With Argentina packing a bench boasting names like veterans Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Leonardo Senatore, we just feel that the game will ultimately swing in favor of Argentina at the death by five points but hopefully a high scoring fast flowing contest will be the end result from both sides!
Ireland vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 19th
The game that is being billed as the game of the year, looks set to top the remarkable spectacle that took place in Chicago between these two teams a fortnight ago. If you want drama, tension and, barring the World Cup, the highest stakes imaginable then this is your ticket this weekend. We were fortunate to witness in person Ireland’s heroics in Chicago and have seriously contemplated getting a second mortgage to travel to Dublin for the rematch this Saturday – that is if we could even get a ticket. As a sold out Aviva stadium in Dublin awaits their heroes – the big question is can they do it twice in a row, which against the All Blacks is unprecedented in recent times by a Northern Hemisphere side. New Zealand arrive in Dublin less concerned with revenge and more about restoring the balance of power in World Rugby as they seek to establish once more in no uncertain terms why they are simply the world’s best team. It doesn’t get any bigger than this so strap yourselves in!
There is no question that New Zealand are putting together a much more complete team than the one that appeared in Chicago with the big talking point being the return to the second row of the powerhouse duo of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. The front rows though see little change and there is going to be an even contest here. Irish prop Jack McGrath was immense in Chicago and we expect more of the same along with Tadhg Furlong providing some further exceptional stability to the Irish scrum. However, it is the sheer X-factor of All Black hooker Dane Coles that we feel may well tip the balance in favor of New Zealand, even though under pressure his lineout throws have had a tendency to go awry this year but then so have Irish hooker Rory Best’s. A very tight contest awaits here with New Zealand probably having something extra in the tank. In the second rows Ireland’s Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan are simply not going to have the freedom and dominance they had in Chicago as All Black stalwarts Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick return for New Zealand. The Kiwi duo are quite simply the best in the business and despite a spirited Irish challenge should rule the day. However, in the back row we are giving the contest to Ireland albeit by the narrowest of margins. CJ Stander was a force of nature for Ireland in Chicago and we expect Saturday to be no different. His back row partner Sean O’Brien looked superb against Canada and if back to his best, despite his lack of game time over the last year, he can be unstoppable. If O’Brien brings his A game on Saturday then New Zealand could be in for a torrid time of it. Lastly as inspirational a Captain and number eight as New Zealand’s Kieran Reid is we can’t help feeling that in front of a home crowd, Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip will be the player having the greater impact. As readers of this blog know, we are big fans of Heaslip whenever he pulls on the green jersey as a complete transformation comes over the man. He turns from a solid but average player at Leinster into some sort of super hero in green. His quiet but inspirational influence on his teammates was there for all to see in Chicago and at home in Dublin it is likely to be off the charts. New Zealand should win the forward battles with the exception of the back three and if Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has some master plan up his sleeve which is likely, the miracle that Ireland need could well come from the trio of Heaslip, O’Brien and Stander. However, it’s a big ask and until we see the game unfold for now we feel New Zealand hold the balance of power up front.
The half back contest looks set to be the stuff of legends as two of the best units in the world go head to head. New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett is peerless with the exception of his goalkicking which just hasn’t got the finesse of his Irish counterpart Irish fly half Johnny Sexton. Two of the world’s most gifted players in their positions should provide us with an enthralling contest, but it is Barrett’s remarkable X-factor especially with ball in hand that could well swing it for New Zealand. However, Sexton’s tactical brain and place kicking is second to none and if he and Coach Joe Schmidt have picked the New Zealand game apart in enough detail over the last two weeks, who knows how this will go. In the scrum half department though we think Ireland have the upper hand. New Zealand’s Aaron Smith is a truly remarkable player, but he was found lacking against Ireland’s Conor Murray in Chicago as was his replacement TJ Perenara. These three will be seeing a lot more of each other as Murray is being tipped for the scrum half position on the Lions tour of New Zealand next year. The big question mark here is that in terms of covering these positions New Zealand has the more rounded bench, with Ireland’s Kieran Marmion looking sharp but lacking this kind of Test experience. If the scores are close going into the final ten minutes and Sexton and Murray go off for Ireland we just can’t see the Irish replacements getting the better of their All Black counterparts.
The backs see some change for New Zealand while Ireland’s remain a carbon copy of that which ran out onto Soldier Field. Again an exceptionally close call here as there is little to choose between the sides. However, for us once more it is the sheer quality and chemistry between All Black fullback Ben Smith and winger Israel Dagg that could tip the scales in New Zealand’s favor. Otherwise in the centres we prefer the Irish offering of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw who clinched Ireland’s place in history a fortnight ago. On the wings Simon Zebo can provide some real magic as he did in Chicago for Ireland and Andrew Trimble proved effective in marginalizing the threat of New Zealand’s Julian Savea. However, it’s just that strike threat of Ben Smith and Israel Dagg that is likely to tip the scales in New Zealand’s favor as if these two fire the centre partnership of Malakai Fekitoa and Anton Lienert-Brown are more likely to come into their own. Once again it will come down to what Irish Coach Schmidt has dreamed up in terms of how to defend against the All Black threat while at the same time breaking the gain line, and as shown in Chicago he does have the tools to do it. However, until proven otherwise we think New Zealand is just going to edge this aspect of the game second time around.
Both teams are packing quality benches which should mean that if the game hangs in the balance going into the final ten minutes it should still end up being a photo finish. However, despite this we feel that New Zealand have some slightly more proven talent in the shape of Aaron Cruden and TJ Perenara as opposed to Ireland’s Paddy Jackson and Kieran Marmion. Consequently if Ireland haven’t pulled away with a significant lead with ten minutes to go, this is likely to be New Zealand’s day once more and the heartbreak of 2013 will be repeated. Despite wanting to see the Guinness run dry in Dublin on Saturday night because of Ireland cementing their place in the history books, sadly we feel that Ireland are not yet at the stage where they can defeat the best team in the world twice in a row. A truly epic contest awaits but one which New Zealand should just edge out by seven points!
France vs Australia
Saturday, November 19th
We can’t help feeling that Australia have seriously underestimated the challenge the French will pose them in Paris on Saturday. This is a French side emerging quite nicely from the Philippe Saint-Andre wastelands under new Coach Guy Noves. Whether Australia are more focused on the four Home Union matches for the supposed “Grand Slam” is hard to say, but we get the feeling that this is going to be a banana skin for Australia. France has a solid forward pack and some blistering backs, something which despite eking out a narrow win against Scotland last weekend, Australia clearly still looked nervous about at times. Add to this the fact that the stellar Bernard Foley is being replaced at fly half by one of Australia’s biggest liabilities in the shape of Quade Cooper, and we have to confess to being just more than slightly confused about what Coach Michael Cheika is up to. France looked outstanding against Samoa last weekend, but Australia will be a much tougher proposition and this will be their first real test of where they are at as a team, since a Six Nations and brief tour to Argentina which left us with few clues.
We must confess to not having watched much French club rugby this year so our knowledge of what France is offering up on Saturday is a bit limited. By the same token much of what Australia is putting forward is also of an experimental nature so it’s hard to tell how the two sides are going to match up. Up front we can’t help feeling that Australia could swing it in the shape of their back row and number eight combination. We remain big fans of Australian flanker Scott Fardy and it is good to see him back in the Wallaby fold. Linked to the impressive Sean McMahon at number eight and David Pocock alongside him Fardy and company should have the edge over their French counterparts in terms of swinging the forward battles Australia’s way. Having said that we still expect to see some feisty challenges from France here and with the likes of number eight Louis Picamoles in the fray there are always going to be fireworks. Inspirational hooker and Captain Guilhelm Guirado is always worth his weight in gold and what little we’ve seen of flankers Kévin Gourdon and Charles Ollivon make them look like a very polished unit in the making. However, as long as Australia can keep their discipline here they should win the day.
It’s in the half backs where France should start to get their nose out in front. We stick by our guns that Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper is just too much of a liability both in terms of discipline and decision-making, and in an encounter where Coach Michael Cheika is dealing with a lot of unknowns in what kind of side France will be bringing to the park on Saturday, we feel now is not the time to gamble with Cooper and would have gone with the much more reliable and capable Bernard Foley instead. At least Cooper will be supported by Will Genia at scrum half who is playing some of his best rugby in a long time. We know little about French fly half Marc Doussain but plenty about scrum half Maxime Machenaud who we feel can add some real sparkle and intensity to France’s game play. With fly half Camille Lopez waiting on the bench we hand this contest to France.
With the exception of Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight, we must confess to knowing nothing about Australia’s offerings in the backs. Centre Kuridrani has been outstanding on this tour but we have felt that winger Henry Speight has been distinctly average for Australia this month. However for France we know plenty about these two gentlemen; centre Wesley Fofana and winger Virimi Vakatawa. These two spell danger in block capitals and Australia are going to have to be at their best in regards to keeping the ball out of the hands of these two French strike weapons. Perhaps the only question for France here centres around Vakatawa’s defensive abilities which are said to be suspect, but with ball in hand and at speed he is almost impossible to bring down. French fullback Scott Spedding possesses a gigantic boot as well as being difficult to bring down once he too has built up a head of steam. Centre Rémi Lamerat looks an exciting prospect for France while winger Noa Nakaitaci has a turn of speed that can be impressive but often lacks the execution necessary to make the big plays as well as there being question marks around his abilities in defence.
It’s the benches that will make the difference in this match, with Australia reverting to the tried and trusted formats that have served them so well so far this month. France however are also packing a quality bench that possesses plenty of power and pace, so once again an even contest awaits here. If France click and unhinge this experimental Wallaby starting fifteen we feel that they will leave the experienced Australian bench with too much to do. Add to the mix the disciplinary liabilities presented by Will Skelton and Nick Phipps for Australia in the last quarter of the game, and we feel that France are going to surprise us all and upset the Wallaby apple cart by four points!