There was plenty of drama last weekend and this Saturday’s proceedings look set to provide more of the same, especially as the stakes for England and Australia are now mounting rapidly as they approach their own showdown next weekend. England look set to end the year on an unprecedented 13 game winning streak and the kind of perfect season that in recent years has only been achieved by New Zealand in 2013 as they go up against an unpredictable and very physical Pumas side. Australia meanwhile have risen spectacularly from the ashes of their series defeat to England earlier this year and despite struggling against traditional rivals New Zealand, showed significant promise of better things to come in the Rugby Championship. This end of year tour by Australia takes in the Northern Hemisphere’s big five, and while the results have been close with the exception of the match against Wales, Australia are once more a side to be reckoned with. Ireland as expected came short a second time around against New Zealand last weekend, but will be keen to prove that they are likely to be the team duking it out with England for Six Nations honors next February as a crop of young talent really starts to hit their paces.
In Cardiff it will be an intriguing match between two sides in crisis. Wales are clearly not short on talent but seem to lack a sense of identity as to what sort of game they want to play. South Africa meanwhile finds itself in a state of free fall this year, and the match against Wales is a last-ditch effort to try to restore some credibility to the Springbok jersey that has lost much if not all of its aura in the last twelve months. In Paris, New Zealand look to prove that their one upset this year against Ireland in Chicago was simply that – a one-off departure from a run of incredible form. France meanwhile showed plenty of signs of French teams of old last weekend against Australia and while it is still early days there is clearly a new dawn taking place in French rugby under Coach Guy Noves.
England vs Argentina
Saturday, November 26th
Argentina may be feeling the effects of a gruelling year of travel as this current squad is essentially Argentina’s Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares, as well as the side that played the Rugby Championship, but as their last hurrah of 2016 expect nothing less than 100% commitment from a powerful and highly motivated Pumas side keen to make a statement. As a result they will provide England with plenty of quality opposition as the Men in White seek to close out a perfect season this year. Despite this though we just can’t see the Pumas getting past an English side that has been one of the talking points of 2016 for all the right reasons in front of a highly vocal Twickenham crowd.
Argentina are renowned for a highly physical presence up front and Saturday’s lineup will be no exception, but then so will England’s offering. England’s forward dominance this year has been well documented and Saturday’s match sees the welcome return of one of the key signposts of this dominance for the future in the shape of lock George Kruis. The front rows should provide an epic tussle, as Argentina’s front three of Captain Agustin Creevy, Ramiro Hererra and Lucas Noguera are quality opposition from start to finish. However, they have struggled to assert Argentina’s traditional dominance in this area, especially on this tour. England’s front three of Dan Cole, Captain Dylan Hartley and Mako Vunipola however have looked the more structured and disciplined unit this year and as a result should negate any influence the Pumas may be able to exert here. In the second rows, once again it should all swing England’s way in the shape of the vastly experienced Courtney Lawes who was immense against South Africa and the exceptional newcomer George Kruis, who alongside Maro Itoje has been a revelation for England this year. Argentina boasts some real talent here especially in the shape of Guido Petti, but it lacks the experience and sheer firepower of the English duo. The back rows are slightly more equal in terms of experience and capability, however once again we feel the English offering is just that much more settled. Furthermore once you add in the force of nature that is English number eight Billy Vunipola, England should win the day here once more. However, having said that provided he can keep his discipline Argentinian number eight Leonardo Senatore is renowned for his unpredictability and ability to read the game. Meanwhile, flanker Pablo Matera is an exceptionally hard man to stop. Nevertheless the experienced English duo of Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood should still be able to negate the Pumas strike threat here.
It’s however the halfback partnership of England’s Ben Youngs and George Ford which should prove so devastating in terms of really developing and orchestrating England’s attack on Saturday. Youngs and Ford allied to Owen Farrell at centre have been the strike axis that so much of England’s success has been built on this year. If Argentina fail to contain or outhink this unit then they are in for a long afternoon at the coal face. Argentina have chosen to start Juan Martin Hernandez at fly half as opposed to his usual centre berth, but the “Magician” is equally at home in both positions and has an uncanny ability to read the ebb and flow of games to his teams advantage. Tomas Cubelli gets the nod as starting scrum half as opposed to Martin Landajo and it will be interesting to see what unfolds as a result of his partnership with Hernandez. Nevertheless it is England’s tried and trusted unit that should comfortably win the day here.
It’s in the backs where England should really start to rack up the big points needed to make the required statement needed heading into next weekend’s season finale with Australia. Argentina’s offerings here are quality through and through but have somehow failed to really produce the excitement that was so evident at times in last year’s World Cup and during the Rugby Championship. England meanwhile are on fire in this department. Jonny May has made a spectacular return to the England jersey on the wing and expect more of the same on Saturday. The centre pairing of the exceptional Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph needs little if any introduction, with Joseph showing some real sparkle against Fiji last weekend. We really like what we have seen from winger Elliot Daly this month and are looking forward to his contest with the powerful Pumas winger Matias Orlando. We feel that overall England has the much more composed units at centre and on the wings, it’s only at fullback where the contest levels out a bit more. English fullback Mike Brown is a complete handful and impressed all year but under the high balls we’d actually hand the advantage to Argentina’s Joaquín Tuculet, with the Puma being much harder to read and dangerous in open play.
The Pumas may be tired but this should still be a fascinating contest, and both sides are packing useful benches though once again we give England the advantage here as the experience they have waiting on the sidelines should give them the clear edge. Argentina should be in this match for a full sixty minutes, but as we have seen all year, the last twenty will just prove too much allowing England to run away with it comfortably by 21 points!
Ireland vs Australia
Saturday, November 26th
After a hard-fought match last week in which Ireland attempted the unthinkable, back to back wins over the All Blacks, they look to end their season on a high by claiming a third Southern Hemisphere scalp in the shape of Australia. Australia meanwhile are on a roll as they head into game four of a Northern Hemisphere hat trick so far, and they will be keen to prove that the horror show of the beginning of their season is well and truly behind them. They will look to build on the foundations necessary to take them all the way to Grand Slam glory next weekend against England and as a result expect this contest to be just as intense as the fireworks last weekend in Dublin.
Much has been written about the match last weekend, though we were saddened to see it degenerate into some rather unsavoury swipes at New Zealand and accusations of “dirty play”. In short as far as we were concerned it was an intensely physical and hard-fought game between two quality sides. As a result there were always going to be some marginal calls in the heat of battle. In fairness New Zealand’s Malakai Fekitoa got his just deserts, but Ireland were lucky that Johnny Sexton didn’t see yellow on his tackle on Beauden Barrett which in our opinion negated the unfortunate incident between Sam Cane and Robbie Henshaw. At the end of the day, both teams played out of their skins but New Zealand were simply more effective at turning their scoring opportunities into points on the board than Ireland were and as a result were the better team on the day. As the Irish players themselves have stated in no uncertain terms once the dust had settled after the match, enough said and time to move on and use this weekend to make a clear statement as to where Irish rugby is really headed.
Expect no less intensity in terms of the physical battles up front this weekend and Ireland are once more packing an exceptional front row in terms of the trio of Tadhg Furlong, Captain Rory Best and Jack McGrath. McGrath and Furlong have been outstanding for Ireland this month and we give them the clear edge over the Australian offering of Sekope Kepu, Captain Stephen Moore and Scott Sio. The Irish unit just appears tighter and more disciplined than their Australian counterparts, even though the Australian front row has improved dramatically this year. Consequently we expect to see Ireland establish greater dominance in the scrums. In the second rows, once again it should be Ireland’s day. Irish lock Devin Toner has played some of his best rugby this year and his tackle count has been off the charts, while Ian Henderson makes a long overdue return to an Irish jersey. Australia has struggled at lineout time this year, and things only really started to improve as newcomer Adam Coleman gained his feet. With Coleman out to injury, Australia still continue to experiment with Rob Simmons and Rory Arnold in the second row, though we like the look of the latter we still hand Ireland the edge here. In the back rows it is going to be a battle royale between Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander and Australia’s Dean Mumm and Michael Hooper. For us the jury is still out on Australia’s Dean Mumm especially as he normally plays as a second row and as a result we hand Ireland the keys here, especially as we just cannot understand the exclusion by Australia of Scott Fardy who put in such a big performance against France. Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip and David Pocock should be another epic contest at number eight. As good as Pocock is, as we have said all along Heaslip becomes a different player whenever he pulls on an Irish jersey and has played a huge part in Ireland’s key moments this month. Containing Pocock who was so destructive against France last weekend will be a major challenge but the Irishman is such a talisman for the rest of his team especially on home soil that we give Ireland the nod here by the slimmest of margins.
In the halfbacks it’s going to be all about scrum half Conor Murray who has been outstanding for Ireland and fly half Paddy Jackson really finding some of the form he showed on the South African tour. However, we can’t help feeling that Australia has the edge here in the shape of Bernard Foley and Will Genia. Foley has been the real deal for Australia all year, even when playing out of position at centre earlier in the year. Will Genia at scrum half has shown all the gloss and finesse of his glory days in a Wallaby jersey this year. As a result this is an enormous strike threat for Australia and Ireland’s Conor Murray is going to have to put in the biggest performance of his season so far to compensate for any lack of experience by his half back partner Jackson to keep the Australian unit in check. Given it’s such a tall order and especially if Ireland lose Murray to injury in the course of the match we’re handing this one to Australia.
In the backs we find it hard to call. Australia for us really only has one weak link, and even that’s marginal, in the shape of winger Henry Speight. However, we think that weakness is balanced out by Ireland’s selection of temperamental winger Keith Earls who on his day can be brilliant but just as easily become a liability in terms of discipline. However, Ireland’s Andrew Trimble has been superb on defence on the wings and we are looking forward to seeing the centre partnership of Jared Payne and exceptional newcomer Gary Ringrose in action. Having said that though we think that Australia’s centre unit of Reece Hodge and Tevita Kuridrani has danger written all over it and is likely to get the better of the experimental Irish duo, just look at that try by Kuridrani against France last weekend if you have any doubts. Australian winger Dane Haylett-Petty has also been a revelation for Australia and is going to test Ireland’s Keith Earls to the fullest. We have been heartened to see Rob Kearney return to some stellar form this month, and expect an even battle between him and Australia’s Israel Folau as these two masters of the high ball go head to head. Overall though we can’t help feeling that in the battle of the backs the more proven Australian unit may just have the edge tomorrow.
When it comes to the benches if the scores are close on the hour and Ireland has really established some dominance up front, it is here that we expect to see Ireland just nudge ahead of Australia at the death. The Irish bench just has too much talent when you start listing names like Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and exceptional newcomers Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier and Joey Carbery and the ever-present X-factor of Simon Zebo. Australia in our view just doesn’t have the same kind of proven firepower waiting in the wings. Nick Phipps and Quade Cooper can be exceptional on their day but can also be nightmares when it comes to decision-making and discipline when put under pressure which the last quarter is likely to provide plenty of.
In short this game is going to be won or lost in the last fifteen minutes and given that we expect Ireland to establish a solid forward dominance early on, provided they have contained Australia’s back line and prevented them making the big points up to the last quarter, then the battle of the benches should just hand Ireland a close fought victory by four points!
Wales vs South Africa
Saturday, November 26th
Two sides with points aplenty to prove go head to head in Cardiff on Saturday. Wales seem to be lacking the confidence to develop a game plan that suits the abundant talent they have in their ranks. Meanwhile South Africa lurches from one catastrophe to another as sides are cobbled together with little structure and a complete lack of any sort of game plan that utilises key players who have shone at Super Rugby level but failed to make the transition to Test Rugby. You can’t help feeling that in front of a home crowd Wales despite their problems will have the clear advantage over a confused and demoralised South African team.
Simply put we just don’t know what to expect from
Wales, and even though we could say the same about South Africa there are still some givens which we should be able to bank on. The front row battle should still favour South Africa as the combination of Lourens Adriaanse‚ Captain Adriaan Strauss and Tendai Mtawarira is still a proven unit and should get the better of the Welsh offering which has struggled all month. However, there the South African advantage starts to diminish rapidly. In the second rows Wales’ Alun-Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris should in front of a vocal home crowd dominate South Africa’s Lood de Jaeger and Pieter-Steph du Toit who seem to be seriously short on confidence despite their obvious talents. In the back row the experimental South African combination of Uzair Cassiem and Nizaam Carr is unlikely to be any sort of match for Wales vastly experienced and seemingly indestructible Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate. At number eight South Africa’s Warren Whiteley is always worth watching but Welshman Ross Moriarty’s immense power and physicality should see Wales win the battles in the loose.
The Welsh half back partnership of Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies should get the better of South Africa’s Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies. The South African duo have struggled to replicate the form at Test level that made them such a devastatingly effective unit in Super Rugby. Although Biggar and Davies have lacked some of the sparkle they displayed during last year’s World Cup they are still more of a proven and reliable unit at this level than South Africa’s pair.
In the backs, despite possessing some world-class talent South Africa have just failed to light up pitches this year. With the exception of fullback Johan Goosen and winger Ruan Combrinck, the South African offering is completely experimental. The centre partnership of Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Francois Venter holds much promise but is woefully short on experience at this level compared to the Welsh duo of Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies especially if the Welshmen get quality ball. We are really looking forward to seeing van Rensburg finally get his Springbok debut as his omission from the Springboks this year up to now has been something that has caused us to tear our hair out along with most Springbok supporters we know. The Springbok debutant is exceptionally creative and almost impossible to bring down once he has built up a head of steam. On the wings we have little if any idea of what to expect from South Africa except for Ruan Combrinck and once again it should be all about Wales in the shape of George North and Liam Williams with the latter being one of the few players who has really stood out for Wales this month. The only area where we possibly feel that South Africa might have the edge is at fullback. Wales Leigh Halfpenny has not been at his best, and despite some basic errors at times Johan Goosen has had a good month in the Springbok jersey. Close call between these two but unless Halfpenny really finds some form in this match we fancy South Africa having the slightly better day here.
Both teams pack some talent on the bench but the Welsh presence of Taulupe Faletau means that Wales is packing the bigger threat. In short in front of a home crowd the pressure will be even greater on Wales than a South African team which would seem to just want to get one of the worst years in their history over and done with and move on. South Africa will play with heart at times and seek to try to avoid a complete humiliation but Wales are just too fired up for this one and need to make a statement in order to make sense of a year that has raised more questions than answers. Consequently we are giving this to Wales by 6 points in a match that hopefully doesn’t degenerate into a tedious slugfest if the need for a win by both sides means that caution becomes the order of the day!
France vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 26th
There is always an element of anticipation in matches between these two sides even if the question of what kind of French side we’ll get on the day tends to have been answered with negatives in the last four years. However, as we saw last weekend against Australia there were more than just a few glimmers of French teams of old. Life under new French Coach Guy Noves seems to have started positively so far. New Zealand meanwhile seem to have bounced back in no uncertain terms from their upset to Ireland in Chicago at the beginning of the month, and despite France having a history of being a problem side for New Zealand they should be feeling confident about finishing their year on a high after a gruelling but ultimately successful rematch with Ireland the week before.
It’s the sheer overall experience of the New Zealand forward pack that should dictate that possession remains firmly in favor of New Zealand for the full eighty minutes. Consequently France will really need to capitalise on what few opportunities they get with ball in hand. The return to the second row of All Black locks Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick showed just how valuable these two are and how greatly their absence was felt in Chicago. France’s front row is looking better than it has in the past but the All Black trio is just about the best in the business especially when you add the extraordinary talents of Hooker Dane Coles. In the back rows there should be a few more sparks but once again Kieran Reid and Jerome Kaino just have too much experience to allow France to really get the better of them, even though French number eight Louis Picamoles is going to be a constant headache for the All Blacks.
France has some promising options in the halfbacks and we liked what we saw from scrum half Maxime Machenaud last weekend. However, the All Black pairing of Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara is almost without equal. Barrett provides so much pace and unpredictability on attack he is going to be too much for France to handle allied to Perenara’s speed off the ball in the breakdowns.
France’s centre Wesley Fofana and winger Virimi Vakatawa were electric last weekend against Australia and expect fireworks aplenty from these two tomorrow. However, the All Black back line and centre setup of Israel Dagg, Waisake Naholo, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty and Julian Savea is just such a powerhouse that despite the resurgence of French flair in attack we saw last weekend, France will simply have so much of their attention focused on containing these five Men in Black we doubt they will get much opportunity of their own to shine.
With the All Black wrecking ball of Ardie Savea waiting on the bench, we just can’t see it going any other way than hands down to New Zealand. We still hope for an epic contest from these two great rivals of the running game, but New Zealand to carry the day by 15 points!
Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of last weekend’s action, including the Wales/Japan, England/Fiji, Italy/South Africa, Scotland/Argentina, Ireland/New Zealand and France/Australia Tests as well as some clips from the Harlequins/Maori All Blacks and USA/Tonga. Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!