England look set to make history this weekend, which is all the more remarkable when you consider the post-mortem that was going on this time last year after the World Cup, as they seek to finish a perfect season in their final Test against Australia. Meanwhile we look back at some of the action from last weekend in an attempt to gauge how much the fabled gap between Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby is looking a year after the World Cup.
England vs Australia
Saturday, December 3rd
The final Test of 2016 provides us with a fitting finale to the year as two sides with everything to prove seek to finish on a high note. For England the task is to put the finishing touches on a remarkable transformation from the disaster of the World Cup and secure an unprecedented 13 wins in a row, which should see them sit comfortably in the number two spot in the world rankings. When you consider where England were this time last year this is a truly impressive turnaround. For Australia, it is an attempt to silence their critics after a roller coaster of a year in terms of results and also gain revenge for their 3-0 series whitewash by England earlier this year. Australia have improved dramatically in the space of six months, but as witnessed against Ireland last weekend this progress will dissipate quickly should they end up unraveling against England on Saturday.
Both sides go into this match missing some key players. Most notably for England it is the loss of number eight Billy Vunipola, who to add insult to injury will now also miss England’s Six Nations campaign. Meanwhile Australia are without scrum half Will Genia who due to contractual obligations has had to return to club duty in France. The impact these two players have had on their teams this month, and in Vunipola’s case all year, has been enormous and their absence is likely to be keenly felt on Saturday. With Genia and fly half Bernard Foley working together Australia looks electric on attack and centres Tevita Kuridrani, Reece Hodge and winger Dane Haylett-Petty have been devastating. Although England will be without the services of Billy Vunipola it is a superb opportunity for new number eight Nathan Hughes to really step up to the Test level arena after an outstanding season so far with Wasps. England will miss the services of winger Elliot Daly after his unfortunate red card last weekend in the match against Argentina, however, Jonny May on the opposite wing has been nothing short of extraordinary this month and his contest with in form Wallaby winger Haylett-Petty will be one of the most eagerly anticipated contests of this year’s autumn Tests.
Up front, discipline is going to be the key word, something which both sides have struggled with at times this year, however, in Australia’s case they have tended to dominate the headlines more here. England Captain Dylan Hartley seems more effective in keeping his charges more keenly focused on reducing the penalty count than his Wallaby counterpart Stephen Moore. Australia’s discipline against Ireland was poor to say the least last weekend and against England earlier this year it was at crisis levels. There is little doubt that work will have been done to rectify this, but England still look the more structured unit here. In the front rows this is likely to be a key concern. England’s front row should have the edge especially as Dan Cole seeks to rediscover the form that caused Australia so much grief in June. In the second rows, we were very surprised to not see Rory Arnold in the starting lineup for Australia or even make the bench. As a result given Australia’s offering here we feel this should be an area, particularly at lineout time that England should dominate in the shape of the exceptional George Kruis and Courtney Lawes. It’s in the back rows where England will receive a stern test as Michael Hooper and David Pocock look to rattle the English pair of Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood. However, as destructive and unpredictable as the Wallaby duo are we can’t help feel that Robshaw’s composure under pressure, which has been exemplary all year, should see England contain the threat as well as can be expected. Furthermore,his partner Tom Wood has been putting in some stellar workrates at the coal face this month. At number eight we are looking forward to seeing the contest of the two new boys, England’s Nathan Hughes and Australia’s Lopeti Timani. However, overall in the loose and at the breakdowns if Australia can keep their focus and discipline we are just handing them the edge here in the shape of the X-Men Pocock and Hooper.
In the half backs we feel that England has the clear advantage especially on home ground. Australia’s Bernard Foley has been dominant for Australia this month, but he is up against England’s formidable George Ford who in turn is allied to the powerhouse pair of scrum half Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell. Australia’s Nick Phipps at scrum half, although unpredictable and at times dangerous, simply lacks the decision-making and composure under pressure of his English rivals. Add to that some serious lapses in concentration and discipline and we can’t help feeling that despite Foley’s best efforts it’s going to be the English pair who are pulling the strings all afternoon.
In the battle lines being drawn from 11-15 there is plenty of excitement being offered by both sides. In the centres England’s skill and creativity in the shape of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph meets Australia’s strength and long-range speed in the shape of Tevita Kuridrani and Reece Hodge. Kuridrani has scored some spectacular tries in all four tour matches so far and will be keen to make it five from five in this respect against England. Reece Hodge is an exceptionally strong player and can attack from deep both with the boot and with ball in hand. Farrell and Joseph will need to be at their best to contain these two, but in terms of creativity and reading the ebb and flow of the game we hand the English pair the advantage. On the wings as mentioned above we can’t wait for the contest between England’s Jonny May and Australia’s Dane Haylett-Petty. Two exceptional players in their prime go head to head in a contest that should provide plenty of fireworks. Australia’s Sefa Naivalu on the other wing has looked impressive on this tour and England’s Marland Yarde will need to be at his defensive best to keep him in check. In this area of the park we feel it is a completely even contest between the two sides. At fullback, Australia’s Israel Folau needs no introduction but then neither does England’s Mike Brown. Although we think Folau is the more talented of the two, there is no denying that Brown’s work rate, ferocity and tenacity have been exceptional all year and it is these qualities which should see him get the better of Folau who has not been as sharp in attack this year as most feel he should be.
In short, as England ride the crest of a wave that is surely leaving them brimming with confidence, it should be England’s day on Saturday by 12 points! Although England have been under fire for their discipline and lapses in defence at times this month, they still look like a far more structured side with a clearer idea of the game they want to play than Australia. Australia will be up for this in no uncertain terms and if they play with the kind of ferocity they showed in the second half against Ireland last weekend for the full eighty minutes it could end up being much too close for comfort for England. However we can’t feel that at the end of a roller coaster season for Australia, this is likely to be a bridge too far. Consequently a spirited but weary side are likely to cave towards the end, and as the penalty count starts swinging firmly in favor of England, Australia will be left with too much to do. Either way though we doubt the term boring is likely to be used in any of the write-ups after the final whistle – so strap yourselves in for International Test Rugby’s last hurrah of 2016!
Last weekend’s action
As we head into getting ready for Christmas, we haven’t had as much time as we would have liked to chew over the events of last weekend which provided drama of the highest order, especially the game between Ireland and Australia. As a result here is our Coles notes version of what stood out for us in the big matchups from last weekend, including Canada’s own efforts against Samoa.
Samoa vs Canada
Final Score – Samoa 25/Canada 23
Once again Canada end the year short on results. Sure they have entertained, but let’s be honest take away DTH van der Merwe and would Canada really have had much to shout about in November? We still liked the look of what we saw from Connor Braid at half back and feel that he has answered a problematic question for Canada in this department. Consequently, we hope to see more of him in this role next year. In the forwards however, we seem to have gone slightly backwards despite impressive showings from the back row partnership of Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie, with these two clearly the way forward for Canada. Phil Mack continues to add some real fizz and spark to Canada’s attack as opposed to the more pedestrian approach of Gordon McRorie but it is the reliability of the latter’s boot which seems to give him more time in Canada’s starting lineup. However, as we’ve said all along, especially as the big points become more crucial to closing out games like this there needs to be more emphasis on the kind of skill set Mack brings to the game.
As we say, this is a game that Canada should and could have won, but then that seems to be the standard mantra of every write-up of a Canadian game in the last two years especially against the lesser ranked nations. Consequently we are saying nothing new here. It’s discipline and a lack of concentration/focus in the last twenty minutes which consistently kills off any kind of Canadian challenge at Test level. Until that is fixed – then sadly nothing new to report here folks. They know what they need to do and after his first full season with his charges let’s hope it’s onwards and upwards for new Canadian Coach Mark Anscombe and his charges in 2017.
England vs Argentina
Final Score – England 27/Argentina 14
Hats off to England for a remarkable display by 14 men for 75 minutes. Argentina may have been tired but certainly for a good 40 minutes in the middle of this match they seriously tested England’s character and mettle. England emerged from that test with flying colors and as a result must surely be feeling confident about their final match up of the year with Australia.
We agree there were disciplinary issues on both sides, but of the two red cards we felt that the Argentine offence was the more blatant and malicious of the two. Elliot Daly’s offence sadly justified the red card he received but unlike the ugly stamping incident by Argentina’s Enrique Pieretto, we felt there was no malice involved. You could argue that the yellow card that England’s Joe Marler received probably triggered the incident and as a result he continues to be a disciplinary liability for England, but at this level Pieretto’s response was unprofessional and has no place in the modern game. Rugby is an intensely emotional and physical game and as professionals the players have to rise above the inevitable niggles and frustrations that will come into play. That sadly is one aspect of Argentina’s game that they continue to struggle with and opposition teams know it and will use it to their advantage.
Once England recovered from Elliot Daly’s sending off they rallied well as a fourteen man unit and 14 English players heroically held off an aggressive Pumas assault throughout the middle forty minutes of the game. There were defensive lapses by England during that period but let’s face it, they were up against it with just fourteen men, and the way the bench, as we predicted it would, took charge in the last quarter enabled England to pull away comfortably as Argentina simply ran out of ideas and inspiration. For Argentina this sadly has been the benchmark of their season. The Pumas discipline and ability to last a full eighty minutes at the intensity which we know they are capable of continues to be their Achilles Heel.
For England it was a positive result under very difficult circumstances and one in which they learnt a great deal about themselves as a team. For Argentina they need to reflect on probably their most challenging and at times rewarding year yet in International Rugby as they look back on the learning curve of a Super Rugby campaign, and a disappointing but highly competitive Rugby Championship. England will use this match to really understand how to dig deep under pressure in their final assignment of the year against a Wallaby side with a bone to pick on Saturday.
Wales vs South Africa
Final Score – Wales 27/South Africa 13
With the exception of Welsh flanker Justin Tipuric, we didn’t find much to get excited about in this Welsh win in a contest that would appear to have sounded the death knell for Springbok rugby as we have known it. We sadly have witnessed the demise of Springbok rugby that has been building all year and as a result to a certain degree takes some of the shine of an otherwise emphatic Welsh victory. South Africa have been beaten by Italy this month, a side who then lost to Tonga last weekend, which gives us a sense of perspective of the lows to which Springbok rugby has fallen. It was an exceptionally poor performance by South Africa and if anything highlighted a year which both supporters and players alike simply wanted to end.
In their defence Wales took full advantage of a disorganised and demoralised Springbok unit, but despite this rarely looked like a side with a clear sense of what they were trying to do or any overall sense of cohesion. There is no denying that players like flanker Sam Warburton and the extraordinary lock Alun-Wyn Jones add a presence and solidity to this Welsh side that would be the envy of most teams, with Jones himself being a complete force of nature in attack and defence. Justin Tipuric continues to be a revelation and for us should be in Wales’ starting lineup for every match. It’s in the backs and at half back where Wales has talent but seems to lack confidence and the ability to execute play as a unit as opposed to isolated brilliance by individual players on a one-off basis. If Wales can’t tighten this up by the Six Nations, February and March could be two very long months with them duking it out for the wooden spoon with Italy, as France, England, Ireland and Scotland all looks streets ahead in this aspect of their game management.
For South Africa, it is simply a question of making the long trek home and reflecting on probably the most painful year in the history of Springbok rugby. Politics and a farcical coaching structure have destroyed the legacy of a once proud rugby nation this year. The warning signs have been there for all to see in the last two years but sadly this year has seen it all come to a messy head. There is no question that South Africa still boasts talent in abundance, but without a clear sense of where the game is trying to go and how to get there it is unlikely that things are going to get better soon. Politics need to be kept out of sport at the best of times and South Africa is a glaring example. There are likely to be endless indabas and meaningless strategy sessions over the next few months that are likely to do less to fix the problems the sport is facing and more to pamper the egos and sense of entitlement of politicians and administrators. In the meantime, the continued exodus of South African talent to Europe and elsewhere will continue apace leaving South Africa with more questions than answers.
Ireland vs Australia
Final Score – Ireland 27/Australia 24
One word comes to mind when reviewing this match, and it’s depth. Ireland leading up to and during the course of the match faced an injury crisis of epic proportions but somehow managed to put in a performance that showed just how much grit and character this side now possesses. In the last quarter of the match, players were covering all manner of positions they were not used to and yet still managed to hold their nerve and eke out an impressive win. There is no doubt that Australia’s discipline cost them dearly in this match, coupled with a failure to adequately contain Ireland’s rampaging attacks in the first half. However, the Wallaby outfit that came storming out of the blocks in the second half was a very different beast and look set to put Ireland in their place in no uncertain terms. As wave after wave of gold shirts assaulted the Irish lines, and the medical staff starting collecting overtime pay, an all too familiar scenario in Irish rugby looked set to repeat itself. However, it didn’t and to Ireland’s credit they not only held firm as players adapted to playing out of position, they then went on to score the match winning try and then hold firm in defence for the final minutes to snatch a remarkable win.
Ireland’s crop of new young players have been outstanding this month and the future looks bright for Ireland’s build up to the World Cup in 2019 and next year’s Six Nations, especially as it was the first Test season for many of these players.
For Australia, they showed enormous skill and pace in the second half, but their shambolic first half and disciplinary breakdowns throughout the match ultimately tipped the balance against them. Discipline has been a recurring nightmare for them this year, as has execution at times especially in the set pieces, and under the kind of pressure Ireland were able to exert these problems continued apace. However, on a positive note the attacking prowess that Australia displayed at times last weekend in Dublin was breathtaking, and unlike earlier in the year this aspect of their game is really starting to show some much-needed finesse. Australia received a setback last weekend in Dublin but the overall improvement is clearly there for all to see. The Wallabies will be more than up to the task of making an emphatic statement against England this Saturday, it just remains to be seen after a long hard and often traumatic year, how much gas is still left in the Wallaby tank against a determined and confident England.
France vs New Zealand
Final Score – France 19/New Zealand 24
We have to be honest and say we were not expecting this result at all. We thought France would be competitive, but were not prepared for the return of French flair that was on display at times in Paris on Saturday night. The All Blacks are still the best team in the world, especially at weathering unexpected storms and adapting accordingly, but make no mistake the French are back on the world stage in no uncertain terms. With England and Ireland looking strong, and Scotland an increasingly potent dark horse, the 2017 edition of the Six Nations looks to be a cracker of tournament compared to the rather soulless 2016 edition.
As this match wore on, this was a French side of old and the term French flair is once more not just something that misty-eyed old men playing boules in the South of France refer to. Although France displayed a slightly suicidal tendency to offload at any costs, the end result being the match winning intercept try by Beauden Barrett, we were thrilled by the intent and willingness of France to attack and keep the ball moving. It was a fitting end to a glorious weekend of attacking rugby and France are clearly benefitting from Coach Guy Noves work at rebranding French rugby and behind the scenes work with the often factitious domestic structure. For us Baptiste Serin at scrum half was extraordinary and flankers Kevin Gourdon Charles Ollivon provided some extraordinary forward firepower especially in the loose and defensively. Meanwhile centre Wesley Fofana and winger Virimi Vakatawa continue the form that is really starting to light up pitches for France.
There is no question that New Zealand looked tired at times in this match and not at their best. However, therein lies the problem for everyone else, even when not at their best they just have enough to clinch tough matches like this one. And then there’s that man fly half Beauden Barrett who also appears to be pretty handy at fullback. While some have criticised his goalkicking, we personally have found it pretty accurate most times, does that really matter when you have such a complete package as Barrett provides? For us he is such an X-factor that we feel fairly confident that in a year or two even the great Dan Carter may be living in his shadow. New Zealand have shown us this year that despite adversity they can still put it all together when it matters most and do it week in week out. They may slip up occasionally as in Chicago, and there is no doubt that the gap between them the and the rest of the world is starting to close rapidly, but they still are the benchmark and likely to remain so until the next World Cup.
If you missed last weekend’s fun and games here’s a solid wrap up of the thrills and spills provided by The Tight Five from YouTube including some excellent action from some of the women’s’ games played last week.