As mentioned after the Six Nations we had to step away from the captivating world of International Rugby due to work and family commitments for a while, but now both departments are once more under control we are able to return to our weekly musings on the International Game.
Regrettably we haven’t had a chance to catch much of the action so far other than highlights but there has been excitement aplenty. From what we can see the two standout games for us were last weekend’s surprisingly positive display of winning rugby from the Springboks against France, and the epic thrillfest in San Juan as England put in a monumental shift against a very spirited Argentinean side whilst showing that England is developing some very considerable depth in a raft of exciting young talent.
On the Lions front, Warren Gatland’s men finally fired against Super Rugby’s best team this year the Crusaders, only to lose the plot a few days later against the Highlanders. A dress rehearsal for the three Test series against the All Blacks takes place this Saturday as they take on the Maori All Blacks.
Canada was also in action last weekend but their misery of the last two years was compounded in a 13-0 loss to Georgia. To be honest we can’t say we’re feeling that optimistic about their chances against Romania this weekend who they have lost to in their last four consecutive meetings. With two World Cup qualifiers at the end of the month against the USA, alarms bells must surely be ringing at Rugby Canada as for the first time in the tournament’s history there is now a very real chance that Canada will not be represented.
We’ll be back to our usual previews and writeups next week, but this week here’s a quick look at the some of the action coming up this weekend.
Australia vs Scotland
Saturday, June 17
We have to admit that this is a great way to start a superb weekend of International Rugby. Scotland need little or no introduction after their heroics of this year’s Six Nations and with the bulk of Scotland’s squad intact having missed out on the Lions tour, Australia will be in for a tough challenge this Saturday. This will be the first real test of new Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend as he seeks to fill the huge boots of his predecessor Vern Cotter. Australia much like South Africa had an annus horribilis in 2016, and will be seeking to start rebuilding towards the World Cup in earnest this year. Although the unhappy fortunes of Australian teams this year in Super Rugby would attest to this being rather a tall order, we feel that this is more a function of an Australian player base being spread across too many teams than an actual lack of talent. Australia boasts enough skilled players to put together a formidable Wallaby side, however at the Super Rugby level these players are spread across too many teams making the overall Australian threat in the competition far too diluted.
We have to confess that we don’t hold too much stock in Australia’s forward efforts for this match, partly due to a lack of knowledge of the players making the first eight, other than the exceptional lock Adam Coleman, who for us was one of the standout Wallabies in 2016, and flanker Michael Hooper. Scotland’s offering on the other hand are all well-known and exceptionally capable commodities. The front row is exceptionally solid with props Gordon Reid and Zander Ferguson and hooker Fraser Brown who all impressed throughout the Six Nations. If they keep their composure they should be able to put Australia under serious pressure, with Wallaby discipline in the tight five being a key weakness, and as a result we hand Scotland the edge here. In the second row, we’d argue that the odds even out and is impossible to call as Scotland’s Johnny Gray and Australia’s Adam Coleman lend experience and massive workrates for both teams. In the back row, we once more hand the advantage to Scotland, as flankers John Barclay and Hamish Watson were outstanding in the Six Nations as was number eight Ryan Wilson. Australia packs some serious firepower in the shape of flanker Michael Hooper but we just feel that the Scottish trio know each other that much better as a unit and consequently should get the better of their Wallaby counterparts.
In the half back contest Australia’s pair of wise heads in the shape of veteran scrum half Will Genia and fly half Bernard Foley meet the youth and spark of Scottish scrum half Ali Price and fly half Finn Russell. Both Scots are simply so unpredictable that they are going to cause headaches for the Wallabies all afternoon. However, the Australian duo’s experience in-game management should just swing the balance in the Wallabies favor. Nevertheless, expect plenty of Scottish fireworks here. For us the potential downfall here is Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika’s continued faith in mercurial fly half Quade Cooper who will be on the bench. Sure he can produce flashes of absolute brilliance but he can also completely throw a game as well, single-handedly.
In the backs we favor Australia as wingers Eto Nabuli and Dane Haylett-Petty have been absolutely outstanding this season for the Reds and Western Force respectively. Meanwhile, centre Tevita Kuridrani showed signs of a long-awaited return to form last year, and fullback Israel Folau needs no introduction especially under the high ball. Add in utility back Reece Hodge on the bench and this makes for a very daunting Australian offering in the backs, which Scotland will be hard pressed to contain. However, Scotland packs some considerable firepower here as well in the shape of the centre partnership of Duncan Taylor and Alex Dunbar and we expect Scotland to dictate the play in this part of the field on Saturday, but overall Australia’s pace out wide should see them hold the advantage.
However, we’re going to stick our necks out and go against the pundits and give Scotland a historic away win by the narrowest of margins. We just feel that in the final twenty minutes Scotland are packing a more potent and tried and trusted bench, especially in the front row offering of Ross Ford, Allan Dell and WP Nel. Lock Tim Swinson impressed in the recent Six Nations and Josh Strauss needs no introduction. Henry Pyrgos is also a lively scrum half and we like the look of outside centre Matt Scott. Australia packs some intent and experience on their bench but given the Russian roulette nature of Quade Cooper’s form, and Australia’s disciplinary record when it comes to their forward replacements, we may well be wrong but we think Australia will have to work harder than Scotland in the final twenty minutes, despite home advantage. Consequently, as the devil’s advocate we are handing this one to Scotland by two points in what should be a thrilling contest!
Maori All Blacks vs British and Irish Lions
Saturday, June 17
As mentioned above we haven’t seen too much of the Lions tour so far so it is a bit hard for us to judge how well they are clicking as a unit. There is no question that this weekend’s encounter is a dry run for the three Test series against the All Blacks which kicks off next weekend.
We tend to side with the pundits and wiser scribes than ourselves who are predicting a narrow Lions win in what should be an excellent match. While we are more familiar with the Lions personalities involved, from what little we have seen of Super Rugby this year, there is more than enough for the Lions to be concerned about. While we confess to knowing little or nothing about the Maori forward pack and feel that the Lions offering here is superior providing it clicks, given it boasts names that are like a Hall of Fame entry for this year’s Six Nations, we do feel that the Maori 6-8 positions are going to pose a myriad of problems for the Lions. Akira Ioane has been phenomenal for the Blues as a blindside flanker this year, and his counterpart Elliot Dixon is also a name we have been watching with interest in the last few years. Meanwhile number eight Liam Messam is a regular All Black.
The Irish partnership of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray is quality through and through. While Sexton has lacked consistency so far on the tour in the fly half position, alongside his Irish stablemate and scrum half extraordinaire Conor Murray, we sense that the Lions will have an exceptionally reliable platform for managing their efforts on Saturday. However, that being said what they may lack in experience, the Maori duo of scrum half Tawera Kerr-Barlow and fly half Damian McKenzie make up for in terms of sheer skill and pace. Expect to see these two popping up all over the field on Saturday causing defensive nightmares for the Lions.
If and only if the Lions can contain the Maori back line, which given their superior strengths in terms of game management from 1-10 should be within their grasp, then they should get the confidence boosting win needed to head into the Test series. However, that Maori back line could well end up being their Achilles Heel as it packs some awesome firepower. Wingers Rieko Ioane and Nehe Milner-Skudder are weapons of mass destruction in their own right and centres Charlie Ngatai and Matt Proctor provide an almost unstoppable amount of pace and power up the middle of the field. Throw in the incomparable James Lowe at fullback and if the Lions cannot negate these threats right from the get go they will be in for a very long and torrid afternoon. Keep these five gentlemen in black in check all afternoon by denying them the ball and the Lions should win by five as most are predicting, but this will be a very challenging game for the Lions and absolutely perfect preparation for the Test series!
South Africa vs France
Saturday, June 17
Having not watched the first Test between these two, we don’t really feel in a position to comment other than superficially on the possible outcome of this Saturday’s proceedings. In short after their loss last weekend we expect France to come back with a vengeance to spice up the series and set the stage of a series finale in the Third Test. However, one has to temper that with the fact that France traditionally do poorly on tour in June after their exceptionally long domestic season. On the flip side they turned in a huge performance in the second Test last year against Argentina to tie the series 1 all, so we have a hunch we may see the same this Saturday. France are a much better side with Guy Noves in charge than during the misery of the Philippe Saint-Andre years.
For us the standout players in a solid French squad for this match are prop Rabah Slimani, Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, flanker Kevin Gourdon and number eight Louis Picamoles. These four have been consistently reliable for France under Noves’ tutelage and should help France get some dominance up front on Saturday. That being said however, South Africa’s forward pack will take some beating. The second row partnership of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert is a force of nature provided Etzebeth can keep his temper and discipline under control. Meanwhile Captain and number eight Warren Whiteley has been for us one of South Africa’s best players in recent years and an inspirational leader.
In the half back contests the two sides are relatively even, although we are still puzzled by the continued French selection of Francois Trinh-Duc at fly half at Test level. However, scrum half Baptiste Serin possesses some truly extraordinary skills and is going to be a handful for South Africa and his Springbok counterpart Ross Cronje. In short an even contest here.
In the backs we can’t help feeling that it should be France’s day here once more by the narrowest of margins. Winger Virimi Vakatawa is a force of nature and now that his defensive game is so much better, he is a seriously potent weapon of attack for France. Centre Gael Fickou has impressed continually over the last 12 months and winger Yoann Huget and fullback Scott Spedding are both powerful and bruising ball carriers. We’re looking forward to seeing Springbok fly half Dillyn Leyds off the bench along with lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, but overall can’t help feeling that this is France’s game to lose and South Africa’s to win. France by two points!
Argentina versus England
Saturday, June 17
If this game provides only half the excitement that last Saturday’s encounter between these two put on show, it will still be a spectacle worthy of the name. Having only been treated to the highlights below, much like the South African game we don’t really feel we’re in much of a position to shed much light on the outcome. What we do feel though is that Argentina are well up to the challenge, but the sheer coaching skills available to England under Eddie Jones tenure and the young talent at his disposal will just see them through at the end. Argentina will throw everything they have at this match and they are more than capable of tying the series 1 all. Either way expect a match with everything to play for both sides and fireworks aplenty. However, we fancy England’s chances by 3!
Canada vs Romania
Saturday, June 17
We hate to say it, but we can’t help feeling that it’s going to be another long and painful afternoon for a Canadian team struggling to find shape and direction this Saturday in Edmonton. This is do or die stuff for Canada as they desperately seek to avoid slipping further down the rankings from their worst ever position of 23rd in the world, and a confidence boosting win ahead of their two World Cup qualifiers with the United States this summer. However, it is not going to be easy as Romania have proven to be a major banana skin for Canada in their last four meetings. We don’t deny there is some considerable talent available to Canada in the shape of some of Coach Mark Anscombe’s young charges but it simply hasn’t gelled as a unit and has consistently displayed a naiveté on the pitch that continues to hold them back in terms of potential. We’d like to be pleasantly surprised on Saturday but can’t help feeling that Romania are going to be the source of further misery for Canada once more and the men in yellow to come out on top by four points!