Yes after much hype, anticipation and a few anxious opening weeks, the main event of the June Test calendar finally gets underway as the British and Irish Lions play the first of three Tests against the best in the world – New Zealand’s All Blacks. Whether or not this tour has been overblown remains to be seen but like the vast majority of rugby fans around the world we’d be lying if we said we weren’t looking forward to it. Meanwhile in addition to the Lions tour there are also some excellent additional Tests being played this weekend, as for the rest of the world the June Test window draws to a close. In South Africa a dramatically rejuvenated Springbok side seek to clinch a series whitewash of France in the last of a three Test series. In Australia, a Wallaby side in the depths of a confidence crisis and seemingly abandoned by many of their fans, seeks to salvage some pride against Italy after being dismantled by a superb Scottish team the week before. Lastly Canada who are in danger of being consigned to rugby oblivion, play the first of two do or die World Cup qualifiers against the USA.
There is also action between Japan and Ireland, Argentina and Georgia and Scotland and Fiji but there is a limit to what we can realistically cover. So here are our crystal ball musings on the three big events this weekend from our perspective.
New Zealand vs British and Irish Lions
Saturday, June 24th
Our money is still on the second Test being the ultimate showdown of the series, but we like most are still eagerly looking forward to Saturday’s proceedings in Auckland. The All Blacks will likely be trying to find their rhythm in their first big Test of the year while the Lions will also be settling into their stride for the first of three very daunting Tests. As a result we feel that based on form, it is going to be the All Blacks who are likely to figure out the mechanics of this series quicker than the Lions, especially in front of the Eden Park faithful. However, aside from the inevitable teething problems for both sides, this still should be a riveting contest.
Much like the game against the Maori All Blacks, the Lions are going to have to ensure that New Zealand’s back line is denied any kind of opportunity and ball in open space. However, unlike against the Maori All Blacks achieving this kind of dominance from 1-10 will not be as easy though it is well within the realm of possibility. Against the Maori, the Lions scrum was able to achieve the upper hand with relative ease, and while they are packing an awesome unit in the shape of props Mako Vunipola and Tadhg Furlong, they are likely to meet their match up against New Zealand’s Owen Franks and Ben Moody. Meanwhile the Hooker duties are on a parity as two relative youngsters face off against each other in Jamie George for the Lions and Codie Taylor for the All Blacks. Although New Zealand are without the services of legendary hooker and “support winger” Dane Coles, Codie Taylor is no stranger to the big stage and has put in some impressive performances off the bench for New Zealand. As a result given the experience of the New Zealand front row we are handing them the edge here on Saturday. In the second row, despite the outstanding abilities of George Kruis and the never say die attitude of his Welsh colleague Alun-Wyn Jones, all the talk stops once you look at the track record of the New Zealand duo of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. The New Zealand pair have been so devastatingly effective in the last few years that it is going to take a superhuman effort from the Lions to negate their influence on proceedings, something we feel they just won’t be able to do on Saturday, especially as they settle their opening night nerves. So once again we hand the battle here to New Zealand. However, when it comes to the back row our money is on the Lions trio. The All Blacks offering contains some seriously big names, but the Lions are likely to have a better sense of cohesion and destructive ability here. Lions flankers Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien are no strangers to each other after their exploits together for Ireland, and with O’Mahony’s contained rage being used in the Captaincy role alongside O’Brien’s ball carrying ability we can’t help feeling that they are going to make it hard going for New Zealand’s Sam Cane and Jerome Kaino. At number eight New Zealand’s Kieran Read needs no introduction but is only just returning to form after injury while the Lions Taulupe Faletau has played some of his best rugby this year and was one of the standout players of a hit and miss Six Nations campaign by Wales.
In the half back contests two contrasting styles go head to head. Owen Farrell’s game management abilities at fly half need no introduction for the Lions, but he does not have the sheer creativity, vision and ball carrying ability of his All Black counterpart Beauden Barrett. Barrett has proven that he can strike from anywhere on the park and cross the white line to boot. While his goal kicking lacks accuracy at times, Farrell has also had the same problem on occasion on this tour. Consequently, given Barrett’s dazzling skill set, we expect New Zealand to have the means to constantly have the Lions second guessing themselves. Farrell has an admirable head on his shoulders but Barrett remains in a class of his own, and just keeps getting better. At scrum half, we have to give the nod to the Lions and Conor Murray. Aaron Smith for New Zealand is one of the best in the world, but Murray got the better of him when the two met in Chicago last year, and in general Murray has the kind of quick thinking and elusiveness that Barrett displays at fly half for New Zealand. It will be close but we can’t help feeling on this opening run out for both sides, that the New Zealand duo will have the better afternoon and be better equipped to provide more in the way of surprises to wrong foot Lion defences.
In the backs, we feel that New Zealand have the clear edge. We only really see one weakness in the shape of centre Sonny Bill Williams. When he’s good he’s unstoppable, and there has been plenty of evidence of this over the years. The problem tends to be that his form can be erratic. Brilliant the one day, nonexistent and error-strewn the next. However, the question marks stop there in terms of the rest of New Zealand’s offerings from 11-15. Newcomer Rieko Ioane has looked electric with ball in hand this season for the Blues in Super Rugby, while centre Ryan Crotty was outstanding last year for the All Blacks. Winger Israel Dagg and fullback Ben Smith are absolutely devastating as well as being completely interchangeable, with Smith being able to read the game like no other. The Lions offering by comparison, although impressive simply does not match up in terms of calibre as well as operating together as a cohesive unit. Centres Jonathan Davies and Ben Te’o have little game time together, although Te’o has been an exceptional ball carrier on the series so far and proved very difficult to bring down. Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson have speed aplenty on the wings and have good defensive abilities, while Liam Williams was one of the shining lights of Wales’ recent Six Nations campaign. However, as good as these five are they simply don’t have the familiarity, pace and skill sets of their All Black counterparts. As a result we hand the battle of the backs to the All Blacks and if the Lions cannot smother the ball away from these five then they will be in for a long and torrid afternoon.
Off the benches once again, we feel that New Zealand has the superior set of weapons once bodies and legs start to tire, particularly in terms of being able to open up the game. The Lions are likely to have a more effective set of front row replacements in the shape of Ken Owens, Jack McGrath and Kyle Sinckler, but in the loose New Zealand’s Scott Barrett and the incomparable Ardie Savea are going to give the Lions a massive headache in the final quarter. The Lions will take some heart in the impact that Maro Itoje can bring from the bench but New Zealand should still have the edge here. With TJ Perenara waiting to take over the scrum half duties from Aaron Smith, we just don’t feel that Rhys Webb is of the same calibre for the Lions. Johnny Sexton could be a game changer for the Lions, provided the Lions are not trying to play catch up rugby. However, New Zealand will have Aaron Cruden and Anton Liennert-Brown waiting to come on who in our opinion are exceptional, especially Liennert-Brown who really impressed in his debut last year with the All Blacks. For the Lions we can’t really see Leigh Halfpenny adding much spark to a Lions effort that is likely going to need some serious creativity in the final twenty minutes, as opposed to a reliable boot which is Halfpenny’s key asset and sadly one which seems to have deserted him at times of late especially under pressure.
It is likely going to be close with the Lions possibly even having the upper hand for the first hour, as they seek to keep the ball close and out of the hands of the All Black magicians in the backs and danger man Beauden Barrett. However, in an intensely physical and frenetic contest, New Zealand’s more dynamic and versatile bench will ultimately make the difference in the final twenty allowing New Zealand to pull ahead by 12 points at the final whistle!
South Africa vs France
Saturday, June 24th
We have to confess to being enthralled by the Springbok performance last weekend against France. There were some outstanding contributions from the whole team, but for us one individual embodied the dramatic return to form of the Springboks – flanker Siya Kolisi. The man was everywhere and played like a man possessed. As we say it was a complete performance but there were so many individual efforts that stood out, as 23 players set out to collectively and individually right the wrongs and tribulations of 2016. French end of season touring teams are renowned for not having that much gas left in the tank after one of the longest and most gruelling domestic competitions in world rugby, however, under new Coach Guy Noves they are no longer dead on their feet and are still able to provide a worthy challenge.
However, the first two Tests of this series have been all about South Africa. They seem to have found a sense of purpose that was lacking last year as well as a game plan that is allowing them to break out of the mold of traditional Springbok styles of play. The core strength of a big powerful forward pack is still there, but it is now coupled once more to some explosive running and ball carrying in the loose as evidenced by Kolisi’s efforts last week.
Having said that France will still be up for this final Test even though the series has gone to South Africa. France will play for pride and the fact that there is a great deal of respect between the players and Coach Guy Noves so that they will seek to end the tour on a high, despite the obvious challenge of trying to overcome a rampant Springbok side on the hallowed turf of Ellis Park.
We feel that after last week and looking at the Springbok selection for the front row, providing the French front row can keep their puff for 80 minutes, France might just have the edge here on Saturday. Prop Rabah Slimani put in a superb shift at the coal face last weekend and expect more of the same this week and Hooker Guilhem Guirado will continue to provide inspiration and a phenomenal work rate. They will be evenly matched by South Africa’s Tendai Mtawarira and Malcolm Marx. We felt Marx had an extraordinary game for South Africa last weekend and the big Hooker will be keen to make his mark again this weekend. However, of late we have found Mtawarira has not always been at his best, despite his legendary abilities and it remains to be seen what kind of performance South Africa gets out of him on Saturday. In the second row, we see South Africa once more winning the contest hands down in the shape of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert. Once again Mostert was outstanding last weekend, and we have been sitting up and taking notice of this player for the last two years and are delighted to see him getting the recognition he deserves. Once again in the back row the contest should be all about South Africa, especially based on what we saw last weekend. Flanker Siya Kolisi’s performance in the second Test was off the charts and we were extremely impressed by the shift that Jean-Luc du Preez put in once he replaced Teboho Mohoje. The partnership between du Preez and Kolisi should be exciting to watch. France’s Kevin Gourdon is always a force to be reckoned with but there was no question that he was struggling to keep up with his Springbok counterparts last weekend. At number eight France’s Louis Picamoles is one of the best in the game and will want to make a statement in this final match of the season, but his Springbok counterpart Warren Whiteley is really coming into his own as a leader and a source of inspiration to the rest of his team.
In terms of a half back contest, it should be a relatively even match up. At scrum half we feel that France has the edge in terms of creativity in the shape of Baptiste Serin, who has shown some exceptional ball handling and passing skills. South Africa’s Francois Hougaard has never been one of our favorites as we simply find him far too mercurial. Brilliant one day and tactically inept the next we feel that he could be a liability for South Africa under pressure. However, at fly half South Africa should assume the ascendancy through Elton Jantjies. Jantjies has been instrumental in South Africa’s winning performances in the first two Tests and has proved exceptionally reliable with the boot. France’s Jules Plisson for us just does not make the grade. Plisson boasts plenty of potential but seems to struggle with both pressure and discipline, areas that will be put to the test continually on Saturday. As a result we feel that on home soil, South Africa should clearly dictate proceedings, despite what moments of magic Serin may be able to create for France.
In the backs, we can’t see too much to get excited about for France with two notable exceptions. Winger Virimi Vakatawa and Centre Damian Penaud are both potent weapons for France, and Penaud in particular really stood out for France last weekend and bagged a fine try of his own. However, the South African set of backs is bristling with talent. Andries Coetzee had a superb game at fullback last weekend, and we like the look of Raymond Rhule and Courtnall Skosan on the wings. Meanwhile, Jan Serfontein had a blinder of a game at centre last weekend and partnered with Jessie Kriel this Saturday should be able to provide plenty of sparks in the midfield.
South Africa’s bench once more outclasses the French offering with the two standout names being flanker Jaco Kriel and second rower Pieter-Steph du Toit, both of whom can singlehandedly change the ebb and flow of a game. France may be tired and will struggle with the infamous Joburg altitude but there is no question they will show up. South Africa however are on a roll and a series whitewash would have an enormous impact on restoring some much-needed pride to the Springbok jersey which ended 2016 rather torn and frayed. Consequently we give this contest to South Africa by 15 points!
Canada vs USA
Saturday, June 24th
Canada’s June series so far has, in simple terms, been a disaster. But let’s be honest one could also say the same of the Americas Rugby Championship earlier this year. Canadian senior men’s rugby is in a state of crisis at the moment, and probably at one of the lowest points in its history. This is not helped by the fact that Canada is currently ranked 23rd in the world and in danger of not even qualifying for the World Cup in Japan in 2019 – a first in the tournament’s history. From what we saw of Canada’s first two Tests this summer against Georgia and Romania, we can’t say that we’re feeling much optimism about these two games against the USA which Canada simply have to win if any kind of progress back from the rapidly looming abyss is to be taken. There is some talent in the team make no mistake, but they seem directionless, ill-disciplined and their execution of some of rugby’s most basic skills seems woefully inaccurate at times. Canada’s ability to hang onto the ball under pressure coupled with an exceptionally naive kicking game is simply killing off any momentum that Canada is able to muster in a match. Furthermore Canada seems tactically inept, something which stronger teams are able to exploit to the full.
As mentioned above it is not all gloom and doom as Canada does have some players who we feel can really stand up and be counted on the international stage. We are looking to see big performances from some key individuals on Saturday in such a crucial match in front of a home crowd. For us Canada’s potential game changers on Saturday will be in the forwards department; prop Djustice Sears-Duru, flanker Admir Cejvanovic and number 8 Tyler Ardron. Sears-Duru and Tyler Ardron all have World Cup experience and Cejanovic is for us one of Canada’s most promising new talents who should relish an opportunity like this to really show what he is capable of. Meanwhile wingers DTH van Der Merwe and Taylor Paris have exceptional pace and van Der Merwe is a world-class commodity in his own right scoring one of the top tries of the 2015 World Cup. Scrum half Phil Mack can provide enormous energy and pace at getting his backs moving from the breakdown, and execution and composure will need to be the order of the day from this experienced player.
Having said all that though we fear the worst on Saturday against a very fired up, and well coached American team with plenty to prove in a rivalry that goes back a long way. The Americans will relish the chance of jeopardising Canada’s chances at qualifying for the World Cup and they are bringing a team brimming with confidence for the task. Sadly, despite the significance of the occasion and what is at stake for Canada we just haven’t seen anything in the last year that leads us to believe that Canada can carve out a win here. They will put up a brave fight for the home crowd but the USA to ultimately walk away with the spoils by 8 points!
Australia vs Italy
Saturday, June 24th
While we felt sorry for Australia last weekend whose miseries continue from last year, we thrilled at a Scottish performance that really reflected how far the men from North of Hadrian’s Wall have come in the last two years, and a great start to life under new Coach Gregor Townsend. Scotland were outstanding while Australia were simply mediocre. Scotland were committed and clinical while Australia were disorganised and ill-disciplined.
However, with no disrespect to Italy, Australia face a very different opponent this weekend compared to the fired up Scottish side they faced last Saturday. Italy have not fared well on tour this June, losing to Scotland and Fiji. Up against an Australian side that is under huge pressure to put some pride back into the Wallaby jersey, Italy look set to be sacrificial lambs put to the slaughter by an enraged Australian team. Discipline is likely to be an issue for both teams, as Australia when angry and hotheaded are a referee’s worst nightmare but under pressure Italy are rarely any better.
Australia will take no prisoners in Brisbane on Saturday, and despite an Italian team boasting some talent, Australia simply has too much firepower and too many chips on their shoulders for this to be anything other than a one-way contest. A loss on Saturday by the Wallabies would probably see the nation as a whole disown rugby union outright as a national sport. In short the stakes couldn’t be higher for Australia, but despite their woes they have more than enough in the bank to get past a tired and demoralized Italian side. Australia to get a desperately needed win by 20 points!