The November Test window effectively draws to a close this weekend, even though there is one match in the first weekend of December when Wales hosts South Africa. However, for all intents and purposes, once the final whistle blows this Saturday in Dublin we’ll have a got a pretty good idea of the level of depth that has been developed by all the top-tier teams during the course of November. Depth has clearly been the order of the day for all the teams, and some have made greater strides than others, with perhaps England, New Zealand and Ireland leading the pack here. However, France and Wales have also made some positive strides in this department, and Italy is clearly developing the nucleus of a team for 2019 and beyond. Scotland has perhaps been the surprise package in terms of depth this month, making their matchup with Australia this Saturday a mouth-watering prospect indeed. It is perhaps South Africa, Argentina and Australia who have the least to show for their efforts in this regard. Argentina along with South Africa continue to appear to be at sixes and sevens, while Australia, although boasting an exceptional matchday 23, still appear alarmingly thin on depth once any of this group of highly talented individuals become unavailable.
Italy get us started this weekend against South Africa. They will be looking to repeat their epic win last year against the Springboks and really lay down a marker for next year’s Six Nations and beyond. Italian Coach Conor O’Shea is clearly making progress with Italy and they look a much more promising outfit since he has taken charge. South Africa have struggled as they have for the last few years on their end of year tour to Europe, and while capable of some epic performances they seem rather few and far between. After their humiliation against Ireland in the November opener they were able to eke out a scrappy win against France, but it left few of us convinced that their woes especially on the road are behind them. The crisis in confidence in this team shows no signs of letting up and a second consecutive loss to Italy would do untold damage to a team that has clearly lost its way. Italy will know this and will clearly have this game in their sights.
The game we are really looking forward to this weekend and at the top of our viewing list is Scotland against Australia. We were absolutely blown away by Scotland’s performance against New Zealand last weekend and were rarely able to sit down for the full eighty minutes. It was a thrilling Test match that showed that attacking rugby with plenty of gas is very much alive and well north of Hadrian’s Wall. As a result we can’t wait to watch Scotland in action in next years’ Six Nations. Australia can also boast some exceptional attacking prowess in the shape of a very powerful and dangerous back line, and although they came out on the wrong side of the scoreline by quite some margin against England last weekend, the intent was there for all to see and had the weather conditions been slightly more cooperative Australia would be going into this match having run England close. The Wallabies were put to the test last weekend and England based on their performance can comfortably claim their place as the second best team in World Rugby right now, but Australia are not far behind them and are only going to get better. Australia’s biggest problem would appear to be that they just don’t have the same amount of depth as England, something which Scotland much to our surprise were able to demonstrate against New Zealand.
Next up Wales take on New Zealand, with plenty of new players getting a real test against the best in the world. Wales had a fairly torrid time against Georgia last weekend and will really need to up their game against a New Zealand side also experimenting with depth but one that will also want to make an emphatic statement in their last match of the year. Before the team sheets came out, we were fearing a completely one-sided contest in favor of New Zealand, but since the squad announcements were made we are feeling much more optimistic about Wales being competitive, although perhaps not the victors. New Zealand are still likely to get a clean sweep of their November tour but will have had their charges put under considerable pressure in all three contests, something that clearly was at the top of Coach Steve Hansen’s agenda for the month.
Lastly Ireland seek to exact revenge on Argentina, as the two sides have their first meeting since that fateful day in Cardiff two years ago when Argentina comprehensively shattered Ireland’s World Cup dreams. This is clearly an Argentinian team in some disarray despite a conclusive win against Italy last Saturday. Even though Ireland’s match day 23 smacks of continued experimentation in terms of finding depth by Coach Joe Schmidt, it is still a daunting side facing a Pumas team that has struggled to fire all year. Furthermore there are enough of Ireland’s big names running out on the pitch at the Aviva on Saturday to ensure that Argentina will need to put in the kind of performance they showed in New Zealand against the All Blacks back in September. Let’s be honest we’ve seen nothing from Argentina that has led us to believe they can replicate that, especially on the road and for a full eighty minutes.
Canada also take on Fiji in France this Saturday, but after having watched Fiji almost upset the Irish apple cart last weekend in a rather spectacular fashion. While Canada struggled to get the win against Spain at times, we can’t help feeling that Canada are going to have real difficulty in containing Fiji’s turbocharged outfit. From what we could see of the Spanish game if it wasn’t for exceptional winger DTH Van Der Merwe Canada might not have been competitive last weekend in Madrid.
So as usual here’s our take on the matchups this weekend.
Italy vs South Africa
Saturday, November 25th
South African rugby may be in a state of disarray at the moment, but it is not lacking in talent. However, motivation is clearly in question as the Springboks appear to be labouring through their fixture list this month with little if any clear enthusiasm for the task at hand. Nevertheless a second consecutive loss to Italy must be considered unthinkable and as such Italy will be hard pressed to repeat their heroics of this time last year.
In the front rows, we expect to see a competitive Italian effort with props Andrea Lovotti and Simone Pietro Ferrari looking impressive at times this year. However, the presence of Tendai Mtawarira, who has been a consistent savior of the front row for South Africa this year, should see South Africa have the edge. With the exceptional Steven Kitshoff waiting to come off the bench for South Africa their dominance here should be assured.
In the second rows, South Africa should have the advantage in the sheer brute power of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager. While de Jager has not always impressed this year, there is still enough Test experience between him and Etzebeth that they should have the edge over Italians’ Marco Fuser and Dean Budd, especially given the fact that they will have a point to prove, with Franco Mostert also wanting to put his stamp of authority on proceedings from the bench.
In the back rows, South Africa should also be able to rely on brute power to overcome a feisty Italian counter-offer in the shape of South African born Braam Steyn and newcomer Giovanni Licata. Francois Louw has been around the Test circuit enough to know what will be expected of him on Saturday, especially given what is at stake in terms of South Africa’s place in Test rugby. Pieter-Steph du Toit has also been one of the few Springbok players who has consistently sought to right a floundering ship this year and we expect more of the same from this versatile and powerful forward. Lastly Duane Vermeulen at number eight for South Africa goes up against Captain extraordinaire Sergio Parisse for Italy. While Vermeulen is a class player, there is no question that his form is just not there at the moment and the French match was clear evidence if anyone needed convincing. If Parisse gets his back row trio firing on all cylinders South Africa could be in for a torrid time here. However, we feel that South Africa should win what should be the most closely contested area of the park here.
In the half backs, on paper the contest should go to South Africa, but if the Italian pair can keep their heads they could actually be the surprise of the day. South Africa’s Ross Cronje did not quite set the world alight last Saturday in Paris and fly half Handre Pollard, despite his illustrious reputation, completely failed to manage or control the game to South Africa’s advantage while practically missing every shot at goal. Italy’s Carlo Canna is developing into a reliable and courageous fly half, and his ability to get results at the kicking tee is something Italy will be banking on especially if South Africa’s discipline goes the way of the dodo on Saturday, and Pollard once more struggles to find the barn door. So perhaps to the surprise of some, Italy to run the show here on Saturday.
In the backs, based on their experience at Super Rugby level, South Africa should have this tied up, but we have yet to see it really pay dividends this year. The centre pairing of Francois Venter and Jesse Kriel did manage to get some traction at times against the French last weekend in Paris but it was less than convincing. Italy’s offering of the two Tommasos, Castello and Boni is proving to be one of the surprise packages of the month with Castello in particular making us sit up and take notice. Dillyn Leyds and Courtnall Skosan look weak defensively at times on the wing, especially Skosan and particularly under the high ball. The two Italian wingers Angelo Esposito and Mattia Bellini are likely to be better coached and as a result we give them the edge. However, for us Andries Coetzee at fullback has been one of South Africa’s few beacons this year. Rarely supported and often expected to act as a lone wolf, he nevertheless manages to put in a 110% effort every match and for this reason alone we give him the nod over Italy’s still untested Jayden Hayward. Coetzee may be naive at times but you can’t fault him for an astonishing work rate and as he continues to mature we expect bigger and better things from him.
This should be a tight contest at times, with Italy potentially having the sharper game management of the two sides. However, just like in the French match we expect to see South Africa bludgeon the Italians into submission physically. It’s unlikely to be an attractive game to watch, but one which South Africa should batter out a narrow victory by five points!
Scotland vs Australia
Saturday, November 25th
Without any shadow of a doubt THE game to watch this weekend. The weather this Saturday in Murrayfield looks to be on the side of two teams who like to try to play some of the most free-flowing and high-speed attacking rugby seen at the moment on the Test circuit. As we mentioned above we were enthralled by Scotland’s performance last weekend against New Zealand and spent much of the eighty minutes constantly leaping out of our seats and screaming at the television. Definitely one of the most exciting games of rugby we’ve seen in a while and hoping for more of the same. Australia struggled against an English team that, despite some lucky bounces of the ball and calls by the referee, were still clearly the better side especially given the challenging weather conditions. Australia in many ways played more of the rugby but in doing so often overdid it and as a result were unable to pull off the execution required. England were better at taking their chances and played a much more controlled game. The Wallabies will need to be mindful of this as they seek to challenge a team that appears to want to play the fastest brand of attacking rugby after the Fijian Sevens team.
In the front rows, we were very impressed with how well Scotland’s relatively inexperienced trio stood up to New Zealand last weekend. If things have gone well on the training pitch this week we see no reason as to why they should not be able to do the same again. Australia pack an experienced outfit in the shape of Test veteran and Hooker Stephen Moore who plays his last Test in the gold jersey. His front row partners Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu are finally clicking as a unit and it will be hard for Scotland to gain some traction here. Given the momentum for Australia and the significance of Moore’s last hurrah, we feel that Australia will have the edge here initially but once the bench make their appearance we actually fancy Scotland’s chances especially if the starting three hold their own for the first sixty minutes.
In the second rows, we also hand the contest to Scotland. Without Adam Coleman we just don’t feel that Australia are as competitive here as they need to be. Scotland’s Jonny Gray is outstanding and Grant Gilchrist was part of the depth experiment last weekend that we felt really paid off for Scotland. On home ground we just feel that once the crowd get behind them Scotland should clearly get the better of the contest here.
In the back rows, the contest suddenly levels out dramatically and should be fascinating. Flanker John Barclay appears to be relishing the Captain’s role for Scotland as is Michael Hooper for Australia. Both possess extraordinary work rates and the ability to lead their troops from the front. We are huge fans of Scotland’s Hamish Watson and find him very destructive in the loose and a real handful for opposition defences, and the contest between him and Hooper should be one of the highlights of the weekend. Ryan Wilson at number eight for Scotland is another player who can also be problematic, but Australia’s Sean McMahon is in our opinion the better of the two. Consequently, despite the presence of Watson and Barclay for Scotland, we feel that because of the power of McMahon and the destructive unpredictability of Hooper, Australia should get the edge here on Saturday.
When it comes to the half back contest though we think that Scotland in front of the Murrayfield faithful should have the advantage. Scotland’s Finn Russell is simply electric at fly half and Ali Price at scrum half is rapidly proving to be his star sidekick. Australia’s Will Genia we felt didn’t have the best game under pressure against England, and Bernard Foley is simply not firing this year. Consequently expect the element of surprise to be with the Scottish pair on Saturday and as a result Scotland to be more effective at dictating proceedings.
It’s the contest between some very fleet-footed backs that should be the highlight of the match. Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg was remarkable last weekend, and if he can find it in him to put in another performance like that this Saturday then alarm bells will be ringing all over the Wallabies defensive structures. Add to the mix the exceptional centre pairing of Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, and Tommy Seymour’s pace and ball skills out wide on the wings and Australia will have to have their wits about them on defence. Having said that though the Scots will have to make sure there are no defensive slip ups as seen in their November opener against Samoa, otherwise this is an Australian back line that will make them pay dearly. There is speed and power up the middle in the shape of Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi, while out wide Reece Hodge and the brilliant Marika Koroibete offer plenty of the same package. The only possible weak link we see for Australia is Kurtley Beale at fullback. We don’t say this because we feel Beale is not a quality player, quite the opposite, it’s just that his remarkable talents seem far suited to him playing at centre, and look at the game against England if you want further evidence of this. Scotland’s Stuart Hogg however, was clearly born for the position so as a result we feel that Scotland are likely to be the better drilled of the two sides in back play on Saturday and thus have the slimmest of advantages especially in front of a home crowd likely to be heard from miles around every time a blue jersey gets a clean break.
A riveting and hopefully intensely exciting contest awaits, but our money is on home advantage seeing a better drilled Scottish side squeaking past a powerful and fast paced Australian challenge by two points!
Wales vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 25th
New Zealand will want to finish their year in style and sadly Wales look to be the sacrificial lambs for such a cause. However, to dismiss a Welsh challenge at home in front of a raucous Cardiff crowd would be foolish and we actually feel that this is a pretty decent if inexperienced Welsh side running out against the All Blacks on Saturday. New Zealand continue to tinker but despite the experimentation enforced primarily by injuries, it is still a rather daunting outfit and if Wales can hold their own against them, then valuable lessons will be learnt. While a result would delight Welsh fans, most are likely to want to see a solid challenge that bodes well for the future.
In the front rows, we can’t really see Wales getting the edge over New Zealand’s Kane Hames, Codie Taylor and Nepo Laulala. This trio has ticked all the boxes this year and we just can’t see their Welsh counterparts gaining much traction on it, especially given the strength of New Zealand’s bench here. Wales will be competitive make no mistake but skill wise we just think the All Blacks have the more consistent and effective combination.
In the second rows, home advantage and the talismanic presence of Alun Wyn-Jones should just see Wales through until the benches are called in, despite the influence of probably the best in the world, New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock. We have mixed feelings about Whitelock’s partner Patrick Tuipulotu, but we feel once New Zealand call Scott Barret off the bench the balance will swing back in New Zealand’s favor.
In the back rows, we feel that once more it is all about New Zealand. We thought Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler had a good game against Australia for Wales, but it is the sheer class of Liam Squire and Sam Cane that makes these two front-runners to dominate proceedings here. The only real edge we see for Wales here is at number eight in the shape of Taulupe Faletau, but then we felt he had an uncharacteristically error strewn match against Australia and will need to be better on Saturday, even if he is facing up against relative newcomer Luke Whitelock for New Zealand. The one smoking gun Wales have in this department is the appearance of Justin Tipuric off the bench. Always a game changer the tireless flanker could be the key that unlocks New Zealand’s apparent dominance in this part of the park.
In the half backs, Wales’ Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb need no introduction and to a point should be able to hold their own against New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith, but the X-factor of the Kiwi pair far exceeds that of the Welshmen. As a result this contest is New Zealand’s to win, with the All Black replacements also being of far higher calibre than Wales in the shape of TJ Perenara and Lima Sopoaga.
In the backs, Wales pack some very exciting new talent against some exceptional and proven talent from New Zealand. Sadly it is this lack of experience on the part of Wales which is likely to be their undoing on Saturday. While winger Rieko Ioane and fullback Damian McKenzie have themselves only really burst onto the Test stage for New Zealand this year, they have already made these positions theirs, whilst the Welsh are very much competing for future places. Consequently with the centre pairing of Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty really coming into its own, Ioane’s strength and pace out wide and McKenzie’s elusive catlike abilities at fullback, Wales will be hard pressed to make any real inroads on the New Zealand defences with their young and inexperienced charges. Sadly this is one area of the park we expect to see New Zealand run riot in.
New Zealand pack the better bench, have greater familiarity amongst their starting fifteen and as a result we feel that this will ultimately be the complete performance New Zealand have been looking for all year. Consequently, Wales to be a worthy and exciting opponent at times, but New Zealand to ultimately run away with it by 25 points, even though we predicted a similar margin against Scotland and were delighted to be proved so dramatically inaccurate!
Ireland vs Argentina,
Saturday, November 25th
While to say it is a forgone conclusion that this last big test of the year is clearly Ireland’s to lose is a stretch, we still find it hard to see anything other than a fairly solid Irish win at the Aviva on Saturday. Given that the vast majority of the squad that so comprehensively dismantled South Africa a fortnight ago make their return for Ireland we feel that our bias toward an Irish win is not without some grounding. Argentina meanwhile have struggled this year to really resemble the side that derailed Ireland at the World Cup two years ago and as a result it is hard to see them causing an upset on Saturday. Nevertheless, there is enough individual talent in this Pumas outfit that any opposition would write them off at their peril.
In the front rows, it’s a powerhouse Irish trio of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong with the two props playing some remarkable rugby at the moment. Hooker and Captain Agustin Creevy will provide inspiration for Argentina but this Pumas front row is just not up to the task at the moment so expect Ireland to dominate when it comes to scrum time.
In the second rows, we’re excited to see James Ryan get a start for Ireland. Although many are comparing him to Paul O’Connell we hope the youngster is allowed to prove his worth without the shadow of the great lock. Ian Henderson also needs no introduction and has really come back into his own in the green jersey. Matias Alemanno and Tomas Lavanini are both giant figures who could potentially rule the lineout but, despite Lavanini’s vastly improved discipline, we still feel that the Irish are going to win this contest.
In the back rows, despite some really strong Argentinian talent, it seems incapable of firing as a unit, something the Irish offering seems to have no problem with. Pablo Matera has consistently been Argentina’s go to man this year, and Marcos Kremer is a very promising highlight for the World Cup along with Tomas Lezana at eight. However, Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien are world-class from start to finish and work well off each other. At number eight CJ Stander needs to be more outspoken in his influence on match proceedings than he has been so far this year for Ireland in the Six Nations and on the Lions tour, but is still world class. Argentina will be fiercely competitive here but Ireland’s pedigree should win them the day.
At half back, there is simply no comparison as Ireland boast one of the best units in Test rugby in the shape of Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray. Argentina’s Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez are more than capable of flashes of brilliance but consistency and patience in terms of execution have rarely been their modus operandi this year. Ireland pack a much better bench offering here than Argentina in the shape of Luke McGrath who is turning heads at Leinster while Ian Keatley managed to keep his cool when Ireland were on the rack against Fiji last weekend.
In the backs, once again there is talent aplenty for Argentina but it seems based on individual brilliance rather than any kind of structured game plan. Ireland’s newcomers on the other hand looked very much the finished product against South Africa a fortnight ago. Adam Byrne is Ireland’s major experimentation as the youngster gets his first start in a green jersey on the wing, but we have really enjoyed watching him so far this year at Leinster. The centre pairing also sees a relative lack of experience in Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell but, the sheer potential of these two and Schmidt’s coaching should see them get the job done against a strong Argentinian challenge in the shape of Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias and Matias Moroni. Emiliano Boffelli will pose an enormous threat for Argentina out on the wing and Adam Byrne as a result will get a superb examination of how ready he is for Test rugby. However on the opposite wing Jacob Stockdale in the match against South Africa justified his place in an Irish starting XV and then some, and we expect more of the same on Saturday. The only area where we really see Argentina gaining some traction over Ireland here is at fullback. Joaquin Tuculet has been a consistent performer for Argentina this year, whereas the jury is still out on Rob Kearney for Ireland, despite the fact he had a respectable game against South Africa. So despite Ireland’s relative lack of experience expect them to have the more productive showing here on Saturday.
Argentina certainly have looked like they just want to put this year down to experience and move on to really trying to make 2018 a year they want to remember. Consequently as their last hurrah of the year, and away from home to boot they tend to run out of gas which should make it a relatively straightforward exercise for Ireland to get a decent win provided they keep their focus and their youngsters rise to the occasion. As a result we have trouble seeing anything other than an Irish win by 16 points!
As always we include the 1014’s preview of this weekend’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentlemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. For some in-depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!