First of all apologies to all for the long silence, but it’s been a very hectic few months since the wrap up of the Six Nations for all of us up here in the slowly thawing frozen North. Furthermore, with our resident scribe in the midst of a job change there hasn’t been much opportunity to put pen to paper regarding the oval ball. However, fortunately there is a well-timed breathing space over the next few weeks, just in time for the June Tours.
After a long hard season, the Six Nations competitors seek to span the globe and wrap up their year with three tough weeks of touring. England, after a disappointing Six Nations campaign, face the daunting prospect of a three-week tour of South Africa and three Tests against a Springbok side keen to prove themselves under a new Coach. A French side reeling from the trials and tribulations of club rugby’s longest and most grueling competition the Top 14, haul themselves onto the long flight to New Zealand to take on the seemingly invincible All Blacks. Ireland, who seem unbeatable so far this year, both at club and International level, travel to Australia for a three Test series against a Wallaby side likely to be far better than what their current Super Rugby form would suggest.
Italy have a brief two-week tour of Japan which should give them a taste of what to expect in terms of atmosphere come the World Cup next year. Scotland have a three-week tour of the Americas which should start with an easy encounter with Canada but get progressively harder as they take on the US and ultimately Argentina. Finally, the Welsh travel first to the US for an intriguing encounter with the Springboks in Washington. They then make the long trek South for two potentially bruising encounters with a Pumas side that will seek to capitalize on the recent stellar performances of their Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares.
It’s definitely going to be an exciting three weeks, and by the end of it we should have a much clearer idea of where the Six Nations competitors stand in the global pecking order. All six teams will have different aspirations and goals for their June Tours and what success over the coming weeks will mean. Consequently, here’s our attempts at crystal ball gazing and what we think they’re looking to get out of their upcoming travel plans.
England need some answers this tour and quickly. With just over a year to the World Cup, time is rapidly running out for Coach Eddie Jones to gel a world-beating side. 2018 has been a horrible year for England, with a Six Nations campaign that really failed to fire with humiliating losses to Scotland, France and Ireland. The cracks in England’s armor started to appear with their loss to Ireland in last year’s Six Nations and which brought to an end a long winning streak.
So what’s gone wrong for England and what do they need to fix on this tour? Some of the more tried and trusted veterans have failed to show up for duty at key moments in the last year. Meanwhile some of the youngsters have understandably struggled to keep pace with the demands of a side that until recently seemed destined to be New Zealand’s most troublesome opposition. So the old has to gel with the new and the two really become a seamless unit, with some of the younger players really developing into leadership roles. England’s front row has managed to hold its own for the most part but their last few outings have left a lot to be desired, so really matching up to the physical presence that South Africa traditionally provides will be definitely on Eddie Jones to do list next month. England’s second row combinations have not stamped the type of authority that we have come to expect from them of late. But perhaps England’s biggest problem is their dysfunctional back row. Players out of position, and certain players being asked to do too much seem to be the root cause of England’s problems at the moment. There is some world-class talent available to Eddie Jones, of that there is no doubt, but the continued experimentation here particularly at seven and eight really needs to be resolved this tour.
In the half backs George Ford really needs to find his groove and if he can’t someone other than Owen Farrell has to come to light on this tour. Farrell can play the position with ease and a great deal of skill but he is also just as useful in the centres, meaning that Jones needs to secure a solid backup number 10, especially if George Ford continues to falter on this tour.
In the backs, England is blessed with a wealth of world-class talent but it really is time for England to move away from veteran fullback Mike Brown and really develop some depth for the future. The centre partnership also really needs to go under the microscope on this tour and some long-term combinations, particularly in terms of depth, settled on. Across the backs, England also needs to give some of their younger players a real chance to shine in the pressure cauldron that South Africa provides.
In short, this tour has to be about really solidifying the experience of some of the younger talent and matching it to the skill set and composure of some key older players. If England can do that successfully and emerge with the nucleus of 30 or so players who they can build towards the World Cup, then whatever the result in South Africa it can be considered a success. As for what they are likely to come away with in terms of results? To be honest, despite the misfortunes of South African rugby since the last World Cup, we feel that under their new Coach Rassie Erasmus they will be a harder nut to crack than many are giving them credit for. Consequently we find it hard to imagine a series win for England. They are more than likely to win one Test, most likely the second match in Bloemfontein, having acclimatised to the altitude the week before in Johannesburg. It will be a close series and if England answer their own questions and find the players and combinations they need, then all parties concerned should be pleased with a job well done – even if it means a narrow series loss.
Let’s face it despite the inevitable doom and gloom surrounding France’s up coming tour to New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud has produced some epic French miracles in days gone by. While much of this may now look like ancient history to some, France invariably seem to find one big game in them when on tour to New Zealand, and we feel that this tour just might reproduce a bit of history in that regard. France, as they always are at the end of a long hard domestic season, will be putting some used and abused players on the long flight to Auckland, but by week 2 of the tour, we expect to see a real willingness to put some pride back in the French jersey and give the rest of the rugby world a few talking points.
To be honest it hasn’t been that bad of a year for France. Their first Six Nations under new Coach Jacques Brunel, saw them almost rob Ireland of an eventual Grand Slam at the beginning of the tournament, as well as some solid wins over Italy and their old nemesis England. Despite losing to Scotland they still managed to give the men from North of Hadrian’s wall a fright. Finally in a tense match in Cardiff they were unlucky to be the losers by a mere point.
Where France are likely to struggle most on this tour is in the forward battles as many of the standouts in the Six Nations will be absent on this tour. There are still some key names like prop Rabah Slimani, lock Paul Gabrillagues and back rower Kevin Gourdon who will cause New Zealand some problems but overall as a unit, it is likely to be exposed under the most intense pressure. France in the process will learn a great deal about the kind of depth it has up front, and consequently this alone makes the tour an important event for France’s buildup to the World Cup, regardless of the results on the scoreboard.
However, all is not lost as Les Bleus will be fielding some exciting half back partnerships and some serious strike threats in the backs. There is an interesting mix of experience and raw young talent in the half back offerings, and in the backs Teddy Thomas has shown himself to be a try scoring machine. Add to that some superb centres and France has plenty of potential to strike from deep and keep the New Zealand defences on their toes especially out wide. France will be dangerous here make no mistake, and if an upset is on the cards then it will come from this part of the park.
France will see this as an excellent opportunity to take a serious look at some of their up and coming players under intense pressure. While French touring teams have traditionally looked fatigued and rudderless at the tail end of their season, they traditionally seem to find a bit more of a sense of purpose in their final overseas tour before the World Cup. We were always skeptical of Coach Jacques Brunel’s abilities while he was in charge of Italy, but something positive is clearly starting to take place under his tutelage with France, and New Zealand will be the ultimate litmus test of how much progress really has been made. While we are predicting a clean sweep of the series by New Zealand, we also feel that there is going to be one hell of a Test match in there somewhere, and an upset is much less beyond the realm of possibility than it has been in recent years.
In selecting his touring party for Ireland’s three Test series in Australia, Coach Joe Schmidt has very clearly laid out his intentions – an emphatic series win. While a three Test whitewash may be too much to ask, given the talent at his disposal and the form of Irish rugby so far this year, it’s hard to see Ireland coming away with anything less. Australia will be no pushover on home soil, but they looked less than stellar on tour during the autumn series last year, and so far Australian Super Rugby sides have failed to impress in this year’s competition. To be honest we would have thought the overriding objective of this end of season tour for the Irish would have been squad development of some of the younger players on a challenging assignment away from home, and thus really solidifying the depth that is clearly emerging in Irish rugby. By doing this you would also rest key senior players like Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, among others, and not jeopardise the runup to the World Cup with unnecessary injuries. Nevertheless, you can understand the desire to finish off a season where Ireland have simply looked unstoppable at both Test and club level, with one more crowning glory.
Given that a series win in Australia is a clear and eminently achievable ambition for Joe Schmidt and his charges, there are a couple of things we hope to see happen on the tour, even if it may seem unorthodox. In short, have your newer players form the bulk of your starting XV for each of the three Tests, with the senior players coming on as impact substitutions in the final quarter if things are starting to unravel.
This will be particularly important to develop some real depth under pressure for the half back positions. At fly half this should be Joey Carberry’s tour with Sexton there in a supporting role, and the same could be said of Keiran Marmion with Conor Murray providing similar backup in the scrum half role. In the forwards, Dan Leavy, James Ryan, Jack Conan, Andrew Porter and Tadhg Beirne should all be getting the maximum amount of game time. Meanwhile, Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour should also feature heavily in Joe Schmidt’s starting selections for the backs.
It’s going to be an interesting tour, and while it could be Ireland’s bridge too far at the end of a remarkable season, we somehow doubt it. As mentioned earlier we doubt it’s going to be a whitewash for the Men in Green, but they should clinch the series by winning two of the Tests, and in the process provide us with perhaps the most closely fought and exciting of all the Northern Hemisphere tours South of the Equator. In short if you only get to follow one of the June series, this is probably the one you’ll want to catch.
Italy have had moments of brilliance this season, but sadly the wins have been too few and far between. Consequently, it is perhaps with a sigh of relief, that Italian Coach Conor O’Shea finds himself with a two Test series against Japan instead of any of the Southern Hemisphere’s traditional heavyweights. As a result it should be an excellent opportunity to build some confidence in the side as well as get an understanding of what it will be like playing in front of Japanese crowds next year in the World Cup.
Japan have become increasingly competitive since the last World Cup, and it will be a real test of Italy’s abilities to cope a long way from home, with a team and environment that they are not overly familiar with. We feel that this will end up a tied series, and will provide some entertaining rugby from both sides. If Italy can run Japan close in the first Test and pull off a convincing win in the second, then they are likely to feel that they have both learnt a great deal about themselves and restored some long overdue confidence. Thus if they keep their expectations realistic and focus on learning some valuable lessons, this upcoming fortnight in Japan could be the most productive thing Italy end up doing all season.
Scotland, can perhaps feel slightly aggrieved that they haven’t quite got the exposure to some of the Southern Hemisphere giants that they should be getting at this stage of their preparations for the World Cup. However, having to take on a Pumas side on their own turf, who are likely to have just caused Wales a multitude of problems, is certainly a daunting task for any team as their final match of the season.
Consequently this tour will be all about development plain and simple. Scotland have named six uncapped players for this tour, with a significant number of the touring party having less than 10 caps to their name. Two confidence boosting wins over Canada and then the US, should set them up nicely for a tricky showdown with Argentina. If Argentina are able to play to the same level of the recent exploits by the Argentinian Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares, Scotland’s young charges will face a superb test of character as their final match of the season. While it may simply be too much for them to manage, it should still provide them with an excellent learning experience on which to build for the World Cup.
In short a useful tour allowing the development of some genuine depth for Scotland, culminating in a daunting challenge from Argentina’s Pumas.
Wales have their work cut out for them in no uncertain terms on their June travels. They start off in the unfamiliar environment of Washington DC, where it is expected to be 30 degree Celsius on match day, against a familiar but untested opponent this year, South Africa’s Springboks. From there, it’s the long flight down to Argentina where they take on a rather menacing looking Pumas outfit. To make matters worse, the Welsh forward contingent has been plagued with injuries, and two of their most valuable players of the season, flankers Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler have been ruled out of the touring party. There’s some definite spark in the backs, but we fear that the lack of any real Welsh forward power compared to the juggernaut that Argentina will be bringing to this part of the park, will mean that Wales will struggle to give their backs much quality ball.
Consequently, much like Scotland, Wales will be really testing for depth especially in the forwards on this tour. They are likely to run all of their opponents close, but with the exception of a possible win against an uncertain Springbok side, we find it hard to see them getting the better of Argentina in their two encounters with the Pumas. If they do manage to get some traction through their forwards against Argentina, then their most likely shot at glory South of the River Plate will be in the first Test in San Juan. However, for us this tour should not necessarily be seen in terms of results but how much this troop of relatively inexperienced players are really able to hold their own against top quality opposition. If Wales are able to be fully competitive in all three Tests and even win at least one of them, then Coach Warren Gatland should end the season having a sound knowledge of what he has to work with in terms of depth in the all important build up to next year’s World Cup. Given Wales current injury list, that would surely be regarded as a much-needed job well done.
We’ll be back to our previews of all the big Tests happening next month, and will be starting with a look at the upcoming match in Washington this Saturday between Wales and South Africa.