So the barbecues are getting hauled out and multiple runs to the beer store are being made between now and early Saturday morning, as the June Test window kicks off in earnest this weekend. There is a ton of action, but perhaps the two most eagerly anticipated fixtures of the weekend are Ireland’s opening Test against the Wallabies and England’s series opener with South Africa. Since the last match of the 2017 Six Nations, Ireland have looked unstoppable and will want to cap off a remarkable season with a series win in Australia. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has assembled a formidable force and Australia will surely relish the challenge of going up against the side currently ranked number 2 in the world.
New Zealand take on France, and although French touring sides since 2009 have often been dispirited affairs, there is a sense that there might be something different in this year’s offering. While most, ourselves included, find it hard to imagine New Zealand coming away with anything less than an emphatic series win, there is a genuine belief that somewhere in this series there is likely to be one Test match that shows off the magic that has happened in the past when these sides met.
English Coach Eddie Jones has assembled an impressive squad for England’s three Test series in South Africa, but despite the talent there is no denying that England has simply failed to inspire this year, and desperately needs to do so on this tour. This time last year England were deservedly occupying the number 2 spot in the world, but it has been frustrating for players and fans alike to see how far they have fallen in the space of a mere twelve months. South Africa meanwhile got life under new Coach Rassie Erasmus off to a shaky start in Washington last weekend as they fell at the last hurdle to Wales. This opening Test in Johannesburg has the weight of a nation on it in no uncertain terms, as Springbok supporters hope that it will mark a new dawn in South African rugby which till now has given them little to cheer about.
Scotland take on Canada in Edmonton, and with the Scots fielding a side of impressive new talent, Canada will need to dig deep into its limited resources to field a credible challenge – something they have struggled to do under their third Coach in as many years. Lastly Wales travel to Argentina to take on a rather intimidating looking Puma side fresh from some spectacular Super Rugby exploits which will see them full of confidence.
So strap yourself in and let’s take a look at some fascinating matchups ahead of us this weekend.
New Zealand vs France
Saturday, June 9th
While for many, the result may be a foregone conclusion especially on the holy ground of Eden Park, there should still be an interesting Test match here. It’s the All Blacks first outing of the year, and traditionally it takes them a game or two to find the ruthless efficiency that they have become renown for in the last decade. France may be fielding a tired team at the end of a long hard season, but there is no denying there is some impressive talent in the squad that Coach Jacques Brunel has assembled, and if New Zealand take them lightly they could find themselves with just a little more than French flair to deal with.
Sadly for France we think they are going to get destroyed here. Without the inspirational presence and skill set of Guilhem Guirado who misses the tour due to injury, France’s front row are going to struggle to get to grips with an established All Black unit. We have seen little from prop Uini Atonio that has made us sit up and take notice, and while we like Hooker Camille Chat and prop Danny Priso, after their exploits with Racing 92 and La Rochelle this season respectively, we just can’t see them getting the better of an All Black front row comprising the formidable talent and experience of props Owen Franks and Joe Moody alongside Hooker and Dane Coles’ understudy Codie Taylor. France have got some hope on the bench in the shape of prop Rabah Slimani, but we expect New Zealand to comfortably dominate proceedings here.
The battle evens out a bit here, but with the experience of All Black lock and Captain Sam Whitelock alongside impressive newcomer Scott Barrett, New Zealand should still be in charge here especially at lineout time. France pack some genuine talent in the shape of Paul Gabrillagues, but his partner Yoann Maestri is just too hot and cold for us as well as suffering from a lack of discipline. New Zealand should cement the dominance created by their front row here, especially with last year’s sensation Vaea Fifita on the bench.
Despite the formidable talents of France’s Kevin Gourdon at number eight, we once again struggle to see France gaining much parity with New Zealand here. With flankers Liam Squire and Sam Cane looking to dominate the breakdowns and loose play, France will have to be at their best defensively to keep this part of the field in check. Although France’s defence was rock solid for much of the Six Nations, they are without a few key players from that campaign in this part of the park, and as a result we can’t help feeling that it is going to be a long day at the office for France here. Once again it’s that All Black bench which is likely to compound French misery here in the shape of Ardie Savea.
Probably the only team in the world that can hold a candle to New Zealand’s supremacy in this part of the park is Ireland. As a result we are not expecting too much from France here, and plenty of genius from New Zealand scrum half Aaron Smith and fly half Beauden Barrett. France bring some serious experience in the shape of scrum half Morgan Parra and the raw but gifted talent of fly half Anthony Belleau, but we just can’t see them being able to consistently outwit the New Zealand pair. France do have a good bench offering here in the shape of scrum half Baptiste Serin and fly half Jules Plisson, but once again New Zealand’s TJ Perenara and Damien McKenzie possess a set of skills only just short of their starting counterparts Smith and Barrett. France to have some real enterprise here at times, but New Zealand to still run the show.
It’s here and on the wings where we really expect to see some sparks fly. We think New Zealand have the more cohesive unit in the shape of Ryan Crotty and Anton Liennert-Brown, but France’s offering, especially in the shape of Mathieu Basteraud, is something to fear. The French centre has become a much more creative player than his battering ram persona of the past used to suggest. His partner Geoffrey Doumayrou also has the potential to turn heads, something he does regularly at his club La Rochelle. The experience of the All Black duo, especially Crotty, should ultimately see New Zealand come out on top in this part of the park, but there should be some genuine surprises and close calls created by the French pair. Ngani Laumape is an exceptionally exciting player for New Zealand off the bench, and someone we feel can ultimately offer more than Gael Fickou who often goes missing for France.
With Rieko Ioane who was one of the talking points of 2017 for all the right reasons, and the legendary Ben Smith who can both create and score tries from anywhere on the park, it is hard to see France getting much traction on the wings on Saturday. But hold that thought – enter left and right for France Remy Grosso and Teddy Thomas. We think Grosso is superb and Thomas proved to be a try seeking missile during the Six Nations. Barring Ioane’s X-factor and Ben Smith’s sheer all round ability on attack and defence, this would be an even contest. We just give New Zealand the nod here, but like in the contest between the centres, there should be some real sparks and flair on show here on Saturday if France can get some quality go forward ball. New Zealand should ultimately come out on top but expect some entertainment from the Men in Blue here. Maxime Medard has produced some epic displays against New Zealand in the fullback position in the past, but we can’t help feeling that he is perhaps past his sell by date when compared to the up and coming Jordi Barrett for New Zealand. An interesting contest here where a wise French head meets one that is perhaps slightly older than its years and experience might suggest. Most entertaining part of the park on Saturday, but one which ultimately New Zealand should dominate.
France are likely to struggle to find their feet on their first outing in New Zealand, especially at the noisy hallowed ground of Auckland’s Eden Park. There should be moments of French brilliance and if they can put up the kind of defensive solidity they showed in the Six Nations, New Zealand may find them a slightly harder nut to crack than they imagine. However, France still haven’t gelled they way they need to and without their inspirational leader Guirado, we can’t see them getting past an already slick-looking All Black outfit. France will seek to put on a show at times, but New Zealand to be the more clinical of the two and ultimately run away with it in the final quarter by 20 points!
Australia vs Ireland
Saturday, June 9th
We’ll wear our heart on our sleeves here and say that of all the June tours this is the one we are looking forward to the most. Australia may be going through tough times in terms of its rugby identity right now, but there is no denying that Coach Michael Cheika has put together a team that if it fires, could be absolutely lethal this month. Ireland meanwhile have catapulted themselves into the number 2 spot in the world rankings in the last 12 months, and unlike in years gone by, they look the part both in terms of organisation and depth. They are going to be hard to beat and are blessed with the ability to finally absorb injuries and still field a daunting match day 23. These two sides are going to go at each other hammer and tongs over the next three weeks, and we can’t wait for it to start.
Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has chosen to start with a less experienced front row than he could have chosen with the exception of Jack McGrath. Hooker Rob Herring and prop John Ryan are not new to the Irish cause, but will no doubt relish the opportunity of a starting berth in a Test of such magnitude. Australia are fielding the more experienced trio with the exception of new cap and Hooker Brendan Paenga-Amosa. Props Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu need no introduction and were a big part of the turnaround in Australia’s scrum fortunes last season. Consequently, we expect to see Australia have the upper hand in proceedings here in the early stages of the match. However, come the last quarter and provided Ireland have been competitive, Australia are likely to come dramatically unstuck as Ireland bring on their super hero bench. Hooker Sean Cronin and props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong are the stuff of forward coaches’ worst nightmares. Cronin seems to have an intimate relationship with the try line, while Healy and Furlong are just as dangerous in the loose as they are at the coal face. Australia’s early comfort in this part of the park is likely to evaporate very quickly once the Irish bench have had their say come the latter stages of the match.
One name stands out here, and it’s Irish – James Ryan. In discussions about what the complete second rower should look like, Ryan’s name has been front and centre for most people all year with the disturbing fact that the green shirted giant is only 21, making his utter dominance of the position so much more remarkable. The man is like a combination of the greatest aspects of New Zealand’s Ian Jones, Australia’s John Eales, England’s Martin Johnson and Ireland’s Paul O’Connell all rolled into one. Although not grabbing the headlines to the same degree of his partner, Ian Henderson has also become an exceptionally solid and reliable performer, meaning that Australia’s Izack Rodda and Adam Coleman are going to have to be at the very top of their game to keep the two Irishmen in check. Having said that we have to confess to being huge fans of Australia’s Adam Coleman and feel that he has a very illustrious career ahead of him in the Wallaby jersey, and his partner Rodda has also impressed. While we think the sheer presence and ability of Ryan may well swing it in Ireland’s favor, there is going to be a battle royale going on here especially at lineout time.
Michael Hooper and David Pocock, two of the games best flankers bring some real pedigree and threat to Australia’s challenge in this part of the park. So much so that we feel this is one area of the field where Australia are likely to have the edge. The only potential weak link in the chain is new cap and number eight Caleb Timu. Ireland’s offering is nothing short of stellar but we feel that CJ Stander at number eight and flanker Peter O’Mahony have not quite hit the heights we are accustomed to seeing them at this season. Jordi Murphy has really stood out at club level with Leinster, but once again we are not sure that his performances in the green jersey alongside O’Mahony are of the calibre of the Australian pair. It’s Ireland’s threat on the bench that perhaps is Australia’s biggest concern, in the shape of replacement number 8 Jack Conan. We feel he is one of Ireland’s most underrated players, and expect the bruising ball carrier to have a great deal to say in the final twenty minutes especially if the scores are close. Nevertheless, it’s the Hooper/Pocock axis which we feel may swing this contest in Australia’s favor for the majority of the match.
While some may see it as a gamble we applaud the decision by Irish Coach Joe Schmidt to give Joey Carberry the start at fly half for such an important game. Ireland know they have a year in which to develop some real depth and experience to support Jonathan Sexton for the World Cup, and this tour and the development of Carberry will be absolutely critical to that process. Furthermore, the youngster has proven himself in key matches such as the historic Irish defeat of the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016. Carberry has talent by the bucketload, he simply needs more game time. With Irish scrum half Conor Murray alongside him Carberry will have plenty of experience and support, with Sexton waiting on the bench to restore order should stage fright get the better of Carberry. Australia’s offerings here are certainly nothing to sniff at, though we can’t help feeling that Bernard Foley at fly half, is potentially one of Australia’s weakest links if his form of last year is anything to go by. However, like Carberry he has the wise head of Will Genia alongside him, although like Foley, Genia seemed to struggle to find consistency last season – brilliant one match and then a disaster the next – it remains to be seen what the 2018 version of Will Genia looks like. Consequently, on paper despite the much-needed risk taking by the Irish coaching staff here, we still feel that Ireland are packing a superior set of skills and game management ability in this part of the park.
This is one area of the park where Australia really could lay down some markers. Kurtley Beale was fantastic last year for Australia, and Samu Kerevi really grew into the position, especially once he sorted out his defensive shortcomings. Exceptionally creative and unpredictable these two are likely to cause problems all afternoon for Ireland. Irish centres Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw have impressed all year for Ireland, but we just don’t feel they have the speed and quick thinking of the Australian pair. Consequently, it will be close but Australia are more likely to outwit Ireland in this part of the park.
Ireland possess the Six Nations leading try scorer here in winger Jacob Stockdale, but overall we can’t help feeling that once again, especially on home soil, Australia look more dangerous here. Fullback Israel Folau has been absolutely immense in the air in this year’s Super Rugby and should Ireland fall into the trap of peppering high balls deep into the Australian 22, they could end up courtesy of Folau coming horribly unstuck. Dane Haylett-Petty is in our opinion an exceptional winger and his colleague Marika Koroibete was one of last year’s Rugby Championship talking points. Ireland possess two feisty competitors in winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney, but with the exception of Ireland’s Stockdale we feel that Australia possess more of the X-factor in this part of the park. The battle of the fullback replacements will provide another fascinating contest as Australia’s Reece Hodge and Ireland’s Jordan Larmour should bring plenty of excitement to the proceedings, and Hodge brings with him the addition of a rather remarkable boot when it comes to kicking duties. Tough to call but overall Australia look the more dangerous here.
On paper and with home advantage we are tempted to swing this Australia’s way. However, there are a couple of key talents in this Irish side allied to a very tactically astute Coach which make us believe that, although it will be close, ultimately Ireland are just going to squeak the opener. Australia may get across the whitewash more, but the steady hand and boot of Sexton and that Irish replacement front row in the final quarter will see the Irish wrestle control back from a free running Wallaby side. Consequently Sexton and the bench to restore order, and much as he did in Paris earlier this year, see the Irish home by three points!
South Africa vs England
Saturday, June 9th
South Africa may not have got life under new Coach Rassie Erasmus off to the kind of start they wanted last weekend in Washington against Wales, but it wasn’t without promise. Let’s face it while not the prettiest of games at times, a South African side boasting a record number of new caps, still managed to come back in the second half with a vengeance, and with four minutes to go were about to record a win against a side that came second in this year’s Six Nations. Furthermore they lost the match by a mere two points. Sure the Springboks and especially their new caps made a bucketload of mistakes but they certainly were competitive, especially in the second half.
England arrive in South Africa reeling from a lack of confidence after a season that has so far failed to ignite the imagination, as well as have us believe that until only a few months ago this was supposedly the second best side in the world. Something is clearly not right with English rugby, but being short of talent is not one of the problems. The starting XV which will run out at Ellis Park on Saturday boasts an enviable mix of raw young talent and seasoned Test veterans. In short, it’s a good side with some absolutely world-class players like Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly to name but a few. There is absolutely no reason that this shouldn’t be a successful tour for the Men in White, and while there are some issues to resolve, get some confidence and self-belief back into this side and the rest of the world will once more have to be on their guard when England comes calling.
Apart from “the Beast”, Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira, we are not convinced by South Africa’s front row. Although England’s may by comparison be slightly greener, with the exception of prop Mako Vunipola, we feel that their scrummaging technique is likely to be more disciplined than South Africa’s. The English youngsters Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler will really need to make a big impression on this tour, but Hooker George is likely to make the number 2 jersey his own, heading into the countdown to the World Cup. If Sinckler can hold his own against “the Beast” then England should be able to dictate proceedings here. If England are going to run into problems up front they are likely to surface once South Africa’s bench comes into play. Prop Steven Kitshoff is superb and really stood out in Washington and expect him to cause England all kinds of problems. We like the look of replacement Hooker Armand van der Merwe despite his lack of experience, and prop Wilco Louw is likely to only get better with each successive outing in a Springbok jersey.
We simply don’t know enough about England’s Nick Isiekwe and South Africa’s RG Snyman to make much of an informed opinion here. We know the Englishman performed well on the tour to Argentina last year and that Snyman has looked good with the Bulls in Super Rugby. However, their partners need no introduction. England’s Maro Itoje was one of the Players of the Year last year, and despite his form being somewhat up and down this year, we are expecting him to be back to his best on this tour. South Africa’s Franco Mostert is in much the same boat as Itoje, a quality player but whose form has been hot and cold at times in the last twelve months. Tough to call here but we are going with Itoje to find his groove on Saturday and really spur his partner on to the heights needed for England to get the edge here.
England’s back row has been their biggest Achilles Heel this year and they really need to find some answers quickly on this tour. Sadly we are not sure they will on Saturday. While there are lots of question marks surrounding South Africa’s selections, there is no question about their experience and if they come out of the blocks firing this is a fearsome trio. While Captain Siya Kolisi has not quite demonstrated the form in 2018, that made him one of the biggest talking points in South African rugby last year, perhaps the Captain’s role will bring out the motivation needed to get him back to his best. His number 8 Duane Vermeulen is also in much the same boat. We saw little of him this year at Toulon that really fired the imagination, but perhaps being back in South Africa and the Springbok jersey will bring out the best in a player that had made a real contribution to South African rugby prior to his departure to France. However, we feel that flanker Jean Luc du Preez is a real commodity to be reckoned with and provided his back row partners click, it’s South Africa who should have the upper hand here in the cauldron of Ellis Park. We’ve heard nothing but good things about English flanker Tom Curry, and perhaps in conjunction with Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola, this is the back row unit that finally works for England. Robshaw brings experience and Vunipola brings an indestructible ball carrying ability coupled to a wealth of experience. However, Vunipola’s fitness has been an ongoing concern and Ellis Park is not the place you really want to be tested so soon on your return from injury. Consequently, despite the question marks surrounding South Africa’s trio we’re handing the contest to them, especially with the bench offering of Sikhumbuzo Notshe. We’re not convinced by England’s bench of Nathan Hughes, and New Zealander Brad Shields first outing in an England jersey, even though the Kiwi is likely to find the stature during the course of the tour that made him so impressive in Super Rugby this year.
If fly half Handre Pollard and scrum half Faf de Klerk click on Saturday, we feel they will be the combination to beat, especially given home advantage. De Klerk has been electric for Sale Sharks this year, and Pollard is slowly regaining the form that made him one of South Africa’s most promising talents in the last few years. England’s Ben Youngs and George Ford, at 9 and 10, on the other hand have shown little form this year and if anything their problems and lack of confidence on the big stage seem to be getting worse. South Africa’s undoing however could end up being their bench. Elton Jantjies is simply not a Test fly half and both he and Ivan van Zyl at scrum half had a shocker last weekend in Washington. If South Africa’s starting pair are able to hold their own for the full eighty minutes this should be South Africa’s day in this part of the park.
England should start to feel much more comfortable in this part of the park. Owen Farrell is a master of his trade despite a relatively poor Six Nations by his standards, and his partner Henry Slade is some magic waiting to happen. Despite his form at the Stormers, as most readers of this blog know, we regard Springbok centre Damian de Allende as one of the most overrated players in South African rugby, and sadly do not know enough about his partner Lukhanyo Am. We have heard great things about Am, but not having really seen him in action are not in position to judge what kind of impact he is likely to have on Saturday. De Allende on the other hand concerns us, predictable and ill-disciplined we fear he may be too much of a liability for South Africa, and consequently we are handing the contest here to the English, especially with Farrell’s experience.
This should also be England’s part of the park to rule, even though we are questioning the inclusion of Mike Brown on the wing, instead of his usual position at fullback. For South Africa, with the exception of fullback Willie le Roux, who is also a master of blowing hot and cold, we know so little of the South African wingers that we are not in a position to comment. However, it’s the presence of Elliot Daly in the side and speedster Johnny May on the wing that are causing us to tip our hats England’s way in this area of the field. May has X-factor by the bucketload, and Daly is such a versatile and gifted player that South Africa will really need to produce something special to keep the two Englishmen in check. South Africa have Warrick Gelant on the bench as fullback cover, but despite rave reviews we didn’t see much from him in the Washington match that really made us sit up and take notice.
It’s a tough game to call, but we think in front of a fanatical home crowd South Africa will have more to prove and consequently rise better to both the occasion and the infamous altitude. England are likely to be competitive and dominate key areas of the park, but the Springboks are likely to throw the kitchen sink at them and consequently wear them down. Once fatigue sets in England are likely to start unravelling in the thinner Johannesburg air, with the better acclimatised Springboks just pulling away by 2 points! England will play the more attractive rugby but South Africa are likely to be more determined even it may not be as pretty at times.
Argentina vs Wales
Saturday, June 9th
Unfortunately we only got the team sheets for this match just as we were going to press, so will have to do a brief overview on what we think might happen.
In short, we have one word for Wales after looking at the Pumas team sheet – Ouch!
A bruising Pumas front row should make short work of a Welsh front row that was clearly getting bossed around by the Springboks in Washington in the second half. With Agustin Creevy in the mix for Argentina at Hooker, you know that the Pumas are going to be exceptionally fired up. We can’t see the Welsh second row getting much traction over the towering Pumas unit of Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini who have looked so impressive on the Jaguares last six outings, with Lavanini finally being able to see colors other than yellow and red.
Perhaps more than anything though it’s that Pumas back row which we feel is going to cause Wales the most heartache. Pablo Matera is a devastating loose forward and his partner Marcos Kremer is having a blinder of a Super Rugby season. Welsh number 8 Ross Moriarty will give as good as he gets and really stood out in Washington, but we feel he will be fighting a losing cause against Argentina’s fast, mobile pile-driving trio of Matera, Kremer and Desio.
It’s a dynamic Welsh pairing of Rhys Patchell and the return of Gareth Davies at scrum half, but Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez and Gonzalo Bertranou have lots of match winning experience together in Super Rugby recently. This should be a relatively seamless transition from the Jaguares to the Pumas for the Argentine pair, and it’s that recency and home advantage that should see them run this part of the park for the Pumas to Wales’ disadvantage.
Lastly, the backs should be able to lay waste to Welsh defences, which looked porous in Washington at times. The Pumas are essentially fielding the back five which has proved to be so lethal for the Jaguares recently in Super Rugby. Once more the familiarity of playing together and their proven strike threat should see the Argentinian quintet just get the better of their Welsh counterparts. Expect some sparks from Hadleigh Parkes and George North for Wales, with Hallam Amos providing some surprises of his own. However, we just feel that the talent present in the Argentinian backs and their recent form should give the Pumas the edge.
In short, a bruising encounter, which is probably going to add to Wales’ already significant injury woes. A very competitive game, which ultimately should favor a confident Pumas side by 4 points!
Canada vs Scotland
Saturday June 9th
As of going to press we still don’t have the team sheet for Canada, so sadly this is too much like crystal ball gazing for us to have any kind of in-depth look at the match.
Like we say without the team sheet for Canada it’s hard to have much of an informed opinion. Furthermore we’ve heard that ticket sales haven’t been great, leaving an already demoralized Canadian team playing in a half empty stadium against a young but very accomplished and well coached Scottish side. Scotland may not be fielding their biggest names, but there is a clear hunger and obvious talent in Coach Gregor Townsend’s charges to really make a mark and build a platform for a worthy challenge to the Pumas at the end of the month.
Canada know they have it all to do, but with a poor track record going into this match, and confidence at an all time low, they will be hard pressed to contain a strong well-organized set of Scottish forwards and fizzy backs. Add rain into the mix, which is on the forecast, and Canada’s already poor handling skills and sloppy defence will mean that it’s likely to be a tough day at the office, despite the presence of Canadian superheroes like the legendary winger DTH van der Merwe.
Canada as always will put up a brave fight and we’ll be cheering in front of our TV screens, but realistically it’s hard to see anything less than an 18 point winning margin for Scotland on Saturday in Edmonton!