Yes that’s right it’s one of our favourite times of the year, even if all the leaves are falling off the trees and reminding us that summer is but a distant memory. The November Internationals where North meets South once a year kicks off this weekend, and even though we are technically outside the “official Test window”, there are three intriguing encounters to look forward to this Saturday.
Intriguing they may be but there is no question that this weekend’s fixture between England and South Africa has enormous significance for both sides with everything to play for. England will want to redress the humiliation of a disastrous tour to South Africa in June, as well as break England’s poor run of form in 2018. For South Africa it will be an enormous Test of depth as they are without some key players that made such an impact during the series with England this year, as well as during the recent Rugby Championship. As an injury beset English squad looks to take on a formidable Springbok unit, albeit one with unknown quantities in a couple of vital positions, much will be learnt by both sides as to the quality of depth they are taking into the final twelve month run up to the World Cup next year.
Of the other two matches, Wales host Scotland in a rematch of their Six Nations encounter earlier this year. That match saw Scotland implode dramatically after such an impressive outing during the 2017 November Internationals, which had caused many to think they were to be the dark horse of 2018, especially in the Six Nations. Scotland are nursing their own injury woes, and are without a few key players as a result of this falling outside the “official” Test window. Wales on the other hand look in robust health and in many ways have stolen Scotland’s thunder this year. Wales finished second in this year’s Six Nations and had a highly successful summer tour in which plenty was learnt about the depth they have in their squad. Wales will want to use this match to really lay down a marker to their other key opponents this month, South Africa and Australia.
Lastly, Ireland travel once more to the happy hunting grounds of Soldier Field in Chicago. While this weekend’s match doesn’t quite have the aura of that historic trip two years ago in which they claimed their first All Black scalp, it will be a valuable insight into the depth around key positions that is still keeping some Irish supporters awake at night, with the World Cup final less than a year away. Once more it’s a great opportunity to build the depth on the bench needed for two tough encounters this month, firstly with Argentina, and then arguably THE Test of the year against New Zealand.
We also appreciate that New Zealand are furthering their understanding of what it is like to play in Japan this weekend as they take on next year’s World Cup hosts. However, as we have been slightly under the gun this week, we’ve really only had time to have a look at the three matches listed above. So as always here are the five points per match that have got us talking this week.
Wales vs Scotland
Saturday, November 3rd
This match which is being held in honor of former player Doddie Weir and his crusade against Motor Neurone Disease, is a noble cause in itself. Both sides though are likely to come into this guns blazing. Scotland will seek to set the record straight and demonstrate that their blowout at the same venue against Wales in this year’s Six Nations was nothing more than a blip on the radar. Wales on the other hand will want to ensure that this showpiece of Welsh based players demonstrates that, as runners-up in this year’s Six Nations, South Africa and Australia will find them a force to be reckoned with. It would appear that Wales are starting to peak at just the right time for the World Cup and for once seem to be blessed with a depth of talent that bodes well for a successful campaign next year.
One of the best half back contests of the weekend
While some Scottish fans may be anxious at the absence of Finn Russell for this match, we’d argue that come the final whistle they may have a lot to be thankful for in the shape of newcomer Adam Hastings. Hastings seems to have slotted comfortably into the rather large shoes Russell left behind at Glasgow Warriors, once he left for a stint in France. Hastings has gone from strength to strength with Warriors and while Test Rugby is a huge step up we have a hunch Scotland may be pleasantly surprised by Hastings adaptability to the big occasion. Meanwhile, Gareth Anscombe has provided similar excitement for Wales in the last year and is rapidly being seen as a vital cog in Wales’ World Cup plans. Pair these two relative newcomers with the raw talent and energy of their scrum half partners Gareth Davies for Wales and Ali Price for Scotland, and there is a recipe for some serious excitement here. Both number 9s have now got some considerable Test experience behind them, and in our opinion Gareth Davies should be a shoe-in for the number one scrum half berth in Wales heading into the World Cup. This should be one of the most evenly matched and exciting contests on the field on Saturday.
Where is Josh Navidi for Wales?
Welsh based and with Cardiff Blues, we can only assume Coach Warren Gatland has chosen to rest Navidi and his back row colleague Aaron Shingler for the two big encounters with South Africa and Australia next month. Nevertheless, we were still surprised to see neither make the bench. That being said we are delighted to see Justin Tipuric back in action, as he has consistently ranked as one of our top players in the last five years for Wales. It’s a decent back row for Wales make no mistake, but it’s also a pretty fine offering from Scotland especially with bull terrier Hamish Watson in the mix and keep an eye to Matt Fagerson once he comes off the bench, so much so that Scotland could very well find themselves in the ascendancy here.
X-factor meets tactical genius
Another part of the park where a fascinating contest will unfold is in the centre channels. Wales’ Jonathan Davies is back to his very best and is one of the smartest centre tacticians out there. Powerful, fast and the thinking man’s centre, Davies will be a handful for the Scottish defences to contain. On the other hand so will Scotland’s Huw Jones, who is also a gifted visionary in the centre channels, but his sheer pace and unpredictability means that the Welsh defences will have their hands full trying to contain the explosive Scottish centre. Expect plenty of fireworks here on Saturday!
Will Wales’ Sevens gamble pay off in the shape of Luke Morgan?
The Welsh Sevens superstar gets his first cap for Wales this Saturday on the wing. The Sevens and Ospreys winger has lit up pitches for the last year, but whether or not he can make the transition to Test level remains to be seen, especially up against such a wily and dangerous opponent as Scotland’s Tommy Seymour who will put him through the most rigorous defensive examination. In short, some genuine excitement on offer here, especially if the Welsh experiment pays off.
Ultimately Wales’ look the more experienced outfit against an exciting but greener Scottish side
Whichever way you cut it, Wales just look the more seasoned campaigners when you break down the two squads. Scotland aren’t without some veterans and who wouldn’t want to have the likes of Jonny Gray, Hamish Watson, Tommy Seymour, Ali Price and co amongst your ranks. Nevertheless, Wales are still fielding a fairly top-heavy side of who’s who in Welsh rugby. Ken Owens, Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Gareth Davies, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny and George North all add a wealth of Test experience to every key component of this Welsh team. Consequently, despite some genuine experience and raw talent in the Scottish offering, Wales are still likely to be the more settled and balanced of the two sides on Saturday.
We are unanimous in the opinion that Scotland will not be the shambles they were the last time they visited Cardiff in February this year. Even without some key names expect them to be ferociously competitive. However, Wales are on home ground in a Test match whose worthy cause is likely to get the emotions flowing. Add to that a very healthy and robust blend of youth and experience and we just feel that Wales are likely to get the upper hand on Saturday. Consequently we are handing this one to Wales by eight points!
England vs South Africa
Saturday, November 3rd
It may fall outside the “official” November Test window but that is about the only unofficial thing about this contest, and as a result it is without a doubt THE Test of the weekend. Both teams will want an emphatic victory and are likely to settle for nothing less. England and their Coach Eddie Jones will want to silence their critics and reverse once and for all England’s dramatic fall from the heights of International Rugby that has made headlines this year. South Africa on the other hand will want to show that the gains made under new Coach Rassie Erasmus are here to stay and that South Africa are once more a side to be feared. Furthermore, the Springboks will want to show as they did in their historic win in New Zealand during the recent Rugby Championship, that they can win big matches away from home, a quality that has eluded them for a long time up till now. A very high stakes game awaits for both sides, but there is no question that the victory is that much more important to a clearly beleaguered English side.
If South Africa’s front row can make a mockery of England in the opening stages, that could be the match, especially if Kitshoff and Marx are not kept at bay.
South Africa during the Rugby Championship realised that life becomes a lot easier for them if they can make the hard yards count in the first 60 minutes, rather than try to chase a scoreline. Who better than Hooker Malcolm Marx and Loosehead Prop Steven Kitshoff to ensure that such dominance is established first and foremost up front? These two are some of the best in the business at their trade, and are an absolute menace in generating turnover ball for their teams. Marx’s throwing at the lineout has occasionally misfired, but he is such a force to be reckoned with, both in the tight exchanges and in the loose, that one can almost overlook that. With ball in hand he is a force of nature, while Kitshoff excels at finding the gaps in any defensive wall inches from the try line. They are the blunt end of a very effective and bruisingly physical Springbok forward contingent that we fear England will find it hard to match on Saturday.
England need balance – South Africa already have it by the bucketload
Much has been talked about in relation to England’s lack of balance in the back row. In fairness to Eddie Jones and his men, that balance has been hard to develop as a result of a constant stream of injuries. Nevertheless, that Springbok back row looks the part, with Duane Vermeulen, Warren Whitelely and Siya Kolisi. They dismantled England in June and we expect them to do the same again this Saturday. As delighted as we are to see Tom Curry get a starting berth, we can’t help feeling that the rest of England’s back row offering is still unlikely to fire the way it needs to in order to contain the Springbok threat.
Maro Itoje needs to get a handle on his discipline as a very big game is required from him on Saturday
Like many we have been disappointed in the drop in form, particularly in terms of discipline, from what should be one of England’s standout players. That the man is a gifted rugby player is beyond question. However, it would seem that some of that recognition has gone to his head resulting in the odd pointless lapse in discipline. You can be assured that South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth, who is one of Test Rugby’s greatest windup artists will be looking to provoke the Englishman into such lapses. Expect some very heated debates and button pushing between these two especially at lineout time. Alongside the pair of them the much calmer heads of South Africa’s Pieter-Steph du Toit and England’s George Kruis should help to diffuse the tension in the second row, but the battle in the second rows is likely to be of titanic proportions and not made any easier for England once the giant figure of RG Snyman makes its way from the Springbok bench.
The biggest game of Ben Youngs career?
England need Ben Youngs on Saturday to have one of those Test career changing matches. Much like Maro Itoje, Youngs dip in form both at Club and Country level has been exceptionally difficult to fathom. Alongside fly half Owen Farrell, Youngs may find the spark that has been eluding him in his England partnership with George Ford. Furthermore, Youngs experience should get the better of South Africa’s Ivan Van Zyl. While South Africa will find it impossible to replicate the remarkable skill set of Faf de Klerk, we couldn’t help feeling that there were better options than Van Zyl, who has failed to set the world alight for us. We would have thought that although he may lack the dynamism South Africa are seeking in the position after de Klerk’s impact, Ross Cronje seemed a much more reliable option than Van Zyl whose lack of Test experience is alarming. While we appreciate that South Africa desperately need to develop depth at scrum half, is this the right match to be doing it in? In short we see this as a massive weakness in South Africa’s armory on Saturday, that England and Youngs in particular should be able to exploit to the full.
England’s centre choices
We are left scratching our heads on this one. Yes we know that England is beset with injury problems but is Ben Te’o really England’s best option right now and for a game of such stature? Agreed question marks have been raised around South Africa’s Jesse Kriel and especially Damian de Allende, and we’re the first to admit that we have been some of the biggest critics of de Allende. However, these two and de Allende in particular have really upped their game this year to the point where they are an impressive unit. We also think that South Africa’s bench offering in this department is also someone who can really make a difference in the shape of Andre Esterhuizen, who we feel is one of the most underrated Springbok players at the moment.
This game will be won up front – of that we have no doubt. England would appear to have a more tried and tested back line on attack. However, South Africa also have the dancing feet of Aphiwe Dyantyi who lit up the Rugby Championship with his try scoring ability, in a similar vein to England’s Jonny May, although we think the South African is slightly more elusive and difficult to track. If Ben Youngs fires alongside Owen Farrell then the English half back partnership should have the edge over South Africa’s experimental unit, but if Youngs has another shocker then the stakes could even out. The resulting battle between Farrell and Pollard should be one for the ages and a real test of how far Pollard has come.
Nevertheless, we just get the feeling that South Africa are riding a more positive wave than England at the moment and their forward pack should get the upper hand on Saturday, provided they can keep the referee on their side. South Africa’s physicality is no longer the one-dimensional juggernaut it has tended to be in recent years, and has become a lot more mobile and destructive. As a result it is exhausting for oppostion sides to try and contain it for a full eighty minutes. While there are variables in South Africa’s backs, we still feel that even without the likes of De Klerk and le Roux, the Springboks look the more settled and cohesive unit. Therefore, in what should be a thriller of a contest, South Africa to produce the kind of defensive heroics we saw in Wellington in September, and the Springboks to edge a bruising encounter by five points!
Ireland vs Italy
Saturday, November 3rd
We were fortunate enough to be amongst the 64,000 people treated to the rugby spectacle that took place the last time Ireland visited this famous ground, and claimed their first ever victory over the All Blacks. While Italy don’t quite have the same aura about them, and we doubt the stadium will be standing room only for this one, it is still an important match for both sides. Italy have some markers to lay down this November, most importantly to produce an emphatic victory over Georgia, whose constant improvement set against Italy’s permanent residency at the bottom of the Six Nations tables has led to calls of Georgia’s inclusion in the tournament – possibly at Italy’s expense.
Ireland meanwhile have this and the match next weekend back in Ireland against Argentina to prepare them for THE Test rugby event of the year – Ireland vs New Zealand in a fortnight’s time. With scrum half Conor Murray still out with injury, time is running out for Ireland to develop depth in the one key position in which they have little to none. Fly half Joey Carberry gets his start as the writing is clearly on the wall that he is Johnny Sexton’s understudy. However, at scrum half Ireland are still left with more questions than answers. Consequently, this Test will be an excellent opportunity to make some informed decisions on the biggest question facing Irish rugby at the moment. Ireland have developed extraordinary depth across the park in every other position, and once more this Test will be an excellent opportunity to get such depth the continued exposure it needs.
Is this Italy?
To be honest, the only household names in Italian rugby for us in this squad are centre Michele Campagnaro and fly half Carlo Canna. Where is centre Tommaso Castello, fullback Matteo Minozzi and flanker Sebastian Negri who so impressed during the Six Nations? Perhaps Coach Conor O’Shea is resting his big guns for the Georgia game, but we feel that against an impressive looking Irish squad, Italy are really going to be up against it on Saturday.
Luke McGrath finally gets a start for Ireland at scrum half
With question marks surrounding Conor Murray’s participation in the All Black game, Ireland need a massive game from impressive Leinster scrum half Luke McGrath. Our money is on him to get the starting berth for the All Black game should Murray not be available. His performances at Leinster have been outstanding and although European Champions Cup rugby is not quite the same as Test rugby, at times it is not far from it. We are delighted to finally see him get the recognition he deserves, and hope that this may be the start to a long and fruitful period in the green jersey.
Joey Carberry really needs to showcase his superb skill set
Increasingly confident at managing big games, as well as having the attacking abilities with ball in hand that no doubt made people sit up and take notice of New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett early in his career, Carberry really needs to lay down a marker on Saturday that he is more than just Johnny Sexton’s understudy. We’ve been increasingly impressed with the youngster’s skill set and he also shows the same fearless abandon that Sexton does both in attack and on defence. In short an excellent player that simply needs continued big match experience between now and the World Cup.
The Irish back row – a genuine wealth of talent
Ireland’s back row for this match sees the Leinster trio of Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier. The fact that this is Ireland’s second or third string offering in this department, just shows you the exceptional depth Ireland have developed here. In short this is simply one area of the park where any of their opponents are going to struggle to get the better of them. Expect these three to run riot with Italy on Saturday.
Get your chequebooks out and have a flutter on how many tries the Irish back three will bag in Chicago on Saturday
We’re going with a bare minimum of two apiece for Andrew Conway, Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour. These three youngsters are absolutely lethal, with Stockdale in particular seeming able to score at will from anywhere on the park. We just can’t see the Italian defences being able to keep these three in check, and an excellent confidence boost for the role that these three Irish speedsters are likely to play in Ireland’s matchups with Argentina and New Zealand. And while you’re at it, we also reckon that there are at least one apiece for the Irish centres Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki.
Italy may learn a great deal about what kind of bench they can put together for the Georgia game, but apart from that we sadly don’t fancy their chances on Saturday against a very slick-looking Irish side, despite the youth and inexperience of some of the Men in Green. Ireland will use this as a building block on the road to meet New Zealand in a fortnight’s time, and also really get to grips with who is likely to wear the number nine jersey on November 17th. We hope that Italy can at least be competitive at times but can’t help feeling that Ireland is going to get a lot more out of this experience than the Azurri. Consequently, we are handing this to Ireland by a comfortable margin of 22 points!
As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our posts this month with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there, subscribe and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content. In the meantime here’s their excellent preview of the November Internationals.