It’s not often that four Test matches over a November weekend live up to their billing. However, this weekend produced two titanic struggles and two matches, which although not the prettiest to watch at times, still provided some extraordinary moments.
Our two highlights of the weekend were without a doubt the Twickenham and Paris thrillers. England have really stepped up to the plate this November, and their win over first South Africa and then a loss to the All Blacks by a mere point must surely mark a dramatic reversal in their fortunes this year. While they get a relatively easier challenge this weekend against Japan, their final match of the month sees them with the opportunity to make it two Southern Hemisphere scalps out of three, as they take on a Wallaby side in crisis. France meanwhile will be gutted with their narrow loss at the death to South Africa, but can take heart in the fact that their first outing this November produced such quality against an impressive Springbok unit.
In Cardiff and Dublin there were some great moments as Wales finally ended their losing streak against Australia, and Ireland were put under some enormous pressure by a ferocious Pumas side. We never really felt that Wales or Ireland were going to lose, but Wales will be disappointed that despite dominating Australia they were unable to really get serious points on the scoreboard. Meanwhile Ireland were made to work exceptionally hard for their win over a rampant Pumas side. The game in Cardiff was not attractive by any stretch of the imagination as two sides played highly cautious rugby, leaving little to spark the imagination. Wales may have been more effective and got a critical win, but they will be frustrated that they couldn’t turn their attacks into points.
Ireland meanwhile, although being well off their usual pace, will still regard their epic tussle with Argentina as the perfect preparation for “THE BIG ONE” this weekend with New Zealand. Ireland will need to up their game considerably if they are to take on an All Black side recently rattled by England. In fairness to Argentina, apart from their scrum they came to Dublin hell-bent on causing havoc – a task in which they succeeded admirably. The Pumas had Ireland on the rack for a good hour, and it was only in the final quarter where Ireland managed to get the measure of Argentina and start playing the kind of rugby they needed to get the win.
Even Canada managed to get a solid win over Kenya in the first of three matches in France to determine who gets the last spot up for grabs at next year’s Rugby World Cup.
Just like last weekend, there was drama and controversy aplenty but here’s what got us talking on Sunday morning.
England are back but need better decision-making as New Zealand showed them how to close the deal once more
Just as in their performance against South Africa, England had a solid effort, put under the microscope once more by a 50/50 call. Last week it went in their favor but this time it wasn’t to be. It was a borderline call that put Courtney Lawes offside and thus denied England the try that would have sealed a classic Test match. The authorities have since deemed the officials had the correct interpretation of the rules, and from what we’ve seen it is marginal, but it would appear that a miniscule portion of Lawes’ right toe is in the offside position. Tough one but there it is. Just like South Africa squandering their chances against England the week before, England were guilty of doing the same. In appalling weather, they constantly decided to kick for touch rather than take the much easier points on offer between the sticks. This seemed even more prevalent once Owen Farrell took over the Captaincy from Dylan Hartley. A slippery ball and a swampy surface are always going to make the effectiveness of your driving maul from a 5 metre lineout questionable – the ball can pop out anywhere and your forwards are struggling with traction. England, like South Africa the week before left at least 6 points out on the park, which meant they would still have comfortably won even without the disallowed try.
On the positive side of things, England are clearly back in business. To hold the world’s best team at bay for as long as they did in appalling conditions, and ultimately lose by a point is something they can feel exceptionally good about. There is finally a back row that works and a back three that looks dangerous. Ben Youngs is regaining the form that made him so valuable to England’s efforts in the scrum half department, and Danny Care is an able replacement. The second row, and Maro Itoje in particular, also seem back to their best even if they struggled to contain the super human feats of Brodie Retallick in the lineouts. England’s decision-making needs some work, and we’re not convinced about their front row, centre pairings or fly half selections, but overall the change in England’s performance compared to six months ago is night and day.
New Zealand meanwhile may have been put under the kosh by England but they still showed the class and resilience they have to get the job done, even if their supporters’ hearts were in their mouths for the final five minutes. For us it was the class and skill shown in Damian McKenzie’s try, Brodie Retallick’s remarkable efforts at nullifying England’s lineouts and Barrett’s game management and decision-making in when and how to take the points that ultimately revealed the difference between the two sides in terms of big match temperament.
Wales continue to improve while Australia slide deeper into the abyss
There were some moments in that game that had us on our feet from a Welsh perspective – essentially any time centre Jonathan Davies or flanker Justin Tipuric were in charge of events. Tipuric in particular was immense for Wales and seemed a catalyst for many of Wales’ brightest moments in the game. The same can be said for Jonathan Davies. As a collective Wales put in a solid if uninspiring performance, which ultimately saw them come out on top in a contest that clearly meant so much to them. They were cautious and at times seemed overwhelmed by the occasion, as evidenced by Leigh Halfpenny fluffing a kick at goal right in front of the posts. There was little risk taking and given Australia’s ineptitude for much of the match it made for dire viewing at times. Wales are a more exciting team than that, but the win at whatever cost was clearly putting a lid on some of their more creative attributes. They got the job done, and Tipuric and Davies sought to inspire, but for the most part it was a pedestrian match that will not be remembered for much other than the low score and a much-needed Welsh victory.
Australia on the other hand were dire – plain and simple. First of all we struggled to try to figure out what kind of game Australia were trying to play. It looked overly complicated, especially in the set pieces, and players clearly had no understanding whatsoever of how to execute whatever it was they were supposed to be doing. We thought lock Adam Coleman put in a solid effort and seemed to be the only player who had an inkling of what was expected of him. Australia’s back row, despite David Pocock, looks increasingly unbalanced and Michael Hooper’s decision-making skills in such a low scoring match beggared belief at times. Increasingly of late, we’ve really noticed the lack of a Scott Fardy type figure in Australia’s back row – ask any Leinster supporter how much the ex-Wallaby has brought to the Irish club’s efforts in the European Champions Cup. Coach Michael Cheika despite being a YouTube sensation, increasingly looks out of touch, while at the same time constantly spouting on about the learning Australia is supposedly doing – even if his players are clearly struggling to figure out what language the playbook is written in as the first step in their learning process. Australia may have a potentially soft fixture with Italy this weekend, but even that is no guarantee. Italy’s tails are clearly up after their much-needed win over Georgia last weekend, and they will sense there is an opportunity for an upset here. In short, Australia look a mess from 1-15, despite some clear and obvious talent, and it is going to take a huge step up for them to avoid a banana skin in Italy and humiliation from a hungry and revitalized England.
Ireland get off to a scrappy start and need to make some hard decisions
There were some thrilling moments in this match from both sides, and there is no question that Ireland received a schooling at times from Argentina. We always thought this was going to be a tough encounter, especially as the Pumas have a history of raining on Ireland’s parade. However, as preparation for next weekend’s assignment with New Zealand, Ireland and Coach Joe Schmidt could not have asked for better. It was big, tough, fast and physical for the full eighty minutes. Sadly it took its toll on Ireland as flanker Sean O’Brien was once more taken from the field with an injury that will see him out of action till at least the New Year. The Irish back rower has really struggled of late with injury and one has to wonder how much more he can take, especially with the World Cup less than a year away. Still O’Brien’s loss is Dan Leavy’s gain, and he made sure that he stamped a solid claim on the number 7 jersey this weekend. In our opinion given O’Brien’s ongoing misfortune with injury and resulting time away from the game, it is increasingly difficult for Coach Joe Schmidt and the Irish selectors to deny Leavy a regular starting berth at 7. When he came on for the injured O’Brien against the Pumas his impact was felt immediately and he never let up for the rest of the match. Much like second rower James Ryan, Leavy seems to have no off button.
Ireland won’t be pleased with their struggles at lineout time, something which seemed to improve dramatically once second rower Devin Toner came on for Ian Henderson. However, Rory Best’s lineout throws also left a lot to be desired, and for a while now we’ve felt that Sean Cronin actually has better accuracy in such vital set pieces. Furthermore, we also couldn’t help but get the impression that in the final quarter once Peter O’Mahony was given the Captain’s armband, Ireland’s shape changed and they seemed to hit another gear, as well as become much more clinical. None of this is meant in any way to be disdainful of Rory Best and his leadership or ability. Best is an outstanding servant of Irish rugby and a big part of their success of the last few years. However, when he does have an off day Ireland clearly suffers. Even the incomparable Johnny Sexton had a very poor game by his standards until the final quarter. Jordan Larmour as we suspected, had a tough go of it at fullback and Argentina tested him to the full defensively, so much so that he was found wanting on occasion and as a result he was given little opportunity to show off the attacking skills that had everyone talking after the match with Italy the weekend before.
It wasn’t pretty from Ireland, but they got the job done, and by the final quarter seemed to have found their rhythm once more. In addition, both scrum halves who will have to do duty next weekend, as a result of the continued absence of Conor Murray, put in solid performances and each managed to bag a fine try. Ireland know they will need to take it up another couple of gears next weekend if they are to survive a day out with New Zealand in what is rightly being billed as the biggest Test of the year. Ireland still have plenty of work to do between now and next Saturday, but it still should be one hell of a contest!
South Africa leave it till the last minute, but show a resolve we have rarely seen from them, especially on the road
France will be bitterly disappointed with their loss at the death to South Africa. It was a great Test match and France acquitted themselves very well indeed, however, in a match running so closely on the margins France committed some key errors that ultimately decided the game. South Africa were made to work for every scrap, and it is clear that France are starting to click just in time to make them a genuine nuisance come the World Cup. However, the Springboks execution was for the most part just that much better, and their focus in the dying minutes showed a calmness and confidence that wasn’t all that different to that shown by a group of men in green jerseys who visited the French capital back in February this year.
France we felt had a lot to be pleased about. Their front row may have taken a bit of a beating at times, but their second row and their back row in particular stood up superbly to a very powerful challenge from South Africa. Their halfback pairing, especially Baptiste Serin at scrum half looked the part as did the bench pairing of Anthony Belleau and Antoine Dupont. France’s backs also impressed, especially veteran fullback Maxime Medard. In short, France are clearly finding their way again and could well end up as a smoking gun in next year’s World Cup. There is still a certain naiveté about them at times, but with the European Champions Cup and next year’s Six Nations in store for many of these players, France should be in fine form come the World Cup.
South Africa managed to put last week’s disappointment behind them, and with the return of key players like scrum half Faf de Klerk, fullback Willie le Roux and second rower Franco Mostert, South Africa played with an assurance that was lacking at key moments last weekend against England. Fly half Handre Pollard’s kicking game was rock solid and he switched effortlessly to centre once Elton Jantjies replaced him at ten in the final quarter. Malcolm Marx was a shadow of the player that raised so many eyebrows last weekend in terms of missed opportunities. He hit his targets in the lineouts, made life a misery for France in the scrums and the loose, and generally got back to the kind of form we are accustomed to seeing from this remarkable player. South Africa may have been slow to get out of the blocks in the first half, but by the hour mark they were starting to fizz. Furthermore with five minutes to go they just didn’t look like panicking. They knew what they had to do and set about doing it calmly and efficiently. There is no question that replacement Hooker Bongi Mbonambi’s radar like accuracy at lineout time helped enormously and his game breaking try at the death was just reward for his efforts.
It may be premature to say – but this is best evidence we’ve seen that the gap is closing between North and South, just in time for what should be one of the most closely contested World Cups ever!
That one point difference between England and New Zealand says a lot about how quickly some of the Northern Hemisphere sides are starting to catch up to the World’s number one side, the All Blacks. There is still a long way to go, but the fact that France almost beat South Africa while England held New Zealand to the death and lost by only a point, says a lot about what we could expect from next year’s World Cup. If Ireland are able to pull off the unthinkable without Conor Murray and beat New Zealand this weekend, then it would seem to indicate that the omens for a very closely contested and open World Cup next year are looking very good indeed. Argentina seem to be peaking at just the right time, Wales are looking like they are blessed with depth and know how to win, even if last weekend’s match wasn’t the best advertisement for the latter quality. England are back and everyone knows that Ireland are good – next weekend will simply tell us how good. South Africa are starting to hum, France are rising from the ashes and Scotland continue to look dangerous. The only real question mark is Australia, and we still argue that only a fool would write them off, even if your tea leaves are telling you to do so.
In short, on what is for all intents and purposes neutral ground for Rugby’s traditional superpowers, next year’s World Cup in Japan should be one of the most open and competitive in the tournament’s history. We will know a lot more once the next two weeks are over, but have to admit we are already getting more than just a little excited!
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 look at the England/New Zealand game.