There is no doubt that this weekend’s fixture in Dublin is one of the most anticipated Tests of the year, and one which will tell us a lot about how close the number two side Ireland is to the world’s best New Zealand. Ireland know that should they lose, there can be no excuses and that they must continue to raise the bar in terms of both their depth and skill if they are genuine about their aspirations to lift the Webb Ellis trophy next year in Japan. If New Zealand come away the losers, they know that their position at the top of Rugby’s world order is still secure for the moment, but England, Ireland and South Africa will be snapping hard at their heels come the World Cup next year, by which time the gap between these four rugby superpowers is likely to be minimal at best. New Zealand will know that in order to hang onto their dominance of the global game, they will have to, as they have so often, reinvent how the game is played.
Before we get underway in Dublin on Saturday, South Africa travel to Edinburgh to take on a Scottish side that obliterated a spirited Fijian challenge last weekend. Scotland seemed to have managed the unthinkable and seem able to play a faster game than Fiji, who have been the traditional speed kings of Test Rugby up till now. Scotland also don’t seem short on the brawn factor either and should be able to match up to the fearsome physical challenge that South Africa will bring. The Springboks showed a resolve in the final five minutes against France last weekend that we have rarely seen from them on the road, and snatched the win. In Wellington earlier this year they hung on to a famous victory like men possessed, but in Paris last Saturday they knew what they had to do and calmly and efficiently set about doing it without panicking, despite the seconds clicking down on the clock.
After the dustup in Dublin, we end the day in Northern France, as Argentina travel to Lille to take on a French side reeling from the loss to South Africa at the death in Paris last weekend. Nevertheless, there were still plenty of things for France to feel positive about, but if they are to avoid the type of schooling Argentina provided Ireland with at times last weekend, then they will need to improve on that performance. Argentina may have lost to Ireland, but they made them work for it in no uncertain terms. It was only a continually creaking scrum that really let them down. It is likely to be a bruising encounter and one in which Argentina after their exploits in Dublin will fancy their chances, and if that back three from the Pumas get a sniff of space it could be a long afternoon for the French. As the last crack at a Southern Hemisphere side before the World Cup, France will know they need to make a statement on Saturday in Lille, especially as these two sides will be fighting it out in the same pool for a ticket to the knockout stages in next year’s global showdown.
In other November action, Italy taken on an Australian side reeling from one crisis to another, Wales do battle with Tonga and England get to regroup with Japan. Much like last week, while we recognise the importance of these matches, due to limited resources we sadly won’t be covering them, as well as Canada’s key World Cup Repechage tournament fixture with Germany this weekend in France.
So, here’s what got us talking about each of the three key fixtures this weekend.
Scotland vs South Africa – Saturday, November 17th – Murrayfield
South Africa travel to Edinburgh knowing that their performance against England was just short of the mark to get the win, and while they got the job done in Paris, they left it till far too late to seal the deal. Scotland will give them no easy breaks, and given the blistering tempo at which Scotland likes to play the game these days South Africa know they are going to have their hands full, especially defensively. The only way for them to keep out of danger is to simply suffocate the ball and give Scotland’s speed merchants no room in which to operate. However, Scotland as evidenced last week can pack some physical punch of their own, and Saturday’s contest should provide plenty of entertainment across the park.
If Scotland’s forward pack can mix it with South Africa, then the keys to the match may have been found
Everyone knows what Scotland’s backs can do, but the question remains as to how effective their forward pack really is. Against arguably the most punishing set of forwards in the world, Scotland will have the ultimate litmus Test with South Africa. Scotland ultimately got pushed around by Wales up front in their November opener, and Fiji are not renown for their forward prowess. As a result, Saturday’s Test will reveal a great deal about Scotland’s stocks in this department.
Another chance for Scotland’s Sam Skinner to really shine
Skinner was one of the talking points of Scotland’s demolition of Fiji last weekend. The debutant was a lethal weapon for the Scots against the Fijians and if he can build on that performance up against a seemingly immoveable Springbok back row, then Scotland will feel well pleased. However, the 23-year-old will have to hold his own against the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen.
Pollard vs Russell – versatility meets unpredictability
After the England match, Pollard clearly got his groove back for South Africa in Paris and as the game progressed, he became increasingly confident, so much so that he slotted effortlessly into the centre channel in the last quarter of the match once Elton Jantjies took over at fly half. Finn Russell on the other hand, very rarely does the same thing twice on a rugby field making it impossible at times to read Scotland defensively. Russell’s risk taking is at times legendary, however, if the execution isn’t there then it makes Scotland highly vulnerable. Pollard is the more cautious but reliable of the two, and is less likely to try something he knows his colleagues have only a 50/50 chance of pulling off. A fascinating contest in store here between these two.
Embrose Papier’s big day for the Springboks
South Africa are once more denied the services of the exceptional Faf de Klerk at scrum half, and instead have to rely on the relatively untested merits of Embrose Papier. There is no question he packs a bit more fizz in his delivery than the slightly more pedestrian Ivan van Zyl. However, he has precious little game time at this level under his belt. South Africa know they need to develop depth in a position that will be crucial to their chances at next year’s World Cup. Papier’s slightly quicker reflexes and pace of delivery is likely to suit what should be a much faster flowing game than what South Africa experienced against England. If he performs well, then Coach Rassie Erasmus can put a big check mark against depth at scrum half on his to do list.
Another huge defensive test awaits South Africa out wide
The debate continues around whether or not South Africa still has a credible defense out wide. There will be no better test than Saturday as they attempt to contain Huw Jones up the middle, and Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour out wide, with Seymour having scored a hat trick against Fiji. There is also a gentleman by the name of Stuart Hogg at fullback for Scotland who makes a habit of shredding defences from all over the park. Much like Argentina’s back three, this group of Scotsmen are going to be coming at South Africa from all angles all afternoon, if South Africa’s forwards don’t manage to stifle Scotland’s creativity. Pass this test and Erasmus will know he’s made some genuine progress on defence.
This is for us the hardest contest to call this weekend. If South Africa are able to continually frustrate Scotland by denying them quick ball, as well as letting their own two wingers go to work, then it should be South Africa’s day. However, Scotland play at such breakneck speed and with such panache at times, they could manage to cause enough confusion to prevent South Africa getting any kind of cohesion in their defensive structures. We saw what Scotland did to Australia last year, and South Africa are still only just emerging from the kind of wilderness that the Wallabies now find themselves utterly lost in. We can’t help but get the feeling that Scotland, in front of the Murrayfield faithful, are just that much more up for this one, despite the highly physical and daunting threat that a rapidly improving South Africa offers. If Faf de Klerk was in the lineup for South Africa we would be giving them the edge, but without him South Africa are faced with a few more unknowns than Scotland on Saturday. Just like in Paris a close and hard-fought match awaits, but one in which Scotland should just rule the day by two points!
Ireland vs New Zealand – Saturday, November 17th – Dublin
Yes, it’s finally here. While taking nothing away from the titanic struggle between England and New Zealand last weekend, this match is still the big ticket for the November Internationals this year. It’s the best of the North meeting the best of the South and as a result is without a doubt the Test of the Year. Whoever, wins or loses will not result in New Zealand falling from their lofty position at the top of the world rankings just yet, but it will tell us a great deal about whether or not New Zealand still remain in a league of their own.
While England managed to keep within one point of New Zealand last weekend, and consequently put the All Blacks under the sort of pressure they are only just becoming used to of late, it ultimately wasn’t enough to prevent New Zealand from calmly wrestling back control of the game and emerging shaken but confident victors. It’s that quality of being able to come from behind without ever really looking panicked, that has become so synonymous with their success. They’ve only looked genuinely rattled twice in the last 3 years – once in Chicago two years ago against Ireland and most recently in Wellington against the Springboks. They arrive in Dublin with a lethal looking side that will require Ireland to be at their very best.
Ireland meanwhile come into the match, at the height of an unparalleled wave of success. However, they meet New Zealand without two players who were key to that famous victory in Chicago two years ago – scrum half Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw. More to the point, Ireland know that they cannot use this as an excuse if they play poorly on Saturday and suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of New Zealand. If you want to compete with the very best in the world, especially in the endurance marathon that is the World Cup, you simply have to be able to weather the inevitable attrition of some of your key players. As many people who are familiar with our musings know, we regard the lack of game time for Ireland’s half back understudies to Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton as their one potential Achilles Heel in the buildup to next year’s World Cup. If Keiran Marmion, Luke McGrath and Joey Carberry acquit themselves well this Saturday against the World’s best, then Coach Joe Schmidt can feel he has found the last missing link in the development of an Irish World Cup squad.
Rory Best has to be his best
As we mentioned in our post action musings from last weekend, we felt that Rory Best was slightly off the mark last weekend. The veteran hooker continued to lead from the front, but his accuracy at lineout time continued to leave us with concerns. Furthermore, he just looked off the pace for much of the match. We all know what the great man can do, but Ireland need him to bring his A game on Saturday and then some. We also felt that in the final quarter, Peter O’Mahony lent a certain edge to the Captaincy that Ireland needed to get over a troublesome opponent in the shape of Argentina. New Zealand are likely to be just as unsettling and Best really needs to rise to the occasion both in terms of execution and leadership. Without a doubt the biggest game he will play between now and the World Cup.
The second row contest – one of the biggest on the park
Saturday will take us back to prehistoric times as giants will once more roam the land in the lineouts. Ireland’s James Ryan wasn’t in Chicago for that famous victory but he has become such an integral part of Ireland’s success in the blink of an eye that it is hard to believe he wasn’t. Meanwhile, Devin Toner will add another towering dimension to Ireland’s second row. Ireland will need it as they go up against the best second row pair on the planet in the shape of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Retallick singlehandedly turned the game to New Zealand’s advantage by taking complete control of the lineouts away from England last weekend. The communication between Rory Best and his jumpers has to be perfect on Saturday, if Ireland are to avoid what happened to England last weekend.
Dan Leavy could have made the number 7 jersey his once and for all – but now it is Josh van der Flier’s turn to steal the limelight
When we published this last night this was a burning question. However, on waking up this morning we learnt that Leavy is out at the last minute and in steps Josh van der Flier. Consequently this comment and its response below are irrelevant in the context of tomorrow’s match. Having said that though, if Van der Flier can also step up in place of both Leavy and O’Brien, then it will raise even more questions for Joe Schmidt as to which of these three is his regular starter for the number 7 berth between now and the World Cup. Given the quality of all three players, this is a dilemma that most Coaches would dearly love to have.
One of the sad sights of Ireland’s encounter last weekend with Argentina was Sean O’Brien once more leaving the field with injury. Still for Dan Leavy it was opportunity knocks. As gutted as we all are for O’Brien, there is no question that Leavy is far more than just an able replacement. He was a force of nature from the moment he came on against the Pumas, and seems to relish an intense physical contest while at the same time seeming impervious to fatigue. As we said earlier this week, the man appears to have no off switch, much like his second row colleague James Ryan. If Leavy puts in a massive shift against New Zealand on Saturday, then irrespective of O’Brien’s recovery time, Coach Joe Schmidt will find it increasingly difficult to not see him as a starter in his World Cup plans over the next twelve months.
Depth at nine – now’s the time!
Ireland may be without the services of talismanic scrum half Conor Murray on Saturday, but they couldn’t have a better opportunity to really see the calibre of their stocks in this position. Murray has been such an integral part of Ireland’s success since the last World Cup that Ireland find themselves unsure of how well they can cope without him. Consequently, despite the fact that Murray’s two understudies Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath now have to step out of the frying pan and into the fire, Ireland couldn’t ask for a better examination of how much they need to do to develop the needed depth in this part of the park between now and Japan next year. Marmion has proven himself under pressure in an Irish jersey, but Luke McGrath has simply never had to face this kind of test. If they pass with flying colors then much of Ireland will sleep better on Saturday night.
Ireland’s back three will face their biggest Test and we’re not talking about Jacob Stockdale’s try scoring ability
If we see one area that Ireland may really struggle with on Saturday – it’s here. Sure, we all want to see the maestro of the try line for Ireland, winger Jacob Stockdale, grab at least one five pointer. However, if Ireland are to survive on Saturday, they really need to keep New Zealand’s back three in check defensively. While Ireland are masters of possession, they have proven vulnerable to the counter attack, and in Rieko Ioane, but particularly Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie, New Zealand possess Test Rugby’s ultimate weapons. Ireland’s Rob Kearney may be one of the undisputed champions of the high ball, but will he, Stockdale and Earls be able to contain McKenzie’s bursts from deep? The diminutive All Black fullback has defenders clawing helplessly at thin air as he does his own rendition of “Riverdance” across the park. A huge Test awaits the Irish trio and if they manage to get through it, Ireland will breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Ireland know they are up against it on Saturday, and that it is going to take a very special team effort to pull off what would still be considered an upset if they were to beat New Zealand. Even without Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw, it is a very good Irish team that is coached by one of the best, if not THE best, tactical brains in Test Rugby in the shape of Joe Schmidt. However, New Zealand haven’t been the number one team in the world for the last nine years by accident. There is no team more clinical or ruthless in its approach to the modern game. They may have had their odd wobble this year, but in our humble opinion, we’ve never felt they’ve looked all that vulnerable – occasionally rattled yes but not vulnerable. Ireland may have a game plan to put them under pressure and get them to make mistakes, but there is no team that makes better use of the twenty minutes at half time in the sheds. For their opponents the final forty minutes is a nerve-racking affair of hanging on for dear life as New Zealand figure out how to play them at their own game and turn it to their advantage. Consequently, for us, it may be down to the wire, but Ireland have more questions to answer than New Zealand does on Saturday. Therefore, despite a titanic struggle at times, the All Blacks should seal this by eight points in a final ten minutes in which Ireland learn a great deal about themselves and what they need to do before Japan! However, in order to create yet another piece of sporting history between these two great sides we hope Ireland prove us wrong.
France vs Argentina – Saturday, November 17th – Lille
In days gone by, France would have been seen as the side with all the flair and panache and Argentina the side to grind out a punishing and physical contest. How times have changed as the roles are now completely reversed. Argentina still possess a formidable pack of forwards, but their skill lies more in disruption and ball carrying than it does in bludgeoning an opposition into submission. Argentina’s backs are like French backs of old and fizz with excitement and creativity. France have become a big punishing side, with sufficient pace in some of their backs to make opposition sides pay for their mistakes. But if you’re looking for French flair on Saturday, there’s likely to be more on offer in the tango.
France will be licking their wounds after being robbed at the death by South Africa. Argentina meanwhile arrive in France, full of confidence knowing that they gave Ireland a serious workout last weekend in Dublin. Argentina really only have one documented weakness at the moment, their scrum, while this is a French team that is not nearly as coherent and familiar with each other as the Pumas. However, both teams find themselves in similar positions – teams that can and should be having more success than the results they have to show for their efforts this year. If both teams turn up full of intent and get the basics right, this should be a very worthwhile match from a spectator point of view.
We didn’t see much in the way of hope for Argentina’s scrum last weekend
We are really struggling to understand why this traditional strength for Argentina is proving so problematic of late. Sadly, we didn’t see much last weekend to convince us that a turnaround in Argentina’s scrum fortunes is on the cards any time soon. Hooker Agustin Creevy is world class, but his support seems to be creaking around him. Although France struggled at times here against South Africa, we still felt they were competitive, which sadly is not something we can say about Argentina at the moment. We hope that November provides Argentina with the insight they need to fix it, but for now it’s looking like multiple visits to the drawing board.
France are likely to battle in the second row
Although we felt he had a better game than we expected him to have, Yoann Maestri and Sebastien Vahaamahina often looked panicked and overwhelmed against South Africa. By comparison Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini and Matias Alemanno looked almost composed last weekend against Ireland, which is definitely not a quality we are used to associating with Lavanini. Lavanini’s discipline and maturity have improved leaps and bounds this year and along with Alemanno, Argentina have a devastatingly effective and mobile second row unit. France needed to be better here last weekend and this Saturday will demand more of the same.
France need three Arthur Iturrias
Don’t get us wrong, Louis Picamoles and Wenceslas Lauret had good games last weekend but Iturria kept grabbing the headlines. Every time France did something positive the flanker’s name seemed to pop up. He will be up against a genuine powerhouse Pumas back row, but expect this 24-year-old to cause Argentina plenty of headaches on Saturday.
Moyano vs Thomas – one of the best contests of the weekend
That both these individuals have plenty of pace and an ability to turn on a dime is an understatement of the highest order. The weather conditions in Lille on Saturday look to favor a running game, and these two wingers are extraordinary proponents of such a contest. Argentina’s Ramiro Moyano has been for us one of the most exciting players to watch this year in open play and some of his running lines have been truly breathtaking. France’s Teddy Thomas is of the same calibre, though we feel that Moyano is better defensively. Watching these two in action will be a thrilling prospect on Saturday, and the more dominant of the two will most likely be on the winning side. To add to France’s headaches, there is also an Argentinian who goes by the name of Bautista Delguy who has probably featured in a few of Frenchman Yoann Huget’s nightmares this week.
In with the old and in with the new – the battle at 15
The New World in the shape of Argentina’s Emiliano Boffelli meets the Old World on Saturday in the form of France’s Maxime Medard. The French veteran is playing some of the best rugby of an illustrious career while Boffelli is the rookie everyone keeps talking about. Both are huge threats in their own right, are but players with very different styles, particularly on the counterattack. However, we feel that the Argentinian is more likely to grab the headlines as he features as part of a back three that have now been playing together continuously at both club and Test level since February. Unless fatigue gets the better of them this is ultimately a highly seasoned Argentinian unit, even if France may be packing more in the experience department.
France should win and will want to win. While the latter part of that statement is clearly stating the obvious, after the disappointment of last week it will be high on the list of their priorities. However, Argentina will also want to make a statement on this tour that they mean business at next year’s World Cup in one of their last major international outings before an abbreviated Rugby Championship next year. Two equally matched sides with plenty to prove should make for an even and entertaining match. However, because we were so impressed with how well Argentina coped with the second best side in the world last week, even if Ireland were misfiring, we think the Pumas might have the edge this weekend. Familiarity and a Coach who knows how to get results, make us lean toward Argentina as slight favourites in Lille on Saturday by four 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 look at the kinds of tactical discussions that might be going on in the Irish and New Zealand think tanks this week.