Like we say the remarkable Test match in Dublin last weekend lived up to its billing and then some! While this weekend’s final round of the November Test window may not quite have the aura of that memorable occasion there is still much to capture our interest this coming Saturday. Scotland once again kick off the action as they host Argentina, and they will be looking to finish their November campaign with a bang after narrowly losing to South Africa. England then take on a Wallaby side that is still struggling to convince despite a win against Italy. England will need to sharpen their skills after looking decidedly less than flash against a spirited Japanese team last weekend. The big fixture of this weekend is without a doubt the match between Wales and South Africa. Both sides are on a roll after a successful November campaign and look to be evenly matched as the number 2 side in the Northern Hemisphere meets number two in the Southern Hemisphere.
In other November action, Ireland take on the USA, France meet up with Fiji and Italy have the unenviable task of doing battle with an All Black side smarting from their loss to Ireland the week before. Canada also take on Hong in their last match in the World Cup repechage tournament in France. With two solid wins behind them they look well placed to book their berth to Japan next year. As much as we would like to cover all these games in addition to the three main matches this weekend, we are sadly constrained once more by time and resources, so will have to focus our attention on events in Edinburgh, Twickenham and Cardiff this Saturday.
So without further ado here’s what got us talking about the upcoming action.
Scotland vs Argentina – Saturday, November 24th – Murrayfield
Scotland stayed true to form last weekend and their opening forty minutes against South Africa was played at a blistering pace. Both their tries showed some genuine brilliance on attack and their skill at getting the ball through the hands at speed on their first try was a joy to watch. However, at times they looked frail defensively and while mixing it physically with South Africa is always a challenge, it was clear that at times they were struggling to remain competitive. South Africa meanwhile clearly had the upper hand up front, and courtesy of Scotland’s fast paced game occasionally proving too ambitious, South Africa were able to play a more composed and structured game. South Africa once more were able to show a resolve similar to that shown in Paris the week before. They simply didn’t panic despite Scotland putting them under pressure continuously in the second half. Their defence held firm and they were able to turn Scotland’s mistakes to their advantage, with Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjiies’ boots sealing the deal for the Springboks.
Argentina know that they can play just as quickly as Scotland in the backs and have a fly half who is the measure of Scotland’s Finn Russell. The Pumas also boast a forward pack that can put Scotland under the same kind of pressure they got from the Springboks. However, the Pumas scrum still remains a major Achilles Heel for them and they appear to be fading in terms of overall potency after a long hard season together both at Super Rugby and Test Level as the inevitable fatigue sets in.
We know Russell’s played the position before but definitely a first for us
Finn Russell has apparently played at centre before but we are not familiar with him in the role. As a result Saturday’s contest holds plenty of interest. Relieved of the burden of game management from the fly half position we are curious to see if Russell’s quick turn of pace and unpredictability may actually be more suited to the inside channels. His partnership with the electric Huw Jones should provide plenty of sparks, as well as him being able to provide support to his understudy at fly half, Adam Hastings. Between Jones, Russell and Hastings, this could prove to be a deadly axis which Argentina could struggle to get to grips with.
Argentina’s scrum is a mess – plain and simple
Given that the Pumas Coach Mario Ledesma is a veteran warrior of the front row, it is hard to understand Argentina’s continuing problems at the coal face. But problems there are as we clearly saw against France. The Pumas either went backwards or collapsed at scrum time. There were the odd moments where they seemed to hold their ground but in general they were completely overpowered by the French. Scotland were able to hold their own for the most part against a fearsome South African front row, so we can’t help feeling that unless Ledesma has worked miracles in the space of a week from a squad clearly starting to show the strains of a long season – it could well be a troublesome afternoon for the Pumas in the set pieces.
If the Pumas debutant in the back row can hold his own, this should be one of the best contests of the afternoon
One consistent area of strength for Argentina has been their back row this year. In Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio the Pumas are rock solid and it will be interesting to see how debutant Rodrigo Bruni complements a fearsome unit. Having said that they will be up against an equally slick group in the shape of Scotland’s Hamish Watson who was outstanding last week against South Africa along with newcomer James Ritchie who the more we see the more we like. Saturday also sees the return of Josh Strauss to the starting XV back row for Scotland. One of Scotland’s most underrated players, the South African born flanker should be able to match up to the Pumas physicality with ease.
Scotland’s young bucks get a superb examination ahead of the Six Nations
Winger Blair Kinghorn and fly half Adam Hastings have but a handful of caps between them for Scotland, especially in the starting XV. However, both have the ability to impress but will need to be at their absolute best on Saturday, as they face the two players who have consistently stood out for the Pumas this November – fly half Nicolas Sanchez and winger Ramiro Moyano. Kinghorn is going to have his work cut out containing the fleet-footed Pumas speedster who is also exceptionally handy under the high ball despite his smaller frame. Meanwhile Adam Hastings will need to make sure that it is not Sanchez who is running the show on Saturday. Hastings will be ably assisted by Russell in the centre of the park, but he couldn’t ask for a better test ahead of the Six Nations as how to operate under pressure and manage a free-flowing game against one of the world’s best. The rain that was predicted for tomorrow looks to hold off till much later in the evening, so we should be in for a fast and furious match between two sides who love to run the ball.
Scotland’s Stuart Hogg may be the world’s best counter attacker but Argentina are packing a back three who can do the same in their sleep
If the end of a long hard season hasn’t depleted the Pumas’ tanks, then this could well be their last hurrah of a year that has seen some genuine success. Stuart Hogg may be the best in the world from bursting out of his own 22 and causing complete havoc, but watch the Pumas back three this season and each of them have similar abilities. Winger Bautista Delguy and fullback Emiliano Boffelli have made some extraordinary metres this year, and if they have one last big game left in them, this could well be it. We all know what Ramiro Moyano can do, and while individually none of them may be able to hold a candle to Hogg on his own, as a counterattacking unit they could well negate the presence of the Scotsman if Argentina really bring their A game.
On paper these two sides look relatively evenly matched. However, Argentina’s ongoing problems at scrum time and the fact that they are starting to show signs of their traditional end of year fadeout, make it hard for us to believe that they are likely to really make a statement at Murrayfield on Saturday. Scotland on the other hand will want to finish their November campaign on a positive note. It has been a frustrating month for the Scots after losing their opener to Wales and then a disappointing loss to South Africa. The comprehensive win over Fiji showed the Scots in fine form, but this month will mean little without a least one big Southern Hemisphere scalp. Hence the form book would indicate, and we tend to agree that Scotland will take Argentina in the Pumas last major outing of a long hard season by five points!
England vs Australia – Saturday, November 24th – Twickenham
England will not have been happy with their opening forty minutes against Japan last Saturday. They simply looked half asleep against a team that had clearly come to play. Order was restored in the second half, but they had clearly been given a massive wake up call by a side they had grossly underestimated. That is unlikely to be the case this weekend, as they will look to claim a decisive victory over a talented but badly misfiring Wallaby side. England need a decisive victory over their last Southern Hemisphere visitor after having squeaked past the Springboks by a point and just coming agonizingly short of an historic win over the All Blacks. Australia meanwhile will seek to end a disappointing November with a win over a side that has caused them nothing but heartache since the last World Cup. While Australia got a much-needed win over Italy last weekend, it wasn’t exactly pretty and has also left them with some worrying injury concerns, most notably to flanker David Pocock.
Could the absence of David Pocock end up being a blessing in disguise for Australia
Before you start wondering what we’ve been drinking by making a such a statement, think about it for a moment. Pocock has sadly been plagued by injury this year, and to be honest has not been at his best this season. That is said with no disrespect to the great man, but we feel he has been press ganged into Wallaby duty all season and it has clearly taken its toll. Furthermore, his partnership with Michael Hooper in the back row has been questioned as together they make Australia slightly lopsided in terms of balance. As a result Australia may finally have a unit that works properly on Saturday. Jack Dempsey has the talent but really needs an opportunity to shine, but with both Hooper and Pocock in the back row he is often completely overshadowed and slightly ineffective. The big question mark lies around Pete Samu at Test level, as we all know his pedigree with the Crusaders in Super Rugby. However, if this unit fires it may end up providing Pocock with the ability to be rested for key matches leading up to the World Cup and thus ultimately return to his best just when Australia need him most.
Talking of back rows, England almost has one at long last
Number eight Mark Wilson has been one of THE standout players for England this November and Sam Underhill was absolutely immense against New Zealand a fortnight ago. We have to confess to being slightly puzzled at Zach Mercer’s implosion against Japan last weekend, as we felt he still offered much more in the long-term than Brad Shields who gets the nod in the starting XV for tomorrow. However, there is no denying that in Wilson and Underhill England have some real force and one can even start talking about balance once more in the back row. This will be a real chance for them to really make a statement that they are the way forward for England leading up to the World Cup. If they can dominate an Australian unit that is still a work in progress, then we can think of no better justification.
Morale is probably at rock bottom in the Australian camp, but who will provide the spark of inspiration?
Sticking to form we are going to look to the Wallaby second row once more. As regular readers know, we feel Australia needs some grit in the style of the great John Eales, and we’ve staked our bet on Adam Coleman to ultimately provide it. In situations this year where Australia have clearly been battling a crisis of confidence, Coleman has often been the one spark of consistency and determination in an otherwise lacklustre performance. We feel he partners well with Izack Rodda, and if the two of them can compete with England’s Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes and actually win some key battles in the air, we are willing to bet that this will spur the rest of the Wallabies on. They will be up against it, as after a generally poor year, Itoje has finally found his rhythm once more, and Lawes is coming back into his own after injury. If the Wallaby pair can disrupt the Englishmen at lineout time, especially given that Jamie George has been battling with lineout accuracy then this could be a turning point that could spark Australia out of their collective disarray on Saturday.
Cheika’s selections once more have us scratching our head
Yes we know some of it has been forced by disciplinary issues, but we were fairly certain that this year proved Bernard Foley does not operate well in the centre channels. Although Matt Toomua is effective at both number 10 and 12, he is more suited to the centre as support to Bernard Foley – not the other way round. Once more we feel that Coach Michael Cheika has dug another few feet of a hole it looks like he is unlikely to get out of, by reverting to an experiment that clearly did not work. We’re still not entirely convinced by England’s centre offerings, but still feel they are going to be more effective than the Wallaby muddle.
We may be the only ones saying so, but we are not overly concerned about Folau switching back to fullback even if it may seem tough on Dane Haylett-Petty
A bit like Adam Coleman, Dane Haylett-Petty has been one of the few Wallaby players to consistently stand out this year. Although we have traditionally felt his talents are better suited to the wing in terms of crossing the whitewash for Australia, there is no denying that he has performed admirably at fullback this year. Having said that we do not feel that Israel Folau has performed all that well on the wing and thus this is one of the few positional changes made by Chieka for Saturday’s match that actually makes sense to us. Haylett-Petty can do both, but Folau can’t and Haylett-Petty is more likely to bag a much-needed five pointer from out wide than at fullback for Australia. Consequently, we can’t wait to see if we are proved right on this one on Saturday. If we aren’t and Folau has an off day while Haylett-Petty shines, are we looking at the ultimate sidelining of Folau as Australia desperately seek to find a back row combination that gels?
Our overall impression of Australia at the moment is that, just like this time last year, they just want to get on the plane and go home and reflect on yet another disastrous season. In their last match of 2017 they were utterly blown away by a Scottish side who clearly recognised that the Wallabies were down and out. Australia find themselves in exactly the same position, made worse by the fact that it is less than a year out from the World Cup. With Coach Michael Cheika’s tenure clearly in question, a blowout to England similar to the Scottish fiasco last year would surely spell the end for the beleaguered Coach who has sadly done little to endear himself to the public or his team. Will we see a similar rant to the one in Salta at half time which had such a galvanizing effect on his team? In the cauldron that is Twickenham we fear that such a rant would simply demoralize a team already dramatically low on confidence. With all that said, Australia clearly find themselves with their backs against the wall up against an English side that smells blood and wants to end their year with two Southern Hemisphere scalps. Despite England’s slip up against Japan last weekend, we feel they are well placed to achieve their goals tomorrow and thus give them the spoils by 8 points!
Wales vs South Africa – Saturday, November 24th – Cardiff
The number two sides in their respective hemispheres meet in this clash that is clearly being seen as the big fixture of the weekend. Wales are clearly on an upward trajectory but it is not without its purple patches. They struggled to turn a match they should have won against England in the Six Nations to their comprehensive advantage. Against Australia they struggled to cross the whitewash this month, despite getting a much-needed win. They clearly have depth and talent in abundance, but it hasn’t quite developed that killer instinct to close out big matches against quality opposition. South Africa seem to have found that ability in the last six months and more importantly have been able to take it with them on the road. It will be a fascinating test of composure for both sides and one which will tell us much about how these two smoking guns are likely to perform in the World Cup next year.
Wales have a good front row but that South African unit, especially with Kitshoff in the mix look ominous
Wales know that if they want to go the distance next year in Japan they will need to be at their best here. In Ken Owens they have a seasoned and effective campaigner with Nicky Smith and Tomas Francis providing excellent support. However, as seen against Scotland last weekend South Africa’s Steven Kitshoff is such a live wire, coupled to Malcolm Marx’s destructive capabilities that Wales are going to have to be at their very best here. Perhaps their best chance of success is to disrupt Marx’s lineout throwing, as if that goes awry, Marx’s game tends to go with it.
Wales have some of the best depth in the second row we’ve seen in years
We’ve always felt that despite the presence of the legendary Alun-Wyn Jones that the second row has been a weak spot in the Welsh set up. No longer, youngster Adam Beard is a complete firecracker and Cory Hill is a more than able replacement. Admittedly South Africa are looking equally fearsome here, but if the Welsh trio can hold their own and even gain some dominance on this part of the park it could be a very good day out for Wales, but it is still a very big ask. If they pass the test then Wales head into the runup to next year’s Six Nations and the World Cup in exceptionally fine form.
Is Justin Tipuric the new Sam Warburton?
As readers of this blog know we are some of Tipuric’s biggest fans, and felt that the formidable Welsh back rower has had to live in the shadow of Sam Warburton for too long. With Warburton’s retirement from International rugby this year, Wales lose a legend but could not ask for a better replacement. Tipuric is clearly relishing the opportunity to grab centre stage, something he needs to do as Josh Navidi and Adam Shingler are also waiting in the wings in a part of the park in which Wales is genuinely blessed with depth. However, there is something about the talismanic presence that Tipuric brings to the position coupled to a superhuman work rate that is so inspirational to the rest of his colleagues. In that vein alone he is a worthy successor to Warburton.
Wales depth continues at half back
One of the things that has impressed us most about Wales continued improvement over the last year has been the development of some genuine depth in these two key positions. In the scrum half department, in particular it has got to the point where one can hardly remember the name Rhys Webb who was Wales’ guarantee for starting at 9 up to 2017. The depth continues at fly half, with last year’s regular Dan Biggar constantly having to play second fiddle to Gareth Anscombe even for matches of this stature. All players have been shrewdly rotated to ensure that they get sufficient game time and as a result, Wales are looking very much locked and loaded in this part of the park for the World Cup.
If Aphiwe Dyantyi can contain Wales’ George North then he has surely passed his defensive apprenticeship
We all know that Dyantyi is a try scoring machine, but at the start of the year there were massive question marks around his defensive abilities. Consequently, the focus of 2018 has been on how well the elusive Springbok winger can make the tackles that count. In George North, he has a big bruising opponent who is notoriously difficult to bring down once he has built up a head of steam. What has impressed us with Dyantyi is his relative fearlessness and when he does make the tackles, they often count. He no doubt still has much to learn but if he manages to keep North in check and bring the big Welshman down at speed, then we would argue that he has graduated with honor from his year at Springbok defensive college.
South Africa are for once looking very good in November, something we are not traditionally used to saying about them at this time of the year. The fact that they are looking this good on the road, bodes extremely well for their buildup to the World Cup. Cardiff is always a very daunting place to play and has not been a happy hunting ground for the Springboks. With a Welsh side looking very much their equal, this will be an exceptionally stern Test and will tell us how far this Springbok side has come since they narrowly lost to Wales in Washington, DC a mere five months ago. Wales will want to put a lot more points on the board than they managed against their other Southern Hemisphere opponents Australia this month. However, that was an Australian side in crisis, something their opponents tomorrow do not appear to be in. Wales will be worried that they were unable to get the points they needed against a poor Australian side to give them any genuine comfort on the scoreboard. Against a Springbok side that finally seems to be hitting all the right notes, Wales will have to put in one of their best performances of the year. What is for certain is that if Wales fix the execution issues they had against Australia and are able to mix it with the Springbok pack, then this could be a match that will rival the intensity of the Ireland/New Zealand and England/New Zealand matches earlier this month. We are really struggling to call this one, but despite home advantage for Wales, we feel that South Africa have been so well tried and tested this month that they could just sneak it by two points! However, we’re simply not putting any bets on it and think this will be a very fitting finale to a superb month of Test rugby.