If you’ve caught your breath after one of the most memorable Heineken Cup Finals we can remember for a while, you’ll be pleased to know that the fun has just begun. The Bledisloe Cup is in full swing soon to be followed by the Rugby Championship, although no action there this weekend. However, for Six Nations fans there is a lot to be excited about this weekend. Italy and Ireland’s postponed Round 4 match finally takes place in Dublin, while in preparation for the Autumn Nations Cup and next weekend’s full round of final Six Nations matches, Scotland take on an always boisterous Georgia and France and Wales get to know each other again in Paris. If that’s not enough for you, the new European Kings Exeter Chiefs see if they can do the double in the English Premiership as well as some exciting PRO14 matchups.
For us though all eyes are on Edinburgh, Dublin and Paris this weekend as the groundwork gets laid for an exciting few weeks of Test Rugby ahead. Scotland field an exceptionally strong team against Georgia tomorrow, which is clearly intended to lay down a marker for their final Six Nations clash with Wales the following weekend. Meanwhile Ireland host Italy in Dublin with an equally strong lineup in preparation for what should be a titanic struggle with France the following Saturday. Lastly, a daunting looking Welsh side meet a rather capable looking French squad in Paris.
Lots to look forward to and lots to look back on from last weekend.
First up quick recap of last weekend’s excitement and then a look ahead to this weekend’s action.
Australia after a promising start reverted back to form, and that form is definitely not positive. Sure they held their own in the first half, but once centre Matt Toomua left the field due to injury towards the end of the half, Australia rapidly started to lose composure and structure particularly in the key pivot between 10 and 12. Meanwhile New Zealand clearly started to shake off the cobwebs from their previous encounter and unleashed some terrifying new talent in the process – be afraid of Caleb Clarke (VERY AFRAID!!!).
Sadly though we were to be disappointed as we were hoping for an even contest. In the second half New Zealand reverted to type and came out of the blocks at breakneck speed. When the All Blacks score in the opening 2 minutes of a second half the writing is usually on the wall for the opposition and last Sunday in Auckland was no exception. Australia sadly reverted to their form of old under the Cheika era and started to panic. They proceeded to chuck the ball around wildly with little sense of purpose or control and their discipline went out the window. New Zealand went on a try scoring blitz for the first 13 minutes of the second half and effectively sealed the lid on an inevitable Wallaby defeat. The All Blacks dominated proceedings even though the final quarter of the match saw no further points for either side. There was a spirited if at times shambolic fightback from Australia, but New Zealand had rattled Australia so badly in the opening stanzas of the second half, that they could afford to take their foot off the pedal for the remainder of the match and simply shore up their defenses. The Wallabies made several hopeless charges over the top but the All Blacks were content to man their trenches and let the Australians run around to no avail in no-man’s land.
As depressingly familiar as Australia’s performance was last Sunday and as clinical as the All Blacks were in comparison, we’d still argue that there is life in this new Wallaby outfit under Coach Dave Rennie. The next two matches on home soil for Australia will need to be approached with caution by New Zealand. There is the potential for a great Wallaby side here if managed and coached properly, something they have lacked with any degree of consistency for the last ten years. New Zealand have set out their stall and despite some question marks about new Coach Ian Foster, he certainly delivered on the hallowed ground of Eden Park (if he hadn’t he might be out of a job right now). He is blessed with some extraordinary raw talent and some very wise heads to guide the ship – Sam Cane has effortlessly stepped into the shoes of the likes of Kieran Reid and Ritchie McCaw. The All Blacks proved last Sunday that any talk of New Zealand losing their edge is complete and utter nonsense, and when you’ve got a guy like this your argument is pretty convincing.
Heineken Cup Final
As mentioned above, we revelled in what was one of the best Heineken Cup finals we can remember in a long time on Saturday.
Exeter capped off a dream run of ten years and in the process showed us just what hard work and graft in our sport can still produce. Racing 92 probably had the worst opening 15 minutes of many a season – but what a comeback to keep the game balanced on a knife edge until the very last whistle. As finals rugby goes it’s going to be hard to beat!
However, all credit has to go to Exeter who showed us what a remarkable squad they have become. That final ten minutes which saw them reduced to fourteen men, was the stuff of legends. Racing proceeded to launch a constant assault on the Exeter defenses which required every player to put their body on the line to a man. It was heroic in no uncertain terms and had all of us on the edge of our seats for nine very long minutes. Their superhuman efforts were rewarded by them being able to work the ball back downfield at the death, and earn a penalty as an exhausted Racing side finally realized that there was just no way of containing a side that seemed to be a walking advertisement for Red Bull. The Frenchmen’s discipline slipped and calm as you may, Exeter slotted the penalty kick, we remembered how to breathe and another epic chapter in the Heineken Cup finals saga was written.
We wish Exeter all the best for their Premiership final exploits this weekend against Wasps and have a hunch they are going to make it the double. Our hearts go out to Racing who in their third Heineken Cup final were once again denied the ultimate prize. How different it could have been if that opening 15 minutes hadn’t been such a shambles for them and from scrum half Teddy Iribaren in particular. Although Finn Russell had a blinder of a game at times, even he committed some schoolboy mistakes which left us dumbfounded – one in particular that led to a superb intercept from Jack Nowell and a try for Exeter. Exeter had clearly done their homework on Russell’s wild card factor, and more often than not knew when he was likely to try something outrageous and were there to take advantage and pressure him into silly errors of judgement.
In short it was riveting stuff and in case you missed it, here it is in a nutshell.
Scotland vs Georgia – Friday, October 23rd – Edinburgh
Either Scotland is suffering from a depth crisis or Coach Gregor Townsend intends to make a statement with a bang in Scotland’s first return to action since COVID-19 brought things to a premature halt. We would have thought that he would have blooded some lesser known talent for this one and saved the really big guns for the Six Nations showdown with Wales next weekend. Instead he has decided to get match fit the team he clearly hopes will give the Men in Red something to think about in Llanelli next weekend. All things considered you can’t really argue with his logic.
As for Georgia, what you see is what you get, a seasoned brutal bunch of forwards, many of whom have last names that would qualify them as extras for the latest Godzilla film, with plenty of game time in France’s top league under their belts. Couple that to a group of mercurial backs who have been known to do remarkable things – ask any Canadian player who may not remember this guy so fondly, and it is safe to say that Georgia as the undisputed kings of Tier 2 European rugby are no pushover. Their exposure to the forthcoming Autumn Nations Cup is something that will do their squad development no end of good. Consequently they will be wanting to make their own statement on Friday and then some.
In short, we don’t know what to expect from this encounter, but interesting is certainly an adjective that comes to mind. We sadly don’t know enough about the current Georgian squad to offer any kind of informed opinion, but suffice to say they have been craving the big stage for a long time now and must be delighted as we are for them about the prospect of the next six weeks, and will put maximum effort into making it count.
As for Scotland, it’s a good squad plain and simple. The biggest talking point is obviously the return to the fold of fly half Finn Russell after the drama of he and Coach Gregor Townsend’s spat during the Six Nations earlier this year. Politics and emotions aside, Scotland know they have a remarkable talent in Russell. Put aside the poorly executed downright recklessness he is prone to at times, and as seen in the recent Heineken Cup final. However, revisit that match and behold some of his brazen audacity and ability to turn a game completely upside down for the opposition in the blink of an eye, and he suddenly becomes every Coach’s favorite problem child. In short, a genuine talent that simply needs to be further refined. Whether Townsend is the man to tame this wild child for the benefit of the Scottish jersey remains to be seen, but Scottish fans will be delighted to see him back in the mix, even if he starts on the bench tomorrow.
As for the rest of the Scottish lineup, there are so many Lineout favorites in there it’s just our fantasy league Scottish 15. In particular, expect that Scottish back row to be one of Georgia’s worst nightmares tomorrow. Hamish Watson is in our current world XV, and Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson are such rapidly rising Scottish stars, expect them to be boarding a flight to South Africa next year with the Lions. It’s a solid and exceptionally workmanlike front five and linking them to the backs is a quick and talented half back pairing in Adam Hastings and Ali Price. South African Duhan van der Merwe gets his first Scottish jersey after impressing the selectors with his performances with Edinburgh. Shoring everything up at the back is Mr. Excitement on the wing Graham Darcy and the always reliable and pacy Blair Kinghorn. In short a formidable starting XV with plenty of X-factor on the bench. Scotland should ultimately win comfortably but if you’re interested in the Autumn Nations Cup then this foretaste is something you won’t want to miss.
Ireland vs Italy – Saturday, October 24th – Dublin
Like Scotland, Ireland field a powerhouse side to hopefully dispatch Italy with ease and come away with a healthy points haul to at least give them some breathing room to compete for a strong finish in the last round of the Six Nations – made more challenging by a trip to Paris next weekend. However, don’t ask us about the exclusion of John Cooney from Ireland’s plans. We are still scratching our heads about the Ulster scrum half’s omission from Ireland’s squad by Coach Andy Farrell. Cooney has been setting pitches alight in Europe, much more so than the increasingly pedestrian Conor Murray. Jamison Gibson-Park who although part of the Leinster power machine, has yet to impress in an Irish jersey and makes his debut Saturday at Cooney’s expense. However, in Farrell’s defence, he has included some very exciting youngsters such as the Leinster power trio of winger Hugo Keenan and back rowers Caelan Doris and Will Connors. We would argue that he has chosen to be a bit Leinster heavy, but in fairness you might as well keep a unit that works together.
Italy also bring a solid squad to Dublin, but we have to confess to being surprised at the omission of Zebre’s Frederico Ruzza from the back row, even if it was from the bench. Instead the Zebre man sees duty tomorrow against Leinster in the PRO14. We haven’t seen enough of Italy since the COVID-19 lockdown, so it’s hard to judge where they really are at. Despite Ruzza’s exclusion it’s an impressive Italian back row with the likes of Jake Polledri, Bram Steyn and Sebastian Negri – a unit not to be taken lightly. Italy’s backs, while not as flash or solid in defense as their Irish counterparts, can still lay on some flair when needed. In short, it’s not a bad Italian team, but one that ultimately Ireland should comfortably get the measure of.
A big question mark for us, is the shift of Jacob Stockdale from the wing to fullback in the absence of the injured Jordan Larmour for Ireland. We are just not convinced by Stockdale’s defensive capabilities whatsoever, add to that the fact that he seems to have taken his foot right off the pedal in terms of his try scoring ability and if we were in Andy Farrell’s shoes we’d be feeling more than a little concerned. Italy bring with them some potent strike threats that could easily throw an out of position Stockdale off his game.
Ireland need to come away with maximum points on Saturday in order to ensure a strong finish to this year’s Six Nations campaign, and go well above and beyond a mere bonus point. However, against Italy they have a bad habit of underestimating their opponents and coming away with the bare minimum – something which just won’t do on Saturday. They simply have to be targeting 50 points plus as their starting point, and we say that in no disrespect to Italy, and the Azurri are more than capable of spoiling Ireland’s designs in that respect. In last year’s campaign, Ireland had the same goal, but instead left Rome with a mere 26 points and at times were made to work especially hard for them as well as fluffing their lines on numerous occasions, which the Italians made sure they paid for and that was with the legendary Joe Schmidt in charge of the Men in Green.
Ireland should do well by a comfortable margin on Saturday, but often they have a bad habit of looking one game beyond them at the expense of what’s in front of them. Italy will surely be hoping that the Men in Green are assuming that Saturday’s encounter is a mere warmup for the big event in Paris a week later. If Ireland do so then Italy could ensure that it will be another Six Nations that the four proud provinces would rather consign to the dustbin of memories.
France vs Wales – Saturday, October 24th – Paris
I was lucky enough to watch the Six Nations clash between these two back in February on the French side of St.Martin in the Caribbean with an exceptionally enthusiastic group of French supporters. The thriller in Cardiff was well worth the price of admission, and Wales will be travelling to Paris with a score or two to settle. France hadn’t won in Cardiff since 2010, and the manner in which they did so in February proved that this is a French team once more on the rise and just in time for the World Cup they will be hosting in three years time. It was an even contest in February and expect more of the same. In case you missed it, here’s a quick refresher course.
The crowds may be absent but we doubt that it will detract from the intensity these two sides are likely to bring to this encounter. Of the two though France have more to lose, with the risk of injury potentially scuppering their front row grid race with England for Six Nations glory a week later. Consequently, France may hold a bit more back than Wales on Saturday, as a loss in this match is not exactly the end of the world, given that their eyes will be clearly on the main prize showdown with Ireland in Paris a week later.
Wales bring a team to Paris that can give France a world of hurt both physically and mentally. The only potential weak link we can see in Welsh armor could be their front row. Otherwise from 4-15 this is not a group of Welsh lads that you would want to meet in a dark alley in Swansea late on a Saturday night. Thor and Superman are represented in the second and back rows by Alun Wyn-Jones and Justin Tipuric respectively. In the backs it’s all pace, power and out and out reliability under pressure with Dan Biggar being the kind of number ten Wales have missed for so long. We thought that fullback Leigh Halfpenny is not quite at his best these days, and seemed to struggle against France last time out, so expect to see France’s Romain Ntamack make sure that the Welsh 15 is under constant pressure on Saturday. Wales have a handy bench, and perhaps with nothing at stake for the Welshmen in this one, it may give rapidly rising new talent, winger Louis Rees-Zammitt, a chance to translate the form that has turned heads at club level into a world class performance.
France, ever since Fabien Galthie took over as Coach, have finally started to look like those glorious French sides of the 90s and early 2000s – hardly surprising since he was one of the players that made those teams so special. French flair is finally back with a vengeance, and as an added bonus is often allied to a clearly defined plan of attack. French defense has continued to improve, and the addition of a certain Welshman by the name of Shaun Edwards has only reinforced it. Ally all of this to a halfback pairing that is barely off its training wheels in terms of age, but is already world class and then some. In short, France is veritably humming right now. If they can build on and carry this momentum all the way to 2023, then defeating them at their own World Cup is going to be problematic to say the least. France finally look like a team again, as opposed to an eclectic group of outlandishly talented but ultimately disorganized individuals.
However, we can’t help feeling that with a significant portion of French minds on next Saturday and potential Six Nations glory, they may not bring their A game to the Stade de France this Saturday. We don’t doubt they will entertain, but may be less focused on the win and more on avoiding injuries and refining structures for the big show with the Irish. Wales on the other hand will be under no such pressure, other than injuries possibly being at the back of their mind ahead of a challenging Autumn Nations Cup fixture list, and a considerably thinner depth pool in terms of talent than some of their counterparts.
If we were to have a bet on this one we’d give it to Wales, even with the Paris factor. France may miss the crowd, but Wales will no doubt be relieved that there aren’t 80,000 Frenchmen having something to say about their every move, allowing them a freedom and confidence they rarely get in the Paris cauldron. Either way make sure you catch the action as it will tell us all a great deal about what to expect about next weekend’s final round of the Six Nations.
Enjoy the weekend everyone, and here’s hoping for some stellar oval ball entertainment!