It’s been a long time coming but it’s finally here – the 2020 Six Nations Super Saturday. Despite France going into a second lockdown as a result of COVID-19, the French Minister of Sport has confirmed that elite sport will be exempted. As a result the final and all important match of the day in Paris, which will confirm who is going to be lifting the silverware, will be taking place.
Wales and Scotland get us started on Saturday in Llanelli and while neither side is in the hunt for any silverware a win is critical, especially for Wales who are in desperate need of a victory and a halt to four straight defeats. Scotland will look to finish well and settle themselves for the upcoming Autumn Nations Cup in November. England need a massive points haul and a bonus point against Italy, something which a team of their caliber should have no trouble achieving, even if it means travelling to Rome. If England get the job done the silverware is theirs pending the outcome of the France/Ireland game. So ultimately England will have to wait and see if either France or Ireland can secure a bonus point in their struggles. If neither get that elusive bonus point then it’s England’s tournament, but if they do then either Ireland or France will be hoisting the trophy on Saturday night. If you want a tournament that is going to go to the final whistle of the final match, then make sure you are in your own lockdown in front of the TV on Saturday!
Let’s not forget about Bledisloe 3 if all the above excitement is not enough for you. New Zealand travel to Australia to take on a Wallaby side smarting from a comprehensive schooling by the All Blacks at Auckland’s Eden Park two weeks ago. It’s an experimental Wallaby side that will know that home advantage is simply not going to be enough on Saturday. The All Blacks are once again reverting to traditional form. After a slow start, by the time the second half of Bledisloe Cup 2 got underway, New Zealand were operating at full throttle again while still managing to blood some new talent of their own. It should still be a highly entertaining match, but we can’t help feeling a little anxious for the Wallabies given the strength of the visitors lineup, and this will be a definite test to see what tricks new Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie really does have up his sleeve. New All Black Coach Ian Foster after a shaky start in Wellington seems to have taken a firm hand to steering New Zealand’s ship and Saturday’s match will be the litmus test of how well his methods can adapt to life on the road, as the Kiwis take up residence in Australia for the next six weeks for the Rugby Championship.
Wales vs Scotland – Saturday, October 31st – Llanelli
There is no silverware up for grabs for either side on Saturday, but Wales will want to right their ship after four straight defeats. Scotland on the other hand, will be feeling confident after beating title favorites France earlier this year. Furthermore the Scots haven’t exactly been thrashed by their opponents and both their losses in this year’s championships to England and Ireland were only by 7 point margins. The Scots seem to be clicking nicely while Wales look slightly at sea despite some obvious talent.
Wales recent friendly against France last weekend in Paris saw the Welsh eclipsed by 38-21 as France played all the rugby and the Welsh by comparison looked rather flat and lifeless. Even traditional stalwarts like Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric seemed to have alarmingly quiet games by their standards. The French ran rings around Wales in the set pieces and in attack proceeded to make a mockery of the Welsh defenses. Wales did get on the scoreboard first with a nicely worked try from fullback Leigh Halfpenny in the opening minute, but that was about the only time there was any genuine spark or flow to the Welsh attack, apart from a gritty well worked forwards try in the final ten minutes. France on the other hand were all flair and excitement after that initial wake up call from Wales. Add to that some exceptionally well organized defenses and there was no denying that this is a very well put together and thought out French team.
Scotland had Georgia as their warm up last weekend and fared considerably better in their contest, demolishing a brave but ultimately seriously undercooked Georgian side 48-7 at Murrayfield. Scotland’s favourite problem child Finn Russell returned to the fold and immediately set about proving why Scotland simply can’t do without his services when he came off the bench. Meanwhile an aggressive and quick forward pack negated the traditional physical threat posed by the Georgians. Scotland’s pacy backline showed they will need to be watched with caution next month in the Autumn Nations Cup. Scotland look like a side able to provide us with plenty of entertainment in November and we look forward to seeing them in some very tasty encounters in the Autumn Nations Cup.
This weekend’s Six Nations encounter sees Scotland make relatively few changes to the side that made life such a misery for the Georgians last Friday. The injured Matt Fagerson is replaced by Blade Thomson at number eight and in the second row Jonny Gray returns. Finn Russell gets a deserved start at fly half and in the backs Scotland welcome back Stuart Hogg after the fullback returns from a string of competitive successes with English club Exeter. As we saw last weekend, it’s a Scottish side that oozes quality. Their front row proved steady under fire from Georgia in the set pieces. Scotland’s second row, especially with Jonny Gray in the mix will be highly competitive come lineout time. At the breakdowns that back row has generated a healthy respect from opponents throughout the Six Nations with Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie in particular proving to be the bedrock of Scotland’s ability to really mix things up in the loose. Lastly that set of backs is class through and through and winger Darcy Graham didn’t disappoint last week. Expect more of the same this week, made more potent by the addition of Stuart Hogg.
Wales are a conundrum, after the highs of the latter Gatland years, they definitely seem to be trending downward. We don’t think it’s permanent, there is too much talent in this team for that to be the case, but they are clearly struggling to adapt to new Coach Wayne Pivac’s style or he to them. For this match Pivac makes some wholesale changes and we would argue that after last week they are merited. We still feel that Wales are going to get bossed around in the front row and there are relatively few changes for Saturday’s match, as they struggled with France last week whereas Scotland contained Georgia’s supposed scrummaging prowess. What will be interesting to see is the second row partnership betweeen Will Rowlands and Alun Wyn-Jones. Wyn-Jones is a known commodity even if he had a relatively quiet game by his standards last weekend, but Rowlands has been an outstanding performer for English premiership side Wasps. The Welsh back row needs to make much more of a statement than they did against France. Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau did put in a shift but somehow it just didn’t match up to the power being generated by their French opponents. They are not going to get much more of a break from Scotland’s Watson and Ritchie.
In the backs, Rhys Webb misses out at scrum half due to injury in favor of Gareth Davies, but in our opinion this is to Wales’ benefit. Wales looked more energetic and organised when Davies came on in the French game, and for us is the better option. We’re still not convinced that fullback Leigh Halfpenny is as comfortable under the high ball as he used to be, but Saturday’s match sees the return of Liam Williams to the wing opposite Josh Adams, and this back three could spell trouble for Scotland. Williams ability to create opportunities and handle whatever kind of aerial assault Scotland will fire at Wales is something the Men in Red have lacked of late. Lastly that center pairing in Wales really needs to be counted as last weekend it clearly wasn’t, with both Jonathan Davies and Nick Tompkins struggling to find any sort of cohesion. With Owen Watkin replacing Tompkins this weekend Wales really need to click here.
It should be a good match for spectators with a lively Scottish side wanting to build on some positive momentum and a Welsh team desperately seeking something to cheer about on home soil. For us though it’s the more dynamic and opportunistic Scots who the scoreboard will likely favor most.
Italy vs England – Saturday, October 31st – Rome
After watching Italy get dismantled yet again in the Six Nations, it’s hard 20 years on from Italy’s initial entry into the tournament to still find positive things to write about them. Sure there is lots of individual talent in Italy but none of it seems to get harnessed into a cohesive plan for really putting Italy on the map in terms of International Rugby. Instead, the other Six Nations sadly view matches with Italy as points haul opportunities. This is certainly the case with England this weekend as they travel to Rome looking to get maximum points on the board including a bonus point, whilst hoping at the same time that neither Ireland or France are able to do the same, and thus allow England to claim the title. You’d have to argue the odds are in their favor, and the defensive slip ups that caused Ireland to throw away seven points in the overall points difference between them and England, are unlikely to be present in the English camp on Saturday. You’d think – but then we thought that about the World Cup final.
However, Italy are not South Africa, even if they are being coached by one. They bring a slightly punchier side to this encounter, with the big ticket item being the inclusion of Wasps all star fullback and try scoring machine Matteo Minozzi. The Italian back is world class and to be fair so are some of his teammates. Despite being on the back end of an Irish hiding last weekend, fly half Paolo Garbisi’s try at the death, that could end up being Ireland’s undoing in the points race this weekend, was absolutely top flight. In short, this guy is good and could be the spark that really lets Italy create some special moments. Considering that was his first outing in an Italian jersey, that’s a pretty impressive debut. Italy has a solid back row even if they failed to make much of an impression against a very impressive Irish trio last weekend. However, we anticipate them struggling in the set pieces and apart from Minozzi, there just isn’t the pedigree in their backs to be able to compete with the likes of England’s offerings, especially Jonny May.
As for England, given the strength of their star studded match day 23 it’s really hard to find any weaknesses and see anything other than Italy being completely and utterly steamrollered into submission. The only possible weak links being George Furbank at fullback, who may be Coach Eddie Jones’ wonder child but so far has singularly failed to impress at Test Level in an English jersey, and Owen Farrell’s difficulties with tackling technique. Apart from that though we just can’t see any chinks in England’s armor other than possibly scrum half Ben Youngs having one of his increasingly frequent off days or Billy Vunipola discovering yet another part of his physique that is an injury liability.
It’s really difficult to see a scoreline that doesn’t have England sitting on at least 55-60 points, most of which could well be unanswered. Expect at least six tries by the Men in White securing the much needed bonus point, and a points difference that will have both France and Ireland sweating bullets heading into the last game of the tournament on Saturday night in Paris.
France vs Ireland – Saturday, October 31st – Paris
Super Saturday will reach its nailbiting finish for fans in Paris. France and Ireland will know what they need to do after watching England and Italy. Consequently the pressure will be on as English, French and Irish fans huddle nervously around their television screens. Fortunately the match is going ahead despite the nationwide lockdown in France, and thank heavens, as after the most protracted and unusual Six Nations campaign in history, we doubt most of us could handle any more suspense.
Both sides make very few changes to the lineups that worked so well for them last weekend, and for the most part where those changes do take place they are enforced due to injury. Ireland bring in prop Cian Healy to the front row for his 100th cap, while France keep the same unit that bossed Wales around. We’re backing France on this one as they just seem slightly steadier in the discipline stakes compared to the Irish. The second rows stay the same for both sides, but for us Ireland have got this hands down, especially in terms of keeping on the right side of referee Wayne Barnes’ whistle. French second rower Bernard le Roux must surely consider himself lucky to be running out on the pitch Saturday after trying to rearrange Welsh Captain Alun Wyn-Jones face last weekend. Le Roux’s colleague Willemse is also not known for his disciplinary reliability.
The match up of the weekend surely has to be the battle of the back rows. Ireland’s CJ Stander as the undisputed veteran shepherds his two young charges Caelan Doris and Will Connors with the green trio being devastatingly effective last weekend against Italy. By the same token the French trio led by Captain Charles Ollivon, a role he appears to be excelling at, were also taking no prisoners last weekend against Wales and clearly got the better of some notable Welsh talent.
The huge smoking gun on the field is the great contest of young versus the old in the halfbacks. France’s dynamic duo are truly world class, and in our opinion are already outshining their Irish counterparts who were until very recently considered one of the world’s most dangerous pairings. Ireland’s Murray and Sexton still take some beating, but there is no question that they are not nearly as shiny as the two young French mavericks who have set Six Nations pitches alight this year. At the moment Murray simply cannot match France’s Antoine Dupont’s lightning fast reflexes and decision making, and Ntamack’s ability to control the ebb and flow of a game coupled to a very useful boot is perhaps more consistent than Ireland’s legendary Sexton. However, the Irish pair have a wealth of Test experience between them and on such a big occasion as Saturday’s encounter, it will be interesting to see how much of a difference this makes when the chips are down for both sides.
The contest between France’s Virimi Vakatawa and Ireland’s Bundee Aki on Saturday is one we can’t wait to see unfold. The dynamic French centre is a handful to bring down, but provided Aki can read his dance moves he certainly packs the punch to stop a freight train dead in its tracks. The loss of Ireland’s Garry Ringrose to injury is a genuine blow for the Irish as his inventiveness and speed in the centre channels creates far more opportunity than the rather predictable smash and grab up the middle routine favored by Aki and Henshaw.
Hugo Keenan had a dream debut for Ireland on the wing against Italy scoring two fine tries, but his defensive capabilities were rarely tested by the Azurri. Jacob Stockdale at fullback continues to be a worry in that department as evidenced by fly half Paolo Garbisi completely wrong footing him for a try that may be critical if matters are to be decided on points differences alone. Andrew Conway had a good run of it last weekend, but sadly although featuring heavily in the run of play was unlucky not to cross the whitewash for Ireland and is a player who we feel is one of the Men in Green’s most underrated talents. However, that French back three is a potent unit in its own right and Ireland can simply not allow their guard down for a second.
Both sides pack quality benches and ultimately this match is set to be a barnstormer in the making with the weather favoring an exciting running game – something France in particular just love to do at the moment. We have to admit to being slightly surprised at the pundits voting so heavily in favor for Ireland on this one. Consequently we’re going to play devil’s advocate and say that we think Ireland are going to have their work cut out against a French side that, apart from that hiccough on the road against Scotland, have looked the most exciting and dangerous side in the tournament by a country mile. To make these qualities all the more convincing the French finally look like they have systems in place that can utilize some rather extraordinary talent to its fullest potential. The Irish are an impressive and equally talented unit, but when it comes to the unexpected and how to capitalize on it, we’d argue that quality has a distinctly French flavor to it this year. In a country heading into another dark couple of weeks, France perhaps more than Ireland need something to cheer about, and we feel that a certain group of men in blue jerseys might just have the motivation and skill set to give it to them on Saturday night in Paris!
Australia vs New Zealand – Saturday, October 31st – Sydney
Australia have to win this one – plain and simple. If they don’t then that’s it for the Bledisloe Cup for another year in the All Blacks favor, and also puts New Zealand well on the way to sweeping all before them in the Rugby Championship over the next six weeks. Australia take the bold move of blooding some very impressive but untested talent at this level, and you have to wonder if results this year are less important than the first tentative steps of building a new team and vision for the 2023 World Cup. While we’re sure that’s a large part of it, we don’t doubt for a moment, that a key priority of new Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie’s first year is a win over Australia’s biggest rivals.
New Zealand also bring some untried talent to the table, but much less so than Australia, and there are fewer changes to the side that so effectively dismantled Australia in the second half of Bledisloe 2. Hoskins Sotutu gets a start at number eight, in place of Ardie Savea who is on family leave this weekend, after having a game where he was back to his manic writhing best. Sotutu caught a lot of attention with the Auckland Blues in this years Super Rugby Aotearoa competition, and his debut for the All Blacks has been eagerly anticipated. Sam Whitelock returns to the second row, and his experience and work rate will be of enormous benefit ahead of a tough six weeks on the road. Jack Goodhue returned to his best a fortnight ago and expect more of the same now he has adjusted to his new hairstyle. We couldn’t say enough good things about winger Caleb Clarke’s debut in Bledisloe 2 and as impressive as Filipo Daugunu’s debut has been for the Wallabies he simply could not contain the All Blacks newest wrecking ball, causing him to probably need a stiff drink before bed this entire week.
For us this encounter’s most interesting aspect is a chance to really get a look at some of Australia’s emerging new talent under the most intense pressure. There has been a great deal of hype about fly half Noah Lolesio, scrum half Tate McDermott and Irae Simone at centre with all three being standout performers in this year’s Super Rugby AU. The trio get their chance to prove their worth on Saturday, with Lolesio and Simone in particular getting starting berths.
Australia’s biggest weakness still seems to be in terms of discipline and in Bledisloe 2 it continued to put them on the back foot. Back rower Ned Hanigan, despite our reservations about him in this department, did put in a solid performance at key moments in Bledisloe 2 but you have to temper that with the fact that for every positive thing he did he would follow it up with a costly mistake. One gentleman who continues to prove his worth for Australia in his first campaign in a Wallaby jersey is Harry Wilson at number eight. A genuine find for Australia and in the two matches we’ve seen him play in for the Wallabies he hasn’t put a foot wrong – a genuine talent that is destined to be one of the greats. Saturday’s match also sees the return of Dane Haylett-Petty who on a good day can be one of Australia’s most dynamic players, it’s just that he hasn’t had too many of those good days recently – here’s hoping Saturday sees him back to his best.
It’s an outstanding All Black lineup against a relatively unproven but talented Australian team. The pressure on Dave Rennie’s predominantly young charges will be massive on Saturday, and it may be just a bit too soon for them to be handle the pitfalls of such a big stage and at home to boot. New Zealand still know how to win, regardless of the change in management and as a group have tasted victory more often than defeat. The World Cup is no doubt a distant memory and a team that is still better at reinventing itself than any other will take some beating on Saturday in Sydney. Beaten they can be but probably not by a Wallaby side packing plenty of energy but still lacking the cohesion needed for the big occasions under pressure.
Enjoy what should be the kind of weekend that perhaps some of us thought would be the stuff of fantasy only this year. Our hearts go out to everyone in France this weekend as they face a gloomy autumn under lockdown – let’s hope that whatever the outcomes this Saturday, it’s one everyone will remember for a long time to come as time well spent!
In case you missed the two friendlies last week here are the highlights with the Ireland/Italy game highlights over on the TV/Internet listings page along with the Bledisloe story so far.