As mentioned over on the TV page, work is dominating my life at the moment, so there is very little time to watch all the great rugby coming our way over the next three weeks, let alone write about it. However, with so much to talk about, felt I had to get something down on paper ahead of the opening weekend of the November Test window which will offer us some mouth watering contests. So instead of a piece on each of the games, sadly this week I am having to do a quick round of the key matches and a bullet point version of what struck me the most. I’ll also try and put out a podcast if time permits.
So without any further ado let’s get into it!
Italy vs New Zealand – Saturday, November 6th – Rome
Italy get the party started on Saturday with a rather daunting fixture against the mighty All Blacks. As much as it is likely to be a one sided contest, Italy know they have nothing to lose and are likely using this match to get some game time for players they will be counting on for the two matches they will be targeting this month Argentina and Uruguay.
With the exception of a few French and English based and Zebre players this is essentially URC side Benetton vs the All Blacks and with good reason. Benetton have certainly looked enterprising in the URC and are proving to be an exceptionally competitive team even if they are slightly shy on results. However, Saturday’s game sees the return to the Azurri of arguably their biggest star from club duty in France with Montpelier – fly half Paolo Garbisi. He’ll be up against one of the world’s best in the shape of New Zealand’s Richie Mo’unga, but if he can keep his cool and not kick the ball away without purpose which he is prone to do under pressure, then it will bode well for Italy’s other two Tests of the month against Argentina and Uruguay. Italy also have a new Coach former Benetton and Canada Coach Kieran Crowley. Let’s face it his track record with Benetton isn’t exactly stellar despite them winning the recent Rainbow Cup, and with Canada there was also little to write home about. Italy look strong in the back row and in the half backs. Their backs are exciting and they have a useful center pairing in Marco Zanon and a player to watch as far as we are concerned Juan Ignacio Brex.
In short, Italy will need to play smart and not kick the ball away except maybe to George Bridge who seems uncomfortable under the high ball, avoid chucking the ball around too much and watch their discipline.
Although it is not New Zealand’s first string side, and with no disrespect to Italy it doesn’t need to be, it’s hard to see anything other than a comfortable win for the Men in Black. The big news is the return of back rower Sam Cane to the Captaincy and his first international outing since coming back from injury. It’s a strong front row from New Zealand especially with Hooker Dane Coles in the mix. However, it’s the back row of Cane and newcomer Luke Jacobsen who we’ve found rather impressive shored up by Hoskins Sotutu who is getting a lot of headline space at Super Rugby level with the Blues. We’re happy to see Brad Weber get another shot at scrum half but watch for another rising star Finlay Christie when he comes off the bench. Sevu Reece returns on the wing after blitzing the Americans and Damian McKenzie looks as always to cause havoc at fullback. The big question mark will be George Bridge on the wing who absolutely went to pieces under the high ball against South Africa even if he is rather handy with ball in hand.
In short, it’s likely to be all about New Zealand as they get some useful game time for their bench to feature against tougher opponents in the shape of Ireland and France.
Ireland vs Japan – Saturday, November 6th – Dublin
This game back in July was a thriller while we also felt Japan acquitted themselves very well against a formidable looking Wallaby outfit last month. Japan are one of the most entertaining sides to watch in Test rugby right now, while Ireland will want to find their groove in preparation for their showpiece event of the month – next weekend’s encounter with New Zealand.
Ireland without many of their key players away on Lions duty found Japan a bit of a handful this summer to say the least . With all their big guns turning out for this one, it’s a mark of the respect Ireland are showing to a Japanese side that continues to impress. Ireland will want to stop Japan showcasing their creativity and ability to pull off some of the most remarkable offloads in the modern game. In order to do that, it is not surprising that legendary Irish fly half Jonathan Sexton returns to duty to try and contain and slow down the Japanese mavericks. The problem is that there is no genuine replacement for him on the radar and with the next World Cup less than two years away at which time he will be 38, it is no wonder that Irish fans are having a few sleepless nights at the moment. However, along with Sexton, Ireland are packing a bruising outfit that is likely to stifle any kind of creativity that Japan will no doubt try and produce. We’re pleased to see dynamic Hooker Ronan Kelleher get the start tomorrow as part of a powerhouse Irish front row, which Japan will struggle to compete with. The second row of James Ryan and Tadgh Beirne won’t make life any easier for Japan while the back row sees experience from Jack Conan and Josh Van der Flier with excitement in the shape of newcomer Caelan Doris.
For this match we would have preferred to see some of the understudies for the scrum half position get a shot but clearly it’s not to be. It’s a powerful and creative centre pairing of Bundee Aki and the elusive Gary Ringrose, while the back line continues to explore the defensive liabilities of winger James Lowe, but should be comfortable with Andrew Conway. Fullback Hugo Keenan, who we thought should have seen Lions duty, will have his work cut out with trying to contain Japanese superstar Kotaro Matsushima, but the Leinster man seems to be able to cope with whatever challenges get sent his way. It’s a quality bench but our highlight will be seeing winger Keith Earls back in action. Earls has had a remarkable battle with injury of late but is playing some of the best rugby of his career and clearly enjoying himself.
Keep your eyes peeled on Saturday for the jersey wearing number 15. Japanese fullback Kotaro Matsushima who currently plies his trade with French side Clermont Ferrand, makes a return to the Japanese jersey and given that he lit up the World Cup, Ireland will really want to keep the Blossoms speedster in check. As Japan showed over the summer though they can be competitive and gave both the Lions and Ireland a run for their money and most recently the Wallabies. With essentially a full strength side this is a Japanese team to reckon with. Look out for number 8 Kazuki Himeno’s battle with Jack Conan and if you want some spirited encounters then look no further than the creative and dynamic halfback pairing of scrum half Yutaka Nagare and fly half Yu Tamara. Japan have some pacy backs and then there is a certain Mr. Matsushima as the last line of defence.
Ireland should emerge winners but are going to be asked some serious questions in the process, which will be excellent preparation for their ultimate challenge this month, next weekend’s fixture with the All Blacks. However, expect Japan to entertain from start to finish and you won’t want to miss this one.
We’ll be back shortly with parts 2 and 3. So enjoy these two and if you only watch one tomorrow then obviously our money is on the Ireland/Japan fixture.