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 be attempting to put out a podcast before kickoff of the Italy/New Zealand game tomorrow morning.
So without any further ado let’s get into Part 2!
England vs Tonga – Saturday, November 6th – Twickenham
While the result is not really in doubt this is the first look at a supposedly new English side. In reality we don’t think it’s all that refreshing and as always Coach Eddie Jones’ selections leave us slightly puzzled. Against a cobbled together Tongan side, we thought it would be a golden opportunity for a sea change in England selection policy to find and prove some much needed, and in some cases blatantly obvious, depth ahead of two challenging fixtures with Australia and South Africa.
As usual England Coach Eddie Jones proves obstinate in his selection policies. Surely this match which should be a mere formality for England, without any disrespect to a spirited but cobbled together Tongan side, is the perfect opportunity to start some of the new talent that Eddie Jones knows his side needs ahead of the World Cup and with two challenging fixtures this month against Australia and South Africa. Instead it’s business as usual with a few perplexing positional calls. The front row is tried and trusted as is the second row, with a host of familiar and formidable faces, most notably lock Maro Itoje. However, it’s the back row that has left most of us confused and English supporters fuming. While there is no denying how well Tom Curry works with Sam Underhill, the ‘kamikaze twins’ work best as flankers, and as he proved this year in the Six Nations and on the Lions tour Curry is not a number eight. England’s best prospects at eight are Sam Simmonds who once again, for reasons that beggar understanding, finds himself nowhere near the squad and a natural number eight Alex Dombrandt is consigned to the bench.
While there are concerns about an injury to superstar English fly half in the making Marcus Smith, surely this match was an opportunity to blood someone other than the ponderous Owen Farrell and the equally pedestrian Ben Youngs at scrum half, as there is simply no vision for the future here and time is running out with the World Cup less than two years away. In short, the only look at the future we get in England’s starting fifteen tomorrow is in the shape of Adam Radwan on the wing and Freddie Steward, both of whom thoroughly impressed during England’s summer tussles with the USA and Canada. Eddie Jones continues to pin his hopes on centre Manu Tuilagi, but we think we can say with absolute certainty that he is likely to be out with yet another one of the seemingly endless injuries that have sadly plagued this talented player’s career. There is some scope to look into the crystal ball of England’s future on the bench, but it’s still far less than we had expected for a match like this.
Tonga produces talented rugby players of that there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever. Ask any Coach in New Zealand or Australia or talent scout in Europe. The problem is that as a national side they get to spend so little time together, that representative Tongan teams always feel patched together. They play with plenty of heart and can often punch way above their weight as individuals, but rarely are able to play as a cohesive unit. It’s a big ask for them on Saturday especially up against an English side that shows little in the way of experimentation and plenty of familiar faces.
We just hope it won’t be a completely one sided romp for the Men in White and that in the process Tonga are able to ask England some questions that Coach Eddie Jones has either decided to ignore or feels are not relevant to a World Cup that is starting to approach his charges at a rate of knots.
Wales vs South Africa – Saturday, November 6th – Cardiff
Along with France vs Argentina and Scotland vs Australia on Sunday, this is one of the three big games of the weekend and of the two games in this Part 2 of our look at the weekend’s action the one you won’t want to miss. Wales have a good track record against South Africa, but the Springboks found their mojo against New Zealand and are once again looking competent and confident. Something which Wales to be honest are not looking right now after their hiding at the hands of New Zealand and as usual an injury list from hell.
Last weekend’s encounter against New Zealand was definitely a Test too soon for a Welsh side depleted by injury and several key players on Premiership duty in England. Things are rosier on the latter front this weekend as fly half Dan Biggar and winger Louis Rees-Zammit return for duty. Dan Biggar’s playmaking skills and ever reliable boot allied to the sheer pace and ability of the most exciting find in Welsh rugby in the last five years, winger Louis Rees-Zammit, will mean that Wales are likely to be infinitely more competitive than they were last weekend against a powerhouse All Black outfit.
In the front row Hooker Ryan Elias will be feeling the pressure after failing to deliver last weekend, especially at lineout time. Wales will be feeling the loss of talismanic Captain Alun Wyn Jones in the second row and on the pitch in general, while Adam Beard despite looking good in the Six Nations and on the Lions tour struggled for the most part to get to grips with Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock last Saturday. It’s a competitive Welsh back row with Aaron Wainwright and Taine Balsham, with both looking good against the All Blacks last weekend despite the latter’s lack of Test experience. However, they are up against a powerhouse Springbok set of forwards who caused all kinds of grief for New Zealand in the Rugby Championship. As good as he is, many feel that the return of flanker Ellis Jenkins from injury in a match that is likely to be intensely physical, is definitely a bridge too soon.
As already mentioned Wales will breathe a sigh of relief with Dan Biggar back in the mix at fly half as he’s a good match for Handre Pollard, and Tomos Williams at scrum half also impressed yet again last weekend. We just don’t feel that the Welsh centre pairing of Jonathan Davies and Nick Tompkins is a match for an increasingly electric and imaginative Springbok offering of Lukhanyo Am and Damian de Allende. Wales will place a great deal of hope in wingers Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit and if Biggar and the rest of his colleagues can get these two in space then it could be a long day at the office for South Africa, as well as both players being sound in defence. It’s a decent bench for Wales with Liam Williams able to cover for Johnny McNicholl should South Africa choose to stick with their tried and trusted aerial assault.
Herschel Jantjies has had to live in the shadow of regular Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk since that memorable win over the All Blacks in New Zealand three years ago when he wore the 9 jersey. As a result we feel his game has suffered somewhat. We know what he can do he just needs the opportunity to do so. As a result this November tour is his golden opportunity. With de Klerk out injured it is likely that Jantjies will start in all three of the Springboks’ Tests. After tomorrow’s match he will get his chance to measure his mettle against Scotland and England, and a good performance in Cardiff should get him back on the upwards trajectory we first saw back in 2018.
South Africa’s last match of the Rugby Championship against New Zealand this year, and arguably their best game since their World Cup triumph over England, saw them finally show some ambition in attack and trust themselves to make their renown physicality count with ball in hand. This belief led to points on the board while keeping New Zealand out of the match as much as possible. They toned down their much criticised kicking game, used the boot more sparingly and effectively and trusted the momentum and physicality of their pack to release their backs. If they employ a similar approach against Wales it could be a long and tiring day at the coalface for the Men in Red with few weaknesses to exploit. It’s a solid Springbok lineup for Saturday’s game and we are hard pressed to find fault with it. If anything our only gripes are once again the absence of Aphelele Fassi in the backs and Jesse Kriel being a starting winger. In Kriel’s case we think there are better options and he is still more suited to the centre role as a bench replacement, while Steyn who makes the bench can simply be too hot and cold for our liking. Lastly we still remain to be convinced by fullback Damian Willemse at Test level, and feel that not giving Fassi a shot here is an opportunity gone missing yet again. The fact that Fassi doesn’t even make the bench leaves us muttering under our breath.
South Africa have the potential to reverse an unfortunate history of being on the wrong side of the scoreline in Cardiff, but this is a strengthened Welsh side smarting from their pounding at the hands of the All Blacks. The Principality Stadium was packed to the rafters last weekend for the first time since the pandemic and with the famous crowd demanding nothing less than outright victory from what looks to be a much more competitive Welsh side, expect this fixture to be rather feisty to say the least. It’s definitely our pick of the two matches in this piece if you only get to watch one of them!