As mentioned over on the TV page, I’m slightly slammed with work at the moment, but there are three genuinely tasty fixtures in this weekend’s second Round of the November Internationals that simply have to be acknowledged. So here are the things that struck me from each of the three, and in this final instalment we look at England vs Australia. I’d love to cover Wales and Fiji and Italy versus Argentina, as these matches also have the potential to provide some serious entertainment, but unfortunately time just doesn’t permit this week. I will be putting out a brief podcast on the Italy/Argentina game, even though I won’t be putting out a written piece on the game, as well as podcasts on all the games covered in the blog this week.
So we’ve waited a long time for an England squad that finally starts to look new, and on Saturday we almost get it. The starting XV isn’t all that fresh with the major exception being that fly half sensation Marcus Smith finally gets a start against top notch opposition. Freddie Steward also keeps his place at fullback, but apart from that it’s still for the most part business as usual for England. However, when you look at their bench, it’s almost a sea change. Sam Simmonds, back rower extraordinaire for Exeter finally gets included in a matchday 23 for England. Alex Dombrandt gets another shot from the bench, Max Malins in the backs, Raffi Quirke at scrum half and Jamie Blamire and Bevan Rodd in the front row. However, all eyes will be on Marcus Smith and if he makes a go of it expect him to get the nod next weekend in England’s World Cup grudge rematch with South Africa. Nevertheless just to keep it spicy Eddie Jones has stuck with some of his controversial selection and positional choices.
As for Australia, they are pretty happy with their new look, and despite coming unstuck against Scotland by the slimmest of margins last weekend, this is a unit that is humming quite nicely. They won’t be intimidated by England, even if some of their combinations aren’t quite clicking they way need to be against the big Northern Hemisphere sides. Add in the fact that they are clearly missing Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete, and things are not quite the way the Wallabies would like them to be. Nevertheless it’s still a pretty flash looking unit that knows how to score five pointers and has finally mastered the art of defence. They are familiar with each other and a culture of winning, something which this year has eluded England at key moments. Australia may not be as fully stocked as they would like for this one but make no mistake they will fancy their chances and have the talent to deliver on it.
England vs Australia – Saturday, November 13th – Twickenham
England may not be on a particularly healthy winning streak at the moment, but against Australia their stocks are riding high. In the last five encounters between the sides, England has won all of them. Australia still has the cold comfort of being the side that knocked England out of their own World Cup in the Pool stages, but since then it’s been pretty slim pickings against the Red Rose. England essentially start the process of building for the next World Cup on Saturday, mainly by ushering in Marcus Smith as the hottest thing to wear the ten jersey in white since Jonny Wilkinson. If you want excitement then the 22 year old rookie knows how to bring it on in stark contrast to his Captain Owen Farrell. But as flash as Smith is there is a surprisingly sharp rugby brain on those young shoulders. His creativity is something England have been craving and will need in order to counter the likes of France’s Matthieu Jalibert and Romain Ntamack come the Six Nations in two months.
For Australia, it’s all about building on what has been a remarkable turnaround in their fortunes since those three blowout losses to New Zealand earlier this year. Put those aside and the 2021 Wallaby vintage is proving to be an exceptionally robust offering. Defence which up to this year had been a bad joke in Australian rugby circles has suddenly become a creed to live and die by for this Wallaby squad, and the attacking enterprise and glorious running rugby of the 90s is back with a vengeance. In short, Australia are an exciting side to watch and they finally seem to know a thing or two about defence. They will need it and then some against an English side which looks set to turn a corner of their own.
Another in a long line of under appreciated Wallaby talent
Ever since Izack Rodda burst onto the Wallaby scene in 2017, we’ve always thought he’d ultimately be one to watch. Sadly after a spell in France with Lyon, Australian rugby seemed to forget him. Consequently we were delighted to see him back this year and our faith in him has been rewarded. He missed all three Tests against the All Blacks but put in huge shifts against South Africa and Argentina, and was one of Australia’s most effective players against Scotland last Sunday. He’ll have his work cut out for him against the rather daunting figure of England’s Maro Itoje, but Australia can rest assured he’ll give as good as he gets and is unlikely to rise to Itoje trying to get under his skin. He just doesn’t seem to get rattled and that’s a quality Australia will need on Saturday.
Pick the odd one out
On Saturday there are two highly competent number eights on the bench, but your starter number eight Tom Curry is by trade an openside flanker. Don’t get us wrong we think Curry is a genuinely great player, but we just don’t get Coach Eddie Jones’s positional thinking. We understand that Courtney Lawes has excelled in the back row compared to his traditional second row role so room had to be made for him. We also get the fact that Curry works so well with fellow “kamikaze twin” Sam Underhill, but surely in a game where England’s stocks are traditionally high players could afford to assume their traditional roles. While Curry had a good game against Tonga it didn’t really test his credentials as an eight – he could have played anywhere and looked good. In Australia’s Rob Valentini he’ll be up against a player who relishes the role of a big physical ball carrying eight ably supported by Captain Fantastic Michael Hooper. Dombrandt and Simmonds will appear for England as the match wears on, but the positional shifts that will have to take place in England’s back row as a result are anybody’s guess.
Lights, camera, action!!!
We’ve waited all year and now it’s finally here, England finally decide to start their whizzkid fly half Marcus Smith in a major Test. Sure we got to see him against Tonga last weekend and were mesmerized by his ability, but if England are serious about their World Cup ambitions and a successful run up to it, then the youngster desperately needs big game time now and lots of it. While there is always the risk of throwing such promising talent into the fray too soon and seeing them eaten alive before they can reach their full potential, with Smith it’s definitely a risk worth taking. England need an option other than Owen Farrell and George Ford for not just this World Cup but those beyond it, and Smith is clearly the future. We cannot wait to see what the youngster can do up against a wily and pacy Wallaby outfit that has shown some genuine defensive nous of late. His opposite number James O’Connor still appears to be finding his feet, whereas Smith seems afraid of nothing and is clearly relishing the opportunity to make his case for France 2023 and beyond. It will be fascinating to see how Smith copes in this and most likely the match against South Africa, and his exploits are likely to feature heavily in this weekend’s highlight reels. He’ll have Owen Farrell on the pitch with him to lend some wisdom and a steadying hand, but we can’t wait to watch the fireworks.
Eddie Jones continues to keep us guessing with his positional switches
England Coach Eddie Jones clearly sees centre Manu Tuilagi as his saviour and has made it clear that he regards him as key to England’s efforts in 2023. We get it, Tuilagi when fit is a LETHAL centre – so why not keep him there? Oh hang on sorry we forgot he needs to make room for Owen Farrell to chaperone Marcus Smith. Fair enough, but surely Adam Radwan, who so impressed against Tonga last week and doesn’t even make the bench for Saturday, would have been a better bet out wide than Tuilagi out of position. Perhaps the saving grace here is the fact that Tuilagi will only have to deal with Australia’s Tom Wright as opposed to the outstanding Andrew Kellaway, who will be Jonny May’s responsibility. If it’s an all out physical footrace between Wright and Tuilagi then our money’s on the man in the white jersey, the problem is Tuilagi is happier bashing his way up the middle and seems to run out of puff over distance. It’s a gamble we can’t wait to see play out either way.
Look who’s back?
Kurtley Beale is one of those players who gets people out of their seats. When the utility back is on song he has produced some glorious moments for his country and the clubs he’s represented, most recently Racing 92 in France. The problem is when he’s having an off day things tend to go sideways quickly for not only him but the rest of his team. One thing he doesn’t seem overly comfortable with is the high ball and England are likely to ask him lots of questions on the subject all afternoon. However, with ball in hand his ability to counter attack from deep can equal any of the world’s best and his passing and kicking skills are hard to beat at pace. In short, there is very little middle ground with Beale – he’s either way off his game one day or a worthy contender for Man of the Match the next. Coach Dave Rennie will hope it’s the latter on Saturday.
This will be a contest make no mistake, but fortune clearly favors England at the moment, particularly when you look at the recent history between the two sides. Australia will be smarting from that narrow loss to Scotland and would love nothing better than to get one over the Men in White and their adoring fans at Fortress Twickenham. However, England look the more confident of the two sides and their new fly half is clearly chomping at the bit to get going against Australia. We don’t think the gap on the scoreboard is going to be as significant in England’s favor as many are predicting. It’s the first real Test of a slightly new look England against major opposition, and opening night nerves could get the better of them against an Australian side who won’t be feeling the pressure of an expectant Twickenham packed to the rafters and demanding results. It’s going to be a fascinating contest and a fitting end to a Super Saturday!