After a month of truly vintage North vs South International Test Rugby, we take a look at what the respective Coaches of the big Ten learnt about their charges. We also pick our player of the month from each of the teams as well as a starting XV for each of them and which we think would provide the platform they need for 2022 and beyond as the countdown to the World Cup begins. I’ll try and get at least one a week out which should be a good segue into the buildup for the Six Nations in the New Year but, as mentioned before, work at the moment is getting the better of me and likely to continue to do so for the next few weeks.
In each of these five pieces we’ll pick out two of the teams in order of their success ratio this month; focus on what the Coaches must be feeling; pick a player that stood out the most and finally pick what we think is the kind of starting XV that will set them up well for 2022 and beyond.
So without any further ado let’s look at two sides, who arguably fared rather poorly in relation to the expectations surrounding them ahead of the November Test window- Australia and New Zealand.
Australia – Won 0 – Lost 3
It’s definitely been a year of ups and downs for Australian Coach Dave Rennie. It got off to a good start against France, hit a major speed bump in the Bledisloe Cup, recovered spectacularly for the rest of the Rugby Championship and went out with a whimper as Australia finished their year in the UK. Now to add insult to injury Rennie seems in frustration to have resorted to “Rassiegate” type tactics to question the integrity of the officiating. In short, despite some definite promise shown by the Wallabies there were some annoying distractions that got in the way of an otherwise genuine renaissance in Australian rugby.
Rennie was dealt his first blow just ahead of the November tour. Three of his key players, fly half Quade Cooper, centre Samu Kerevi, and winger Marika Koroibete, who had played such a crucial role in turning around the Wallabies fortunes after the Bledisloe fiasco, decided to opt out of the tour. Cooper, Kerevi and also Sean McMahon decided that their commitment to the mighty Yen outweighed national concerns and Koroibete decided to remain with his young family after the birth of his third child. While Koroibete’s decision was understandable in the case of the other three, surely something could have been worked out with their clubs, especially as said clubs had no qualms releasing their own Japanese players for International duty. His second and perhaps more critical blow was the loss of Captain and Wallaby talisman Michael Hooper to injury for the remainder of the tour early in the second half of the game against England. Without Hooper on the field the Wallabies just aren’t the same, despite a brave showing in their final match against Wales.
Looking past the three back to back losses, it’s not all gloom and doom after this tour. Apart from the game against England, Australia were highly competitive and they only lost to Scotland and Wales by the narrowest of margins. Scotland only won by two points from a penalty, with the lead changing hands on a regular basis. Against England, Australia came unstuck dramatically. Their discipline was a mess, and the loss of Hooper on the 55th minute and for the rest of the tour was a bitter blow to a side already struggling to contain an English side that, much like the Wallabies earlier in the year, was in the process of reinventing itself. Against Wales and without their inspirational Captain, the Wallabies discipline once again became a liability. Rob Valetini put in a shocking tackle on Adam Beard and saw Red only 15 minutes into the game. Australia showed some real heart to hang in with 14 men and only lose by one point. A penalty goal at the death by Wales resulting from an offside infringement from a harried and exhausted Australian defence brought an end to a tough November campaign. An incensed Rennie who felt that the officiating was biased against his charges and inconsistently applied then proceeded to embark on his own version of Rassiegate and we all know how that ended for the former South African Coach.
In short, Australia’s November tour was messy and fractured but apart from the England game they will take heart from the fact that their other two losses were by the narrowest of margins. All Australia’s recent successes had been at home, and once more the Wallabies proved that in general they struggle as a touring side. Their front row started to creak under pressure again, although they do seem to have addressed their lineout issues for the most part. The second row desperately needs some stability in terms of personnel, and the back row although a potent weapon needs a better understanding of the rule book as well as some stability in selection choices. In the half backs the potential is there, and certainly Australia can boast some considerable riches in the scrum half department in the shape of veteran Nic White and impressive youngster Tate McDermott – that is at least one area that won’t be causing Australian supporters any sleepless nights. However, Australia still lack a reliable fly half. Noah Lolesio still has a long way to go, James O’Connor is good but still too inconsistent and rough round the edges and who knows where Quade Cooper stands in the grand scheme of things? In the centers there is a heap of potential but again it still needs time to develop and in the back three, the fullback question continues unanswered with only the left wing position held by Andrew Kellaway an absolute drop dead certainty when it comes to selection.
Still the Wallabies most reliable and important asset now and for France 2023
Michael Hooper is to the Wallabies what petroleum is to the internal combustion engine. As their most capped Captain to date, Hooper has been a huge servant to Australian rugby and is the glue that holds the team together. Without him on the pitch they are a different beast. They are still a potent threat, but the belief that Hooper brings is lacking at critical moments as was evidenced against Wales. He is one of the most visible Captains in International Test Rugby both with the officials and his charges. His work rate is the stuff of legends and few leaders can pick their teammates up off the floor the way Hooper can when things aren’t going their way. Despite whatever deficiencies Coach Dave Rennie may have felt there were in the officiating during their final match on the field, we can’t help feeling that had Hooper been on the pitch the Wallabies would have risen above it and their last game would not have ended in a one point loss. There are few players in the modern game who are genuinely irreplaceable, but Hooper is definitely one of them.
So here’s the Lineout’s Australian starting XV:
- Loosehead Prop – James Slipper – Looked good against Scotland, but struggled against England especially playing out of position on the tighthead and gave away too many penalties against Wales. But still Australia’s only genuine option given his experience.
- Hooker – Folau Faingaa – Despite a wobble against England his lineout accuracy has come on in leaps and bounds and a useful scrummager and powerful carrier.
- Tighthead Prop – Taniela Tupou – The “Tongan Thor” brings the goods every time and adds a skill set that goes well above and beyond his role in the front row. An impact player but really should be used as a starter to ensure Australia get some dominance up front early.
- Number 4 Lock – Rory Arnold – Despite the return of Will Skelton to the Wallaby fold Arnold’s partnership with Izack Rodda looked like the most stable second row Australia have had in a while and needs to continue.
- Number 5 Lock – Izack Rodda – One of the Wallabies most underappreciated assets in our opinion, Rodda brought stability and composure to the Wallabies in the second row and in the set pieces. Combined well with Arnold to give Australia an effective platform.
- Blindside Flanker – Robert Leota – Discipline not the best but dynamic in the loose and at the breakdown as well as someone who can get Australia some genuine go forward ball.
- Openside Flanker – Michael Hooper – Enough said already as without him Australia struggle.
- No 8 – Rob Valetini – Despite the messy and costly red card against Wales, there is no doubting the power and pace the big man brings to the Wallaby back row. Had a good tour apart from the Welsh match and was one of the few players who managed to make a decent fist of trying to contain England’s rampant back row.
- Scrum Half – Nic White – The wise old fox had a good tour and always provided crisp and smart delivery to his forward pack. Ably understudied by Tate McDermott ensures that Australia are safe at 9.
- Fly Half – James O’Connor – Despite all the attention on Quade Cooper this summer, O’Connor is still probably a safer bet and kicked well against England scoring all Australia’s points.
- Left Wing – Izaia Perese – In the absence of Marika Koroibete we thought the youngster outshone Tom Wright and Jordan Petaia. Better disciplined than Wright, stronger defensively than Petaia and possessing an impressive set of dancing feet, Perese is well worth the investment despite his lack of Test experience. Could pay big dividends come the World Cup.
- Inside Centre – Hunter Paisami – Guilty of a few silly penalties but combines well with Ikitau on both attack and defence, making the foundation of a stable partnership.
- Outside Centre – Len Ikitau – Not quite as impressive as his performances in the Rugby Championship but still an impressive ball carrier who combines some imaginative running lines with Paisami’s more direct and physical approach. A promising duo in the making.
- Right Wing – Andrew Kellaway – Probably the best thing that has happened to the Wallabies in 2021. Impressive try scorer who looks increasing confident and capable in defense.
- Fullback – Tom Banks – Although he missed the tour through injury, we didn’t see anything from Kurtley Beale to make us feel that Banks’ job is under threat. In reality a position that Australia hasn’t quite found the right set of keys for and for which resumes are still being accepted.
New Zealand – Won 1 – Lost 2
Make no mistake Ian Foster must be breathing a huge sigh of relief that his contract extension taking him up to the conclusion of the next World Cup was agreed before he left for the US and Europe. The knives will still be out once he steps off the plane this week in Auckland but his job is probably safe. He now faces a rather uncomfortable enquiry as New Zealand’s Rugby Union chiefs try to get their head around the events of the last few months, ever since the All Blacks loss to South Africa in the final Rugby Championship match.
It hasn’t been comfortable viewing for New Zealand supporters this past couple of weeks. We’re not counting New Zealand’s 100+ points romp against a hapless United States as that was simply not a contest, as was the case a week later against a desperately understrength Welsh side. The writing was on the wall though in their first game against Italy. Given the fact that it took them 27 minutes to get their first points on the board against an Italian side that hadn’t won a match since the last World Cup, the alarm bells must have been ringing back in Auckland. After that they managed to pull away relatively comfortably but it wasn’t an assured performance from the outset. Ireland simply outmuscled and outplayed them and France blew them off the park in a display of creativity and pace that was once the sole preserve of New Zealand. In short, a side that is used to sweeping all before them looked beyond average.
So what has gone so horribly wrong? New Zealand has a staggering depth of talent at its disposal, yet somehow very little of it is clicking. New Zealand have always looked a smart team, but quite frankly November made them look rather like a group of high school dropouts. The polish and shine just wasn’t there. New Zealand looked disorganised and at times bereft of ideas.
Their front row simply failed to impress and was bested by both Ireland and France, and their work in the set pieces lacked its customary efficiency. In the second row they once again got outplayed by their French and Irish counterparts and discipline left much to be desired at times. The back row never quite gelled, despite some stellar individual performances – here’s looking at you as always Ardie Savea. Their halfback pairings simply couldn’t get the measure of Ireland or France and even struggled to understand Italy at first. Their centre pairings were for the most part distinctly average and the back line fluffed their lines continuously while at the same time being starved of the kind of ball they are used to. In short, it was a November full of errors and poor choices made both in the Coaching box and on the field. New Zealand are not down and out but they are capable of so much better, and the next couple of months are going to involve some hard and painful video reviews in order to untangle the wreckage. There were some outstanding individual performances this month but as a team New Zealand simply didn’t work.
Still New Zealand’s leading proponent of a “shock and awe” approach to the game
Arguably New Zealand’s most consistent and impressive performer this month, Savea brings so much energy to the All Blacks’ efforts no matter the scoreline. Every performance is borderline manic, and we regard him as one of the most committed and fearless players in the modern game. Savea is always fighting, always trying to get his team on the front foot – he just simply never looks beat. Watch any of the highlights from this month, and Savea’s writhing almost possessed form is a feature of all of them. His energy and commitment is never in question and it’s those qualities allied to an impressive skill set that makes him New Zealand’s most valuable player this month despite the occasional slip up in discipline or execution. Like a Duracell bunny on steroids, Savea just never stops going even if everyone around him has seemingly forgotten what they are supposed to be doing with this funny shaped ball.
So here’s the Lineout’s New Zealand starting XV:
- Loosehead Prop – Joe Moody – Got bested by his opposite numbers in Dublin and Paris, but still probably the best New Zealand have got for now.
- Hooker – Dane Coles – Had better lineout success than Codie Taylor and is still more of an unpredictable threat out wide when he plays his fantasy position of back up winger.
- Tighthead Prop – Nepo Laulala – There simply because we couldn’t find anyone else who stood out in a position in which New Zealand got bossed around, and has more experience than everyone else.
- Number 4 Lock – Tupou Vaa’i – Looked much more impressive off the bench than stalwart Brodie Retallick. Maybe some time for fresh thinking in terms of selection decisions for this position.
- Number 5 Lock – Sam Whitelock – Still a presence but some fresh blood is desperately needed here.
- Blindside Flanker – Luke Jacobson – Struggled initially to get to grips with Italy but still such a force for the future.
- Openside Flanker – Dalton Papali’i – Had a few hit and miss moments but did what was asked of him for the most part and against Ireland was one of the better players for New Zealand.
- No 8 – Ardie Savea – As mentioned above how could you possibly choose anyone else, though just as useful and dangerous on the flanks and in many ways would prefer to see his talents used there.
- Scrum Half – Brad Weber – Injury kept him out of the Ireland game where he could have made a big difference and had to live in the shadow of a jet lagged Aaron Smith against France.
- Fly Half – Richie Mo’unga – Made to look distinctly average by both Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and France’s Romain Ntamack, but still a more reliable goal kicker than Barrett who failed to make an impact this month.
- Left Wing – Sevu Reece – Didn’t quite match up to the physicality brought by Ireland or France, but still pretty tough to catch once he gets a head of steam.
- Inside Centre – Anton Liennert-Brown – Still your thinking man’s centre but definitely more subdued this month than usual. Excuse the pun but Ireland’s Gary Ringrose ran rings around him.
- Outside Centre – Rieko Ioane – Impressed despite his more usual role on the wing. Not convinced the experiment worked but there were enough moments of brilliance to justify continuing with it.
- Right Wing – Will Jordan – Strangely quiet month for the try scoring machine, but Ireland and France made sure he simply had no ball to work with or if he did was summarily shoved into touch.
- Fullback – Damian McKenzie – New Zealand needed his X-factor to spark them into life at the back, which Jordi Barrett simply didn’t do. When you’re up against the likes of Ireland’s Hugo Keenan and France’s Melvyn Jaminet then you need McKenzie’s willingness to throw caution to the wind at times if you’re going to be able to compete. Jordi Barrett has a useful boot but he was too pedestrian to be able to compete with the likes of a new look France or Ireland.
So that’s it for now until next week, or as soon as work cuts me some free time. Next up – Wales and Scotland!