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 had a mixed bag in relation to the expectations surrounding them ahead of the November Test window- Wales and Scotland.
Wales – Won 2 – Lost 1
First of all before you say it, yes we know the actual record is won 2 and lost 2. However, we are not including that Test against New Zealand at the end of October and which fell outside the November Test window. It was a thumping at the hands of the All Blacks but in all reality was it ever going to be anything else? A cobbled together Welsh side, missing some of their star players through either injury or not available due to club duties beyond Welsh borders, took on for all intents and purposes a full strength All Black side. A pointless game which as we would see later taught us little about Wales and absolutely nothing about New Zealand, as the All Blacks steadily imploded during the course of November.
Wales’ first proper Test was in appalling conditions against World Champions South Africa. Despite the weather it was a proper Test match that went down to the wire. It was a hard fought encounter that saw the lead change hands on a regular basis. The weather didn’t allow for much in the way of a running game, as due to Covid the famous Principality Roof had to remain open. Instead it was a game of fine margins, and the lack of discipline prevalent amongst both sides meant the game was for the most part decided on penalties. South Africa’s famous “Bomb Squad” came on early in the second half and despite some heroic resistance from Wales the dam eventually burst and South Africa would score the one and only match winning try. Next up Wales took on a Fijian side that had clearly come to play and proceeded to make the Men in Red work exceptionally hard. Wales profited from Fiji’s red card after 24 minutes which until then had seen Fiji have the upper hand, especially on attack. Nevertheless at half time Wales were only ahead by one point. Despite the one man advantage Wales struggled to contain the exuberant Islanders and Fiji once more started to pull away. However, Pivac can take comfort in the final quarter display from his charges and an impressive shift from the bench. Wales were under the gun but they held their nerve and essentially played the game they should have played from the outset against a Fijian side finally starting to tire. In the end it was a comfortable 38-23 win for Wales but they couldn’t have asked for better preparation ahead of their final encounter with Australia.
The final match against the Wallabies was a tense and at times controversial affair, but overall Wales should feel pleased that once again they managed to hold their nerve and snatch what had begun to look like an impossible victory. Australian discipline was poor to say the least throughout November, and without their talismanic Captain Michael Hooper as well as coming off the back of two losses to Scotland and England, Wales knew that fortune favored the bold and Australia were vulnerable. It was a scrappy game at times but one that kept you on the edge of your seat. Early into the second half it looked like Wales had closed the shop on their Australian visitors, but a lack of concentration saw the Wallabies come storming back into the match and with only two minutes left on the clock, Wales were trailing by two points. However, a determined Welsh onslaught in the Australian 22, saw Wallaby discipline crack with time in the red, and Rhys Priestland calmly slotted the three pointer and 65,000 Welshmen breathed a collective sigh of relief as their team squeaked through with a narrow one point win.
Overall, Wayne Pivac can feel confident heading into the Six Nations, but will be concerned that on attack Wales are nowhere near their English, Scottish, Irish or French counterparts. Defensively solid, but unable to really turn promising attacks into points on the board, Pivac and his charges will have plenty of homework ahead of Europe’s showpiece event in two months time.
In the front row it is very much a mixed bag for Wales. While Hooker Ryan Elias’ lineout throwing is a bit hit and miss and overall their front row found it hard to compete, there is potential there once Elias finds his groove and they figure out their prop combinations. In the second row, Wales are definitely competitive and Adam Beard continues to come of age. In the back row though Wales and Pivac should definitely feel excited. The return of flanker Ellis Jenkins was a revelation and he is clearly Captain material. Newcomer Taine Balsham got better and better with every game and the whole unit was ably held together by Aaron Wainwright. With the return of Welsh “Superman” Justin Tipuric for the Six Nations, Wales should feel more than a little optimistic here. In the halfbacks there is reliability in the shape of Dan Biggar and Tomos Williams rarely put a foot wrong in the scrum half berth. In the centres though Wales clearly are still a work in progress with nothing really nailed down. In the back three we really liked the look of Johnny McNicholl in addition to the always consistent Liam Williams at fullback while Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit are proven commodities out wide if they can just be put into the right space with adequate support.
Like we said in our previews of November’s action, we had serious concerns surrounding Ellis Jenkins’ welfare when we learnt that he was being thrust back into the Test arena against probably the most physically demanding side on the planet – South Africa. Jenkins had only just returned to rugby after almost three years on the sidelines due to a horrific injury sustained playing against the same opponents in 2018. In November, Jenkins ended up being Wales’ most valuable player and Coach Wayne Pivac must surely be looking at Jenkins becoming the successor to the legendary Alun Wyn Jones as the great man looks set to relinquish the Captain’s armband before the next World Cup. It was hard to believe that we were watching the same Jenkins who was stretchered off under oxygen and seemed unlikely to ever play again that fateful November day three years ago. This November, Jenkins played like a man possessed yet it all looked remarkably calm and composed but devastatingly effective.
So here’s the Lineout’s Welsh starting XV:
- Loosehead Prop – Wyn Jones – Definitely a problem area for Wales as part of a creaking front row, but still the best option Wales has and had his best game against Australia.
- Hooker – Ryan Elias – His lineout throwing is a genuine concern for Wales, but his ability to cross the whitewash restores some credibility to the Welsh front row with two tries against Fiji and one against Australia. Will get better and definitely a prospect for the future.
- Tighthead Prop – Tomas Francis – Once again, best of a problem area for Wales.
- Number 4 Lock – Will Rowlands – Not convinced that Wales have figured out their second row stocks in the twilight of Alun Wyn Jones career, but Rowlands made a decent fist of a very physical confrontation with South Africa, but didn’t look as sharp against Fiji and is under threat from Christ Tshiunza and Ben Carter.
- Number 5 Lock – Adam Beard – After plenty of criticism in the past Beard is now an integral part of the Welsh second row and acquitted himself well especially against South Africa.
- Blindside Flanker – Ellis Jenkins – His return to the Welsh fold has been the most exciting event of the year, and surely Wales’ successor to the mighty Alun Wyn Jones for the Captaincy. Phenomenal performances in all three Tests.
- Openside Flanker – Taine Basham – Probably Wales’ most promising debutant of 2021. Rose to the occasion and is clearly going to feature heavily in the forthcoming Six Nations – genuine talent and also acquitted himself well in the number 8 role against Fiji.
- Number 8 – Aaron Wainwright – Dynamic ball carrier but defensively could use some work as missed a couple of key tackles in both the South African and Australian games.
- Scrum Half – Tomos Williams – Definitely Wales’ most dynamic offering in this department and looks like he’s got the Six Nations starting berth.
- Fly Half – Dan Biggar – Calmly steered the ship for Wales in all three matches and still really no competition when it comes to the big Tests.
- Left Wing – Josh Adams – Mr. Reliable for Wales in both defence and attack.
- Inside Centre – Nick Tompkins – Excellent on attack but part of a porous midfield defence for Wales.
- Outside Centre – Uilisi Halaholo – Really struggled to find the right fit here, though apart from disciplinary lapses Halaholo acquitted himself well against Australia and was the standout in a generally poor effort here from Wales, even if he was switched from outside to the inside channel. Nevertheless too many tackles missed across the board here for Wales.
- Right Wing – Louis Rees-Zammit – Not as prolific as he could have been, but perhaps because Pivac decided to switch him and Adams, the Welsh speedster traditionally plies his trade on the left wing. Still put in some good shifts, gets better defensively with every outing and still one of the fastest men on the pitch.
- Fullback – Liam Williams – Still a class act at the back for Wales and a master of the counterattack, though struggled at first to get the measure of Fiji.
Scotland – Won 2 – Lost 1
A bit like Wales’ meaningless clash with New Zealand in October, we won’t be talking about the equally pointless dead rubber between Scotland and Tonga. Instead we’ll be focusing on what was for the most part a pretty positive November for Scotland and Gregor Townsend. As they head into a Six Nations that sees them having the advantage of hosting two of the Tournament’s Red hot favorites England and France at home, the work done in November should set them up well provided some important lessons get taken on board between now and then.
Scotland opened their November account in a seesaw low scoring match against Australia. The revelation of the match was debutant Hooker Ewan Ashman. Coming onto the pitch after only eleven minutes, as starter George Turner was taken off due to injury, Ashman took the Scottish rugby world by storm, scoring a try that displayed some aerial skills more akin to a winger than a Hooker. It was a real arm wrestle with the Wallabies and could have gone either way, but Scotland doggedly stuck to the task at hand and got the better of an Australian side that was clearly beginning to suffer a degree of self-doubt. It was a game of very fine margins, but Scotland were just slightly more precise in their execution when it mattered most. Next up Scotland faced a Springbok side brimming with confidence after a gritty win over Wales. South Africa brought all the physicality and then some that they are renown for, and this time around Scotland struggled to keep up. Scotland’s goal kicking was way off the mark, and resulted in them losing an easy 9 points. They were dominated at scrum time by the big and bruising South African pack and their lineouts simply weren’t effective. In short, they got bossed by South Africa and only really held their own in the rucks and a slightly better success rate when it came to the tackle count. However, they were ultimately outclassed by their opponents and if they hope to stand a chance against England, France and Ireland then Townsend knows his charges will need to up their game dramatically.
Their last match saw them get to grips with a Japanese side that up till then had failed to fire a shot. However, the Japanese team that showed up at Murrayfield was very different in character to the one that got blitzed 60-5 by Ireland at the start of the month. It was a thrilling encounter by two sides who, with the possible exception of Fiji, love to run the ball more than any other. Japan were in it till the end and the final 15 minutes was a tense affair for Scottish supporters. However, it was Scotland’s ability to turn searing line breaks into points on the board that gave them the edge, with Duhan van der Merwe, Stuart Hogg and Darcy Graham all putting on fine displays of how the Scots can be so fleet of foot. Against equally creative sides like France such skills will be key.
In the front row there are concerns for Scotland, make no mistake but we’d also argue there is enough to work with there that, come the Six Nations, the alarm bells should not be ringing. In the second row Scotland look dependable but perhaps not as dynamic as their English, Irish and French counterparts. The back row though does appear to be in rude health, even if they perhaps had a slightly quiet November by their standards. Once again though there is enough talent to work with, that come the Six Nations Scotland should feel confident. It was the half back pairings that we felt didn’t quite fire. Ali Price was solid but Finn Russell had one of his more mercurial months and Scotland will really need to address the goalkicking issues in time for their first Six Nations match against England. In the centers Scotland look strong both in defense and on attack, while the back three is simply buzzing with talent and skill.
Heading into the Six Nations Gregor Townsend will need to improve the success rate of his charges in the scrums and at lineout time. A 59% success rate in the scrums over the month is simply unacceptable at this level and the lineouts weren’t much better at 82%. Goal kicking was also a bit of disaster with Scotland only managing a 62% success rate with similar figures of 83% for their tackle count. In short, Scotland are an absolute joy to watch on attack and have some truly silky skills, but unless some of the core basics of their game get tightened up, it could be a rocky Six Nations for the Men in Blue despite their wealth of talent.
Scotland’s Captain was once more the catalyst that gets his team on the front foot in November. He has grown superbly into the role of Captain and from deep he is still one of International Rugby’s most dangerous individuals. A master of the counterattack and able to carve up huge chunks of the pitch seemingly unopposed, his skill with ball in hand and off the foot are extremely impressive. He is simply a player who makes things happen for his team. Without him on the pitch Scotland’s wealth of talent runs the risk of looking slightly ordinary, but with Hogg, Scotland and their back line in particular trip the light fantastic. He’ll be one of the most entertaining players of the upcoming Six Nations, and the contests between him and England’s Freddie Steward, Ireland’s Hugo Keenan and France’s Melvyn Jaminet look set to be very tasty indeed and well worth the price of admission.
So here’s the Lineout’s Scottish starting XV:
- Loosehead Prop – Pierre Schoeman – In a faltering unit the South African import provided the most stability but still a huge amount of work to be done to integrate his exceptional skills into a platform that actually works.
- Hooker – Ewan Ashman – Canada’s loss but Scotland’s gain. The Toronto native made the world sit up and take note in his debut against Australia with a winger’s try. Was also Scotland’s most successful lineout thrower in November. A work in progress but absolutely worth the investment.
- Tighthead Prop – Zander Fagerson – Discipline was a real issue for the talented Tighthead in November and took away from some othewise good performances. Nevertheless like the rest of his front row colleagues really needs to get to the bottom of what’s not working at the coal face before the Six Nations kicks off.
- Number 4 Lock – Sam Skinner – Quietly effective in the set pieces and combined well with his partner Grant Gilchrist but could do more.
- Number 5 Lock – Grant Gilchrist – With Skinner was effective but can do so much more and will need to come February.
- Blindside Flanker – Jamie Ritchie – Seems more effective here than on the openside. Excellent against Australia and Japan but found South Africa hard going where he was switched to the openside.
- Openside Flanker – Hamish Watson – Not his most prolific month and at times he simply wasn’t producing at the level we’ve come to expect, but finished off at his rampaging best against Japan.
- Number 8 – Matt Fagerson – Really struggled with the physicality of South Africa but still worth sticking with.
- Scrum Half – Ali Price – Always competitive and actually showed up his half back partner Finn Russell on more than one occasion and in general was far more productive.
- Fly Half – Finn Russell – Glimpses of Finn “the Magician” were there in November but the inconsistency that he suffers from coupled to some bad decision making and execution was there for all to see and let’s not talk about his goal kicking. Still seems to save his best for the Six Nations, so will reserve judgement till then.
- Left Wing – Duhan van der Merwe – Utterly lethal with ball in hand but not the world’s best distributor when it appears obvious that the try line is not his to cross and defensively got exposed by South Africa.
- Inside Centre – Sam Johnson – The Aussie import was sorely missed against South Africa, but was key in the wins over the Wallabies and Japan.
- Outside Centre – Chris Harris – Defensively rock solid and increasingly impressive looking on attack. One of Scotland’s most underrated assets.
- Right Wing – Darcy Graham – No stranger to the try line and capable of some mesmerizing runs, but still needs to tighten up his defensive work, as he had a shocker in the missed tackle department against Japan.
- Fullback – Stuart Hogg – Scotland’s best player of November by a country mile, an excellent leader of men when under pressure and a counterattacking genius.
Well that wraps up Part Three. Unfortunately work is going to once more get the better of me until next week. Consequently, I will have to do the final two instalments looking at England and South Africa and France and Ireland later next week. Sorry for the silence but unfortunately the day job takes precedence in terms of paying the bills for now.
So till we meet again over England and South Africa next week, take care everyone, stay safe and enjoy the opening round of the Heineken Cup this weekend – details on how to watch out tomorrow on the TV Page.