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. 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 can feel fairly pleased with their November Test window results – South Africa and Ireland.
South Africa – Won 2 – Lost 1
South Africa ended their 2021 season in fine style and their final match against England was a Test match of truly epic proportions. The margins were so fine, that although South Africa lost by a point, they have little if anything to apologize for. Had Captain Siya Kolisi not lost sight of the bigger picture in a moment that was out of character for the talismanic Springbok leader, we might well have been writing a different postscript to a match that will stay on our highlights reel for many years to come.
Still despite that serious error of judgement Kolisi and Coach Jacques Nienaber must surely feel rather pleased with their end of year efforts. Their November campaign got off to a rain sodden start in Cardiff, but although such conditions usually tend to favor their opponents, South Africa demonstrated that they too can be masters of proceedings in the wet. They dominated possession and territory, ran the ball almost three times as much as Wales and refreshingly trusted the power and effectiveness of their pack to turn that possession and territory into points on the board. Their kicking game was measured and precise, and they used it to ensure that Wales were having to do all the work. Their set piece work was brutally efficient and to top it all off there was that monster kick at goal from long range specialist Francois Steyn. It wasn’t a pretty game at times and intensely physical, but the Springboks showed why they are such a force to be reckoned with in matches of that nature.
Next up they faced a plucky Scotland who simply couldn’t get the measure of the green and gold juggernaut that showed up at Murrayfield. Once again South Africa brought their power game and in a match all about territory and possession, the Boks showed their pedigree for the second time in a week. They were the more disciplined of the two in a contest where emotions could easily have got the better of both sides. They dominated Scotland in the set pieces, but their defences were tested by a Scottish side determined to find some gaps, and at times South Africa struggled to contain the expansive Scots. Still the unrelenting pressure South Africa were able to put on their opponents for the full eighty minutes took its toll as Scotland struggled to keep their focus and discipline in the final quarter, allowing the Springboks to slot 9 unanswered points from penalty kicks.
Last up was arguably one of the three best Test matches of a month that provided us with plenty. South Africa travelled to Twickenham to meet an English side with a grudge to settle after their World Cup final exit at the hands of the Springboks. It was a game of two halves. In the first England clearly had the upper hand. England looked like they were holding their own in the physical stakes and if anything appeared to have the edge. South Africa’s only saving grace was England’s almost laughable discipline at times, which allowed Handre Pollard to keep the scoreboard ticking over and the Springboks in touch. In the second half however, South Africa were a changed side and that fire and fury which had been somewhat lacking in the first forty was back with a vengeance, with Francois Steyn’s boot once more providing the long range artillery that had cost Wales and Scotland so dearly. With five minutes left on the clock, the most intense of arm wrestles looked set to end in South Africa’s favor as the visitors led 26-24. Then Captain Siya Kolisi, in a moment which he will want to forget in a hurry, tackled a man in the air and cut his team down to fourteen men. England could sense that, without their talismanic leader on the pitch and a man down, South Africa could be rattled. They poured on the pressure and the inevitable last gasp penalty was theirs as the clock turned red and South Africa could only imagine what might have been as they walked away from a one point loss. It had been an enthralling contest from start to finish, and although England were the victors South Africa had made them sweat it to the very last second. It was a tussle of two exceptionally worthy and evenly matched opponents.
Coach Jacques Nienaber would still have returned home pleased with his charges’ postcript to 2021 and the multiple challenges it posed himself and his side. There were plenty of positives but also some genuine concerns going forward. South Africa’s front row stocks pose no such worries, and look set to continue delivering the goods up to and beyond the next World Cup. Likewise in the second row, however in the back row the cracks are starting to appear. Duane Vermeulen is unlikely to be at his best come the next World Cup despite the force he still is at the moment. Consequently, some fresh blood is needed here and urgently. Their stocks just don’t seem that deep. Kwagga Smith must surely have silenced his critics once and for all this November, but without Smith, Vermeulen, Mostert and Kolisi on the pitch South Africa are simply not as effective in the back row as some of their opponents. While it is hoped that Pieter-Steph du Toit will soon be back in the Springbok fold, some depth development is desperately needed here.
The same could be said in the half back department. While Elton Jantjies finally seemed to transform into a Test level 10, there really is noone else apart from him and the injury prone Handre Pollard. South Africa’s scrum half stocks look healthier but could still do with some younger blood. On the wings South Africa still look in rude health and they are blessed with one of Test Rugby’s most effective centre partnerships in Lukhanyo Am and Damian de Allende, the latter being a player who has come on in leaps and bounds in the last three years. However, without de Allende and Am, it’s hard to see anyone else stepping up to the plate for the future. The same can be said of the fullback position which is probably ringing the loudest alarm bells back in South Africa. Willie le Roux has clearly lost his edge and has done for quite some time now, and as impressive as Francois Steyn was this tour, he like Vermeulen is in the swansong of his career. The fact that rising star and utility back Aphelele Fassi got no game time whatsoever on this tour is a decision that is going to come back and haunt Nienaber and his team sooner rather than later.
France 2023 is just under two full seasons away, so there is still time to fix the cracks, but a concerted effort will be needed and the time and call for fresh faces to be increasingly sprinkled in amongst the seasoned and highly capable veterans has never been more pressing.
The embodiment of just how much South Africa can hurt you
“Big Eben” was back to his rampaging best this tour, and it became evident how much the Springboks had missed his fire and brimstone approach to the game. While he has been in the mix all year, it wasn’t until that second Test against New Zealand that the mighty Bok centre burst back into his “Raging Bull” persona. The rather subdued and at times almost disinterested Etzebeth that we saw during the Lions series and the first four games of the Rugby Championship was simply a forgotten memory this November. He was back to his indestructible and rampaging best. Getting under the skin of the opposition but staying just the right side of the referee’s whistle, he was a master of the Dark Arts, and brutally effective in the set pieces. Terrorizing hapless scrum halves daring to box kick, wreaking havoc in the lineouts and being an immovable object in the rucks and mauls, Etzebeth was South Africa’s catalyst for everything they did well this month. He was everywhere and his team fed off his seemingly inexhaustible energy, and it’s those qualities that made him South Africa’s most valuable player this month.
So here’s the Lineout’s South African starting XV:
- Loosehead Prop – Steven Kitshoff – Closed the game out for South Africa every time he came on as part of the fabled “Bomb Squad”. Only England’s Joe Marler seemed able to really cope with him.
- Hooker – Bongi Mbonambi – Malcolm Marx may have got all the glory as part of the “Bomb Squad”, but so often Mbonambi sets the tone for what follows in the set pieces, particularly in the lineouts. Struggled slightly to get parity in the scrums against Wales and England, but overall needs to make very few apologies and can be just as dynamic with ball in hand as Marx.
- Tighthead Prop – Trevor Nyakane – As he has been all year, just a rock solid component of South Africa’s front row, and no wonder he’s been snapped up by Racing 92 in France apparently for a record sum.
- Number 4 Lock – Eben Etzebeth – “Big Eben” was at his absolute best this November and definitely has earned a few months of R & R.
- Number 5 Lock – Lood de Jager – Like Etzebeth just simply didn’t put a foot wrong all month – devastatingly effective.
- Blindside Flanker – Siya Kolisi – Put in some truly phenomenal performances and really led from the front. His yellow card against England was unfortunate but could have been avoided. Nevertheless he is one of those rare players that genuinely sacrifices everything for the jersey and his players and 99.9% of the time delivers on that commitment. As good as he is though he needs an understudy.
- Openside Flanker – Kwagga Smith – Finally getting the credit he deserves. He may not be the biggest man on the park, but just like Scotland’s Hamish Watson, he’s everywhere and makes his presence count.
- Number 8 – Duane Vermeulen – “Thor” may be getting slightly long in the tooth but he’s still got it all going on, and Ulster look set to reap the benefit. However, like Kolisi he desperately needs an understudy for his position when injury takes its toll.
- Scrum Half – Cobus Reinach – Just as dynamic as Faf de Klerk, but smarter with ball in hand and less prone to kicking perfectly good possession away.
- Fly Half – Handre Pollard – Still prone to switching off at key moments and his goal kicking can be erratic, but brings a calm head to proceedings when needed and at least this month showed a much more judicious and effective use of the boot.
- Left Wing – Makazole Mapimpi – When South Africa used him properly which they pretty much did all November, he showed what a world class strike threat he is with magical feet and hands – a truly gifted footballer.
- Inside Centre – Damian de Allende – Has matured into such an intelligent yet intensely physical player – partnered with Am he forms one of the most effective center partnerships in Test Rugby. South Africa do need to find an understudy though.
- Outside Centre – Lukhanyo Am – South Africa’s version of Albus Dumbledore the legendary wizard of Harry Potter fame. The man is simply a genius, plain and simple with a very, very good rugby brain. Like de Allende though needs an understudy.
- Right Wing – Aphelele Fassi – What hang on he wasn’t even on the tour we hear you say!!! Absolutely correct, but Jesse Kriel is not the answer and South Africa need one here and at fullback. Even more pressing South Africa need him in the team if they are serious about being competitive come France 2023. We’d prefer to have him at fullback but will settle for him out wide.
- Fullback – Francois Steyn – Has tended to look a bit rubbery and out of shape in recent years, but clearly has hit the gym and vitamins lately. Was on song this tour and maybe there really is one more World Cup left in the wily old dog. That boot is still the stuff of legends, and he immediately made a difference every time he came on for the increasingly ineffective Willie le Roux. Played intelligently and was clearly having the time of his life. Great to see him back to his best.
England – Won 3 – Lost 0
So after far too much procrastination if you ask us, Eddie Jones finally decided, with just under two years left before the next global showdown, to give his wealth of young bloods a shot at the bright lights. Whether it is too little too late is hard to judge at this stage but the early results certainly look like they are bearing fruit. Admittedly England’s completely one sided thrashing of a makeshift Tongan side at the beginning of their campaign told us little if anything about this new look Red Rose side. In reality a pointless game that served as nothing more than a training run for the two showpiece events of the month for England, Australia and a rematch with their World Cup nemesis South Africa.
In their second match, against a Wallaby side smarting from their recent defeat to Scotland, England were utterly dominant. Eddie Jones’ young guns completely outclassed their Wallaby opponents, while England’s regular stalwarts showed their pedigree. Scrum half Ben Youngs combined exceptionally well with England’s hottest property since Johnny Wilkinson, fly half Marcus Smith and Youngs seemed to get a new lease of life in the process, causing their Australian counterparts all kinds of headaches. England’s front row pushed their Wallaby counterparts all over the park, while the lineouts although a fair contest were all about England. In short, England dominated every single statistic of the afternoon bar one – that of their success rate in the tackle department, something they improved on dramatically the following weekend against South Africa. The only reason they got away with it was the fact that Australia didn’t fare much better in the same area, not helped by the fact that they were constantly having to cover England’s exuberant running game which saw them make twice the number of metres than the Australians. England punished Australia’s sloppy discipline and scored the game’s only tries. In short, Australia failed to make an impact against an English side that looked slick and full of youthful energy.
Their final match of the year saw England have an opportunity to settle the score with South Africa after their defeat to the same opponents in the World Cup final. It was a tense affair in which emotions ran high and the physicality from both sides was off the charts. It was a Test match for the ages and really could have gone either way. In the end after establishing an early dominance, England, and particularly their crop of new kids on the block, held their nerve under the most intense pressure and clawed back a win that had looked like it was slipping away at the death. Manu Tuilagi scored England’s opening try, but after only three minutes was subbed off with injury and surely must have made the argument once and for all that as talented as he is, he is simply not a long term option for England looking ahead to France 2023. Coach Eddie Jones seems to regard him as the key to England’s success but sadly his ongoing battle with injury makes this far too much of a gamble. England have equally powerful center options and it’s time to start considering them as regulars albeit at Tuilagi’s expense.
England met South Africa’s physicality head on and while they may not have been able to quite match it, they made an exceptionally respectable fist of it and for the most part held their own. Where they got the better of the South Africans was in game management and being more inventive with ball in hand. England outscored South Africa in the try department 3 to 1, made all their kicks at goal and in the loose come ruck time were able to compete with South Africa’s brute force. In short, England played a smarter game for most of the eighty minutes and benefitted from Handre Pollard’s difficulties in the goalkicking department, leaving six crucial points gone begging. England were pushed hard make no mistake and had South Africa been a little bit sharper and more clinical in their execution, then it could well have gone the other way – something that Ireland and France will be keenly aware of come February. England did struggle to contain South Africa at scrum time, and their discipline at times was woeful. If Eddie Jones can’t get on top of this come the Six Nations then all of the promise shown by England this November could come to naught.
Nevertheless there were so many positives for England in November that they far outweigh the negatives of which there were relatively few. England’s front row does need some serious work between now and the Six Nations as does their accuracy in the lineouts. However, their second row looked exceptionally solid and Jonny Hill had one of his best months in the white jersey alongside the outstanding Maro Itoje. England’s back row still seems slightly unbalanced, but it’s more an issue of Jones being spoilt for choice in his options, with all of them seeming to become more versatile in covering the three positions with every match they play.
In the halfbacks, new fly half sensation Marcus Smith lived up to and exceeded all expectations while seeming to inject new pace and vigor into his scrum half partner Ben Youngs’ game, while up and coming youngster Raffi Quirke made it absolutely clear that he is far more than just an able understudy to Youngs.
In the centers, our concerns about Manu Tuilagi not being the Messiah that Jones wants him to be despite his exceptional talents, became painfully obvious, while Owen Farrell’s star seems to be slowly fading into obscurity. It’s one area for concern along with the scrum heading into the Six Nations. Out wide though England do look good with the constant threat of Jonny May and the newcomers Max Malins and Joe Merchant putting in very respectable shifts during November. We were suprised though to only see the exceptional Adam Radwan appear once in November and in England’s easiest match against Tonga. Lastly, England finally have a proper fullback in the shape of Freddie Steward who for us was England’s revelation of the month. England have struggled for a while now with the position, but in the space of three short weeks, Steward has carved his name in stone on the back of the fifteen jersey. Outstanding under the high ball and running in two superb tries, England finally have the real deal at fullback in the shape of Steward. France’s Melvyn Jaminet and Ireland’s Hugo Keenan will be paying close attention.
One area of major concern that remains for England is their discipline or more accurately the lack of it and the resulting penalty count. It may not have been the highest amongst the Autumn Nations competitors but it was certainly in there with a chance, and considerably higher than their two main rivals for Six Nations silverware come February- France and Ireland. Definitely some extra homework needed here over the holidays.
All the hype in November was around England’s long awaited successor to the George Ford/Owen Farrell era in the shape of Marcus Smith. Smith did not disappoint and left no doubt in anybody’s mind that England’s future at 10 has arrived and is likely to be there for many years to come. However, perhaps more important was the arrival of Freddie Steward at fullback. England have struggled for several years now to find a player who ticks all the boxes in the fifteen jersey. In the shape of Steward they have finally found one. We were quite literally blown away by how competent a player Steward is in a position that up to now has been a soft target for England’s opponents. Completely fearless and effective under the high ball, possessing a very useful boot in open play with a turn of speed that at times could even give fellow English speedster Jonny May a run for his money and sound defensively, Steward is probably England’s most important find of 2021. England now have a complete back line, something which is likely to pay huge dividends come the Six Nations and which has been sorely lacking in recent years.
So here’s the Lineout’s England starting XV:
- Loosehead Prop – Bevan Rodd – Needs some work but the youngster made an impressive debut against top quality opposition.
- Hooker – Jamie Blamire – His lineout throwing really needs some work, but his ability to cross the whitewash restores some credibility to the English front row. Will get better and definitely a prospect worth sticking with for the future.
- Tighthead Prop – Kyle Sinckler – Best of a problem area for England and some depth needs to be found here as his discipline is a definite weak link in the Red Rose’s armor.
- Number 4 Lock – Maro Itoje – Brings some real fire and grit to England’s second row and was able to match up to South Africa’s Etzebeth well, though has a tendency to see the red mist in the heat of battle and push the boundaries, but getting better.
- Number 5 Lock – Jonny Hill – After some criticism in the past acquitted himself well but against South Africa was overshadowed by Charlie Ewels off the bench so needs to keep on his toes for the Six Nations.
- Blindside Flanker – Courtney Lawes – Did an admirable job, but still not convinced that he is England’s long term option, with surely some type of combination comprising any of Alex Dombrandt, Sam Underhill, Sam Simmonds and Tom Curry being the way forward .
- Openside Flanker – Sam Underhill – Always excellent but Jones needs to figure out how to build his back row with the above mentioned combinations.
- Number 8 – Tom Curry – Despite our reservations and unlike on the Lions tour adapted well to life in the number 8 jersey and simply has to be in the England back row somewhere. However Jones is so spoilt for choice here with Dombrandt and Simmonds and really needs to figure out what he wants his back row to look like given the extraordinary riches at his disposal.
- Scrum Half – Ben Youngs – Seems to have been “born again” alongside newcomer Marcus Smith but needs to watch his back with Raffi Quirke breathing down his neck.
- Fly Half – Marcus Smith – Took his opportunities on the big stage with both hands and came out shining. A huge threat for England come the Six Nations.
- Left Wing – Jonny May – Surprisingly quiet by his usual standards but still lethal when given the chance.
- Inside Centre – Owen Farrell – Provided a wise head to assist Smith but looking increasingly redundant and England need some options here.
- Outside Centre – Henry Slade – The only real spark in England’s centre pairings with Tuilagi too unreliable due to injury.
- Right Wing – Max Malins – More of a fullback but seems comfortable out wide and with Steward nailing down the 15 jersey simply have to get him in somewhere. A talented enough player that he will adapt and when on song looks electric.
- Fullback – Freddie Steward – Utterly outstanding all month and a revelation in a position that has been hemorrhaging England points for far too long. Has made the 15 jersey his own with no further debate necessary.
Well that’s it for now. We hope to finish up this series this week with our final instalment on France and Ireland. However, work and holiday preparations may get in the way. Still will give it our best college try. In the meantime stay safe everyone and happy holidays!