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 in this last instalment let’s look at two sides who can feel extremely pleased with their November Test window results – Ireland and France.
Ireland – Won 3 – Lost 0
In many ways we feel we owe Ireland Coach Andy Farrell a few apologies. Like many we had grave doubts about his appointment as Joe Schmidt’s successor after Ireland’s dismal showing at the last World Cup. Was Schmidt’s deputy who had helped preside over a disastrous 2019, really the right man for the job? His first two years in office did little to convince us otherwise, but in our skepticism we overlooked the quiet revolution that Farrell was putting in place. He essentially asked his charges to keep what was good about the Schmidt era – the clinical execution and solid discipline but at the same time embrace a new sense of freedom of expression in how they played the game, and accept that no two Saturdays are ever the same in how you need to approach your opposition.
Under Schmidt Ireland became mired in a game plan and set of processes that ultimately stifled their creativity and made it easy for other teams to figure them out. They were very good at what they did, but sadly far too predictable. While Farrell can hardly be credited with introducing French flair to Irish rugby, there is definitely a sense of Gaelic panache that has made them a very entertaining and effective side to watch and a handful for opposition sides to get to grips with, as no two Saturdays now with Ireland can ever be described as predictable. There’s a creativity and energy to this team that bodes well for the future. Nevertheless all this praise is dished out with a serious note of caution. We’ve seen Ireland peak a year too early out from the World Cup far too often in the last twenty years and then exit quietly stage left with a whimper. Fingers crossed that this time around it’s a rebuild that can stand the test of time.
Ireland got their November campaign off to a stellar start as they thumped a Japanese side that many had thought would give them a run for their money. Most of us were left scratching our heads as to where the Japanese side that had taken the Lions and then Ireland to task over the summer had disappeared to. Apparently they resurfaced against Scotland a fortnight later, but were nowhere to be seen in Dublin as a turbocharged Irish outfit cruised past them 60-5 in a nine try field day which saw Ireland make an incredible 581 run metres.
Ireland then faced the All Blacks in an encounter that appears to be getting increasingly difficult for the New Zealanders. Dublin is now one of those grounds that holds no certainty for the Men in Black, and last month’s encounter was a case in point. Both sides came charging out of the blocks right from the get go, and things initially seemed to be favoring Ireland. After silencing his critics about his defensive abilities a few moments earlier, winger James Lowe then did what he does best and with ball in hand showed his former teammates from the Land of the Long White Cloud a clean set of heels which left them floundering. New Zealand would strike back just before half time, but for a good thirty minutes we got to see an expressive and expansive Ireland that we had rarely got to see under Schmidt, all operating at a hundred miles an hour.
Ireland kept up the pressure in the second half, and scored two fine tries in quick succession. As they headed into the last quarter Ireland found themselves 10 points ahead. A slightly purple patch then ensued as Ireland appeared to switch off as New Zealand upped their game another few gears and clawed their way back into contention through a Will Jordan try. However, Ireland regrouped, refocused and for the last fifteen minutes simply turned the screw on an All Black side seeming to struggle to come to terms with what they were up against. Joey Carberry came on for Jonathan Sexton and calmly slotted three penalty goals and had the kind of game that showed so much promise five years ago in Chicago against New Zealand.
The pressure Ireland heaped on New Zealand was phenomenal but perhaps the statistic that stood out the most was the fact that they forced the All Blacks to make a staggering 224 tackles. That is 128 more than Ireland were required to make. Ireland won 132 rucks compared to only 57 for New Zealand. In short, Ireland took the game to New Zealand at a truly frenetic pace, that lost nothing in terms of physicality and execution, while dominating territory and possession. It was a spectacle to watch and Ireland have clearly laid down a marker for the Six Nations.
Their final match of their November campaign against a tired and frustrated Argentinian outfit, was nowhere near the same calibre in terms of spectacle, but Ireland never let up in intensity. Much like in the match against Japan, Ireland had a field day when it came to scoring tries, but ironically Argentina proved to be a thorny opponent despite what the numbers on the scoreboard suggested come the final whistle. Once again though it was Ireland’s exuberant yet clinical but expansive game plan that ultimately ran rings around an exhausted Argentinian defense. Argentina were brave and worthy opponents but against this new look Ireland, they were more than just a little outclassed.
In many ways Ireland really only had one heavyweight opponent this November in the shape of New Zealand, as did France for that matter. Compare this to England, Wales and Scotland who all had to face both Australia and South Africa, and you can understand the argument in some circles that it’s hard to judge just where Ireland really are at the moment. However, their performance against one of the best teams in the world was so impressive and emphatic that if they can keep it up there is little doubt that they are genuine contenders along with England and France for Six Nations glory come February.
Andy Farrell can reflect on a job well done and a genuinely exciting and capable squad set to do battle come the Six Nations in February. Ireland showed in November that their core skills are sound and that they are playing with an energy and creativity that we haven’t seen for quite some time. Ireland possess probably one of the best front rows in International Test rugby at the moment and to be honest we’re hard pressed to find its equal in the Six Nations competitors. Lineout accuracy could still use some work, but Hooker Ronan Kelleher grows in confidence by the day, and his play in the loose has to be seen to be believed. Ireland’s second row stocks are equally robust, and there is clearly a secret factory buried deep in the mountains of Connemara churning out world class back rowers on an almost daily basis.
The conundrum around the future halfback question in Ireland continues, and after a month where incumbent fly half Jonathan Sexton played some of the best rugby we’ve ever seen him play, it is probably still likely to go unanswered for a while yet. Joey Carberry made his long awaited return from injury in style against both New Zealand and Argentina but can he keep the stretcher bearers at bay in the long run? At scrum half Jamison Gibson-Park silenced his critics at Conor Murray’s expense, but there is a raft of talented options at Andy Farrell’s disposal that just don’t seem to be getting game time. Until these questions get answered it’s hard to get too excited about Ireland’s current renaissance and its longevity come the World Cup.
In the backs and the centers though Ireland appears to be blessed. James Lowe has finally shown that he can defend as well as he can attack, and in Lowe and Conway alone Ireland has plenty of strength out wide, along with Keith Earls who also looks raring to go these days. In the center channels Ireland is truly spoilt for choice and at fullback they have one of the best in the business, the outstanding Hugo Keenan. In short, Ireland look like they love playing rugby again and are blossoming under the new freedom of expression they are being allowed under Farrell. To sum up, watch this space and if the few concerns can get answered in the next twelve months, Irish supporters may well be travelling to France in 2023 with both eyes firmly glued to the pitch as opposed to one eyeing up the nearest exit.
Still some things to work on, but a force to be reckoned with
The Irish Hooker still has plenty to work on, but his three performances in November were so impressive that the errors he did make are easily glossed over. He was literally on fire for 150 minutes, and his effort against New Zealand was immense. Defensively sound and an absolute tiger in the loose, Kelleher simply gets better with every outing. His ferocious physicality and turn of pace was key in unravelling New Zealand, and he is going to be a genuine menace to opposition defenses come the Six Nations. He is improving so quickly that we simply had to list him as the player that stood out the most for us this month. His influence on proceedings in all three matches was instrumental in getting Ireland on the front foot and for us he embodied that Irish spirit of days gone by and made famous in that memorable changing room rant by the legendary Paul O’Connell.
So here’s the Lineout’s Ireland starting XV:
- Loosehead Prop – Andrew Porter – Partnered with Furlong ensures that the Irish front row is rock solid, guarantees good go forward ball for his teammates and is a vital asset in those body pileups on the opposition try line.
- Hooker – Ronan Kelleher – Thoroughly enjoyed watching Kelleher last month, an absolute tiger in the loose and probably one of the quickest thinking Hookers around – lineout work still needs improving but such a positive investment for the future.
- Tighthead Prop – Tadhg Furlong – As he has all year the “Jukebox” just kept putting out those chart topping hits all November, but has a rather handy set of dance moves to go with them.
- Number 4 Lock – Tadhg Beirne – One of our favourites in the current crop of Irish players. Equally at home in the back row, but superbly effective wherever you put him and his teammates feed off his irrepressible energy and enthusiasm for the the task at hand.
- Number 5 Lock – James Ryan – getting back to his best after a quiet year but Ian Henderson is pushing him for the jersey.
- Blindside Flanker – Caelan Doris – Man of the Match against New Zealand, and part of the almost ridiculous depth in numbers in the back row that Ireland possesses.
- Openside Flanker – Josh van der Flier – Had one of his best months in the green jersey to date and thrives on the new sense of creativity being promoted in the way Ireland play the game.
- Number 8 – Jack Conan – Arguably one of the best in his position in Test Rugby and almost made New Zealand’s Ardie Savea look like a beginner.
- Scrum Half – Jamison Gibson-Park – While the fly half question remains a problem issue for Ireland, the 9 jersey is not with Craig Casey, John Cooney, Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath and Nathan Doak all looking to get bench time next year. For now though the Kiwi import did more than enough in November to cement his place as Ireland’s starter and Ireland’s new style suits him particularly well.
- Fly Half – Jonathan Sexton – Ireland’s genuine superstar was back to his very best this November after a period where his star had seemed to slowly dip. When he’s enjoying himself, which he clearly is at the moment, his age almost seems irrelevant. Nevertheless injury concerns and the “age factor” make it critical that Ireland make a genuine investment in life “beyond Jonny” in the next 18 months and commit to it.
- Left Wing – James Lowe – The electric winger finally showed that he his more than just a flash pair of heels as he finally added some sound defensive skills to his impressive attacking repertoire.
- Inside Centre – Robbie Henshaw – Didn’t play as much as we would have liked in November, but when he did and partnered with Ringrose showed just what an intelligent center pairing Ireland are blessed with. Bundee Aki did exceptionally well against New Zealand in his place, but Henshaw is still our go to man.
- Outside Centre – Gary Ringrose – Another Irish player back to his absolute best in November. Partnered with Henshaw, Ireland possess one of the best brains trusts in the business in the midfield.
- Right Wing – Andrew Conway – We’ve always rated the Munsterman, and have been surprised that he hasn’t featured more in the big Tests since the World Cup. Coach Farrell clearly understood the error in his omission in November, and Conway got the game time he so thoroughly deserved. A very complete player out wide.
- Fullback – Hugo Keenan – Definite runner up for Ireland’s player of the month, Keenan has taken Irish rugby by storm since last year. Not the biggest lad on the park, but punches way above his weight and clearly coats his hands in Super Glue prior to every game as he simply doesn’t drop balls no matter what kind of pressure he’s under. Opposition sides will kick to him at their own peril come the Six Nations. Defensively could still do with some minor tweaks, but overall an absolutely solid player who ensures that the back of the park is a genuine safe zone for Ireland.
France – Won 3 – Lost 0
Like Ireland, France really only got put under the microscope once in November against New Zealand, although Argentina did make them realize there were a few cobwebs to blow off since their Australian tour earlier this summer. However, France’s dismantling of New Zealand was probably the best game of the month. It was a glorious celebration of French rugby and why they still are probably one of the most unpredictable and attractive teams in World Rugby to watch. Some of their moves appear almost demented, and yet under Galthie it all looks so incredibly organized and calmly executed. Take for example fly half Romain Ntamack’s run from out of his own in goal area that saw France make it to within millimeters of New Zealand’s 22. For any other team that would be a gamble of almost suicidal proportions but Ntamack and France made it all appear a perfectly logical thing to do, and executed in a manner that left nothing to chance. There were numerous other moments like that in the match, but in short France have simply taken creativity and daring to another level.
France got their November campaign off to a challenging start against Argentina. The Pumas despite a poor year turned up in Paris determined to play, and France at times looked a long way from the well oiled machine that would send the All Blacks packing a fortnight later. The first quarter was a genuine arm wrestle with Argentina having the upper hand. The two teams went into the sheds with France hanging on to a narrow lead. Argentina came out of the blocks firing in the opening stanzas of the second half and almost got the lead back, but that stellar French defense, which has become such a key feature of their recent successes, came to the fore and momentum slowly and almost inevitably swung back in favor of the French and would remain that way till the final whistle. Still it had been a valuable wake up call and excellent preparation for what was to come at the end of the month.
Next up it was a feisty encounter against a very plucky Georgian outfit, who like Argentina the week before did not seem rattled by the caliber of their opponents. Georgia gave France a genuine Test and at times France almost looked overwhelmed by Georgia’s relentless physicality, while some fast hands from the Men from the Caucasus tested French defences out wide, something England and Ireland would have been keenly aware of. Ultimately France ran away with it but they had been given plenty of food for thought in the process.
Lastly it was France’s turn to meet an All Black side still reeling from what had just happened to them in Dublin. It was a mirror image of what will take place in just under two years time in the opening game of the 2023 World Cup and the 80,000 French fans in the Stade de France made sure that there was nothing lacking in the sense of occasion. It seemed remarkable to think that France hadn’t beaten the All Blacks at home since 1973, and that ironically their numerous successes against the Men in Black since then had all been away from home.
What followed was 80 minutes of glorious attacking rugby all backed up by a defensive platform that rarely faltered. France’s forwards are just as talented in the attacking department as the backs and this was evidenced by Hooker Peato Mauvaka getting Les Bleus’ first try after a mere three minutes. French exuberance though saw some lapses in discipline as the All Blacks regrouped and the gap was narrowed. The final thirty minutes of the first half were all about France however, as they ran in two tries and the Men in Blue headed into the sheds 24-6. It looked all over bar the singing as the teams ran out for the second half and the Stade de France was a deafening cauldron. All credit to New Zealand that they managed to put all that behind them and be the first side to get points on the board through a Jordie Barrett try. Rieko Ioane then added another and all of a sudden the inevitable All Black comeback seemed on the cards. Ardie Savea added a further five points converted by Jordie Barrett.
With twenty minutes to go, the scoreline was on a knife edge at 27-25 in favor of France. France then proceeded to regroup and produced the best final quarter we’ve seen from them in many a year. France were bold as evidenced by fly half Ntamack’s seemingly mad run from his in goal area. More importantly they simply ramped up the pressure on a New Zealand outfit gaining in confidence and proceeded to snuff out the All Blacks sense of new found optimism. In the final twenty minutes France scored 13 unanswered points, the highlight of which was winger Damian Penaud’s superb try. It was an historic win, but as the last match of the Autumn series we really had been treated to a case of saving the best for last.
What was significant about that match was how this French side were able to regroup and refocus after New Zealand had fought their way back into the match, a trait that would have served French sides well in the past but all too often went missing. Ironically New Zealand had the upper hand in many of the statistics, but France simply made better use of the moments that they were in control than the New Zealanders. There was plenty of French flair but unlike in years gone by it was exceptionally well organized and at times looked almost effortless. Despite having only a 69% and 71% success rate in the scrums and lineouts respectively compared to the All Blacks 100% in both, France still managed to control the ebb and flow of the game to their advantage. In short, they made New Zealand run to stand still.
As epic as that win against New Zealand was and how good France looked, Galthie and his charges know there is plenty of work to be done before France’s Six Nations opener against Italy on February 6th. Their front row needs some work to make it competitive against the likes of Ireland, and their scrum overall looks a bit creaky to say the least. Lineout throwing can also be a bit of a hit and miss affair. In the second row, France can rest easy especially with the exceptional Cameron Woki in their ranks. Their back row is almost as healthy as England and Ireland’s in terms of depth and ability. Their halfback options however, particularly in the number 10 jersey are the stuff of every Coach’s wildest fantasies. Meanwhile their centre options look increasingly impressive with Gael Fickou’s wise head marshalling France’s midfield efforts. Out wide France are equally blessed with Damian Penaud in particular really showing his worth during November. Lastly at fullback France have not just one but two game changing options in Melvyn Jaminet and Brice Dulin. In short, this is a youthful and exceptionally talented French team boasting an enviable level of depth – ideal qualities leading up to a World Cup.
Where French flair becomes calculated genius
While French scrum half Antoine Dupont may be World Rugby’s poster boy right now, as the above clip shows, it’s Ntamack’s skill set and vision that is such a core component of French Rugby’s renaissance under Fabien Galthie. There are very few players who would even think of attempting Ntamack’s seemingly outrageous plays from nothing, and yet somehow the Toulouse fly half makes it look perfectly natural and something he doesn’t even have to think twice about. There are very few players who possess his ability to seize a one off opportunity and turn it into an exquisitely structured set of phases. A visionary player who looks set to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors and change the way we think the game can be played. In short, French flair with a plan.
So here’s the Lineout’s French starting XV:
- Loosehead Prop – Cyril Baille – Best of the bunch in a role that still remains a problem for France.
- Hooker – Peato Mauvaka – Definitely needs work on his lineout throws, and could be more effective in the scrums, but cannot fault the effort levels and effectiveness on defence and off the back of rolling mauls which made him Man of the match against New Zealand.
- Tighthead Prop – Demba Bamba – Always started from the bench but with regular play just gets better and better and could bring that impact factor for the full eighty minutes if fit enough.
- Number 4 Lock – Cameron Woki – Equally at home in the back row, Woki is quality through and through and definitely one of France’s strongest assets in the buildup to the World Cup.
- Number 5 Lock – Paul Willemse – The South African import continued to make his presence felt particularly in the set pieces.
- Blindside Flanker – Thibaud Flament – One of the finds of the month for France and a highly versatile forward who can also operate effectively in the second row.
- Openside Flanker – Anthony Jelonch – In the absence of regular and Captain Charles Ollivon, Jelonch has filled the void in more ways than one and is one of France’s most underrated players.
- Number 8 – Gregory Alldritt – Powerful, effective and the consummate 8 – a core part of France’s new spine.
- Scrum Half – Antoine Dupont – Deserves every accolade he gets – the world’s most lethal number nine plain and simple.
- Fly Half – Romain Ntamack – Still being chased hard by Matthieu Jallibert but against New Zealand showed just what an artist he really is.
- Left Wing – Gabin Villiere – He may not be the biggest winger on the park but is utterly fearless and seems to revel in mixing it in with the forwards when needed. Pace and skill out wide that is paying dividends for France.
- Inside Centre – Jonathan Danty – Despite his size is extraordinarily nimble on his feet, and his physicality makes him almost impossible to bring down.
- Outside Centre – Gael Fickou – France’s midfield general.
- Right Wing – Damian Penaud – Back to his barnstorming best in November, though as always minor tweaks in his defensive set could be useful ahead of the Six Nations.
- Fullback – Melvyn Jaminet – Like England’s Freddie Steward has carved his name in stone on the 15 jersey this year in a remarkably short space of time.
So that’s it for now everyone till the New Year. Thanks to everyone who has read our musings and helped this blog have its best year ever. Onwards and upwards for 2022 and here’s hoping that COVID and all its various mutations finally start to leave our beloved game alone. In the meantime, take care everyone stay safe and have a wonderful holiday period with family and friends and here’s looking forward to what should be a fantastic year of rugby!