It can be said that the end of season tours by European teams South of the Equator are a mixed bag in terms of what we can expect from one group of rather weary players meeting another only halfway through their season. However, a year out from what could be one of the most hotly contested World Cups in recent memory, all eight teams have everything to play for in terms of laying down markers.
New Zealand and Ireland both know that this is the last time they will meet before a possible quarter final next year in France. Australia and England are also in the same boat though it is unlikely they will meet in the quarters next year. Wales meanwhile travel to South Africa, who they are highly unlikely to meet in France, and this tour is probably a bridge too far at the moment for a side that is struggling to find its form. The Springboks however, are exactly the opposite with South African sides ultimately dominating the new United Rugby Championship. They will relish the prospect of what for all intents and purposes looks set to be an excellent training run ahead of a tough Rugby Championship and end of year tour. Lastly a developmental Scotland side travel to South America for a three test tour against Argentina, which always serves to separate the men from the boys and Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend will be keen to see how his young guns withstand the punishment. The Pumas meanwhile will also have everything to prove after a dramatic dip in form since their historic defeat of the All Blacks two years ago and a Coaching change a mere year out from the World Cup, as controversial figure Australian Michael Cheika takes over in the Coaching box.
As a result with a myriad of plot lines to follow as the next three weeks play out, we doubt you’ll be bored and these tours are likely to keep you glued to your television sets. So here’s what got us talking ahead of this weekend’s first round of action.
New Zealand vs Ireland – Not quite business as usual this time around?
Encounters between these two sides since that historic victory at Soldier Field in Chicago by Ireland in 2016 have become rather tasty and feisty affairs. Nevertheless, victory on New Zealand soil remains the stuff of dreams for the Men in Green. There have been the odd occasions where Ireland have run their hosts close, but the Men in Black always triumph. In very simple terms, there are very few sides that can actually upset the All Blacks at home, so the problem is not unique to Ireland. However, this time around is there a chance that Irish eyes could end up smiling at the end of this tour? New Zealand as a team have not been at their best since getting knocked out of the last World Cup by England in the semi finals, and losing to Ireland and France last November. However, before you get too comfortable as an Irish supporter, the form on display by the New Zealand sides in the recently concluded Super Rugby Pacific tournament looked rather terrifying to say the least.
For Ireland, there are some alarm bells ringing as Irish and European giants Leinster fell at the final hurdle in the Heineken Cup, and Ulster and Leinster got knocked out of the URC semi finals. Leinster simply failed to adapt to their opponents while Ulster simply made too many errors under pressure. As a result Irish supporters will be hoping that Andy Farrell’s coaching staff have worked with players on their need to adapt and modify their game plan accordingly, and do it all when under pressure and develop a Plan B quickly and efficiently on the fly. A failure to do so on this tour will mean that Ireland will head home empty handed -plain and simple. There is no doubting Irish efficiency and inventiveness in the way they play the game, but there has been a reluctance to change the script if things are not going their way.
For New Zealand we’ve been scratching our heads slightly at some of the selection decisions, most notably in the scrum half department. In the front row and second rows they should be able to go toe to toe with the Irish, though we have a hunch that the lineouts will be theirs to own. In the back row we’d argue that Ireland could be the more dynamic of the two, but New Zealand should be able to provide a physicality at times that Ireland may find it hard to keep up with for three straight weeks. Aaron Smith and his deputy Folau Fakatava from New Zealand’s least successful Super Rugby side this year the Highlanders, get two of the scrum half berths and in our opinion that seems questionable. Smith is well past his best and although Fakatava is all the rage in the New Zealand pundits columns, he has yet to be tested at the International level and against one of the world’s best sides to boot. We can’t quite get our head around the fact that the Chiefs Brad Webber or Crusaders Bryn Hall didn’t get the nod, still at least the Blues Finlay Christie gets a look in. The 10 jersey is in exceptionally capable hands and looks infinitely stronger than Ireland’s even with the venerable Johnny Sexton. Lastly in the centers and back three New Zealand also looks gifted with heaps of power and pace. In short, if you’re going to watch any part of the park closely, then focus your attention on what’s happening off the back of scrums and rucks as in our opinion if New Zealand have a weakness it lies there.
For Ireland, much of the squad that has had for the most part a strong year internationally remains intact. Ronan Kelleher will be missed at Hooker though and James Ryan really needs to rediscover his form that made him such a talking point in 2018. Ian Henderson’s edginess will be missed in the second row, and the back row really need to match up to New Zealand’s physical presence and ability to slow the ball down. As much as we have concerns for the All Blacks at scrum half, Ireland aren’t on such a strong footing either. Jamison Gibson-Park is currently in a class of his own at the moment, but Conor Murray has lost form and Craig Casey is still too green. Meanwhile despite evergeen fly half Johnny Sexton being in the form of his life right now despite his age, Ireland simply doesn’t boast the depth here that New Zealand does. The Irish in our opinion have the more inventive centre pairings, even if they lack the physicality of their Kiwi counterparts, and in the back three Ireland can give as good as they get.
In short, this has all the makings of a classic Test series providing end of season fatigue and travel doesn’t get the better of the Irish in three exhausting matches. An Irish victory on New Zealand soil is certainly a possibility but a series win is probably a bridge too far. Either way it’s the one series you are definitely not going to want to miss.
Australia vs England – Is there finally a firm hand on the tiller for Australia in stormy seas while England can’t seem to ship water fast enough on their leaky boat
Australia had a tough tour to Europe at the end of last season, but there are still plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Australian sides made a bit better fist of it this year in Super Rugby Pacific, and there is definitely some rapidly rising talent in the Australian ranks. Defensive systems still seem to be a problem area for Australian teams but there was still a marked improvement this year from last year. Their set piece work is improving and in the centres and backs Australia are blessed with some genuine world class talent, an area that England are really struggling with.
England meanwhile seem to lurch from one disaster to the next despite having a player base that in theory should be the envy of the world. For reasons best known to themselves England are simply not reaping its rewards. Coach Eddie Jones is under pressure in the swansong of his England career, as if anything his charges seem to be going backwards in terms of their development ahead of the World Cup. Two dismal back to back Six Nations, and some worrying signs ahead of this tour in the recent Barbarians Test, leave you wondering if the vaunted but controversial Coach really does have a master plan for England as time starts to run out in terms of preparation for the next World Cup. England’s complete lack of teeth in terms of attack is now common knowledge despite the outstanding talents of fly half sensation Marcus Smith. Given the fact that Australia love to run the ball and have some remarkable athletes to do so, England must be feeling concerned ahead of this three Test series. A series whitewash by Australia which is not beyond the realms of possibility, would leave England in a crisis of confidence heading into a very challenging Autumn Series and beyond.
For Australia their front row stocks will suffer if injuries take their toll, but from the second row onwards we like the look of this Wallaby pack. We think Australia boast an excellent set of second rowers who are likely to give England a torrid time, especially in the lineouts and their back row looks infinitely more cohesive than England’s. In the half backs, Australia also look sharp with both experience and depth, while their centre offerings led by Samu Kerevi are likely to make numerous headlines. However, what we really can’t wait to see in action is Australia’s cornucopia of talent in the back three. Tom Wright has had an outstanding season with the Brumbies, Marika Koroibete is a freight train with a Ferrari engine, Andrew Kellaway excels at finding the whitewash and Tom Banks can turn a game on its head – and that’s just to name a few. In short, lookout England in this part of the park and it’s going to be all about keeping the ball away from the Wallaby speedsters.
As for England, it’s the usual Eddie Jones muddled set list. Nothing looks particularly cohesive or complimentary despite some individual chart breaking hits in the playlist. Luke Cowan-Dickie simply has to rediscover the form that abandoned him in the Six Nations or England’s life in the set pieces will be a misery, especially at lineout time. We simply can’t see England getting traction as a unit in the second row despite the extraordinary individual talents of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes. In the back row it’s the usual unbalanced and unproven set of combinations that Eddie Jones seems to insist on, with some players such as Sam Underhill so far off the boil, that Australia’s much more cohesive and potent unit must be salivating over. In the half backs, apart from the truly exceptional Marcus Smith at fly half there is little to get excited about other than the long overdue return to the fold of Danny Care at scrum half, provided he can still cut the mustard at Test level given his age. Once again we have to ask where is Raffi Quirke at scrum half? England’s center offerings look decidedly wobbly even with Owen Farrell and the back three don’t look nearly as sharp as their Wallaby counterparts with England really needing Freddie Steward at fullback to get back to the form that made him such a standout last year.
In short, we are waiting for Eddie Jones and England to surprise us, more than Australia continuing to show a good run of form on home soil. The pressure is ALL on England and Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie and his charges will revel in England’s discomfort. Sometimes though when your back is against the wall you are able to pull off a series of blinders that no-one saw coming, so given that both sides have everything to play for in this series, it should hold your interest just as much as the action happening across the Tasman Strait in green and black jerseys.
South Africa vs Wales – South Africa fresh off their success in the URC where they regularly ate Welsh teams for breakfast, look set to turn this into a David and Goliath affair as Wales brace for impact
Believe us, we really want to be optimistic about this one. However, we can’t help feeling that Wales arrive in South Africa as deer in the headlights about to be devoured by a ravenous pack of lions. South African rugby is in a gloriously happy place at the moment. A clean sweep of the latter stages of the United Rugby Championship by the Big Three – Sharks, Stormers and Bulls, capacity crowds at long last and let’s not forget that they are still the reigning World Champions. The Braais will be blazing and the beer flowing in every backyard across the country over the next three weeks. In addition to their established overseas players, the URC highlighted a raft of up and coming players to be added to the Springbok stocks in preparation for next year’s World Cup. In short, these are good times for the Springboks and their supporters.
For Wales it’s not such a rosy picture. They had a dreadful Six Nations and their provincial teams were consistently annihilated by their South African, Irish and Scottish compatriots in the URC. South Africa only managed a narrow win over Wales at the Principality in November, so there was some hope to be had from that. However, since then you could argue that South African rugby has propelled itself forward whereas Welsh rugby has gone backwards at a rate of knots. Injuries, and a general dip in skills and execution have meant that Wales boarded the plane to South Africa with a very shaky foundation to build on. Still it’s Wales and they seem to do best when everyone has written them off, so perhaps being unburdened by the weight of expectation may just be the tonic Wales need to get them through a tour that invariably punishes the bravest of the brave.
For South Africa, there is plenty to watch over the next three weeks. Which players from South Africa’s express train of young talent that we saw during the URC will stake their claim on Springbok jerseys for the World Cup and beyond? The squad that Coach Jacques Nienaber has named is daunting to say the least. Littered with World Cup winners and full throttle debutants, it’s a squad that is already showing significant promise for next year’s global showdown and defense of their title. You already know the established names in the Springbok forward pack like Eben Etzebeth, Stephen Kitshoff, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Lood de Jager, Malcolm Marx, Trevor Nyakane (in short the list just goes on and on), but you’ll want to watch for new sensations like second rowers Salmaan Moerat and Ruan Nortje, back rowers Evan Roos and Elrigh Louw. In the backs there is the traditional first class carriage featuring the likes of Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard, Lukhanyo Am Damian de Allende, Makozole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe but watch for some of our fan favorites in the new boys like winger Aphelele Fassi and fullbacks Warwick Gelant and Kurt-Lee Arendse.
For Wales they will need the big names in the forwards like Alun-Wyn Jones, Adam Beard, Josh Navidi and Taulupe Faletau to really step up, though without exceptional back row Superman Justin Tipuric, Wales just aren’t the same. Newcomers like back rower Taine Basham and Hooker Ryan Elias who showed so much initial promise need to find their groove again and fast. In the backs fly half and Captain Dan Biggar will really need to lead with confidence and ensure his kicking at altitude is spot on. The Welsh scrum half trio could cause some panic for South Africa providing they can keep their nerve under the pressure of a physical onslaught they simply won’t be used to. Meanwhile Louis Rees-Zammit and Josh Adams will have to show the speed and panache out wide they are known for while running a tight defensive ship, ably assisted by veteran Liam Williams and his world famous boot at fullback.
Like we say we really want to be positive about this tour for Wales, but the signs are already looking rather ominous. Bravery will be the word of the day and in that respect there are few teams that possess as much of this essential quality as Wales. However, the Springbok juggernaut looks rather unstoppable and on home ground in front of their rapturous fans thrilled to be able to watch their heroes in full stadiums once more, we have a hunch that this may be some of the longest three weeks this group of Welsh players will face in their playing careers. Either way you won’t want to miss it no matter who you support!
Argentina vs Scotland – Touring South America is never something for the faint hearted and it will be an excellent test of character for Scotland’s young guns ahead of a challenging eighteen months, while Argentina seek to get back to form with Michael Cheika
This has the potential to be a really interesting series and we have to admit one that could have huge significance on next year’s World Cup pool stages. Given England’s current wobbles, a strong series against Scotland and Rugby Championship, as well as a good end of year tour could see Argentina as genuine contenders to possibly win their pool. Admittedly their form of late has made that seem more of a pipe dream than a possible reality, but Argentina has some seriously gifted players especially those plying their trade in Europe.
For Scotland, they are the wild card in their pool come next year’s showdown in France. Their current form much like Argentina’s means that the likelihood of upsetting either South Africa or Ireland would seem remote but it’s not impossible. Consequently a strong tour to South America as well as solid Autumn and Six Nations campaigns could suddenly put Scotland back in the mix for at least a quarter final spot. However, to get there Coach Gregor Townsend will need to know that some of his younger players can really mix it with the best, and not simply rely on the mercurial and inconsistent playmaking abilities of the likes of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg. As a result he’s taken a relatively young and green squad to the Pampas. Get through this and endure the physical punishment always involved in a visit to the Pumas homeland, and Townsend and his charges can look forward once more with confidence after a Six Nations campaign that promised much but delivered nothing.
For Argentina, the big news in the forwards is new Coach Michael Cheika announcing the return of veteran Hooker and former Captain Agustin Creevy to the squad. Although 37, Creevy has been tearing it up this year with English Premiership side London Irish, whilst Julian Montoya in the same position was instrumental in ensuring that Leicester Tigers were able to lift the Premiership title. Montoya will keep the Captain’s armband but it will be fascinating to see the passionate old warhorse Creevy in action again. It’s a phenomenal forward pack for the Pumas and provided the likes of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Tomas Lavanini can keep their discipline in check then it could be a long three weeks for Scotland. In the backs there may be concerns about form in the halfback department but we still think Santiago Carreras is the long term answer for the ten jersey. Out wide Argentina have plenty of pace and power and in the middle look out for the sensational Santiago Chocobarres, while at the back the increasingly reliable Emiliano Boffelli, who helped ensure that Edinburgh will be Scotland’s representative in next year’s Heineken Cup, is back to his best along with one of the most powerful right boots in the modern game.
For Scotland, we’ll be completely honest and admit that we almost breathed a sigh of relief when we saw fly half Finn Russell’s name absent from the tour party team sheet. Russell may be a genius but a team player we feel he is not, and his maverick spirit has let Scotland down more often than not at crucial moments in recent times. We’d argue the one to watch in his place is Ross Thompson. If he can prove reliable on this tour, then Scotland may have fixed one of their biggest problems in terms of consistency under pressure in relation to decision making. Elsewhere it’s time for Canadian born Hooker Ewan Ashman to rediscover his form that at times took our breath away on his debut last year. Pierre Schoeman was outstanding in the front row for Edinburgh, while impressive newcomer Rory Darge will ably complement Hamish Watson in the back row. In the backs look for Ben White at scrum half to make a name for himself this tour, and winger Rufus McLean to do the same. There’s also the usual roster of stars out wide with Duhan van der Merwe to bring his South African physicality to match the Pumas out wide and Darcy Graham to operate at full throttle.
This series could be a lot more hotly contested than some of the pundits are predicting and as a result should be well worth your time. Argentina’s decline has to stop at some point, they simply have too much natural talent and the same could be said of Scotland. Scotland may relish the opportunity to play as a team without the likes of Russell and Hogg attempting to create plays that in reality have neither the execution or support to back them up. Both sides have everything to prove and identities to create – it should make for excellent viewing.