Archive for the ‘General Commentary’ Category

Tournament favorites France make their second road trip in this Six Nations before a welcome return to the Stade de France. While some have said that France don’t travel well, we’d argue that is not borne out in results. If you look at their performances in 2020, of four matches away they won two and lost two. Of the two they lost, their final away game against England in the Autumn Nations Cup was such an impressive team effort that saw them fall just short of a victory, that it’s hard to criticize. They arrive in Dublin off the back of an impressive demolition of a spirited Italian side. Ireland will be a much tougher assignment, but Ireland are hardly exuding the kind of confidence that France seem to be reveling in. Ireland’s loss to Wales last weekend after a stop-start disjointed performance marred by poor discipline did not exactly come as a surprise. A crisis of leadership within the team, a group of veterans hurtling towards their sell by date, and a lack of belief in Ireland’s next generation are all the ingredients of a team lacking shape and definition as to what sort of game they want to play. France suffer from no such conundrums, they know exactly what kind of game they want to play and who they want to play it. Ireland will have to dig very deep on Sunday, and show like Wales last weekend that there is light at the end of a rebuilding process that is long overdue and is clearly faltering.

Le Professeur

Maybe it’s those trademark glasses but French Coach Fabien Galthie and his staff have a clearer vision of the future than any other team in the competition

Fabien Galthie is already well on his way to lifting the Coach of the year award, and watching his expertly drilled and managed charges in action is rapidly becoming the highlight of any Test Rugby weekend. As we’ve already mentioned, unpick France’s seemingly spur of the moment opportunism and you can see a team that is simply putting into practice drills that they are obviously able to do in their sleep. Much like Scotland they have been well coached but not over coached. If you look at Ireland under Joe Schmidt or England with Eddie Jones, you could argue that despite their successes they were coached to the point where they were unable to think beyond the well rehearsed drills of the training ground and apply their own individual creativity to them when necessary. We’d argue that France under Galthie, more so than Scotland, has managed to equip his players with this fine balance. France know exactly what to do, but can also quickly adapt to changing circumstances. France are quick and superbly inventive but it is all backed up by a foundation in the basics that would appear second to none. When you watch Scotland attempt the unthinkable your heart skips a beat as you wonder if they will actually manage to pull it off, whereas with France it all looks remarkably controlled leaving you in relatively little doubt that they know exactly what they are doing and how to pull it off.

Ireland’s chance to shine?

Time for Ireland’s front row to man up and we think Sunday just might be the day for these Leinster teammates to teach France a few lessons

Although, we are slightly baffled to see Leinster’s Ronan Kelleher start on the bench on Sunday once more, with Ulster’s Rob Herring starting despite a shaky performance last weekend, we have a hunch that this is one area where Ireland could really get some dominance over France. Ireland looked better when Kelleher joined the front row and made it an all Leinster trio last weekend. This is a potent Irish weapon and we’d argue superior to France’s offerings particularly off the bench for Sunday, especially as we simply don’t rate French prop Uini Atonio. France are clearly missing the highly dynamic Camille Chat out with injury, but until then we’d argue this is one area where opposing teams should seek to take advantage and Ireland are well poised to do so on Sunday.

Allez-y les Boks

France’s second row South African duo of Paul Willemse and Bernard le Roux will take some beating on Sunday

South African players have a long history with les Bleus and France’s second row partnership of Bernard le Roux and Paul Willemse is paying huge dividends. Le Roux had a massive game against Italy and expect more of the same this weekend. They will be up against it in dealing with Ireland’s Tadhg Beirne who was the Men in Green’s best player last Sunday by a country mile, and his partner Ian Henderson had a good shift for the injured James Ryan. However, there is a chemistry between the two journeyman Springboks that will be hard to match. Provided Julien Marchand provides accurate throwing, and after his performance against Italy there is no reason to think he won’t, Ireland are going to have work hard to contain the two South Africans, and it will be a superb Test of how well Ireland can cope without the talismanic James Ryan.

Should I stay or should I go?

The line from the Clash song has been swirling round both players all week for completely different reasons

Our hearts really went out to Irish fly half Billy Burns in the dying seconds of last Sunday’s clash with Wales. The pressure on the Test rookie was immense, and he clearly attempted to carve off more than he could really chew with his kick to touch. The ball went dead, and Ireland’s seemingly inevitable last gasp win from a five meter lineout was dead and buried. All great Test matches hinge on such key moments and Burns should have toned down his ambitions and settled for a slightly less ambitious kick for touch. However, we’d argue such lessons need to be learnt in exactly those kind of pressure moments, and as a result despite his selection being forced by injury to veteran Jonathan Sexton this weekend, we think it is the right call for him to get the starting 10 jersey. When he did come on he provided far more urgency and creativity to Ireland’s attack than Sexton, skills which are crying out for game time and the same applies to all of Ireland’s other Sexton understudies.

As for Sexton himself, the press has been dominated by the debate surrounding his long running issues with head injuries. On top of that there is no denying that the 35 year old is just not the force he once was. We personally think that for the sake of his family he should hang up his hat. He has been a great servant of Irish rugby but all good things must come to an end, especially if you want to have a productive post rugby life. His ambition to lead Ireland through the next World Cup is sheer fallacy and is likely to have serious long-term consequences for his health. He knows the risks – they couldn’t be any more clearly laid out and if he chooses to ignore them then he has only himself to blame. In the meantime, the continuing debate about whether he should stay or go is seriously hindering the development of his replacement which is long overdue. In fairness to the jersey and himself Sexton should start to devote his energies to matters on the sidelines, help in the coaching department and let the next generation step up to the plate! If not both he and Irish rugby are likely to suffer in the long-term, and he will leave behind a tarnished legacy of an otherwise great player.

Is this France’s most underrated player?

French fullback Brice Dulin just doesn’t seem to be getting the notice he deserves

He was always reliable, but now he’s just downright fantastic. For some strange reason the 30 year old French last line of defense just never seemed to get on International Rugby’s radar. However under Galthie’s tutelage he has really flourished and now has become one of those exceptionally capable and reliable 15s. He may not be the most flash player on the park, but everything he does he does really well. Once the ball comes floating down into France’s 22 there’s that reassuring feeling of being able to say, “it’s OK Dulin’s got it”. His kicking game is excellent, he is outstanding in defense and under the high ball as well as being able to run some handy meters to cap it all off. Just an all round quality player and we are delighted to see him finally getting the recognition he so thoroughly deserves. He is complimented in the backline by a very exciting wing combination of “Mr Excitement” Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere who just gets better with every outing. These three are defensively solid, something that perhaps cannot be said about their Irish opponents with the exception of Keith Earls. Earls was clearly frustrated last week at getting very little ball to show off his attacking prowess, but he was solid in defense. Something which it was hard to say about James Lowe, and this weekend the Kiwi import will have a nightmare on his hands in the shape of Penaud. We stand by what we said about Hugo Keenan at fullback for Ireland, and he didn’t let us down last weekend, despite still having lots to learn at this level, but defensively we think he is improving dramatically and under the high ball he is proving to be exceptionally solid.

This has the potential to be the most exciting contest of the weekend, but one we think ultimately France will come out the winners. They seem to travel much better than in the past, and are so together at the moment it’s hard to see them being unseated by an Irish team still unsure of themselves and which direction they are headed in. Plenty of key battles to be played out, and Ireland certainly have the talent to make this close, but in terms of cohesion they are still struggling to find their straps – a problem France simply doesn’t have. Enjoy what should be a terrific Six Nations weekend, stay safe and we’ll see you again soon.

In the meantime to keep you going here’s another excellent effort by our YouTube fan favorite the mighty Squidge on last weekend’s Calcutta Cup clash.

Despite the lack of crowds that give the Six Nations its essential festival atmosphere, the rugby on display lacked for nothing in intensity and excitement. Italy and France got us started and while the result was never in doubt, France laid down a marker in full technicolor that they are the team to beat this year by a country mile. Italy’s novices struggled to get to grips with the French thoroughbreds and at times showed some enterprising play, but as always their lack of composure and execution got the better of them as well as a seeming inability to last much more than 60 minutes.

Next up was the not so unexpected surprise of Scotland getting the better of a rather shambolic English side, and winning at Twickenham for the first time in 38 years. Scotland were focused, clinical and simply dominated proceedings while England’s woeful lack of any kind of genuine attacking game was brutally exposed. England looked flat and bereft of ideas juxtaposed against Scotland’s exuberance and ambition.

Lastly on Sunday, Ireland travelled to Cardiff and Wales could not have made a more convincing argument that the pain of 2020 is now behind them, and a brighter future under Wayne Pivac now beckons. Ireland had moments of individual brilliance but as a team they just didn’t quite seem to be at the races or singing from the same song sheet. Furthermore, much like England question marks continued to hang over many of Ireland’s “old guard” who increasingly seem to be there solely on reputation rather than form.

So as we head into Round 2 here’s what got us talking about Saturday’s matchups.

England vs Italy – Saturday, February 13th – Twickenham

After the Scottish shambles last weekend, England simply have to win on Saturday and win big. With a Grand Slam now clearly out of the question, Italy arrive at Twickenham as lambs to the points slaughter. England have to grab as many points as possible on Saturday plain and simple and hope that someone, somewhere along the way knocks the French out of contention for what looks like a seemingly inevitable Grand Slam for the Men in Blue. English supporters will be desperately unhappy with the inept display their troops put on show against Scotland. England looked unfit and out of ideas and a shadow of the team that were World Cup finalists eighteen months ago. Their discipline was awful, too many players seemed to have turned up based solely on reputation alone, with nothing to show for it on the pitch last Saturday at Twickenham. In short, a team that has been talked up endlessly over the last year looked beyond average last weekend.

Italy, after their hiding at the hands of France’s group of wonderkids, no doubt arrive in England lacking a bit of confidence and probably rather alarmed at being England’s first target after a public humiliation. It doesn’t bode well for the Azurri, but still expect them to bring plenty of passion and enthusiasm to the proceedings. There are some bright sparks in this team who could provide some real moments of excitement, even if they are most likely going to be looking at the wrong side of the scoreline at the end of eighty minutes.

Not what they were expecting

England’s Maro Itoje gets some constructive help with his flying training from the Scottish front row

To be honest we’re not quite sure what England were expecting from Scotland, but as the above image shows perhaps better than any other last weekend, it wasn’t this. When established giants like Maro Itoje are being taught some of the finer points of the game by the opposition, then clearly England’s preparations have somewhat missed the mark. In his defence we thought Itoje was one of the few English players who played well last weekend against Scotland, but you could tell that even he felt that England lacked shape and purpose. England, much as they were in the World Cup final were outmuscled and out thought at their own game. England appeared to feel that playing without the ball was something they were comfortable with, while biding their time defensively until the opposition tired of doing all the running. Scotland made a mockery of this approach as they held their focus and resolve for the full eighty minutes. It was England who looked exhausted at the end of eighty minutes and not Scotland despite the men in Blue doing almost twice as much running as England. Scotland dominated territory and possession, made 11 clean breaks while England made none, beat almost three times as many defenders….. if it’s stats you’re looking at the list goes on an on. Italy will more than likely run at them all afternoon, but fortunately for England the Azurri’s execution will be well short of that shown by Scotland. England may get a breather this weekend, but they desperately need to use it as an opportunity to bolt on a style of play that allows them to be the ones taking the game to the opposition for a change.

We think he is more than just an impact player

Lock Frederico Ruzza must surely be one of Italy’s most underrated players

We salute Italian Coach Franco Smith’s efforts at trawling through the resources he has at his disposal this year, but for matches against the tournament’s two biggest guns in the opening rounds, we are baffled as to why Frederico Ruzza has not gotten a starting berth in the lock department. He immediately made an impact when he came on towards the end of the game against France, and against England you would have thought he would have been a shoe in, especially as Marco Sisi and Franco Lazzaroni had very little to say in their battle with France last weekend. Up against England’s Maro Itoje who is likely to be feeling more than a little pumped up, we would have thought Ruzza’s pace and power would have been a natural alternative. We have a feeling we may be seeing Ruzza sooner rather than later on Saturday.

Extra study required

Flanker Tom Curry seemed to forget the laws of the game against Scotland

We have to admit at being rather surprised at watching a player we rate as highly as Tom Curry, put in a performance akin to a schoolboy’s first outing with the senior XV. While we sympathise with the fact that the rules of our beloved sport appear to change with the start of every tournament, making it hard for players to keep up, Tom Curry’s constant infringements on Saturday were hard to justify and referee Andrew Brace’s patience was clearly pushed to the limit. Perhaps not helping Curry’s situation was England’s continued lack of balance in the back row, made worse by probably the worst performance in an English jersey we’ve ever seen from number eight Billy Vunipola. As we mentioned in last week’s post we sadly think Vunipola’s ship has sailed and Coach Eddie Jones reliance on him has become a liability. England has some solid back row options that need developing but we are not sure that Saturday’s lineup is really the answer, with a mish mash of a Curry hopefully up to speed with the rules, the out of form Vunipola and Courtney Lawes who has put in some respectable shifts on the flanks but is not your standard back rower. It’s definitely not balanced, but then neither is Italy’s so it will get the job done, but against France or Ireland we can hear the sirens already.

The Kids are alright

Italy’s favorite Welshman – scrum half Stephen Varney

There weren’t too many things to shout about for Italy last weekend, but there is a smoldering promise in the midfield as Italy’s two new kids on the block, scrum half Stephen Varney and fly half Paolo Garbisi, continued to impress. They are a dynamic duo who look set to bring some real zip to Italy. Garbisi is already demonstrating an understanding of the flow of a game well beyond his years, while teenage wonderkid Varney was able to deliver crisp service whenever the ball went to ground. The pair would be a useful role model for English Coach Eddie Jones, who increasingly seems unable to see life beyond the increasingly pedestrian and lethargic delivery of Owen Farrel and Ben Youngs despite the wealth of younger and more dynamic talent at his disposal.

A shot in the arm

George Ford feeling excited about playing some attacking rugby

It’s about time is all we can say. After increasingly ineffectual performances in the number 10 jersey, Owen Farrell gets moved out to the centres, and England gets a fly half who loves ensuring that England run and attack with ball in hand. We thought initially last week, that Jones might have made the right call in using Farrell to keep Scotland pinned back in their half and then bring on Ford to play some attacking rugby if that wasn’t working. Consequently, when it clearly wasn’t an effective strategy to everyone except Eddie Jones after the first twenty minutes, imagine our disbelief to only see George Ford appear off the bench with 8 minutes left on the clock. He instantly changed England’s shape and it started to look promising but at that stage was a completely lost cause. Jones has said that he has recognized the error of his ways, but we’re not convinced so Ford is probably going to have to make a very big lasting impression on his boss this weekend.

England must and should easily win this game, but we just aren’t convinced that this is an English team we are going to remember great things about this Six Nations. Opportunities to develop a squad that can build and develop for the next World Cup let alone next Six Nations are being squandered, and a reliance on supposed big name players on reputation only is not doing England any favors and runs the risk of leaving them in the shadow of their competitors who increasingly seem to be embracing change with gusto. In order for England to keep their Championship hopes alive they will need an emphatic confidence building win, along with a solid points haul to help them in the closing stages of the tournament. We think they will meet the first condition without too much difficulty, but could be perceived to have fluffed their lines if they don’t come away with at least 50 points plus.

Scotland vs Wales – Saturday, February 13th – Murrayfield

Scotland got their Six Nations campaign off to a fantastic start with an historic win over the ‘auld enemy’ at Twickenham, the first in 38 years. It was a superb performance with Scotland controlling proceedings for the full eighty minutes. It wasn’t without the odd hiccouph – Finn Russell’s clumsy trip and resultant yellow card at the end of the first half and the odd attempt at creating unlikely miracles that almost backfired spectacularly with the scores so close. However, Scotland dominated the game from start to finish and had all the ideas opposed to England who had hardly any. Scotland were disciplined, structured and their execution was leagues ahead of their opponents. However, while we wish to take absolutely nothing away from a marvelous Scottish victory which we thoroughly enjoyed raising our glasses to, Scotland must not get too carried away heading into what should be a difficult match against a Welsh side hoping they are slowly getting back on track. England were a poor side in a crisis of confidence last Saturday, and against France at the end of the month Scotland are going to have to notch their game up yet another set of gears.

As for Wales, the victory against Ireland was long overdue. Although there is still significant room for improvement for Wales, it was a much needed shot in the arm and the first step in banishing the ghosts of a truly miserable 2020 to the dustbin of history. Wales weren’t exactly brilliant against Ireland, and after a moment of complete madness from scrum half Gareth Davies with 15 seconds left on the clock that handed possession back to Ireland with the game clearly sealed in favor of Wales, you were left wondering about the decision making abilities of the Men in Red with so much at stake. Had Irish fly half Billy Burns ill fated miskick to touch in the dying seconds of injury time worked, we might be writing a very different story. However luck smiled kindly on the Welsh, and their comeback from a seemingly inevitable defeat to a 14 man Ireland, showed the kind of grit and determination that has made Wales such a force in this tournament in the last twenty years. They may not be the flashiest or smartest side on the park, but their ability to dig in when the chips are down still remains legendary.

A complete team performance

It had been a long time coming but was one for the ages

Unless you are a complete rugby philistine, there is no way you could not have enjoyed Scotland’s win over England last Saturday at Twickenham. You may not have enjoyed it so much if you were an English supporter but you no doubt admired it, and for Scottish fans and neutrals alike, rugby and Scotland were the clear winners. We had a hunch that Scotland might pull an upset out of their increasingly varied bag of tricks, but the manner in which they did it was impressive. This was a complete 15 man effort, and while there were some standout individual performances, the key ingredient was everyone knew their roles and worked together seamlessly. The scenes of Scotland’s jubilation at the final whistle were one of the best starts to the 2021 Test rugby calendar we could have asked for. It was a celebration of a great sporting contest that showed off the full range of skills that our glorious sport embodies, even if it was only displayed by one team. In short, well done Scotland and more of the same please this Saturday! Another convincing win and all of a sudden Scotland can start to take themselves seriously as Championship contenders.

Depth issues – Really?

Scotland’s George Turner showed that they don’t need to worry about the Hooker position

We remember watching a slightly younger George Turner absolutely demolish Canada two years ago on a Scottish developmental summer tour to North America. We thought then that the turbocharged Hooker was a star in the making, thus imagine our delight to see him absolutely tear up the pitch at Twickenham last Saturday, and completely outclass his established English counterpart Jamie George. With Scotland’s regular starters in the number two jersey Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally out injured, concerns were voiced regarding Scotland’s ability to hold their own at scrum time. Fear not after Saturday and if Turner keeps the jersey for the remainder of the tournament, then the competition for it over the next three years leading up to France 2023 is going to be very healthy indeed. Ably assisted on either side by the highly impressive Zander Fagerson and Rory Sutherland, Scotland looks in exceptionally rude health in the front row.

A contest for the ages

In our opinion the two best opensides in the worldJustin Tipuric of Wales and Hamish Watson of Scotland

Scotland’s “Manic Mish” meets Wales’ “Superman” on Saturday, and with such high stakes for both sides we expect this to be one of the most entertaining contests of the entire Six Nations. Hamish Watson and his manic grin was simply everywhere on Saturday for Scotland, effecting turnovers, making line breaks and generally smashing England into submission across the park. Against Ireland, Justin Tipuric was doing exactly the same thing, always rock solid in defence but also the most important player in a Welsh jersey in ensuring that Wales get go forward ball as that blue scrum cap just pops up everywhere. These two are fan favourites here at the Lineout and consequently the priveledge of seeing them both in action on the same pitch is one of the highlights of the year.

Stop me if you can

Scotland’s Western Cape wrecking ball – Duhan van der Merwe

First off South Africa must really be wishing that they had managed to hang onto to this guy, but Scotland’s latest Springbok import really is quite the commodity. As he casually brushed off a host of ineffective English defenders trying to prevent him crossing the whitewash last Saturday, similar scenes of England attempting the same with New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu 25 years ago came to mind. Big, fast, and very powerful van der Merwe has clearly been one of Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend’s favorite Christmas presents. While some in Scotland have lamented his immediate departure for club rugby in England once he qualified for a Scotland jersey, there is no denying the power and pace he brings Scotland out wide. His opposite number this Saturday Welsh winger Louis Rees- Zammit was equally impressive against Ireland last weekend justifying our praise of him in last week’s post by scoring an equally fine try of his own. The battle between two of the Six Nations most exciting new talents is likely to be one of the highlights of the competition at Murrayfield on Saturday.

A Leader Comes of Age

Stuart Hogg has become the kind of Captain Scotland have been looking for since Gavin Hastings

Scottish fullback and Captain Stuart Hogg has always been an exceptional player, but initially some people including ourselves felt that his exuberant talents on the pitch clashed slightly with the calm head needed for the Captain’s role. Saturday’s performance both in the 15 jersey and in carrying the Captain’s armband showed a mastery of both. The dazzling breakouts from deep that appear to come out of nowhere but often get his side easily back over the halfway mark were there for all to see, but so was a calm and focused leadership of his charges. He appears able to trust his teammates to do their jobs, whilst at the same time creating an atmosphere that welds all these unique talents together. Scotland worked seamlessly for the full eighty minutes, and Hogg was always there throughout encouraging his teammates and bucking them up if things didn’t quite go to plan. He was confident but not arrogant and clearly the glue that held his team together. In sport it’s often hard for a player of such exceptional talent to take on the role of leader, especially as it can often mean stepping out of the limelight yourself so that others can shine. However, Hogg on Saturday showed that he has matured into an excellent Captain and one who is more than capable of ensuring that his team reach the lofty goals they have clearly set for themselves.

A confident Scottish side literally buzzing with talent and ability will be hard to beat on Saturday on their home turf even if they will be without the crowds. However, knowing that every living room North of Hadrian’s Wall is likely to erupt if they get past Wales, should be sufficient motivation. We can’t help feeling Scotland are riding a wave right now and it is going to take a rather special team to knock them off their board, with perhaps only France in Paris having the ability to spoil Scotland’s New Year’s Party. Wales will fancy their chances and look in a much better position than they did last year to start getting results. However, Murrayfield and Scotland may be a bit more than they have bargained on just yet. Either way we have a hunch that it will be 80 minutes of your time very well spent this Saturday.

That’s it for now. We’ll be back later today with our look at the big one this weekend – Sunday’s clash in Dublin between Ireland and France once the teamsheets get released this morning. Till then stay safe and stock the fridge for some great rugby action this weekend.

Before we bash it too much – let’s all be brutally honest. While it may have struggled to fire our imaginations for the most part, in a year where we were starved of Test Rugby, the cobbled together Autumn Nations Cup did give us some worthwhile reasons to gather around our televisions, provide some heated chat sessions on our phones and down a few pints while partaking of our favorite Saturday afternoon pastime, picking apart a Test match. The quality at times was debatable, the broadcast rights for most (fortunately not us here in Canada – thanks DAZN for getting it right for once) were complicated to say the least, but there were some memorable moments.

Despite being drawn in the pool of death Georgia, proved that four back to back Test matches makes them a competitive side to the point where their final two matches were well worth watching. They made Ireland feel absolutely awful about themselves and gave us one of the best games of the tournament in their courageous struggle against a classy Fijian side. It is hoped that if we learnt nothing else from the Autumn Nations Cup it’s that this gallant group of lads from the Caucasus deserve and need continued regular exposure to this level of competition. The Georgian side that started the tournament was hardly recognizable when looking at the hardened group that were able to give Fiji a run for their money after three weeks of top level rugby.

Georgia asked Ireland some uncomfortable questions

Italy on the other hand showed us very little despite the fact that one of their matches against Fiji was cancelled. As a result the age old debate about whether the Six Nations should introduce the concept of relegation, most likely at Italy’s expense and Georgia’s benefit, is set to continue especially if Italy once again end up clutching the wooden spoon if this year’s Six Nations goes ahead. On the flip side there was plenty of talent on display from Italy, but as usual it seems almost impossible to harness it into a game winning platform. We’ll enter this year’s Six Nations making lots of promising noises about this Italian talent, but are likely to remain steadfastly skeptical about it actually producing results that can change Italy’s traditional fortunes in the tournament.

The passion is still there – but the results still sadly are not

Fiji sadly as a result of a COVID outbreak in their camp right from the get go had to forfeit their first three matches, but their one and only game against a very feisty group of Georgians was a glorious spectacle that only served to remind us of what we missed as a result of them only playing one instead of four matches. The flavour and spark they would have added to a tournament that desperately needed it would have been immense, but that magical 80 minutes against Georgia was worth the wait. We can still console ourselves with the fact that many of the Fijians that lit up our TV screens that first Saturday in December, will still be seen in Europe this year once the Champions Cup labors back into life after its COVID hiatus. Fiji like Georgia though must not be left out in the no man’s land of Test rugby as the bigger Unions tend to focus on themselves in the course of 2021 in an attempt to rejuvenate their traditional big ticket annual competitions and tours.

Come fly with us – the Flying Fijians!

Scotland were as always a feisty and unpredictable side, that when they get it right are a genuinely slippery and nuggety team to deal with. While they might not have finished as strongly as they would have liked, there was plenty of promise for a Six Nations campaign to get excited about. The traditional Achilles Heel of Scottish rugby was plain for all to see in the shape of injuries. Furthermore they only got to play three of their four scheduled matches due to the game with Fiji being forfeited. Their only win against Italy was a relatively lacklustre affair, and they were outclassed by an understrength French side and blitzed by an Irish side desperate to make a point after an embarrassing question and answer session with Georgia. However, despite lots of praise for some noteworthy individual displays we couldn’t help feeling that Scotland have some serious homework to do before their tricky Six Nations opener with England at Twickenham. The Autumn Nations Cup raised more questions than it answered as well as bringing home once more that depth is not Scotland’s strong point, which once the injuries start ramping up becomes seriously problematic.

World Class as long as the stretcher bearers stay away

Wales Autumn Nations Cup campaign was simply a reminder that 2020 was a year that they could not consign to the trash quickly enough. While they did manage to win two of their four games against Italy and Georgia, they were hardly convincing performances. Italy failed to impress throughout the entire tournament, so for Wales to lose their final match of the year against the tournament’s ultimate underachievers would just have been too much salt into an already gaping wound. Sure they held Georgia scoreless in a rather labored performance, after being thumped by Ireland in their tournament opener. But would the scoreline have been so pretty had they played the Georgians a week later by which time the Eastern Europeans were starting to warm up nicely after a year without Test Rugby? There were sparks of a Wales of old against England despite losing to the ultimate Tournament champions, and against Italy there were the beginnings of a possible Welsh renaissance spearheaded by the youngsters. But overall Wales hardly fired a shot in the tournament, and only against weaker sides.

However, we’d argue that Wales have fallen as far as they can and now it is only onwards and upwards. There is still the spine of a solid team once it has figured out how to transition to life under new Coach Wayne Pivac. Stalwarts like Justin Tipuric, who still remains a solid fan favorite here at the Lineout, were showing by the end of the year that they understood the kind of game Pivac wants them to play – even if it is a radical departure from the golden Gatland years that these veterans are used to. Add to that some very impressive young blood coming through the ranks that is only going to get better and we’d argue that by going through the crucible of 2020, the worst is behind Wales. While we still think that third place is probably the highest they can aspire to in the forthcoming Six Nations, a strong fourth place finish is definitely on the cards which could see Wales quietly but efficiently building into a problematic side for Australia and Fiji come the next World Cup. In short – watch this space!

Where there’s smoke – there will be fire once more!

Ireland are clearly the flash in the pan crew at the moment in Northern Hemisphre rugby. Brilliant one day – clueless and devoid of inspiration the next. Ireland’s performances throughout the Autumn Nations Cup seesawed between the sublime and the ridiculous. The sublime – Keith Earls performance, ably assisted at times by Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in the third place playoff against Scotland. The ridiculous – the insistence on playing winger Jacob Stockdale at fullback and ignoring completely the talents of Ulster scrum half John Cooney in favor of Jamison Gibson-Park for the entire tournament. Whether or not Ireland are gelling with new Coach Andy Farrell, or more to the point he actually knows what he is doing are debates that are likely to go on long into the night in the build up to this year’s Six Nations. What he does need to do though is take a long hard look at a few players who are clearly reaching their sell by dates, most notably fly half Jonathan Sexton, and develop some serious strength in depth – something which in reality Ireland has by the bucketload. They have outrageous depth from positions 1-8, some serious question marks around 9-10, but a raft of experienced and up and coming talent across 11-15.

Get the basics right, figure out what sort of game you want to play and there is absolutely no reason why Ireland should not be amongst the World Cup contenders on a regular basis from now till 2023. It’s the brain trust in the Coaching box that seems to be the biggest question mark and for us the jury still remains well and truly out. A great team on paper but one in danger of making the headlines for all the wrong reasons come match day. In short, of all the teams under the microscope in the coming months, Ireland are likely to feel the heat the most, both from their opponents and their supporters.

Ireland’s Mr. Nuggety – Keith Earls shows sometimes there is no substitute for experience

France – in short MAGNIFIQUE!!!!!!! Are these guys the team to watch this year, and probably for the next four years? Absolutely! As playing with the ball seems to have become a liability in the modern game, France under their brilliant Coaching brains trust and with a container ship load of young talent, have figured out a way to play a game in which possession results in points and plenty of them all scored in a fashion which is a joy to behold. As everyone else seems to want to turn our beloved game into a drudge fest of attrition, France have decided to throw the rule book out the window and be different and offer up a fast, free flowing but equally hard hitting game that is pure entertainment and a glorious celebration of our beloved sport. Despite everyone else’s best efforts to remove the word fun from rugby vocabulary, France are going hell for leather to ensure that it remains one of the sport’s guiding principles. There is so much talent in this team with the vast majority of it barely out of Test rugby kindergarten, and yet it is producing the kind of results attributed only to Test veterans.

France are already in ridiculously rude health at the start of this World Cup cycle. Is scrum half Antoine Dupont the world’s best rugby player right now? It’s pretty hard to argue against such a claim. But then there are so many other names that also spring to mind. Gregory Aldritt is probably in the mix for the world’s best number eight, Romain Ntamack for fly half, Virimi Vakatawa for the centres, Brice Dulin for fullback, Camille Chat for Hooker, Teddy Thomas for winger……the list goes on and on, and what’s more most of these guys are just getting started in their Test Rugby careers. The fact that a supposed 2nd/3rd string French side were able to give England’s very finest the fright of their lives at Twickenham and come within a hair’s breadth of throwing the form book completely out the window says it all.

Look out world you’ve been warned, and as for the Six Nations if they don’t pull off their first Grand Slam since 2010 then we may have to give up our feeble attempts at predicting the future of this noble sport. Enough said – but in conclusion if you don’t have any allegiances heading into this Six Nations we think you may just develop a penchant for the finer things in life made in France by the end of it.

It’s a kind of magic!

England ultimately won the whole thing and in short recovered spectacularly from their World Cup disappointment, but did they fire our imaginations in doing so? Sadly not with the exception of winger Jonny May who is an extraordinarily gifted athlete and always capable of single handed feats of brilliance that defy imagination. The rest of England’s gameplay however this year, although brutally effective in getting results, has put most of us to sleep. Their opener against Georgia was very impressive, but the poor Georgians thrust into the limelight after a year’s absence from Test Rugby were never going to be at the races against a World Cup finalist for their first match. Against Ireland, England got the job done, but that’s pretty much all you could say about 80 minutes of rugby which was more akin to watching two teams do their annual tax returns than an international sporting contest. The only exception in the game was winger Jonny May’s sudden realization that he actually hadn’t voted for Brexit and wanted to live and work in France.

The same approach was effectively adopted against Wales who were hardly making opposition sides lose too much sleep at night during 2020. In all of this there was a reluctance to blood new talent, especially in key positions such as the halfback berths, which is almost criminal at this stage in a country’s World Cup cycle.

England’s reluctance to play with ball in hand and simply suck the life out of opposition attacks with body numbing physicality, almost blew up in their face in the most spectacular fashion when they took on a supposedly second or third rate French team in the Final who made a mockery of the Men in White’s approach to modern day Test Rugby. England hung on, helped on occasion by some interesting officiating decisions, but we very much doubt that England’s current take on the game will get them another Six Nations title this year let alone a World Cup in four years. England had a successful if rather uninspiring 2020, but unless things change they are likely to find that everyone else has figured them out in 2021 and moved on, leaving England having to play catch up by the time the World Cup rolls around. It’s early days yet, and England has some exceptional players at its disposal, even if Coach Eddie Jones seems to reluctant to use them as much as he should. The world’s best but most boring side in 2020, and one still likely to do rather well in the forthcoming Six Nations. But if a change in tactics and personnel isn’t seen sooner rather than later England may look back on the first eighteen months of life after the last World Cup as opportunities missed rather than silverware on the shelf.

Well boys I always said filing our income tax return carefully would get us a healthy rebate cheque

We’ll be back with our usual previews of the Six Nations, provided it actually happens and COVID once more doesn’t get in the way. Till then stay safe everyone and here’s hoping that 2021 gives us the kind of oval ball year that we were all so sadly denied in 2020, albeit for all the right reasons!

Let’s be honest in general 2020 is a year that most of us can’t wait to assign to the scrap heap of history. Our beloved sport was put on hold for several months and when it did return it was forced to play out in empty stadiums in the Northern Hemisphere. On that note our compatriots in the Southern Hemisphere, as a result of taking drastic measures right from the get go, had much greater success in containing the scourge of the virus. As a result, rugby got underway much quicker South of the Equator in Australia and New Zealand. South Africa was the obvious exception unfortunately as the country was ravaged by the pandemic and Argentina found themselves with no-one to play locally in the rejigged Super Rugby tournaments which essentially become domestic competitions.

Despite all the trauma the Tri Nations held at the end of the year in New Zealand and Australia between the two countries, with Argentina taking up residence in Australia to play their matches, provided us with some memorable entertainment – most notably Argentina making history by beating the All Blacks for the first time ever. Plenty of new talent was on show, and unlike their compatriots North of the Equator the three countries enjoyed being able to play in front of large crowds due to Australia and New Zealand’s success with containing the COVID-19 outbreak from the very beginning. All sports need a crowd to lend an atmosphere, but the color, passion and good humor that rugby crowds bring to a contest are unique in world sport.

So as we look towards a New Year that hopefully promises much for our sport, we look back at the Tri Nations and what it taught us about its competitors.

Argentina have some work to do but showed they are a force to be reckoned with in this World Cup cycle

Argentina’s VERY big day out against New Zealand

When it comes to the raw emotion which is such a big part of rugby it would be pretty hard to top Argentina’s stunning win over the All Blacks in November. Sure the victory was tarnished by a media witch hunt around some comments made by some of the players which were a tad inapporpriate, but uttered in the brashness and immaturity of youth many years before this match – inexcusable but needed some context nevertheless. Captain Pablo Matera who was so inspirational to his colleagues in that memorable match, has shouldered the blame for his actions and the shame that comes with them. He and some of his teammates will undergo some awareness training to ensure that those comments were nothing more than irresponsible faux pas made by a bunch of teenagers who had yet to be seasoned by the international camaraderie of rugby union. A sport which brings players together from a wealth of different cultures and backgrounds.

All that aside, what we did learn from Argentina is that a year in the wilderness and isolated from international competition, if anything seems to have made them stronger. Coach Mario Ledesma, with some help from former Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika, has molded together an outfit that blends the best of the Pumas exports playing in top level European competition with an exciting, talented and dangerous group of new young talent. While Argentina will want to forget that 38-0 revenge drubbing from New Zealand a fortnight after that historic win, they managed to redeem themselves a week later against Australia in a hard fought draw despite the distractions of the media circus going on around them. Furthermore, let’s put it in perspective. Unlike Australia and New Zealand, Argentina had not played in a year, were a long way from home and had to play four back to back Test matches against two of the best Test sides on the planet. To emerge from that with one win against New Zealand, two draws and one loss is pretty respectable whichever way you cut it.

The talent on display, especially from the newcomers was a joy to behold at times, and Argentina look so much more cohesive than they have done in years gone by. While there are still problems with concentration and discipline at times, the Pumas look for the most part exceptionally well organised. Their scrum is once more a thing to be feared and they seem to have a factory of alarmingly talented and exceptionally powerful back rowers. Their backs are magical and there are some up and coming youngsters ready to step into the shoes of the likes of Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli and Martin Landajo. In short, what we found out about Argentina is that they are in exceptionally rude health and just getting started on their preparations for the next World Cup, something their main World Cup Pool rivals England will need to play close attention to in the next three years. Unlike the last World Cup cycle, and perhaps because of the pandemic, Argentina seem to have accepted the hand that geography has dealt them and appear set to adapt, ensuring that along with Fiji they are likely to remain one of the most popular online shopping destinations for Northern Hemisphere club coaches.

Australia very much a work in progress but watch this space!

Dave Rennie hoping he hasn’t bitten off more than he can chew

Nobody ever said the Wallaby coaching job would be easy. Take a collection of talented players who very rarely seem able or willing to follow orders, throw in a bunch of youngsters who can’t decide whether they should be playing union, league or Australian rules and new Coach Dave Rennie has probably spent much of 2020 trying to figure out where to begin. When he has got it right, Australia have looked good, and some of their new talent has really made us sit up and take notice, especially harnessed to a game plan that actually works. Unfortunately the rather rebellious streak that runs through Australian rugby managed to derail the Wallabies a few times this year despite Rennie’s best intentions. Nevertheless, what we did see him doing was welding the Wallabies into a recognizable shape and giving them a sense of definition as a team, rather than a collection of unruly but talented loose canons. When Australia clicked as in their defeat of the All Blacks, the promise of this new look Wallaby side was there for all to see. Unfortunately though we still only saw glimpses of it rather than any degree of consistency. However it’s early days and we’re fairly confident that under Rennie’s guidance the best is yet to come.

Australia still suffer from problems with discipline and some of their set piece work, most notably the lineout needs some desperate work. However, overall there were improvements across the board. Discipline was for the most part better, their scrum has improved dramatically and they have clearly got the measure of how to use explosive talents like winger Marika Koroibete to maximum effect. Defensively they are improving and with the long range seige gun capabilities of utility back Reece Hodge’s boot, Australia have plenty to be excited about heading into the New Year.

Most notable for Australia this year was the relish with which they harnessed new talent. There was a long list of names on the roll call for notable performances but here are a few that stood out for us. In the front row Taniela Tupou or the “Tongan Thor” as he is better known as has really come into his own and was an absolute nightmare for Argentina and Australia this year. Harry Wilson looks set to be an outstanding prospect for the future at number eight despite one or two deer in the headlights moments on the big stage this year. Jordan Petaia at centre has greatness written all over him, while Tom Wright proved to be the find of the year on the wing and Tom Banks looks set to answer the questions the Wallabies have consistently had at fullback for the last few years.

In short, Australia despite a mixed bag of results this year, have shown some encouraging signs in 2020 that they are going to be a force to be reckoned with come 2023. There are plenty of kinks still to be worked out, but we have no doubts that Australia in Dave Rennie have picked the right man for the job.

New Zealand – False alarms and still the team to beat

They may be angry this year – but they are still the benchmark everyone else uses to measure themselves against

Put aside all the nonsense in the media this year claiming that the All Blacks had lost their edge, question marks around new Coach Ian Foster being the right man for the job and a few serious wobbles against Australia and Argentina as nothing more than idle speculation. When the All Blacks review the footage of what they got wrong, they are still hands down the best team in the world at reinventing themselves. After struggling to get past Australia in their first Test of 2020, a week later they were able to close them out and the week after that completely blow them off the park. Sure the following two weeks were a fairly torrid time for the Men in Black narrowly losing to Australia, and then the shock defeat to the Pumas. However, their last Test of the year and ultimate 38-0 revenge over the South Americans showed a side that can finish on a high like no other, as they simply took Argentina apart piece by piece for the full eighty minutes, not allowing the Pumas to even get a word in to the contrary. It’s that ruthlessness and ability to come back from the dark places of the sport with such clinical efficiency that sets the All Blacks apart from their rivals.

The jury may still be out on whether or not new Coach Ian Foster is the man to take the All Blacks to the World Cup, where they are going to have to get past their age old nemesis in the global showdown – France. Les Bleus seem on a rocket trajectory to Mars at the moment and will take some beating especially at home. Fly half and one of the most experienced heads on the team, Beauden Barrett, will still be in his prime in 2023, but has proven his versatility at fullback to ensure that New Zealand will have a genuine powerhouse decision making duo in himself and Richie Mo’unga at fly half. Add in some truly outrageous new talent like winger Caleb Clarke and fullback Will Jordan to the spine of a very capable and experienced team, and this is still the team against whom everyone else will measure their progress. It’s the versatility of New Zealand’s players across the board that still keeps the rest of the world guessing. Dane Coles is not only one of the best hookers in the world, he’s also one of the most dangerous men out wide where he likes to get the winger in him out of the closet. Ardie Savea is the modern day equivalent of a whirling dervish, whilst across the park this group of All Blacks continue to pull off moves that seem effortless to them but often defy logic for the rest of us.

That vision of where space is or how to create it is so ingrained in New Zealand’s rugby DNA, that while they may be in transition the big wins are still likely to vastly outnumber the losses this World Cup cycle. This group of angry young men may still be smarting at their exit from last year’s World Cup at the hands of the old enemy England, but are likely to be using it as a lesson to prepare them for their ultimate potential banana skin France in three years time. Not yet perfect but showing all the signs that they will be in a couple of years!

South Africa are likely to regret not taking the trip to Australia

Is it all just ancient history now?

South Africa chose not to participate in the Rugby Championship held in Australia this year. There were various reasons for this, though mainly due to COVID-19 which has decimated the country. However, with precautions it is likely they could have made the tournament. Instead lack of playing time required to get the players match fit for a grueling Test schedule was cited as the main reason for not making the journey. Given Argentina’s exploits in Australia and that they faced similar issues, this argument seems to be rather groundless, especially when you consider that South Africa are current World Champions. Australia, Argentina and New Zealand are all looking sharp, as are England. When South Africa run out to potentially meet a powerhouse Lions squad in July of next year, it will be their first Test since the World Cup final which by then will have been almost two years ago. As Argentina showed, a year in the wilderness can be managed – but almost two years????

Consequently, we don’t have too much to say about them as at the end of 2020 we simply have no idea where they’re at. Will they regret their decision to not make the trip to Australia or simply use the Lions series as the start of preparations to defend their World title even if they find themselves on a hiding to nothing at the end of it? Little is known about the new Coaching setup for the Springboks, even if it does have the wise hand of World Cup winning Coach Rassie Erasmus overseeing it all, albeit not as closely as many would probably like. Nevertheless, from the little we have seen of the Super Rugby domestic competition in South Africa which only started in September, as well as the Currie Cup, despite the ravages of Covid 19 there is absolutely no shortage of world class talent in the country. Add to that the likes of key players such as winger Cheslin Kolbe making the front pages of every rugby publication every time he takes to the pitch with French side Toulouse and underestimate the green machine at your peril.

There is no denying that the landscape of Test rugby has just not been the same without the Springboks this year, and like the rest of the world we can’t wait for the Lions series this year, pandemic permitting. The Boks are a team that invariably rises to the occasion and regards the jersey as a symbol of national pride never to be taken lightly. They’ll be back rest assured and we hope and suspect that they will reignite the passion and the fury that caused the rest of the world to look on in awe over a year ago in Japan.

We’ll be back with our final piece wrapping up 2020, as we reflect on the end of the Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup and what we learnt from it. Till then Happy New Year and let’s hope for all of us around the globe that Covid-19 makes its way into history and our glorious game is allowed to return to the business of making it.

It would appear on paper that the supposed showpiece event of the Autumn Nations Cup is for all intents and purposes a bit of a non event. England roll out all their big guns while France are left to assemble a rag tag team of scraps from what the domestic clubs feel they can live without this weekend. Is it a case of a Humvee competing in a Monster Truck final against a Trabant, or underneath that cardboard shell is there a set of well coached but unknown quantities for an unsuspecting English side. All the bluster and talking up of the match has come from the English camp this week, while the French team have gone about their business behind closed doors quietly accepting the hand that fate has dealt them. It’s very hard to see anything other than a decisive English victory against a cobbled together French side, but we can’t help feeling that there may be one or two surprising twists left in this tale of unfulfilled ambitions. While English Coach Eddie Jones swaggers and blusters his way around the media circuit stating the seemingly obvious in an attempt to get inside French heads prior to Sunday, we’ve heard very little from France leading us to believe that old adage that it’s the quiet, silent types who are the most dangerous.

We know everything about this English team but almost nothing about France on Sunday

C’est quoi ca?

We have to confess to knowing nothing about France from numbers 1-9 this week. Sure we’ve heard rumors and brushed up on our knowledge of all things TOP 14, but in all honesty the French forward pack for Sunday and their scrum half are simply unkown quantities to us. We’ve read some positive buzz about their exploits at club level, and have a hazy recollection of flanker Anthony Jelonch in action against the All Blacks three years ago, but for all intents and purposes it will be like opening a box of mystery presents on Sunday as far as we’re concerned. What we do think is being underestimated though is this French Coaching team’s abilities to whip a bunch of relative unknowns into a competent Test side. Under Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards France seem to be thriving and we very much doubt this forward pack are likely to be the deer in the headlights that most are predicting they will be.

Is Eddie Jones despite the bluster the more annoyed of the two Coaches?

Look mate I ordered champagne not house red!!!!

In his regular rounds of the rugby press this week, we’ve sensed an underlying tone of frustration in Eddie Jones assessment of what his charges will be up against this weekend. While he has paid the customary respects to his opponents, reading between the lines, we feel he is almost more annoyed about the selections that French Coach Fabien Galthie has been forced to make for this match than Galthie himself. Jones wanted to end this rather upside down year with a victory against his biggest Six Nations threat next year France. This match would have been the ideal preparation to really get the measure of the squad who denied him and his charges the Grand Slam this year, and who clearly fancy their chances of taking the title from him next year. This group of unknowns he now has to face provides him with a possible banana skin in terms of his immediate preparations for Sunday, and at the same time denies him the opportunity to have another look at the side he is likely to face at Twickenham next March. Of the two we’d say Jones may be the more frustrated right now as a result.

A brains trust that is clearly working

An unlikely but highly effective partnership – France’s Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards

Very few teams seem to have emerged from the last World Cup with a Coaching platform that has managed to embrace change and show promise for the next global showdown. France would appear to be the exception. While it may be a slightly unorthodox partnership there is no denying that France Head Coach Fabien Galthie and former Welsh defense Coach Shaun Edwards have managed to get their house in order right from the get go. They seem to be the only team that has managed to understand the fine balance between defense and attack and merge the two into a highly effective and attractive brand of rugby. Put a Fijian engine inside an English chassis, and you have France 2020. Add to that the fact that the pair of them seem almost gleeful at sifting through France’s toybox of talent regardless of its experience like two kids at Christmas. There is a genuine thirst for knowledge to find out as much as possible about everything France will have at its disposal over the next four years and manage those resources accordingly. If you’re going to watch anybody off the pitch over the next four years, pay close attention to these two gentlemen, and their fellow Northern Hemisphere counterparts might want to do the same.

Is it a plane, is it a bird – no it’s Gabin Villiere!

Villiere Flight 001 departing for Fiji!

France’s back line however for Sunday’s match may lack experience but we’ve already seen what they’re capable of. Jonathan Danty proved to be an outstanding centre in the mold of the old bruiser himself Mathieu Bastareaud against Italy. Whether or not he can measure up to England’s Owen Farrell and Henry Slade is an entirely different question but one we are looking forward to seeing him try to answer. It was winger Gabin Villiere who really made us sit up and take notice against Italy as he seemingly burst from nowhere from behind a lineout to score a classic 7s style try. The contest between him and his opposite number Anthony Watson should prove to be one of the most entertaining of the afternoon.

It’s a match that England, benefitting from 2,000 lucky fans in attendance for the first time in the competition, can and should win. France come into the match as a relative unknown, which adds an element of danger to the whole equation for England, but at times like these there is rarely a substitute for experience and that is something Eddie Jones’ charges bring to the contest by the bucket load. After our initial disappointment on hearing it would not be a full strength French team, as the week has wore on, our interest in this match has peaked so that we have a hunch this may not be the dead rubber the pundits are dismissing it as. Either way, you are unlikely to come away without some insight into what life will be like for next year’s two Six Nations title contenders and for that reason alone we’d argue it would be worth 2 hours of your time on Sunday.

Enjoy this year’s last hurrah this weekend, and we sincerely hope it will give us plenty to talk about as we look ahead to a return to normal service in 2021!

“A made up tournament, in a desperate attempt to inject some financial lifeblood into the Northern Hemisphere’s cash starved Unions” – we sincerely hope that this weekend will enable us to write a different epitaph on the Autumn Nations Cup Tombstone. The tournament just hasn’t fired plain and simple. One of the biggest entertainment cards in the competition Fiji will be playing their only match this Saturday after being in COVID-19 lockdown for the entire pool stage phase. Georgia have been placed in the worst of possible pools that has done little to allow them to show off their talents or further their case for inclusion in the Six Nations. Wales find themselves out in the cold after having struggled to define what they are supposed to look like in the post Gatland era. Italy have done little more than unearth some promising talent for a future that is always just around the corner. Scotland have looked perhaps the most adventurous of all the sides bar France, while Ireland seem to be relying more on the supposed mythical luck of their nation than an actual game plan. England have simply bludgeoned all before them into submission, only occasionally allowing individuals like the exceptional Jonny May to experiment with one man attacking rugby. Lastly France have enthralled us but are being held hostage by their clubs and thus denying the whole competition the final it should have had. In short, would anyone really want to do this again? We think not!!!

Nevertheless, in this rather unusual year, beggars can’t be choosers and what you see is what you get and it’s better than nothing at all. While we’re not really sure what this weekend’s final proceedings will actually tell us about where the teams are heading into a year that should see a return to mostly normal service, there could be some entertainment on hand. The fact that the French Coaching staff have not attempted to talk reason to the Clubs would indicate to us that they are relishing the chance to throw a group of newbies into the frying pan and develop another level of depth to their World Cup preparations – and who knows in the final International match of the year pull off its greatest upset. England literally swagger into Twickenham as a result but we’ve all seen how quickly that swagger can turn into a drunken lurch into the hoardings if they’re not careful. Fiji and Georgia should give us the genuine winner takes all, caution to wind entertainment that this tournament has so desperately needed and the same could be said for the Wales and Italy encounter. The only game that seems to have some real weight to it would appear to be Ireland and Scotland’s showdown in Dublin. Both sides are evenly matched in terms of skill sets even if Scotland struggle with consistency while Ireland are clearly unsure of how to use the skill sets they have at their disposal. So take from it what you will but we imagine that like us you won’t be too far from your TV screens this weekend, even if it’s just out of a sense of morbid curiosity.

Georgia vs Fiji – Saturday, December 5th – Murrayfield

This is a match we have to admit we’re really looking forward to. We would have been gutted if we wouldn’t have got a chance to see box office favorites the Flying Fijians in action this tournament. Although COVID-19 has dealt them a cruel blow, they are always serious entertainment value. Unfortunately the weather is unlikely to permit the kind of free flowing game the Pacific Islanders excel at, but still expect them to chance their hand whenever the opportunity arises.

Georgia on the other hand may feel slightly more comfortable, being battled hardened after three tough matches, the last of which was a highly respectable showing against Ireland, and at long last their first points in the tournament. Regardless of the shambolic performance by Ireland, Georgia played well and it was the quality of their play itself that helped to further unstitch a rudderless and at times inept Irish side. They should travel to Murrayfield knowing that if they can keep the composure and structure they showed against Ireland it could be enough to contain their wild and spirited opponents.

Now that’s entertainment!

The most fun we’ve had all tournament!

We would just like to thank a Mr. Giorgi Kveseladze of the Lelos, Georgian national rugby team for providing one of the tournament’s best moments. This try was just magic and had us out of our seats, and more importantly showed that Georgia can excite. We had just as much fun as the Georgian commentators in the above video had watching it unfold. Georgia played a really good game and this try showed just how good they can be after three weeks of top level competition. While Georgia’s performance overall in this tournament will not have gotten them that elusive entry ticket for the Six Nations, it surely must have strengthened the argument for more regular top level competition for the men from the Caucasus. They’ve earned it, they deserve it and if they can produce moments like this then we want much more of it.

We only hope the elements hold off to allow this gentleman to do the same!

The definition of extraordinary!

Make no mistake Fiji as a team are wonderful, but there is no denying this individual is rather special. Now a patron saint of English side Bristol Bears after helping them win the European Challenge Cup and get promotion to the 2020/21 Champions Cup competition, Semi Radradra is a quite extraordinary rugby footballer. We sincerely hope that the weather threatening Murrayfield on Saturday, gets stuck irrigating the Isle of Skye instead, allowing the Fijian magician to be at his best.

Rugby’s most underrated Coach

Always welcome in Murrayfield

He may be with Fiji now, but the Islanders Coach Vern Cotter will be warmly received, social distancing permitted wherever he goes in Edinburgh. Scottish fans know that his stint as Scotland Coach, cut short far too soon in the eyes of many, laid the foundation for Scotland’s current success. As far as we are concerned he is one of the brightest minds in Test Rugby right now. Fiji no doubt count their blessings every day on the training pitch. A hard taskmaster but one deeply respected and perhaps even loved by the players under his tutelage, Cotter excels at getting the best out of his players. While he may appear a hard man on the outside, he wears his heart on his sleeve and is not shy to shed a tear or two when his boys make him proud. With several Coaching appointments in the Northern Hemisphere under the microscope at the moment, we’d imagine Cotter’s resume is at the very top of a fair few piles.

We hope the elements hold off enough to provide for an exciting match between two sides likely to play for nothing more than the sheer love of the game on Saturday in Murrayfield. Hard to call but weather permitting a potentially fascinating contest with perhaps the recently battle hardened Georgians getting the edge if the weather refuses to cooperate.

Ireland vs Scotland – Saturday, December 5th – Dublin

Ireland have to perform, and after their ramshackle effort against a plucky Georgian team last Saturday, Scotland must feel more than a little confident. For the Scots you could argue this is one of the few matches in this makeshift tournament that really matters to a side. Turn over an Irish side a bit at sixes and sevens with itself, and Scotland could rightfully claim the title of third best side in the Northern Hemisphere and the right to challenge for top honors come next year’s Six Nations. While consistency and injuries may be Scotland’s Achilles Heel, there is no denying that they are a shadow of the team that regularly duked it out with Italy for the Wooden Spoon in years gone by. Scotland sense there is a point to be made in their favor, and Ireland know that they have to turn in a convincing performance against a quality side to prove to their supporters that they are not a team in decline.

Man in the Hot Seat

Does Andy Farrell have a plan or is it all just smoke and mirrors?

The grumblings are getting louder, and Andy Farrell is looking more and more pensive. The problem is that Ireland appear to be going nowhere if not backwards and in a hurry. Sure you can’t lay all the blame at Farrell’s feet. Ireland’s biggest problem of the last two years was tunnel vision on the last World Cup and reliance on a core of players that had essentially peaked a year or two before, with no eye to their eventual replacements. Farrell and Ireland now find themselves looking desperately unprepared for the future and the succession issues it has brought up, while at the same time expected to produce results with a talented but dysfunctional team. Too inexperienced on one hand yet clearly past their sell by date on the other and often not providing the leadership needed on the field to guide the younger heads – makes the task of putting together a balanced squad almost impossible. There was much talk after the match with Georgia that Ireland needs time to refine its structures, yet based on what we saw last weekend there was very little evidence at all of any kind of structure or thought processes in Ireland’s play. Ireland may still be able to generate huge amounts of possession but their execution of the basics is becoming so poor that it makes hanging on to the ball the way they do a pointless and energy sapping endeavor. Add to the fact that Ireland’s ability to score more than two tries a match remains for the most part the stuff of fantasy, and Andy Farrell’s report card is unlikely to look good come his first annual review. He clearly wants results and consequently Ireland’s focus on the short term has increased at the expense of the long-term vision and how to get there that it really needs. We hate to sound like a broken record but we just don’t feel that Farrell will be the man to provide it. We wonder if Vern Cotter’s resume might be floating around the back offices of the IRFU……just saying.

A good team on paper – but the right team?

There are some development markers gone missing in this one

On paper most people would argue given Scotland’s lineup, that this crew in green should be more than comfortable with getting the job done. There is a good balance of wise heads and youthful talent in there, but the leaders really need to step up Saturday and provide the guidance that has so often been missing. Furthermore it’s blatantly obvious that some experiments just aren’t working. We hate to harp on about it, but Jacob Stockdale is not a Test fullback – get him back on the wing and let youngster Hugo Keenan develop in the role. We thought Keenan has in general been superb under the high ball and is clearly learning his defensive duties. Allied to Jordan Larmour Ireland could then check the fullback department off their to do list for France 2023. As Ireland’s last line of defense Stockdale is a huge liability even if he performs the role admirably at club level with Ulster.

After Jamison-Gibson Park’s absolute howler against England we once again shook our heads at his inclusion once more albeit on the bench. Surely Keiran Marmion or John Cooney are a better investment in the future. To be honest there’s only two players we’re genuinely excited to see on this team sheet, second rower James Ryan and winger Keith Earls who were the only players in our opinion who really stood out against Georgia. In reality though will Earls still be there come the next World Cup. In short it’s a meaningless tournament in the grand scheme of things so take the French approach and be bold Ireland you’re not going to get too many more opportunities before things all start to get rather serious.

Scotland the bold and the brave

Time for a bit of faith and an eye to the future

Sure you can argue it’s been forced by injuries, but Scotland’s team selection is likely to put Scotland much further ahead on the learning curve when it comes to looking at how to develop depth. We have to admit to being surprised at not seeing fly half Duncan Weir even rate a spot on the bench, but the decision to give Edinburgh fly half and South African import Jaco van der Walt his first Scottish cap, smacks of an eye to the future especially given the injury problems plaguing incumbents Finn Russell and Adam Hastings at the moment. It could well backfire on Coach Gregor Townsend, but there is no denying van der Walt is a talent worth investing in for the future irrespective of whether or not he finds himself out of his depth on Saturday.

Remember this guy?

A troublesome character but worth the risk

Sure it’s another of Scotland’s Southern Hemisphere imports, but under former Coach Vern Cotter, back rower Blair Cowan put in some stellar performances and was an extremely valuable asset in Scotland’s tool box. Agreed he had some discipline issues, but we felt that he was a player Scotland couldn’t do without. While the current crop of Scottish back rowers with the likes of Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson in particular have in many ways made the Kiwi redundant, we’d argue Scotland will benefit from his return to the squad. A partnership between himself and Jamie Ritchie could prove to be an exceptionally feisty combination and Cowan was always a rather handy fellow come lineout time.

We’d argue there is plenty at stake tomorrow for both sides, but in many ways this is a game that Scotland will really want to make their own, as the ramifications for them will complete a trajectory they’ve been aiming for this year. Yes they’ve stumbled along the way at times, but win this match and win it well and the talk of them being the Six Nations perennial dark horse of the last few years suddenly will have some substance. They will head into next year’s tournament knowing that they are ranked third in Europe’s pecking order and with key players back from injury Scotland will surely feel that fortune may well favor the brave in 2021. Ireland won’t want to lose either, but a win for them is more likely to be a sigh of relief rather than the genuine sense of accomplishment likely to be felt by Scotland and confidence in the future. Of all the contests this weekend we’d argue that this one carries the most weight.

Wales vs Italy – Saturday, December 5th – Llanelli

If you’re looking for possible upsets this weekend, is this match likely to be the one that ticks the boxes? We still think it’s an outside chance even given Wales ongoing fumblings in the dark, but it would be hard to fault the Italians for fancying their odds to do so. We know we’ve all heard it a thousand times before but Italy could be on the verge of something new under the tutelage of Coach Franco Smith. They had flashes of brilliance against France last weekend, and although it’s a fairly common theme with Italy rarely backed up by results, there are some exciting prospects here that could take advantage of a dysfunctional Welsh team.

One to watch for Italy

Autumn Nations Cup | Fischetti: There is a desire to create something  important
An increasingly potent weapon for the Azurri – Danilo Fishetti

Ever since the legendary Martin Castrogiovanni, Italy have had competent but not outstanding props. In Fishetti they may have found the successor to the great Castro. While he may not have had the best Six Nations debut, Fishetti has consistently stood out for us in this tournament and given the right encouragement is likely to have a bright future with the Azurri. The Welsh scrum is for the most part a serious weak link for Wales so expect the youngster to cause maximum havoc here. He’s also rather handy in the loose and a useful exponent of securing turnover ball.

Much like France Italy go experimental and continue to give the floor to their young guns

Is that the lineup for France 2023? Paolo Garbisi getting noticed

Italian Coach Franco Smith, much like his French counterpart Fabien Galthie has embraced the future and recognised that Italy’s path to France 2023 starts here and now. In a squad that fields relatively few of the more usual suspects in Italy’s recent lineups, youth and new talent are the flavor of the day. After a couple of false starts in the position, Italy would appear to have no trouble in recent years finding quality fly halves. Carlo Canna was competent but seems to prefer life as an inside centre and Tommaso Allan provides a steadying influence from the bench when the chips are down. But the spotlight is all on youngster Paolo Garbisi these days and for all the right reasons. This is an exciting player who is only going to get better. He provides the spark that Italy have been looking for, but it’s combined with a remarkably wise head when it comes to game management for such a young player. Alongside his scrum half partner Stephen Varney who ironically hails from Wales and is also barely out of his teenage years, Italy take some risks on Saturday but a giant leap forward in terms of squad development.

Wales in name only

We used to be good at this stuff – didn’t we?

Head scratching, fist pounding but more worrying a distinct lack of fire in the belly – these are all on field antics we simply aren’t used to associating with Wales in recent years. There’s no denying that they are a shadow of a once outstanding unit. Sure there are new Coaches to adjust to and plenty of new faces in the changing rooms – but Wales as a unit just aren’t gelling. Even the traditional leaders seem mildly disinterested in the task at hand when they’re not looking downright frustrated. Whether it’s a crisis of leadership on or off the pitch or in the Coaching box is hard to judge, but it simply isn’t a Welsh team or approach to the game that we recognize. It’s perhaps this more than anything else that Wales need to get right and get right quickly. Fix it and the rest will come, but for now they are vulnerable and other teams know it, and Italy will come wanting to exploit it to their advantage. Let’s face it Italy have given Wales some almighty scares in the past and given the present climate in Wales right now, are in the perfect position to do so again.

What works across the Bristol Channel may well work in Llanelli

Can he do with Wales what put Bristol Bears on the map this season?

We’ve talked about the impact of Fijian Semi Radrada with Bristol Bears, but Welsh fly half for Saturday Callum Sheedy was also a big part of the English club’s success this season. Quickly able to read a game as it unfolds and change it up once the opposition have got your measure, Sheedy is perhaps the breath of fresh air needed to counteract Dan Biggar’s rather jaded enthusiasm these days and constant injury niggles. Wales are a bit thin on the ground in the fly half department and Coach Wayne Pivac has recognised the need to look at life beyond Dan Biggar sooner rather than later. While Saturday’s Test may be too much of a leap of faith at this stage, it surely can’t get much worse and giving a player of Sheedy’s calibre some quality game time is money in the bank.

We’re still waiting for all the lights to come on in the Welsh camp, but feel with morale so low overall business as usual in Wales is still a ways off. Nevertheless they should eke out a win against an Italian side that is likely to provide them considerably more difficulty than the Georgians. Italy will be desperate for a win as well, but Coach Franco Smith is likely to place more value on a quality performance from the Azurri that keeps them in the hunt all the way to the final whistle. It may not be one for the ages, but as a look at what these teams have in terms of investments for the future, it’s a match you may want to have a look at.

We’ll put something out on Sunday’s final between England and France once we get the team sheets tomorrow.

The Autumn Nations Cup is now fully underway, but even though it was meant to skirt around the complications caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is affected nonetheless. Fiji’s participation in the tournament looks increasingly unlikely as the virus ravages through the Islanders’ squad, with their first two matches against France and Italy being cancelled. The other participants have played in cavernous, empty and lifeless stadiums which have done little to capture the imagination. Ireland cruised past a hapless Wales in a very one-sided match. Scotland and Italy provided 40 minutes of entertainment before the Azurri packed their bags and handed the match to Scotland in the second half. Lastly we watched England use a completely outclassed Georgian team as a training exercise in a soulless Twickenham doused by the elements. It hasn’t quite had the same luster as for example the crowds and rugby currently on display in Australia in the Tri-Nations.

Still this weekend it does offer up two encounters that are always worth watching. Scotland and France possess two squads fizzing with talent and energy, while watching England and Ireland renew their age old rivalry is always worth the price of admission. Wales look to Georgia to simply provide them with something they haven’t experienced since the start of the Six Nations – a win! It may be a tournament that is not exactly setting the world on fire, but in a year that has seen our beloved sport struggle to pick up the pieces of the pandemic and make something meaningful out of it, we should be grateful for what’s on offer and hope that this weekend will provide us with something to remember.

England vs Ireland – Saturday, November 21st – Twickenham

Despite our issues with an empty Twickenham, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t looking forward to this one. The silverware at the end of it is irrelevant, and let’s face it there’s never really any silverware on the line when the Southern Hemisphere boys come North in November which is what this tournament replaces. What’s more important is that it’s a match between two arch rivals both trying to establish their position in the global pecking order post the last World Cup. England are determined to put the memory of a final gone horribly wrong behind them and put the focus on the the fact that they are current Six Nations champions determined to be the dominant side in the Northern Hemisphere. Ireland look to start a new Chapter after a bitterly disappointing World Cup and endeavor to build a team that can harness the new talents coming through the system in time for the next global showdown in 2023. England seek to consolidate, with a few tweaks to fix the shortcomings highlighted in the World Cup, while Ireland look to finally give the next generation of Irish players the chance to claim their stake in Ireland’s future.

Consequently, Saturday’s fixture is vitally important to both sides. England may not be the world’s most exciting side at the moment, but few can deny their ruthless effectiveness. They were bitterly disappointed not to take the Grand Slam in this year’s Six Nations but will want to make a clean sweep of this tournament to fire a clear warning shot across the bows of their Six Nations rivals in 2021. Ireland have slowly started to click since their failure to revive their Six Nations aspirations in the final round against France, and although the jury is out on new Coach Andy Farrell, there is no denying that Ireland are looking a lot more lively and adventurous than they did in the Schmidt era in their last two outings. They too have their eye on the main prize next February/March and Saturday’s match will give us a good deal of insight as to how it may all play out next year.

No place for the faint hearted

Saturday’s clash sees some wise old heads and some angry young men come face to face in the front row. Ireland’s Andrew Porter simply oozes menace up against his seasoned English opponent Mako Vunipola who is probably one of the most immovable lumps of coal in the modern game. England’s Kyle Sinckler (aka Mr. Cheeky) is well practiced in the art of the wind up and the dark arts of what happens unseen at the coal face, while his opposite number Ireland’s Cian Healy excels at skirting along the very edges of the laws. Both sides pack very capable Hookers, though we have to say that Jamie George really has come of age for England in the last eighteen months to the point where we struggle to remember Dylan Hartley. Ronan Kelleher is doing great things at Leinster and that club form is increasingly being translated into Test performances of the same caliber. England though seem to be getting better results when it comes to developing a mean bench in this regard and Ellis Genge is a real thorn in any opposition side. In short, it’s going to be ugly in there on Saturday and rugby’s version of trench warfare at its best. The key will be who gets under whose skin the most and quickest, and we have a hunch that England are likely to be fastest out of the blocks in that regard, although in their eagerness Kyle Sinckler’s poor disciplinary record could trip them up.

A step in the right direction albeit on a very large stage

The best bit of news we’ve had this week, is seeing Ireland’s James Ryan’s name against the Captain’s slot for this match. As regular readers know we have tipped the outstanding second rower for the leadership role for the last two years, and have been adamant that he will be the one taking the armband to France in 2023. The only way he will get the experience needed to help him handle it, is to give him as much time as possible in the role between now and the next World Cup. Consequently, as his opening shot at glory he couldn’t ask for a bigger opportunity than England at Twickenham. It may lack the crowds on Saturday, but leading your troops against a pumped up England in their spiritual home is an extraordinary opportunity to put your skills to the test, and as baptisms of fire go it doesn’t get much bigger than this.

We think he’s up to the Test and then some, and even if he falters as he himself has admitted, he is surrounded by some wise and experienced heads, especially that of Peter O’Mahony who knows the pressure of the role on big occasions like this which should give him the support he needs. Whatever, the outcome as long as he puts in his traditional 110% effort, then the priority must be to stick with developing him in the role.

Talking of future Captains – Tom Curry your chance is now

England need to develop a future Captain and an understudy for Owen Farrell. We’ve said all along Curry is the man for the job, and Saturday is likely to be another opportunity for the outstanding back rower to stake his claim, especially as he gets to grips with one of Ireland’s wiliest characters and a Captain himself Peter O’Mahony. Paired up with his “Kamikaze twin” Sam Underhill this back row unit is quality through and through but then so is Ireland’s offering of O’Mahony, CJ Stander and the exceptional newcomer Caelan Doris. England’s Billy Vunipola though for us is past his best.

Eddie Jones continues to confound and frustrate

Some English supporters love him, others just don’t understand him. While Ireland appear more willing to take some risks in this match, not so England. It’s the same old halfback pairing that we’ve seen a thousand times before in Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell. Once again England have their younger guns at nine and ten on the bench. If Ireland are willing to throw James Ryan in at the deep end in the Captain’s role for this one, you have to wonder why England is not willing to do the same in the half back department. It’s an ideal opportunity to look to the future beyond Farrell and Youngs, but once more it looks to go begging. Some English supporters are tearing their hair out, especially as England’s young guns didn’t even get the starting berths for the Red Rose’s Saturday afternoon audition with Georgia last weekend for a famous Hollywood musical.

Ireland although injury enforced have no such issues and Ross Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park get the nod. Byrne has not exactly shone in an Ireland jersey, but Gibson-Park did excel last weekend in his debut in the green, despite our reservations. Perhaps together for Ireland they will be able to replicate the award winning form they produce week in week out for Leinster.

Ireland need to score tries and have they found an answer in James Lowe?

We thought he was an option Ireland needed to take a look at, and he didn’t disappoint last weekend against Wales. A constant threat with ball in hand, and had the delivery from his colleagues been slightly crisper he would have got more than just the one try on debut in an Irish jersey. Ireland need to score the big points rather than just chipping away at the scoreline with the boot. It cost them in the final match of this year’s Six Nations against France, as Ireland consistently fail to score more than three tries in matches and often struggle to get past two. In Paris they needed four and as usual came short of the mark. Every time Lowe got the ball against Wales he looked like scoring and as the team figure out how to use him more effectively and deliver him better ball, he could well end up being the missing key they’ve sought for so long.

If Ireland have watched the Argentina/All Blacks match this past weekend, then what’s to say a little bit of good old fashioned grit, passion and pride in the jersey isn’t enough to get them past an English side that does look rather daunting to say the least. Unlike New Zealand though, England have had the opportunity to have a long hard look at Ireland this year and even met them in person already which went rather well for the Men in White. Ireland will play a big game make no mistake and if anything seem to be relishing the kinds of freedoms not tolerated under Joe Schmidt’s tenure. However, we can’t see it being enough to get past an England side that has every intention of making this tournament theirs and theirs alone. Either way we’re in for a cracker of a match!

Wales vs Georgia – Saturday, November 21st – Llanelli

To be honest after watching Georgia be steamrollered by both Scotland and England in the last two weeks, we sadly don’t have a great deal to say about this one. Unfortunately so far Georgia appear to be in this simply to make up the numbers in a cobbled together tournament. We wish we could find more positives but sadly can’t. As we said last week, whoever decided to put Georgia in such a daunting pool, surely needs to be banned from drawing up tournament lists for life, as it is simply unfair. Georgia will play with heart, but are unlikely to emerge with much confidence from this tournament, while the side they are aiming to show up, Italy, has a relative Sunday stroll by comparison against opposition that may at least allow the Azurri some semblance of credibility. In Georgia’s Pool are all three Six Nations Champions of the last ten years – not exactly a level playing field is it? Italy in their Pool have the three Wooden Spoon Holders in the Six Nations of the last 20 years – we rest our case.

Wales may not look the part at the moment, and themselves narrowly avoided the wooden spoon in this year’s Six Nations Championship. However, they were Grand Slam winners last year as well as World Cup semi-finalists. Wales are currently on their longest losing streak in recent memory, and as a result Georgia may sense the chance for a truly historic opportunity. However, we just can’t see a Welsh side desperate for any kind of victory, as well as avoiding the kind of national crisis that a loss to Georgia would create, being the kind of early Christmas present the men from the Caucasus would so dearly love to unwrap. Furthermore, the weather forecast looks to be fairly dismal for Saturday in Llanelli, and this could well be one you may not pay much attention to unless you’re a Welsh supporter. Wales should break their losing streak in a rather bleak and uninspiring encounter for both sides while providing little in the way of a spectacle to lift the spirits of those watching. Sadly this may be more of a damp rubber than a dead rubber.

We wish both sides well, and our hearts go out to Georgia, but we’ll probably stay indoors for this one and let them muck it out in the Welsh rain and mud.

We’ll be back tomorrow with our views on France’s trip to Scotland once the team sheets are out.

What a phenomenal performance that was last weekend as Argentina made history by getting their first ever win over the All Blacks. It was a powerhouse effort, and the Pumas weren’t just good – they were magnificent! They brought their world renown physicality to the match, but with it focus, discipline, execution and in the process simply outclassed their mighty rivals in every department. Our fears over Argentina having been placed in a rugby wilderness since the last World Cup as a result of COVID-19 proved to be completely unfounded as the Pumas gave us a textbook example of how adversity breeds strength and character. Ever since the last World Cup cycle we were convinced that the Pumas first win over New Zealand was going to be only a question of time – we just didn’t expect it after a 13 month absence from the Test Arena! With that victory Argentina have suddenly made the Tri Nations all that more interesting, and we are all waiting with bated breath to see if they can add a Wallaby scalp to their collection this Saturday in Sydney and set themselves up for a genuine shot at the title!

As for New Zealand, they now find themselves in unfamiliar territory, as they reflect on two back to back losses. However, we still don’t think that the All Blacks are on some inevitable downward spiral. Sure there clearly are teething problems with the new Coaching arrangements, and Ian Foster may well be out of his depths. Nevertheless this is still a team used to a culture of winning, and there is enough experience in the squad to figure out how to do it, even if the direction from the Coaching box may be confusing. Hit the panic button at the end of the Tri Nations if they suffer any more losses, but for now they are probably at the expresso machine unravelling two powerful wake up calls and no doubt hatching a plan to get themselves back on track.

Australia on the other hand must have watched last weekend’s match with horror. Sure they have beaten the All Blacks, but only by 2 points, and it certainly wasn’t the masterclass of destruction put on by Argentina last Saturday. We can’t help feeling that despite a much improved performance, their 24-22 victory over the All Blacks a fortnight ago in Brisbane, was a little too tense for comfort for much of the match with New Zealand right in it till the end. Argentina on the other hand had their win comfortably sewn up by the 70 minute mark despite a late All Black surge. If Argentina bring the kind of intensity, discipline and execution they showed against the All Blacks, Australia could end up being in a world of pain for eighty minutes on Saturday. New Zealand seem slightly unsure of themselves at the moment as does Australia, whereas Argentina clearly do not. As a result the Wallabies will need to raise their game that much more than they did in Brisbane two weeks ago.

Argentina vs Australia – Saturday, November 21st – Broadmeadow (North Sydney)

Argentina remain unchanged in their starting XV for Saturday’s match, from the squad that caused the All Blacks so much pain. To add insult to injury for Australia they continue to bring in some heavy artillery in the shape of their overseas based players and the bench sees the welcome addition of Toulon based back rower Facundo Isa.

The Pumas were effective last weekend for a multitude of reasons, but key were an excellent kick and chase game, an absolutely watertight defence and them finally breaking away from trying to play too much rugby in their own half, which has cost them dearly in the past. In defence their tackling technique was outstanding, often with one player tackling to be followed up by another seeking a turnover. The precision and intensity was something to behold. They put the All Blacks under so much pressure that they caused the New Zealanders to make mistakes on an almost continuous basis. An example is a statistic we are not used to associating with the Pumas, but in 80 minutes the Pumas made 1 handling error compared to the 16 made by New Zealand. That speaks volumes about the kind of relentless pressure Argentina were able to put their opponents under.

Argentina are likely to bring the same kind of intensity to Saturday’s match helped by the fact that after 80 minutes of a hugely physical contest, they hardly looked out of breath and ready for another 40 minutes if necessary. Australia will have to bring something very special to the park on Saturday if they are to get past this group of exceptionally fired up South Americans, and to be honest apart from perhaps Marika Koroibete, we’ve haven’t seen too much from Australia that can match it. They may also be basking in the glow of beating the All Blacks a fortnight ago, but it wasn’t nearly as clinical as Argentina’s victory over the men from the Land of the Long White Cloud.

While there is no doubt that it has improved dramatically, the Wallabies scrum simply doesn’t pack the quality of the Pumas offering

Argentina have always been renown for their scrummaging prowess, but sadly it had taken a step backwards in the last couple of years. Last Saturday, it was back to its powerhouse best, as they simply denied New Zealand any kind of traction here. Australia may have improved their technique in this area but they are still giving away far too many penalties here, whereas Argentina were masters of composure in this regard last weekend. We just can’t see how the Wallabies are going to avoid getting bossed around up front on Saturday. Backing up the front row is that powerhouse lock division the Pumas boast in Guido Petti and Matias Alemanno, with Australia’s Rob Simmonds in particular just simply not being of the same vintage. In short, we may be proved wrong, but we expect the Wallabies to really struggle in the tight five battles and at lineout time. Puma Hooker Julian Montoya was simply outstanding last weekend and Argentina were solid in the lineouts as he consistently found his targets. If you see any kind of parity here from the Wallabies then they will have clearly done their homework well.

Look out Michael – he’s coming for you!

In many ways this expression on Captain Pablo Matera’s face after yet another outstanding turnover from the Argentinian back rower summed up the Pumas afternoon last weekend. They mean business and will suffer no fools or insults. You couldn’t ask for a more fired up and insprirational leader if you tried. Australia’s Michael Hooper is a fine Captain in his own right always leading from the front with little or no regard to his own safety, but you just don’t get the feeling that he has this kind of intensity. Argentina’s back row of Matera, Marcos Kremer and Rodrigo Bruni were nothing short of remarkable last weekend. In the past the kind of intensity that Matera and his teammates put on display last weekend, often led to disciplinary breakdowns but last Saturday the Pumas were so clinical in the way they went about things, they hardly put a foot wrong. It was a textbook performance in how a back row should work and we just don’t see Australia being able to offer the same kind of quality. The Pumas will know that Wallaby Ned Hanigan is prone to being a disciplinary liability and Kremer is going to put a mountain of pressure on him, so expect the Australian to get to know referee Paul Williams very well on Saturday.

In short a double team from hell!

Brumbies rule the scrum half position

Although Pumas scrum half Tomas Cubelli has been with the Jaguares in Super Rugby recently, he and Wallaby scrum half Nic White have both cut their teeth with the Canberra outfit, and consequently are very aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Of the two though we feel that Cubelli has the calmer head and is a more reliable ball distributor as well as having a better kicking game. Expect plenty of fireworks from the two Brumbies stablemates and one of the best contests of the afternoon.

He handled Caleb Clarke for the most part now it’s Marika Koroibete’s turn

We’d really missed Argentine winger Bautista Delguy due to injury, but he came back with a bang last Saturday, and for the most part managed to keep New Zealand’s latest tactical weapon Caleb Clarke in check, except for that consolation try at the end for the All Blacks. Delguy is going to have his work cut out containing a similar freight train in the shape of Australia’s Marike Koroibete. The Fijian is one player who in the last few weeks can certainly put his hand up and be counted, as he has put in some of the Wallabies best performances of this Bledisloe/Tri Nations series. Both players possess some magical feet and outright speed, but Koroibete brings some additional physical firepower. Nevertheless Delguy did not shy away from tackling a similar physical specimen in the shape of New Zealand’s Caleb Clarke last Saturday. The battle between these two on Saturday will be one of the most exciting aspects of Saturday’s festitivies.

The Michael Cheika sub plot

Remember this?

This famous half time rant by the former Wallaby Coach as his charges had been given a rather harsh schooling by the Pumas in Argentina a few years ago, is no doubt doing the rounds in Australia at the moment. In Cheika’s defence, he clearly put the fear of god into the Wallabies as they went out and comprehensively turned the game around and won convincingly in the end. How ironic it is that he now is an advisor to the same team that gave him so much grief once.

We’ll be honest we have never been fans of Cheika, and didn’t exactly shed a tear after his unceremonious departure from the Wallaby Coaching job. However, he and Pumas Coach Mario Ledesma are no strangers to each other. The legendary Pumas scrummager was part of the Wallabies Coaching set up from 2015 – 2017, but his relationship with Cheika goes all the way back to 2011, when the two coached with French club Stade Francais. Whatever you may say about Cheika, it was always clear that there was a strong bond of mutual respect between himself and Ledesma. That bond was very evident in the Pumas coaching box last weekend and clearly paid dividends. His role as an advisor to the Pumas during their stint in Australia is obviously a productive arrangement, and if anything he appears much more his jovial relaxed self without having the burden of the head Coach job. If the Pumas do end up pulling off the double this weekend and upending the Wallabies, then there is absolutely no doubt that noone would enjoy the snub to his former employers more than Cheika. The Pumas are fired up enough but add Cheika’s own personal motivation to the mix and they may well become unstoppable on Saturday. In short, the plot thickens.

To sum up we find it hard to see a very polished and focused Pumas side coming unstuck against an inconsistent Wallaby side who would still appear to be at the optician in terms of focus. The Australians looked a lot sharper in in that narrow victory over the All Blacks, than they did in the 43-5 drubbing they were handed by the Kiwis at the start of the tournament. They will want to build on their win a fortnight ago, but then so will the Pumas after having made history. Argentina know what they want to do and how to do it, whereas so far we can only say that the Wallabies know what they want but are still unsure as to how to go about it. Consequently, our money is on the South Americans to put themselves within reach of their first genuine shot at silverware in the Southern Hemisphere’s big show.

If you forgot to set your PVR last weekend and missed all the fun, the full match is over on the TV/Internet page, till the SANZAAR thought police remove it. Enjoy and DO NOT FORGET TO SET YOUR PVR THIS SATURDAY IN THE WEE HOURS!!!!!

We’ll be back tonight with a look at this Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup action.

In many ways there are unlikely to be too many surprises tomorrow in Florence or Twickenham, but the subplot running through tomorrow’s fixtures is enormous. What subplot you may ask? Italy and Georgia will both be on show tomorrow, and the Autumn Nations Cup is probably the biggest opportunity to date to lay to rest once and for all the debate about Italy’s place in the Six Nations, and Georgia’s chance to take it from them. Unfortunately we feel that it is Georgia who has been dealt a poor hand in this regard. Italy have to face France, Fiji and Scotland whilst the hapless Georgians have to take on Wales, Ireland and current Six Nations Champions England. Ireland could have won the Six Nations and although they may be going through a lean patch, let’s not forget Wales were Six Nations Grand Slam Champions last year. In short, Italy are likely to emerge looking much healthier in terms of their ability to compete than Georgia when the Autumn Nations Cup draws to a close.

Italy vs Scotland – Saturday, November 14th – Florence

Scotland come into this match feeling rather confident despite their injury list in the fly half department. A positive Six Nations with the crowning achievement being overturning this year’s tournament darlings France is something they can look back on with pride. Scotland may be frustratingly inconsistent at times, but there is no denying they are a team who is playing some very respectable rugby these days. Italy on the other hand remain International Rugby’s perpetual underachievers – with the slogan being “surely this is the year” – but sadly we’re all still waiting. However, there were some sparks in their recent defeat to England in the final round of the Six Nations. This tournament will determine whether or not Italy remain a flash in the pan or under new Coach Franco Smith may be finally turning a corner.

Scotland look tight in the front five but we can’t say the same about Italy

In Scotland’s most recent outings we’ve really liked Scotland’s reliable and solid approach to chores in the tight five. They just look steady and well drilled with everyone having an exceptionally good understanding of their roles. The front row with Stuart McInally, Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson have been outstanding with some solid support from the bench in the shape of WP Nel and new kid on the block Oliver Kebble. Italy’s unit on the other hand just doesn’t look the part. There have been some improvements in the second row but overall it is not something you feel the Azurri can depend on. Scotland have proved rather adept at using their efficiency in the tight five to create opportunities for rampaging loose forwards like Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson and a set of backs running on high octane fuel. Italy on the other hand struggle to create those linkages, consequently we expect to see Scotland dominate set piece and phase play from the get go tomorrow.

Italy’s back row though need offer no excuses

It may be a unit that Italy is struggling to integrate into its overall game plan – but a classy unit it is nonetheless. Jake Polledri is clearly England’s loss and we were impressed with the work rates of his colleagues Sebastian Negri and Braam Steyn against England in the final round of the Six Nations a fortnight ago. Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson are not two individuals we’d enjoy testing our mettle against in the Test Arena, but Italy can at least feel assured that they have a unit that can compete here. This undoubtedly will be the best aspect of Italy’s play tomorrow – so keep your eye on it.

Duncan Weir – we think Scotland may have missed you more than they care to admit

We allowed ourselves a wry smile to see who we think is one of Scotland’s most underrated players of the last five years be on the starting list for tomorrow’s game. Unfortunately Weir has had to live in the shadow of Scotland’s dynamic flyhalf duo Finn Russell and Adam Hastings – but make no mistake this guy is a VERY handy number 10. Remember this moment?

Consequently we were thrilled to see him back in Scotland’s starting lineup, albeit as a result of injuries to Hastings and Russell. The guy is a pocket rocket and a man with a keen eye for opportunity. Although he hasn’t worn a Scottish jersey since 2017, which we find really hard to believe, we feel Scotland could well suddenly realize tomorrow that overlooking Mr. Weir was a mistake. He is clearly enjoying his rugby with English side Worcester Warriors, and we certainly hope that his return to Test rugby will meet with similar success. The clash between him and impressive Italian debutant Paolo Garbisi should be a highly entertaining contest.

Another name Scotland will be glad to welcome back is Sam Johnson

Scotland see center Sam Johnson return to the fold, and we feel this is yet another bundle of excitement Coach Gregor Townsend brings to a world class set of backs. Although his performances this year haven’t quite caught the imagination like his debut year in 2019, the Australian import oozes potential. Back to his best and alongside Scottish firecrackers like wingers Darcy Graham, Duhan van der Merwe and the legendary Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg expect to see some exquisite running rugby tomorrow, and this unit to genuinely trouble the smoking gun in Scotland’s group – France.

It should be a great contest and we feel that Italy are likely to be much more competitive than we’ve seen so far this year, with Six Nations aspirants Georgia showcasing their talents in the same tournament breathing down their necks. Scotland should still comfortably take the win, but Italy are unlikely to be the whipping boys they were when the two met earlier in the year during the Six Nations.

England vs Georgia – Saturday, November 14th – Twickenham

Georgia will run out on the pitch at Twickenham with big aspirations but we really do fear that, given the squad English Coach Eddie Jones has assembled for this match, Europe’s best Tier 2 team will be brought down to earth with a resounding thump. Their remaining two matches in the Autumn Nations Cup are certainly not going to provide any relief to soften the landing.

England are clearly setting out their stall right from the get go, and we were surprised that for this, arguably the easiest fixture in their group, Eddie Jones has refrained for the most part from blooding new talent, which many feel he should have done. Sure he has made some positional tweaks, but has chosen to blood only 1 new cap in his starting 15, the exceptional Wasps back rower Jack Willis . Perhaps more concerning for English supporters is his seeming reluctance to blood new talent in his halfback selections, as he casts an eye to France and 2023.

Lambs to the slaughter?

Although we have the utmost respect for Georgia we just can’t see them being even remotely competitive against a Six Nations powerhouse trio. Their opener against England is likely to be an exercise in pain management, followed up by Wales who are likely to use the match to once and for all put a stop to the rot that has caused Welsh fans to wonder if rugby is still a national sport. Lastly they have a date with Ireland who are bursting at the seams with emerging talent. Apart from exposure to top level competition, this tournament is not going to be a particularly uplifting advertisement for Georgian rugby, and sadly make a mockery of the argument that they are ready for the Six Nations at Italy’s expense.

Italy are likely to fare much better than their rivals from the Caucasus. Scotland are a known commodity and are nursing a few key injuries, so that Italy’s opening encounter in Florence could well be a positive experience in terms of a respectable scoreline, even though we doubt that a Scottish side humming with talent and enthusiasm will let them have too much to say. With Fiji’s participation thrown into doubt due to COVID-19, Italy may then only have to face France. While the likelihood of them losing to Scotland and France is high, and they therefore will be desperately hoping that their encounter with Fiji does go ahead, they still would emerge from the tournament as more of the underdog than lambs to the slaughter – which sadly could be Georgia’s experience. If Italy are competitive and even manage to sneak a win against Scotland, then the argument about their place in the Six Nations is likely to be put to bed once and for all – sadly at Georgia’s expense.

We sincerely hope that our concerns about this emerging subplot and Georgia’s possible humiliation in this tournament do not come to fruition. We’ll be cheering them on as hard as we can, but the stars do not look like they have lined up well for the Georgians in this tournament. They will play with pride and passion, but as we saw against Scotland last month it simply isn’t enough to compete with Six Nations squads who are sadly light years away from them in terms of their development. A poor showing in this tournament could simply end up consigning Georgia to the wilderness of Test rugby for another decade, as they desperately seek regular participation in a tournament that is both meaningful and provides platforms in which to build and develop their confidence and skill levels. There is likely to be a revival of the Pacific Nations Cup for the Pacific Island countries and Japan, an increasingly competitive Americas Rugby Championship for North and South America – but for Georgia and the other Tier 2 European nations there is little to look forward to that can take them to where they need to be in terms of the next stage in their development in International Rugby. It is our sincere hope that whatever the outcome of the next four weeks, something is done to give Georgia the much needed shot in the arm it craves and deserves in the long-term.

If things are going well early for England – Jones really has no excuse to not bring the bench halfback pairing into play sooner rather than later

England need to develop a future halfback pairing for France 2023. Quite frankly we were left scratching our heads when we saw the team sheet, and saw the same old regulars starting in the 9 and 10 shirt. There is no denying Farrell’s ability, despite some of our reservations about his Captaincy, and Ben Youngs had a glorious 100th cap performance against Italy in the final round of the Six Nations. Georgia will be an awkward opponent but one that England as a unit should have no trouble suppressing. Hence we cannot understand why such prime candidates as Dan Robson and Max Malins don’t get the starting nod at scrum and fly half berths, instead of waiting it out on the bench. If they wobble then you can always bring on Youngs and Farrell to steady the ship, but surely asking them to simply keep the Georgian rout going rather than organize its onset is not how you develop future talent. Enough said, we’re armchair warriors and Jones is the professional Coach but he continues to befuddle us with his selection policies.

Georgia can ultimately hope that England, as they often do, walk into a match like this which on paper they should win blindfolded and proceed to fluff their lines. They’ve done it before and once they get rattled start to unravel rather quickly. However, against lesser sides it is usually rectified by half time. Georgia needs several variables to work in their favor such as Youngs having one of his shockers which appeared with alarming regularity in the run up to the World Cup, Owen Farrell to once more regard wild swinging arm chop tackles above the shoulder as legitimate and England generally to start questioning every decision referee Nigel Owens makes, in order for the men from the Caucasus to at least remain competitive tomorrow. They will wear their hearts on their sleeves and once more we’ll marvel at their bravery and good old fashioned rugby grit, but sadly we fear England will just prove to be too much of a mountain to climb tomorrow for them to emerge with any credibility on the scoreboard. Still on the plus side there’s always Wales next weekend, and they way the Men in Red are going these days maybe they could join the Six Nations relegation debate alongside Italy and Georgia.

We won’t be posting anything on the France vs Fiji match which was supposed to take place on Sunday, as it has now been cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Fijian camp. We hope it’s not permanent and sorry for the tardiness in getting this post out, but the day job got the better of me at the end of this week. Enjoy some great rugby this weekend and here’s looking forward to musing over this weekend’s events leading into Round 2!

While all eyes have been on Australia for the last four weeks, in their ongoing battle with New Zealand for the Bledisloe Cup, which now firmly rests with the All Blacks, it was easy to forget that the final two rounds were also part of the Tri Nations. Normally this would be referred to as the Rugby Championship, but with World Champions South Africa electing not to compete this year, it left only three of the usual four participants.

Argentina arrive in Australia with the added disadvantage of having had no Super Rugby since March, unlike their Australian and New Zealand rivals. However, Argentina in light of the global pandemic has relaxed its restrictions on foreign based players, so at least the Pumas will benefit from players plying their trade with top flight European clubs. Argentina also have spent the last two weekends playing invitational Australian sides, winning both matches and the last one in particular by a very healthy margin. Nevertheless as your first proper Test since the World Cup, the All Blacks pose a significant challenge, especially a side smarting from a loss to the Wallabies last weekend. New Zealand simply didn’t play well last Saturday, and although the Wallabies didn’t exactly blow them off the park, one of the main reasons they won was due to the fact that they were particularly effective at getting under the All Blacks’ skin. New Zealand were clearly rattled in Brisbane, and their discipline went out the window as a result. The Pumas are well known for their own set of powder keg emotions, so whatever the result expect a feisty contest.

So looking at the team sheets, here’s what got us talking about Saturday’s encounter in Parramatta just west of Sydney.

New Zealand vs Argentina – Saturday, October 14th – Paramatta

New Zealand weren’t exactly at their best last weekend against the Wallabies. Although Australia played considerably better than they did a fortnight ago in the Sydney slaughterhouse, they also profited from the fact that the All Blacks suffered from a serious and uncharacteristic lack of composure. Perhaps more concerning was the disciplinary lapses that this caused and were not held in check by Captain Sam Cane. Cane himself was guilty of throwing himself into the fray on numerous occasions and clearly letting the Australians get under his skin. While every player wants to see their Captain stand his ground for the team, there is also the expectation that he will lead from the front and not allow himself to be drawn into handbags at dawn type contests. Unfortunately Cane was all too willing to argue his case with his fists, something the officials were quick to recognize, and the penalty count against New Zealand suffered as a result.

However, all that aside let’s not lose sight of the fact that New Zealand only lost by two points to the Wallabies and had their discipline been better, they probably could have won it. Rattled they may have been, but to be honest that’s as far as it goes. Unfortunately for Argentina New Zealand are unlikely to make the same set of mistakes twice. You only have to look at the All Black lineup for Saturday, and it’s blatantly obvious that New Zealand intend taking no prisoners whatsoever, and a focus on the task at hand will clearly be the order of the day.

Look who’s back!!!

They’re back and Argentina need them more than ever! It’s been the subject of much debate in Argentina for a few years now, but there is little doubt that as a result of COVID-19 and the lack of regular game time the Pumas were going to struggle to be competitive with only locally based players. Europe has long been a lure for quality Argentinian players, both financially and professionally. European clubs have profited from their presence, while at the same time the players benefit from the exposure to top flight club rugby on a weekly basis. It’s a win win situation for both sides, and the Pumas now benefit from a core of players that form the spine of a competitive team based on the kind of experience and exposure that they would have otherwise got through Super Rugby.

As a result, some of Argentina’s best players return to the fold such as Captain and back rower Pablo Matera, dynamic second row duo of Guido Petti and Matias Alemanno, fly half Nicolas Sanchez and center Matias Orlando, alongside wingers Juan Imhoff and Santiago Cordero. Add to that some genuine up and coming talent, and this is a quality looking Pumas side. A slightly irritated All Black side with a point to prove may not be their ideal choice for a Test opener, but expect them to still make a fair fist of it on Saturday. In short, they will be no pushover and as always worthy opponents deserving the utmost respect.

Hooker Wars

No it’s not the title of some sleazy X-rated movie, but Saturday’s contest between two of the most prolific try scorers in the number two jersey. What makes the match up between the two so interesting is the contrast in styles. New Zealand’s Dane Coles clearly wants to be a winger in his next life, while Argentina’s Julian Montoya typifies the skills of every great hooker to find that tiny ray of light in a sea of writhing forwards to jot the ball down. Coles abilities and pace with ball in hand is at times outrageous, and in any match if you watch the highlights you’ll see he spends a significant proportion of his time loitering as an extra utility back out wide. Montoya meanwhile will be found consistently burrowing his way through massive forward pile ups, or wheeling off the back of yet another bruising Argentinian rolling maul.

Two of Test rugby’s most reliable assets – but their approach to their duties could not be more different, yet always entertaining to watch.

He was just warming up

One of New Zealand’s most dangerous players in our opinion is number 8 Ardie Savea. He seemed to start slowly in the opening Bledisloe rounds, but despite the loss last weekend we felt that Savea was starting to get back to his best again. The man is a writhing ball of energy that is both devastatingly destructive and almost impossible to contain. All of this does not bode well for Rodrigo Bruni his opposite number in the Pumas, and that entire Argentinian back row for that matter. Savea is such a handful that containing him can invariably take up the attentions of several players. Watch any replay and notice how Savea literally flails himself out of the clutches of the opposition – he looks borderline demented. Despite the exceptional skill set of Marcos Kremer and Pablo Matera (who has similar tendencies) they are going to have a hard time of it containing the All Black wrecking ball.

Raging Bull

Argentine Captain Pablo Matera is well known for his similarities with Robert de Niro in the film of the same name, but All Black Captain Sam Cane is not. Consequently the New Zealand skipper has come under a lot of heat from the New Zealand press for his reaction to Australia last weekend. They clearly got under his skin and Mr. Cane was a very angry man for much of the scrappy 80 minute contest. It did not sit well with him or his team and their resulting performance. He will clearly need to contain it this weekend, and Pablo Matera who has temper issues of his own will be looking to exploit that weakness. Unfortunately, we think it’s likely to be Matera who will fall foul of the referee’s whistle more often than Cane as outstanding a player as the Puma is, but Argentina will certainly be looking to press some buttons on Saturday.

Beauty and the Beast

Yes sorry it’s our last film analogy we promise. But Saturday’s contest does see a clash that we are eagerly anticipating between New Zealand’s Caleb Clarke and Argentina’s Bautista Delguy. The Puma brings all the grace, flair and speed that one associates with South American football, while Clarke displays all the qualities that made individuals such as Jonah Lomu such legends in their time. We are trying very hard to resist the temptation to draw analogies between Clarke and the great man, but there is no doubt that the All Blacks latest find in a sea of seemingly endless talent is a force of nature to be reckoned with. For the Pumas, Delguy has a truly dazzling turn of pace and some extraordinary footballing skills. He may not have the brute force and dam busting skills of his All Black counterpart on Saturday, but he is still a strong and competent ball carrier. Nevertheless his defensive abilities are going to be put to the ultimate test on Saturday. Get through it with honor and he can file it away proudly in his lifetime achievements cabinet – but it’s definitely going to be a tall order. By the same token however, we haven’t really seen what Caleb Clarke’s defensive skills are like yet, and the young Puma is certainly going to put the All Black wonder weapon to the test if he gets the opportunity.

Some are writing off the Pumas chances already, and we think that is slightly unfair. There is no denying that it’s an absolute powerhouse All Black lineup that runs out on Saturday, and lays down a very clear statement of intent. Furthermore unlike the Pumas they are fresh off the back of four Test matches, even if one of them was a bit of a Sunday stroll in Sydney.

As mentioned in previous posts we would be absolutely gutted if the isolation now imposed on the Pumas as a result of the global pandemic causes their exciting brand of rugby to take a step backwards. We hope and think it won’t as there is the core of a talented and skilled team here, especially now that the use of foreign based players has once again been approved. New Zealand should ultimately pull away comfortably in the second half, but we expect them to walk away knowing that the Pumas are still a feisty and challenging opponent. For Argentina, they can hopefully use this match to prepare for an encounter with a Wallaby side still struggling to find its groove. New Zealand may ultimately prove to be in league of their own this Tri-Nations, but Argentina and Australia may well find themselves in the same class this year.