Archive for the ‘June Internationals 2016’ Category

Unfortunately, the first month of summer caught us slightly by surprise here at the Lineout, and what with all the rugby to watch, school finishing and various work commitments we regrettably didn’t get to cover the momentous events taking place in International Test Rugby in June in as much detail as we would have liked.  We regret that Scotland’s efforts in Japan this month have not been covered as we simply didn’t get to see these matches in Canada.  Following on from our last instalment, we wrap up the month of June, by taking a quick look at Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and Wales.

Ireland

Ireland made some history in June, but fell agonisingly short of getting the ultimate prize of a first ever Series win against South Africa.  Although they beat the Springboks for the first time ever on South African soil, and with only fourteen men to boot, they were unable to carry the momentum of that epic opening win and clinch the series despite giving the Springboks the scare of their lives for the remaining two Tests.  The second Test looked like it was going to go Ireland’s way and the history books were about to be rewritten, however, South rebounded in the second half in one of the most remarkable comebacks I’ve ever seen and shattered Irish dreams of glory.  In the final epic showdown in Port Elizabeth a rejuvenated Springbok side took the game by the throat and despite an enthralling last charge by the Irish with everything they had in the final ten minutes, South Africa would emerge the victors.

Ireland however can take enormous heart from the lessons learnt on this tour, and the experience gained by some promising new talent.  Furthermore, the Irish had essentially been written off for this Series at the end of an exceptionally long season and without some of their key players.  However, they came, competed and ran South Africa close for 240 minutes of enthralling rugby.  To win one test, with a man short and then only lose by a six-point margin in the next two is no small achievement.  The old guard such as Rory Best, Devin Toner, Jack McGrath, Conor Murray and Jamie Heaslip produced some of their best performances of the year while the new crew of backs Craig Gilroy, Stuart Olding, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall really stood up to the challenge.  In short, Ireland has a much clearer picture of the future after this tour and it certainly looks promising.

There is no question that depth is not an issue in Ireland, and there is enough promising talent coming through the ranks to continue to make Ireland competitive for many years to come, coupled with the fact that the new season come the fall should see the return from injury of key players such as Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien.  The big question mark and elephant in the room when it comes to Irish rugby is how much longer they will have the services of New Zealand Coach Joe Schmidt.  As good as Ireland’s player base is, there is no doubt that without Schmidt’s tactical know how and rugby brain Ireland would not have been as successful as they have been since he took charge in 2013.  Already on the radar of New Zealand Super Rugby franchises and seen as a possible successor to current All Black Coach Steve Hansen after the 2019 World Cup, Ireland will be sorely pressed to keep Schmidt’s services once his current contract expires in 2017.  It is hoped that Schmidt will be able to give Ireland the answer they need before the new season starts in September in order to determine whether or not they will be preparing for Japan 2019 with or without him.  If it is without him then there should be enough time to integrate his successor into the planning and preparation in sufficient time as well as get some much needed mentoring from Schmidt before he proceeds to his next assignment.  An agonising month for Irish supporters lies ahead and we hope that whatever the outcome they continue to build on the momentum they have built up over the last four years.

Italy

Italy’s new lease of life under the successor to the much maligned tenure of Coach Jacques Brunel, Irishman Conor O’Shea got off to a bright start in June.  In three demanding Tests they held their own against Argentina despite being on the losing side, while clearly getting the edge over the Americans and Canadians with two encouraging wins where their discipline and basic execution were that much more clinical than the North American sides.  Furthermore, plenty of new blood was given a crack at Test level rugby and for the most part made a positive impression.  Meanwhile the future of Italian rugby looks bright as fly halves Tommaso Allan and Carlo Canna bring a solid kicking game to the Azurri and a sound link between a bruising forward pack and some promising backs.  Centre Michele Campagnaro continued to light up every pitch he ran onto and is an exceptionally exciting player for Italy.

Italy are very much a work in progress but with some promising developments taking place in the national management setup and some solid experience and talent being brought into the coaching department, Italy looks set to go from strength to strength in the buildup to Japan in 2019.  From what we have seen in their new players and the coaching direction they are getting, it is unlikely that Italy’s consistent lack of results on the big stage are going to continue and certainly at the Six Nations level they should be a much more competitive force.  We’ll know much more come the November Tests against South Africa and New Zealand which although enormous mountains to climb for this new look squad, there still should be grounds for some cautious optimism once more amongst Italian supporters.

New Zealand

There is only one question on everyone’s lips regarding New Zealand – how on earth do you beat these guys?  It is going to be an exceptionally talented and gifted team who pulls it off and based on current form we don’t see it happening any time soon, and probably not this year.  Many thought that New Zealand’s utter dominance of International Rugby was likely to come to an end once the euphoria of the World Cup triumph last year wore off.  A raft of legends for the All Blacks hung up their boots at the end of last year, most notably Dan Carter and Richie McCaw two of the greatest players the game has ever seen.  Add to this mix players like Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith also calling time on their All Black careers and there was a feeling that a new look All Black side although bursting at the seams with promising young talent would need some time to settle before they once more became the all-conquering juggernaut we have become used to seeing when talking about New Zealand.

In short for the rest of the world, no such luck.  Although Wales were feisty and often heroic opponents in June, New Zealand simply got better and better with each Test and the series whitewash of Wales was the proof.  Although Wales were spirited opponents in the first sixty minutes of the first two Tests giving as good as they got, they ultimately imploded in the final twenty minutes of both matches against All Black masterclass performances, and in the final Test New Zealand simply blew Wales out of the water for the full eighty minutes.

Where does one begin in listing the countless names who stood up and were counted in no uncertain terms in June for New Zealand?  In short it’s almost impossible the list is just that long.  Dane Coles is probably the most electric hooker in the world with the added bonus of being one of the quickest forwards once out of the blocks and in the loose in Test Rugby.  Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock continue to be enormous in the second row, while Sam Cane and Ardie Savea challenge each other hard for the number 7 shirt and both bring their own special skill set to the jersey.  Keiran Read led by example as Captain and number eight while Aaron Smith proved he is still in a class of his own at scrum half.  New Zealand are gifted with two of the best fly halves in Test Rugby as Aaron Cruden made a welcome return to form from injury and Beauden Barrett provides a spark to the New Zealand attack that is proving increasingly impossible to contain and already shows glimmers of the greatness that Dan Carter brought to the All Black game.  Ben Smith was outstanding either on the wing or at fullback and is one of the most gifted players to ever don a New Zealand jersey.  Meanwhile Israel Dagg made a blinding return to form from injury at fullback and winger Waisake Naholo caused havoc in the Welsh defensive lines.  For me the only player who didn’t really stand out was winger Julian Savea who has rarely impressed at the Super Rugby level this year.

In conclusion, New Zealand are easily the best team in World Rugby at the moment and are likely to stay that way for some time to come.  We’ll get a better idea of where they stand once the forthcoming Rugby Championship gets underway next month, but amongst their rivals there is little that is likely to trouble New Zealand.  Australia seems adrift, and although Argentina and South Africa will be awkward and rugged opponents the only match where the All Blacks could find a banana skin is likely to be their away fixture against the Springboks in South Africa but even that seems hard to imagine based on the current form of New Zealand teams in Super Rugby and during the Wales series.  In just a mere eight months after the World Cup, New Zealand already find themselves in a position of absolute power with the rest of the world scrambling to catch up.  For everyone else it’s going to be one hell of a footrace to Japan in 2019!

South Africa

The Springboks start to life under new Coach Alastair Coetzee got off to the worst possible beginning.  In short, South Africa were simply awful in the first 120 minutes of their new Test season.  Outclassed by a fourteen-man Irish side in the first Test, there was a feeling that at altitude in Johannesburg a wounded Springbok side would come storming back in the second Test.  For the first forty minutes of the Second Test nothing could have been further from the truth as we had to witness one of the worst performances by a Springbok side I have ever had the misfortune of seeing in thirty years of watching Test rugby.  Utterly outclassed by a tactically astute Ireland, South Africa went into the dressing rooms looking well beaten already.  Then a group of players who ply their trade for a certain Super Rugby side by the name of the Lions were injected into the side that emerged from the tunnel for the second half. Suddenly the Springboks turned from being a herd of startled small antelopes in the headlights into a pack of mighty predators oozing confidence, aggression, speed and some simply breathtaking skill.  Ireland to their credit once they had recovered from the initial shock fought bravely but were no match for the rejuvenated Springboks they suddenly found themselves up against.

In the third Test, Coetzee stuck with his Lions prodigies and the Springboks once more showed that they can score tries aplenty and produce some dazzling displays of open running rugby in the process.  Ireland rallied in the second half and threw everything, including the kitchen sink at the Springboks, but South Africa were able to switch the game back to their tried and trusted physicality and hold firm despite a continuous assault of green jerseys for the final ten minutes.  In short, the Springboks went from being utterly tepid and essentially clueless to being masters of open and exciting rugby in the blink of an eye.  As mentioned above it was down entirely to a group of individuals from the Super Rugby side the Lions.  The electricity and sense of team spirit and cohesion that these players bring to this Springbok side is extraordinary.  Once the likes of Warren Whiteley and Ruan Combrinck came onto the field, a switch was flipped and South Africa suddenly went from zero to hero in seconds.  Readers of this blog will be familiar with me and hundreds of South African supporters screaming from the sidelines for Lions players like Whitely, Combrinck, Faf de Klerk and Jaco Kriel to get their Springbok call up which has been overlooked for so long, and the results as seen in this series have finally made our case water tight.

It’s not all about the Lions in terms of the way forward for the Springboks but there is no question that the energy and skillset that the Lions players bring to the side make other players rise to the occasion.  The second row Stormers partnership of Pieter-Steph Du Toit and Eben Etzebeth looked lacklustre in the first 120 minutes of the Test series but from then on seemed to suddenly find their rhythm once their Lions colleagues injected some much needed confidence and momentum into the team.  However, apart from that there is little to get excited about in the Springbok camp as they look to the forthcoming Rugby Championship.  Willie le Roux at fullback, once the golden boy of Springbok rugby a mere two years ago, now looks well past his sell by date.  In the centres there are still more questions than answers and the scrum is still for all intents a disaster.  However, they have a solid halfback partnership in the Lions duo of Elton Jantjies and Faf de Klerk.  To be honest, if the Lions go all the way in this year’s Super Rugby championship then it will be very hard to avoid the temptation to simply draft the entire Lions squad into the starting fifteen for the Springboks.  However, the political pressures surrounding the game in South Africa will sadly probably mean this is unlikely especially at the level of the prestigious Rugby Championship which showcases Springbok rugby to the world.

Despite a generally poor Super Rugby season for South African teams with the glaring exception of the Lions who are simply in a league of their own, there are still grounds for optimism in South African rugby.  They have a world beating provincial side in the Lions whose players have clearly shown they can rise to the Test arena, and there is still a huge bank of players throughout the rest of a country which still boasts one of the largest player bases in world rugby.  With the right management and development South Africa is more than capable of remaining the powerhouse it has always been.  For now, we wait and see, but there are more than just a few of us who hope that the Lions players will have a big part to play in whatever unfolds.

Wales

They came, they saw and sadly got taught a lot of painful lessons.  It was always going to be an exceptionally tough month for Wales as at the end of one of the longest seasons in Welsh rugby history as they had to rally themselves to take on the best in the business in the shape of the All Blacks in the New Zealanders own backyard.  Whatever the results were going to be which already looked one-sided before they even got on the plane, you had to admire Wales for agreeing to the challenge in the first place.  Despite knowing what they were up against, Wales were far from being lambs to the slaughter in the first two Tests.  Although they were essentially annihilated in the final Test, even then they rarely looked cowed or defeated.  I have always felt that this Welsh side is perhaps one of the most resilient and courageous sides in Test Rugby at the moment, and in this series I felt this label to be more than justified.  For the first two Tests, Wales did more than just hold their own.  For the first sixty minutes of both Tests the All Blacks were made to work exceptionally hard for any points they would score with solid and healthy replies from Wales to match them on the scoreboard.  It was the final quarter of both matches that just seemed a bridge too far for the Welsh as a tired team started to run out of gas against an All Black side that seemed to be able to constantly produce surprises built on a truly extraordinary skill set.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign in the Welsh camp in this series was that once more Wales were allowed to run a lot more than usually preferred by Welsh Coach Warren Gatland.  Always solid and at times utterly heroic in defence, there is no question about Wales’ ability to absorb and stand up to any physical contests in today’s game, but this has often stifled their ability to be creative in attack.  In New Zealand they seemed to have more latitude in this department and it appeared to pay off.  Jonathan Davies at centre was absolutely outstanding and caused the opposition defences more problems than the traditional crash and smash approach of his partner Jamie Roberts.  Liam Williams at fullback had an outstanding series and I was very impressed by his stand in Rhys Pratchett.  Rhys Webb at scrum half had a blistering return to form and Taulupe Faletau at number eight was devastating in the loose for Wales.

So definitely not down and out, but clearly taught a glaring lesson in the demands of the modern game, Wales find themselves with plenty to think about as they prepare for a challenging set of Autumn Internationals.  Hopefully well rested after the rigors of the last year, and with some exciting talent coming through the ranks and a much needed change of approach by Warren Gatland to Wales’ style of play, their fortunes should once more start to look up come November.  There is little question that Gatland will need to change his approach to how Wales play, and this series should have given him more than enough evidence of the benefits.  Always spirited and a team that can consistently boast some exceptional cohesion and motivation, Wales deserve to be one of the top Test Teams in World rugby as their performances while short on results at times invariably inspire.  Like many of the Northern Hemisphere teams a process of restructuring and rebuilding is afoot and it is hoped that the players are given the room needed by coaching and management staff to showcase and develop a bank of talent ready to be taken to the next level.

Endnote

With an exciting weekend of Super Rugby semi-finals ahead of us, we’ll leave you with a glorious wrap up of the best of the June Internationals, and as an apology from us for being so tardy in getting this out this last month.  Thanks and enjoy!

Unfortunately, the first month of summer caught us slightly by surprise here at the Lineout, and what with all the rugby to watch, school finishing and various work commitments we regrettably didn’t get to cover the momentous events taking place in International Test Rugby this past month in as much detail as we would have liked.  As a result, we are going to have to do a quick whip round of the three major Test series participants this month, as well as Argentina, France, Italy and of course Canada.  We regret that Scotland’s efforts in Japan this month have not been covered as we simply didn’t get to see these matches in Canada.  Instead of reporting in detail on each of the matches we will make a quick two-part assessment of how we feel the featured countries fared in their last two Tests and what this means for the future.  We start off by having a look at Argentina, Australia, Canada, England and France.

Argentina

You have to wonder where all the remarkable promise shown last year when Argentina finished fourth in the World Cup has gone.  Definitely one of the most exciting teams of last year’s global showdown they seem to suddenly be struggling to find form, made more alarming by the fact that the Pumas draw primarily from one team, the Argentinian Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares.  Admittedly some of the big names such as Marcos Ayerza, Marcelo Bosch and Juan Imhoff are unavailable to the Pumas as the fact they play in Europe now rules them out of being eligible for national selection.  Nevertheless, the Jaguares side boasts the majority of players who set pitches alight last year in England.  As a result, the poor performance of both the Jaguares in this year’s Super Rugby tournament and the Pumas last month must surely be ringing alarm bells.

Although the Jaguares have shown plenty of flair in this year’s Super Rugby, it is perhaps their reckless sense of adventurism and simply trying to be too clever at times which is tripping them up coupled to a woeful disciplinary record.  The Pumas this month regrettably seemed to show many of the same tendencies.  While they struggled at times to get past a spirited Italy in their first outing, it was the Pumas’ lack of discipline which kept Italy in the match for the full eighty minutes, despite some exciting if slightly over ambitious attacking play by the Pumas.  Argentina’s backline is continuing to provide excitement by the bucket load but at times their execution doesn’t match up to the speed at which they are attempting to play.  Fly half Nicolas Sanchez remains a real quality player and directs play well releasing the likes of wingers Santiago Cordero and Manuel Montero who are truly world class.  Argentina’s forwards continue to provide a dominant platform for both possession and the provision of a solid defence.  However, in the forwards in particular there is a worrying lack of discipline which must be intensely frustrating for management given the clear level of talent they have at their disposal.  Pablo Matera, Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini are all outstanding players, but are crippled with poor discipline and in the case of Lavanini his exceptional abilities are usually negated at some point in the match by a yellow card bordering on red.  Unless Argentina fix this aspect of their game and fast, they are going to pay heavily come the Rugby Championship in August.

Although of their three Tests this June, Argentina managed to win two, the performance in the first Test against France was the only one where we really saw the Pumas of last year come to the fore.  The Italian test was scrappy at times and marred by ill discipline.  However, in the final quarter of their first match against France the Pumas were very much their old self and made short work of an under strength French team.  Lock Guido Petti’s try alone was worth the price of admission.  However, it was the second Test against a significantly more potent French side that surely got the alarm bells ringing for Pumas Coach Daniel Hourcade.  Admittedly the pitch at Tucuman was in poor shape, but France essentially took the Pumas apart, and even Nicolas Sanchez’s normally trusty boot couldn’t get the hosts on the scoreboard as France provided Argentina with a humiliating 27-0 wake up call.  Argentina put in plenty of effort but none of it really seemed to come to fruition and their usually crisp execution particularly in attack just wasn’t there.  Lock Tomas Lavanini’s inevitable yellow card seemed to sum up a bad day for the Pumas.  Plenty of ambition marred by poor finishing and woeful discipline left the Pumas in disarray as a quietly confident French side identified their weaknesses and targeted them relentlessly.

Despite the rather gloomy tone of this overview, there is still plenty to look forward to from Argentina for the remainder of the year.  After their first outings together again since the World Cup and reunited once more with inspirational Coach Daniel Hourcade, the Pumas are likely to only get better.  Hourcade will no doubt use the time between now and the Rugby Championship in August to really get to the bottom of what is not firing for the Pumas and Jaguares this year, and the continued schooling most of his charges will receive during the remainder of this year’s Super Rugby Championship will only aid the process.  As the Jaguares are likely to miss the Super Rugby playoffs, it will mean that Argentina and Hourcade will have a month to prepare before their next test in the opening round of the Rugby Championship against South Africa.  If Argentina can really address their disciplinary issues and once more discover the cohesion and vision that served them so well last year, I have no doubt that Argentina will be competitive in this year’s Rugby Championship and finish the year well on the fall tours of Europe.  It may be unpolished at times, but there is simply too much raw young talent and enough experienced heads in this team for the future to be anything other than bright for Argentina.

Australia

It was a very tough month for Australia as they took a 3-0 series defeat against England.  Although Australia looked good at times particularly in the second and third tests, there was no getting away from the fact that their discipline and performance in the set pieces particularly the scrums was woeful.  This is an area that will require dramatic intervention if they are to stand any hope of being competitive in the Rugby Championship next month.  England were infinitely more clinical and better organised in everything they tried to do.  Australia simply got pushed around too often as England got the measure of the ebb and flow of each of the three Tests and ultimately controlled the run of play to their advantage.  Australia for the most part simply looked desperate and without answers in all three Tests.  In the second Test despite providing a continuous assault on the English lines especially in the second half, they simply could not figure out how to unlock a resolute and heroic English defence.  In short, Australia provided plenty of entertainment at times but never really looked like coming out on top in an exciting Test series.

From what we saw, sadly there are more questions than answers as Australia on the back of middling performances by Australian teams in this year’s Super Rugby, seeks some desperate solutions over the next six weeks leading up to the Rugby Championship.  There is no question that without flanker/number 8 David Pocock Australia lose a lot of their attacking edge and that was clearly evident after he was ruled out of the England series in the First Test.  His back row partner Michael Hooper was a thorn in the side of England all three Tests but apart from some epic performances from the ever reliable Scott Fardy in the back row, that was as about as far as Australia’s prowess up front went.  Their scrum was a mess, England destroyed the Wallabies in the lineouts and an endless tally of disciplinary mistakes cost them dearly in all areas of their forward play.  Perhaps the only thing the Wallabies can take heart from here is the performance by Sean McMahon at number eight who by the time of the third test in Sydney had really come into his own and was helping to mitigate to a certain degree the loss of David Pocock.

Meanwhile in the halfbacks there wasn’t too much to get excited about either.  Scrum half Nick Phipps was completely outclassed by his English counterparts while Bernard Foley lacked the composure that has given him the accolade of the “Iceman”.  Of the two, Foley still managed to create plenty of opportunity for Australia and showed much more enterprise but still couldn’t match the intensity of England’s efforts in this department.  As the Test series wore on you couldn’t help feeling that the pressure on Foley to produce miracles for the rest of his teammates was starting to take its toll.

In the backs, Australia without Adam Ashley-Cooper are a shadow of the backline we saw at the World Cup.  There were some very exciting revelations however in the shape of new winger Dane Haylett-Petty who really lit up the pitch for the Wallabies in all three Tests.  Israel Folau at fullback is clearly at his best at the moment and we feel he could also make an equally impressive impact at centre, however without any clear choice for fullback other than Folau this is unlikely to happen.

So although it is not all gloom and doom for Australia, especially as August and the Rugby Championship will see the return of Adam Ashley-Cooper among others, there is still an enormous amount of work to do.  It is clear that Coach Michael Cheika’s initial euphoric reception by Australia and the Wallabies is now over and the hard work really needs to begin.  Australia is still in the process of identifying the kind of team that they will need to take to Japan in 2019 and their young rising stars of the future.  In that respect they are clearly well behind their rivals in Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa, but it still could be argued that it is early days yet.  Of all the sides taking part in next month’s Rugby Championship, Australia will clearly have the most to learn in this respect but only a fool would write off their chances at this stage.

Canada

After much fanfare Canada got life under new Coach Mark Anscombe underway, and let’s be honest although it’s early days we still ended up seeing many of the same problems we have seen for the last two years under his predecessor.  The inability to close out big games continued, discipline was still a problem and an erratic kicking game persisted.  Canada should and could have won the games against Japan and Italy and a comprehensive victory over a poor Russian side is not really much of a yardstick.

I had the fortune of being present at Canada’s final Test in Toronto against Italy.  The match was well attended and it was heartening to see this kind of support and turnout for rugby in this country.  All the more reason to see the team start to produce the results that the public so desperately want.  There were lots of positives and Canada were highly competitive against both Japan and Italy.  The new players that really stood out in Canada’s positive Americas Rugby Championship campaign in March once again came to the fore.  I really like the look of the new forwards, Kyle Baillie, Lucas Rumball and Paul Ciulini while in the backs it was great to see the return of Taylor Paris who adds so much to this Canadian team.  I thought new centre Brock Staller is also someone we are going to see a lot of in the buildup to Japan in 2019 along with winger Dan Moor.

Of the regulars and more experienced heads in the squad sterling service was for the most part provided once more.  Prop Djustice Sears-Duru had a stellar June campaign and clearly showed why he is such a hot commodity in Europe right now.  Hooker Ray Barkwill played well in the first two Tests against Japan and Russia, but sadly imploded quite dramatically against Italy and his discipline at times let him down.  Evan Olmstead is a solid lock but really needs to improve his discipline.  Aaron Carpenter had a superb campaign at number eight and it will be interesting to see how Coach Anscombe reintegrates Tyler Ardron back into the squad alongside Carpenter come the November tour to Europe.  For me the jury is still out on Canada’s halfback partnership.  Pat Parfrey at fly half repeatedly showed his lack of experience and this is a weak link in Canada’s ability to manage big games at the moment, which will hopefully improve as Parfrey gets more and more exposure at this level.  Scrum half Gordon McRorie had a fairly good month but his inaccuracy with the boot in the opening Test against Japan cost Canada dearly.  McRorie got significantly better as the month wore on and had his best outing against Italy, but Canada’s relative lack of a reliable kicking game is a further chink in their armor.  Furthermore, I just don’t see the speed of decision-making and accuracy at the breakdown needed by a scrum half at this level in McRorie often enough.  There were times in the Italy match where you could almost have got out a deckchair and read a chapter of Game of Thrones in the middle of the field at the breakdown before the ball got moving again.  I like the look of new scrum half James Mackenzie and think that like his brother Phil Mackenzie in the backline, who was sadly absent for this series, he will increasingly start to add the pace and fizz needed by Canada at scrum half as his experience grows.

This lack of quick thinking and ability to move the ball out wide leaves a talented Canadian backline starved of good ball.  Centre Nick Blevins and winger Taylor Paris made plenty of dents in the opposition defences when they did get quick ball.  The problem was they just didn’t get enough of it.  Matt Evans is proving to be an exceptionally reliable fullback and overall Canada is looking to have some serious threats in terms of a backline.  Bring back Jeff Hassler, the electric DTH van der Merwe and Phil Mackenzie and expect to see plenty of the magic we saw at the World Cup.

So in short, plenty of promise but the usual problems with finishing, execution and discipline continue to plague Canadian rugby at the International level.  However, as we saw in the Americas Rugby Championship earlier in the year and at times in June new Coach Mark Anscombe has plenty to work with.  If he can really gel his squad between now and November, then it is hoped that Canada will start to return to winning ways again.  If Canada doesn’t get it right this year, then I fear that the considerable support that the sport is gaining across the country is in danger of waning.  This would be a great disservice to a very motivated, hard working and increasingly talented group of young players who have a bright future ahead of them.  Anscombe has his work cut out for him but let’s hope Rugby Canada and the public get behind him and his charges in the coming months so that the tone of this piece come the November review can be that much more upbeat!

England

They came, they saw and they conquered in no uncertain terms!  England’s meteoric rise from the ashes since the agony of last year’s World Cup under the tutelage of new Coach Eddie Jones has been nothing short of remarkable.  The resounding Six Nations Grand Slam by England earlier this year followed up by a series whitewash of Australia, 3-0, in June has got the rugby world taking England extremely seriously once more.  Admittedly Australia is in a bit of a crisis at the moment, so it is perhaps still too early to judge how far England has really come in terms of measuring up to the rest of the Southern Hemisphere giants and sadly England will not play against the world’s best, New Zealand until November of next year.  However, all that aside there is no denying the remarkable transformation that has taken place in English rugby since February of this year.  The talent was always clearly there and under the clinical and no-nonsense approach taken by Eddie Jones, England is back on the world stage with plenty of fanfare and the results to back it up.

England were clearly the masters of their Australian hosts in all three Tests and were better organised and effective than the Wallabies in all aspects of their game.  Furthermore, their ability to dictate and vary the pace of all three Tests was a masterclass in game management.  Truly heroic in defence for the second half of the second Test when Australia literally threw the kitchen sink at them, England never lost their nerve or more importantly their discipline.  Australia simply had no answers to every question England was able to put to them.  In the third Test England didn’t let up in the intensity despite having won the series and calmly and assuredly made Australia do all the work while they took advantage of every opportunity that was provided to them.  After the nail-biting tension of the second Test, the third Test provided just as much excitement as Australia once more hammered away at an English defence that was clearly starting to tire but ultimately held its own.  In the end England were more clinical and better disciplined when it mattered most in a thrilling finale to an epic Test series.

Every English player on the Australian tour stood up and was counted.  Perhaps most important was the fact that players who had been criticised for a poor season such as flankers James Haskell and Chris Robshaw and fly half George Ford, were utterly outstanding on this tour.  Robshaw and Haskell were pillars of the English forward game and Haskell was simply phenomenal in defence especially in the Second Test.  George Ford, once allowed to play alongside his halfback partner Ben Youngs with Owen Farrell taking the kicking duties and providing the vision needed at centre, came into his own and had a stellar tour in an English shirt.  Billy Vunipola at number eight was the one-man army at times we saw so much of during the Six Nations. Meanwhile the lock partnership of George Kruis and Maro Itoje proved once more to be world class with Itoje clearly on his way to becoming one of the best players of 2016 if he isn’t there already.  The front row trio of Captain Dylan Hartley, Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole was solid as a rock and tore the Australian scrum to pieces.  I have to confess to being one of Dylan Hartley’s biggest critics over the years, but the way he has got his own discipline under control and really led his team by example this year deserves the highest praise as he has emerged a genuine leader of this England team.

In the backs England are providing excitement and pace by the bucket load.  The decision to play Owen Farrell at centre is paying enormous dividends.  Once more I have to confess to having been one of Farrell’s biggest critics in years gone by, but he has really matured into a world class centre and was constantly providing the vision and spark necessary to tear huge holes in the Australian defences as well as providing the space needed to allow George Ford at fly half to really shine.  Farrell’s centre field partner Jonathan Joseph was always exciting to watch.  It was only Luther Burrell who really didn’t fire for England in the centres this tour and to be honest I can’t really see him as a part of England’s long term makeup.  On the wings, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell in particular are superb value for money.  For me Nowell is rapidly developing into one of England’s biggest assets.  Ferocious in attack and exceptionally strong in defence Nowell lends a real X-factor to England’s attack while often being the trump card in their last ditch defence out wide.  Mike Brown at fullback provides the last link in the chain and as always was his usual feisty in your face self this whole series.  While he may not be the most likeable character and his rather arrogant and abrasive approach to England’s efforts may be wearing at times, there is no denying that it provides England with a certain edginess that gets under opposing teams’ skins – in short annoying but devastatingly effective.

So is this the greatest English team we’ve seen since the 2003 World Cup?  In our opinion without a doubt yes, and alarmingly for their opponents this team is likely to only get better as the build up to the 2019 World Cup progresses.  There is always the danger that they could peak too early, and it remains to be seen how Coach Eddie Jones integrates up and coming young talent into this already very established looking squad over the next four years.  However, given the talents already at his disposal and more in the making between now and 2019, English supporters are finally entitled to a long overdue sense of optimism.  In the Northern Hemisphere England are likely to remain the team to beat for the next four years but the real test of how far this new look team have come will take place in November 2017 when they take on a settled and seemingly unconquerable new All Black side at Twickenham.  We can’t wait!

France

There was a legitimate fear that in their two test tour of Argentina, a tired and under-strength French team would be decimated by a powerhouse Pumas squad.  There is no question that the first Test gave these concerns some validity as despite a spirited challenge, in the last quarter of the match Argentina clearly tore away from a French team that suddenly and dramatically ran out of gas and ideas.  However, few of us here expected the complete reversal of fortunes we witnessed in the second Test, even allowing for the poor weather conditions and a pitch that was clearly taking the strain of two back to back International Tests.  It was France’s turn to produce the master class as they simply eclipsed their hosts 27-0.  All of a sudden France looked really good and the glimmers of hope we saw at times in the Six Nations, as new Coach Guy Noves sought to find his feet and resurrect French fortunes and hopes after the wasteland of the Philippe Saint-Andre years, seem to be paying off.  As Noves seeks to try and hold the rampant demands of French domestic clubs at bay and develop a platform that also allows the development of a strong national side, the second Test in Argentina certainly would have provided a strong case for his arguments.  As a number of senior players were released for the final Test France suddenly looked a capable and potent side with plenty of emerging talent.

Even though they lost the first Test, France were still competitive for the first hour but their lack of a definitive fly half was once more self-evident as Jules Plisson struggled and Francois Trinh-Duc, although marginally better in the Second Test, was not much of an improvement.  France looked good in the physical department with a solid scrum despite the conditions and prop Jefferson Poirot having one of the best games I have seen him have in a while.  When you have the likes of Rabah Slimani on the bench to shore up the front row you are always in good hands and the second Test provided plenty of evidence of this.  I really liked the look of the back row partnership in the second Test of Loann Goujon and Kevin Gourdon, with Goujon looking really good in both Tests and setting a clear marker for the future.  It was great to see Louis Picamoles come storming back to form in the Second Test at number eight.

For us though, as he was for much of the European Champions Cup and during the Six Nations, the real revelation for France is Bordeaux-Begles scrum half Baptiste Serin.  Exceptionally reliable with the boot and quick at the breakdown he was clearly the key to France running away with the second Test.  Serin is clearly the future for France as they look towards Japan in 2019 and expect him to be a big part of the November Tests and next year’s Six Nations.  It is perhaps in the backs where France is still struggling to make their mark.  In the winger department, there is potential in Hugo Bonneval though he is often more effective at fullback.  Despite the fact that Maxime Medard can often provide some genius at 15, it is unlikely he will be in the mix for 2019.  Meanwhile I find Djibril Camara on the wing as potentially promising but far too error prone for my liking.  France were missing their secret weapon out wide in Virimi Vakatawa, but given the fact that he is France’s only real threat at present in the back line this is a real concern for Noves looking towards November and next year’s Six Nations.  Gael Fickou can provide some excitement at centre but seems to suffer from consistency issues, although once reunited with Wesley Fofana who was absent for this tour, France’s centre partnership should start to look much more robust.  However, there are no clear answers for France yet as to who their long-term fullback, fly half and centres are likely to be and this must surely be a concern as it was hoped that this tour to Argentina would provide some clarity in terms of the younger players who might be able to step into these roles.  There is potential but while France seem to have a clear idea of what 1-9 could look like, there is likely to be continued experimentation with 10-15 well into next year, with the only consistent names likely to feature in the mix being Vakatawa, Fofana, Bonneval and possibly Fickou.

Still you have to admit that France under Noves, after only 7 Tests look infinitely more robust and potentially settled than they did under four years of Phillipe Saint-Andre.  It’s still early days and there are promising moves afoot to put the French clubs in their place in respect to a more balanced relationship to the development of a strong national side.  There were glimmers of hope in Argentina that France while not rising from the ashes at nearly the same pace as their English rivals, are slowly but surely making the right tentative steps to building towards something much bigger than the humiliating quarter-final exit we saw at last year’s World Cup.  France deserves to be back at the high table of International Test Rugby providing us with their customary thrills and spills and ability to reinvent the word flair.  We wish Noves luck and expect to see continuing improvement and signs of optimism come the November Internationals this year.

To end this instalment we pay a tribute to an English character we have often criticised in these pages and perhaps along with the rest of his teammates epitomised the truly heroic efforts of the English defence in the Test series against Australia in June.  All aspiring flankers take note and James Haskell we salute you!

The stakes couldn’t be higher this weekend as we look ahead to the second weekend of the June Tours by the Northern Hemisphere sides south of the Equator.  South Africa and Australia will be desperate to restore some pride and confidence after getting off to a poor start against Ireland and England respectively.  Of the two, the task is perhaps even more pressing for the Springboks given the nature of their defeat to a fourteen-man Irish team last Saturday in Cape Town.  Australia were shaken up by a clinical English display but showed plenty of promise of their own, despite being hampered by some woeful discipline as a result of concerted English pressure.  Meanwhile New Zealand’s new look All Black side hit all the right gears in the last quarter and left a brave but ultimately outclassed Welsh side in the dust.  Wales will no doubt display more of the same this weekend but as the All Black juggernaut continues to gain momentum the odds are very much against them.  Canada get a chance to regroup after many of the ghosts of the past came back to haunt them against Japan last weekend, and should dispatch Russia fairly easily, while Argentina will also be building momentum against a depleted and tired French side.

Fixtures this weekend

New Zealand vs Wales
Saturday, June 18th
Wellington

Wales will have a mountain to climb in Wellington on Saturday, and let’s be honest despite the considerable courage and promise they showed last weekend, they are likely to be scrambling for footholds for the full eighty minutes.  New Zealand clicked into gear after a rusty start for the first hour but are likely to come out of the blocks all guns blazing in Wellington and keep it up all match.  The Welsh will be brave and give as good as they get at times but the odds are against them.  New Zealand showed in the last quarter of last weekend’s game that they look to set to continue where they left off at the end of the World Cup.  The new faces are settling in well and Kieran Read as Captain looks set to carry on in the footsteps of his legendary predecessor Richie McCaw.

The New Zealand pack that provided so much quality ball for their backs last weekend, returns unchanged with the exception of the mighty figure of Sam Whitelock coming in to start in the second row.  Once New Zealand started to fire in the forwards department last weekend, it rapidly turned into one-way traffic for the Men in Black and expect more of the same this weekend.  Wales will dish out as good as they get in the shape of Alun-Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Gethin Jenkins, Taulupe Faletau and company, but it is unlikely that they will be able to do much more than simply absorb the relentless All Black pressure leaving them little room to generate their own opportunities.

In the backs, New Zealand look to set to shred the Welsh defences and expect to see the visitors quickly tire as they try to contain the likes of Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty and Israel Dagg.  New Zealand’s halfback pairing of Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden will comfortably dictate play all afternoon, and although Wales’s Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb are more than capable of sparking something special, it is unlikely New Zealand will give them much to work with.  Liam Williams shone at fullback last weekend and starts this Saturday on the wing for Wales.  Williams produced some real magic of his own but New Zealand are likely to be much wiser to the threat he poses than they were last weekend.  Jonathan Davies at centre continued to impress for Wales and is always an exciting player to watch but without the presence of winger George North this weekend I can’t help feeling he may not be as effective as he was last weekend.

In short, it is not going to be a question of who will win, more a case of how much will New Zealand win by?  We have the utmost respect for Wales who continue to be one of the most resilient and courageous sides in Test rugby and are more than capable of providing plenty of excitement of their own.  However, it is the end of a long and mostly painful season for Wales and the All Blacks at home is simply a bridge too far for the Welsh dragon.  New Zealand have already built the momentum in eighty minutes that it takes most sides a month to build together so Wales are clearly going to be up against it.  A brave Welsh performance, but one that is likely to implode against a full throttle New Zealand.  The All Blacks to wrap up the series in this match by at least 25 points!

Australia vs England
Saturday, June 18th
Melbourne

Australia came out of the blocks all guns blazing last weekend in Brisbane and it looked like England’s run of form was about to come to a shattering end.  However, England soon got the measure of their hosts, targeted their obvious weaknesses especially up front and proceeded to wrestle control of the match away from the Wallabies.  This is an exceptionally settled and competent English side clearly benefiting from the astute tactical vision and preparation of Coach Eddie Jones.  Expect more of the same this weekend, the difference being that Australia themselves should be that much better prepared and with a point to prove.

Australia has been subjected to the most rigorous of post-mortems particularly in the forwards department since last weekend’s dust up in Brisbane.  Australia for the most part got torn apart up front by a quietly assured English pack.  Michael Hooper and David Pocock were able to do considerable damage in the back row in the loose but once Pocock was taken off injured, despite Hooper’s heroics Australia lacked both discipline and firepower up front.  Dominated by England in the set pieces, Australia’s discipline fell apart.  This weekend sees the front row get a complete overhaul as Stephen Moore at hooker is surrounded by the much more reliable figures of props Sekope Kepu and James Slipper.  Australia really struggled at lineout time and with the likes of England’s George Kruis and Maro Itoje once more at centre stage here I can’t see much change for Australia and if they are wise this is probably an aspect of the game they will want to keep to a minimum.  Hooper will continue to be a huge problem for England in the loose but England’s James Haskell gave as good as he got and more last weekend and is likely to do the same in Melbourne this Saturday with the incomparable Billy Vunipola there to rub salt into the wound.

England soon realised last weekend that with Owen Farrell taking the kicking duties and moving to centre, the halfback pairing of George Ford and Ben Youngs really starts to click.  They have wisely chosen to stick with this combination in the starting fifteen this weekend.  Australia’s Nick Phipps for me is not of the same calibre and when things start to unravel rapidly looses his composure.  Bernard Foley showed plenty of promise last weekend and the fly half is a real talent for the Wallabies and an exceptionally cool head, hence his nickname the “Iceman”.  However, his kicking accuracy can hit some real purple patches and it is hoped that he has spent the week trying to fix this aspect of his game as had this worked last weekend the result might have been very different.

Australia has some quality backs and newcomer Dane Haylett-Petty really stood out for Australia last weekend on the wing, and expect him to have some considerable impact again this weekend.  However, I feel that given his hit and miss form at the Reds in Super Rugby Samu Kerevi is not quite there yet at centre for Australia and this was painfully evident at times this past weekend.  If Australia did not have a lack of depth at fullback, they would no doubt put Israel Folau in at centre where he has been outstanding this season for the Waratahs in Super Rugby.  Tevita Kuridrani is an exceptionally devastating ball carrier and a constant threat to opposition defences but Australia’s centre pairing is just not as clinical as England’s offering of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph so once again expect England to dominate here.  England’s Jack Nowell has been chosen to start on the wing in Melbourne, and this is one of England’s most exciting players.  Fast, elusive and exceptionally strong in the tackle, expect plenty of fireworks from the Englishman on Saturday.  The match up between him and his opposite number Australia’s Dane Haylett-Petty should be a thrilling contest.  The wise head of Israel Folau at fullback comes up once more against British bulldog Mike Brown.  Brown seemed to get the better of the contest last weekend, but I would put my money on Australia again here this weekend.

In short expect another exceptionally tight contest and Australia are unlikely to make the same mistakes they did last weekend.  Australia to bounce back in a thrilling and close match with few quarters given by both sides, and take the game by three points to set up an epic series finale in Sydney next weekend!

South Africa vs Ireland
Saturday, June 18thth
Johannesburg

After the shock result of last week, we expect most rugby fans will be glued to their televisions screens tomorrow for this one.  The big question is can the Springboks rise to the occasion in much the same fashion they did after the defeat to Japan in the World Cup?  I may be wrong as I was in my prediction of last week’s result between these two, but I have a hunch they will.  Ireland are going to put South Africa to the test once more, but at altitude and on the hallowed pitch of Ellis Park I can’t help feeling that the pride in the Springbok jersey must surely be restored and much like the England/Australia series an epic finale will be set up for the third and final Test.

There is no question that a strong Springbok team, at least on paper, played poorly last weekend against an inspired and heroic Irish team.  Debates aside about the reckless tackle by Irish flanker CJ Stander on Springbok fly half Pat Lambie, and we side with the officials on that one, Ireland outplayed South Africa and were the more intelligent of the two sides as they put in a memorable performance with just fourteen men.  Up front Ireland were disciplined and focused and refused to be rattled by South Africa’s physical presence.  The Irish were better organised and simply did the basics more effectively than the Springboks.  Lock Devin Toner had the game of his career in the lineouts alongside the equally impressive Ian Henderson and made the normally all conquering duo of Lood de Jaeger and Eben Etzebeth seem almost nonexistent.  Once South Africa brought in newcomer Pieter-Steph du Toit the Springboks fortunes improved but it was too little too late.  Du Toit starts in the second row this weekend alongside Etzebeth and expect a much more dynamic performance from South Africa as a result.  South Africa’s back row and number eight Duane Vermeulen failed to impress last weekend and there is no change here this weekend which I fear South Africa will regret, as in my opinion Lions number eight Warren Whiteley should be getting the starting berth especially in front of his home crowd.  Ireland on the other hand mix things up moving lock Ian Henderson to the flanker position where he seems equally at home.  Jamie Heaslip was outstanding at number eight for Ireland and expect more of the same this weekend.  Ireland should maintain their dominance here over South Africa.

It’s in the halfback battle where there should be plenty of excitement and intrigue.  Lions pair scrum half Faf de Klerk and fly half Elton Jantjies are in the Springboks starting line up at Ellis Park.  These two have been consistently lighting up pitches in Super Rugby and are going to provide Ireland with plenty of headaches.  While Jantjies and de Klerk found the adjustment to Test rugby last weekend a bit of a baptism of fire, they are likely to be much more settled this weekend, especially playing in front of their home crowd.  The Irish pair of veteran scrum half Conor Murray and fly half Paddy Jackson who really played beyond his years last weekend, will give as good as they get, but I am giving the South African duo home field advantage in this contest.

In the backs, a thrilling contest awaits.  Once again I am puzzled by the South African selection at fullback, and I cannot really accept the quota excuse that is being bandied about so much as a reason for South Africa’s failings.  Willie le Roux is clearly a long way off the form of his glory days two years ago, while the Lions Ruan Combrinck has been on fire for the last two seasons of Super Rugby.  That le Roux who had an absolute shocker last weekend is the starting fullback for South Africa while Combrinck is consigned to the bench defies all logic and is a decision I fear South Africa might pay dearly for.  Furthermore, I cannot see for the life of me how such a decision has anything with the quota politics supposedly plaguing South African rugby – the same could apply to the Vermeulen vs Warren Whiteley starting debate. Ireland’s answer at fullback in the shape of Jared Payne ran rings around le Roux last weekend.  Payne is proving to be devastatingly effective at fullback for Ireland and has the kind of class that is just a distant memory for le Roux.  Ireland chooses to experiment this weekend in the centres as Robbie Henshaw gets a new partner in Stuart Olding.  I applaud the risk taking by Ireland but you can’t help feeling sorry for Luke Marshall who made such a positive impression last weekend and sadly doesn’t even make the bench this weekend.  However, I am really excited to see Ulster’s Craig Gilroy get a start on the wing for Ireland and he along with Marshall must surely play a big part in Ireland’s future plans.  The battle of the backs really could go either way and despite Schmidt’s risk taking I am giving a slight edge to Ireland unless the Springbok unit really steps up its game from the previous week, which let’s face it is more than likely, and as centre Lionel Mapoe is also playing in front of his home crowd he’s more than likely to create some serious magic for the Springboks given any kind of opportunity.

In short a fascinating battle awaits with both sides having everything to play for.  If Ireland play well, then they are likely to set the series up for a breath taking finale in Port Elizabeth a week from now.  However, as the Springboks run out in front of a home crowd desperate to see them restore pride to a battered Springbok jersey it may just be all a bit too much for Ireland at times.  If the Springboks can ignite the passion in themselves and the crowd that goes with the Springbok legend this Saturday, then in one of the cathedrals of International Test Rugby, Ellis Park, it should just be South Africa’s day after eighty epic minutes.  A game that will swing from one end of the park to the other for the duration, but the Irish may start to tire at altitude after their heroics of the previous week.  South Africa to just take the match by five points and set up a humdinger of a finale next weekend!

Argentina vs France
Sunday, June 19th
Tucuman

We have to be honest here, as we haven’t really followed the French domestic competition, the Top 14 this year we don’t know as much as we would like to about the French offering for this Test.  We do know a great deal about the cards that Argentina is laying on the table and as a result can say with confidence that they are fielding an exceptionally strong hand.  France does have some big names in this squad, but they have literally been press ganged into service and onto the plane, so it may be difficult at times for them to be as fresh to the task at hand as French Coach Guy Noves would like them to be.

Argentina were made to work hard by Italy last weekend but are unlikely to have the same problems settling this weekend.  Having been reunited with their inspirational Coach Daniel Hourcade, and a good practice run against Italy to iron out the wrinkles behind them, expect the Pumas to ramp their game up considerably this weekend.  This is an all star Pumas squad and should easily be able to get the better of a half baked French team.  Of the names we are less familiar with from a Pumas perspective, Facundo Isa put in a stellar performance last week at number eight along with Manuel Montero at centre and Matias Moroni on the wing and expect more of the same this weekend.  Meanwhile the rest of the Pumas squad boasts a significant complement of who’s who in international Test Rugby.  If names like Joaquin Tuculet, Santiago Cordero, Juan Martin Hernandez, Agustin Creevy, Guido Petti, Tomas Lavanini and Martin Landajo are not part of your household rugby vocabulary then we would ask what you’ve been watching in the past year in terms of rugby.

France will pack some big guns and learn some valuable lessons about emerging talent in the process but are unlikely to overwhelm a “Super” Pumas squad at home.  Louis Picamoles and Rabah Slimani will lend some much needed experience to a young and promising forward pack for France but are unlikely to overcome the Argentinian juggernaut.  Jules Plisson surprisingly takes the Captain’s role at fly half but is simply no match for the brilliant Pumas fly half Nicholas Sanchez particularly when it comes to accuracy at the kicking tee.  Jonathan Danty and Hugo Bonneval will add some real talent to the French backline at centre and fullback respectively, but the French backs will be working overtime trying to contain the Argentinian speedsters.  Furthermore, after an exhausting domestic season the question remains as to how much gas these French players really have left in the tank?

In short it should be the Pumas day by a comfortable margin.  France will still want to impress new Coach Guy Noves on his first overseas tour and provide moments of brilliance as a result.  However, to defeat one of the best all round teams in Test Rugby right now is going to require something special that the French are unlikely to be able to produce.  Therefore, an exciting display of Pumas rugby awaits with the Argentinians emerging as comfortable winners by at least ten points!

Canada vs Russia
Saturday, June 18th
Calgary

After the disappointment of last weekend, despite some considerable promise on show, Canada will want to put in a powerful performance this weekend to clearly lay down the marker for their ultimate test next weekend against Italy.

We must confess to knowing little if anything about Russian rugby and as a result it is rather hard to talk with any kind of authority about what we might expect from the visitors in Calgary on Saturday.  Despite Canada’s continuing problems at halfback and in the kicking department, none of which appear to have changed for Saturday’s match, Canada is fielding an exceptionally strong team which should more than cover for the above mentioned weaknesses.

Canada should emerge comfortable winners here, unless Russia are an unknown force waiting to be discovered.  Expect another big set of performances from the forwards with Hooker Ray Barkwill and lock Jamie Cudmore providing the experience needed.  As mentioned last week, Lucas Rumball at lock looks to be an exceptionally exciting and potent weapon for Canada and veteran number eight Aaron Carpenter can be relied on for another stellar shift at the coalface.  Prop Djustice Sears-Duru was a force of nature against Japan and expect more of the same this weekend.  If lock Evan Olmstead can get his discipline under control, then he will be a force to reckon with at scrum time and in the loose and lineouts.  The back line sees little change with the exciting Taylor Paris once more on the wing and Matt Evans’ reliable boot and brain at fullback.  I expect to see winger Dan Moor really cut loose in this match as he did in the Americas Rugby Championship, and the centres see Nick Blevins experience complement newcomer Mozac Samson who also caught peoples’ attention in the recent Americas Rugby Championship.

In short, barring any unexpected surprises, Canada should walk away with the match at Russia’s expense.  It should be an excellent opportunity for Coach Mark Anscombe to settle his charges and really prepare them for a gruelling test against a rejuvenated Italy next weekend in Toronto.  Canada to give the Russians a telling rugby schooling by at least twenty points!

In a fast and furious weekend of Test Rugby we have a quick look at what stood out for us in a superb start to the June Tours.  As expected a new look New Zealand struggled to gel initially for the first hour but once they did were able to put a brave Welsh side to the sword.  England continued to build on their momentum of the Six Nations and produced a masterclass display against Australia.  The big shock of the weekend was without a doubt the superhuman performance of a 14-man Irish side against the Springboks in Cape Town, resulting in a first ever win on South African soil for Ireland and cracking the series wide open.  Meanwhile Argentina had to work hard to silence an enthusiastic and much improved Italian team, and Canada’s new Coach Mark Anscombe, while no doubt feeling good about many aspects of Canada’s performance against Japan, was nevertheless haunted by many of the ghosts of his predecessor as Canada ultimately fell short of the mark in Vancouver.

New Zealand vs Wales
Final Score – New Zealand 39/Wales 21
Auckland

As expected New Zealand were made to work exceptionally hard for the first hour, as they sought to settle in a new team.  However, once they did they showed just how quickly All Black sides are able to adjust and adapt as they proceeded to tear Wales apart in the final quarter.  Wales were exceptionally brave and as predicted showed an incredible resilience in handling the mounting All Black challenge, and the fact that Wales were leading 18-15 at half time just goes to show how competitive they were.  New Zealand were faced with a worthy opponent in Auckland, though now that the All Blacks clearly have the measure of the game they want to play, the remaining two Tests are going to be an epic challenge for an increasingly fatigued and at times overwhelmed Welsh team.

Wales met the All Blacks head on in the first half and capitalised on New Zealand’s mistakes and uncertainties.  They were worthy of their three-point lead over the All Blacks at half time.  Their defence had been superb and they were able to match anything New Zealand could offer up physically.  The experience and strength of Welsh prop Gethin Jenkins, lock Alun-Wyn Jones, Flanker Sam Warburton and number 8 Taulupe Faletau were immense.  Rhys Webb had a superb game at scrum half with centre Jonathan Davies and fullback Liam Williams being a constant threat on attack.  It was a solid team effort from Wales which really only started to flag in the last quarter.  Once New Zealand had found the keys to unpick the Welsh defence, they were able to run in three unanswered tries in the final twenty minutes.

As for New Zealand, despite struggling to find their feet at times in the first half, they quickly settled and put rest to any fears that this new look team might not be made of the same caliber as the all-conquering New Zealand side of the last four years culminating in last year’s World Cup triumph.  Number 8 and new Captain Keiran Read slotted easily into the mighty boots left behind by his legendary predecessor Richie McCaw, and was rewarded for his efforts by a fine try of his own.  It was New Zealand’s half back partnership of scum half Aaron Smith and fly half Aaron Cruden along with the backs who really stole the show in Auckland.  Aaron Cruden made a welcome return to the number 10 jersey while Aaron Smith was a constant spark for New Zealand’s attacking platform.  Ben Smith at fullback was outstanding all night and showed just what an exceptional player he is in defence and attack.  As he did briefly in an All Black jersey last year before being taken out of New Zealand’s World Cup plans through injury, winger Waisake Naholo was electric and clearly outshone his partner on the wing Julian Savea who still seems to be battling with some erratic form.  Meanwhile the loss of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith at centre seemed to be a mere passing footnote when you have successors like Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty ready to fill their boots.  The All Black bench made their presence known through Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara and in short this was an exceptionally healthy start for the 2016 edition of the All Blacks.

On a side note, one has to mention the bizarre decision by referee Wayne Barnes in disallowing a perfectly legitimate try by New Zealand.  Barnes tends to display a slight arrogance at times and is not overly liked by players and coaches.  Despite the clear evidence of the replay and the advice to the contrary of his TMO and touch judges, Barnes deemed a pass by All Black replacement scrum half TJ Perenara was forward.  This kind of blinkered view and subjective decision making by the referee especially once he has asked for the advice of his colleagues, has no place at the top level of International Test Rugby and we can only hope that Barnes gets taken to task on the issue before he is in charge of officiating another Test match.

Australia vs England
Final Score – Australia 28/England 39
Brisbane

There is no denying that on the back of their Six Nations triumph, England are looking good and Coach Eddie Jones is having a dream start to his first season in charge of the Men in White.  England put in a textbook performance in Brisbane which ensured they were able to completely contain and subjugate Australia while creating plenty of magic of their own.  It is unlikely that they are likely to have things go so well in their favour the second time around this weekend in Sydney, but their ability to dictate the tempo of the game in Brisbane will mean that Australia will have to up their game considerably if they are to avoid a series whitewash.  Australia may have been shocked by England’s finesse last Saturday, but it is unlikely they will be caught in the same traps this Saturday in Melbourne.  They let themselves get bullied by England and often came off second best in the physical battles leading to a critical breakdown in discipline, as the penalty count against Australia was their biggest Achilles Heel in Brisbane.

Despite the result, Australia were clearly getting the better of England in the opening stages as they led 10-0 and were playing at a blinding pace.  The key for England was that they did not panic and held their resolve and most importantly their composure under pressure.  As a result, they were able to slowly turn the screw on Australia in defence and swing the game in their favor.  As the game wore on England were superb in dictating the tempo of the game, and as Australia struggled to adapt their discipline started to crack allowing a better organised England to gain the ascendancy.  England seemed to read and set the ebb and flow of the game much better than Australia and as a result the Wallabies were left having to constantly try and second guess England’s game plan while their own often fell apart.  England were superior in the scrums, which to be honest were a disaster for Australia.  England’s set piece play was far more clinical than that of the Wallabies and they just looked a more cohesive and effective unit overall.  It was a complete team effort from England with possibly the only weak link in the chain being Centre Luther Burrell.  George Ford made a promising return to form off the bench at fly half as Owen Farrell moved to centre to replace Burrell.  Lock Maro Itoje was his usual superhuman self for the full eighty minutes and is clearly on the radar for player of the year.

There was no question that Australia played some very exciting rugby at times and are likely to only get better for the remaining two games of the series.  However, they were just not as clinical or well organised as England and at times their discipline was atrocious.  The scrum was an area of serious concern for the Wallabies in Brisbane and has no doubt undergone open-heart surgery this week, along with a real need to fix the lineouts.  On the positives though, Australia’s back play at times, especially in the opening twenty minutes was electric, and centre Tevita Kuridrani, fullback Israel Folau and newcomer winger Dane Haylett-Petty really stood out.  New Australian centre Samu Kerevi however struggled at times to make the transition from Super Rugby.  Kerevi is a promising player but his inexperience at this level was plain to see at times.  Fly-half Bernard Foley, although often impressive was certainly not his “Iceman” self when it came to the kicking duties, and I am often unimpressed with scrum-half Nick Phipps and Saturday night in Brisbane was no exception.

England are going to be tough to beat in this series, but Australia should rise to the challenge.  It remains to be seen if the Wallabies can get the resolve needed quickly enough to level the series one apiece on Saturday night in Melbourne and catch the English off guard.

South Africa vs Ireland
Final Score – South Africa 20/Ireland 26
Cape Town

Of all the results this weekend this was the most surprising and let’s face it few of us saw it coming.  That Ireland were able to beat South Africa on home soil for the first time ever and with only 14 men says either a lot about Ireland or a lot about the problems facing South African rugby.  We’d argue it’s a bit of both.  After a disappointing World Cup, in which their chances had been blown out of proportion, Ireland struggled through a disappointing Six Nations while their clubs rarely made much of an impression in Europe.  Still write the Irish off these days at your extreme peril.  Despite the initial World Cup hangover, there is still a growing body of up and coming rugby talent coming through the ranks in Ireland.  As many hoped it would Saturday’s match showed that there is plenty of life left in Ireland after the likes of Johnny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Paul O’Connell to name but a few.

South Africa may be beset by a myriad of problems particularly at the political level in rugby, but it is still able to put together teams that on paper boast some of the best talent in the game.  Saturday’s starting lineup boasted plenty of world class names that should have made this Springbok side a force to be reckoned with.  While, like Ireland, some of the big names of the past are no longer there, there is a body of talent in the making that would be the envy of most countries.  Despite a new Coaching regime, there were still enough players having the talent and experience required to ensure that the Springbok side that ran out Saturday afternoon in Cape Town was a force to be reckoned with, making Ireland the clear underdogs.

So what went wrong for South Africa?  In short Ireland, played a smarter game especially when they were reduced to 14 men and used their opportunities when they came much more effectively than South Africa.  The Springboks looked disjointed and lacking a clear idea of what they were trying to do.  The fact that they could not capitalise on their one-man advantage for a full sixty minutes is hard to believe.  A lot of their wonder weapons such as number eight Duane Vermeulen and fullback Willie le Roux simply didn’t fire, and in the case of le Roux played probably one of his worst games ever in a Springbok jersey.  To be honest the last time le Roux stood out for me in Springbok colors was the 2013/14 season, making me wonder if he hasn’t past his sell by date.  Ruan Combrinck of the Lions would for me be a much better player to develop at fullback as he has been utterly outstanding for his provincial side the Lions for the last two Super Rugby seasons.  There were some positives for South Africa in the shape of new scrum half Faf de Klerk who started well in a Springbok jersey and is likely to quickly adapt to the rigors of Test Rugby.  Also lock Pieter-Steph du Toit made an immediate impact once he came off the bench and clearly had the hunger that his second row colleagues Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jaeger seemed to be lacking for much of the match.  Overall though it was a poor Springbok performance that more than anything seemed to lack any real conviction or purpose.  These are talented and world class players and there is little if any excuse for the substandard effort that was on display in Cape Town.  It is unlikely to be of the same calibre this weekend at Ellis Park. For the sake of Springbok rugby which seems rather beleaguered of late, we hope that a wounded Springbok is a rejuvenated Springbok this Saturday in Johannesburg.

Ireland on the other hand will do one of two things, implode due to over confidence or take the rebuilding process post the World Cup to another level.  What we saw from the Irish on Saturday in Cape Town will be talked about for a long time to come.  Going into the game as massive underdogs, few of us, myself included expected anything other than a humbling by the Springboks.  What we got instead was an inspired performance that was both heroic and exceptionally intelligent in equal measures.  Ireland’s blend of experienced heads and young talent produced a display that kept the Springboks in check and having to play catch up rugby for the full eighty minutes, even though Ireland had to do it with just fourteen men for sixty minutes.  There has been much debate about the red card handed out to lock CJ Stander for his charge down of a kick by Springbok fly half Pat Lambie.  Stander’s hip connected with Lambie’s face sending the fly half crashing to the ground, resulting in him being stretchered off.   While some felt the red card did not merit the offence, I must say I beg to differ.  Although there was clearly no malice in Stander’s actions his enthusiasm was clearly reckless and therefore dangerous.  This is not schoolboy rugby and at this level you expect professionals to maintain a certain standard.  As a result, well-intentioned but reckless behaviour has no place at this level of the modern game.

However, despite this unfortunate incident, Ireland were able to regroup and put on a masterful display of fourteen-man rugby.  Their scrums were solid, and lock Devin Toner was able to dominate the lineouts for Ireland against his supposedly superior opponents.  For the most part Ireland and Captain Rory Best’s decision making was outstanding.  Jamie Heaslip at number eight, put in one of those special performances that only he seems capable of when he pulls on an Irish shirt – in a word inspirational.  Even winger Andrew Trimble provided some sterling service shoring up the scrum on the flank after Stander’s exit.  Luke Marshall at centre had a fantastic outing with his partner Robbie Henshaw and showed some real promise for the future.  Henshaw himself was a key part of Ireland’s success despite his yellow card halfway through the first half.  Lastly, Jared Payne at fullback showed that surely this position must now be his for the foreseeable future as he ran rings around his South African counterpart, the ineffectual Willie le Roux.

Ireland can take enormous heart from this epic performance.  Coach Joe Schmidt’s planning and preparedness as usual left no stone unturned and expect the same again this Saturday from Ireland with the added factor of altitude thrown in just to complicate matters.  If they’re this good against South Africa with just 14 men, what can they do with 15 for a full eighty minutes?  However, this is likely to be a significantly tougher challenge as even with the problems running through Springbok management at the moment it is unlikely that South Africa will be the pushover they were last weekend.  The Irish will retain the tag of clear underdogs though perhaps by not such a heavy weighting as they had last week, but we fancy they must just like it that way and it certainly doesn’t seem to do them any harm!

Argentina vs Italy
Final Score – Argentina 30/Italy 24
Comodoro Rivadavia

We must confess to having predicted a bit more of a one sided contest here, but for Italy the closeness of the score line against one of the top five teams in the world right now must be an enormous confidence booster.  A new look Italy under new Coach Conor O’Shea acquitted themselves exceptionally well on their first outing in Argentina, and as a result are going to be very tough to beat for their last two opponents this month, the USA and Canada.  Nevertheless, Argentina still won the match and in so doing showcased much of the talent that is likely to make life so difficult for a depleted and exhausted French side over the next two weeks.

Italy looked really good at times in this match and were able to compete for the full eighty minutes, something which they have often failed to do at this level.  Their discipline once more proved to trip them up at times, and it was this that would ensure that Argentina were able to gain the upper hand in the points tally.  Italy were able to match Argentina in tries scored, but it was the boot of Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez which would leave them with a rather expensive bill to pay.  Still as a first start under a new Coaching regime there was a lot to get excited about.  Italy’s scrums held up relatively well under the Argentinian forward juggernaut, and flanker Simone Favaro was outstanding in the loose.  Carlo Canna continued to really grow into the role of fly half and put in some very useful work with the boot which kept Italy in contention all match.  Winger Leonardo Sarto and Michele Campagnaro at Centre provided Italy with plenty of spark in attack with Campagnaro continuing to show why he is one of Europe’s rising stars.

Argentina, though managed to keep their calm despite the ferocity of the Italian challenge at times.  Although the Pumas execution lacked some of the finesse we saw in the World Cup, it was clear that with every outing leading up to this year’s Rugby Championship they are going to improve.  Argentina has an outstanding group of players, their only Achilles Heel being a continuing costly lack of discipline at times, as seen in lock Guido Petti’s yellow card.  Petti was outstanding all match which makes his disciplinary lapses all the more frustrating.  Flanker Pablo Matera was his usual domineering self, but number eight Facundo Isa really stood out for me.  He made me sit up and take notice a few times in last year’s World Cup, and it would seem that he is grooming himself to be the excellent Leonardo Senatore’s eventual replacement.  Fly half Nicolas Sanchez and scrum half Martin Landajo seemed to find the rhythm that has often eluded them in their Super Rugby exploits with the Jaguares.  Meanwhile Argentina’s backs were as always a constant source of danger whenever they got the ball.  There is such pedigree already in the youngsters Santiago Cordero and Manuel Montero, that International Rugby is going to be seeing a great deal of these two exciting wingers in the years to come.  Joaquin Tuculet is rapidly emerging as one of the world’s best fullbacks while Juan Martin Hernandez “The Magician” lived up to his nickname alongside his exciting partner in centerfield Matias Moroni.

Argentina were ultimately the better team, although not by much, and Coach Daniel Hourcade will know that the next two weeks will be key in ironing out the wrinkles in his charges to prepare them for their big test later this summer when they start their fifth Rugby Championship.  Meanwhile Italy will take great heart from their new beginnings and be keen to keep the momentum going for the remainder of a Tour that should provide them with some excellent experience.

Canada vs Japan
Final Score – Canada 22/Japan 26
Vancouver

There were a lot of positives in this match for Canada and I do not want to detract from that, however, unlike many who are lauding Canada’s first outing under their new Coach Mark Anscombe, I can’t help feeling that it is far too early to be reaching for the champagne.  Canada played very well at times, but ultimately lost a match in which they had a man advantage.  Canada’s inability to close out big games in the last quarter once more came back to haunt them with a vengeance.  Add to this the fact that Canada still does not have a kicker or much of kicking game, and we are not much better off at the end of the first eighty minutes of 2016 than we were at the end of the last eighty minutes of last year.

All that aside though there were some aspects of this Canadian performance that really made you get out of your seat and feel some genuine optimism for the future.  Let’s talk about Ray Barkwill at Hooker for starters.  Already a tireless workhorse of Canadian rugby, Barkwill was just superb in this match and a huge source of inspiration for the rest of his young and inexperienced teammates, as was clearly evident when he scored Canada’s second try.  Prop Djustice Sears-Duru put in a massive shift and his athleticism and pace at times was remarkable.  It is obvious why he has been snatched up with such relish by Glasgow Warriors.  Jamie Cudmore is a legend in his own time at lock and the tender age of 37, and it is obvious that he brings a certain awe factor to the game for his younger colleagues.  Lucas Rumball at flanker made a huge impression on us in the recent Americas Rugby Championship and he is clearly going to be a player to watch as Canada prepares for Japan in 2019.  Aaron Carpenter, despite his unfortunate yellow card, had an outstanding game at number 8 rewarded by a solid try of his own. In the backs, Matt Evans put in a solid shift at fullback with a fabulous return to form by Taylor Paris on the wing.  I must say I like the look of the new caps in the back line.  Dan Moor impressed on the wing in the Americas Rugby Championship and Brock Staller looked sharp at centre alongside Nick Blevins.

The biggest problem I see for Canada is the continuing lack of an effective and functional halfback pairing.  Gordon McRorie is an adequate scrum half but he somehow lacks the energy and vision needed to really allow Canada to compete.  Meanwhile Pat Parfrey may grow into the halfback role but at the moment he seems to be having trouble stamping any kind of authority on the position.  Add to this that neither of the two provide Canada with any kind of reliable kicking option or platform and it means they are likely to continue to struggle when it comes to asserting and maintaining any kind of authority on the overall run of play.  If Canada had had this in this match a win would have been a certainty.  Instead at least nine points got left out on the park.  If this isn’t addressed and soon, then the last quarter of every match is likely to remain on a knife edge for Canada, and as we have seen all too often over the last two years, Canada ends up on the wrong side of the chopping block.

The squad has plenty of heart and talent and under Coach Anscombe there is likely to be a greater sense of urgency to fix the problems and get results.  Consequently, we feel it’s early days to be judging Canada on the basis of this performance alone.  Italy will be a huge test, especially after the Azurri put in such a credible performance against the Pumas.  Mark Anscombe in his first few weeks on the job has a very long to do list.  However, despite the problems still persisting in Canadian rugby, based on some of the talent we’ve seen in Canada’s outings so far this year we would argue he has more than enough to work with to get the job done, providing he can find the answers to the halfback questions.

It’s that time of the year again as International Test Rugby returns to the front and centre of everyone’s attention as the Northern Hemisphere sides journey South to test their mettle against the Southern Hemisphere’s Big Three.  After a relatively disappointing Six Nations, in which England were the clearly dominant side, we really get to see how big the gulf is between North and South.  As opposed to the rather tepid offerings so far this year in the Six Nations and the European Champions Cup, the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby Tournament has caught everyone’s attention in terms of excitement.  New Zealand sides are clearly in a league of their own, but there have been some impressive outings from some of the Australian and South African teams.  Canada meanwhile have three exciting home Tests to look forward to starting with Japan and ending with a new look Italy who themselves will be put through their paces by Argentina this Saturday.  June will provide us with a genuine smorgasbord of Test Rugby and a clear idea of who’s who in the zoo post last year’s World Cup.

Fixtures this weekend

New Zealand vs Wales
Saturday, June 11th
Auckland

Many people are predicting with good reason, a very painful afternoon in Auckland for Wales courtesy of their hosts and World Champions, the mighty All Blacks.  It is hard to disagree with this common sentiment.  Of all the Northern Hemisphere sides on tour this June Wales by far have the hardest task.  Welsh rugby has not been in the best of health since the World Cup.  A dismal showing in the Pro 12 by Welsh sides and even worse at the European Champions Cup level topped off by a Six Nations campaign that can really only be described as a massive disappointment, finds the Men in Red demoralised and without a clear game plan.  The All Blacks on the other hand while having lost some of the names that helped to play such a pivotal role in creating the All Black legend of the last four years, are still blessed with such depth in terms of emerging talent and seasoned veterans that it will be very hard for a jaded Welsh side to be competitive for one Test let alone three.

However, one writes off the Welsh at their peril.  While Welsh rugby may be in some degree of disarray at the moment, this is still a highly resilient side that boasts some impressive names.  Furthermore, some Welsh players such as Alun-Wyn Jones and Captain Sam Warburton have shown that their ability to soak up the most intense pressure is the stuff of legends.  A Welsh win on Saturday, would be a miracle in the making however I for one have no doubt that New Zealand will be made to work exceptionally hard at times for the privilege of a win and they will find the Welsh worthy opponents.

New Zealand may be fielding a new look team, but as this year’s Super Rugby has shown so far, the raft of emerging talent in New Zealand seems limitless.  There are enough seasoned veterans in the All Black line up to lend the experience needed to complement the youth and enthusiasm of the newcomers.  There may be some fresh faces in an All Black shirt on Saturday, but all these players have proved their worth time and again on Super Rugby pitches over the last few months.  The skill levels on display by New Zealand sides in this year’s Super Rugby competition have been quite surreal at times.

Either way you look at it, this is going to be a huge physical battle up front, and with their ability to absorb incredible amounts of pressure Wales will expect to be competitive here and most likely make their greatest impact on the match.  Having said that however they will be up against an impressive and incredibly mobile All Black forward pack.  In the front row for Wales, despite some impressive experience in the shape of Gethin Jenkins along with the dynamic Samson Lee and Ken Owens, New Zealand should still have the edge.  The Crusaders duo of Joe Moody and Owen Franks have been outstanding this year, and Hooker Dane Coles is his own phenomenon.  Coles is not only exceptionally competitive in the scrums, he also boasts a speed and eye for opportunity that would be the envy of most wingers.  Give Coles any kind of loose ball in the open and expect him to cover the length of the pitch at a pace that many 100 metre sprinters would have trouble matching.  In short, one of the All Blacks wonder weapons, the only chink in
his armor being an occasionally erratic performance in throwing in to the lineouts.  Wales has some real strength in the second row in the shape of the legendary Alun-Wyn Jones who will give his All Black counterpart the equally impressive Brodie Retallick an epic struggle all afternoon.  However, New Zealand should edge this battle as Retallick’s partner Luke Romano has more than enough power and ability to overwhelm Wales Bradley Davies.  In the back row the battle between New Zealand’s Sam Cane and Welsh Captain Sam Warburton is one of the most eagerly anticipated contests of the month.  Sam Cane has impressed for the Chiefs consistently over the last two years and is a worthy replacement for All Black legend Richie McCaw.  Sam Warburton’s motivation and sheer endurance is always a sight to behold and his ability to rally his troops when their backs are against the wall will be invaluable on Saturday.  Completing the forward pack New Zealand’s Kieran Read takes over the Captaincy at number eight up against the equally impressive Welsh number eight Taulupe Faleteau.  Expect plenty of fireworks between these two, but if Read finds his form expect him to cross the try line for New Zealand at least once.  Faletau is no slouch and at times was one of the standout performers of Wales’s faltering Six Nations campaign so expect some competition.  As much talent as there is in this Welsh forward unit the sheer mobility and skill set of their New Zealand counterparts should see that ultimately the All Blacks run this aspect of the game on Saturday at Wales’ expense.  With the likes of flanker Ardie Savea and prop Wyatt Crockett waiting on the bench for New Zealand, enough said.

As talented as they may be as a half back partnership Wales’ Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb are no match for the likes of New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden.  While Cruden may be making a long awaited return to the number 10 jersey, and questions may remain about his form at Test level, there is no doubt of his talent and ability.  Aaron Smith at halfback is in a league of his own and is going to be an endless headache for his Welsh counterpart, Rhys Webb.  Although Dan Biggar has an exceptionally reliable boot and is developing his ability to run the Welsh game plan, he is no match for the sheer creativity of Cruden if he finds his form in an All Black jersey.  With TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett waiting on the bench for New Zealand the halfback battle is going to be all about the All Blacks with Wales simply trying to keep up.

In the backs, it should once again be New Zealand’s day.  Just look at the names.  On the wings, Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo, at centre Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa and backing it all up at number 15 is one of the best in the world – Ben Smith.  Naholo has been one of the revelations of this year’s Super Rugby season scoring tries at leisure while Savea has made an impressive return to form.  Fekitoa has been outstanding for the Highlanders while Crotty has been instrumental in getting the Crusaders back to their winning ways.  Wales have some impressive names in the shape of centre Jamie Roberts, winger George North and fullback Liam Williams.  However, these three have been very erratic in terms of form post the World Cup, with Roberts being far too predictable.  Quite frankly this aspect of the contest is most likely to be all about New Zealand for the full eighty minutes.

So in short a spirited Welsh side is likely to make New Zealand work hard for the first 50 minutes, but then are likely to tire quickly allowing the floodgates to open for New Zealand as the likes of Coles, Crotty, Savea, Naholo and Fekitoa start to run riot.  There is not enough on the Welsh bench to turn around the inevitable ascendancy of the All Blacks and as a result the last quarter should see New Zealand crossing the white line at least three times.  This new look New Zealand side may struggle to gel in the first quarter, giving the Welsh a false sense of security, but as we have seen so many times in the past, All Black sides very rarely take more than 40 minutes to figure out both the basics and the measure of their opponents.  Therefore, with little hesitation we are calling this one in favour of New Zealand by 25 points.

Australia vs England
Saturday, June 11th
Brisbane

Of all the games this weekend this is probably the biggest wild card and the one which is most likely to see a Northern Hemisphere side come out on top.  England arrive as triumphant Six Nations champions and under new Coach Eddie Jones have found a new confidence after the debacle of the World Cup.  Some exciting new players have really stood up and been counted so far this year and this is definitely an England side on the rise – to what heights they have risen will become clear over the coming weeks.  Australia are also in the process of rebuilding under the guidance of one of the wiliest coaches in International Rugby in the shape of Michael Cheika who knows how to get results.  Although Australian sides have had a slow start to this year’s Super Rugby, their two top sides the Brumbies and Waratahs have started to peak at just the right time and as a result are providing Australia with some excellent preparation for this series against England.  While I personally think that Australia are only going to get better this month, ultimately at England’s expense and thus take the series, I think that this opening Test in Brisbane could well go England’s way.  Of all the three big Test series this month this is likely to be the most closely contested.

Up front the battle of the front rows should be epic.  However, I am going to hand it to England.  The contest between the two Hookers and Captains, England’s Dylan Hartley and Australia’s Stephen Moore will be fascinating and very evenly matched.  Both renowned as hotheads, they will have to really lead by example in maintaining their own discipline and that of their charges.  To be fair a task which both have excelled at.  However, in terms of the props England should have the edge here.  I feel that the combination of Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole simply offer more power and versatility than that of their Australian counterparts, Scott Sio and Greg Holmes.  In the second rows, England should win this battle hands down.  If Hartley can maintain his form at the throw in to the lineouts, English revelations George Kruis and Maro Itoje at lock should run rings around their Australian rivals Rob Simmons and Rory Arnold.  Kruis has had a spectacular year in the thick of everything for England and Maro Itoje is the most exciting player England has seen in many a year.  Itoje’s strength, speed and seemingly inexhaustible stamina are rapidly becoming the stuff of legends.  He is one of the few England players to consistently see out a full eighty minutes this year.  Expect fireworks aplenty from this English duo at Australia’s expense and with Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury waiting on the bench as their replacements, it is going to be a long afternoon in this department for Australia.  It’s in the back row where Australia are really going to make their presence felt and here they should start to gain some clear ascendancy over their English rivals.  English flankers Chris Robshaw and James Haskell are solid but lack the creativity and sheer pace of Australia’s Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy.  Fardy’s tireless work rate and Hooper’s sheer ability in the loose means that England are likely to be on the back foot here all afternoon.  Although England’s Billy Vunipola was often a one-man panzer division in the Six Nations he is going to be put to the test by the sheer creativity and vision of Australia’s number eight the incomparable David Pocock who is making a blistering return to form from injury.  England will be competitive here but this is Australia’s contest to win and really create a dominant platform for their backline.

In the halfbacks, there is an equal contest as England’s Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs square up against Australia’s Bernard Foley and Nick Phipps.  Each side boasts a loose canon, England in the shape of fly half Owen Farrell, whose discipline lets him down at times, while Australia’s Nick Phipps at scrum half is renowned for taking his eye off the ball under pressure and trying to attract the attention of the referee far too often at the expense of the run of play.  However, England’s Ben Youngs at scrum half and Australia’s fly half Bernard “Iceman” Foley will lend the composure to these two respective units that will be needed.  The replacements throw in another conundrum as Australia’s Nick Frisby gets his first call up in a Wallaby jersey at scrum half, while England’s George Ford who has had a dismal run of form this season will have to face up to a pressure appearance in the last quarter of a game that is likely to go down to the wire.  However, England should just get the edge as Danny Care comes off the bench for Ben Youngs.  Care has provided some much needed moments of magic for England at just the right time this year and expect to see him do the same in Brisbane on Saturday.

In the backs, I am once more putting my bet on England getting the slight edge.  Jonathan Joseph at centre and Anthony Watson on the wing have been outstanding for England and at club level this year and will be more than a match for Australia’s Rob Horne and new cap Dane Haylett-Petty.  I was surprised to see England’s Marland Yarde getting the starting berth on the wing over the exceptional Jack Nowell, but with the latter waiting on the bench to make an impact as required in the last quarter England should still be in safe hands here for much of the match.  I would argue that Australia has the more powerful centre combination in Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi, however, Joseph’s form for England speaks for itself and if Luther Burrell fires then the sheer pace and mobility of the England pair should give the Men in White the edge.  For Australia Kerevi is a wild card, when on form he raises eyebrows but at times he has been very easily shut down for the Reds in this year’s Super Rugby competition.  Lastly at fullback Australia have the mighty Israel Folau up against England’s impetuous Mike Brown.  In terms of all round ability and composure I give the nod to Folau, however, I can’t help feeling after having watched him play at centre this season for the Waratahs in Super Rugby that this is really where he should be playing if Australia really want to use his exceptional skills as it is clearly a position he relishes.  However, Australia are struggling with the fullback position and Folau is obviously their safest bet even if we may not see his full range of abilities at 15.

It is going to be an incredibly close contest, and will swing back and forth in terms of ascendancy for both sides.  However, I can’t help feeling that a confident England will just get the edge over an Australian team trying to find its feet and without some of the big names it has relied on in the past such as Adam Ashley-Cooper.  It will really be decided in the last quarter and with England packing the stronger bench for the most part it should be their day.  England are the more settled of the two sides and as such should just edge this opening encounter by two!

South Africa vs Ireland
Saturday, June 11th
Cape Town

This is probably the most intriguing encounter of the weekend.  South Africa field an essentially new team with a raft of new caps and a new Coach.  Ireland for the most part blend an interesting mix of experience and youth as they seek to rebuild from an exceptionally disappointing Six Nations and the horror of their quarter-final against Argentina in last year’s World Cup.  Looking at the form of some of the South African players that have been selected for this opening Test, there is no doubt that this is a very promising Springbok side which it is going to be exceptionally hard for Ireland to contain.  However, Irish Coach Joe Schmidt is one of the best prepared Coaches in Test rugby and he and his charges are unlikely to be daunted by the significant challenges they will face in Cape Town on Saturday.  Like most I do not see Ireland winning the series especially once this new look Springbok side starts gathering some momentum, but do feel they have a chance of sneaking one test, and this opener is their best shot at doing so.

South Africa as usual look to dominate Ireland up front and there is no question that they are likely to do so, and comfortably at that.  Ireland will have to work exceptionally hard to remain competitive here, as they will in the halfback contest, however if they can just hold their own up front then ultimately there could be an even battle in the backs.  Nevertheless, first and foremost the battle is going to have to be won up front and here Ireland are going to have their work cut out for them.  In the front row, it should be South Africa’s day.  As the two Captain’s face off in the Hooker position, South Africa should have the edge in Adriaan Strauss over Ireland’s Rory Best.  Although Best is an inspirational player to his charges, his form at the lineout can be erratic, while Strauss seems to be more consistent especially when throwing to the two giant figures of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jaeger.  With Strauss backed up by props Tendai Mtawarira and Frans Malherbe, it is likely that Ireland are going to get pushed around in the scrums despite the best efforts of Ireland’s Jack McGrath and Mike Ross.  Add to this the fact that the Springbok scrum is shored up in the second row by the massive physical and uncompromising forms of locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jaeger and it really is no contest with these two likely to completely dominate the lineouts.  Ireland’s Ian Henderson is a rising star for the Men in Green and is likely to give as good as he gets but with his partner Devin Toner having erratic form at times, the lineout battle is likely to go the Springboks way.  Add South African revelation of 2016 Pieter-Steph du Toit waiting on the bench to replace either Etzebeth or de Jaeger and the battle is won for the Springboks.  In the back row the competition will be much more even.  Ireland’s CJ Stander will be keen to make a point in an Irish shirt as he returns to his homeland and was one of the standout players of a hit and miss Six Nations campaign for Ireland.  Jordi Murphy when he plays well is a feisty threat for Ireland and is likely to give South Africa’s Siya Kolisi a run for his money especially if he can pressure the Springbok flanker into making mistakes.  South Africa’s Francois Louw is an exceptional player but he too can suffer from inconsistency in form.  As a result, by the very narrowest of margins, I think that Ireland just might have the edge in the loose in Cape Town.  At number eight it is almost impossible to call.  South Africa’s Duane Vermeulen is without a doubt one of the best in the world in his position, but has not quite set the world alight at Toulon this season.  Jamie Heaslip is a vastly experienced player for Ireland and while he has not really stood out at Leinster this year he seems to produce something special whenever he pulls on an Irish jersey.

In the halfbacks, Paddy Jackson gets the nod at fly half as regular Irish maestro and game winner, Johnny Sexton misses the tour due to injury, while Conor Murray at scrum half lends some much needed experience and pace to the partnership.  However, South Africa are finally giving Lions sensation Faf de Klerk his first Springbok call-up at scrum half.  By far one of the most exciting players in this year’s Super Rugby, de Klerk is going to pose massive problems for Ireland.  If allowed any kind of space or opportunity he has the potential to ensure the Irish defences get ripped to shreds.  Meanwhile the calm head and vast experience of Pat Lambie at fly half even though he is a mere 25 years old, will make South Africa’s halfback platform a force to be reckoned with.  It’s going to be a fascinating contest but I can’t help feeling the experience of Lambie and the exceptional skill set of de Klerk will ultimately overwhelm their Irish counterparts.

It’s in the backs where Ireland perhaps has the best chance of making an impact if they get decent ball, but also manage to contain the electric centerfield pairing of South Africa’s Lionel Mapoe and Damian de Allende.  Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is best prepared to do this as he brings some solid physicality and a blistering turn of speed to counter that of Mapoe and De Allende.  Ireland’s Luke Marshall is a gifted player and if given space could pose a lot of problems for the South African defence but his lack of experience at this level may ultimately prove a hindrance.  On the wings Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has gone with experience in the shape of Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls, and while the latter can certainly carve his own magic on a rugby pitch the Irish pair are more likely to be seen in defence as they attempt to shut down South Africa’s Lwazi Mvovo and JP Pietersen.  However, as talented as Mvovo is I have seen him drop the ball under pressure more than he’s held on to it and the Irish defence will be seeking to target this perceived weakness.  JP Pietersen may not be the fastest man out of the blocks for South Africa on the wing but his physical presence once he has built up a head of steam is very difficult to stop.  Lastly in the fullbacks, I am giving Ireland the advantage probably to the surprise of most readers.  There is no doubt that South Africa’s Willie le Roux is a fantastic player but I just haven’t seen the kind of form in the last eighteen months that made him the talking point of the 2014 season.  Jared Payne may not be the world’s most exciting player but he is growing in ability as a talented centre but more importantly as Ireland struggles with the fullback position, a very reliable and capable 15.  On the few occasions he has worn the 15 jersey for Ireland he has impressed particularly in defence.  As a result, I can’t help feeling that Ireland may have the edge over South Africa in this last line of defence and as a platform for initiating counter attacks.

It is going to be an interesting contest, which will either see Ireland implode by 40 minutes or hang in there and cause South Africa all kinds of problems as they seek to settle new combinations and develop their game plan.  Both sides are packing some potential threats on their benches. South Africa boast significant talent in the shape of lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, Number 8 and Lions sensation Warren Whiteley, fly half Elton Jantjies and centre Jesse Kriel.  Ireland meanwhile boast the likes of lock Ultan Dillane, centre Craig Gilroy and fly half Ian Madigan.  In terms of strengths the benches are relatively level, so it will come down to whether or not Ireland can simply contain a very physical and quick thinking Springbok side.  It should be a great contest and probably not the whitewash some are predicting.  However, in the end it should still be South Africa’s day by a comfortable margin.  We may be wrong but South Africa to win by 15 points!

Argentina vs Italy
Saturday, June 11th
Comodoro Rivadavia

Let’s face it life has not been kind to Italy since the World Cup, their two representative teams in the PRO 12 have struggled and Italy had a truly woeful Six Nations campaign under departing Coach Jacques Brunel.  Now there’s a new Coach in the form of Harlequins Coach Irishman Conor O’Shea and Italy is not without some promising young talent – they just need the right direction.  This match will be of particular interest to Canadian rugby fans as Italy will face Canada at the end of the month.  Argentina meanwhile have their first Test outing since the World Cup as they reunite under inspirational Coach Daniel Hourcade.  Argentina have fielded a team in this year’s Super Rugby tournament, and while the Jaguares have provided plenty of excitement they have been frustratingly short of results.  This will be of some concern to Coach Hourcade considering that Jaguares players form the bulk of the current Pumas squad.  Nevertheless, Hourcade proved himself to be one of the most successful coaches of last year’s World Cup and under his tutelage the Pumas are likely to have that special X factor that we saw so much of last year.  Consequently, this is going to be a very difficult outing for Italy, but hopefully it will provide them with the experience and confidence to take on their other slightly easier match ups with the USA and Canada this month.

Argentina will use their renowned strengths up front to make life difficult for the Italians and build the platform of possession needed to unleash their devastating back line.  Italy is capable of putting up a feisty scrum but its lack of experience will likely cause it to battle against Argentina’s established unit of Captain Agustin Creevy at Hooker and Prop Francisco Chaparro.  Meanwhile Argentina should dominate the lineouts through locks Guido Petti who has impressed all year in a Puma and Jaguares jersey alongside Matias Alemanno who has also stood out.  Italy boasts a powerful force in Marco Fuser but it is unlikely to match up against the Pumas strengths in this department.  Meanwhile the back row for Argentina boasts the superb Pablo Matera and has Javier Ortega Desio and Juan Manuel Leguizamon waiting on the bench.  In short, Italy will have to play out of their skins to overcome this Argentinian powerhouse back row.  Simone Favaro had a good outing in the Six Nations for Italy in the flanker department but he and his colleagues are likely to be overwhelmed by Argentina on Saturday.  Argentina will be shored up in the forwards by Facundo Isa at number eight and once again he is a rising talent for the Pumas.  Overall, Argentina has such a strong forward platform that it is going to be an uphill battle all afternoon for Italy to gain any kind of ascendancy.

Italy has a promising halfback partnership in scrum half Eduardo Gori and fly half Carlo Canna, both of whom will be cornerstones of Italy’s future in the build up to the World Cup in Japan in 2019.  However, their relative lack of Test experience will mean they will be up against it in their duel with one of Test rugby’s most exciting halfback partnerships in the shape of fly half Nicolas Sanchez and scrum half Martin Landajo.  In short, there is likely to be little contest here and Argentina should comfortably be able to dictate play all afternoon.

Italy has some outstanding backs in the shape of centre Michele Campagnaro and wingers Leonardo Sarto and David Odiete, however they are simply not of the calibre of the Argentine offering.  Wingers Manuel Montero and Santiago Cordero in particular are very exciting players that can light up a pitch given the right opportunities.  Meanwhile the centre pairing of Juan Martin Hernandez and Matias Moroni are quality through and through.  They don’t call Hernandez the magician for nothing.  Italy will be competitive all afternoon but ultimately be outclassed by Argentina’s superior pedigree.  Lastly at fullback Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet is in a league of his own compared to Italy’s Luke McLean.  Expect once again Italy to compete but Tuculet is superb in defense and explosive on attack which means that once again Italy are going to have dig very deep to contain him.

An interesting contest and hopefully one in which Italy can learn some valuable lessons and acquit themselves with some degree of pride, but one which Argentina should walk away with comfortably.  A spirited Italy should put up a good fight under the demanding tutelage of new Coach Conor O’Shea but the Pumas to ultimately walk away with the spoils by 20 points!

Canada vs Japan
Saturday, June 11th
Vancouver

Canada take to the field with a new Coach, Mark Anscombe after acquitting themselves well in the recent inaugural Americas Rugby Championship in March under interim Coach Francois Ratier.  Many of the players who fared so well in March return to face Japan in Vancouver this Saturday.  This should be a highly competitive match as Canada face up against a Japanese team that draws almost exclusively from the Japanese Super Rugby franchise the Sunwolves.  As Canada’s first outing under Anscombe it may be a tall order for them to defeat a Japanese side whose players are coming straight from three month’s experience of the World’s toughest and most demanding club rugby competition.  Although some of the names who made such an impact for Japan in the World Cup are missing from the squad it is still a strong Japanese team who will have a benefit from the cohesion of their Super Rugby exploits.

One to watch in a match which Canada has the potential to win, especially at home, will be prop Djustice Sears-Duru who is making a name for himself with Glasgow Warriors.  Meanwhile warhorse Ray Barkwill should ensure that Canada is competitive in the scrums and the lineouts as the Canadian Hooker was one of Canada’s most reliable players last year in both the Pacific Nations and World Cups.  Canada will miss the inspirational figure of Hubert Buydens in the front row, but probably one of Canada’s most notable players, lock Jamie Cudmore will be instrumental in motivating Canada’s younger charges in this match.  At 37 years of age there still seems to be plenty of life left in this Canadian tiger and he remains committed to leaving a lasting impact on Canadian rugby.  One player who really stood out in the recent Americas Rugby Championship was flanker Lucas Rumball and I was very happy to see him included in Canada’s starting line up for this match.  Flanker Aaron Carpenter needs no introduction along with scrum half Gordon McRorie.

In the backs there is plenty to be excited about for Canada with a welcome return to the fray for Taylor Paris on the wing.  Nick Blevins should provide a superb example to his young cohort Brock Staller in centre field, while Matt Evans has put in some notable shifts at fullback.  Canada may struggle at fly half as they have yet to find a clear answer for this position and it is likely that much of the tactical and goal kicking duties may fall to veteran scrum half Gordon McRorie.  On the bench I am really looking forward to seeing lock Paul Ciulini make an appearance as he was another of Canada’s players who really stood out during the Americas Rugby Championship.

This should be a close and highly entertaining match, which should be an excellent preparation for Canada’s ultimate test against Italy at the end of the month.  Canada should be highly competitive for the full eighty minutes, but ultimately I can’t help feeling that the match will go in favour of the Japanese simply on the grounds of their recent experiences as a squad in the cauldron of Super Rugby.  The Japanese have for the most part been playing as a unit for the last three months in one of the toughest competitions in the world.  As a result, their understanding of each other and how to get the best out of any given situation should give them a clear edge over the Canadians who are only getting together for the first time competitively after a two-month break.  Furthermore, the Canadian squad that had such success in the Americas Rugby Championship is not quite the same as that which runs out in Vancouver this Saturday.  Therefore, expect no quarters given but Japan to just walk away the winners by five points!