Archive for the ‘November Internationals’ Category

The November Test window effectively draws to a close this weekend, even though there is one match in the first weekend of December when Wales hosts South Africa. However, for all intents and purposes, once the final whistle blows this Saturday in Dublin we’ll have a got a pretty good idea of the level of depth that has been developed by all the top-tier teams during the course of November. Depth has clearly been the order of the day for all the teams, and some have made greater strides than others, with perhaps England, New Zealand and Ireland leading the pack here. However, France and Wales have also made some positive strides in this department, and Italy is clearly developing the nucleus of a team for 2019 and beyond. Scotland has perhaps been the surprise package in terms of depth this month, making their matchup with Australia this Saturday a mouth-watering prospect indeed. It is perhaps South Africa, Argentina and Australia who have the least to show for their efforts in this regard. Argentina along with South Africa continue to appear to be at sixes and sevens, while Australia, although boasting an exceptional matchday 23, still appear alarmingly thin on depth once any of this group of highly talented individuals become unavailable.

Italy get us started this weekend against South Africa. They will be looking to repeat their epic win last year against the Springboks and really lay down a marker for next year’s Six Nations and beyond. Italian Coach Conor O’Shea is clearly making progress with Italy and they look a much more promising outfit since he has taken charge. South Africa have struggled as they have for the last few years on their end of year tour to Europe, and while capable of some epic performances they seem rather few and far between. After their humiliation against Ireland in the November opener they were able to eke out a scrappy win against France, but it left few of us convinced that their woes especially on the road are behind them. The crisis in confidence in this team shows no signs of letting up and a second consecutive loss to Italy would do untold damage to a team that has clearly lost its way. Italy will know this and will clearly have this game in their sights.

The game we are really looking forward to this weekend and at the top of our viewing list is Scotland against Australia. We were absolutely blown away by Scotland’s performance against New Zealand last weekend and were rarely able to sit down for the full eighty minutes. It was a thrilling Test match that showed that attacking rugby with plenty of gas is very much alive and well north of Hadrian’s Wall. As a result we can’t wait to watch Scotland in action in next years’ Six Nations. Australia can also boast some exceptional attacking prowess in the shape of a very powerful and dangerous back line, and although they came out on the wrong side of the scoreline by quite some margin against England last weekend, the intent was there for all to see and had the weather conditions been slightly more cooperative Australia would be going into this match having run England close. The Wallabies were put to the test last weekend and England based on their performance can comfortably claim their place as the second best team in World Rugby right now, but Australia are not far behind them and are only going to get better. Australia’s biggest problem would appear to be that they just don’t have the same amount of depth as England, something which Scotland much to our surprise were able to demonstrate against New Zealand.

Next up Wales take on New Zealand, with plenty of new players getting a real test against the best in the world. Wales had a fairly torrid time against Georgia last weekend and will really need to up their game against a New Zealand side also experimenting with depth but one that will also want to make an emphatic statement in their last match of the year. Before the team sheets came out, we were fearing a completely one-sided contest in favor of New Zealand, but since the squad announcements were made we are feeling much more optimistic about Wales being competitive, although perhaps not the victors. New Zealand are still likely to get a clean sweep of their November tour but will have had their charges put under considerable pressure in all three contests, something that clearly was at the top of Coach Steve Hansen’s agenda for the month.

Lastly Ireland seek to exact revenge on Argentina, as the two sides have their first meeting since that fateful day in Cardiff two years ago when Argentina comprehensively shattered Ireland’s World Cup dreams. This is clearly an Argentinian team in some disarray despite a conclusive win against Italy last Saturday. Even though Ireland’s match day 23 smacks of continued experimentation in terms of finding depth by Coach Joe Schmidt, it is still a daunting side facing a Pumas team that has struggled to fire all year. Furthermore there are enough of Ireland’s big names running out on the pitch at the Aviva on Saturday to ensure that Argentina will need to put in the kind of performance they showed in New Zealand against the All Blacks back in September. Let’s be honest we’ve seen nothing from Argentina that has led us to believe they can replicate that, especially on the road and for a full eighty minutes.

Canada also take on Fiji in France this Saturday, but after having watched Fiji almost upset the Irish apple cart last weekend in a rather spectacular fashion. While Canada struggled to get the win against Spain at times, we can’t help feeling that Canada are going to have real difficulty in containing Fiji’s turbocharged outfit. From what we could see of the Spanish game if it wasn’t for exceptional winger DTH Van Der Merwe Canada might not have been competitive last weekend in Madrid.

So as usual here’s our take on the matchups this weekend.

Italy vs South Africa
Saturday, November 25th
Padova

South African rugby may be in a state of disarray at the moment, but it is not lacking in talent. However, motivation is clearly in question as the Springboks appear to be labouring through their fixture list this month with little if any clear enthusiasm for the task at hand. Nevertheless a second consecutive loss to Italy must be considered unthinkable and as such Italy will be hard pressed to repeat their heroics of this time last year.

In the front rows, we expect to see a competitive Italian effort with props Andrea Lovotti and Simone Pietro Ferrari looking impressive at times this year. However, the presence of Tendai Mtawarira, who has been a consistent savior of the front row for South Africa this year, should see South Africa have the edge. With the exceptional Steven Kitshoff waiting to come off the bench for South Africa their dominance here should be assured.

In the second rows, South Africa should have the advantage in the sheer brute power of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager. While de Jager has not always impressed this year, there is still enough Test experience between him and Etzebeth that they should have the edge over Italians’ Marco Fuser and Dean Budd, especially given the fact that they will have a point to prove, with Franco Mostert also wanting to put his stamp of authority on proceedings from the bench.

In the back rows, South Africa should also be able to rely on brute power to overcome a feisty Italian counter-offer in the shape of South African born Braam Steyn and newcomer Giovanni Licata. Francois Louw has been around the Test circuit enough to know what will be expected of him on Saturday, especially given what is at stake in terms of South Africa’s place in Test rugby. Pieter-Steph du Toit has also been one of the few Springbok players who has consistently sought to right a floundering ship this year and we expect more of the same from this versatile and powerful forward. Lastly Duane Vermeulen at number eight for South Africa goes up against Captain extraordinaire Sergio Parisse for Italy. While Vermeulen is a class player, there is no question that his form is just not there at the moment and the French match was clear evidence if anyone needed convincing. If Parisse gets his back row trio firing on all cylinders South Africa could be in for a torrid time here. However, we feel that South Africa should win what should be the most closely contested area of the park here.

In the half backs, on paper the contest should go to South Africa, but if the Italian pair can keep their heads they could actually be the surprise of the day. South Africa’s Ross Cronje did not quite set the world alight last Saturday in Paris and fly half Handre Pollard, despite his illustrious reputation, completely failed to manage or control the game to South Africa’s advantage while practically missing every shot at goal. Italy’s Carlo Canna is developing into a reliable and courageous fly half, and his ability to get results at the kicking tee is something Italy will be banking on especially if South Africa’s discipline goes the way of the dodo on Saturday, and Pollard once more struggles to find the barn door. So perhaps to the surprise of some, Italy to run the show here on Saturday.

In the backs, based on their experience at Super Rugby level, South Africa should have this tied up, but we have yet to see it really pay dividends this year. The centre pairing of Francois Venter and Jesse Kriel did manage to get some traction at times against the French last weekend in Paris but it was less than convincing. Italy’s offering of the two Tommasos, Castello and Boni is proving to be one of the surprise packages of the month with Castello in particular making us sit up and take notice. Dillyn Leyds and Courtnall Skosan look weak defensively at times on the wing, especially Skosan and particularly under the high ball. The two Italian wingers Angelo Esposito and Mattia Bellini are likely to be better coached and as a result we give them the edge. However, for us Andries Coetzee at fullback has been one of South Africa’s few beacons this year. Rarely supported and often expected to act as a lone wolf, he nevertheless manages to put in a 110% effort every match and for this reason alone we give him the nod over Italy’s still untested Jayden Hayward. Coetzee may be naive at times but you can’t fault him for an astonishing work rate and as he continues to mature we expect bigger and better things from him.

This should be a tight contest at times, with Italy potentially having the sharper game management of the two sides. However, just like in the French match we expect to see South Africa bludgeon the Italians into submission physically. It’s unlikely to be an attractive game to watch, but one which South Africa should batter out a narrow victory by five points!

Scotland vs Australia
Saturday, November 25th
Murrayfield

Without any shadow of a doubt THE game to watch this weekend. The weather this Saturday in Murrayfield looks to be on the side of two teams who like to try to play some of the most free-flowing and high-speed attacking rugby seen at the moment on the Test circuit. As we mentioned above we were enthralled by Scotland’s performance last weekend against New Zealand and spent much of the eighty minutes constantly leaping out of our seats and screaming at the television. Definitely one of the most exciting games of rugby we’ve seen in a while and hoping for more of the same. Australia struggled against an English team that, despite some lucky bounces of the ball and calls by the referee, were still clearly the better side especially given the challenging weather conditions. Australia in many ways played more of the rugby but in doing so often overdid it and as a result were unable to pull off the execution required. England were better at taking their chances and played a much more controlled game. The Wallabies will need to be mindful of this as they seek to challenge a team that appears to want to play the fastest brand of attacking rugby after the Fijian Sevens team.

In the front rows, we were very impressed with how well Scotland’s relatively inexperienced trio stood up to New Zealand last weekend. If things have gone well on the training pitch this week we see no reason as to why they should not be able to do the same again. Australia pack an experienced outfit in the shape of Test veteran and Hooker Stephen Moore who plays his last Test in the gold jersey. His front row partners Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu are finally clicking as a unit and it will be hard for Scotland to gain some traction here. Given the momentum for Australia and the significance of Moore’s last hurrah, we feel that Australia will have the edge here initially but once the bench make their appearance we actually fancy Scotland’s chances especially if the starting three hold their own for the first sixty minutes.

In the second rows, we also hand the contest to Scotland. Without Adam Coleman we just don’t feel that Australia are as competitive here as they need to be. Scotland’s Jonny Gray is outstanding and Grant Gilchrist was part of the depth experiment last weekend that we felt really paid off for Scotland. On home ground we just feel that once the crowd get behind them Scotland should clearly get the better of the contest here.

In the back rows, the contest suddenly levels out dramatically and should be fascinating. Flanker John Barclay appears to be relishing the Captain’s role for Scotland as is Michael Hooper for Australia. Both possess extraordinary work rates and the ability to lead their troops from the front. We are huge fans of Scotland’s Hamish Watson and find him very destructive in the loose and a real handful for opposition defences, and the contest between him and Hooper should be one of the highlights of the weekend. Ryan Wilson at number eight for Scotland is another player who can also be problematic, but Australia’s Sean McMahon is in our opinion the better of the two. Consequently, despite the presence of Watson and Barclay for Scotland, we feel that because of the power of McMahon and the destructive unpredictability of Hooper, Australia should get the edge here on Saturday.

When it comes to the half back contest though we think that Scotland in front of the Murrayfield faithful should have the advantage. Scotland’s Finn Russell is simply electric at fly half and Ali Price at scrum half is rapidly proving to be his star sidekick. Australia’s Will Genia we felt didn’t have the best game under pressure against England, and Bernard Foley is simply not firing this year. Consequently expect the element of surprise to be with the Scottish pair on Saturday and as a result Scotland to be more effective at dictating proceedings.

It’s the contest between some very fleet-footed backs that should be the highlight of the match. Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg was remarkable last weekend, and if he can find it in him to put in another performance like that this Saturday then alarm bells will be ringing all over the Wallabies defensive structures. Add to the mix the exceptional centre pairing of Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, and Tommy Seymour’s pace and ball skills out wide on the wings and Australia will have to have their wits about them on defence. Having said that though the Scots will have to make sure there are no defensive slip ups as seen in their November opener against Samoa, otherwise this is an Australian back line that will make them pay dearly. There is speed and power up the middle in the shape of Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi, while out wide Reece Hodge and the brilliant Marika Koroibete offer plenty of the same package. The only possible weak link we see for Australia is Kurtley Beale at fullback. We don’t say this because we feel Beale is not a quality player, quite the opposite, it’s just that his remarkable talents seem far suited to him playing at centre, and look at the game against England if you want further evidence of this. Scotland’s Stuart Hogg however, was clearly born for the position so as a result we feel that Scotland are likely to be the better drilled of the two sides in back play on Saturday and thus have the slimmest of advantages especially in front of a home crowd likely to be heard from miles around every time a blue jersey gets a clean break.

A riveting and hopefully intensely exciting contest awaits, but our money is on home advantage seeing a better drilled Scottish side squeaking past a powerful and fast paced Australian challenge by two points!

Wales vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 25th
Cardiff

New Zealand will want to finish their year in style and sadly Wales look to be the sacrificial lambs for such a cause. However, to dismiss a Welsh challenge at home in front of a raucous Cardiff crowd would be foolish and we actually feel that this is a pretty decent if inexperienced Welsh side running out against the All Blacks on Saturday. New Zealand continue to tinker but despite the experimentation enforced primarily by injuries, it is still a rather daunting outfit and if Wales can hold their own against them, then valuable lessons will be learnt. While a result would delight Welsh fans, most are likely to want to see a solid challenge that bodes well for the future.

In the front rows, we can’t really see Wales getting the edge over New Zealand’s Kane Hames, Codie Taylor and Nepo Laulala. This trio has ticked all the boxes this year and we just can’t see their Welsh counterparts gaining much traction on it, especially given the strength of New Zealand’s bench here. Wales will be competitive make no mistake but skill wise we just think the All Blacks have the more consistent and effective combination.

In the second rows, home advantage and the talismanic presence of Alun Wyn-Jones should just see Wales through until the benches are called in, despite the influence of probably the best in the world, New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock. We have mixed feelings about Whitelock’s partner Patrick Tuipulotu, but we feel once New Zealand call Scott Barret off the bench the balance will swing back in New Zealand’s favor.

In the back rows, we feel that once more it is all about New Zealand. We thought Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler had a good game against Australia for Wales, but it is the sheer class of Liam Squire and Sam Cane that makes these two front-runners to dominate proceedings here. The only real edge we see for Wales here is at number eight in the shape of Taulupe Faletau, but then we felt he had an uncharacteristically error strewn match against Australia and will need to be better on Saturday, even if he is facing up against relative newcomer Luke Whitelock for New Zealand. The one smoking gun Wales have in this department is the appearance of Justin Tipuric off the bench. Always a game changer the tireless flanker could be the key that unlocks New Zealand’s apparent dominance in this part of the park.

In the half backs, Wales’ Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb need no introduction and to a point should be able to hold their own against New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith, but the X-factor of the Kiwi pair far exceeds that of the Welshmen. As a result this contest is New Zealand’s to win, with the All Black replacements also being of far higher calibre than Wales in the shape of TJ Perenara and Lima Sopoaga.

In the backs, Wales pack some very exciting new talent against some exceptional and proven talent from New Zealand. Sadly it is this lack of experience on the part of Wales which is likely to be their undoing on Saturday. While winger Rieko Ioane and fullback Damian McKenzie have themselves only really burst onto the Test stage for New Zealand this year, they have already made these positions theirs, whilst the Welsh are very much competing for future places. Consequently with the centre pairing of Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty really coming into its own, Ioane’s strength and pace out wide and McKenzie’s elusive catlike abilities at fullback, Wales will be hard pressed to make any real inroads on the New Zealand defences with their young and inexperienced charges. Sadly this is one area of the park we expect to see New Zealand run riot in.

New Zealand pack the better bench, have greater familiarity amongst their starting fifteen and as a result we feel that this will ultimately be the complete performance New Zealand have been looking for all year. Consequently, Wales to be a worthy and exciting opponent at times, but New Zealand to ultimately run away with it by 25 points, even though we predicted a similar margin against Scotland and were delighted to be proved so dramatically inaccurate!

Ireland vs Argentina,
Saturday, November 25th
Dublin

While to say it is a forgone conclusion that this last big test of the year is clearly Ireland’s to lose is a stretch, we still find it hard to see anything other than a fairly solid Irish win at the Aviva on Saturday. Given that the vast majority of the squad that so comprehensively dismantled South Africa a fortnight ago make their return for Ireland we feel that our bias toward an Irish win is not without some grounding. Argentina meanwhile have struggled this year to really resemble the side that derailed Ireland at the World Cup two years ago and as a result it is hard to see them causing an upset on Saturday. Nevertheless, there is enough individual talent in this Pumas outfit that any opposition would write them off at their peril.

In the front rows, it’s a powerhouse Irish trio of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong with the two props playing some remarkable rugby at the moment. Hooker and Captain Agustin Creevy will provide inspiration for Argentina but this Pumas front row is just not up to the task at the moment so expect Ireland to dominate when it comes to scrum time.

In the second rows, we’re excited to see James Ryan get a start for Ireland. Although many are comparing him to Paul O’Connell we hope the youngster is allowed to prove his worth without the shadow of the great lock. Ian Henderson also needs no introduction and has really come back into his own in the green jersey. Matias Alemanno and Tomas Lavanini are both giant figures who could potentially rule the lineout but, despite Lavanini’s vastly improved discipline, we still feel that the Irish are going to win this contest.

In the back rows, despite some really strong Argentinian talent, it seems incapable of firing as a unit, something the Irish offering seems to have no problem with. Pablo Matera has consistently been Argentina’s go to man this year, and Marcos Kremer is a very promising highlight for the World Cup along with Tomas Lezana at eight. However, Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien are world-class from start to finish and work well off each other. At number eight CJ Stander needs to be more outspoken in his influence on match proceedings than he has been so far this year for Ireland in the Six Nations and on the Lions tour, but is still world class. Argentina will be fiercely competitive here but Ireland’s pedigree should win them the day.

At half back, there is simply no comparison as Ireland boast one of the best units in Test rugby in the shape of Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray. Argentina’s Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez are more than capable of flashes of brilliance but consistency and patience in terms of execution have rarely been their modus operandi this year. Ireland pack a much better bench offering here than Argentina in the shape of Luke McGrath who is turning heads at Leinster while Ian Keatley managed to keep his cool when Ireland were on the rack against Fiji last weekend.

In the backs, once again there is talent aplenty for Argentina but it seems based on individual brilliance rather than any kind of structured game plan. Ireland’s newcomers on the other hand looked very much the finished product against South Africa a fortnight ago. Adam Byrne is Ireland’s major experimentation as the youngster gets his first start in a green jersey on the wing, but we have really enjoyed watching him so far this year at Leinster. The centre pairing also sees a relative lack of experience in Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell but, the sheer potential of these two and Schmidt’s coaching should see them get the job done against a strong Argentinian challenge in the shape of Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias and Matias Moroni. Emiliano Boffelli will pose an enormous threat for Argentina out on the wing and Adam Byrne as a result will get a superb examination of how ready he is for Test rugby. However on the opposite wing Jacob Stockdale in the match against South Africa justified his place in an Irish starting XV and then some, and we expect more of the same on Saturday. The only area where we really see Argentina gaining some traction over Ireland here is at fullback. Joaquin Tuculet has been a consistent performer for Argentina this year, whereas the jury is still out on Rob Kearney for Ireland, despite the fact he had a respectable game against South Africa. So despite Ireland’s relative lack of experience expect them to have the more productive showing here on Saturday.

Argentina certainly have looked like they just want to put this year down to experience and move on to really trying to make 2018 a year they want to remember. Consequently as their last hurrah of the year, and away from home to boot they tend to run out of gas which should make it a relatively straightforward exercise for Ireland to get a decent win provided they keep their focus and their youngsters rise to the occasion. As a result we have trouble seeing anything other than an Irish win by 16 points!

Endnote

As always we include the 1014’s preview of this weekend’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentlemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. For some in-depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!

 

We had mixed feelings about the November Internationals when they were announced as we would have liked to have seen the two leading Northern Hemisphere rivals England and Ireland have a crack at more than just one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three, despite them both getting a chance to play Argentina. Instead it would seem that Wales, Scotland and France will get that privilege and in the process really find out how much depth there is in their talent banks and where the glaring gaps are, with the Welsh being tested the most. Nevertheless the opening weekend still served up some tasty fixtures and left us with much food for thought as we look ahead to the four matches we will be focusing on this weekend.

Italy get us started against Argentina, who despite a sloppy performance against England last weekend, still managed to end the match within a respectable distance of the scoreline. Italy ground out a confidence building win against Fiji and the progress that Coach Conor O’Shea is making with his side was there for all to see. Italy will want to make a big statement about their future this weekend, and if they do so, could even contemplate another historic win against a Springbok side reeling from one crisis to another. Argentina themselves are a shadow of the side that lit up the 2015 World Cup, and seem to have more questions than answers at the moment. However they are still not a side to be taken lightly and should they click then could prove to be the surprise of the month, setting up a mouth-watering showdown with Ireland in a week’s time.

England have their BIG game of the November series against an Australian side that is literally humming with intent and danger. For us this is THE match of the weekend and will tell us a great deal about Australia’s resurgence and how sound England’s position in the World Rankings at number two really is. Let’s be honest England’s display against Argentina last weekend did not exactly leave us awestruck, and they know they will have to notch their performance up quite a few gears this weekend if they are to justify their lofty status at number two in the World rankings. There is no doubt they are likely to rise to the occasion, but this Australian side is not the one they ran rings around last summer in Australia or at Twickenham last November. Settled and having had a long period of time together over the last three months, this is a formidable looking Wallaby outfit that is lean, mean and fast. A worthy Test of England’s character and progress to date awaits this Saturday at Twickenham.

Scotland then take on New Zealand, and while their defences were a matter of serious concern against a brave and plucky Samoa last weekend, their attacking prowess was breathtaking at times. As some have said, Scotland’s seemingly self-processed aim of playing some of the fastest attacking rugby on the planet appears to have left the defensive aspect of their game somewhat lacking. However, given the solidity of their attack and given the challenge facing them this weekend, it is likely that Coach Gregor Townsend and his charges have worked relentlessly at the defensive structures in their gameplay this week. New Zealand’s back line is more than capable of shredding any team on the planet and if Scotland don’t have a healthy understanding of how to use and understand what they see unfolding in their rear view mirrors on Saturday it could turn into a long and painful afternoon for the Scots, especially if their white line fever is not tempered with some solid and well thought out defensive patterns. New Zealand ultimately pulled off a comfortable win against France last weekend, but clearly took their foot off the gas in the second half, and were exposed badly at times by an exuberant French team.

Lastly, a grudge match of epic proportions awaits in Paris as the two finalists to host the 2023 World Cup go head to head in the Stade de France. With France much to the surprise of many, ourselves included, being awarded the World Cup in six years time, South Africa will feel more than just a bit resentful. It remains to be seen if this is yet one more humiliation they will have to suffer this year, or it will inspire them to put in a performance to well and truly spoil France’s party on home soil. To be honest after the truly awful display by the Springboks against a clinical and ruthless Ireland last weekend, we can’t help feeling that such aspirations on the part of South Africa are sadly nothing more than flights of fancy. France on the other hand were a revelation last weekend against New Zealand. Once Coach Guy Noves’ team started to click in the second half, we all put down our pints and watched in fascination as one of the most exciting debutant half back partnerships we’ve seen in a while went to work in blue jerseys. To be honest we had kind of written off France, but were delighted to see that there was finally some truth to the rumor that France is once more a sleeping giant in Test Rugby!

Just before we go into our usual head to heads for this weekend, we feel we need to give a big shout out to Canada’s opponents last weekend Georgia and Scotland’s foes Samoa. Georgia dispatched a Canadian side that still seems like South Africa to be completely rudderless, and did it in spectacular style making their fixture with Wales this weekend one we are more than likely to tune into. This try by fullback Soso Matiashvili surely has to be contender for try of the year, even though the nominations are now closed. If Canada had only half this kind of commitment then their current woes could start to be a thing of the past.

As mentioned above we also give Samoa, who faced a crisis of epic proportions within their own union last weekend, full credit as they were able to rise to the challenge so heroically against Scotland. It was inspirational stuff to a man and once more displayed the character and passion which is such an integral part of our glorious sport – Canada take note!  Samoa we salute you!

Italy vs Argentina
Saturday, November 18th
Florence

Italy need to win this and win it well, to both set themselves up for their encounter with South Africa in a week’s time as well as prove that the work that Coach Conor O’Shea is doing with this side is paying dividends in making Italy a genuinely competitive side. Despite Argentina’s lacklustre performance against England last weekend, this is a quality Pumas side that simply needs to click and if it does then Italy are going to be put to the test in no uncertain terms. A fascinating contest awaits especially if Argentina really turn up.

In the front rows, Argentina need to come to the party given the experience they have while Italy’s youngsters need to face up to the challenge. Given the fact that Argentina have the vastly experienced Agustin Creevy packing down we give the Pumas the edge here, despite the fact that they can no longer count on the scrum being one of their dominant platforms. Nevertheless, expect Italy to be competitive in this part of the park.

In the second rows, we also hand the contest to Argentina, especially as we were pleasantly surprised by Tomas Lavanini last weekend. He clearly seemed to have learnt the errors of his ways in terms of discipline and put in a remarkably composed performance against England who must have had him as a clear target in any attempts to get under the Pumas skin. Matias Alemanno was also solid and these two are a daunting unit. Italy’s offerings in Marco Fuser and newcomer Dean Budd are no slouches and will give as good as they get, but we just feel if the Pumas fire, the Argentinian duo are likely to be the more destructive pairing, especially with Guido Petti on the bench.

In the back rows, we also hand it to Argentina. Despite the fact that the Pumas number eight Juan Manuel Leguizamon is getting to close to the end of his tenure, there is no denying his pedigree and influence on this team especially if he can keep his discipline. As a result the contest between him and Italian talisman Sergio Parisse will be one of the highlights of this match, although the sheer inspiration that Parisse provides to his teammates should see the Italian come out on top. However, it’s at 6 and 7 where we feel that Argentina are going to be exceptionally dangerous. Pablo Matera is one of the best in the world and is often regarded as Argentina’s miracle man when the chips are down. His colleague, the towering Marcos Kremer, has also been a player who individually has impressed all season for Argentina. Their Italian counterparts Francesco Minto and Braam Steyn need no introduction, but the mere presence of Matera alone for Argentina, along with the rest of his all-star back row cast, makes us believe that despite Sergio Parisse Argentina may just have the edge here on Saturday.

Italy boasts a solid and promising half back partnership in the shape of fly half Carlo Canna and scrum half Marcello Violi. Canna’s kicking continues to improve and he has shown himself to be more than willing to take ball in hand and throw himself into the fray when needed. A player who we feel gets better with each outing and is a genuinely bright prospect for Italy. Argentina’s pairing of Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez really needs to click in this match. They often seem impatient and out of sync with each other which sees Argentina lose possession after one or two phases. However, with Sanchez scoring Argentina’s only try after an impressive 20 phases against England last weekend, it is clear that if they work together and stop trying to pull off moves that their skill sets can’t match, the Pumas pair provide the ability to run a tight game. Italy are still learning here, and Argentina just aren’t firing so as result on home soil we are just nudging it in favor of Italy, especially if it comes to a kicking contest between the sticks, as Canna’s success rate seems better than Sanchez’s of late.

In the backs, there is definitely some speed and pace here for Italy with winger Leonardo Sarto looking very good against Fiji and we also like the look of Mattia Bellini, so much so that we think Italy has the edge here, despite the presence of the Pumas new superstar winger Emiliano Boffelli. Boffelli’s colleague Sebastian Cancelliere made us sit up and take notice in the Americas Rugby Championship this year, but the Pumas pair were simply too quiet for us against England whereas the Italians really shone against Fiji at times. In the centres the balance swings back in Argentina’s favor with Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias and Matias Orlando, even if we really didn’t see anything of them in the England game up against a relatively new Italian pairing of the two Tommassos, Boni and Castello. Italy finally seem to have a decent fullback in Jayden Hayward but Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet is a special talent and as a result should have the edge here.

It is likely to be close with both sides wanting to make a statement, but despite home advantage for Italy we just feel that Argentina’s pedigree is simply that much better, despite them really not firing as a unit this year. Consequently a gritty battle with occasional flashes of brilliance from both sides, should see Argentina clinch it by two points!

England vs Australia
Saturday, November 18th
Twickenham

This is probably the most anticipated fixture of the November Internationals. England’s epic run of back to back victories came to a screeching halt this March in Dublin as Ireland finally managed to derail the English juggernaut. Since then a successful tour to Argentina which gave many up and coming English players their first real taste of the heat of battle at Test Level, and a good performance by English players on the Lions Tour, has meant there are plenty of grounds for optimism. However, between now and the World Cup the pressure is only going to increase and the opposition be more challenging. England looked rather pedestrian at times against Argentina, and distinctly average for large periods of the game. It is unlikely that Coach Eddie Jones will tolerate a similar performance against a Wallaby side that are a mere shadow of the shambolic outfit England went up against in 2016. England will be tested to the full on Saturday by an Australian team that is gaining momentum at an alarming rate. Unlike South Africa, Australia have emerged from the nightmare of 2016 looking in increasingly fine mettle and worthy challengers to England’s position of number two in the World rankings. A battle royale between two quality sides awaits us all at Twickenham this Saturday.

In the front rows, it is going to be tight but England should have the advantage. Australia are only just emerging from the wilderness in terms of scrum prowess. Although their progress here in the last six months has been nothing short of remarkable, it is still not as settled as that of England’s front row trio of Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole and Dylan Hartley, with Vunipola being one of the few standout English performers in the match against the Pumas last Saturday. Australia to be competitive and troublesome but England to win the contest here.

In the second rows, England should also have the edge in the shape of the tried and trusted platform of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury. While we think that Australia’s Adam Coleman is someone we will all be talking about come the World Cup, his partner Rob Simmons simply doesn’t match up at the same level, especially given the English offering, and the fact that Maro Itoje will be waiting on the bench for England. England to clearly dominate here, but Coleman to cause them all kinds of problems especially at lineout time.

In the back rows, the contest suddenly levels out and the advantage swings in favor of Australia. We thought Sam Underhill was outstanding, albeit naive at times, for England last weekend and clearly a force to be reckoned with for the future. Nathan Hughes also impressed at number eight along with the ever reliable Chris Robshaw at flanker. However, Australia’s Michael Hooper and number eight Sean McMahon are just that much more dynamic and unpredictable in our opinion. The only weak link here for us is the Wallabies’ Ned Hanigan, but even he is starting to silence some of his doubters. Nevertheless despite a very solid English offering here, we hand the contest to Australia given the X-factor and sheer nuisance value of Hooper and brute force of McMahon.

In the half backs, despite the presence of the exceptional Will Genia at scrum half for Australia it should be all about England. The pairing of scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford is once more starting to settle nicely, with some real intelligence on display here.  As a unit we just think the English pair is firing better, especially in the kicking department. Furthermore despite some epic performances this year for Australia, on the odd occasion Genia has gone missing for Australia and there will be plenty of pressure on both him and fly half Bernard Foley on Saturday, something which Foley in particular seems to be struggling with of late as good a player as he is. Therefore England to run the show here on Saturday.

In the backs, it’s a hard one to call but with Owen Farrell in the mix for England at centre alongside Jonathan Joseph, England may just have the slimmest of margins in terms of which side will get the upper hand. The Wallaby offering of Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi packs plenty of power and pace, but we just can’t help feeling that the English pair have the better tactical mindset especially when allied to their half back partnership of Ford and Youngs. On the wings though we feel Australia has the edge in the shape of the remarkable Reece Hodge and Australia’s find of the year Marika Koroibete. Elliot Daly and Jonny May provide plenty of potential to light up the pitch but we just feel that Hodge and Koroibete have some useful familiarity at the moment with the latter proving to be a nightmare for opposition defences to cope with. Lastly at fullback Australia’s Kurtley Beale has shown us some real magic in the last six months and we just feel he possesses a bit more X-factor than England’s Anthony Watson, albeit not by much. The contest between the Wallaby and English back lines is going to be fascinating and often equal. If Owen Farrell doesn’t quite shine as England need him to then Australia are likely to win the margins. However, with Farrell on form and the rest of his backs stepping up we hand this to England by the slimmest of margins.

It’s England’s bench with the exception of Joe Marler, who we still regard as a disciplinary liability for England, that should seal the deal in England’s favor on Saturday, albeit not by much. As much as Marler is a liability for England, the same could be said of Nick Phipps for Australia. But overall it is a very strong bench for England with some of their brightest up and coming talent packing the ranks, whereas the Wallaby bench is much more of a mixed bag particularly in terms of form. It is going to be incredibly close at times and hopefully a spectacle of Test rugby that we will all be talking about for many weeks to come. However, at home we can’t help feeling that this is England’s match by 2 points!

Scotland vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 18th
Murrayfield

We all know that Scotland are one of the most exciting attacking teams on the planet, but they are going to have to be that and one of the best teams defensively as well on Saturday if they are to give New Zealand a genuine run from their money. As impressed as we were by Scotland at times last Saturday against Samoa, there were simply too many alarm bells going off in the defensive quarters for us to feel confident about Scotland causing an upset this Saturday. They are likely to have spent the week working on their weaknesses in this department, but given the speed and ruthlessness of New Zealand we sadly doubt it will be enough of a turnaround in the space of a mere seven days. New Zealand will be looking no doubt to put in two “complete” performances to end their year, and it would seem that Scotland and Wales could well end up being the sacrificial lambs to that cause.

In the front rows, even without the presence of Dane Coles for New Zealand, the All Blacks should still have the clear edge. Coles’ understudy at Hooker, Codie Taylor needs no introduction and is a fearsome weapon in his own right. His partners Nepo Laulala and Kane Hames have also impressed throughout 2017. Scotland will be brave here make no mistake and we are huge fans of Scottish prop Zander Ferguson and like the promise of Hooker Stuart McInally, but they will be up against it as they seek to try to keep the New Zealand trio at bay.

In the second rows, Scotland’s offering of the exceptional Jonny Gray and Ben Toolis are likely to once more put up a brave fight, but the fact that the New Zealand second row boasts Sam Whitelock says it all. Whitelock is probably the best in the world at his position and Scotland are going to be working overtime just to keep his influence on proceedings to a minimum, let alone his partner Luke Romano.

In the back rows, it’s also hard to see Scotland getting the better of New Zealand, especially if Vaea Fifita has the kind of game he had against Argentina in the recent Rugby Championship. The contest here however is slightly less one-sided as we rate the two Scottish flankers John Barclay and Hamish Watson very highly. Both possess extraordinary work rates and seem to be virtually indestructible with Watson able to cause havoc at times. However, the pedigree of Sam Cane and Kieran Read should ensure that as the match wears on New Zealand start to dominate in this part of the field, especially once the bench starts making an impact in the shape of Matt Todd and Liam Squire.

In the half backs, it will be hard for Scotland to better New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett. England, Ireland and New Zealand have without a doubt the best half back pairings in Test rugby right now, and it will be a tall order for Scotland’s Finn Russel and Ali Price to unseat Smith and Barrett’s complete control of proceedings. Having said that though we must confess to finding Scotland’s Finn Russell to be a very exciting player with scrum half Ali Price bringing some real fizz to the position that has been lacking in Scottish rugby in days gone by. There will be plenty of sparks here on Saturday, but with TJ Perenara waiting on the bench for New Zealand, it is going to be hard to for Scotland to really exert the kind of control and continuity needed here. Expect New Zealand to dictate proceedings with occasional flashes of brilliance from Scotland.

In the backs, there should be plenty of excitement from both sides. Scotland’s 12-15 axis has danger written all over it in the shape of the electric centre pairing of Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, winger Tommy Seymour and speed merchant Stuart Hogg at fullback. However, for us New Zealand just look that much more accomplished and settled in their 11-15. The centre partnership of Sonny Bill Williams and the exceptional Ryan Crotty seems to have developed an effective formula, while Rieko Ioane has proved almost unstoppable out wide. Waisake Naholo packs plenty of pace and power on the opposite wing, and Damian McKenzie’s catlike elusiveness and sense of where the gaps are coupled to some exceptional passing skills and turn of pace, mean that New Zealand have the complete package here. Once again Scotland are likely to be exceptionally competitive in this area especially for the first hour, but New Zealand look the more tried and tested unit with a solid track record since August.

Despite the fact we feel a Scottish win is sadly not on the cards, we still think it should be an exceptionally exciting match at times with some spectacular running rugby from both sides. However, New Zealand look the more accomplished and familiar side and as a result we see them taking it by 21 points in a runaway finish in the last quarter!

France vs South Africa
Saturday, November 18th
Paris

Let’s be brutally honest it has been a harsh week for South African rugby. It starts with the schooling the Springboks got in Dublin intensifying the calls for the head of Coach Alastair Coetzee. Then mid-week South Africa learns that after seemingly having the 2023 World Cup bid in the bag, they are pipped at the post by France. Now to add insult to injury a demoralised South African team has to take on France on the ground that will see the final of the 2023 global showdown. It is going to be hard for players and supporters to drag themselves out of the funk surrounding the sport in South Africa on Saturday, but that is precisely what they need to do to vindicate their standing in the World Rugby order, and show that despite the disappointment they are still one of the sport’s great competitors. It will be a tough ask against a French team likely to be bubbling over with a degree of joie de vivre, as well as confidence from a respectable showing against the mighty All Blacks last weekend.

In the front rows, all is not lost for South Africa and despite the fact that the entire front row went missing in Dublin last weekend there is some serious firepower here. Hooker Malcolm Marx if he produces the kind of game he pulled off in the second Test against New Zealand in Cape Town in October, could singlehandedly demolish the entire French forward effort. However, we also highly rate France’s front row offering especially of Hooker Guilhem Guirado and Rabah Slimani. South Africa possess the legendary Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira in support of Marx, and despite the loss of Coenie Oosthuizen to injury, we like his replacement Wilco Louw. These three really need to click for South Africa on Saturday, and with Stephen Kitshoff on the bench we just feel that provided they turn up South Africa have the edge here.

In the second rows, South Africa should also have the clear edge in the shape of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, provided that unlike last week they actually show up.  However Sebastien Vahaamahina and Paul Gabrillagues had a solid game against New Zealand with Vahaamahina catching the eye on more than one occasion. Franco Mostert could provide some salvation for South Africa off the bench, but this contest is hard to call. Based on form alone from last weekend, we are perhaps controversially handing this one to the French.

In the back rows, there is also plenty of firepower for South Africa but it too really needs to find some character and polish that was so woefully lacking last Saturday in Dublin. Francois Louw returns to the flank alongside Siya Kolisi who was remarkably quiet and even inept at times, especially given the kinds of performances he has put in so far this year. At number eight Duane Vermeulen makes a return to the Springbok jersey, but doubts remain about his fitness especially as he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire for Toulon this season. France bring two players we rate very highly in the shape of talisman Louis Picamoles at number eight and Kevin Gourdon at flanker. We thought Gourdon in particular had an excellent game against New Zealand last Saturday. In short, despite the talent they have South Africa are going to be hard pressed to match France in this part of the park especially on home soil for les Bleus.

In the half back contest, we have to confess to having been blown away by the two French youngsters, scrum half Antoine Dupont and Anthony Belleau, last weekend against New Zealand. Despite the fact that South Africa are finally starting Handre Pollard once more at fly half, it’s been a while since he has worn the number 10 jersey for the Springboks. The French half back pairing was outstanding against New Zealand, especially given their lack of experience, something that so far we can’t say about the South African unit. We know Pollard has the talent but we haven’t really seen it for a while now, and he was remarkably quiet off the bench last weekend in Dublin even though he was not playing at fly half. On X-factor alone we’re giving this one to France.

In the backs, we also feel that it is once more all about France. Teddy Thomas scored a fine try last weekend, and Nans Ducuing was a revelation at fullback. The centre pairing of Geoffrey Doumayrou and Mathieu Bastareaud also got some serious go forward traction on New Zealand, and Bastareaud’s aggressive physicality is likely to prove problematic for South Africa’s Francois Venter and Jesse Kriel. At least South Africa are not starting Damian de Allende at centre though we scratched our head over his inclusion on the bench, but even Jesse Kriel has made increasingly little impact on the Springbok cause of late while Francois Venter has little Test experience. On the wings and under the high ball Courntall Skosan and Dillyn Leyds looked exceptionally vulnerable last weekend and expect France to target both this weekend. The only Springbok player in the backs who we thought tried to make a go of it against Ireland last weekend was fullback Andries Coetzee, but as a lone wolf with no support from his teammates up against a water tight Irish defence he was able to achieve very little. We know France can be exciting here and they proved that last weekend, whereas South Africa’s backs have for the most part been a constant Achilles heel for them, and we just can’t see that changing on Saturday meaning that France should have the clear edge in the running game.

The South African bench with the exception of Franco Mostert and Stephen Kitshoff is unlikely to give France much cause for concern, especially if they have managed to gain any sort of dominance by the final quarter. South Africa simply can’t be as woeful as they were last weekend, but it is still a big ask and one which will really determine what kind of character this side and its coaches are made of. However, given the events of the last week and South Africa’s continuing dismal record away from home we think this is France’s match for the taking. Consequently we expect to see France take it by six points in front of a delirious home crowd drunk on the fever of the World Cup bid!

Endnote

As always we include the 1014’s preview of this weekend’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentlemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. For some in-depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!

The November Test window opens in earnest this weekend, with some interesting fixtures in prospect, though for most the highlight of the weekend is likely to be the clash between Ireland and a resurgent South Africa. England take on Argentina and seek to give some new caps their first taste of the International stage. Meanwhile a depleted Wales look to take on their nemesis Australia who seem to be on a solidly upward trajectory, and France desperately seek to find a squad from the casualty wards that can take on an All Black team that still has some questions to answer. For Wales and France it will be all about trying find depth rather than results, whereas for Ireland and England a performance based result will clearly be the order of the day from the coaching staff.

Ireland will need to put a disappointing Six Nations behind them, and demonstrate that they have both the depth and skill set to be the competitors everyone knows they can be in the buildup to the World Cup. Ireland will need to show the consistency they so often lack over the coming months. They are without doubt the most potent threat in the Northern Hemisphere after England, but have so far struggled to string two solid wins together on the trot. South Africa will be desperate to prove that despite a truly heroic effort against the All Blacks last month which in our opinion was the THE Test of 2017 so far, they can perform to the same level away from home. Ireland as a first attempt at proving this is a truly daunting task, and as a result this should be a Test match to remember and the highlight of the weekend.

England in the process of blooding several new caps, should learn a great deal about their depth as well as securing a comfortable win against an Argentinian team that has simply failed to fire for more than fifty minutes in any given match this year. Make no mistake Argentina will be solid and gritty competition and if England let their guard down for a minute this could end up being their banana skin of 2017, but based on the Pumas current form we think it unlikely.

Wales face a team they simply seem unable to beat in the shape of the Wallabies, and with their squad riddled with injuries and as a result missing several key players, it is unlikely the status quo between these two sides is likely to change on Saturday. Australia will be keen to show that the renaissance we witnessed during the recent Rugby Championship, is no flash in the pan despite the chaos surrounding rugby at club level in Australia.

France will learn much about the depth they have available over the coming months as the insatiable demands of their club structure have meant that Coach Guy Noves is left with little choice other than selecting a squad we hardly recognise. While this may mean that France will struggle to put in much of a performance during November, it may also be beneficial in the long run as they uncover a raft of new talent at the beginning of their preparations for the next World Cup. New Zealand may be vulnerable at the moment, but we doubt that a relatively unknown French squad will unhinge the All Black juggernaut to any great degree. However it is France, and the history between these two sides is full of memorable surprises, and as a result always a contest worth watching, with the 2015 World Cup quarter-final perhaps being the only exception.

Anyway enough of the preamble and on to our usual look at the head to head matchups of the four key Tests this weekend.

England vs Argentina
Saturday, November 11th
Twickenham

We look at this match as the warm up game for England’s big match of November which in our opinion is their game against Australia next weekend. This is not to diminish Argentina as a threat but there is no question that this Pumas side is faltering at present and as a result will give England a workout but are unlikely to trouble an all-star England team. England will want to lay down the marker that they are the best team in the Northern Hemisphere and have made the most progress in building for the World Cup in Japan in 2019, whereas Argentina will simply be looking to put in a good performance and build the confidence of some their newer players.

In the battle of the front rows, England should easily have this wrapped up. Argentina’s Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy is absolutely outstanding but England’s unit of Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Mako Vunipola packs experience and power that simply puts their Argentinian opponents in the shade. A tight battle but one that England should dominate is likely to be the order of the day. Add to the mix Jamie George off the bench as Hooker replacement for Hartley and the deal is sealed for England.

In the contest between the second rows, once again England should have the match sewn up in the shape of Courtney Lawes and George Kruis. We are really surprised to see Argentina’s biggest discipline liability, Tomas Lavanini in the starting lineup, and as much as we like Matias Alemanno we just can’t see this Argentine unit getting any traction on their English counterparts.

In the back row, the contest is a little edgier between the two teams, as we have to confess to really liking the Argentine trio of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Tomas Lezana. Lezana and Kremer have been new additions to the Pumas lineup this year and have consistently impressed. We have to admit that as a result of not having watched any of the English premiership English flanker Sam Underhill is a bit of a novelty to us so can’t really comment. However, Nathan Hughes and Chris Robshaw need no introduction and our money is on them to contain a very energetic and powerful Argentinian challenge in this part of the park.

In the half backs, Argentina just haven’t fired for us this year either with Nicolas Sanchez or the veteran Juan Martin Hernandez. Martin Landajo is a quality and gifted scrum half, but given the fact that as a unit the Argentinian half back partnership has not really clicked this year, it is difficult for us to see the two Pumas gaining any kind of authority over England’s tried and trusted pairing of scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford. So no surprises here but England to run the show on Saturday.

In the backs, despite some genuine talent in Argentina’s offerings, England just look far too dangerous. The two Pumas wingers Emiliano Boffelli and Ramiro Moyano are big fast men but England’s Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson just boast too much pedigree and experience for it to be anything other than England dictating the play here. Add to that a genuinely exciting English centre partnership of the outstanding Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph and once more England would seem to have the clear advantage.  It is perhaps only at fullback where we’d argue that Argentina have an edge in Joaquin Tuculet over England’s Mike Brown. In our opinion the Puma packs more of an X-factor than the Englishman, and as a result is likely to be the more dangerous of the two. However, overall this English set of backs just look the more complete unit and as a result we expect it to be all about England here on Saturday.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of England’s game on Saturday will be the impact of the bench from prop Harry Williams, flanker Sam Simmonds and fly half Alex Lozowski. Lozowski and Williams both made us sit up and take notice on England’s tour to Argentina this June, and Williams has been immense for the most exciting team in the English premiership Exeter Chiefs. Despite their lack of experience when matched up against an Argentinian bench boasting more caps we still predict England to have the edge here.

It should be a tight battle at times, especially in the loose, but we can’t help feeling that England are ultimately going to run away with this one by 18 points!

Wales vs Australia
Saturday, November 11th
Cardiff

As we have said already Welsh supporters need to look at this match with an eye to developing some depth in their squad at this stage of the World Cup cycle. Their first outing against a rampant Australian side, is likely going to be a very tall order and as a result getting a solid performance by some of the newer players will be more important in many ways than an actual win. Australia on the other hand will want to show that they have now moved up a few gears in their preparation for the next World Cup and the recent win against New Zealand was clear evidence of this.

In the front rows, it should be Australia’s day, as after having been one of Test Rugby’s bad jokes, the Wallaby front row now looks solid and able to mix it with the best in the shape of Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Scott Sio. The Welsh offering boasts some solid prowess in the shape of Ken Owens, Rob Evans and Tom Francis but we just feel that the Australians have really stood out this year and with the familiarity of playing together now for the last 3 months they should have the edge over the Welsh.

In the second rows, we are really looking forward to the battle between Australia’s Adam Coleman and Welsh talisman and Captain Alun-Wyn Jones. We have been one of Coleman’s biggest fans since he first pulled on a Wallaby jersey and we expect a ferocious battle between the youngster and the veteran here on Saturday. We’d argue otherwise it’s an even match between the other two second rowers Rob Simmonds for Australia and Jake Ball for Wales, with the Welshman perhaps having the edge. Consequently we think Wales just might get the better of the contest here, especially if Ken Owens is solid with the throw-ins come lineout time.

In the back rows, we’re looking forward to seeing how the two new Welshman perform in the shape of flankers Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi. Having said that though we expect to see the class and experience of Australia’s Michael Hooper at flanker and the outstanding Sean McMahon at number eight rule the day. Taulupe Faletau for Wales will add plenty of spark but may be so busy caretaking his two rookie partners at Test level that his impact may be slightly diminished. Australia should win the contest but as we said, it’s going to be fascinating to see the two new Welshman in action and what this tells us about Welsh depth in this part of the park with an eye to Japan in 2019.

In the half backs, Will Genia has been on fire for Australia since the Rugby Championship, and although Bernard Foley may have struggled at times especially with the kicking duties, there is no doubting the value he adds to this Wallaby side and his willingness to throw himself into the fray. Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies need no introduction for Wales and if these two fire they can provide plenty of sparks of their own. However, based on performance, especially Genia’s we’re handing the contest to Australia here.

In the backs, we should once more get an idea of what kind of depth Wales are developing as both winger Steff Evans and centre Owen Williams get their first call to arms at Test level against a major rugby superpower. The rest of the Welsh back line backs some serious experience and punch in the shape of winger Liam Williams who is electric, and in our opinion the most exciting player in a Welsh jersey centre Jonathan Davies, with the veteran Leigh Halfpenny shoring up the fullback spot. However, in our opinion Halfpenny is not the player he once was. As good as this Welsh five are, along with the excitement of the new talent it’s Australia’s turbocharged offering which lit  up pitches this Rugby Championship that we feel is going to carve massive holes in an inexperienced Welsh defence. Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete was one of the revelations of the recent Rugby Championship and his partner Reece Hodge is an exceptionally versatile back line player and brings with him a massive point scoring boot. Our only surprise is seeing Kurtley Beale at fullback given his stellar performances so far this year at centre. However, with Israel Folau on sabbatical it is perhaps no bad thing to give the versatile Beale some exposure at fullback, a position he has played before. Tevita Kuridrani effectively steamrolled his way through opposition defences this year for Australia and his partner Samu Kerevi, despite some defensive frailties, is electric with ball in hand. There is just too much raw talent in the Wallaby back five for it to be anything other than Australia’s day here on Saturday, but if the Welsh offering especially the youngsters can really stand up and be counted, Welsh supporters will still have a lot to cheer about.

The benches are, especially in the case of Wales, all about blooding new talent, so again lots to learn here. However, overall especially given Wales’ woeful record against Australia, we can’t see it being anything other than an emphatic Australian win by 15 points!

Ireland vs South Africa
Saturday, November 11th
Dublin

Without any shadow of a doubt THE big fixture of the weekend, and one which we will be glued to our screens for. The South African performance against New Zealand in their final match of the Rugby Championship in Cape Town was for us the game of 2017 so far, and we expect this match to be of an equal calibre. Two sides with plenty to prove, and given their respective strengths and weaknesses being essentially equal competitors. In short this could go either way and should be an absolute belter of a Test.

In the front rows, despite the presence of the exceptional Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy for Ireland, we hand the contest to South Africa, simply on the presence of Malcom Marx alone. If you’re wondering why we are so emphatic in our rating of the South African hooker then just watch this:

Add to Marx the incomparable Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen packing down alongside him and this is a truly terrifying unit. Ireland especially in the shape of Healy and Furlong will be exceptionally competitive make no mistake, but we just can’t help feeling that Rory Best is just not the match of Marx, especially at lineout time, given the fact that South Africa will be packing three second rowers in their lineout. It will be a brave struggle by Ireland here, but one which South Africa should win comfortably. Throw in Steven “the ginger Ninja” Kitshoff off the bench along with the impressive Wilco Louw and South Africa’s dominance is assured.

In the second rows, we also hand the contest to South Africa fair and square. Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth are so familiar with each other and such gigantic figures in the lineout that Ireland’s Devin Toner and the exceptional Ian Henderson are going to struggle to keep these two powerful figures in check. Add to that the incomparable Franco Mostert waiting on the bench and it is going to be hard for Ireland to contain South Africa here let alone acheive any kind of dominance, especially if Rory Best’s lineout throwing is not up to scratch.

It’s in the back rows, where things start to even up between the two sides. With CJ Stander at number eight and Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien on the flanks this is a fast and dangerous Irish loose trio. However, they will be equally matched by South Africa’s outstanding Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit, despite the latter usually playing as a second rower. Despite playing out of position, Du Toit excelled in the flanker role in the second Test against New Zealand and expect more of the same on Saturday. We just can’t pick a side that has a clear advantage here and as a result expect this to be one of the most exciting contests on the field on Saturday.

In the half backs, though the ascendancy starts to swing firmly in favor of Ireland. The Irish half back partnership of scrum half Conor Murray and fly half Jonathan Sexton is simply one of International Test Rugby’s finest and should easily completely dictate the passage of play on Saturday in Ireland’s favor. It’s also worth noting that Murray’s replacement on the bench Kieran Marmion had an outstanding game under pressure against England in the Six Nations this year and is likely to provide ample support in continuing whatever dominance the Irish are able to achieve here. Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies are a solid pairing for South Africa but they simply don’t have the X-factor and tactical skill sets of the Irish pair. Like many we are interested to see if Handre Pollard comes off the Springbok bench as number 10 or a centre and feel South Africa will learn much about who should be playing these positions by the end of this November Test series.

In the backs, we can’t help feeling that it is going to be a run away contest in favor of Ireland. This is one area of South Africa’s game which so far this year hasn’t really made anyone sit up and take notice. It’s not that they haven’t got good players, but more a question of not really knowing how to use or support them. Furthermore, we cannot for the life of us understand the inclusion of Damian de Allende in the starting fifteen at centre when there are so many more talented centres in South Africa. We just can’t see De Allende working all that well alongside Jesse Kriel who is an impressive ball carrier but like De Allende is also rather one-dimensional and fairly easy to read defensively. Ireland boast a lethal centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and newcomer Bundee Aki who gets his first start for Ireland after having lit up the Pr012/14 at Connacht for the last few years and is Henshaw’s former partner at club level. We’re very excited to see two new starts for Ireland on the wing in the shape of Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale with the latter being the talk of Irish rugby this season for all the right reasons. South African wingers Dillyn Leyds and Courtnall Skosan are exciting players in their own right but given that the Irish pair are going to have the likes of Sexton and company looking to put them into space, we just can’t help seeing Ireland running rings around South Africa here on Saturday. Lastly at fullback although we question the selection of Rob Kearney at fullback as opposed to newcomer Tiernan O’Halloran, especially as there are question marks around Kearney making it to Japan, there is no doubt that there are still some big games left in the veteran fullback. We questioned his inclusion in the Irish starting fifteen against New Zealand in Chicago last year only to have him put in a vintage performance. Nevertheless we would have at least liked to see O’Halloran on the bench, perhaps we’ll see him for the match against Argentina. South Africa’s Andries Coetzee is a fine player but if Kearney produces one of his vintage performances it will be hard for the South African fullback to really get the better of his much more experienced Irish counterpart.

This will very much be a game where if South Africa establish forward dominance and suffocate Irish go forward ball the contest will be a dead heat till the final whistle. However, if the Irish back row gets the better of the South Africans then Ireland’s more accomplished and dangerous set of players from 9-15, plus home advantage should see them home. South Africa are still desperately trying to shake the demon of performing badly away from home off their back, something we think they are likely to do this tour, but not against the second best side in the Northern Hemisphere as an opening Test. Consequently we are handing this to Ireland by five!

France vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 11th
Paris

Despite the seemingly inevitable outcome of this match there is still plenty of interest to be had. Let’s face it at this stage we know pretty well everything about this star-studded New Zealand squad but virtually nothing about this French squad, which to be fair has been cobbled together at the last-minute due to many of French Coach Guy Noves’ first choice selections littering the casualty wards of hospitals across France at the moment. Once more much like Wales, what French supporters should take from this November series is how much depth they are developing for the World Cup in Japan in just under two years as opposed to actual success in terms of results on the pitch.

In the front rows, there is some familiarity for those of us who have been watching France in the last few seasons, in the shape of Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, alongside props Rabah Slimani and Jefferson Poirot. We are big fans of both Guirado and Slimani but there is no question that they are going to be up against it when going head to head with New Zealand’s new look partnership of  Nepo Laulala, Dane Coles and Kane Hames. This is by no means New Zealand’s second string front row as was evidenced in the Rugby Championship and can easily fill in for regulars Owen Franks and Joe Moody. Solid, reliable and with the X-factor of Coles, New Zealand are going to be very hard if not impossible to beat here, with New Zealand’s bench looking to complete the destruction.

In the second rows, with the presence of perhaps the best in the world in the shape of Sam Whitelock, New Zealand will have the clear edge here and his partner Luke Romano provides plenty of firepower as well.  We know a fair bit about France’s Sebastien Vahaamahina but next to nothing about newcomer  Paul Gabrillagues having watched none of the TOP 14 this season. However, whatever talents the French pair have we just can’t see them getting the better of the New Zealand duo, especially with Whitelock in the mix. With Scott Barrett waiting on the bench for New Zealand the pain here is only likely to intensify for France.

In the back rows, it’s once again all about New Zealand though expect France to be more competitive here. Flanker Vaea Fifita was sensational in the Rugby Championship prompting many to draw similarities between him and the great Jonah Lomu. While still relatively inexperienced at Test level this remarkable player is only going to get better and more dangerous in the buildup to the next World Cup. Packing down alongside him are Sam Cane and Captain Kieran Read and France are going to have to be rather extraordinary to gain any kind of traction here. However, in the shape of Louis Picamoles at eight who is always inspirational and Kevin Gourdon who is someone we have consistently enjoyed watching, France should manage to at least be competitive here even if New Zealand are likely to dominate proceedings.

In the half backs, having not watched any of the TOP 14 we have to confess to knowing nothing about France’s two newcomers fly half Anthony Belleau and scrum half Antoine Dupont. However, New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith are arguably the best in the world at their trade to the point we just can’t see France being even remotely competitive here. We do know a great deal about Baptiste Serin who occupies the French bench as a scrum half replacement and must confess surprise to not seeing him start, as he genuinely brings some excitement and X-factor to the position for France. With New Zealand’s TJ Perenara and Lima Sopoaga waiting on the bench in the half back berth’s France’s demise in this part of the park would seem assured.

Lastly in the backs it should once more be all about New Zealand plain and simple. The names Damian McKenzie, Waisake Naholo, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane for Zealand ring like a roll call of honor in back line play in International Test Rugby right now. While names like French winger Yoann Huget and his partner Teddy Thomas may be familiar to us, they have hardly been occupying the bright lights of the Test stage in the last year like the New Zealanders have. The choice of Mathieu Bastareaud at centre for France to us smacks of sheer desperation in an attempt to contain the physicality and ball carrying skills of Sonny Bill Williams. As for the rest of France’s back line offering we simply know nothing of them and as a result simply can’t imagine them having much say in proceedings when up against the ridiculous skill sets of their New Zealand opponents.

As we said above, like Wales French supporters will need to see this match through the lens of what it shows them in terms of depth going forward in their World Cup preparations. Despite the proud history of epic matches full of surprises, between these two sides, we are hard pressed to see too many surprises in the making come Saturday. New Zealand should walk away with this without too much difficulty by 22 points, though having said that we have to confess to hoping that France may just turn the form book upside down – doubtful but fun to hope for!

Endnote

As always we include the 1014’s preview of November’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentelemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. For some in depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!

 

 

 

 

England look set to make history this weekend, which is all the more remarkable when you consider the post-mortem that was going on this time last year after the World Cup, as they seek to finish a perfect season in their final Test against Australia. Meanwhile we look back at some of the action from last weekend in an attempt to gauge how much the fabled gap between Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby is looking a year after the World Cup.

England vs Australia
Saturday, December 3rd
Twickenham

The final Test of 2016 provides us with a fitting finale to the year as two sides with everything to prove seek to finish on a high note. For England the task is to put the finishing touches on a remarkable transformation from the disaster of the World Cup and secure an unprecedented 13 wins in a row, which should see them sit comfortably in the number two spot in the world rankings. When you consider where England were this time last year this is a truly impressive turnaround.  For Australia, it is an attempt to silence their critics after a roller coaster of a year in terms of results and also gain revenge for their 3-0 series whitewash by England earlier this year.  Australia have improved dramatically in the space of six months, but as witnessed against Ireland last weekend this progress will dissipate quickly should they end up unraveling against England on Saturday.

Both sides go into this match missing some key players. Most notably for England it is the loss of number eight Billy Vunipola, who to add insult to injury will now also miss England’s Six Nations campaign. Meanwhile Australia are without scrum half Will Genia who due to contractual obligations has had to return to club duty in France. The impact these two players have had on their teams this month, and in Vunipola’s case all year, has been enormous and their absence is likely to be keenly felt on Saturday. With Genia and fly half Bernard Foley working together Australia looks electric on attack and centres Tevita Kuridrani, Reece Hodge and winger Dane Haylett-Petty have been devastating. Although England will be without the services of Billy Vunipola it is a superb opportunity for new number eight Nathan Hughes to really step up to the Test level arena after an outstanding season so far with Wasps. England will miss the services of winger Elliot Daly after his unfortunate red card last weekend in the match against Argentina, however, Jonny May on the opposite wing has been nothing short of extraordinary this month and his contest with in form Wallaby winger Haylett-Petty will be one of the most eagerly anticipated contests of this year’s autumn Tests.

Up front, discipline is going to be the key word, something which both sides have struggled with at times this year, however, in Australia’s case they have tended to dominate the headlines more here. England Captain Dylan Hartley seems more effective in keeping his charges more keenly focused on reducing the penalty count than his Wallaby counterpart Stephen Moore. Australia’s discipline against Ireland was poor to say the least last weekend and against England earlier this year it was at crisis levels. There is little doubt that work will have been done to rectify this, but England still look the more structured unit here.  In the front rows this is likely to be a key concern.  England’s front row should have the edge especially as Dan Cole seeks to rediscover the form that caused Australia so much grief in June. In the second rows, we were very surprised to not see Rory Arnold in the starting lineup for Australia or even make the bench.  As a result given Australia’s offering here we feel this should be an area, particularly at lineout time that England should dominate in the shape of the exceptional George Kruis and Courtney Lawes. It’s in the back rows where England will receive a stern test as Michael Hooper and David Pocock look to rattle the English pair of Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood.  However, as destructive and unpredictable as the Wallaby duo are we can’t help feel that Robshaw’s composure under pressure, which has been exemplary all year, should see England contain the threat as well as can be expected. Furthermore,his partner Tom Wood has been putting in some stellar workrates at the coal face this month. At number eight we are looking forward to seeing the contest of the two new boys, England’s Nathan Hughes and Australia’s Lopeti Timani. However, overall in the loose and at the breakdowns if Australia can keep their focus and discipline we are just handing them the edge here in the shape of the X-Men Pocock and Hooper.

In the half backs we feel that England has the clear advantage especially on home ground.  Australia’s Bernard Foley has been dominant for Australia this month, but he is up against England’s formidable George Ford who in turn is allied to the powerhouse pair of scrum half Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell. Australia’s Nick Phipps at scrum half, although unpredictable and at times dangerous, simply lacks the decision-making and composure under pressure of his English rivals. Add to that some serious lapses in concentration and discipline and we can’t help feeling that despite Foley’s best efforts it’s going to be the English pair who are pulling the strings all afternoon.

In the battle lines being drawn from 11-15 there is plenty of excitement being offered by both sides. In the centres England’s skill and creativity in the shape of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph meets Australia’s strength and long-range speed in the shape of Tevita Kuridrani and Reece Hodge. Kuridrani has scored some spectacular tries in all four tour matches so far and will be keen to make it five from five in this respect against England. Reece Hodge is an exceptionally strong player and can attack from deep both with the boot and with ball in hand.  Farrell and Joseph will need to be at their best to contain these two, but in terms of creativity and reading the ebb and flow of the game we hand the English pair the advantage. On the wings as mentioned above we can’t wait for the contest between England’s Jonny May and Australia’s Dane Haylett-Petty. Two exceptional players in their prime go head to head in a contest that should provide plenty of fireworks. Australia’s Sefa Naivalu on the other wing has looked impressive on this tour and England’s Marland Yarde will need to be at his defensive best to keep him in check. In this area of the park we feel it is a completely even contest between the two sides. At fullback, Australia’s Israel Folau needs no introduction but then neither does England’s Mike Brown. Although we think Folau is the more talented of the two, there is no denying that Brown’s work rate, ferocity and tenacity have been exceptional all year and it is these qualities which should see him get the better of Folau who has not been as sharp in attack this year as most feel he should be.

In short, as England ride the crest of a wave that is surely leaving them brimming with confidence, it should be England’s day on Saturday by 12 points! Although England have been under fire for their discipline and lapses in defence at times this month, they still look like a far more structured side with a clearer idea of the game they want to play than Australia. Australia will be up for this in no uncertain terms and if they play with the kind of ferocity they showed in the second half against Ireland last weekend for the full eighty minutes it could end up being much too close for comfort for England.  However we can’t feel that at the end of a roller coaster season for Australia, this is likely to be a bridge too far. Consequently a spirited but weary side are likely to cave towards the end, and as the penalty count starts swinging firmly in favor of England, Australia will be left with too much to do. Either way though we doubt the term boring is likely to be used in any of the write-ups after the final whistle – so strap yourselves in for International Test Rugby’s last hurrah of 2016!

Last weekend’s action

As we head into getting ready for Christmas, we haven’t had as much time as we would have liked to chew over the events of last weekend which provided drama of the highest order, especially the game between Ireland and Australia.  As a result here is our Coles notes version of what stood out for us in the big matchups from last weekend, including Canada’s own efforts against Samoa.

Samoa vs Canada
Final Score – Samoa 25/Canada 23
Grenoble

Once again Canada end the year short on results. Sure they have entertained, but let’s be honest take away DTH van der Merwe and would Canada really have had much to shout about in November? We still liked the look of what we saw from Connor Braid at half back and feel that he has answered a problematic question for Canada in this department. Consequently, we hope to see more of him in this role next year. In the forwards however, we seem to have gone slightly backwards despite impressive showings from the back row partnership of Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie, with these two clearly the way forward for Canada. Phil Mack continues to add some real fizz and spark to Canada’s attack as opposed to the more pedestrian approach of Gordon McRorie but it is the reliability of the latter’s boot which seems to give him more time in Canada’s starting lineup.  However, as we’ve said all along, especially as the big points become more crucial to closing out games like this there needs to be more emphasis on the kind of skill set Mack brings to the game.

As we say, this is a game that Canada should and could have won, but then that seems to be the standard mantra of every write-up of a Canadian game in the last two years especially against the lesser ranked nations. Consequently we are saying nothing new here. It’s discipline and a lack of concentration/focus in the last twenty minutes which consistently kills off any kind of Canadian challenge at Test level.  Until that is fixed – then sadly nothing new to report here folks.  They know what they need to do and after his first full season with his charges let’s hope it’s onwards and upwards for new Canadian Coach Mark Anscombe and his charges in 2017.

England vs Argentina
Final Score – England 27/Argentina 14
Twickenham

Hats off to England for a remarkable display by 14 men for 75 minutes.  Argentina may have been tired but certainly for a good 40 minutes in the middle of this match they seriously tested England’s character and mettle. England emerged from that test with flying colors and as a result must surely be feeling confident about their final match up of the year with Australia.

We agree there were disciplinary issues on both sides, but of the two red cards we felt that the Argentine offence was the more blatant and malicious of the two.  Elliot Daly’s offence sadly justified the red card he received but unlike the ugly stamping incident by Argentina’s Enrique Pieretto, we felt there was no malice involved.  You could argue that the yellow card that England’s Joe Marler received probably triggered the incident and as a result he continues to be a disciplinary liability for England, but at this level Pieretto’s response was unprofessional and has no place in the modern game. Rugby is an intensely emotional and physical game and as professionals the players have to rise above the inevitable niggles and frustrations that will come into play. That sadly is one aspect of Argentina’s game that they continue to struggle with and opposition teams know it and will use it to their advantage.

Once England recovered from Elliot Daly’s sending off they rallied well as a fourteen man unit and 14 English players heroically held off an aggressive Pumas assault throughout the middle forty minutes of the game. There were defensive lapses by England during that period but let’s face it, they were up against it with just fourteen men, and the way the bench, as we predicted it would, took charge in the last quarter enabled England to pull away comfortably as Argentina simply ran out of ideas and inspiration. For Argentina this sadly has been the benchmark of their season. The Pumas discipline and ability to last a full eighty minutes at the intensity which we know they are capable of continues to be their Achilles Heel.

For England it was a positive result under very difficult circumstances and one in which they learnt a great deal about themselves as a team. For Argentina they need to reflect on probably their most challenging and at times rewarding year yet in International Rugby as they look back on the learning curve of a Super Rugby campaign, and a disappointing but highly competitive Rugby Championship. England will use this match to really understand how to dig deep under pressure in their final assignment of the year against a Wallaby side with a bone to pick on Saturday.

Wales vs South Africa
Final Score – Wales 27/South Africa 13
Cardiff

With the exception of Welsh flanker Justin Tipuric, we didn’t find much to get excited about in this Welsh win in a contest that would appear to have sounded the death knell for Springbok rugby as we have known it. We sadly have witnessed the demise of Springbok rugby that has been building all year and as a result to a certain degree takes some of the shine of an otherwise emphatic Welsh victory. South Africa have been beaten by Italy this month, a side who then lost to Tonga last weekend, which gives us a sense of perspective of the lows to which Springbok rugby has fallen. It was an exceptionally poor performance by South Africa and if anything highlighted a year which both supporters and players alike simply wanted to end.

In their defence Wales took full advantage of a disorganised and demoralised Springbok unit, but despite this rarely looked like a side with a clear sense of what they were trying to do or any overall sense of cohesion. There is no denying that players like flanker Sam Warburton and the extraordinary lock Alun-Wyn Jones add a presence and solidity to this Welsh side that would be the envy of most teams, with Jones himself being a complete force of nature in attack and defence. Justin Tipuric continues to be a revelation and for us should be in Wales’ starting lineup for every match. It’s in the backs and at half back where Wales has talent but seems to lack confidence and the ability to execute play as a unit as opposed to isolated brilliance by individual players on a one-off basis. If Wales can’t tighten this up by the Six Nations, February and March could be two very long months with them duking it out for the wooden spoon with Italy, as France, England, Ireland and Scotland all looks streets ahead in this aspect of their game management.

For South Africa, it is simply a question of making the long trek home and reflecting on probably the most painful year in the history of Springbok rugby. Politics and a farcical coaching structure have destroyed the legacy of a once proud rugby nation this year.  The warning signs have been there for all to see in the last two years but sadly this year has seen it all come to a messy head. There is no question that South Africa still boasts talent in abundance, but without a clear sense of where the game is trying to go and how to get there it is unlikely that things are going to get better soon. Politics need to be kept out of sport at the best of times and South Africa is a glaring example. There are likely to be endless indabas and meaningless strategy sessions over the next few months that are likely to do less to fix the problems the sport is facing and more to pamper the egos and sense of entitlement of politicians and administrators. In the meantime, the continued exodus of South African talent to Europe and elsewhere will continue apace leaving South Africa with more questions than answers.

Ireland vs Australia
Final Score – Ireland 27/Australia 24
Dublin

One word comes to mind when reviewing this match, and it’s depth.  Ireland leading up to and during the course of the match faced an injury crisis of epic proportions but somehow managed to put in a performance that showed just how much grit and character this side now possesses. In the last quarter of the match, players were covering all manner of positions they were not used to and yet still managed to hold their nerve and eke out an impressive win. There is no doubt that Australia’s discipline cost them dearly in this match, coupled with a failure to adequately contain Ireland’s rampaging attacks in the first half. However, the Wallaby outfit that came storming out of the blocks in the second half was a very different beast and look set to put Ireland in their place in no uncertain terms. As wave after wave of gold shirts assaulted the Irish lines, and the medical staff starting collecting overtime pay, an all too familiar scenario in Irish rugby looked set to repeat itself. However, it didn’t and to Ireland’s credit they not only held firm as players adapted to playing out of position, they then went on to score the match winning try and then hold firm in defence for the final minutes to snatch a remarkable win.

Ireland’s crop of new young players have been outstanding this month and the future looks bright for Ireland’s build up to the World Cup in 2019 and next year’s Six Nations, especially as it was the first Test season for many of these players.

For Australia, they showed enormous skill and pace in the second half, but their shambolic first half and disciplinary breakdowns throughout the match ultimately tipped the balance against them.  Discipline has been a recurring nightmare for them this year, as has execution at times especially in the set pieces, and under the kind of pressure Ireland were able to exert these problems continued apace. However, on a positive note the attacking prowess that Australia displayed at times last weekend in Dublin was breathtaking, and unlike earlier in the year this aspect of their game is really starting to show some much-needed finesse. Australia received a setback last weekend in Dublin but the overall improvement is clearly there for all to see. The Wallabies will be more than up to the task of making an emphatic statement against England this Saturday, it just remains to be seen after a long hard and often traumatic year, how much gas is still left in the Wallaby tank against a determined and confident England.

France vs New Zealand
Final Score – France 19/New Zealand 24
Paris

We have to be honest and say we were not expecting this result at all. We thought France would be competitive, but were not prepared for the return of French flair that was on display at times in Paris on Saturday night. The All Blacks are still the best team in the world, especially at weathering unexpected storms and adapting accordingly, but make no mistake the French are back on the world stage in no uncertain terms. With England and Ireland looking strong, and Scotland an increasingly potent dark horse, the 2017 edition of the Six Nations looks to be a cracker of tournament compared to the rather soulless 2016 edition.

As this match wore on, this was a French side of old and the term French flair is once more not just something that misty-eyed old men playing boules in the South of France refer to. Although France displayed a slightly suicidal tendency to offload at any costs, the end result being the match winning intercept try by Beauden Barrett, we were thrilled by the intent and willingness of France to attack and keep the ball moving. It was a fitting end to a glorious weekend of attacking rugby and France are clearly benefitting from Coach Guy Noves work at rebranding French rugby and behind the scenes work with the often factitious domestic structure. For us Baptiste Serin at scrum half was extraordinary and flankers Kevin Gourdon Charles Ollivon provided some extraordinary forward firepower especially in the loose and defensively. Meanwhile centre Wesley Fofana and winger Virimi Vakatawa continue the form that is really starting to light up pitches for France.

There is no question that New Zealand looked tired at times in this match and not at their best.  However, therein lies the problem for everyone else, even when not at their best they just have enough to clinch tough matches like this one. And then there’s that man fly half Beauden Barrett who also appears to be pretty handy at fullback.  While some have criticised his goalkicking, we personally have found it pretty accurate most times, does that really matter when you have such a complete package as Barrett provides? For us he is such an X-factor that we feel fairly confident that in a year or two even the great Dan Carter may be living in his shadow. New Zealand have shown us this year that despite adversity they can still put it all together when it matters most and do it week in week out. They may slip up occasionally as in Chicago, and there is no doubt that the gap between them the and the rest of the world is starting to close rapidly, but they still are the benchmark and likely to remain so until the next World Cup.

Endnote

If you missed last weekend’s fun and games here’s a solid wrap up of the thrills and spills provided by The Tight Five from YouTube including some excellent action from some of the women’s’ games played last week.

There was plenty of drama last weekend and this Saturday’s proceedings look set to provide more of the same, especially as the stakes for England and Australia are now mounting rapidly as they approach their own showdown next weekend.  England look set to end the year on an unprecedented 13 game winning streak and the kind of perfect season that in recent years has only been achieved by New Zealand in 2013 as they go up against an unpredictable and very physical Pumas side. Australia meanwhile have risen spectacularly from the ashes of their series defeat to England earlier this year and despite struggling against traditional rivals New Zealand, showed significant promise of better things to come in the Rugby Championship. This end of year tour by Australia takes in the Northern Hemisphere’s big five, and while the results have been close with the exception of the match against Wales, Australia are once more a side to be reckoned with. Ireland as expected came short a second time around against New Zealand last weekend, but will be keen to prove that they are likely to be the team duking it out with England for Six Nations honors next February as a crop of young talent really starts to hit their paces.

In Cardiff it will be an intriguing match between two sides in crisis.  Wales are clearly not short on talent but seem to lack a sense of identity as to what sort of game they want to play.  South Africa meanwhile finds itself in a state of free fall this year, and the match against Wales is a last-ditch effort to try to restore some credibility to the Springbok jersey that has lost much if not all of its aura in the last twelve months. In Paris, New Zealand look to prove that their one upset this year against Ireland in Chicago was simply that – a one-off departure from a run of incredible form.  France meanwhile showed plenty of signs of French teams of old last weekend against Australia and while it is still early days there is clearly a new dawn taking place in French rugby under Coach Guy Noves.

England vs Argentina
Saturday, November 26th
Twickenham

Argentina may be feeling the effects of a gruelling year of travel as this current squad is essentially Argentina’s Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares, as well as the side that played the Rugby Championship, but as their last hurrah of 2016 expect nothing less than 100% commitment from a powerful and highly motivated Pumas side keen to make a statement. As a result they will provide England with plenty of quality opposition as the Men in White seek to close out a perfect season this year. Despite this though we just can’t see the Pumas getting past an English side that has been one of the talking points of 2016 for all the right reasons in front of a highly vocal Twickenham crowd.

Argentina are renowned for a highly physical presence up front and Saturday’s lineup will be no exception, but then so will England’s offering. England’s forward dominance this year has been well documented and Saturday’s match sees the welcome return of one of the key signposts of this dominance for the future in the shape of lock George Kruis. The front rows should provide an epic tussle, as Argentina’s front three of Captain Agustin Creevy, Ramiro Hererra and Lucas Noguera are quality opposition from start to finish.  However, they have struggled to assert Argentina’s traditional dominance in this area, especially on this tour.  England’s front three of Dan Cole, Captain Dylan Hartley and Mako Vunipola however have looked the more structured and disciplined unit this year and as a result should negate any influence the Pumas may be able to exert here. In the second rows, once again it should all swing England’s way in the shape of the vastly experienced Courtney Lawes who was immense against South Africa and the exceptional newcomer George Kruis, who alongside Maro Itoje has been a revelation for England this year. Argentina boasts some real talent here especially in the shape of Guido Petti, but it lacks the experience and sheer firepower of the English duo. The back rows are slightly more equal in terms of experience and capability, however once again we feel the English offering is just that much more settled.  Furthermore once you add in the force of nature that is English number eight Billy Vunipola, England should win the day here once more.  However, having said that provided he can keep his discipline Argentinian number eight Leonardo Senatore is renowned for his unpredictability and ability to read the game. Meanwhile, flanker Pablo Matera is an exceptionally hard man to stop.  Nevertheless the experienced English duo of Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood should still be able to negate the Pumas strike threat here.

It’s however the halfback partnership of England’s Ben Youngs and George Ford which should prove so devastating in terms of really developing and orchestrating England’s attack on Saturday.  Youngs and Ford allied to Owen Farrell at centre have been the strike axis that so much of England’s success has been built on this year. If Argentina fail to contain or outhink this unit then they are in for a long afternoon at the coal face. Argentina have chosen to start Juan Martin Hernandez at fly half as opposed to his usual centre berth, but the “Magician” is equally at home in both positions and has an uncanny ability to read the ebb and flow of games to his teams advantage.  Tomas Cubelli gets the nod as starting scrum half as opposed to Martin Landajo and it will be interesting to see what unfolds as a result of his partnership with Hernandez.  Nevertheless it is England’s tried and trusted unit that should comfortably win the day here.

It’s in the backs where England should really start to rack up the big points needed to make the required statement needed heading into next weekend’s season finale with Australia. Argentina’s offerings here are quality through and through but have somehow failed to really produce the excitement that was so evident at times in last year’s World Cup and during the Rugby Championship.  England meanwhile are on fire in this department. Jonny May has made a spectacular return to the England jersey on the wing and expect more of the same on Saturday. The centre pairing of the exceptional Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph needs little if any introduction, with Joseph showing some real sparkle against Fiji last weekend. We really like what we have seen from winger Elliot Daly this month and are looking forward to his contest with the powerful Pumas winger Matias Orlando. We feel that overall England has the much more composed units at centre and on the wings, it’s only at fullback where the contest levels out a bit more.  English fullback Mike Brown is a complete handful and impressed all year but under the high balls we’d actually hand the advantage to Argentina’s Joaquín Tuculet, with the Puma being much harder to read and dangerous in open play.

The Pumas may be tired but this should still be a fascinating contest, and both sides are packing useful benches though once again we give England the advantage here as the experience they have waiting on the sidelines should give them the clear edge. Argentina should be in this match for a full sixty minutes, but as we have seen all year, the last twenty will just prove too much allowing England to run away with it comfortably by 21 points!

Ireland vs Australia
Saturday, November 26th
Dublin

After a hard-fought match last week in which Ireland attempted the unthinkable, back to back wins over the All Blacks, they look to end their season on a high by claiming a third Southern Hemisphere scalp in the shape of Australia. Australia meanwhile are on a roll as they head into game four of a Northern Hemisphere hat trick so far, and they will be keen to prove that the horror show of the beginning of their season is well and truly behind them. They will look to build on the foundations necessary to take them all the way to Grand Slam glory next weekend against England and as a result expect this contest to be just as intense as the fireworks last weekend in Dublin.

Much has been written about the match last weekend, though we were saddened to see it degenerate into some rather unsavoury swipes at New Zealand and accusations of “dirty play”. In short as far as we were concerned it was an intensely physical and hard-fought game between two quality sides. As a result there were always going to be some marginal calls in the heat of battle.  In fairness New Zealand’s Malakai Fekitoa got his just deserts, but Ireland were lucky that Johnny Sexton didn’t see yellow on his tackle on Beauden Barrett which in our opinion negated the unfortunate incident between Sam Cane and Robbie Henshaw. At the end of the day, both teams played out of their skins but New Zealand were simply more effective at turning their scoring opportunities into points on the board than Ireland were and as a result were the better team on the day.  As the Irish players themselves have stated in no uncertain terms once the dust had settled after the match, enough said and time to move on and use this weekend to make a clear statement as to where Irish rugby is really headed.

Expect no less intensity in terms of the physical battles up front this weekend and Ireland are once more packing an exceptional front row in terms of the trio of  Tadhg Furlong, Captain Rory Best and Jack McGrath.  McGrath and Furlong have been outstanding for Ireland this month and we give them the clear edge over the Australian offering of Sekope Kepu, Captain Stephen Moore and Scott Sio. The Irish unit just appears tighter and more disciplined than their Australian counterparts, even though the Australian front row has improved dramatically this year. Consequently we expect to see Ireland establish greater dominance in the scrums. In the second rows, once again it should be Ireland’s day.  Irish lock Devin Toner has played some of his best rugby this year and his tackle count has been off the charts, while Ian Henderson makes a long overdue return to an Irish jersey. Australia has struggled at lineout time this year, and things only really started to improve as newcomer Adam Coleman gained his feet.  With Coleman out to injury, Australia still continue to experiment with Rob Simmons and Rory Arnold in the second row, though we like the look of the latter we still hand Ireland the edge here. In the back rows it is going to be a battle royale between Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander and Australia’s Dean Mumm and Michael Hooper.  For us the jury is still out on Australia’s Dean Mumm especially as he normally plays as a second row and as a result we hand Ireland the keys here, especially as we just cannot understand the exclusion by Australia of Scott Fardy who put in such a big performance against France. Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip and David Pocock should be another epic contest at number eight. As good as Pocock is, as we have said all along Heaslip becomes a different player whenever he pulls on an Irish jersey and has played a huge part in Ireland’s key moments this month. Containing Pocock who was so destructive against France last weekend will be a major challenge but the Irishman is such a talisman for the rest of his team especially on home soil that we give Ireland the nod here by the slimmest of margins.

In the halfbacks it’s going to be all about scrum half Conor Murray who has been outstanding for Ireland and fly half Paddy Jackson really finding some of the form he showed on the South African tour. However, we can’t help feeling that Australia has the edge here in the shape of Bernard Foley and Will Genia.  Foley has been the real deal for Australia all year, even when playing out of position at centre earlier in the year. Will Genia at scrum half has shown all the gloss and finesse of his glory days in a Wallaby jersey this year. As a result this is an enormous strike threat for Australia and Ireland’s Conor Murray is going to have to put in the biggest performance of his season so far to compensate for any lack of experience by his half back partner Jackson to keep the Australian unit in check. Given it’s such a tall order and especially if Ireland lose Murray to injury in the course of the match we’re handing this one to Australia.

In the backs we find it hard to call.  Australia for us really only has one weak link, and even that’s marginal, in the shape of winger Henry Speight. However, we think that weakness is balanced out by Ireland’s selection of temperamental winger Keith Earls who on his day can be brilliant but just as easily become a liability in terms of discipline. However, Ireland’s Andrew Trimble has been superb on defence on the wings and we are looking forward to seeing the centre partnership of Jared Payne and exceptional newcomer Gary Ringrose in action. Having said that though we think that Australia’s centre unit of Reece Hodge and Tevita Kuridrani has danger written all over it and is likely to get the better of the experimental Irish duo, just look at that try by Kuridrani against France last weekend if you have any doubts. Australian winger Dane Haylett-Petty has also been a revelation for Australia and is going to test Ireland’s Keith Earls to the fullest. We have been heartened to see Rob Kearney return to some stellar form this month, and expect an even battle between him and Australia’s Israel Folau as these two masters of the high ball go head to head.  Overall though we can’t help feeling that in the battle of the backs the more proven Australian unit may just have the edge tomorrow.

When it comes to the benches if the scores are close on the hour and Ireland has really established some dominance up front, it is here that we expect to see Ireland just nudge ahead of Australia at the death. The Irish bench just has too much talent when you start listing names like Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and exceptional newcomers Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier and Joey Carbery and the ever-present X-factor of Simon Zebo. Australia in our view just doesn’t have the same kind of proven firepower waiting in the wings.  Nick Phipps and Quade Cooper can be exceptional on their day but can also be nightmares when it comes to decision-making and discipline when put under pressure which the last quarter is likely to provide plenty of.

In short this game is going to be won or lost in the last fifteen minutes and given that we expect Ireland to establish a solid forward dominance early on, provided they have contained Australia’s back line and prevented them making the big points up to the last quarter, then the battle of the benches should just hand Ireland a close fought victory by four points!

Wales vs South Africa
Saturday, November 26th
Cardiff

Two sides with points aplenty to prove go head to head in Cardiff on Saturday. Wales seem to be lacking the confidence to develop a game plan that suits the abundant talent they have in their ranks.  Meanwhile South Africa lurches from one catastrophe to another as sides are cobbled together with little structure and a complete lack of any sort of game plan that utilises key players who have shone at Super Rugby level but failed to make the transition to Test Rugby.  You can’t help feeling that in front of a home crowd Wales despite their problems will have the clear advantage over a confused and demoralised South African team.

Simply put we just don’t know what to expect from
Wales, and even though we could say the same about South Africa there are still some givens which we should be able to bank on. The front row battle should still favour South Africa as the combination of  Lourens Adriaanse‚ Captain Adriaan Strauss and Tendai Mtawarira is still a proven unit and should get the better of the Welsh offering which has struggled all month. However, there the South African advantage starts to diminish rapidly. In the second rows Wales’ Alun-Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris should in front of a vocal home crowd dominate South Africa’s Lood de Jaeger and Pieter-Steph du Toit who seem to be seriously short on confidence despite their obvious talents. In the back row the experimental South African combination of Uzair Cassiem and Nizaam Carr is unlikely to be any sort of match for Wales vastly experienced and seemingly indestructible Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate. At number eight South Africa’s Warren Whiteley is always worth watching but Welshman Ross Moriarty’s immense power and physicality should see Wales win the battles in the loose.

The Welsh half back partnership of Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies should get the better of South Africa’s Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies. The South African duo have struggled to replicate the form at Test level that made them such a devastatingly effective unit in Super Rugby. Although Biggar and Davies have lacked some of the sparkle they displayed during last year’s World Cup they are still more of a proven and reliable unit at this level than South Africa’s pair.

In the backs, despite possessing some world-class talent South Africa have just failed to light up pitches this year. With the exception of fullback Johan Goosen and winger Ruan Combrinck, the South African offering is completely experimental. The centre partnership of Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Francois Venter holds much promise but is woefully short on experience at this level compared to the Welsh duo of Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies especially if the Welshmen get quality ball. We are really looking forward to seeing van Rensburg finally get his Springbok debut as his omission from the Springboks this year up to now has been something that has caused us to tear our hair out along with most Springbok supporters we know.  The Springbok debutant is exceptionally creative and almost impossible to bring down once he has built up a head of steam. On the wings we have little if any idea of what to expect from South Africa except for Ruan Combrinck and once again it should be all about Wales in the shape of George North and Liam Williams with the latter being one of the few players who has really stood out for Wales this month. The only area where we possibly feel that South Africa might have the edge is at fullback. Wales Leigh Halfpenny has not been at his best, and despite some basic errors at times Johan Goosen has had a good month in the Springbok jersey.  Close call between these two but unless Halfpenny really finds some form in this match we fancy South Africa having the slightly better day here.

Both teams pack some talent on the bench but the Welsh presence of Taulupe Faletau means that Wales is packing the bigger threat. In short in front of a home crowd the pressure will be even greater on Wales than a South African team which would seem to just want to get one of the worst years in their history over and done with and move on. South Africa will play with heart at times and seek to try to avoid a complete humiliation but Wales are just too fired up for this one and need to make a statement in order to make sense of a year that has raised more questions than answers. Consequently we are giving this to Wales by 6 points in a match that hopefully doesn’t degenerate into a tedious slugfest if the need for a win by both sides means that caution becomes the order of the day!

France vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 26th
Paris

There is always an element of anticipation in matches between these two sides even if the question of what kind of French side we’ll get on the day tends to have been answered with negatives in the last four years. However, as we saw last weekend against Australia there were more than just a few glimmers of French teams of old. Life under new French Coach Guy Noves seems to have started positively so far. New Zealand meanwhile seem to have bounced back in no uncertain terms from their upset to Ireland in Chicago at the beginning of the month, and despite France having a history of being a problem side for New Zealand they should be feeling confident about finishing their year on a high after a gruelling but ultimately successful rematch with Ireland the week before.

It’s the sheer overall experience of the New Zealand forward pack that should dictate that possession remains firmly in favor of New Zealand for the full eighty minutes. Consequently France will really need to capitalise on what few opportunities they get with ball in hand. The return to the second row of All Black locks Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick showed just how valuable these two are and how greatly their absence was felt in Chicago.  France’s front row is looking better than it has in the past but the All Black trio is just about the best in the business especially when you add the extraordinary talents of Hooker Dane Coles. In the back rows there should be a few more sparks but once again Kieran Reid and Jerome Kaino just have too much experience to allow France to really get the better of them, even though French number eight Louis Picamoles is going to be a constant headache for the All Blacks.

France has some promising options in the halfbacks and we liked what we saw from scrum half Maxime Machenaud last weekend.  However, the All Black pairing of Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara is almost without equal.  Barrett provides so much pace and unpredictability on attack he is going to be too much for France to handle allied to Perenara’s speed off the ball in the breakdowns.

France’s centre Wesley Fofana and winger Virimi Vakatawa were electric last weekend against Australia and expect fireworks aplenty from these two tomorrow.  However, the All Black back line and centre setup of Israel Dagg, Waisake Naholo, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty and Julian Savea is just such a powerhouse that despite the resurgence of French flair in attack we saw last weekend, France will simply have so much of their attention focused on containing these five Men in Black we doubt they will get much opportunity of their own to shine.

With the All Black wrecking ball of Ardie Savea waiting on the bench, we just can’t see it going any other way than hands down to New Zealand.  We still hope for an epic contest from these two great rivals of the running game, but New Zealand to carry the day by 15 points!

Endnote

Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of last weekend’s action, including the Wales/Japan, England/Fiji, Italy/South Africa, Scotland/Argentina, Ireland/New Zealand and France/Australia Tests as well as some clips from the Harlequins/Maori All Blacks and USA/Tonga. Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!

There is no question that all eyes will be on Dublin this Saturday as no matter who they support, rugby fans around the world will be tuning into what promises to be the clash of the year as New Zealand attempt to redress the upset of their defeat to Ireland in Chicago.  Ireland buoyed by their historic victory and in front of an expectant home crowd will look to make it two for two as they seek to prove that the historic victory two weeks ago was not just a one-off. Meanwhile South Africa will desperately try to halt their descent in rugby oblivion as they take on an Italian side that despite being thrashed by the All Blacks last weekend must surely fancy their chances against a Springbok side in crisis. For us the weekend’s second most anticipated encounter will take place in Murrayfield as two of the most exciting teams in Test Rugby right now, Argentina and Scotland, do battle with everything to prove.  Lastly Australia will be keen to continue their winning ways as they take on a rapidly evolving France in Paris. In short – what a weekend!

Italy vs South Africa
Saturday, November 19th
Florence

The weekend’s action gets underway in Italy as the Azurri and Springboks go head to head with both sides desperate for a positive result.  The Springboks’ woes of late have been well documented and need little introduction.  After a disastrous Rugby Championship which saw them narrowly avoid the wooden spoon, their efforts against England last weekend hardly made them look a world-beating side.  Lacking any clear direction in terms of the game they are trying to play and crippled with inconsistent and baffling selection decisions South Africa is struggling to say the least. Meanwhile Italy are desperate to prove that under new Coach Conor O’Shea, Italy’s days of being camped firmly on the bottom rung of the Six Nations ladder are coming to an end.

We have to confess to not know as much about Italy’s squad in this tournament as we do South Africa’s.  Apart from Italy’s Lorenzo Cittadini as the loosehead prop, Italy’s front row is a relatively unknown commodity and is likely to struggle up against the experienced Springbok front three of Vincent Koch, Adriaan Strauss and Tendai Mtawarira.  If Italy can be remotely competitive here then Coach Conor O’Shea will feel a sense of achievement, but it should be all about South Africa in this department. Although not an even contest by any stretch of the imagination the playing field should level out a bit in the second rows, as Italy is fielding some solid talent.  Marco Fuser has looked good for the Azurri and South African import Dries van Schalkwyk is an exciting prospect.  However, they are up against the formidable duo of Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit, and with du Toit returned to his normal position expect the South African duo to shore up a solid Springbok scrum and dominate the lineouts at Italy’s expense. In the back rows though we tip our hats in favor of Italy.  Francesco Minto and Simone Favaro are two of Italy’s best players and expect plenty of grit and fireworks from these two and they should get the better of South Africa’s Willem Alberts and Nizaam Carr at the breakdowns and in the loose. Lastly at number eight a fascinating contest awaits between Italy’s most famous warhorse in the shape of the incomparable Sergio Parisse and South Africa’s Warren Whiteley. Both are inspirational players for their teams but we are just giving the nod to Whiteley as he has been one of the few Springbok players who has consistently stood out this year for South Africa when their backs have been against the wall.

In the half backs South Africa should have the edge, especially once Faf de Klerk comes off the bench for starting scrum half Rudy Paige. While Paige is distinctly average in our opinion, de Klerk lends some real intensity to the Springbok platform, and alongside his Lions teammate fly half Elton Jantjies who is also on the bench, these two will be seeking to make a clear statement that they are the way forward in terms of a future Springbok half back partnership.  Pat Lambie should be much more assured than he was against England, and as result there is simply too much experience and proven ability here for Italy to really be able to provide much of a challenge. Italy does have two promising fly halves in the shape of Carlo Canna and Tommaso Allan, but it is probably going to be too much of an ask for them to really stamp the kind of authority on the game that Italy will need here.

In the backs, Italy does boast the outstanding winger Giovanbattista Venditti who was one of the few players who lit up the pitch for Italy in an otherwise dismal Six Nations. However, up against South Africa’s Bryan Habana, Willie le Roux, Ruan Combrinck and the exciting youngster Francois Venter, Italy are going to have to produce some outstanding defence.  For us the only weak link in the South African backs is centre Damian de Allende, whose continuing selection by Coach Alastair Coetzee defies all logic.  Defensively weak and completely predictable in attack he offers nothing to the Springbok cause, and if Italy are to make inroads into the South African half they will do well to target de Allende to full effect, but this aspect of play should be all about South Africa.

Italy does have some promising reserves to call on from the bench, but once more South Africa is boasting a much more threatening set of replacements.  Overall, we feel that South Africa will continue to make mistakes and put in yet another unpolished but ultimately effective performance.  It should be a good physical battle but once the Springboks have figured out the Italian defences, expect their backs to make the difference in terms of dominance on the scoreboard.  Italy will fancy their chances and will seek to rattle an already nervous Springbok side but ultimately this match should finally give South African supporters something to smile about by 12 points!

Scotland vs Argentina
Saturday, November 19th
Edinburgh

Next up it is a match which we are looking forward to a great deal. Scotland and Argentina are playing some exceptionally exciting rugby at the moment and possess some of the most exciting attacking players in the global game.  Scotland centre Huw Jones was a complete revelation against Australia and was one of the talking points of the weekend,so expect more of the same from the youngster on Saturday. However, Argentina’s backs need little if any introduction and it will require Scotland to be at their defensive best to keep them in check even if they were relatively quiet against Wales last weekend. Surprisingly, Scotland have chosen to field a relatively young and inexperienced side against a more settled Pumas pack and the South Americans as a result will have an advantage here on Saturday. Nevertheless whichever way you cut it we expect a fast paced and fascinating encounter between these two.

Argentina’s front row is vastly experienced and a proven commodity. With talismanic Captain Hooker Agustin Creevy at the helm, they should get the better of their less experienced but no less feisty Scottish counterparts at scrum time.  Still Scotland’s trio look an exciting prospect for the future and will give as good as they get. Meanwhile in the second rows Scotland will be up against Argentina’s Guido Petti and Matias Alemanno who have been outstanding for Argentina this year, especially Petti.  However, Scotland’s Jonny Gray has been equally impressive so expect a tight contest here, but one that should just go the Pumas way if the Argentinian duo really fire. In the back rows it should once again be Argentina’s day as the trio of Pablo Matera, Javier Ortega Desio and the exceptional Facundo Isa are world-class. Once more with the exception of John Barclay at number eight Scotland has chosen to blood some new talent, but we feel that Argentina simply has too much firepower here.  In short, the forward battles should be all about Argentina albeit closely fought.

In the half backs though it is a level playing field and then some.  Scotland’s wise head of Greig Laidlaw combines with the youth and excitement of Finn Russell at fly half.  This is an excellent combination which can take on the world’s best. However, as we saw last week, under pressure Laidlaw’s boot is not as accurate as that of Argentina’s fly half Nicolas Sanchez when it comes to getting match winning points on the board. The Pumas scrum half Martin Landajo is a much more dynamic player than Laidlaw but his sense of adventurism at times can cause the Pumas attack to unravel compared to the more cautious but equally feisty Laidlaw. This contest could really go either way and is almost impossible to call, as both units are highly creative and unpredictable.  After the lessons of last week, and on home ground though we feel Scotland might just have the edge here by the very narrowest of margins.

However, once it comes to the back lines overall we feel Argentina has the advantage despite the phenomenal talents of Scottish centre Huw Jones and fullback Stuart Hogg. Let’s not forget winger Tommy Seymour who played such a big part in Scotland’s World Cup campaign last year and the impressive centre Alex Dunbar.  In short there are no slouches in Scotland’s offering here and we are looking forward to an exciting afternoon of running rugby.  Argentina though as a unit look the slightly more settled of the two in terms of time together and boast some real quality and experience in the shape of the “Magician” Juan Martin Hernandez at centre. Add to the mix the strike threat of winger Santiago Cordero, despite a relatively quiet year for the Pumas speedster, and the bruising form and pace of Matias Moroni on the opposite wing and Scotland will have to be at their defensive best on the fringes. Centre Matias Orlando looked good in the Rugby Championship and fullback Joaquin Tuculet is outstanding in defence and under the high ball.  In short, a tough nut for Scotland to crack here.  Given the time the Pumas backs have spent together this year we are giving them the nod over an equally talented set of Scottish players. However having said that we are hopefully going to be treated to an epic contest of running rugby.

With Argentina packing a bench boasting names like veterans Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Leonardo Senatore, we just feel that the game will ultimately swing in favor of Argentina at the death by five points but hopefully a high scoring fast flowing contest will be the end result from both sides!

Ireland vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 19th
Dublin

The game that is being billed as the game of the year, looks set to top the remarkable spectacle that took place in Chicago between these two teams a fortnight ago. If you want drama, tension and, barring the World Cup, the highest stakes imaginable then this is your ticket this weekend. We were fortunate to witness in person Ireland’s heroics in Chicago and have seriously contemplated getting a second mortgage to travel to Dublin for the rematch this Saturday – that is if we could even get a ticket. As a sold out Aviva stadium in Dublin awaits their heroes – the big question is can they do it twice in a row, which against the All Blacks is unprecedented in recent times by a Northern Hemisphere side. New Zealand arrive in Dublin less concerned with revenge and more about restoring the balance of power in World Rugby as they seek to establish once more in no uncertain terms why they are simply the world’s best team. It doesn’t get any bigger than this so strap yourselves in!

There is no question that New Zealand are putting together a much more complete team than the one that appeared in Chicago with the big talking point being the return to the second row of the powerhouse duo of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. The front rows though see little change and there is going to be an even contest here.  Irish prop Jack McGrath was immense in Chicago and we expect more of the same along with Tadhg Furlong providing some further exceptional stability to the Irish scrum.  However, it is the sheer X-factor of All Black hooker Dane Coles that we feel may well tip the balance in favor of New Zealand, even though under pressure his lineout throws have had a tendency to go awry this year but then so have Irish hooker Rory Best’s. A very tight contest awaits here with New Zealand probably having something extra in the tank. In the second rows Ireland’s Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan are simply not going to have the freedom and dominance they had in Chicago as All Black stalwarts Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick return for New Zealand.  The Kiwi duo are quite simply the best in the business and despite a spirited Irish challenge should rule the day. However, in the back row we are giving the contest to Ireland albeit by the narrowest of margins.  CJ Stander was a force of nature for Ireland in Chicago and we expect Saturday to be no different.  His back row partner Sean O’Brien looked superb against Canada and if back to his best, despite his lack of game time over the last year, he can be unstoppable.  If O’Brien brings his A game on Saturday then New Zealand could be in for a torrid time of it.  Lastly as inspirational a Captain and number eight as New Zealand’s Kieran Reid is we can’t help feeling that in front of a home crowd, Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip will be the player having the greater impact. As readers of this blog know, we are big fans of Heaslip whenever he pulls on the green jersey as a complete transformation comes over the man.  He turns from a solid but average player at Leinster into some sort of super hero in green. His quiet but inspirational influence on his teammates was there for all to see in Chicago and at home in Dublin it is likely to be off the charts.  New Zealand should win the forward battles with the exception of the back three and if Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has some master plan up his sleeve which is likely, the miracle that Ireland need could well come from the trio of Heaslip, O’Brien and Stander. However, it’s a big ask and until we see the game unfold for now we feel New Zealand hold the balance of power up front.

The half back contest looks set to be the stuff of legends as two of the best units in the world go head to head. New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett is peerless with the exception of his goalkicking which just hasn’t got the finesse of his Irish counterpart Irish fly half Johnny Sexton. Two of the world’s most gifted players in their positions should provide us with an enthralling contest, but it is Barrett’s remarkable X-factor especially with ball in hand that could well swing it for New Zealand. However, Sexton’s tactical brain and place kicking is second to none and if he and Coach Joe Schmidt have picked the New Zealand game apart in enough detail over the last two weeks, who knows how this will go. In the scrum half department though we think Ireland have the upper hand. New Zealand’s Aaron Smith is a truly remarkable player, but he was found lacking against Ireland’s Conor Murray in Chicago as was his replacement TJ Perenara. These three will be seeing a lot more of each other as Murray is being tipped for the scrum half position on the Lions tour of New Zealand next year. The big question mark here is that in terms of covering these positions New Zealand has the more rounded bench, with Ireland’s Kieran Marmion looking sharp but lacking this kind of Test experience. If the scores are close going into the final ten minutes and Sexton and Murray go off for Ireland we just can’t see the Irish replacements getting the better of their All Black counterparts.

The backs see some change for New Zealand while Ireland’s remain a carbon copy of that which ran out onto Soldier Field. Again an exceptionally close call here as there is little to choose between the sides. However, for us once more it is the sheer quality and chemistry between All Black fullback Ben Smith and winger Israel Dagg that could tip the scales in New Zealand’s favor. Otherwise in the centres we prefer the Irish offering of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw who clinched Ireland’s place in history a fortnight ago. On the wings Simon Zebo can provide some real magic as he did in Chicago for Ireland and Andrew Trimble proved effective in marginalizing the threat of New Zealand’s Julian Savea. However, it’s just that strike threat of Ben Smith and Israel Dagg that is likely to tip the scales in New Zealand’s favor as if these two fire the centre partnership of Malakai Fekitoa and Anton Lienert-Brown are more likely to come into their own. Once again it will come down to what Irish Coach Schmidt has dreamed up in terms of how to defend against the All Black threat while at the same time breaking the gain line, and as shown in Chicago he does have the tools to do it. However, until proven otherwise we think New Zealand is just going to edge this aspect of the game second time around.

Both teams are packing quality benches which should mean that if the game hangs in the balance going into the final ten minutes it should still end up being a photo finish. However, despite this we feel that New Zealand have some slightly more proven talent in the shape of Aaron Cruden and TJ Perenara as opposed to Ireland’s Paddy Jackson and Kieran Marmion. Consequently if Ireland haven’t pulled away with a significant lead with ten minutes to go, this is likely to be New Zealand’s day once more and the heartbreak of 2013 will be repeated. Despite wanting to see the Guinness run dry in Dublin on Saturday night because of Ireland cementing their place in the history books, sadly we feel that Ireland are not yet at the stage where they can defeat the best team in the world twice in a row. A truly epic contest awaits but one which New Zealand should just edge out by seven points!

France vs Australia
Saturday, November 19th
Paris

We can’t help feeling that Australia have seriously underestimated the challenge the French will pose them in Paris on Saturday.  This is a French side emerging quite nicely from the Philippe Saint-Andre wastelands under new Coach Guy Noves. Whether Australia are more focused on the four Home Union matches for the supposed “Grand Slam” is hard to say, but we get the feeling that this is going to be a banana skin for Australia. France has a solid forward pack and some blistering backs, something which despite eking out a narrow win against Scotland last weekend, Australia clearly still looked nervous about at times. Add to this the fact that the stellar Bernard Foley is being replaced at fly half by one of Australia’s biggest liabilities in the shape of Quade Cooper, and we have to confess to being just more than slightly confused about what Coach Michael Cheika is up to. France looked outstanding against Samoa last weekend, but Australia will be a much tougher proposition and this will be their first real test of where they are at as a team, since a Six Nations and brief tour to Argentina which left us with few clues.

We must confess to not having watched much French club rugby this year so our knowledge of what France is offering up on Saturday is a bit limited.  By the same token much of what Australia is putting forward is also of an experimental nature so it’s hard to tell how the two sides are going to match up. Up front we can’t help feeling that Australia could swing it in the shape of their back row and number eight combination.  We remain big fans of Australian flanker Scott Fardy and it is good to see him back in the Wallaby fold.  Linked to the impressive Sean McMahon at number eight and David Pocock alongside him Fardy and company should have the edge over their French counterparts in terms of swinging the forward battles Australia’s way.  Having said that we still expect to see some feisty challenges from France here and with the likes of number eight Louis Picamoles in the fray there are always going to be fireworks. Inspirational hooker and Captain Guilhelm Guirado is always worth his weight in gold and what little we’ve seen of flankers Kévin Gourdon and Charles Ollivon make them look like a very polished unit in the making.  However, as long as Australia can keep their discipline here they should win the day.

It’s in the half backs where France should start to get their nose out in front. We stick by our guns that Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper is just too much of a liability both in terms of discipline and decision-making, and in an encounter where Coach Michael Cheika is dealing with a lot of unknowns in what kind of side France will be bringing to the park on Saturday, we feel now is not the time to gamble with Cooper and would have gone with the much more reliable and capable Bernard Foley instead. At least Cooper will be supported by Will Genia at scrum half who is playing some of his best rugby in a long time.  We know little about French fly half Marc Doussain but plenty about scrum half Maxime Machenaud who we feel can add some real sparkle and intensity to France’s game play. With fly half Camille Lopez waiting on the bench we hand this contest to France.

With the exception of Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight, we must confess to knowing nothing about Australia’s offerings in the backs.  Centre Kuridrani has been outstanding on this tour but we have felt that winger Henry Speight has been distinctly average for Australia this month. However for France we know plenty about these two gentlemen; centre Wesley Fofana and winger Virimi Vakatawa.  These two spell danger in block capitals and Australia are going to have to be at their best in regards to keeping the ball out of the hands of these two French strike weapons. Perhaps the only question for France here centres around Vakatawa’s defensive abilities which are said to be suspect, but with ball in hand and at speed he is almost impossible to bring down. French fullback Scott Spedding possesses a gigantic boot as well as being difficult to bring down once he too has built up a head of steam.  Centre Rémi Lamerat looks an exciting prospect for France while winger Noa Nakaitaci has a turn of speed that can be impressive but often lacks the execution necessary to make the big plays as well as there being question marks around his abilities in defence.

It’s the benches that will make the difference in this match, with Australia reverting to the tried and trusted formats that have served them so well so far this month.  France however are also packing a quality bench that possesses plenty of power and pace, so once again an even contest awaits here.  If France click and unhinge this experimental Wallaby starting fifteen we feel that they will leave the experienced Australian bench with too much to do. Add to the mix the disciplinary liabilities presented by Will Skelton and Nick Phipps for Australia in the last quarter of the game, and we feel that France are going to surprise us all and upset the Wallaby apple cart by four points!

Last weekend saw plenty of excitement as a crop of thrilling encounters took place which gave us some insight into how the New World Order of rugby is starting to emerge now the dust is well and truly settled 12 months on from last year’s World Cup. New Zealand still look the complete package in terms of depth and sheer all round ability despite their upset to Ireland in Chicago at the beginning of the month. Australia finally seem to be showing the promise that has been talked about during a turbulent year of rebuilding. South Africa sadly seem to be slipping into oblivion as a result of a coaching and management crisis of epic proportions and Argentina continue to show lots of promise but still lack the killer instinct to close out big games.

Meanwhile in the Northern Hemisphere England’s complete transformation from World Cup disaster to one of the best in the world continues apace.  Ireland seem to be chasing hard at their heels as they appear to be developing some real depth, coached and nurtured by the exemplary Joe Schmidt. Scotland continue to dazzle but fall agonizingly short of the mark when it matters most and Wales remain solid and tough opposition but seem to lack the overall cohesiveness to make them world beaters.  Italy meanwhile languish in rugby’s no man’s land.  We didn’t get to see France play this weekend so will reserve our judgement on where they stand until we have seen them up against Australia this coming weekend.

So here are a few key observations we made once the final whistles had been blown on this weekend’s action.

Italy vs New Zealand
Final Score – Italy 10/New Zealand 68
Rome

The result here was never in doubt, we just hoped that in front of a capacity crowd of 70,000 Italy would put up a bit more of a fight in their first outing under new Coach Conor O’Shea and if nothing else there would be some positives to take forward as a new chapter in Italian rugby got underway.  Sadly it wasn’t to be. New Zealand were always going to be an exceptionally tough opening challenge especially after being derailed by Ireland a week earlier.  New Zealand clearly took the opportunity to give players who didn’t get a say in proceedings in Chicago a chance to strut their stuff and they didn’t disappoint, leaving Coach Steve Hansen with a formidable set of choices in how to assemble a “super” squad to face Ireland this weekend in Dublin.

Italy showed us very little of what they were capable of in this match.  There was little spark in attack, with Italy spending hardly any time whatsoever in the New Zealand half, coupled with a meaningless, unstructured and poorly executed kicking game.  Add to that a defence that was nonexistent and the scoreline which showed one-way New Zealand traffic was a fair reflection of proceedings and in terms of a rugby contest was for all intents and purposes a non-event.

For New Zealand the continuing development of a raft of talented players continued apace. Scrum half Tawera Kerr-Barlow looked impressive as did centre Anton Lienert-Brown, flanker Elliot Dixon, lock Scott Barrett, number eight Steven Luatua and winger Rieko Ioane.  The only newcomer we didn’t really see shine as he appears to struggle to adapt to life in an All Black jersey is fullback Damian McKenzie despite his superb Super Rugby season. Nevertheless there is no getting away from the fact that given the resources at their disposal New Zealand are still boasting the most depth and range of skills of any major Test Rugby side. They will be able to field an exceptional team for the encounter with Ireland in Dublin on Saturday and as a result can still claim the title of the most complete and capable team in World Rugby right now – no argument!

England vs South Africa
Final Score – England 37/South Africa 21
Twickenham

There is no question that England’s transformation in the space of eleven months under new Coach Eddie Jones has been nothing short of remarkable. However at the risk of offending English supporters around the world we still feel that a sense of perspective in how far England have really come in the last year is still lacking.  On the other hand the painful slide into chaos the Springboks have experienced since the World Cup is clearly there for all to see.

Don’t get us wrong we share the common consensus that England are an outstanding team and on their day could beat anyone.  However, one also needs to look at what their results of the last year have been built on in terms of the quality of the opposition they have faced.  Yes they won a Six Nations Grand Slam in a convincing fashion.  However, Coach Eddie Jones clearly stated there was a mountain of work still to get through, coupled with the fact that overall the Six Nations this year was a poor tournament as the Northern Hemisphere sides struggled with injuries and form after an exceptionally long season post the World Cup.  As a tournament it rarely impressed or caught the imagination.

Next up England won a convincing 3 Test series in Australia against a Wallaby side that was also struggling with injuries and clearly in the throes of its own initial rebuilding process. As a new look Australia’s first outing since the World Cup they looked distinctly poor and lacked a great deal in discipline, cohesion and execution.  It was still a remarkable achievement for England, themselves at the end of one of the longest seasons of competitive rugby the Northern Hemisphere sides have ever seen, and it would be disrespectful to take anything away from their efforts and three masterful performances. However, they were not up against the Wallaby side we have seen this month so far which is clearly a different animal and dramatically improved.

Lastly, their win over the Springboks this weekend was yet another clinical display of professionalism, however it has to be measured in its context.  The Springboks at the moment are truly dire, and it wouldn’t necessarily have taken the world’s best team to beat them – even Italy are being given decent odds against the Springboks next weekend. If anything England should have beaten the Boks by a bigger scoreline and in the post match interviews, their hard as nails taskmaster Coach Eddie Jones said as much.  For us the real test of where England are will come in their final Test this year against a dramatically improved Australia.  However, questions about how fit Australia will be at the end of a tough year which sees them play, for all intents and purposes a Six Nations campaign played over the mind-numbing space of five weeks as opposed to two months, are likely to cast doubt over the quality of any England victory.

Like we say we don’t mean to rain on England’s parade by any stretch of the imagination. They have been fantastic and thoroughly deserve the accolades they are getting.  In this match once they began to click after a shaky initial twenty minutes they started to look invincible.  The half back pairing of George Ford and Ben Youngs is back to its best. Number Eight Billy Vunipola continues to be a one man panzer division, while the England forward pack particularly the second row partnership of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes often made South Africa look irrelevant.  In the backs it is fantastic to see winger Johnny May back to his barnstorming best and Elliot Daly at centre alongside the outstanding Owen Farrell is a world-class partnership in the making.

However, England were as good as they were in large part because South Africa let them be.  South Africa chose to play lots of big men, but especially in the lineouts seemed unable to use them.  South Africa’s presence in the lineouts was a joke, especially in defensive set pieces.  Playing the exceptional lock Pieter-Steph du Toit out of position at flanker caused South Africa massive problems in defence.  It was for the most part a depressing afternoon for the Springboks despite a bright start in the opening twenty minutes.  They once more appeared bereft of ideas and a game plan and as usual opted to kick the ball away far too often to little if any effect.  They did manage two solid consolation tries and scrum half Faf de Klerk certainly seemed to inject some much-needed pace into the Springbok attack once he replaced the distinctly average and pedestrian Rudy Paige.  For us there were only three real players for the Springboks who stood up and were counted – number eight Warren Whiteley, Johan Goosen once he came on as fly half Pat Lambie’s replacement and Faf de Klerk.  Fullback Willie le Roux had moments of brilliance and for the most part gets full marks for effort but at times still looked vulnerable on defence as well as displaying a worrying tendency to kick poorly at crucial moments in the game, something which his English counterpart Mike Brown was all too eager to capitalise on.

So for England a great result but one which it would seem has left their taskmaster Coach Eddie Jones less than satisfied and with plenty of questions still unanswered. Meanwhile South Africa lick their wounds and seek to make some kind of statement out of desperation more than anything else against Italy next weekend.

Scotland vs Australia
Final Score – Scotland 22/Australia 23
Edinburgh

The cliffhanger that was the World Cup quarter-final between these two sides continued last weekend unabated as Australia did enough to close the door once more on a spirited Scottish side, in what we thought was the most exciting game of the weekend’s action.  There is no question that we find Scotland one of the most entertaining sides to watch in World Rugby right now and they play a brand of expansive, fast paced rugby equivalent to that of the Pumas – making next weekend’s encounter between the two sides a mouth-watering prospect.  However, like the Pumas despite all the fireworks, they seem to lack that killer instinct and skill set to close out close contests like this.  Although Australia and Scotland were evenly matched last Saturday, Australia were marginally more efficient and had the composure to see the job through to the end.  Despite yet another heartbreaking loss for Scotland there is still plenty to get excited about.  Meanwhile Australia showed a continued improvement in execution and discipline, as well as the development of a clear and potent attacking threat which had been conspicuously absent for much of the England series in June and during the Rugby Championship.  It’s still early days for Australia but the experimentation seems to be over and the results finally seem to be coming again.

For Scotland, one name dominated the headlines after Saturday.  Centre Huw Jones, who remarkably was playing his first Test for Scotland, put in a performance that made him look like a seasoned veteran.  Jones was outstanding from start to finish and adds even more fizz to an already pacy set of Scottish backs.  His two tries were superb and along with fullback Stuart Hogg, there is no question that the Scottish attack has a significant amount of X-factor.  However, in fairness to the rest of Jones’ teammates his two efforts were the work of some very solid overall execution by Scotland which once again highlighted how far this team has come in the last two years.  Able to mix it with the best in attack and on defense, Scotland is a daunting prospect for any opposition, especially at home.  Once again though in the heat of the moment there seems to be a slip in concentration for Scotland as emotions tend to take precedent over the clinical focus that is needed in the dying minutes of such tight matches as this one.  Others that really stood up for us in this match were fly half Finn Russell who has an excellent future ahead of him with Scotland, the lock partnership of the Gray brothers and flanker John Barclay.

Once again though Scotland are agonizingly close to being world beaters, but still lack that ability to close out big games such as this one.  Until this is fixed they will continue to entertain but languish in the lower ranks of the world’s top ten.  With a surprising change in coaching staff coming at the end of this season, we have to wonder if Scotland will be able to keep the momentum and positive work done by current Coach Vern Cotter going once his replacement Gregor Townsend takes over.  For Scotland’s sake and this talented group of players you have to hope that Townsend and his team will build on the solid foundations Cotter has built up in the last two years.

For Australia it was a tense 80 minutes but they were slightly more effective in keeping their focus and composure to close out a very tough match.  Australia’s discipline has improved dramatically in the last six months, with the exception of Will Skelton’s stupidity and resulting yellow card towards the end of the match.  The Wallabies scrums and lineouts have also shown a similar improvement in their accuracy and precision, though the loss of second rower Adam Coleman for the rest of the season is a huge blow. Meanwhile Australia’s attacking platform in the shape of half backs Bernard Foley and Will Genia coupled to the backs contingent of winger Dane Haylett-Petty, centre Reece Hodge and fullback Israel Folau has really come into its own, and is one of the best in Test Rugby at the moment.  To be honest we really didn’t think we’d be saying that about Australia six months ago, so all credit has to be given to Coach Michael Cheika for sticking to his guns.

Australia are really starting to show the results of their rebuilding process since the World Cup and we have to admit we are becoming increasingly impressed with the results.  There are still liabilities as far as we are concerned, particularly in terms of discipline and decision-making and yes we’re looking at you Will Skelton, Quade Cooper and Nick Phipps but overall this is starting to look a very promising and dangerous Wallaby side.  The loss of Adam Coleman to injury though is a huge blow.  His lock partnership with Rory Arnold was really starting to look promising and the two seemed to be developing a highly effective working relationship.  As Australia is forced to chop and change again in this department it will be interesting to see how well this aspect of their game holds up particularly in terms of scrum and lineout stability and accuracy. We can’t help feeling it’s going to take a bit of a step backwards as for us Coleman has been one of the finds of the year for Australia. Nevertheless, Australia look to be in a much healthier state than they were at the end of the series with England this summer, and if they can pull off five wins on this tour then expect many of their critics this year, us included, to be eating as much humble pie as we can get our hands on.

Wales vs Argentina
Final Score – Wales 24/Argentina 20
Cardiff

We have to be honest that as much as we were looking forward to this match we were left feeling disappointed.  It was an exciting match at times, but it never really quite sparked into life the way we thought it was going to.  Instead we were treated to a highly physical and at times brutal contest where Wales clearly had the edge, and the expansive open game we had hoped for never really materialised.  Yes there were some brilliant moments of attacking play by both sides, but ultimately there were far too many mistakes from both teams for it to be the spectacle it should have been.

Wales were the better team, but despite this they would constantly let Argentina back into the match which made for moments of tension as the game often hung in the balance.  However, Argentina never really looked like they were going to take charge of the game, instead tending to benefit from errors by Wales more than any clear attacking threat of their own.  The Welsh defence was much more effective than it had been against Australia and winger Liam Williams was a real revelation on attack.  However, that’s where the praised ended for Wales especially if hadn’t been for Williams Wales would have had very little if any attacking play.  As usual lock Alun-Wyn Jones and flanker Sam Warburton were immense in defence and centurion prop and Captain Gethin Jenkins ensured that the fabled Pumas scrum was kept in its place.

Argentina apart from the try by scrum half Martin Landajo, which was vintage Pumas, were never really allowed to open up and under immense pressure from Wales were forced into too many mistakes coupled to some poor decision-making.  Their much vaunted forward pack was kept at bay and one of this year’s players of the year, number eight Facundo Isa, had an exceptionally quiet game by his standards.  Argentina are going to have to notch it up a few gears if they want to remain competitive this weekend against a Scottish side still smarting from their one point loss to Australia. Scotland showed some outstanding defence and possess a group of attacking players that can rival any of the Pumas speedsters.

Wales got a much-needed win to bolster their spirits after the ramshackle effort put up against Australia, but they still look far from convincing as a unit.  With their two toughest tests of the month now out-of-the-way they really need to consolidate the positives from this match and find a complete performance from a match day 23 as they prepare to take on a crippled Springbok side as their last hurrah of the month.  Wales should be able to beat a Springbok side that is suffering from an even greater lack of cohesion and ideas than they are.  However, like South Africa, Wales still seem very unsure of exactly the type of game they want to play and as a result the Springbok match could go horribly sideways on them.  Wales should be so much better than they actually are, but how they get there still seems to be one of the great mysteries of International Rugby at the moment, even if the will and committment is there by the bucketload – watch any replay featuring Sam Warburton or Alun-Wyn Jones and you won’t doubt that for a second.  However, all the heroics and committment in the world don’t often win you the big games.  Ask Ireland that and until Chicago they’ll tell that if you don’t have a solid game plan in place to deal with every opponent then all the heart in the world rarely swings the balance on the day.

Ireland vs Canada
Final Score – Ireland 52/Canada 21
Dublin

We have to salute the Canadian boys for their never say die attitude in what was always going to be a tough encounter with only one result.  Canada played some exceptionally good rugby at times for the first sixty minutes and remained very much in the game until that point.  However, once again as we have seen consistently for the last four years, Canada lost their way dramatically in the last quarter as a rampant Ireland bristling with hungry new caps ran in an unanswered 31 points.  No matter how good Canada were in the first hour, and they were good, that kind of lapse of concentration and focus serves to highlight the glaring discrepancy between Canada as a Tier Two nation and a Tier One country like Ireland. As solid a performance as it was by Canada in the first sixty minutes, it is still hard to walk away from a game feeling optimistic about the future when they were essentially walked all over in the last quarter.

Despite this though Canada were worthy competitors and gave Ireland’s crop of new caps a stern test.  Irish Coach Joe Schmidt will have learnt a lot about his young charges and surely must be feeling more than a little excited about the depth of Irish rugby that was on display in Dublin on Saturday.  Furthermore, some of the veterans like flankers Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Hooker Sean Cronin and prop Cian Healy made a welcome return to form ahead of Ireland’s forthcoming clash with New Zealand next weekend.  Of the new players, as expected centre Gary Ringrose was outstanding and proved once more the depth of talent Ireland is developing at centre, while fullback Tiernan O’Halloran’s try highlighted just what a future star for Ireland this player is, especially in a position that Ireland has had limited options up till now.  Fly half Paddy Jackson made a welcome return to the form that he showed on the South African tour and Joey Carbery’s cameo appearance at fly half in the last quarter of the match proved that Ireland has one world-class fly half in Johnny Sexton and two more in the making in these two. Furthermore Ireland’s riches in the second row look set to continue as Ultan Dillane was Man of the Match and debutant Billy Holland had an outstanding first outing in the green shirt. Once the squad really started to gel and iron out the wrinkles in the second half, it became a complete and convincing Irish performance bristling with young talent.  Ireland can easily field a 35 man squad that can compete with the world’s best and the World Cup is still three years away.  With Coach Joe Schmidt at the reins till the end of the World Cup in Japan in 2019, Ireland looks in remarkably good health already, especially if they pull off the unthinkable next weekend and beat the All Blacks twice in a row.

For Canada, there were lots of positives in the first sixty minutes.  Winger DTH van der Merwe was once again the world-class player he is rightly recognised as.  His superb intercept try showed how dangerous he is along with his ability to pop up in strike positions all over the park.  We thought that Conor Braid had a superb game for Canada at fly half and is clearly the way forward in this position, an area the Canadians have been struggling with for a long time now. Flankers Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie continued to impress us, especially as this is their first year in the national team. For the rest of the team however, although they were rugged and gritty competitors no one really stood out for us. The backs apart from DTH were solid but rarely spectacular.  Scrum half Gordon McRorie had a good game and provided some reliable kicking options for Canada but we still felt he lacked the intensity and pace needed in this position especially when playing someone like Ireland who are becoming renown for their speed and intensity at the breakdowns. Canada’s scrums and lineouts were also distinctly average and we thought the usually impressive prop Djustice Sears-Druru was not quite up to his usual “bull in a China shop” standards, while lock Evan Olmstead is simply too much of a disciplinary liability for our liking.  We don’t want to detract from a brave and courageous performance by Canada in a very tough match.  As mentioned earlier there are lots of positives, especially in the shape of the flankers, DTH and Conor Braid, but there is also a lot of work for new Coach Mark Anscombe to get through before Canada take on a problem side for Canada like Romania next weekend.  If Canada can get two solid wins out of their next two games this month and really take the lessons learnt in a feisty performance against Ireland, there are plenty of reasons for Canada to feel optimistic about the future.

Endnote

Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of the weekend’s action, including the Wales/Argentina, England/South Africa, Italy/New Zealand, Scotland/Australia and Ireland/Canada Tests as well as some clips from France/Samoa, Munster/Maori All Blacks and Barbarians/Fiji. Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!

The end of year tours to Europe by the Southern Hemisphere sides really get underway this weekend, and provide us with some highly anticipated encounters between England and South Africa, Scotland and Australia and Wales and Argentina. Italy also have the unenviable task of taking on an All Black team keen to rebound from their defeat to Ireland a week earlier in Chicago.  From a Canadian perspective there is plenty of interest as Canada take on Ireland in Dublin, though sadly this is the only game that is easily accessible for Canadian viewers as the November internationals have not been picked up by any of the networks with the exception of this match which is being aired by CBC.

So as we always do, here is our attempt at gazing into rugby’s crystal ball.

Italy vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 12th
Rome

You have to feel a degree of sympathy for Italy as they face a New Zealand team that may be experiencing just a bit of road rage after their loss to Ireland last weekend in Chicago.  It’s one thing to face the All Blacks under normal circumstances, but to face a New Zealand team that has been shaken and stirred in the most dramatic fashion is an exceptionally daunting prospect.  New Zealand will arrive in Rome wanting to demonstrate that despite having their longest winning streak brought to an end, they are still very much the world’s best team.  As a result Italy will be up against it from the get go and we fear a potentially embarrassing scoreline unless the Azurri can keep their focus for the full eighty minutes, something they have traditionally struggled with.

Although New Zealand Coach Steve Hansen has chosen to rest some of his more senior players for this match in readiness for the rematch with Ireland a week later, this is still an All Black squad that should strike fear into the hearts of most mortal rugby players.  Italy are fielding their most promising front row, but New Zealand’s offering is still a highly polished unit and one that should especially in the discipline department get the better of the Italians.  In the second row, Scott Barrett made an outstanding debut for New Zealand last weekend and although Italy’s Marco Fuser is an impressive commodity we still expect to see New Zealand dominate the lineouts and have a more stable scrum.  In the back rows and at number eight despite the presence of Italian talisman Sergio Parisse and the excellent Simone Favaro, New Zealand is still packing a better overall unit in the shape of Sam Cane, Elliot Dixon and Steven Luatua.  So despite some exciting Italian talent in the forwards New Zealand should comfortably dictate play here.

In the half backs once again there is likely to be little contest when you have the New Zealand duo of exciting newcomer Tawera Kerr-Barlow starting at scrum half alongside the experienced Aaron Cruden at fly half with Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga waiting on the bench.  In short no contest and Italy will struggle here despite some promise being shown by the Italian fly halves Carlo Canna and Tommaso Allan.

In the backs New Zealand should completely dominate an inexperienced Italian back line.  The All Black centre pairing of Malakai Fekitoa and Anton Lienert-Brown should run rings around anything the Italians can offer while Waisake Naholo and Israel Dagg should cause havoc on the wings.  Lastly the impressive Damian Mckenzie comes in at fullback, and as we’ve seen in Super Rugby this year, this is an exceptionally gifted player who is likely to big a big part of future All Black development plans.

Still Italy will be no pushover and with the talismanic Sergio Parisse rallying his troops, Italy should be competitive for at least the first half.  However, as the clock hits sixty minutes expect this All Black squad start to run riot over their Italian hosts.  Consequently we’re calling this one in favor of New Zealand by 25 points.

Scotland vs Australia
Saturday, November 12th
Edinburgh

Put aside all the rhetoric in the press leading up to this match about revenge for the World Cup and this should still be a riveting game and hopefully the spectacle it is being hyped up to be. Scotland will want to make amends for that heartbreaking loss to Australia last year in the World Cup quarter finals, while at the same time showing that there is some positive growth and development in Scottish rugby.  Australia on the other hand will be feeling confident after decimating a very poor Welsh side last weekend in Cardiff. Australia have rarely looked the finished product this year, but in Cardiff they finally started to look a much more composed and settled side and there is no question that especially in the backs this is a very promising looking Australian team in the making.

Up front though Australia will still need to be mindful of their discipline and execution as these have been an Achilles Heel for the Wallabies all year.  However, if they can keep their composure we are handing the front row battle to Australia despite the presence of veteran hooker Ross Ford for Scotland. The Australian trio have had a full year together now and should be the more settled unit.  In the second row and the lineouts however we hand the battle to Scotland.  The lock partnership of the Gray brothers for Scotland should have the edge over Australia’s Adam Coleman and Rory Arnold.  Having said that though we must confess to being very impressed with Adam Coleman and feel he has been one of the finds of the year for Australia and as a result expect plenty of fireworks from this up and coming player. In the back rows and at number eight the pendulum swings back in favor of Australia, especially when you have names like Michael Hooper and David Pocock.  Lopeti Timani at number eight put on a good show for Australia last week against Wales.  Scotland will be competitive in the shape of Ryan Wilson and John Barclay with John Hardie waiting on the bench but the experience of the two Australian loose forwards should be enough to swing the balance in Australia’s favor.

In the half backs the contest suddenly evens up.  Australia are blessed with the return to scrum half of Will Genia who really stood out in a fairly lacklustre Wallaby effort in the Rugby Championship alongside Bernard Foley who also was often Australia’s go to man in the tournament.  Foley despite the criticism often levelled at him, is for us one of Australia’s best players and it is good to see him return to the number ten shirt after his stint at centre in the Rugby Championship. Often a key playmaker for the Wallabies when they seem bereft of ideas in attack, Foley is worth his weight in gold and his mistakes are often a result of the rest of the team expecting him to perform miracles singlehandedly.  Scotland meanwhile field the always reliable Greg Laidlaw at scrum half while alongside him the exciting Finn Russell gets another shot at glory in the number 10 shirt.  This is a very solid half back unit benefitting from Laidlaw’s cool head and experience alongside Russell’s youth and flair.  A fascinating contest awaits here but we are giving Australia the edge in terms of experience.

The battle of the backs should provide for plenty of sparks and excitement as both teams boast some very talented attacking players.  However, once again Australia’s unit which has been playing together now for the last six months as opposed to Scotland’s, which is coming together for the first time since the Six Nations, should have the edge.  We really liked the look of winger Dane Haylett-Petty and centre Reece Hodge for Australia in the Rugby Championship.  Both are exceptionally dangerous on attack and hard to bring down and add to the equation that Hodge has a thunderous boot on him from very long-range, meaning that Scotland will have to work exceptionally hard to contain these two.  Centre Tevita Kuridrani and fullback Israel Folau are proven commodities for the Wallabies and were on fire against Wales last weekend. Scotland has their own danger men in the shape of the exceptional fullback Stuart Hogg who is a threat from anywhere on the park with ball in hand.  On the wings the duo of the experienced Sean Maitland and Tim Visser will provide speed and strength in abundance, while the centre pairing of the very talented newcomer Huw Jones and Alex Dunbar should be a handful for their Wallaby counterparts all afternoon.  We are really looking forward to this aspect of the contest even if we are narrowly tipping it in Australia’s favor, especially if Genia and Foley really click.

If the scores are close going into the final quarter, Australia could throw the game by putting in their two biggest liabilities in terms of discipline and decision-making in the shape of the half back partnership of Quade Cooper and Nick Phipps.  If Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika has his wits about him and Australia can build a commanding lead by the 70th minute before this pair comes on then despite a feisty challenge from Scotland it should be Australia’s day by 12 points.

England vs South Africa
Saturday, November 12th
Twickenham

Springbok rugby may be in a genuine state of crisis but we’d still be lying if we said we weren’t looking forward to this match.  England are clearly the form team of the Northern Hemisphere this year, well perhaps until Chicago, but South Africa are not short on talent by any stretch of the imagination.  Their problem simply seems to be one of management and coaching.  We don’t want to get into the politics of what is going on in South African rugby, but if England didn’t approach this match with anything other than the level of planning and preparation that Coach Eddie Jones is renown for then this match could end up being England’s banana skin of 2016.  South Africa has some quality players through and through and we’d argue if they just relied on their instinctive abilities as talented players and relied less on the advice of an inept coaching team they would be much more of a threat.  The proof of the pudding will be in the eating but there is no denying that despite a solid base in terms player talent the lack of a coherent game plan for South Africa coupled with some questionable selection decisions make the Springboks massive underdogs in this match, and as a result it is a polished and structured England side who are the clear favorites.

On a day that is likely to favour an approach based on a solid grind from the forwards as a result of the wet weather expected, England should be the masters.  Although the Springbok front row has been solid this year and at times hooker and Captain Adrian Strauss has been inspirational along with prop Vincent Koch, the English front row trio of Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Mako Vunipola are masters of trench warfare and should get a clear edge over South Africa.  In the second rows and regarding the lineout battles, we are scratching our heads at the selection policy of the Springboks. Springbok lock Pieter-Steph du Toit has been one of the few rays of light in an otherwise dismal year for the Springboks, and although he has also been devastating in the loose we cannot fathom playing him out of position as a flanker.  In his place comes Lood de Jager, but the Cheetahs lock has long been off his pace and his discipline has been poor all year. Eben Etzebeth brings some real fire and brute force alongside him, but even he has had a quiet year by his standards. Consequently it’s going to be all about England in terms of who dominates the second rows in the shape of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes.  With these two shoring up behind the front row we expect to see South Africa’s discipline collapse and them being shunted all over the park on Saturday.  In the back row we don’t understand the selection of Willem Alberts for South Africa and, despite their talent Warren Whiteley and the out of position Pieter-Steph du Toit will struggle to make sense of whatever convoluted game plan the Springbok coaching staff will have come up with.  Once again the English trio of  Billy Vunipola, Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw should rule the day here.

In the half backs once more it should be England’s day.  The partnership of Ben Youngs and George Ford is tried and tested and provides an exceptionally stable platform for England. Although Springbok fly half Pat Lambie brings some real reliability and composure to South Africa the jury is still out for us on Rudy Paige at scrum half and we would still prefer to see Faf de Klerk, even though he will be coming off the bench at some point in this match.  For cool heads and experience the half back battle should once more be all about England.

In the backs, once more it should be England’s day especially if the weather is unfavourable.  From our point of view the only name we are excited to see in the Springbok back line is winger Ruan Combrinck.  The rest of the South African offering is distinctly average.  Fullback Willie le Roux is way off his form of a few years ago and English bulldog Mike Brown is going to cause him to have a continuing crisis of confidence especially in the wet where le Roux is distinctly uncomfortable.  Damian de Allende at centre has been a defensive disaster for South Africa all year as well as offering no imagination whatsoever in attack.  England’s offerings on the other hand all boast class and excitement.  The only variable for us being Marland Yarde who we must confess not to know too much about.  However, England’s centre partnership of Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly have looked outstanding all year, while Johnny May sees a welcome return to the wing.  We’re calling this one easily for England when it comes to the contest amongst the backs.

As you can see through no particular bias towards England we have handed them the clear advantage in all three battle lines on the park this Saturday.  We sincerely hope that South Africa will play to their instincts and talents as opposed to a misguided game plan and surprise us.  Sadly though we are not holding our breath and as a result we’re giving this to England by 15 points!

Wales vs Argentina
Saturday, November 12th
Cardiff

We must confess that this is the match we are looking forward to the most.  Readers of this blog will know that we are big fans of the Pumas and the brand of rugby they are trying to develop.  With no disrespect to Wales we cannot say the same of the rugby they are currently playing despite what we thought was a spirited and courageous tour of New Zealand in June.  The Pumas have become the kind of team that France used to be in terms of flair and excitement.  The side they bring to Cardiff is packed with players who can light up a pitch on any given Saturday.  Wales however, will not be daunted by the challenge and when you have veterans like Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn-Jones in your ranks you know there will be plenty of heroics on Saturday.

In previous encounters between these two sides Wales have known that they will have to face up to Argentina in the forwards first and foremost and Saturday will be no exception. In our opinion though Wales will be up against arguably one of the best front rows in Test rugby in the shape of Argentina’s Ramiro Herrera, Agustín Creevy and Lucas Noguera.  Creevy in his own right is one of the most inspirational leaders in Test Rugby and a force of nature at times.  We just can’t see the Welsh front row matching the Pumas intensity here despite the presence of the exceptional Gethin Jenkins.  Although Wales boast power and experience that is almost second to none in the second row in the shape of locks Alun Wyn-Jones and Luke Charteris, we still think that the Argentinian duo of Matías Alemanno and the exceptional Guido Petti are likely to spring more surprises.  Consequently we are giving this contest to Argentina as well by the narrowest of margins. The battle of the back rows looks set to be an outstanding contest. The Welsh offering of Justin Tipuric and the indestructible Sam Warburton will be pushed hard all afternoon by Argentina’s Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio.  However, it is the X-factor of Justin Tipuric and the brute heroics of Sam Warburton that makes us give Wales the nod here but what a contest.  Shoring it all up at number eight, another epic battle awaits between Wales Ross Moriarty and one of this year’s best players the phenomenal Facundo Isa for the Pumas. Moriarty was one of the few players who really grabbed the headlines in an otherwise lacklustre Welsh performance last Saturday.  However, Facundo Isa’s exceptional strength and ability to produce something out of nothing makes us think the Pumas are likely to have the edge in this aspect of tomorrow’s game.

In the half backs, the Welsh duo has just not been firing at the same intensity as Argentina’s.  Wales Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies are solid but have lacked the spark that Argentina’s Martin Landajo and Nicholas Sanchez have been offering up all year.  Consequently we expect the Argentinian pair to be more effective at dictating the run of play on Saturday.

Then there’s the small matter of Argentina’s backs, and Wales are really going to have to work hard to stop this lot.  As a result given that conditions are likely to be wet don’t be surprised to see Wales elect to keep the roof open at the Millenium Stadium to try to somehow help slow down Argentina’s five powerful speedsters.  Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny doesn’t seem to be at his best and neither does his teammate winger George North.  For us the only real X-factor player for Wales in the backs is Jonathan Davies.  Argentina however, have pace and power aplenty and with a player like winger Santiago Cordero waiting on the bench to come and wreak havoc in the final quarter, it could turn into a very lopsided scoreboard if the Welsh defence doesn’t tighten up dramatically from last weekend’s efforts against Australia.

We just can’t help feeling that unless the weather really plays a role in Cardiff, Wales are going to struggle to contain a Pumas side that is on the verge of becoming one of the strongest contenders for World Cup glory in 2019.  We hope Wales will surprise us and their fans, but we just didn’t see much last weekend to get excited about, whereas although short on results this year, you can’t say that about the Pumas. They are on the verge of something big and as a result we give this one to the Pumas by eight points!

Ireland vs Canada
Saturday, November 12th
Dublin

Ireland look to use this match to really develop some depth in their squad ahead of the big showdown with New Zealand a week later, while Canada will hope to provide a worthy challenge and acquit themselves with pride.  Even with Ireland resting many of the heroes of Soldier Field for this match, this is still a daunting team for a Tier Two nation like Canada to run out against, especially when it boasts names like Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony. While the result is not really in doubt, it should provide a fascinating insight into Ireland’s long-term player base and a good idea of the kind of progress Canada is making under new Head Coach Mark Anscombe.

Ireland is fielding a host of new caps, while Canada sticks with players who for the most part are tried and tested. We’re looking to see big performances from Canada’s back row in this match of Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie who as two of Canada’s newest players have really impressed us over the past year.  However, they will have their work cut out for them as they go up against Irish superheroes Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony.  If the two Canadians can acquit themselves well when matched up against these two then you could argue that Canadian rugby is heading in the right direction. Canada however are still going to be up against it, especially at scrum time as the Irish front row unit packs down with Sean Cronin and Cian Healy, two of the best in the business.  The forward battle should essentially be all about Ireland with Canada working hard to remain in contention, but a long afternoon awaits the Canadian forward pack in Dublin.

In the backs, it once again will be all about the Irish with Canada struggling to keep up.  The half back partnership of Kieran Marmion and Paddy Jackson should run rings around the Canadian duo of the rather pedestrian scrum half Gordon McRorie and the talented and versatile fly half Conor Braid. The Canadians are likely to find it hard to match the speed and intensity of the Irish especially at the breakdown and if Jackson shows the kind of decision-making he displayed in South Africa this summer then Canada are going to find it hard going at the Aviva.

In the backs, Canada will struggle to match the sheer pace and breadth that Ireland are playing with in terms of their attacking game.  However, it shouldn’t be all one-sided as Canada will be boasting the world-class DTH van der Merwe who lit up every pitch he graced at last year’s World Cup.  If Ireland let him get any kind of space and quality ball then all of a sudden they may find themselves having to go back to the drawing board.  Taylor Paris on the opposite wing is also no slacker and these are two Canadian players who would be a complement to any team they played for. So Ireland will need to keep a watchful eye here to make sure they lock down the two Canadian speedsters. However, the Irish back line boasts names that would be on any coach’s radar in the shape of Keith Earls, Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy while the impressive Gary Ringrose finally gets his Irish debut at centre. As a result we hope to see some magic from Canada in open attacking play but there is simply too much calibre and pedigree in the Irish offering  for the scoreboard to be anything other than firmly in favour of the Men in Green.

There are a number of Irish players who will be seeking to put their hand up for a spot on the bench in Ireland’s big Round 2 showdown with New Zealand the following weekend, so expect an Irish performance lacking nothing in intensity. Canada will put up a brave fight and hopefully provide their own moments of inspiration, especially in the shape of DTH van der Merwe.  It is a great opportunity for Canada to test themselves against a hungry and talented side of Ireland’s younger players.  However in terms of quality Ireland clearly has the edge and as a result this should be Ireland’s match by at least 25 points!

We at the Lineout had the fantastic privilege of attending what can only be described as a truly epic game of rugby as Ireland finally, after 111 years of trying, got the All Black monkey off their back and became part of the elite club that has claimed a New Zealand scalp.  As a result of the weekend’s groundbreaking action, and the wave of euphoria we got caught up in in Chicago last Saturday as the Green Army took over the city, we sadly are only able to comment on the Ireland/New Zealand game as we have not had a chance to watch the other internationals featuring Argentina, Wales, Australia and Japan.  We’ll leave you with another fine effort from our friends at Rugby Montages to sum up the weekend’s action.

Ireland vs New Zealand
Final Score – Ireland 40/New Zealand 29
Soldier Field, Chicago

Now that the flow of Guinness in pubs and bars from Chicago to Dublin has returned to its normal flow, we look back at one of the most incredible spectacles of Test Rugby we at the Lineout have ever had the privilege of witnessing.  Chicago provided a fantastic setting as Ireland managed to get their first win over the All Blacks in 111 years of trying.  A packed Soldier Field, which boasted the largest crowd to ever attend a rugby match in the USA at over 62,000, lent their full voice to what was an epic afternoon of glorious rugby in brilliant sunshine. If that wasn’t the best advertisement for the sport to potential North American audiences then we don’t know what was.

There was some confusion at the end of the national anthems caused by New Zealand getting their full anthem sung, but Ireland for some strange reason only getting a solo fiddler’s rendition of Ireland’s Call which seemed to perplex fans and players alike who were waiting to burst into song.  However, the sense of occasion was highlighted as the face of recently deceased Munster Coach and Irish legend, Anthony Foley was flashed up on the big screen.  In perhaps the most impressive challenge we’ve seen in a long time to the New Zealand haka, the Irish players formed a number eight on the field in honor of Foley and in response to the All Black’s famous ritual.  You could cut the emotional intensity of this match with a knife.

From the minute, French referee Mathieu Raynal blew his whistle this match erupted into life and just did not let up for the full eighty minutes.  Ireland went charging into the New Zealand half right from the kickoff and would remain there for much of the first half. Ireland were clinical and clearly had a detailed understanding of the game they were trying to take to New Zealand.  While perhaps not as flash as New Zealand, their skills and composure were rock solid for the full eighty minutes both in attack and defence. Although Ireland were on the front foot for most of the first half, with 70% percent of the possession and the opening points of the game, ironically it would be New Zealand who would get the first try in the opening ten minutes.  All Black winger Waisake Naholo showed his devastating pace and ability to exploit gaps, with Irish flanker C J Stander making a heroic last-ditch tackle which saw the ball bobble loose and into the arms of New Zealand centre George Moala.  New Zealand were in front 5-3 and there was a sense of premonition amongst the crowd.

However, it was short-lived as Ireland took the match by the scruff of the neck straight away and would not let up for the next 30 minutes.  Ireland’s intent was clear from the start as they elected to kick for touch instead of taking easy points. Ireland clearly recognised the need to put big points on the board against a team like the All Blacks early on.  Every player in an Irish jersey was making a statement and after some intense pressure on the New Zealand line, flanker Jordi Murphy would burrow his way over for Ireland’s first try. New Zealand’s discipline was showing serious cracks as they were clearly getting rattled by the ferocity and speed of the Irish attack resulting in a yellow card for prop Joe Moody after a dangerous tackle on Irish centre Robbie Henshaw. Next fullback Rob Kearney, who made a spectacular return to form in this match, would take a high ball to within inches of the New Zealand line with  C J Stander using his brute strength to crash across for Ireland’s second try.  With Sexton’s boot making no mistakes on Saturday Ireland found themselves with a 15-5 lead.

New Zealand’s defences were struggling to read the Irish game plan and as a result the Irish were able to exploit the confusion to the full and keep New Zealand from getting any kind of meaningful possession or territory.  In one of the highlights of the match Irish scrum half Conor Murray, who was absolutely outstanding for the full eighty minutes, in a superb dummy would put himself into acres of space for Ireland’s third try.  With Sexton making the conversions count the Irish faithful in the crowd dared to dream at half time as the score stood at 25-8 in favour of the Men in Green.  Memories of the heartache of 2013 were still fresh and the expectation was that New Zealand would seek to turn their fortunes around in the second half just as they did so clinically three years ago.

Nevertheless, as the second half got underway there was no let up in the Irish intensity as Sexton would put winger Simon Zebo in the corner for Ireland’s fourth try.  New Zealand then seemed to awaken from their stupor and all of sudden the game was all about the Men in Black.  Two quick tries in succession from All Black scrum half T J Perenara and fullback Ben Smith got New Zealand right back in the match.  Ben Smith’s try in particular showcased his and New Zealand’s abilities to master the margins of the game as he somehow managed to dot the ball down in the corner milliseconds before the rest of his body was hauled into touch by two Irish defenders.  All of a sudden it was 30-22 for Ireland but with 25 minutes left to play the sense of deja vu amongst Irish supporters was growing by the second.  Sexton slotted a valuable penalty to put the hosts ahead 33-22 but New Zealand were piling on the pressure and testing the Irish defences.

New Zealand would strike again in the final quarter through replacement lock Scott Barrett putting himself into space and beating the Irish defence to make it 33-29 with fifteen minutes left.  To say that you could have cut the tension in the air with a knife at Soldier Field would have been an understatement.  Then a piece of Irish magic happened that will keep Irish eyes smiling for many years to come. The stadium erupted as Robbie Henshaw in a brilliant show of strength would crash over to seal New Zealand’s fate.  Replacement fly half Joey Carbery, who could not have asked for a more intense baptism of fire on his debut for Ireland, would slot the penalty and Ireland’s day in history had finally arrived as Ireland held a commanding 40-29 lead with four minutes left on the clock.  In the Henshaw try, for us one of the great unsung heroes of Irish rugby in the last few years, Number Eight Jamie Heaslip, showed just how valuable he is.  Heaslip may have middling form at club level but when he pulls on an Irish jersey he becomes a different player.  Involved in everything Ireland did for the full eighty minutes he is one of the team’s most valuable talismans.  His strength and vision to put Henshaw across embodied the spirit of the Irish challenge in Chicago last Saturday.

New Zealand proceeded to throw the kitchen sink at Ireland for the last four minutes but unlike in 2013 the Irish kept their focus, discipline and precision for the full eighty minutes.  New Zealand were running out of ideas to break a steadfast and aggressive Irish defence causing the All Blacks to display some uncharacteristically poor handling and execution as the clock wound down to full-time.

Finally, referee Mathieu Raynal awarded Ireland a penalty for an offside offence by New Zealand.  Ireland would make no mistakes this time and the ball was kicked into touch and a 111 year drought finally came to an end as Soldier Field erupted into a joyous cacophony of sound. New Zealand had put in a brave effort at times but as their head coach Steve Hansen openly admitted with a smile on his face, Ireland were clearly the better side on the day.  The pitch was a scene of delirious jubilation for Irish players, management and fans alike as the Irish team happily made their way around the touch lines as the largest crowd ever seen for a rugby match in the USA, 62,300 gave them a thunderous standing ovation.

An incredible game of rugby and a spectacle that will live with us for many years to come, has now set up the rugby showdown of the year between these two sides in Dublin on November 19th. When you get this kind of accolade from the New Zealand media then you know that this was no ordinary game.

Whatever you’re doing on November 19th find a live stream, fly to Ireland or go and visit friends in the US where the game will be on ESPN, but do NOT miss this one – it’s going to be HUGE!!!!!!

Endnote

Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of the weekend’s action, including the Wales/Australia, Japan/Argentina Tests and the match between the USA and the Maori All Blacks which also took place in Chicago. There is also footage of the South Africa/Barbarians match which took place at Wembley. Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!

 

 

November Internationals

We look at the last two internationals of a thrilling November, as England and Australia took part in an epic battle at Twickenham, while Wales finally managed to claim a Southern Hemisphere scalp in Cardiff as a badly misfiring South Africa cracked under Wales’ physical pressure.

England vs Australia
Final Score – Eng 26/Aus 18
Twickenham

England had fallen to South Africa and New Zealand in November, albeit not by huge margins, but an unconvincing win over Samoa the weekend prior to this match had left England with the need to come out and show that they are a side to be reckoned with and a serious contender for next year’s World Cup.  To say the pressure on them was enormous would be an understatement.

Australia on the other hand, were also looking to make a point.  After starting their November series with a convincing win over Wales the wheels had then fallen off in Paris and Dublin.  However, as many in the international press pointed out in some ways despite the importance of ending their tour with a win, a loss would not have been as catastrophic for them as it would have been for England.  Australia were on this tour with a new coach and although they were reeling from an unexpected loss in Paris and a tough battle in Dublin, coach Michael Cheika’s efforts were showing some fruit as Australia were certainly an exciting team to watch and seemed to be settling quickly.

England, had to win this game though as a third straight loss to one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three at home would have been inexcusable and apart from the damage to the side’s confidence going into next year’s World Cup as hosts, serious questions would have been raised as to whether England could even make it past their pool stages, with at best a quarter-final finish.  On the basis of this performance, while there is still a huge amount of work to do particularly amongst the back line, it would seem that England have finally got positions 1-10 right, and their forward pack alone can win them big games.

To be honest Australia didn’t play badly, it was just that England were so overwhelmingly physical up front that Australia’s back line were denied the space to really work their magic.  There were some impressive breaks through the English line by Australia’s back line who all had a good game with an excellent centerfield pairing between Matt Toomua and Adam Ashley-Cooper, along with Rob Horne and Henry Speight who always threatened on the wing, particularly Rob Horne.  Although Australia matched England for tries scored it was the accuracy of George Ford’s kicking game matched to Australia giving away too many penalties at the breakdown that allowed England to pull away.  As was exposed in Dublin the week before, although electric with ball in hand Australian fullback Israel Folau has a poor defensive game particularly with the boot when under pressure and Ford, like Ireland’s Johnny Sexton the week before, was relentless in exposing this vulnerability.

Australia may have had the more impressive back line interplay, but ultimately it would be England’s day based on a monumental forward performance.  The English scrum was truly impressive and the white juggernaut continually rolled over Australia.  England’s line-out play was equally impressive, and this coupled with solid work at the base of the scrum by scrum half Ben Youngs and a brilliant kicking game by George Ford at fly half – this was England’s day.  If England’s back line had managed to click as well as Australia’s the score line would have been much more in England’s favour.

What was obvious to me from this game and the previous week’s effort against Samoa is that England surely must have resolved the fly half debate in the form of George Ford vs Owen Farrell.  George Ford’s composure against Australia and some of the biggest pressure a player is likely to face in his career was exemplary.  He was asked to put in a massive performance under enormous pressure, especially given his lack of experience at Test level, and he delivered well and above the call of duty.  I cannot say that Farrell manages to keep the same level of composure and solid decision-making under similar pressure.  Therefore if English coach Stuart Lancaster has any sense, then for the Six Nations as preparation for next year’s World Cup, Ford should be England’s starting fly half to continue to develop his skills particularly in big pressure matches.

There were many outstanding performances from England’s forward pack, but without a doubt Ben Morgan left the crowd enthralled.  Morgan’s black scrum cap was everywhere on the park – he was quick, fast and accurate in everything he did and under huge pressure his discipline was superb.  His two tries were a master class display of superb finishing from a committed and impressive forward performance.

Ultimately in this match Australia were out muscled by England and despite Australia bringing on a complete set of fresh legs for the last quarter of the match, fatigue in the rest of the Australian line up and growing confidence from a fired up England, left Australia without answers.  It was a great contest and a fitting end to the November Internationals but England dug deep, very deep and walked away deserved and comfortable winners.  England still need to figure out how to get their back line working as well as their forward pack, as without this in the months between now and the Six Nations teams will figure out to get behind England’s forwards and open up their defences.  However, for England there is much to build on from this performance and there is now definite light at the end of what could have been a very dark and gloomy November.  For Australia, there is plenty to work with and this is an exceptionally talented team, and with some key forwards coming back for next year such as Stephen Moore and Scott Fardy, many of Australia’s forward problems should become a thing of the past.  Australia are still building and on present form are likely to peak just before the World Cup as England are likely to do, depending on their form in the Six Nations, making these two teams two potentially serious contenders for the Webb Ellis Trophy next October.  For both teams a fascinating year awaits with everything to prove.

Wales vs South Africa
Final Score – Wal 12/ SA 6
Cardiff

Let’s be honest this was not an attractive game as the sheer bone crunching physicality of it, at times almost painful to watch, made for less of a spectacle than the England/Australia game as an end to the November Internationals.  Instead, we watched a committed Wales take on a faltering and exhausted looking Springbok side, who to be honest didn’t really show up on the day.  Wales maintained their composure throughout and by putting enormous physical pressure on South Africa ultimately wore them down and caused them by the end of the game to play like ragtag schoolboys.  Perhaps worst of all was the gut wrenching injury to Springbok captain Jean de Villiers which puts him out of rugby for at least the next 8 months and in doubt for the World Cup.  As a result South Africa end the year with a poor tour and injury to one of their key players and sources of inspiration to the rest of the side.  Wales on the other hand gave coach Warren Gatland a little bit of breathing space heading into next year’s Six Nations and something to work with for the future.

For both sides as in the England/Australia match up a win was critical.  Wales had an awful November being put to the sword by both Australia and New Zealand, with the likelihood of them ever beating a major Southern Hemisphere side starting to look like the stuff of fantasy.  South Africa on the other hand, after being comprehensively beaten by an Irish team on the rise, managed to put in a big performance against England the following weekend, to then struggle to get past Italy.  In short, it wasn’t looking good for the Springboks and a trend was starting to emerge, they can play brilliantly at home but can’t get the big wins away from home.

As mentioned this was not a pretty game to watch, and when the sounds of the collisions between players are being picked up by the referee’s microphone it gives you an idea of how intensely physical this game was.  Wales played the more determined and committed game and it was this combined with some ferocious tackling by all fifteen red shirts even against players twice their size, recall the try saving tackle by Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny on the towering form of South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth, that ultimately carried the day for Wales.  It was the sheer dedication to making tackles at all cost that impressed me most about Wales, as well as all 15 players throwing themselves with abandon at the South African line with no seeming regard to their physical well-being.  Leigh Halfpenny was spot on with his kicking game, while Captain Sam Warburton was immense in defence and attack as well as showing some truly spectacular passing skills for Wales.  Dan Biggar at fly half for Wales showed why he is a player coming into the peak of his game and played some smart rugby at times even though several obvious drop goal opportunities went begging which would have given Wales a much more comfortable lead.

In a try less match, Wales played the more accurate kicking game and their relentless physical pressure caused South Africa to crack and give away penalties providing the Welsh with more shots at goal.  South Africa had moments of brilliance but nothing seemed to really fire for them.  Their forward pack looked tired, raising concerns for next year, and the back line simply made too many errors.  Willie le Roux at fullback had a truly woeful game with numerous knock-ons and kicks failing to find touch.  In the last ten minutes of the game, Francois Hougaard was brought on to replace Cobus Reinach which to me was a huge mistake especially as Reinach was one of the few players having a good game.  I have written enough about my view that Hougaard has little or no value added to any Springbok side and this was borne out by several knock-ons and him kicking the ball away aimlessly after taking a quick tap when South Africa, having been given a penalty, could have kicked for territory and had one last charge at an exhausted Welsh line.  Hopefully, this will end the Reinach/Hougaard debate and we will see Reinach as first choice scrum half for the World Cup.  Although the sending off of Springbok winger Cornal Hendricks for ten minutes at the sixty-five minute mark was questionable for an alleged aerial challenge against his Welsh counterpart, I doubt this would have made much of a difference.  Despite Hendricks being one South Africa’s star players this year, even he seemed oddly quiet on the wing for much of the match.

As the final whistle blew the Welsh deserved the celebration, it wasn’t a spectacular or exciting display of rugby for much of the match, but what Wales did for the full eighty minutes was devastatingly effective against an off-form Springbok side.  Wales still have an enormous amount of work to do if they are to be Six Nations contenders let alone for the World Cup, but this win proved that the will is there and Wales have some impressive individual talents.  If Wales can couple their strong defensive skills to a an attacking game that consistently gets them across their opponents’ whitewash then they will be back in the hunt next year, as well as doing what they did in this match playing a full eighty minutes and not running out of steam at the 70 minute mark.

As for South Africa, as a good friend of mine from South Africa said recently, South Africa seem to have fallen into a rut this year of only playing up to the standard they perceive their opponents are at, and then find themselves trapped into only playing as much as the opposition allows and not really playing their own game.  The Welsh game also showed South Africa starting to kick away perfectly good possession which many hoped had been put to bed once and for all by the end of this year’s Rugby Championship.  The injury to talismanic figure Jean de Villiers will also leave a scar.  In short, it has been a very bleak November for South Africa which showed the alarming tendency borne out for most of the year, that they only really impress when playing at home.  Going into a World Cup year where 7 critical matches will be played away from home, this is a serious concern.  South Africa must in the course of next year’s abbreviated Rugby Championship win all their away games convincingly.  If this can’t be done then they could well be on their way home by the quarter finals.  This is a talented and world-class team – find out how to win well and consistently away from home and the rest should be history – a tall ask.  Let’s hope for the sake of a fabulous tournament next year South Africa figure out how to do this and be the great competitors we all know they can be!