The Lineout’s week that was 17 – 23 October

So as mentioned over on the Podcast, we’re changing things up a bit this week and for the foreseeable future. With all the Rugby going on right now, Women’s World Cup, Autumn Internationals to name but a few big ticket items, we have to confess to be struggling to keep up. We barely have enough time to watch all the games, let alone write them up along with the demands of day jobs, families and life in general. In short, in order to not let this blog stall at such a key moment one year out from the World Cup, we will be limiting our musings every week to some key points that came out of the previous week’s action and which provided the most discussion and kept the pints frothy. So from now on much like over on the Podcast, we’ll be doing a weekly wrap-up here as well, although the subject matter will often be different.

So on that note with the Autumn Internationals just around the corner and a weekend of thrilling Women’s Rugby World Cup quarter-finals coming up, here’s what got us talking.

Canada’s women revel in a job well done but now the really difficult part of the World Cup begins for the Ladies in Red

It’s all smiles for now but Canada’s outstanding women know their World Cup journey gets dramatically harder after this weekend

First and foremost – heartfelt congratulations to Canada’s women at the Women’s World Cup in New Zealand. They won all their pool matches relatively comfortably, and finished as the second seed coming out of the Pool stages. That’s an impressive achievement whichever way you cut it and something that we can all be immensely proud of. However, now we’re at the business end of the tournament forgive us for thinking that perhaps Canada would have benefitted from a slightly more challenging route to it. Sadly playing the Americans once more in the Quarter-Finals is probably not the best preparation to take on our likely semi-final opponent England.

As impressive as Canada’s journey has been so far in the World Cup, the fact that we didn’t get to cut our teeth in the Pool stages against an opponent like England, France or New Zealand is in our opinion a slight handicap. You could argue that New Zealand is in the same boat but they still had the benefit of a plucky Australian side and, third place finishers in this year’s Six Nations, Wales to contend with as a warmup for their likely semi final with France. Canada should get past the Americans once more in the quarters but to take down tournament favorites England a week later in the semis, they will need to cut down their handling errors, improve their goalkicking and up their tackle success across the board by 40%. That’s a very tall order in the space of two weeks and while the game against the Americans will help this process it’s unlikely to really tell us where we stand in relation to the Kiwis and the two European juggernauts of France and more importantly England.

Like we say this is by no means an attempt to take any of the shine off the performance by Canada’s women in this tournament which has been outstanding, and one which we can all be rightfully proud of. There are plenty of strengths to build on such as the fact that our lineout is the best in the competition along with New Zealand, we have the most successful scrum record, and are second behind New Zealand in our success rate at ruck time. However, our tackle success rate is the worst amongst the eight quarter finalists as is our goalkicking. Given the way England are carving up pitches in this tournament we simply have to be more successful in the tackle department and simply can’t afford to be leaving kickable points to chance. There is no question that our physicality is a force to be reckoned with in attack but defensively we need some urgent and critical care. Two weeks is a very long time in international rugby, but Canada’s women know that the really hard work has to now begin in earnest and those impressive pool performances have to go up another few gears.

Who can stop the Red Roses?

England’s remarkable winning streak continues as their defeat of South Africa in the final Pool game of the Rugby World Cup saw them extend their winning streak to an unprecedented tally of 28 straight victories

To be honest we’re not sure anyone can. France gave it a really good go in the pool stages, and did show us that the Red Rose juggernaut can be slowed considerably, but even they failed to grind it to a halt. This weekend England take on Australia in the quarter finals, and the Wallaroos will be noble and valiant opponents but ultimately England are likely to continue their seemingly inevitable march to the final. Assuming things go according to plan against Australia they will then have a semi final date with Canada, which will see them attempt to claim their 30th consecutive victory, and if that’s not motivation enough ahead of a World Cup final then we don’t know what is.

England don’t really dominate any of the statistics outright, but then they are playing so cohesively as a team they don’t need to. Their only weak point is perhaps their goalkicking at a 63% success rate but that’s still the third best in the competition, and an area which all the teams have struggled with. However, they’ve run an astounding 2052 metres so far in three matches which is an average of 684 metres a game. New Zealand takes top honors in this department by quite the margin, but England are clearly the next best team in this regard by a country mile. Although the coaching staff would perhaps like to see the scrum and tackle success rates get slightly higher, there are no alarm bells ringing just yet. England look composed, confident, focused and apart from the encounter with France utterly untested so far.

However, the French game did show that when the chips are down this English team’s staying power and ability to get the job done is second to none in the competition. But therein lies the rub, if France do manage to conquer their likely semi final opponents New Zealand, then could les Bleus be wise to England’s tricks a second time round in a final? If you ask us that’s the most the most tasty plot line we can think of in this World Cup!

Clearly not a group to mess with!

As the hosts of this year’s Women’s’ Rugby World CupNew Zealand along with England will be exceptionally hard to beat

If the Black Ferns Haka isn’t frightening enough this Halloween then we don’t know what is. Not to exaggerate but we find it infinitely more spine chilling than the Men’s version. However, one Haka does not a World Cup trophy make as the saying goes and this Black Ferns side are just as terrifying on the pitch over eighty minutes as they are in their pre match warmup. As the hosts they are clearly enjoying playing in front of a rapturous home crowd, and putting behind them what has been a difficult year leading up to the World Cup. Under the new Coaching regime of the legendary Wayne Smith, New Zealand’s troubles are very much a thing of the past, and they now boast a unified squad of outrageous talent and depth who are clearly thoroughly enjoying their day jobs.

As far as we can see it their only potential Achilles Heels are their goal kicking and the scrums. Even their scrum in the final pool game against Scotland went from a 33% success rate in their opener against Australia to 100%. In short, this is a team that can adapt and fix it’s apparent weaknesses in the blink of an eye. Add in a second row that is clinically efficient, a back row that boasts the remarkable talents of Sarah Hirini and Alana Bremner allied to a halfback partnership that can read each others’ minds. Then there is that set of backs that highlights the almost insane talents of Ruby Tui and Portia Woodman and the Black Ferns are simply the most dangerous side in the competition plain and simple.

However, the pressure of winning your own World Cup in front a rugby public that is renown for accepting nothing less may be a stumbling block that New Zealand may struggle to clear against France in the semis or England in the final, should Canada fail to unseat the Red Roses. New Zealand are clearly favorites and seem to be getting better with every outing leading to an almost unstoppable momentum. Once again it seems to all point to France having to break the mold of a script that seems to have been written quite a while ago – as New Zealand and England look set to contest the final. Guess we’ll all be watching the first quarter final between France and Italy this weekend with rather intense interest!

These guys need to share a pint and have a chat

Coach Gregor Townsend and Fly Half Finn Russell need to settle their differences as until they do Scotland will suffer

It’s been one of the hottest topics of debate this week, and it’s been hard to look away. Love him or hate him – Scottish fly half Finn Russell finds himself out in the cold this November as Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend chooses not to include him in his Autumn Nations plans. The fact that the two seemingly don’t see eye to eye appears to be well documented, with Townsend’s “my way or the highway” clearly clashing with Russell’s impish maverick nature.

Anyone who has read these pages knows we have some sympathy with Townsend’s dilemma in recent times. Russell is a genius in the ten jersey of that there is no doubt. Just watch his performance in a Racing 92 jersey against Montpellier this weekend. However, therein lies the problem. Much of what Russell engineers is risky to say the least. When it works it is sheer brilliance in its audacity, but often it doesn’t and puts his team completely on the backfoot and struggling with damage limitation in the blink of an eye. What needs to happen is that Russell’s infinite and renegade talents get blended into his side’s game plan. However, Townsend is not the man to do it and sadly the resulting clash of egos and wills is set to continue at Scotland’s expense.

Scotland’s current offerings for the Autumn Nations campaign in the ten jersey are no slouches and will get the job done, albeit in a relatively predictable manner. Opposition sides are unlikely to be surprised, whereas with Russell they would likely have been kept guessing from start to finish. Russell’s play style either opens up opportunities for the opposition as a daring and reckless play goes awry, or they are constantly on the backfoot trying to figure out what’s coming next. It’s a gamble but at times one Scotland will need to take, if they are to go toe to toe with sides like New Zealand, Argentina and Scotland – let alone Fiji which is almost a team made up entirely of Finn Russells. In short, without Russell, one of Scotland’s key strengths of forcing opponents to expect the unpredictable is gone. In the interest of Scotland having an ace up their sleeve, Russell and Townsend need to put their differences aside and make it work plain and simple for the greater good and an eye to the World Cup.

The Return of a Legend

The Wallabies will be better off for Michael Hooper’s presence on the field once more, even if he won’t be wearing the Captain’s armband this November

We can’t begin to express how delighted we are to see one of our favorite Wallabies of the last decade back in the gold jersey this Saturday against Scotland. Furthermore, in addition to saluting his courageous decision to take himself out of the spotlight and look after his own mental health which had suffered as a result of the relentless physical and mental pressures of Test rugby, we’ve been really happy to see the support and respect he has been given in the process. Although the Captain’s duties will remain with James Slipper, the sheer presence of Hooper on the field will lend a stability to the team which they clearly lacked at times during the recent Rugby Championship. Hooper knows when and how to challenge some of the decisions in terms of officiating that got in the way of Australia’s recent matches, he also lends a sense of composure to his teammates in the face of adversity. In short, he’s a talisman that Australia have sorely missed in the last three months.

It’s a strong side that Australia are putting out on the pitch at Murrayfield this Saturday, even with some notable omissions due to injury. However, even though this match falls outside the official Test window, Australia will need all their ducks in a row as Scotland field a very dangerous side. Scottish bolters Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham out wide will pose a serious threat to the Wallabies often tenuous defense on the fringes especially with Marika Koroibete out of the equation for this Autumn series. In a match that could go either way for both sides, the calm head and experience of “Hoops” is likely to be Australia’s most valuable asset on Saturday in a fast paced and open game.

Welcome back Michael from all of us!!!!


In a Rugby Championship that keeps ripping up the form book, this weekend’s games are do or die affairs for the original favorites – New Zealand and South Africa!

Put your hands up if this year’s Rugby Championship has caught you by surprise – we’d imagine that we’d be seeing a pretty consistent show of hands. What a glorious tournament it’s turning out to be for the traditional underdogs Australia and Argentina. If Argentina pull off the unthinkable this Saturday in Hamilton and beat the All Blacks for a second time in a row and thus place one hand firmly on the tournament’s silverware, it would perhaps be the biggest shakeup of the global game in quite some time. Meanwhile in Australia, the Springboks almost look destined to be unable to break the curse of not winning on Wallaby soil since 2013. Both the All Blacks and the Springboks seem to be suffering a deep rooted crisis of confidence. Australia despite an injury list from hell simply will not lie down and Argentina look more ominous with every outing as their preparation for the World Cup picks up pace.

Quite frankly there is everything to play for in a tournament that until this year was in danger of becoming a tad stale and inconsequential in relation to its Northern counterpart the Six Nations. Not so this year, and we have been glued to our television screens since the beginning of August and are hungry for more. So here’s what got us talking ahead of Round 4 of this roller coaster tournament.

New Zealand may be struggling but they have some key strengths which they simply have to use to their advantage on Saturday

All Black Hooker Samson Taukei’aho has been a bright spark in an otherwise gloomy landscape for New Zealand, and his strengths in the set pieces and in crossing the whitewash could be key in turning the screw on Argentina this Saturday

If New Zealand are going to win on Saturday, then this man is likely to play a key part in it. Scoring one of New Zealand’s two tries in an otherwise lackluster performance for the All Blacks last weekend, Taukei’aho has proven that he is a deadly operator. Sent to the bench far too early in our opinion for the completely ineffectual Codie Taylor, we couldn’t help feeling that had he been allowed more say in proceedings last Saturday then we might be writing a different story after last weekend. New Zealand’s efficiency at lineout time dropped dramatically once Taukei’aho left, and given the fact that in the scrums New Zealand were dominating Argentina, expect to see them look to the young hooker to provide the same kind of traction again this week, but hopefully for longer.

New Zealand need more Dalton Papali’i sadly at Sam Cane’s expense

While Sam Cane gets another shot at redemption, the calls for Papali’i to be more involved in the All Blacks efforts is growing louder by the day.

We don’t really want to revisit the debate about Sam Cane’s captaincy, but it is hard to argue against his understudy Dalton Papali’i’s value to the All Blacks as a solution to some of the back row issues they are facing. If New Zealand are to win against Argentina on Saturday, then they simply have to be more efficient and quicker at the breakdowns than the Pumas, and snuff out the opportunities for the Argentinian jackalers like Matera and Montoya. Sam Cane and Shannon Frizell were simply too far off the mark at doing this last Saturday, but Papali’i offers New Zealand some real speed and strength in getting to the breakdown and in the loose is as good as any of his Pumas counterparts. In short, expect Papali’i to see more game time than Cane, and the Captain to most likely have not much more than a starting cameo, especially if New Zealand cannot dominate the contact areas early on.

Argentina’s smiling assassins have plenty of reasons to be cheerful

Argentina’s Julian Montoya and Pablo Matera can afford the swagger in their step after their exploits against both the Wallabies and All Blacks

Captain and Hooker Julian Montoya and back rower extraordinaire Pablo Matera have plenty to feel good about last weekend, and if the All Blacks are to reassert their traditional dominance over the Pumas, then negating the impact of these two individuals especially at the breakdown will be key. Along with the rest of their forward pack, these two stopped New Zealand dead in their tracks and were outstanding in marshalling an almost impenetrable Pumas defense. They simply stopped New Zealand getting quick phase ball – plain and simple. The All Blacks will surely have done their homework on these two and the Pumas defense as a whole, but reduce the efficiency of these two men in the contact areas and New Zealand will be well on their way to unpicking a resolute and highly organized defense.

While he may be defying age limits at club level doubts remain about him doing it at Test level

At 36 going on 37, fly half Ben Urdapilleta may have some pulling the age card, but there is no denying he had an electric season with French Top 14 side Castres this year

While many are questioning the Springboks fascination with old age pensioners, you can understand the eyebrows being raised over the selection of Urdapilleta as the replacement fly half for Santiago Carreras in such a crucial match for the Pumas’ title aspirations. We’ll be honest we didn’t really feel that Urdapilleta’s spectacular form with Castres in the French Top 14 translated to Test level standard during the last World Cup. Still given injuries to Nicolas Sanchez and the fact that Carreras is still learning the role, some experience is needed and in Urdapilleta they certainly have that. If he plays anything like he did this year in the Top 14, then given the missteps of late by both Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett, New Zealand could find themselves in a spot of bother.

While we have nothing against the “olden but golden” principle – at least play such players in positions they have shown form in recently

Although South African Coach Jacques Nienaber has sensibly chosen to start Malcolm Marx in the Hooker position, the choice of veteran Deon Fourie as his replacement is questionable especially given the fact that he hasn’t played the role now for quite some time

We’ll be honest, South African Coach Jacques Nienaber’s selections for this tour to Australia have left us scratching our heads. In our opinion they smack of desperation and golden opportunities lost. This would have been an ideal time to really showcase the younger talent that has performed so well in the URC. Where are Johan Grobelaar, Ruan Nortje, Elrigh Louw, Salmaan Moerat and Evan Roos to name but a few outstanding next gen forwards? Instead Nienaber has decided to opt for some admirable Springbok pensioners. We don’t mean to dismiss Fourie who had an excellent season with the Stormers, but for pretty much the entirety of that season he played in the back row. Consequently, imagine our jaw dropping disbelief to see a player in the twilight of his career be suddenly parachuted into a position that he hasn’t played regularly for quite some time in a match of critical importance to South Africa, even if it is only from the bench. We’re not really sure that’s even fair to Fourie. We wish him well but feel that he is almost being set up to try and achieve the impossible.

At least one opportunity is being seized but it’s a pretty daunting debut when the man marking you is Australia’s human missile Marika Koroibete

Given Wallaby Marika Koroibete’s at times controversial tackling technique last weekend, despite his brilliance we have concerns that outstanding Bulls winger Canan Moodie’s Test debut could end prematurely

Like we said in the podcast earlier this week, we had concerns about Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete’s tackle technique last weekend, brutally effective as it was. His Exocet missile tackle on Makazole Mapimpi was heroic and something to be seen to be believed but still borderline legal at best. The attempt at wrapping with the arms clearly appears as an afterthought when you watch the replay in slow motion. The fact that Mapimpi didn’t end up seriously injured is probably more down to luck than anything else. Moodie is fast and powerful but we fear he may simply be no match for the Wallaby Fijian powerhouse and could come off worst for wear both physically and mentally on this his Test debut. Nevertheless if he emerges from Saturday’s encounter unscathed and able to show off his abilities by getting points on the board, then expect to see the 19 year old youngster get fast tracked into the Springboks’ plans for the World Cup.

Australia will need more of Nic White’s playing skills and less of his Oscar winning acting this Saturday

Although Nic White may have had numerous offers from professional football clubs and Hollywood this week, it’s his skills in the nine jersey that he and Australia really need to bring to the fore this Saturday

We’ll be honest, after Wallaby scrum half Nic White’s Oscar winning performance last weekend, we sadly lost a lot of the respect we had had up to that point for Australia’s feisty number nine. We still think he’s a great player and a valuable servant to the Wallaby cause, but his performance in milking the mildest of penalties last weekend took the shine off a fascinating contest and was a rather poor advertisement for the game in general. Hopefully lessons have been learnt, words have been had and that’s the last we see of it. While we appreciate that to a certain degree scrum halves are always there to play the referee and carry “the chirp” to another level – there have to be limits. Sadly for White and the Wallabies, his antics last weekend will have set him and his colleagues up as enemy number one for a wounded Springbok side. Expect the Springboks to make his life a genuine misery this weekend.

In the absence of Captain Michael Hooper a star is born

While the Wallabies may still be missing their inspirational Captain Michael Hooper, they have lost nothing in terms of skill and commitment on the pitch in the shape of his stand in Fraser McReight

Australia may be counting the days till word of Michael Hooper’s possible return to the Wallaby fold, but in the interim they have unearthed a player who is rapidly making them forget that they are without their inspirational Captain. As the tournament and Australia’s leading try scorer, in McReight Australia have unearthed a genuine weapon and he’s only going to get better. A menace at the breakdowns, packing some weight to the back of the scrums and posing a genuine threat in the loose with an eye for the narrowest of gaps close to the try line, South Africa and Siya Kolisi in particular are going to have to keep a very close eye on the Wallaby flanker if they are to keep Australia in check.

In short, what a weekend we have in store and are there further turns and twists to be had in what has so far been a thrilling tournament and glorious advert for a competition that appeared to be losing some of its luster? We can’t see South Africa stumbling a second time to Australia especially given their need to strip Nic White of his Oscar. Furthermore, we’re just not convinced that Australia are as good as that Round 1 result against the Pumas and last weekend’s at times scrappy win over the Springboks would appear to indicate. As for Argentina and New Zealand, we also find it hard to believe that the All Blacks will trip up a second time on home soil against an opponent they have tended to dominate in the past. Nevertheless this is a Pumas side on fire, which is something you simply can’t say about the stop/start nature of the All Blacks at the moment. Consistency finally seems to be a term the Pumas are comfortable with and one that New Zealand is struggling to master.

So strap yourselves in and brace for what should be two bruising and enthralling encounters. Best of all for us here in Canada they are being served up on a choice of three viewing platforms – see TV page for details. So get the braais and barbis out for one last gasp of summer before the kids go back to school and enjoy what promises to be a fascinating Saturday of Test Rugby!!!

In a year that is providing us with some truly vintage Test Rugby, the Rugby Championship looks set to add its name to the honor roll!

This year we’ve been treated to an enthralling Six Nations, a memorable series of Summer Tours and now the Rugby Championship looks set to provide us with another four weekends of thrilling entertainment! The first two rounds of the Southern Hemisphere’s annual dustup, have given us plenty to talk about, turned the form book on its head and best of all treated us to some spectacular rugby – and the party has only just got started.

The opening round saw South Africa seemingly sink another inevitable nail in the coffins of All Black Head Coach Ian Foster and Captain Sam Cane, but a week later New Zealand turned the tables upside down in one of the most spectacular All Black/Springbok tussles at the hallowed ground of Ellis Park that we can remember in recent memory. It means that New Zealand and South Africa sit in fourth and third respectively in the world rankings, with Ireland and France dominating the number one and two spots. Not something you often see at the start of the Rugby Championship.

Meanwhile in Argentina, a Wallaby side bereft of their inspirational Captain Michael Hooper, played their hearts out to honor him and took apart an Argentinian side still coming to terms with the emotions of playing at home for the first time in three years and a new Coach. But just as what transpired in South Africa, Argentina turned the tide in the most dramatic fashion a week later by blowing the Wallabies out of the water in no uncertain terms. Perhaps even more remarkable the South Americans now find themselves at the top of the Championship table after two rounds for the first time since joining the competition in 2012 – heady stuff indeed!

So here’s what got us talking after an exceptional two opening rounds of the Rugby Championship.

Trying to stay positive while holding the All Blacks  seemingly Poisoned Chalice

After staying the executioner’s blade by their respective performances last weekend at Ellis Park, All Black Head Coach Ian Foster and Captain Sam Cane have raised more questions than answers about how the All Blacks are managed by the New Zealand Rugby Union

The New Zealand Rugby Public are brutal – plain and simple! Whatever we may think about the efficacy of Ian Foster and Sam Cane in their respective roles, the public lynching they were subjected to while on tour in South Africa by the media and general public back home in New Zealand was, in our opinion, in rather poor taste to say the least. Add to that the bumbling indecision by and lack of support from their bosses the New Zealand Rugby Union, and the subsequent outstanding win by Foster and Cane’s charges in the Second Test at Ellis Park makes the indignity of it all that much harder to stomach. Cane and Foster were already under huge pressure as were their teammates. In short, they should have simply been allowed to get on with the task at hand without a raft of speculation ably assisted and fueled by the New Zealand Rugby Union as to whether or not either of them had a future after last Saturday’s match at Ellis Park – one of the toughest arenas on the planet to tour as a Test Rugby player.

In the week leading up to the match, the players to a man stood behind their leaders and that should have been good enough. Some solid work was done during the week leading up to the Test at Ellis Park, and with a combination of some simple fixes and errors in selection by the Springboks, New Zealand put in a performance for the ages that saw them get the better of their greatest rivals in a comprehensive manner. Whether or not you can attribute that to Foster or Cane, is a debate we could have till the cows come home. However, as we said in last week’s podcast, we simply couldn’t see the value of changing the Coach a year out from the World Cup, and as Captain, Cane silenced his critics by leading from the front and putting in arguably one of his most inspirational performances in the black jersey to date.

All Black management have conveniently ignored the problems that were creeping into the national setup since 2017 when Steve Hansen was still Coach, and to simply throw Foster under the bus now to atone for their own mismanagement seems cheap indeed. Foster may not be perfect and may not have been the best choice at the time, but his players clearly respect him as they do Sam Cane. With some tweaks to the Coaching setup, most notably in drafting in Jason Ryan as the forwards Coach and Joe Schmidt as the attack Coach from now until the World Cup, Foster will have the support he needs to build on the momentum of last weekend’s win at Ellis Park. It may still not fix all of the All Blacks current problems, but what they need now is less speculation and more focus on the task at hand – preparing for next year’s World Cup. When that’s done and dusted then it will be time to review their options but for now, let us see this sordid debate closed.

Are these the two most important men in the All Black squad?

Fly half Richie Mo’unga and Back Rower Ardie Savea were instrumental in righting the All Black ship last weekend at Ellis Park and are arguably the most influential players on the park for the Men in Black right now.

There were some outstanding performances across the park last weekend in black jerseys, but two men in particular stood out and their influence in the coming months may well prove to be the key to how successful the All Blacks will be in restoring their ship onto a steady course.

Incumbent fly half Beauden Barrett may well be one of the greatest players the modern game has seen, but of late his style of play enables the individual talents of a highly skilled team to shine. However, as an organizer of the All Blacks’ collective strengths Richie Mo’unga, as evidenced on Saturday, is the master. It was that calm and disciplined foresight and organization that the All Blacks lacked in the first Test against the Springboks and in the series loss to Ireland. Do the results on Saturday, as we think they should, point to Mo’unga increasingly getting the nod as the All Blacks starter in the 10 jersey with Barrett becoming the impact player off the bench either at fly half or fullback? We can’t wait to see what the new Coaching brains trust of Foster, Ryan and Schmidt think of how to use these two hugely influential players most effectively.

One man who has consistently not let his side down so far this year, is back rower Ardie Savea. His work rate is simply off the charts, and with it he becomes a genuine inspiration to his teammates. Loyal as evidenced by his unwavering support under fire of Ian Foster and Sam Cane these past two weeks, and an absolute warrior for the cause on the pitch, the case for him playing a greater supporting role to Sam Cane’s Captaincy has never been greater. Furthermore, to take some of the pressure off Cane, awarding Savea the Captain’s armband from time to time as was done during Cane’s absence may be a tactic worth considering. Just watching Savea’s superhuman energy and total commitment, makes us want to get back on a rugby pitch it’s that inspirational. He simply embodies the definition of go forward ball for his team and as such, if New Zealand need a talisman for the challenging months ahead, they’d be hard pressed to find a more obvious candidate. Build some of your game plan around what Savea can create and you add a whole new level of danger to your forward pack.

The danger of not trusting your gut instincts

Springbok Coach Jacques Nienaber might listen to public opinion a bit more in future after the error of not selecting outstanding Hooker Malcolm Marx to start against New Zealand last weekend at Ellis Park

We said, in last week’s podcast previewing the showdown at Ellis Park, that Springbok Coach Jacques Nienaber had provided New Zealand with some opportunities to be exploited in his selection decisions. We weren’t proven wrong, as the All Blacks did exactly that. No matter how poor the All Blacks may or may not be at the moment, you always have to take two things into account. When their backs are against the wall they are one of the most committed rugby teams on the planet and secondly they still have the ability to reinvent themselves faster than almost any other Test Rugby team we can think of. All of those things happened at Ellis Park last Saturday, and when that happens that last thing you want to do is allow the All Blacks a fast start and an early lead. Well that also happened and chasing a game against the All Blacks is never something you really want to do even if it is in your own backyard.

There was almost a public outcry in South Africa when early in the week Nienaber named his squad for last Saturday’s match. Injury had forced him into selecting relative newcomer Joseph Dweba at Hooker in place of regular Bongi Mbonambi. However, what shocked everyone the most was Nienaber opting to have Dweba start in place of the first Test’s Man of the Match Malcolm Marx. Marx had been instrumental in ensuring that South Africa set the tone right from the get go in the set pieces that so unhinged the All Blacks in the First Test. In many ways it simply wasn’t fair to Dweba who was clearly out of his depth last Saturday and was having a torrid afternoon in the green jersey. After 35 minutes Marx came on in Dweba’s place, but by that stage it was a question of playing catchup against an increasingly confident All Black side. Marx did what was asked of him, but New Zealand had found the breathing room they needed to settle their own game plan.

There were other errors, in terms of Ox Nche also not really fronting up alongside Dweba and Jesse Kriel being put onto the wing when in reality he is at best an average center. Kriel was replaced relatively early on as just like Faf de Klerk, he fell victim to Caleb Clarke’s knees, which appear to be one of New Zealand’s new secret weapons. Lukhanyo Am shifted to the wing and showed that his truly extraordinary talents can be just as useful out wide as in the midfield as he put on a performance for the ages. You have to wonder though, had utility back Aphelele Fassi been selected instead of Kriel, allied to Am in the center, what extra magic might have been created? To be honest what more does Fassi need to do to impress Nienaber?

Is this the best player in the world right now?

South Africa may have stumbled against New Zealand last weekend, but extraordinary center Lukhanyo Am needs to make no apologies for two simply brilliant back to back performances in the opening two rounds of the Championship

In a match where New Zealand fixed their problems with the kick and chase along with their comfort and ability under the high ball, Springbok centre Lukhanyo Am didn’t quite have the field day he could have had, but his efforts to do so certainly left us and the rest of the rugby world in awe. He may have been part of a losing cause and a Springbok side suffering from poor selection choices, a touch of complacency and in some cases a lack of fitness compared to their opponents, but Am was truly magnificent. At times he came close to singlehandedly pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in recent Test Rugby history.

Imperious in the air, possessing a strength that seems three times his actual stature, and possessing an ability to read the game and create opportunities from nothing Am is a rugby phenomenon. What’s even more astounding is that he makes the impossible look almost effortless. While much of the world these days seems to only have eyes for France’s Antoine Dupont, we’d argue that Am is just as good if not better even though they have completely different roles for their respective teams. When the two sides face off in Marseille this November, we imagine the debate will have reached fever pitch.

Michael Cheika is clearly perfecting more than just the tango in his new role as Pumas Coach

Cheika has obviously lent more than just his colorful persona to his interpretation of Argentina’s national dance, and has revitalized a team that always has the potential to put on a show

We had this horrible sense of deja vu after watching the first Test between Argentina and Australia in the Rugby Championship, that this could end up being another tournament that faded into obscurity for the Pumas. Still something told us that we still should back the Pumas for a comeback in the Second Test.

In short, the Pumas did not disappoint and treated us to a seven score try fest that left us hungry for more. As their new Coach Michael Cheika said, it was tough for him to watch his charges demolish his former side so mercilessly, but he couldn’t have asked for a better start to life with Rugby’s “la vida loca”. Add organization and discipline to the Pumas heady skill sets and they will always be a team that is a joy to watch, and that is exactly what happened last weekend. Cheika may not always be the world’s most consistent Coach, but he does have a habit of churning out a year to eighteen months of solid performances. It would seem that his colorful leadership style blends well with his South American charges’ passion and high spirits. He may just be the tonic the Pumas need in their run up to the World Cup.

Australia had the edge in many of the game statistics, but Argentina were that much more organized and disciplined and made sure that the areas they did have the advantage in got translated into points on the board. Their kicking game was so much better than Australia’s and they controlled the zones where the ball was landing superbly. There was some clinical opportunism from the Pumas last Saturday, which in the past had often been scuppered by basic errors in execution, but in San Juan everyone seemed to have rehearsed their lines to a tee and knew exactly where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do when they got there. Santiago Carerras continued to develop as a world class fly half and playmaker for the Pumas while Australia simply failed to exercise any authority over the game from the ten jersey, often relying on scrum half Nic White to perform the role of both 9 and 10.

It was an outstanding team performance from Argentina, with all 23 players putting up their hands and being counted. It will stand them in good stead for a challenging tour to New Zealand, which could be a bridge too far, but given the recently exposed weaknesses in the All Blacks structure could also be a golden opportunity to create a bit of history.

Rennie puts a brave face on the loss of his inspirational Captain at the eleventh hour

Wallaby Head Coach Dave Rennie is to be commended for his support of Captain Michael Hooper’s last minute withdrawal from the Argentinian tour for personal reasons, but it is clear that it’s been a difficult pill to swallow for a team already ravaged by injury

As we said in the podcast, given the fact that player welfare is being so hotly debated these days, we were impressed by the support Michael Hooper received from the Australian Union, his Coach and his players when at the eleventh hour he left to return home for personal reasons, just ahead of Australia’s opening Test against Argentina. The importance of Hooper to the Wallaby setup cannot be underestimated, and without him they are not quite the same. However, both Coach Dave Rennie and the players stood by their leader’s decision and in the first Test to a man they played to honor their absent leader. It paid huge dividends as Australia romped to a comprehensive win even if it came at a cost in terms of increasing Australia’s already lengthy injury list, most notably fly half Quade Cooper being added to the casualty ward.

A week later though it was a different story. Australia perhaps took their foot off the gas after such an assured victory the week before, but if anything simply seemed unprepared for the passionate but highly clinical backlash from their Argentinian hosts that they must have known was coming. The mantra of playing for the absent Hooper also appeared to have lost some of its shine, and the Wallabies looked disjointed and unsure of themselves. Stand in Captain James Slipper played out of his skin as did number eight the increasingly impressive Rob Valetini, while Marika Koroibete ran at Argentina from every inch of the park for the full eighty minutes as well as tackling like a man possessed. However, without James O’Connor really owning the 10 jersey, game management increasingly fell to the overworked Nic White at scrum half. As a result Australia were simply unable to link phases together with any kind of cohesion or consistency. Argentina were suffering from no such problems.

With Quade Cooper out till probably just before the World Cup at worst, or the Autumn Internationals at best, and James O’Connor rusty since his injury spell post Super Rugby, Australia simply have to fast track Noah Lolesio as their starting number 10. It will be a huge ask for him against a Springbok side looking to make amends for the wobble at Ellis Park, but if he can get through the challenge, with the added advantage that Australia has not been a happy hunting ground for the Springboks in recent years, then all is not lost. Simply put, Australia have no choice. Get it right and the rest will come, as this is a well coached team with some excellent rugby skills but without a solid pivot at 10, their potential will remain elusive.

That’s it for now. We’ll hopefully be back ahead of Round 3 of the Rugby Championship, but if pressures of work don’t permit, feel free to have a listen to the weekly podcast wrap up on the TV listings page. Stay safe everyone and enjoy the rugby and what’s left of the summer!

This year’s Summer Tours look set to come to an unprecedented conclusion as across the board Game 3 is a series decider for all!!!

In 50 years of watching rugby, I have to be honest I can’t remember the last time the annual summer tours by the Northern Hemisphere have ended with all series needing to be decided in game 3. As a result we are in for a truly spectacular Saturday this weekend, akin to Super Saturday in the Six Nations. Ireland look to try and create history by building on their first ever win against the All Blacks in New Zealand by claiming an unprecedented series victory. England will attempt to carry the momentum of last weekend’s win over Australia, to clinch a series themselves. Meanwhile in South Africa, Wales look to create the upset of the year as they seek to topple the Springbok colossus and claim a series win despite being perhaps the most outrageous but brave underdogs of all the teams this year. Lastly, Scotland’s new kids on the block look to claim a series in the physical cauldron that is Argentina. In short, there’s plenty of potential history in the making and plot lines to follow this Saturday. If you love our glorious game, it will be almost impossible to tear yourself away from the TV for eight hours, so best make excuses with family and friends now, as it’s unlikely they will be seeing much of you on Saturday!

New Zealand vs Ireland – Saturday, July 16th – Wellington

New Zealand need some Will Jordan try scoring magic while Ireland need another barnstorming dose of Tadgh Beirne

After producing a win for the ages last weekend, Ireland attempt to take it one further by winning a series against New Zealand in the All Blacks back yard. The last team to do this was France almost 30 years ago, so despite the euphoria of last weekend, the enormity of the task they have set themselves is no doubt at the forefront of their planning this week. New Zealand, meanwhile although no doubt smarting from last weekend’s loss, very rarely come unstuck twice in a row on home soil, and a wounded All Black team on its own turf is an exceptionally dangerous animal, whatever it’s shape or form. Both sides have brought out the big guns for this one, with Ireland needing to last the distance at the final hurdle in a long and challenging season, while New Zealand simply need to harness their collective will and shape it into some sort of platform as opposed to a collection of insanely gifted individuals.

New Zealand once more weld together a unit of Test rugby superstars but one that seems to struggle to fire as a unit, relying more on the individual talents of the players themselves. Still, despite the coaching, or as many are saying lack of it, the unifying force of pulling on that black jersey in front of your home crowd and not letting them down when your backs are against the wall is a powerful unifying force. We don’t rate the New Zealand front row unfortunately and feel that discipline is its Achilles Heel against a more composed Irish unit that clearly rediscovered its mojo last weekend. New Zealand can take heart in one of the most established and competent second row partnerships in Test Rugby in the shape of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick and their collective rage about the events of last weekend will be a potent force. The back row of Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Scott Barrett will be looking to make similar amends even if as a unit they don’t quite click – nevertheless there is so much individual brute force and talent amongst the three of them that it can cover for any collective deficiencies. In the half backs, we continue to struggle with the scrum half selections. The Highlanders pair of Aaron Smith and Folau Fakatava did nothing to really impress us last weekend and for such a crucial Test surely Finlay Christie would have been an option on the bench? Fly half Beauden Barrett is a remarkable player as an individual but often seems one move ahead of the rest of his team who struggle to keep up with his lightning quick thinking. It’s a powerful center pairing of Rieko Ioane and David Havilli, but the jury is still out for us on Havili’s efficiency at times. The out wide duo of Sevu Reece and at long last a starting berth for Will Jordan spells trouble for Ireland, with Jordan who seems able to score tries at will likely to expose James Lowe’s well documented defensive frailties for Ireland, and Jordi Barrett at the back spells reliability and a boot to get them out of jail. Blues sensation center Roger Tuivasa-Sheck gets a spot on the bench as does the vastly talented Hooker Dane Coles and fly half Richie Mo’unga who we’d argue is more effective at linking together the All Blacks vast array of individual talents than Barrett. Akira Ioane and Dalton Papali’i shore up the back row replacements and we have to admit to being surprised to see Papali’i not getting a starting berth, especially if Ireland are allowed to get off to a flying start. It’s a blockbuster All Black offering but it really needs to work as a unit as against Ireland it’s world class individual talents may not be enough.

For Ireland, it’s essentially business as usual after last weekend. Their front row of Andrew Porter, Tadgh Furlong and Dan Sheehan was immense last weekend with Sheehan being much more accurate with his lineout throwing. Tadgh Beirne was utterly outstanding as Ireland’s raging bull in the second row last weekend and they’ll need more of the same from him this weekend. Peter O’Mahony was magnificent in the back row for Ireland last weekend, even managing a beautifully executed 50/22 while Caelan Doris literally erupted out of the woodwork after essentially being AWOL in the first Test, and we simply can’t say enough good things about Josh van der Flier. The half back pairing of Jamison Gibson-Park and Jonathan Sexton was a master class in game management under pressure. Bundee Aki deputized exceptionally well for the injured Gary Ringrose and his physicality this weekend will be vital against the All Black axis of Ioane and Havili. James Lowe will really need to have his A-game on this Saturday to contain Will Jordan and if he passes the Test and shuts the All Black winger down, all of his defensive liabilities can be put to bed ahead of the World Cup. Fullback Hugo Keenan much like Caelan Doris in the back row was back to his best last weekend and Ireland will need him and winger Mack Hansen to be on song. It’s an Irish bench that can stand up to most of what New Zealand can offer, but big games will be needed from Joey Carberry if Jonathan Sexton can’t last the distance and Conor Murray at scrum half will need to calm things down if New Zealand are running rampant. Lastly a huge shout out to one of our favorite players, winger Keith Earls who led Ireland so well in this week’s midweek Test against the Maori All Blacks – an old dog still with plenty of X-factor.

Ireland will be frustrated with their inability to turn their 2 man advantage last week into points on the board, leading many to wonder if Ireland actually struggles to find a rhythm against anything less than a full strength opposition side – it’s almost as if they don’t know what to do with all that extra space. New Zealand meanwhile will need to batten down the hatches play a bit more as a collective as opposed to a who’s who of international rugby superstars. We are set for a an epic Test match of that there is little doubt. It’s hard to see New Zealand stumble twice in a row on home soil, but for Ireland the opportunity to make history is going to provide some rather special motivation. Our hearts say Ireland, but ultimately we think New Zealand may end up edging this Titanic arm wrestle. Either way strap yourselves in folks you’re not going to want to miss a second!!!!

Australia vs England – Saturday, July 16th – Sydney

Samu Kerevi has been remarkable in the midfield for the Wallabies while veteran Danny Care makes you wonder how different England’s fortunes in recent years might have been if Coach Eddie Jones had not consistently overlooked the Harlequins scrum half

England despite all the criticisms levelled at controversial Coach Eddie Jones, came storming back last weekend to wrestle back control of a series that seemed destined to slip away from them. Australia meanwhile took a casualty list from hell in the process and experienced a crisis of confidence after a first half which saw England blitz them 19-0. They recovered nicely in the second half and got themselves back in the match but at a physical cost it may be difficult to sustain for three weeks running. England brought their bruising physicality to Brisbane and made it count. They’ll need more of the same this weekend, while Australia will need to keep a cool head and not get sucked into the fray, allowing their exciting backs to dictate play and ensure that it’s England who tire first.

Australia’s discipline along with the injury list really hampered their efforts last weekend, and consistent infringements and difficulties in the set pieces from their front row contributed heavily to their ongoing woes. Prop Taniela Tupou is a supremely gifted athlete but unfortunately seems to be a permanent fixture on referees’ radars. Continuing losses in the Wallabies second row stocks sees the Brumbies Nick Frost drafted in alongside Matthew Philip who still remains one of our favorite next gen Wallabies. Shoring up the back row is Rob Valetini who really was not at the races last weekend unlike in the first Test, and the Reds irrepressible Harry Wilson would make a better fit in our opinion at 8 and shift Valetini to the blindside. It’s the other way around instead for this match, but with Captain Fantastic Michael Hooper in the mix it’s still a steady ship, though the Wallaby leader needs to up his game from last weeekend. It remains “steady as she goes” with Nic White and Noah Lolesio in the halfbacks, while in midfield Hunter Paisami continues on alongside Samu Kerevi who has arguably been the most impressive Wallaby of the series. Tom Wright and Marika Koroibete showed what they could do last weekend out wide, it’s just that they didn’t get nearly enough opportunities to showcase their exceptional talents and the Wallabies will need to get the powerful pair into space as much as possible on Saturday. Lastly the Wallabies bring in the “siege gun” Reece Hodge at the back to get them out of awkward situations and go for those long range penalty kicks if they can cause England’s discipline to crack. We really like the look of that Australian bench which could make the last quarter a very exciting affair to say the least, especially if the rather extraordinary athleticism of winger Suliasi Vunivalu gets put on display.

For England, Jones being Jones simply can’t resist tinkering with an otherwise winning formula. There are no surprises in him keeping the front row of Ellis Genge, Jamie George and Will Stuart who made life so torrid for Australia last weekend, though we could do without more scenes of Genge providing Wallaby players with gratuitous neck massages on the floor. Jonny Hill’s hairdressing skills in the second row also don’t really need to be on display despite the apparent value of “niggling the opposition”. We are happy to see Ollie Chessum partner Hill this week, after impressing off the bench last weekend, and Lewis Ludlam gets a well deserved start in the back row after consistently standing up off the bench in the first two Tests. Ludlam is ably assisted with a form defying Billy Vunipola and an increasingly effective Courtney Lawes. After turning heads last weekend, we have to admit we question the wisdom of putting Jack van Poortvliet on the bench in favor of Danny Care, but can only assume that Jones is trying to recreate the chemistry that fly half Marcus Smith and Care create week in week out in the Premiership at Harlequins. It didn’t quite pan out in the first Test so let’s hope for England’s sake that third time’s the charm. Owen Farrell and Smith seemed to figure out how best to work off each other last weekend, often by not working together at all and simply letting themselves do what they do best as individuals when the situation called for it. Freddie Steward was back to his very best at fullback and Jack Nowell’s penchant for trying to be all things to all men as opposed to being just a winger actually paid off last weekend, while Tommy Freeman made a solid debut and is rewarded with a starting berth once more. We’re hoping we’re going to see Poortvliet off the bench sooner rather than later, along with Henry Arundell on the wing. However, once more England pack a very competent bench poised to take control in the final quarter if some first aid is required.

This should prove to be a blinder of a Test match. Australia seem to be once more suffering a crisis of confidence and unlike their rivals across the Tasman, the All Blacks, they rarely manage to turn adversity into strength. England are reveling in some new found confidence and the motivation to come from behind and claim a series win will be a powerful tonic. We’d argue it’s England’s series to lose with all the pressure being on an injury hit Wallaby squad. However, think back to last year and the Wallabies clinching the series against France in similar circumstances – the similarities are there in abundance so write them off at your peril. However, we have a hunch that England’s brute force may just have the edge for this series, allied to some rather silky skills in the backs that are easily the equal of Australia’s powerful pacesetters. Everything on the line for two teams desperate to silence their doubters – in short you are unlikely to be getting up off the couch after the showdown in Wellington and the start of the debate in Sydney, other than for a quick top up of coffee if you’re watching it live or a dash to the fridge if you’re on demand!!!

South Africa vs Wales – Saturday, July 16th – Cape Town

South Africa’s enforcer, second rower Eben Etzebeth becomes the Springboks youngest ever centurion this weekend, while Welsh back rower Tommy Reffell makes an impressive announcement for his future in Welsh Test rugby

Just when you thought it was safe to drag yourself away from your TV set, we think the suspense of yet another series decider will be too much for you. It’s a quick bathroom break/coffee/ale top up and you’re back at it with the third of this weekend’s thrillers, especially given that this series was technically supposed to be done and dusted in the Springboks favor before the opening whistle in the first Test. As we’ve said before, the Welsh simply love taking the form book and throwing it out the window. They relish the underdog tag, and when it comes to down and out bravery in the face of overwhelming adversity there are few sides who can match them. South Africa are clearly struggling to get the measure of this Welsh team. A rather surprising set of selection decisions by the Springbok coaching staff last weekend added to their woes as Wales pipped them by one point. Despite an all star Springbok cast in the first Test, Wales just simply refused to lie down. In short, South Africa have found this series exceptionally hard work. As a result they simply couldn’t have asked for better preparation as they are set to host the All Blacks for two Tests next month as part of the Rugby Championship. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine Wales’ luck continuing to hold out against a final do or die Springbok assault this weekend in Cape Town.

As we mentioned in this week’s podcast review of last weekend’s second Test, we admire the bravery of the selection decisions by Coach Jacques Nienaber. He wanted to see what depth looks like under pressure, and in that respect think he gained more answers than questions. Let’s also be honest, that so called B or even C side of Springbok newbies, didn’t exactly get thrashed by a Welsh A team last weekend – there was only one point in it and if Handre Pollard had brought his kicking boots it would have been a completely different end result. This week it’s a powerhouse front row of Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe up against a Welsh unit that is a fantastic example of bravery under fire but may not last the distance. In the second row their enforcer Eben Etzebeth, becomes the youngest ever Springbok centurion at the tender age of 30, and is once more partnered with the incomparable Lood de Jager. One of our favorite Springboks of recent years, Pieter-Steph du Toit will be keen to make amends for his yellow card last weekend in his first foray in a green jersey since injury layoff. Meanwhile Jaspar Wiese and Siya Kolisi need to notch the intensity they showed in the first Test up a few more gears. In a surprising call, Jaden Hendrikse gets the nod at scrum half over Faf de Klerk who is resigned to the bench for this one. We can understand some of the reasoning but still felt he had a 50/50 game last weekend, and despite de Klerk not having the best form he still has the experience for a down to the wire experience like this. Handre Pollard needs to bring his kicking boots at fly half which last weekend he clearly left in Montpellier. South Africa will need to use their dynamic duo of Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi out wide much more than they did in the first Test, while Lukhanyo Am needs to be much more involved in creating opportunities this weekend. Those three are pure World Class in their own right but as a unit allied to the increasingly impressive Damian de Allende they could be unstoppable on Saturday. Damian Willemse at fullback despite rescuing his teammates in the first Test, still leaves us with a few question marks however. The Bomb Squad are reunited on the bench, and Elrigh Louw gets another chance to impress off the bench alongside Franco Mostert. In short it’s a very solid Springbok bench set to turn the tide should the first half not go according to plan.

For Wales, it’s pretty much business as usual after that nail-biting win last week. They’ll need to watch their discipline as we doubt that Handre Pollard will be as wayward with the boot as he was last weekend. Their lineout work still needs to improve and all eyes will be on Ryan Elias in that respect and the jumpers Adam Beard and Will Rowlands, with the latter being a standout performer on this tour. Having said that though the Welsh scrum stood up surprisingly well in the second Test despite the caliber of their opponents. The big talking point though for Wales has been how good back rower Tommy Refell has been. The superlatives have been pouring in and the 23 year old is already being tipped as Captain material. The contest between him and Siya Kolisi this weekend is definitely one you’ll want to focus on, but a shout out also has to go to Dan Lydiate who has simply tackled like a demon. Kieran Hardy continues to grow into the role of scrum half at Test Level and Dan Biggar seemed to get his amateur dramatics with referees under control last weekend. Out wide Wales have wisely stuck with their own Batman and Robin combo of Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit, but could still use a bigger performance from their centers with all eyes on George North who just hasn’t stood out this tour. As always veteran Liam Williams shores up the rearguard and if you want reliability in your last line of defense there are few better individuals to turn to. It’s a solid Welsh bench that can absorb some punishment, and after Dan Biggar was subbed off last weekend, Gareth Anscombe really rose to the occasion, and that final conversion at the death was to be admired as it showed some exceptionally calm nerves under pressure. Alun Wyn-Jones will want to make a statement after the bizarre yellow card he was handed which made no sense whatsoever.

It’s an exceptionally big occasion for both sides and make no mistake Wales are up for this and then some! However, in front of a packed stadium in the “Mother City” it’s unlikely that the Springboks will falter, especially given the World Cup winning quality of the personnel assembled. If Wales can come out of the whole encounter with the scores close at the final whistle, then while they may lose the series they can board the plane home knowing that their bravery against the odds is intact and that any side thinking that a game against Wales in next year’s World Cup is a soft ride is seriously delusional.

Argentina vs Scotland – Saturday, July 16th – Santiago del Estero

Second rower Guido Petti has been immense for Argentina this series, while Scottish winger Duhan van der Merwe brought his much needed physicality last weekend to a series that has been crying out for it

Scotland a bit like Wales have clearly defied the odds on this tour. Three matches in Argentina is not for the faint hearted. The Pumas may be rebuilding and adjusting to life under new Coach Michael Cheika, but Argentina is a big, powerful and fleet of foot team with some rather unique skills. The battles that have taken place in the foothills of the Andes these past two weeks, have given Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend’s charges an excellent dose of what a hard life on the road looks like. For Argentina, after the euphoria of playing in front of their adoring fans for the first time in three years and an impressive victory in the first Test, it’s now time to brush last weekend’s wobbles under the carpet. It’s showtime in Santiago del Estero and a big result is absolutely imperative for Cheika and his charges ahead of a two tour visit from the Australian’s old outfit, the Wallabies, as part of the Rugby Championship next month.

For Argentina, we are thrilled to see Thomas Gallo get a call up to the front row, after his heroics last year on debut and a solid season with Benetton. Agustin Creevy had the crowd on their feet last weekend and expect the same again as the veteran Hooker and Captain still has that talismanic quality for the team. Tomas Lavanini returns to the second row alongside the outstanding Guido Petti, but the disciplinary alarm bells are always a concern for the big lock, even though he has cleaned up his game considerably since the World Cup. However, his commitment to the cause is never in doubt – just watch him tearing up during the anthems. Facundo Isa is looking increasingly impressive and Pablo Matera will be keen to reinstate his influence on the national squad in the back row after his season in New Zealand with the Crusaders – though like Lavanini he’ll need to monitor his discipline. 7s star Lautaro Bazan Velez makes his debut for the Pumas at scrum half while Cheika continues the work necessary in moulding Santiago Carreras into Nicolas Sanchez’s understudy, and despite the loss last weekend we though Carreras was one of the best Pumas players on the field. We are also excited to see the return of Bautista Delguy on the wing and Duhan van der Merwe will have his hands full keeping the slippery winger in check. It’s a solid Argentinian bench with some big guns on it like Marcos Kremer, but we’re also interested to see if Benetton fly half Tomas Albornoz gets a look in on Saturday.

For Scotland, there is plenty of interest in Canadian born Hooker Ewan Ashman’s performance in the starting fifteen. The lineout in particular has been a real concern for Scotland this tour, even if the wind in Salta last weekend wasn’t exactly helping. There’s another change to the second row with Scott Cummings and Jonny Gray, and we’re not overly sure why to be honest. However, that Scottish back row of Hamish Watson, who also gets the Captain’s armband for this match, Rory Darge and Matt Fagerson looked the real deal last weekend and clearly got the better of their Pumas opponents. In the halfbacks, we would have preferred to see Ben White keep his starting position at scrum half after last weekend, however, this Saturday with everything on the line, it’s back to the experience of Ali Price. It’s a potentially exciting center pairing in Scotland’s Mark Bennett and Sione Tuipolutu, with Bennett having a particularly good run last weekend, though whether or not they can get the better of established Pumas pair of Matias Moroni and Orlando remains to be seen. Rufus McLean needs to translate his club form to Test level status out wide as does Ollie Smith at fullback, and Duhan van der Merwe needs to continuing imposing his highveld bred physicality on the Argentinians. Scotland pack their own “Bomb Squad” on the bench in the shape of Dave Cherry, Pierre Schoeman and the rather impressive Javan Sebastian. Lastly we really want to see more of Ross Thompson off the bench at fly half especially if Blair Kinghorn manages to establish control early on.

As the finale to what promises to be a genuine “Super Saturday” of Test Rugby this should be a fascinating contest. A series win for Scotland would be a deeply satisfying end to a challenging road trip, while for Argentina national pride and rewarding their fans’ after a three year absence from Test Rugby will be paramount in the Pumas minds. Argentina may not fare so well on the road, but at home they are a different beast. They will meet Scotland again in the fall, but winning this series will announce to the world that they are back from the wilderness and give them a real boost of confidence ahead of Australia’s two Test visit next month, followed by a tough trip to New Zealand. As a result we can’t help feeling that provided Argentina can keep their discipline and cut out the errors that plagued them last weekend, the series is theirs to take this Saturday despite a very feisty Scottish challenge. Either way, even if you can’t take another two hours of rugby tomorrow after a six hour marathon if you’ve watched the first three series deciders, you’ll want to make this game mandatory viewing with your Sunday morning coffee!

It’s do or die this weekend for the Northern Hemisphere sides as they play the second round of the Summer Tours

New Zealand vs Ireland – Saturday, July 9th – Dunedin

New Zealand will need Ardie Savea’s whirling dervish physicality and Ireland will require another dose of Peter O’Mahony’s manic leadership skills and never say die attitude

New Zealand can feel pretty pleased with their day at the office last weekend at Fortress Eden Park. Ireland meanwhile will have to content themselves with a very spirited performance that sadly lacked the execution of their opponents. Both sides gave it their all, but New Zealand’s skill set under pressure was the better of the two. There is everything to play for this weekend, but Ireland simply have to be that much better to keep the series alive.

New Zealand go into this match for all intents and purposes unchanged. Dalton Papali’i comes in at blindside flanker allowing Scott Barrett to return to his more familiar residence in the second row. Their front row can feel optimistic about how they bossed Ireland around in the set pieces, while Sam Cane and Ardie Savea had a massive day in the back row and Ireland clearly struggled with their physicality. We have to apologize to Aaron Smith who had a stellar outing at scrum half after we had dismissed him based on his results with the Highlanders this season in Super Rugby. It is clear that Smith plays at his best in the All Black setup, whatever the fortunes of his club side. New Zealand’s play out wide in debutant Leicester Fainga’anuku was exceptional and Sevu Reece was a classic case of “now you see him now you don’t”. Rieko Ioane has made the complete transition to a truly world class bruising center and his work at times in defense was extraordinary. This weekend we get to see Aaron Smith’s highly vaunted fellow scrum half at the Highlanders, Folau Fakatava, get a bench spot and it remains to be seen if he thrives as much in the national setup as his fellow clubmate does. In addition, infinite danger lurks on the bench in the shape of electric winger and try scoring machine Will Jordan.

Ireland meanwhile know they have it all to do, with one last shot at redemption before this tour slips away from them. Ireland need a much more dominant game from props Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong, who failed to get the better of their Kiwi opposition. Hooker Dan Sheehan struggled as well in the set pieces, but was an absolute tiger in the loose and hopefully plenty of work has been done this week to address Ireland’s front row set piece deficiencies – let’s face it it’s not for the want of talent in these three. Ireland will need a lot more aggression from their second row and Tadgh Beirne needs to turn up the volume to his traditional AC/DC levels. In the back row, Peter O’Mahony was absolutely immense for the Men in Green especially once he had to take the Captain’s armband as a result of Sexton’s departure. Always a controversial character, but somehow whenever he plays the All Blacks O’Mahony seems to develop an extra set of lungs and is clearly a talisman to the rest of his teammates. Josh Van der Flier needs another big game with perhaps a little less try line fever this time around, but you simply can’t fault his work rate while Caelan Doris really has to come out of the woodwork this weekend. Ireland’s halfback partnership of Jamison Gibson-Park and Jonathan Sexton is world class, but we have to be honest that we are concerned about Sexton’s long term health as Ireland continue to wrestle with the fact that they simply can’t do without him. Hugo Keenan had the first poor game at fullback we’ve seen from him, and hopefully like Doris he is back to his best this weekend. Ireland will need a big performance from Mack Hansen out wide who returns to the Ireland setup, though he will have his hands full trying to contain Fainga’anuku. Ireland need make no apologies in the midfield in Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. It’s almost the same bench as last weekend with the exception of Finlay Bealham returning to the fold and Bundee Aki hopefully coming in to shut down the Ioane/Tupaea axis if it has got the better of Ireland.

It will be a huge ask of Ireland, and based on New Zealand’s efforts last weekend the odds appear not to be in Ireland’s favor, especially given the lingering injury concerns around Sexton. Still, Ireland love the tag of underdog, much like the Welsh and perhaps this weekend is their opportunity to tear up what appears to be a preordained script. Either way, it’s a contest you simply won’t want to miss with shades of a backdrop to a potential quarter-final next year in France.

Australia vs England – Saturday, July 9th – Brisbane

Tom Wright gets the nod out wide so look out England, while Henry Arundell despite a 90 second cameo that left us speechless remains on the benchwhat are you thinking Eddie?

Australia lost their focus on an otherwise stellar performance last weekend which almost cost them the win. Still with 14 men they can feel rather pleased with how they withstood a last ditch English comeback. For England, there was little to get excited about until winger Henry Arundell’s remarkable cameo off the bench in the 72nd minute. It swung the game on its head and England almost pulled off the comeback of the year. However, Australia held firm and we just can’t see them making the same mistakes again this weekend, while England continue to tinker and Jones’ selection decisions as always seem to flip the finger to form and cohesion.

For Australia, they go into this match relatively unchanged. The Tongan Thor Taniela Tupou comes in for Allan Alaalatoa. The Tighthead possesses a set of skills that defy imagination at times for a prop. In the second row, Matthew Philip replaces red carded Darcy Swain who will miss the rest of England’s tour, but we’d argue Australia lose nothing with Philip and if anything gain an extra edge. That outstanding back row remains unchanged with Michael Hooper leading the charge, with the openside flanker proving to be an absolute nightmare for England last weekend. Hats off to Noah Lolesio, who retains his starting berth at fly half after being called off the bench to start last weekend’s match at the very last minute. The young fly half was absolutely superb last weekend and demonstrated a maturity and clarity of thinking well beyond his 22 years. Hunter Paisami comes in for Len Ikitau, while Samu Kerevi’s skills in the midfield are likely to only get better after a breath taking performance last weekend. Tom Wright comes in on the wing allowing Jordan Petaia to move to fullback for the injured Tom Banks. Once again Australia lose nothing here as we have been hugely impressed with Wright’s performances this year with the Brumbies. While we’d argue that the Wallaby bench is perhaps not as strong as last weekend, there’s enough firepower and attacking threat in the starting 15 to make life distinctly uncomfortable for England.

For England, we are as always simply not convinced. Their unchanged front row was distinctly average last weekend, while the same can be said of the second row. Maro Itoje was almost desperate at times, and Jonny Hill’s constant niggling and unsportsmanlike behaviour towards his Wallaby opposite Darcy Swain should also have seen red in our view. England will rue the loss of flanker Tom Curry who is out for the rest of the tour, and is replaced by Sam Underhill whose season this year was rather underwhelming to say the least. Jack van Poortvliet gets rewarded for his stellar appearance off the bench replacing Danny Care who certainly seems to be past his sell by date at Test level despite his form at Harlequins this year. The partnership between centre Owen Farrell and new wonderkid fly half Marcus Smith seems fraught and slightly dysfunctional at best, with the former clearly sulking over the loss of the Captaincy and his understudy’s rapidly rising star assuring him of a long career in the England 10 jersey at Farrell’s expense. Guy Porter gets a shot at starting in the midfield after impressing for Leicester this year. However, both winger Jack Nowell and Freddie Steward really need to make an impression which especially in the case of Nowell they failed to do last weekend. Apart from Henry Arundell England’s bench doesn’t exactly look to set the world on fire, and to be honest why the London Irish fullback is not starting after his remarkable 90 second debut last weekend is utterly beyond us. We know that our good mate Squidge Rugby seems to think Eddie Jones has a plan but we really are having a hard time seeing it.

Australia are fired up and England remain in a crisis of confidence. The script would say that Saturday’s encounter at Suncorp Stadium, a ground the Wallabies have a very happy track record on, is only going to end one way. It’s likely that the Castlemaine 4X will be flowing more than the Boddington’s on Saturday evening in Brisbane. England showed they can turn a game on its head last weekend, but we just don’t feel that Australia will be A) down to fourteen men again and B) let their concentration and discipline slip the way it did last Saturday. Australia are clearly enjoying themselves and playing as a team, England are not and it shows. We’d say cohesion beats confusion every time so the pressure is all on the Men in White this weekend. But everyone loves a shot at redemption so you won’t want to miss England have a go at proving us all wrong!

South Africa vs Wales – Saturday, July 9th – Bloemfontein

One of the tastiest head to heads of the summer – Springbok speedster Aphelele Fassi up against Welsh Ferrari Louis Rees-Zammit

It’s perhaps a surprising Springbok selection, and some may say favors Wales hands down, but we’d be a little more cautious in uttering such endorsements. One thing however is for certain, and that is that Wales haven’t read the preordained script for this tour as evidenced by their performance last weekend in Pretoria. Given the quality of the Springbok side that trotted out against them and recent Welsh form both in the Six Nations and the URC, a fairly comfortable whitewash was predicted. Instead, Wales made a genuinely decent fist of attempting to rewrite history and came within a hair’s breadth of causing the biggest upset of 2022. South Africa’s massive talent bank ultimately got the better of Wales at the death but boy did the Men in Red make them work for it. With a squad of lesser known players making up this weekend’s Springbok squad, many are predicting that fortune will favor Welsh bravery this Saturday in Bloemfontein. But just before we all get too carried away, let’s not forget that many of these South African players are very well acquainted with their Welsh opposite numbers through the URC where in the latter stages of the competition they clearly got the better of them. They may not be as familiar with the likes of those Welsh players who ply their trade in the English Premiership, but complete strangers to Welsh rugby they are not.

For South Africa the almost complete personnel change caught many of us by surprise. However, there are some rather impressive names in Saturday’s team sheet. While the front row especially in the shape of Hooker Joseph Dweba may struggle at times with a very capable Welsh offering, it’s still no sloucher when you’ve got guys like Thomas du Toit and Trevor Nyakane in the mix. It’s the second row where a big performance will be needed by Eben Etzebeth who seemed strangely quiet by his normally boisterous standards last weekend, in order to cover for what we feel is a definite weakness in the shape of Marvin Orie at Test level. That back row though is world class, even if question marks remain around Pieter-Steph du Toit’s fitness after a long run of injuries and if you’re not excited to see Stormers sensation Evan Roos make his Test debut then you probably only have a passing interest in our glorious game. Handre Pollard takes over the 10 jersey to restore some solidity in the half backs and Jaden Hendrikse gets his first start at 9. In the backs the only weakness we can see is Jesse Kriel in the centres, but we simply cannot wait for the F1 clash between pacesetters Aphelele Fassi for South Africa and Louis Rees-Zammit for Wales. We’re also excited to see Bulls second rower Ruan Nortje get a call to the bench.

For Wales, they’ve decided to stick with the squad that so admirably tore up the script last weekend in Pretoria. We were particularly impressed with the efforts of second rower Will Rowlands who seemed completely unfazed by the Springbok power duo he was up against and the Welsh back row of Taulupe Faletau, Tommy Refell and Dan Lydiate seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their outing on the highveld. Kieran Hardy needs to be a little more accurate in his deliveries at scrum half, and Dan Biggar must focus more on his excellent game management and less on his histrionics with the officials. We are a little surprised to see Josh Adams relegated to the bench in favor of Alex Cuthbert, and the first half will soon tell if this was the right call by Coach Wayne Pivac. It’s a very able Welsh bench that can certainly lend some weight and finishing when needed in the final quarter led by their talismanic former Captain Alun Wyn-Jones.

There is no doubt that Wales are in this one with more than just a fighting chance, but these greener Springboks are no slouches and as we saw in the URC underestimate them at your peril. There is enough talent and experience in this Springbok squad to get the younger bucks through the crunch moments. Wales clearly smell blood and fancy their chances, but although the press back home in Wales may not respect this Springbok selection, the players themselves are suffering from no such illusions. This should be a heady Test match that is more than capable of going down to the wire once more. The only certain thing about this game is that it’s almost impossible to predict and as a result could well be the most exciting game of the weekend. After writing this series off, it’s now the one we can’t drag ourselves away from!

Argentina vs Scotland – Saturday, July 9th – Salta

Some exciting Latin and Celtic options in the half back department get to strut their stuff in Salta on Saturday, in the shape of Pumas fly half Santiago Carreras and Scotland’s English heartbreaker scrum half Ben White

It was great to see Argentina finally get to play in front of a stadium full of their adoring fans after an absence of three years, and they certainly rose to the occasion. We were also heartened to see a determined Scottish supporter complete with bagpipes even if it didn’t quite help his team overcome a Pumas side that steadily warmed to the task at hand. Test Rugby returned to Argentina and the Pumas showed that the spark is still burning brightly. Scotland made a brave start to what always looked set to be a challenging tour and one which ultimately serves to separate the men from the boys.

Argentina head into this match, their second under new Coach Michael Cheika, with a few tweaks to a side that clicked rather well to say the least. Rodrigo Bruni who made such an impression in that famous victory over New Zealand a few years back comes in for Pablo Matera at eight. Santiago Carreras gets to start for the injured Nicolas Sanchez at 10, and we felt he had nothing to apologize for when he came off the bench last weekend. Juan Imhoff who looks just as sharp as he did on his debut back in 2009 comes in for Emiliano Boffelli who returns to his more traditional role as fullback. With the exception of his goal kicking, Boffelli had an outstanding game last weekend and his terrific season at Edinburgh meant he was rather familiar with the talents of his opponents and how to contain or elude them. It’s a solid Pumas bench and expect the Salta crowd to erupt as one when the old warhorse Agustin Creevy comes off it.

For Scotland, they will need to be more clinical than they were in last weekend’s Jujuy tussle. Dave Cherry replaces George Turner at Hooker and many regard him as Scotland’s premier number 2. Sam Skinner replaces a rather ineffectual Jonny Gray in the second row. It may not be as big a back row as the Pumas, but it packs plenty of power, pace and guile in the shape of Hamish Watson, outstanding newcomer Rory Darge and Glasgow stalwart Matt Fagerson. Ben White who broke English hearts at Murrayfield this year, gets a worthy start at scrum half and if Blair Kinghorn can improve his execution in the 10 jersey, then this halfback pairing could make life distinctly difficult for the Pumas. Kinghorn has a good eye for opportunity but in a much more controlled fashion than Finn Russell. Scotland will hope that winger Duhan van der Merwe can bring a bit more of his world renown physicality to the festivities in Salta than he did last weekend. Finally, we’d still like to see a bit more of Ross Thompson off the bench especially if things aren’t going well for Blair Kinghorn, as just like Ireland, Scotland desperately need some big game depth in the 10 shirt.

Scotland know that a win tomorrow will suddenly open up what always promised to be an intriguing series for both sides. We’d argue that the pressure is all on them, as the Pumas looked increasingly comfortable last weekend and are clearly relishing playing once more in front of their adoring fans. It’s a very tall order for Scotland this Saturday, and the Pumas must be relishing the chance to get their international season off to the best of all possible starts ahead of the Rugby Championship. In a day where surprises are needed across the board to keep this year’s Summer Tours alive, Saturday’s dustup in Salta should prove to be a fitting end to a glorious day of Test Rugby.

It’s Summer Blockbuster time as North meets South below the Equator

It can be said that the end of season tours by European teams South of the Equator are a mixed bag in terms of what we can expect from one group of rather weary players meeting another only halfway through their season. However, a year out from what could be one of the most hotly contested World Cups in recent memory, all eight teams have everything to play for in terms of laying down markers.

New Zealand and Ireland both know that this is the last time they will meet before a possible quarter final next year in France. Australia and England are also in the same boat though it is unlikely they will meet in the quarters next year. Wales meanwhile travel to South Africa, who they are highly unlikely to meet in France, and this tour is probably a bridge too far at the moment for a side that is struggling to find its form. The Springboks however, are exactly the opposite with South African sides ultimately dominating the new United Rugby Championship. They will relish the prospect of what for all intents and purposes looks set to be an excellent training run ahead of a tough Rugby Championship and end of year tour. Lastly a developmental Scotland side travel to South America for a three test tour against Argentina, which always serves to separate the men from the boys and Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend will be keen to see how his young guns withstand the punishment. The Pumas meanwhile will also have everything to prove after a dramatic dip in form since their historic defeat of the All Blacks two years ago and a Coaching change a mere year out from the World Cup, as controversial figure Australian Michael Cheika takes over in the Coaching box.

As a result with a myriad of plot lines to follow as the next three weeks play out, we doubt you’ll be bored and these tours are likely to keep you glued to your television sets. So here’s what got us talking ahead of this weekend’s first round of action.

New Zealand vs Ireland – Not quite business as usual this time around?

Ireland have a good track record against New Zealand in recent years, but have never beaten them at home. How much will Irish fatigue versus form and recent All Black struggles change the script this time around?

Encounters between these two sides since that historic victory at Soldier Field in Chicago by Ireland in 2016 have become rather tasty and feisty affairs. Nevertheless, victory on New Zealand soil remains the stuff of dreams for the Men in Green. There have been the odd occasions where Ireland have run their hosts close, but the Men in Black always triumph. In very simple terms, there are very few sides that can actually upset the All Blacks at home, so the problem is not unique to Ireland. However, this time around is there a chance that Irish eyes could end up smiling at the end of this tour? New Zealand as a team have not been at their best since getting knocked out of the last World Cup by England in the semi finals, and losing to Ireland and France last November. However, before you get too comfortable as an Irish supporter, the form on display by the New Zealand sides in the recently concluded Super Rugby Pacific tournament looked rather terrifying to say the least.

For Ireland, there are some alarm bells ringing as Irish and European giants Leinster fell at the final hurdle in the Heineken Cup, and Ulster and Leinster got knocked out of the URC semi finals. Leinster simply failed to adapt to their opponents while Ulster simply made too many errors under pressure. As a result Irish supporters will be hoping that Andy Farrell’s coaching staff have worked with players on their need to adapt and modify their game plan accordingly, and do it all when under pressure and develop a Plan B quickly and efficiently on the fly. A failure to do so on this tour will mean that Ireland will head home empty handed -plain and simple. There is no doubting Irish efficiency and inventiveness in the way they play the game, but there has been a reluctance to change the script if things are not going their way.

For New Zealand we’ve been scratching our heads slightly at some of the selection decisions, most notably in the scrum half department. In the front row and second rows they should be able to go toe to toe with the Irish, though we have a hunch that the lineouts will be theirs to own. In the back row we’d argue that Ireland could be the more dynamic of the two, but New Zealand should be able to provide a physicality at times that Ireland may find it hard to keep up with for three straight weeks. Aaron Smith and his deputy Folau Fakatava from New Zealand’s least successful Super Rugby side this year the Highlanders, get two of the scrum half berths and in our opinion that seems questionable. Smith is well past his best and although Fakatava is all the rage in the New Zealand pundits columns, he has yet to be tested at the International level and against one of the world’s best sides to boot. We can’t quite get our head around the fact that the Chiefs Brad Webber or Crusaders Bryn Hall didn’t get the nod, still at least the Blues Finlay Christie gets a look in. The 10 jersey is in exceptionally capable hands and looks infinitely stronger than Ireland’s even with the venerable Johnny Sexton. Lastly in the centers and back three New Zealand also looks gifted with heaps of power and pace. In short, if you’re going to watch any part of the park closely, then focus your attention on what’s happening off the back of scrums and rucks as in our opinion if New Zealand have a weakness it lies there.

For Ireland, much of the squad that has had for the most part a strong year internationally remains intact. Ronan Kelleher will be missed at Hooker though and James Ryan really needs to rediscover his form that made him such a talking point in 2018. Ian Henderson’s edginess will be missed in the second row, and the back row really need to match up to New Zealand’s physical presence and ability to slow the ball down. As much as we have concerns for the All Blacks at scrum half, Ireland aren’t on such a strong footing either. Jamison Gibson-Park is currently in a class of his own at the moment, but Conor Murray has lost form and Craig Casey is still too green. Meanwhile despite evergeen fly half Johnny Sexton being in the form of his life right now despite his age, Ireland simply doesn’t boast the depth here that New Zealand does. The Irish in our opinion have the more inventive centre pairings, even if they lack the physicality of their Kiwi counterparts, and in the back three Ireland can give as good as they get.

In short, this has all the makings of a classic Test series providing end of season fatigue and travel doesn’t get the better of the Irish in three exhausting matches. An Irish victory on New Zealand soil is certainly a possibility but a series win is probably a bridge too far. Either way it’s the one series you are definitely not going to want to miss.

Australia vs England – Is there finally a firm hand on the tiller for Australia in stormy seas while England can’t seem to ship water fast enough on their leaky boat

While Australia still struggle against traditional rivals New Zealand both at Test and Club level there are promising signs for the future in the land down under while England continue to look at sixes and sevens

Australia had a tough tour to Europe at the end of last season, but there are still plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Australian sides made a bit better fist of it this year in Super Rugby Pacific, and there is definitely some rapidly rising talent in the Australian ranks. Defensive systems still seem to be a problem area for Australian teams but there was still a marked improvement this year from last year. Their set piece work is improving and in the centres and backs Australia are blessed with some genuine world class talent, an area that England are really struggling with.

England meanwhile seem to lurch from one disaster to the next despite having a player base that in theory should be the envy of the world. For reasons best known to themselves England are simply not reaping its rewards. Coach Eddie Jones is under pressure in the swansong of his England career, as if anything his charges seem to be going backwards in terms of their development ahead of the World Cup. Two dismal back to back Six Nations, and some worrying signs ahead of this tour in the recent Barbarians Test, leave you wondering if the vaunted but controversial Coach really does have a master plan for England as time starts to run out in terms of preparation for the next World Cup. England’s complete lack of teeth in terms of attack is now common knowledge despite the outstanding talents of fly half sensation Marcus Smith. Given the fact that Australia love to run the ball and have some remarkable athletes to do so, England must be feeling concerned ahead of this three Test series. A series whitewash by Australia which is not beyond the realms of possibility, would leave England in a crisis of confidence heading into a very challenging Autumn Series and beyond.

For Australia their front row stocks will suffer if injuries take their toll, but from the second row onwards we like the look of this Wallaby pack. We think Australia boast an excellent set of second rowers who are likely to give England a torrid time, especially in the lineouts and their back row looks infinitely more cohesive than England’s. In the half backs, Australia also look sharp with both experience and depth, while their centre offerings led by Samu Kerevi are likely to make numerous headlines. However, what we really can’t wait to see in action is Australia’s cornucopia of talent in the back three. Tom Wright has had an outstanding season with the Brumbies, Marika Koroibete is a freight train with a Ferrari engine, Andrew Kellaway excels at finding the whitewash and Tom Banks can turn a game on its head – and that’s just to name a few. In short, lookout England in this part of the park and it’s going to be all about keeping the ball away from the Wallaby speedsters.

As for England, it’s the usual Eddie Jones muddled set list. Nothing looks particularly cohesive or complimentary despite some individual chart breaking hits in the playlist. Luke Cowan-Dickie simply has to rediscover the form that abandoned him in the Six Nations or England’s life in the set pieces will be a misery, especially at lineout time. We simply can’t see England getting traction as a unit in the second row despite the extraordinary individual talents of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes. In the back row it’s the usual unbalanced and unproven set of combinations that Eddie Jones seems to insist on, with some players such as Sam Underhill so far off the boil, that Australia’s much more cohesive and potent unit must be salivating over. In the half backs, apart from the truly exceptional Marcus Smith at fly half there is little to get excited about other than the long overdue return to the fold of Danny Care at scrum half, provided he can still cut the mustard at Test level given his age. Once again we have to ask where is Raffi Quirke at scrum half? England’s center offerings look decidedly wobbly even with Owen Farrell and the back three don’t look nearly as sharp as their Wallaby counterparts with England really needing Freddie Steward at fullback to get back to the form that made him such a standout last year.

In short, we are waiting for Eddie Jones and England to surprise us, more than Australia continuing to show a good run of form on home soil. The pressure is ALL on England and Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie and his charges will revel in England’s discomfort. Sometimes though when your back is against the wall you are able to pull off a series of blinders that no-one saw coming, so given that both sides have everything to play for in this series, it should hold your interest just as much as the action happening across the Tasman Strait in green and black jerseys.

South Africa vs Wales – South Africa fresh off their success in the URC where they regularly ate Welsh teams for breakfast, look set to turn this into a David and Goliath affair as Wales brace for impact

Are the Welsh simply going to end up as canon fodder for the Springboks, in a tour which is likely to do little for Welsh confidence while providing excellent preparation for South Africa in a tough road to the end of the year and beyond.

Believe us, we really want to be optimistic about this one. However, we can’t help feeling that Wales arrive in South Africa as deer in the headlights about to be devoured by a ravenous pack of lions. South African rugby is in a gloriously happy place at the moment. A clean sweep of the latter stages of the United Rugby Championship by the Big Three – Sharks, Stormers and Bulls, capacity crowds at long last and let’s not forget that they are still the reigning World Champions. The Braais will be blazing and the beer flowing in every backyard across the country over the next three weeks. In addition to their established overseas players, the URC highlighted a raft of up and coming players to be added to the Springbok stocks in preparation for next year’s World Cup. In short, these are good times for the Springboks and their supporters.

For Wales it’s not such a rosy picture. They had a dreadful Six Nations and their provincial teams were consistently annihilated by their South African, Irish and Scottish compatriots in the URC. South Africa only managed a narrow win over Wales at the Principality in November, so there was some hope to be had from that. However, since then you could argue that South African rugby has propelled itself forward whereas Welsh rugby has gone backwards at a rate of knots. Injuries, and a general dip in skills and execution have meant that Wales boarded the plane to South Africa with a very shaky foundation to build on. Still it’s Wales and they seem to do best when everyone has written them off, so perhaps being unburdened by the weight of expectation may just be the tonic Wales need to get them through a tour that invariably punishes the bravest of the brave.

For South Africa, there is plenty to watch over the next three weeks. Which players from South Africa’s express train of young talent that we saw during the URC will stake their claim on Springbok jerseys for the World Cup and beyond? The squad that Coach Jacques Nienaber has named is daunting to say the least. Littered with World Cup winners and full throttle debutants, it’s a squad that is already showing significant promise for next year’s global showdown and defense of their title. You already know the established names in the Springbok forward pack like Eben Etzebeth, Stephen Kitshoff, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Lood de Jager, Malcolm Marx, Trevor Nyakane (in short the list just goes on and on), but you’ll want to watch for new sensations like second rowers Salmaan Moerat and Ruan Nortje, back rowers Evan Roos and Elrigh Louw. In the backs there is the traditional first class carriage featuring the likes of Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard, Lukhanyo Am Damian de Allende, Makozole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe but watch for some of our fan favorites in the new boys like winger Aphelele Fassi and fullbacks Warwick Gelant and Kurt-Lee Arendse.

For Wales they will need the big names in the forwards like Alun-Wyn Jones, Adam Beard, Josh Navidi and Taulupe Faletau to really step up, though without exceptional back row Superman Justin Tipuric, Wales just aren’t the same. Newcomers like back rower Taine Basham and Hooker Ryan Elias who showed so much initial promise need to find their groove again and fast. In the backs fly half and Captain Dan Biggar will really need to lead with confidence and ensure his kicking at altitude is spot on. The Welsh scrum half trio could cause some panic for South Africa providing they can keep their nerve under the pressure of a physical onslaught they simply won’t be used to. Meanwhile Louis Rees-Zammit and Josh Adams will have to show the speed and panache out wide they are known for while running a tight defensive ship, ably assisted by veteran Liam Williams and his world famous boot at fullback.

Like we say we really want to be positive about this tour for Wales, but the signs are already looking rather ominous. Bravery will be the word of the day and in that respect there are few teams that possess as much of this essential quality as Wales. However, the Springbok juggernaut looks rather unstoppable and on home ground in front of their rapturous fans thrilled to be able to watch their heroes in full stadiums once more, we have a hunch that this may be some of the longest three weeks this group of Welsh players will face in their playing careers. Either way you won’t want to miss it no matter who you support!

Argentina vs Scotland – Touring South America is never something for the faint hearted and it will be an excellent test of character for Scotland’s young guns ahead of a challenging eighteen months, while Argentina seek to get back to form with Michael Cheika

Argentina are far better than their recent form would suggest, and under new Coach Michael Cheika they will be looking to teach Scotland’s youngsters some hard lessons, while the Scots will hope to emerge with some much needed depth and ability at the end of it all

This has the potential to be a really interesting series and we have to admit one that could have huge significance on next year’s World Cup pool stages. Given England’s current wobbles, a strong series against Scotland and Rugby Championship, as well as a good end of year tour could see Argentina as genuine contenders to possibly win their pool. Admittedly their form of late has made that seem more of a pipe dream than a possible reality, but Argentina has some seriously gifted players especially those plying their trade in Europe.

For Scotland, they are the wild card in their pool come next year’s showdown in France. Their current form much like Argentina’s means that the likelihood of upsetting either South Africa or Ireland would seem remote but it’s not impossible. Consequently a strong tour to South America as well as solid Autumn and Six Nations campaigns could suddenly put Scotland back in the mix for at least a quarter final spot. However, to get there Coach Gregor Townsend will need to know that some of his younger players can really mix it with the best, and not simply rely on the mercurial and inconsistent playmaking abilities of the likes of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg. As a result he’s taken a relatively young and green squad to the Pampas. Get through this and endure the physical punishment always involved in a visit to the Pumas homeland, and Townsend and his charges can look forward once more with confidence after a Six Nations campaign that promised much but delivered nothing.

For Argentina, the big news in the forwards is new Coach Michael Cheika announcing the return of veteran Hooker and former Captain Agustin Creevy to the squad. Although 37, Creevy has been tearing it up this year with English Premiership side London Irish, whilst Julian Montoya in the same position was instrumental in ensuring that Leicester Tigers were able to lift the Premiership title. Montoya will keep the Captain’s armband but it will be fascinating to see the passionate old warhorse Creevy in action again. It’s a phenomenal forward pack for the Pumas and provided the likes of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Tomas Lavanini can keep their discipline in check then it could be a long three weeks for Scotland. In the backs there may be concerns about form in the halfback department but we still think Santiago Carreras is the long term answer for the ten jersey. Out wide Argentina have plenty of pace and power and in the middle look out for the sensational Santiago Chocobarres, while at the back the increasingly reliable Emiliano Boffelli, who helped ensure that Edinburgh will be Scotland’s representative in next year’s Heineken Cup, is back to his best along with one of the most powerful right boots in the modern game.

For Scotland, we’ll be completely honest and admit that we almost breathed a sigh of relief when we saw fly half Finn Russell’s name absent from the tour party team sheet. Russell may be a genius but a team player we feel he is not, and his maverick spirit has let Scotland down more often than not at crucial moments in recent times. We’d argue the one to watch in his place is Ross Thompson. If he can prove reliable on this tour, then Scotland may have fixed one of their biggest problems in terms of consistency under pressure in relation to decision making. Elsewhere it’s time for Canadian born Hooker Ewan Ashman to rediscover his form that at times took our breath away on his debut last year. Pierre Schoeman was outstanding in the front row for Edinburgh, while impressive newcomer Rory Darge will ably complement Hamish Watson in the back row. In the backs look for Ben White at scrum half to make a name for himself this tour, and winger Rufus McLean to do the same. There’s also the usual roster of stars out wide with Duhan van der Merwe to bring his South African physicality to match the Pumas out wide and Darcy Graham to operate at full throttle.

This series could be a lot more hotly contested than some of the pundits are predicting and as a result should be well worth your time. Argentina’s decline has to stop at some point, they simply have too much natural talent and the same could be said of Scotland. Scotland may relish the opportunity to play as a team without the likes of Russell and Hogg attempting to create plays that in reality have neither the execution or support to back them up. Both sides have everything to prove and identities to create – it should make for excellent viewing.

The URC, November 5th and beyond

Yes we can see the puzzled looks on faces with this headline, but all of a sudden the competition has come down to Ireland vs South Africa, and a foreshadow of this November’s Test between the two countries and their ultimate showdown in the pool stages of next year’s World Cup. The action that will unfold over the coming weeks in the URC between the top three Irish and South African provincial sides will give us a fascinating insight into what we can expect when the players don their respective national jerseys come the fall and next year’s World Cup.

Despite some initial false starts the tournament has blossomed this year into a top quality international competition dominated by sides from the two countries. In a short space of time it has become a genuine feast of North/South rugby. For Ireland it is the kind of preparation they could have only dreamed of in the past, and for South Africa it is exposure week in week out to Northern Hemisphere rugby and how to navigate it come the World Cup. For the South African sides there is the added risk of how to balance what is essentially 12 months of club and international rugby without a break for their players, and the risks to player welfare that are inherent with such a schedule whilst still remaining competitive at the highest levels.

In short South African and Irish players are going to get to know each other very well over the next 18 months at both club and International level. Preparation which will be invaluable as both countries seek to emerge the dominant side from next year’s World Cup Pool B.

It’s one small step for Irish provincial rugby but a giant leap for the national side in terms of depth and experience

As a result of their success in the URC and the Heineken Cup, the depth that Ulster, Munster and Leinster bring to the National Squad’s talent banks is enormous

Ireland are clearly benefitting from the fact that in the case of all four provincial teams, players are contracted first and foremost to the IRFU and from there to their clubs. This helps provide a clear separation of duties from club and country, as well as a constant centrally managed conveyor belt of young talent coming through the ranks. It is that steady supply that has provided the national squad with such a wealth of talent and depth. With the three big Irish sides, Leinster, Munster and Ulster, having been so dominant this year in European competition, the national side is set to reap the harvest as Ireland prepares for next year’s World Cup in France.

Look at any of the top three Irish sides and count the number of faces aged 25 and under who have been their teams’ leading points scorers this year both at URC and Heineken Cup level.

Leinster: Jimmy O’Brien, Dan Sheehan, Ciaran Frawley, Max Deegan, Scott Penny, Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, Ronan Kelleher, Tommy O’Brien, David Hawkshaw.

Munster: Ben Healy, Jack Crowley, Craig Casey, Gavin Coombes,Fineen Wycherly, Alex Kendellen, Jack O’Sullivan, Shane Daly, Josh Wycherly, Liam Coombes, Diarmuid Barron.

Ulster: Nathan Doak, Robert Baloucoune, Ethan Mcilroy, Michael Lowry, James Hume, Declan Moore, Tom Stewart, Angus Curtis, Marcus Rea.

Add to that a veritable busload of top flight experienced internationals and on any given day, Ireland will have no problem fielding a matchday 23 able to go toe to toe with the best. Ireland’s blend of exuberant youth and established Test veterans is probably the envy of most International Coaches.

For Leinster their quarter final opponent will be either Edinburgh or Glasgow, but a South African opponent will most likely await them in the semis. Leinster ran the top South African side the Sharks close in South Africa, only losing by 5 points, but at home South African sides have struggled to come to grips with the men from Dublin. Leinster’s two week tour of South Africa saw them beaten twice, by both the Sharks and the Stormers, but even against the Stormers and with their so called “B-” side they still managed a losing bonus point.

Munster too have been an invincible nut for South African sides to crack at home, and even on Munster’s two week tour to South Africa the Bulls and Lions were lucky to squeak out narrow wins against the men from Limerick’s “B-” squad. Meanwhile Ulster have also had a similar track record, but will have been frustrated with their rather hefty loss to the Bulls in Pretoria. They have yet to play their opponents for this weekend the Sharks, and with the men from Durban in such red hot form at the moment, there are no doubt a few nerves floating around Kingspan stadium in Belfast this week.

Whatever happens the groundwork laid by Irish sides in the coming weeks will have a huge bearing on preparation for Ireland’s encounter with South Africa come November 5th and ultimately their Pool B encounter at next year’s World Cup with the Springboks, which most likely will decide who wins the Pool and their route through the knockout stages. In terms of getting to know your most critical opponent in the opening stages of next year’s global showdown Ireland, as a result of the URC, have been given a golden opportunity.

South Africa finds itself in the best of all possible worlds in terms of exposure to the best of Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby, but the risks of player fatigue and burnout have never been greater!

The Stormers, Sharks and Bulls all had a slow start in the URC but the last three months have seen them light the afterburners allowing them to sit at the head of the table alongside Leinster, Munster and Ulster

South African sides had an exceptionally slow start to life in the URC. So slow that the initial impressions were that a mistake had been made in bringing South African sides into a competition that is so vastly different to Super Rugby and how it is played. 6 months later and we couldn’t be singing a different tune if we tried. Admittedly South African sides have benefitted in the last two months from playing at home and often against slightly undercooked Irish sides, but their meteoric rise up the table standings can only be described as impressive.

The South African URC teams have put on some truly stunning displays of attacking rugby in the latter half of the competition, and their inclusion in next year’s Heineken Cup in addition to the URC is a mouth watering prospect. Their competitiveness in Europe has made them so attractive that they are starting to lure back some big names, Eben Etzebeth signing with the Sharks is the first of many we expect to see over the years.

However, with South Africa still committed to playing the Rugby Championship till at least 2025, the question of player welfare starts to become problematic. Let’s take the example of a star player like winger Makazole Mapimpi of the Sharks for 2022. He will have been playing in the URC since January. The Sharks are likely to get to at least the semis of the competition which will take them up to early June. It’s a short break and then straight into a tough 3 Test tour against Wales back in South Africa. He’ll roll straight out of that and into the Rugby Championship, opening with 2 tough tests against New Zealand. While all that’s going on, there is the start of the 2022-23 URC season and the first round of matches in the Heineken Cup in September and October. To top it all off, there are then the November tours featuring a challenging encounter with Ireland on November 5th, followed by France and England. He’ll end the year with another couple of rounds of Heineken Cup action. In January he’ll roll straight into more URC/Heineken Cup and ultimately the Springboks’ preparation for the World Cup culminating in their Pool B clash with Ireland for Pool top honors on 22 September next year – burnout anyone????

South Africa will be competitive across the board make no mistake, but the management of the national team now becomes a major headache. They don’t quite have the conveyor belt of talent that Ireland seem to be producing, so in a challenging year ahead of them, it seems they almost need two different Springbok sides. One that can take on the lesser mortals of teams like Wales, Italy, Australia and Argentina and another higher level squad to manage teams like New Zealand, Ireland, France and England. You could argue that any other team has similar issues, but at least for Ireland, their players get a break in August whereas many of South Africa’s URC stars will be up to their armpits in combating New Zealand that month. Both squads will need to cut it at international level but one will definitely need to be quicker at going from zero to hero and lasting the full eighty minutes both at home and on the road, and we haven’t even figured in the injury factor.

South Africa is clearly a World Cup favorite, but in a nation faced with slightly more challenges than most, balancing it all will be a fine juggling act that will require the utmost skill from players and management alike.

How all of this pans out, will no doubt become clearer as the next few weeks of fascinating URC action unfolds for both Irish and South African sides. We have a hunch that it is likely to be one of the hottest topics of debates in bars and pubs across the lands in the two countries. Make sure you don’t miss it!

Super Saturday will summon the faithful for a Six Nations showdown of note!

It’s been a glorious four weekends of International Test Rugby and one of the best Six Nations we can remember for a while, but like all good things it must come to an end – but what an ending we have to look forward to on Saturday. France look essentially unstoppable on their march to their first Grand Slam since 2010. The only team who can stop them is an English side who simply haven’t fired this tournament – and to top it all off they have to attempt the impossible in Paris. Assuming that before the dustup in Paris, Ireland are able to dispatch an increasingly confused looking Scottish outfit in Dublin, then every Irish supporter will be watching events in Paris with bated breath, and for 80 minutes find themselves perhaps being even more ardent English supporters than the English themselves. Super Saturday starts however in Cardiff as Wales look to pull off a surprisingly good finish given their form and injury list heading into the tournament, while Italy attempt to finally prove that they have turned a corner in terms of their ability to compete.

In short, as rugby fans we’re in for a treat this Saturday. With France hosting the next World Cup a mere 18 months away, the stakes couldn’t be higher and every team as a result has a point to prove. While campaigns may be over for some of the participants there is still everything to play for with an eye to what lies ahead. While this tournament may be drawing to a close for another year the tone it sets for preparations for Rugby’s ultimate prize next year will be critical for all the teams.

Unfortunately work has kept us far busier than we would have liked of late, so instead of a piece on each match, we’ve condensed them into one and a key summary of what to look for this weekend.

Wales vs Italy

Wales have not lost a Six Nations match against Italy since 2007, and never in Cardiff. Consequently the Azurri have a massive mountain to climb on Saturday. While the desire to win and pull off one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history will be at the back of their minds, it will be more important to build on the competitiveness they showed against Scotland last weekend. This young Italian side looks promising in a way that is genuinely different compared to years gone by.

Wales meanwhile, will want to salvage some pride and respect from a tournament that in many ways had everything stacked against them, but nevertheless they have defied the odds and done rather well. Apart from that horrific opener against Ireland, they have been exceptionally competitive and in two of their three losses they have only lost by less than a converted try. In addition they made both France and England sweat to the final whistle. A bonus point win in Cardiff with a hefty points haul against Italy could see Wales leapfrog both Scotland and England if results go against both on Saturday in Dublin and Paris.

The return of a legend

The ultimate Welsh Lion Alun Wyn Jones makes another remarkable comeback from injury

He may not be wearing the Captain’s armband on Saturday, but lock and Wales’ most capped player of all time Alun Wyn Jones’ presence will be felt by every man on the pitch in Cardiff on Saturday. He is Wales’ ultimate talisman and in terms of rallying the troops there are few who can match him. His seeming indestructability is officially the stuff of legends and Italy will respect him as much as they fear him on Saturday. Whether or not he will have the puff to last the full eighty minutes is another question, but there is no doubt that whether on or off the field, Wales will be a better team with him amongst their ranks. He is clearly, like Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton in the swansong of his career but the impact he can still bring to a Welsh charge can be game changing. If he can weld the Welsh forward pack into a cohesive platform that can build the base for Wales’ halfback pairing of Gareth Rees and Dan Biggar to unleash the likes of Josh Adams and Louis Rees Zammitt out wide, it could be a very long afternoon for Italy.

Speed that Ferrari would be proud of!

Although he looks like he’s barely out of mini rugby, fullback sensation Ange Capuozzo left us speechless during his stint against Scotland off the bench

One thing you can definitely say about Italian rugby this year is that it is full of surprises. Perhaps the biggest was new fullback sensation Ange Capuozzo who in his 35 minutes on the pitch scored two superb tries against Scotland and looked in danger of scoring more every time he got the ball. Once we’d checked his birthdate and found out that he genuinely is 22 and not 12, we were amazed at the diminutive fullback’s pace and complete disregard for his own safety. He threw himself into contact, and although his stature didn’t quite help his tackle success rate he never shied away from chucking himself into the fray. Italy has sought an answer to the injury cursed but supremely gifted Matteo Minozzi at fullback and in Capuozzo they may well have found it, provided he too doesn’t get broken.

There is little doubt that in front of a fervent home crowd demanding nothing less than a strong finish to a troubled campaign, and with a talisman such as Alun Wyn Jones on the pitch this is a match that Wales should win comfortably. However, if Italy can make them work for it like they did Scotland, then they themselves, although leaving the tournament with yet another Wooden Spoon, can feel that there is a hint of promise for a long awaited brighter future.

Ireland vs Scotland

Ireland are on track for an exceptionally strong finish and the Triple Crown. Their only stumbling block so far this tournament was the narrow loss to France in Paris which saw them out of the running for a Grand Slam. They started superbly against Wales, came unstuck by the slimmest of margins in an epic arm wrestle with France and then proceeded to dispatch Italy and England. However, it hasn’t been all plain sailing. There were moments in both the games against Italy and England where Ireland looked slightly undercooked. In the win over Italy they looked genuinely sloppy at times and almost as if they weren’t sure how to play a fifteen man game against essentially a rugby league strength side – it was almost as if there was too much space for them to deal with. Against England last weekend, once again they looked bent out of shape against a side down to fourteen men and seemed genuinely taken aback by England’s heroic resistance in the set pieces. In both matches, Ireland regained their composure to put in two clinical finishing last quarters, but the purple patches in between and the almost complete lack of discipline at times against England will have been worrying to the Coaching staff. However, if you ask us it’s better for Ireland to have those doubts and areas to work on now. Rather that than, as they have in the last few World Cup cycles, peak 18 months too early and arrive at the World Cup on a downward trajectory.

As for Scotland, we’re really scratching our heads as to where and how it’s all gone so wrong. In actual fact however, we can’t help feeling that the brains trust of Coach Gregor Townsend, mercurial fly half Finn Russell and Captain and fullback Stuart Hogg are in for some uncomfortable questions. Our frustration, no doubt shared by Scottish supporters, with Finn Russell’s almost reckless approach to the game, Townsend’s odd selection choices and tactics at times and Hogg’s seeming inability to wrestle his troops into line and lead from the front when it’s most needed is reaching epic proportions. These are highly talented and capable individuals who just aren’t delivering at the moment and taking the rest of their teammates down with them.

Sometimes there’s just no substitute for experience

Ireland Captain Jonathan Sexton shows no signs of slowing down despite announcing his retirement after the World Cup in France next year

We have to be honest and say that we have questioned the decision by Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton to keep playing, especially given the fact that by the time Ireland kick off against Spain in their World Cup opener on September 9th next year he’ll be the tender age of 38. However, seeing the Irish Captain and fly half in action this past six months, it’s hard to argue against the opinion that he is perhaps playing some of the best rugby of his illustrious career. In short, there certainly looks like there is more than enough gas in the old warrior’s tank to get him and his team across the finish line. If he can remain injury free between now and then he will be a force for the rest of the rugby world to reckon with. Now that he seems to have come to terms with the scope of the number of playing days left to him, he seems to be playing with a calmness, focus and assuredness that was perhaps lacking until recently. He’s back on song and when he is so is Ireland.

Is frustration with Russell forcing Townsend’s hand or is this the future?

As a fullback or winger we know Blair Kinghorn’s abilities well – but is Townsend’s growing experimentation with him at fly half yet another example of the Coach’s lack of understanding of the talent he has to choose from in Scotland or a stroke of genius?

Don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying that Scotland’s starting fly half for Saturday, Blair Kinghorn shouldn’t be in the squad, but we really are scratching our head over his positioning. He’s fast and capable under the high ball so why not put him where those talents can be used best either at fullback or out wide on the wing. Given that you’re never going to displace Stuart Hogg, we felt that he should have got the starting berth for the Left Wing instead of Kyle Steyn. Scotland’s Six Nations campaign would appear to be well and truly over, as a win against a full strength Irish squad in Dublin chasing the Triple Crown and possibly the Championship is unlikely to say the least given their current form. Therefore wouldn’t it have been more prudent to look towards next year and the World Cup by giving either Adam Hastings or up and coming Glasgow fly half Ross Thompson a shot a match of this stature? Playing Kinghorn is a gamble – he has played well in the position for Edinburgh and the fact that he can move to the back line once Russell comes on if Steyn or Hogg are not firing, is perhaps the reasoning behind it. However, we’re still sad to seen neither Thompson or Hastings getting a look in, considering experimentation seems to be the order of the day for Scotland on Saturday. What is obvious is that Finn Russell would appear to living on borrowed time once more with Townsend, and in that respect we can’t say we blame him as we haven’t been impressed with Russell at all so far this tournament, apart from against England in their opener.

Ireland should be in the driving seat in this one, but there are a couple of niggles hanging over them from their games against England and Italy that Scotland could possibly exploit and pull off a shock win and hand France the Championship. It’s all a bit far fetched for us to be honest, and in the process Scotland may also be missing out on some opportunities to learn and build for the future. Consequently our money is on Ireland to unpack Scotland with relative ease and wait with bated breath for the outcome in Paris.

France vs England

And so it comes to this – a Championship and Grand Slam decider in the venue that will also see who ultimately gets their hands on the Webb Ellis trophy in eighteen months time. It’s hard to argue against France wrapping it all up on Saturday, and we are rapidly coming to terms with the fact that the end of the tournament could well see us with egg on faces, as we were adamant at the outset that a Grand Slam would not be seen this year. The really big question is can France keep it going in five consecutive matches? In the last 12 years there has always been a banana skin lying in wait for them somewhere in the Championship, and often when they least expect it. However, they just look like they are so much better prepared week in week out since Galthie took over as Coach and especially in the last 9 months as France’s buildup to next year’s World Cup starts to gain significant momentum. They did look a bit rattled against Wales last weekend and that will have been picked up by England. Nevertheless, when it mattered most France were able to hold their nerve and that almost watertight defensive system they have put in place allowed them to stay the course.

As for England, much praise has been rightly heaped on last weekend’s squad who so nobly battled against a ferocious Irish assault, and held their own until the final quarter. However, in the euphoria about England’s character, the fact that England has no attacking game whatsoever got glossed over. Once Ireland broke them down in the final quarter they ran in two fairly straightforward tries in quick succession. Furthermore, England have not scored any tries since their points fest against Italy in Round 2. When it comes to tries they sit fourth on the table with only 3 more than Italy and two more than Wales, making a paltry total of 7. Compare that to Scotland’s 10, France’s 14 and Ireland’s 20. It makes for alarming reading and a mockery of Coach Eddie Jones’ assertion of making England a genuine contender for World Cup glory next year. They have character make no mistake and we saw plenty of it last weekend. In fly half Marcus Smith they also have more attacking potential than they know what to do with. Therein lies the problem however, in that they simply don’t know how to use his exceptional talents.

Is there a target on his back?

There is no denying that French fullback Melvyn Jaminet despite blasting onto the International scene last year during the tour to Australia, got a serious case of the wobbles against Wales under the high ball

You really can’t find any faults in this French squad plain and simple. So on that note we’ve really had to trawl the tapes to find one. After doing so the only thing we could pick on was Melvyn Jaminet at fullback who really seemed to struggle at times under the Welsh aerial assault. For us that was the more worrying aspect than France seeming to only want to throw the ball to lock Cameron Woki when it came to lineout time. Although it was highly predictable, because Woki is so good at what he does France were able to get away with it. However, Jaminet was clearly not comfortable at times and England will make sure that he feels the same way on Saturday. England’s fly half Marcus Smith is more than capable of making sure that Jaminet experiences that kind of pressure. French fullback Brice Dulin blew France’s shot at a Grand Slam last year and England will be hoping that such a sense of deja vu will get the better of Jaminet on Saturday night.

Get your deckchairs out lads

You really have to wonder how English scrum half Ben Youngs’ slow and pedestrian approach to his duties can answer the speed, pace and eye for opportunity possessed by his opposite number France’s Antoine Dupont

England Coach Eddie Jones’ selection decisions once more confound any sense of logic for Saturday’s match. Every forum we’ve read has had English supporters up in arms about Ben Youngs’ selection for this match. France have Antoine Dupont who thinks and reacts faster than most computer processors, while England are choosing the slow and steady route. Youngs may be England’s most capped player but that’s not exactly a glowing advertisement these days. England look ponderous off the back of rucks and mauls under his watch, and against a side like France whose forwards are just as enterprising and quick witted as their backs we fear it is going to cost them dearly. Ally that to the fact that England has no attacking platform whatsoever and it doesn’t bode well for the future. Harry Randall who has looked so impressive at scrum half despite his diminutive size, is what England needs if they are genuine about developing an attacking platform that will serve them well next year in the World Cup. Instead, to try and save face Jones has decided to not run the risk that Randall poses in terms of an experiment for such a high pressure match. The youngster makes the bench but the mountain he may have to climb by the time he comes off it may simply be too much and potentially shatter his confidence in the long term.

Jones has also tinkered with the rest of his squad, and once more there is that sense that it’s an unbalanced side lacking cohesion that heads to Paris to take on probably the best organized side in Test Rugby at the moment in the shape of France. England’s backs are against the wall and the thought of them finishing fifth on the table for a second year running will be a huge motivator, as well as the satisfaction of denying France a Grand Slam in front of 70,000 French fans in Paris. In short it won’t be easy for France, make no mistake but the idea that this final hurdle is France’s banana skin in waiting in this year’s Championship looks increasingly unlikely. France will have had the wake up call they needed last weekend in Cardiff. As long as nerves don’t get to them in what is without a doubt their biggest game since the 2011 World Cup Final, we have a hunch that the end of this year’s epic tournament will be bathed in blue!

A look at how the Six Nations has unfolded so far and how it’s setting up for what should be an epic finale!

So after three rounds of vintage Six Nations rugby we have a look at how the final two weekends look to be shaping up and how the teams are faring now we’re past the the halfway point.

In short, there have been few suprises as France have turned their status as pre tournament favourites into a seemingly inevitable reality. Ireland very much look the part of finishing as strong runners, up while England definitely have the look of a quality side but one in transition and struggling at times to determine their shape and identity. Wales have proved, as they always do in this tournament, that they are extremely difficult to beat at home as well as the fact that you just can’t write them off when it comes to the Six Nations regardless of their form heading into the competition. Scotland despite getting off to a rip-roaring start against England, have simply looked off the mark against France and Wales and once more just not lived up to their promise. Although Italy look comfortably en route towards their traditional Wooden Spoon, there is definitely something different about the Azurri this year. They still may not win any matches in the 2022 edition but they look more competitive than they have ever done in the twenty years they’ve been in the tournament, and that competitiveness and the set of skills that go with it look to increase dramatically in the coming years if they can keep it up.

So without further ado let’s look at where the six participants stand with the two penultimate rounds left to go!

Francethe sleeping giant has finally woken up!

International Rugby’s new Brain Trust – French scrum half and Captain Antoine Dupont and Coach Fabien Galthie

We have a hunch that we may well have egg on our faces when referee Jaco Peyper calls time on the last game of the Championship in a just over two weeks time in Paris. We insisted that a Grand Slam was not in the offing this year for any of the six teams, but having watched France in the first three Rounds, it’s going to take an exceptionally special team to get past them. As talented as England and Wales are, we have a hard time believing that either one is the team to put the brakes on France’s juggernaut.

France are so cohesive at the moment, we can’t remember the last time we’ve seen a team with such a clear understanding of the game they want to play and how to implement it. Every player on the pitch seems to have an intricate knowledge of their role in France’s approach to a given opponent. It is fantastic to watch and they make it all look so effortless. Gone are the traditional French lapses in concentration or discipline at key moments. We’re not saying they are perfect but they’re not far off from being the finished product and so far appear to be light year’s ahead of any of their Six Nations rivals. Their forward pack from one to eight works seamlessly, their halfbacks expertly link the work between the backs and forwards together, and their centre and backfield units are a joy to watch.

French flair is very much alive and well but it is all so clinically organized at the moment. Defensively across the park they are watertight and on attack they have a precision that is absolutely lethal. Their matchday 23s are now a star studded cast and while there are numerous standout players, there are few if any weak links. In their front row Hooker Julien Marchand has been a revelation, while in the second row Cameron Woki is fully justifying all the hype we gave him heading into the tournament. Gregory Aldritt is arguably the best number eight in the modern game – while the halfback combination of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack share a PhD in game management. In the centres Gael Fickou is a defensive and attack field marshal while Damian Penaud is the definition of a world class winger. But this is simply naming but a few of France’s exceptionally talented roster and to single them out almost does injustice to a team that as a whole just works so well together.

Wales may be a possible banana skin in the Cardiff cauldron, but as evidenced against Scotland, France are now a team that travel just as well as they play at home in front of the Stade de France faithful. Provided things go well for France this weekend in Cardiff, England face the equivalent of parting the Red Sea when they face off against les Bleus in the French capital and try to deny them a Grand Slam in the tournament’s final game.

Ireland – a new standard that just might finally peak at the right time for the World Cup

Irish Captain Jonathan Sexton continues to defy all the odds regarding his age while Coach Andy Farrell continues to weld together a squad that just might give Ireland a fighting chance at long last come the World Cup

Whether it’s by necessity or choice, one of the most refreshing things about Irish Coach Andy Farrell is his willingness to embrace new talent and look to the future. While we may have had our doubts about him in the past, those have all been put to bed as he is rapidly putting together a squad that blends youth and experience and a way of playing the game that maximizes the potential of both. Meanwhile his Captain, the legendary Jonathan Sexton is playing some of the best rugby of his career at the age of 36. While Ireland still need a long term answer to his replacement, there is little reason to doubt that one of Ireland’s biggest rugby icons of the last twenty years still has a very important contribution to make to next year’s World Cup campaign.

Ireland’s opening two games were impressive efforts despite the narrow Round 2 loss to France in Paris. Ireland’s slightly bizarre game against an Italian side essentially playing with one hand tied behind their backs, was a valuable but frustrating exercise. However, what Ireland have shown us is their enterprise and imagination in how they play the game these days, backed up by a talent bank that is rapidly becoming the envy of many rival coaches. Ireland were ultimately able to hold their own against tournament darlings France in Paris and the end result was never a certainty until the final whistle, with Ireland mounting a solid comeback in the second half. Despite some uncharacteristic sloppiness against Italy, Ireland ultimately breezed past the Azurri but were perhaps taken aback by the ferocity with which a severely handicapped opponent fought back.

However, despite the fumbles against Italy and the narrow loss to France, Ireland are definitely on song at the moment and the only real challenger to France’s seemingly inevitable crown. Their final two games against England at Twickenham and then at home to a misfiring Scottish outfit, should see them finish a strong second. Their front row has taken some hits with the loss of Hooker Ronan Kelleher to injury along with Prop Andrew Porter. However in Dan Sheehan they have found a more than capable understudy for Kelleher. In the second row, Tadgh Beirne has been absolutely immense both in the set pieces and the loose, while Ireland’s back row stocks have been arguably the richest in the tournament. Lingering questions remain about the future of the halfback berths but with fly half Sexton and even Gibson-Park at scrum half being in such rich form there is not too much to worry about in the short term. Meanwhile Gary Ringrose is a constant thorn for opposition defences in the centre channels and the back three are blessed with talent out wide and at fullback.

In short, Ireland despite some injury concerns heads into these last two rounds in exceptionally rude health and have every reason to feel as confident as France about their last two matches. They’ll be watching proceedings in Cardiff this Friday with huge interest, but first there is the challenging of getting one past an England side that despite lacking Ireland’s cohesion will pose a huge threat at Fortress Twickenham.

England – The tinkering continues with a side that could be so much more

Eddie Jones clearly rates his sensational next generation fly half Marcus Smith but seems unable to figure out how to use him to full effect

The new look England that Coach Eddie Jones has finally decided to unleash, certainly has potential but it still remains a lumpy unbalanced unit that at times seems unsure of how to use the array of talent at its disposal. England sit just a point behind Ireland on the table in third place after one loss and two wins, however they have only managed to score six tries all tournament. Ireland have scored 16 and tournament favorites France 13. Given that France and Ireland are England’s last two opponents, that will make for troublesome reading for Jones and his charges as it basically says that England have no real attack. Marcus Smith may be a genius but he can’t singlehandedly provide England with the attacking platform they are so clearly lacking at the moment.

England and Jones seem to be obsessed with the possible return of centre Manu Tuilagi to provide them with the catalyst on attack that they seem to be struggling to find. However, as we and many others have said Tuilagi is simply not a long term option for England as his consistent problems with injury shatter one false dawn after another. Despite Smith making his best efforts to unpick opposition defenses, without an effective centre pairing complimenting his abilities there seems little to work with, and England look woefully bereft of ideas out wide without the likes of Jonny May. In short, England just look blunt in the backs and we find it puzzling given the talent in their ranks such as Jack Nowell, Freddie Steward, Henry Slade and Max Malins. They also seem to be struggling to assert themselves in areas of traditional dominance such as the forwards, even if they finally seem to be starting to develop a more balanced back row. Once again there is a raft of talented individuals putting in huge shifts like Maro Itoje, Tom Curry and Alex Dombrandt but as a unit it’s just not clicking and in the set pieces in particular appears average at best.

What the answer is to England’s dilemma would appear to beyond them for the moment and unfortunately time appears to be running out as the World Cup rapidly looms over the horizon. The next two games will be critical in terms of how England emerges from this Six Nations with an eye to the future. If they can acquit themselves well against arguably the two best sides in the Northern Hemisphere over the next two weekends, then they may well start to find answers to the questions that seem to be eluding them. Either way it certainly won’t be for want of talent.

Scotland appear to be heading for the door with a whimper

It all started so well against England for Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend and Captain Stuart Hogg but since then the wheels have started fall off quite dramatically

Scotland looked to be on a roll after that opening game against England which saw them claim back to back Six Nations victories over the Red Rose. Since then though it has all started to go rather pear shaped. As we feared injuries have not helped their cause, but there is also a level of frustration with Scotland when it comes to execution and consistency – qualities we thought they had got a handle on last year. Scotland much like England are blessed with some extraordinary individual talent but at times lack the shape and cohesion necessary to make them the force they could and should be. Their decision making particularly from Captain Stuart Hogg and fly half Finn Russell is not always the best, and for us Russell continues to force the game at times which results in multiple costly errors that simply hand momentum back to the opposition.

As they head into their final two games, they simply have to tighten up their game and rein in the propensity for recklessness that is Russell’s Achilles Heel and with it the team’s. Against France and Wales they rapidly lost shape, and in the French game in particular they appeared to take no cognizance of how superbly well organized France are defensively. In short they looked more and more desperate as the game wore on. Italy as we’ve seen in adversity will be no pushover in Rome and Ireland in Dublin will be a decidedly painful lesson if Scotland haven’t tightened up their game management and decision making. Despite the initial promise this could well be a Six Nations that Scotland will want to forget in a hurry.

The team that just refuses to quit

Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac and Captian Dan Biggar seem to relish defying all the odds stacked against them

Wales had everything against them as the tournament got underway, an injury list from hell and a thumping at the hands of Ireland that made them appear a spent force from the outset. Then came the gritty home win against the Scots followed up by a second half performance at Twickenham that gave England the fright of their lives. Wales could have won that game and if they had we would all be looking at them in rather a different light. As it is now they head back to Cardiff to face the tournament’s red hot favorites France. As we saw against England there was clearly a hint of one genuinely big performance to come from this Welsh side and in front of the Principality faithful it could be this Friday against France. France have yet to prove that they can take their seemingly invincible track record now at the Stade de France on the road with them. They blew apart an inept Scotland a fortnight ago at Murrayfield, but Cardiff will be a veritable cauldron of noise and Wales will be hoping they can be the banana skin that France invariably encounters somewhere along the road in a Six Nations Championship.

Wales are clearly not the force they were in years gone by, but to write them off against France despite the odds stacked against them, would be foolish to say the least. If they do pull off the unthinkable Friday, then all of a sudden a respectable third place finish could be in their sights. In a tournament where nothing is ever a given we can’t wait to see how the the Welsh dragon’s fortunes pan out.

The Wooden Spoon may be inevitable but this is a very competitive and resilient Italian side

Kieran Crowley appears as frustrated at times as any of his predecessors, but Captain Michele Lamaro and his charges have shown some admirable resilience this year and there could yet be a sting in the tail from the Azurri for either Scotland or Wales

Italy are likely going to end up clutching the Wooden Spoon once again this year, but, provided they can put in two solid performances in their final two games, we genuinely feel that we’ve seen a different Italy this year and one which bodes well for the future. Put aside that 57-6 thumping at the hands of Ireland, but we found ourselves taking our hats off to them for the way they approached a match that from the 20th minute on they had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. Shorn of two players for the entire match and towards the end down to 12 against 15, they still played with huge character and heart and despite the scoreline Ireland didn’t exactly have things all their way. Italy managed to deny England the points haul the Men in White so desperately needed, and in their opener against France they nobly demonstrated the fact that France never start well managing to hold their own against Les Bleus until the second half.

Captain Michele Lamaro has shown a maturity and degree of leadership well in excess of his 23 years on this planet. In short Italy have a leader who will be able to carry this team for at least the next three World Cups. Italy still have an enormous amount of work to do, and losing their Hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi who has really risen to the task for the rest of the tournament is a hammer blow. However, there is a real belief in this exceptionally young but talented team. Now with the pointless debate about their place in the tournament seemingly dead and buried, we feel that Italy could finally start to get the breathing room to develop into a side that could actually start to hand the Wooden Spoon to somebody else in years to come.

Whichever way you cut it these final two rounds of this year’s Six Nations should be some of the most fascinating we’ve seen in years with points to prove for all!!!

England head to Rome wary of an Italian side that is showing some promise at long last!

Most of the weekend’s thunder will be emanating from the Stade de France on Saturday, but Sunday’s encounter between Italy and England provides us with plenty of intrigue. It’s a potentially fascinating encounter, and Italy’s duel with tournament favorites France last Sunday in Paris was well worth watching. We’ve all said it a thousand times before in the past, but Italy really do look genuinely competitive this year and as a result their journey through the 2022 tournament could be refreshingly different. While we still have trouble seeing them recording a win, we certainly can’t dismiss the idea that they are in with a chance to pull off an upset.

It’s unlikely though that Italy will get that elusive win against an English side smarting from two successive losses to Scotland. Furthermore, the game last weekend at Murrayfield hung in the balance for the longest time. England looked good albeit not as cohesive as they would like. However, we think it’s fairly safe to say that this year England are likely to improve dramatically on their disastrous 2021 Six Nations campaign. England’s opening night nerves in Murrayfield are likely to settle as the tournament wears on, and the crop of new talent England is now banking on for the future start to mesh more effectively with the veterans.

We have to admit that we are looking forward to this one and fascinated to see how well Italy bear up against yet another stern Test. We won’t say much more than that lest we blight their progress with a commentator’s curse. England know what they need to do and look more than capable of getting the result required to get their campaign back on track. So without any further ado, here’s what got us talking looking at the lineups.

Italy finally have a decent second row

Coupled to the dynamic Federico Ruzza, Niccolo Cannone is making sure that Italy’s prowess in the second row is building nicely

The 23 year old Benetton lock grows in stature and ability with every performance in an Azurri jersey. Alongside one of our Italian favorites, Federico Ruzza, Cannone looked impressive last weekend against France. A lot of the statistics pertaining to the set pieces in last weekend’s duel in Paris paint Italy in a fairly positive light. His work rate and tackle count were impressive, while he was particularly effective for Italy in the lineouts. He wasn’t fazed by France’s Cameron Woki and Paul Willemse last weekend and we see no reason that he shouldn’t fare just as well against England’s Charlie Ewels and Nick Isiekwe. If Italy can gain some parity in the set pieces courtesy of Cannone and Ruzza, that level of competitiveness that is clearly Italy’s end goal in terms of development from this tournament will be assured.

Does Eddie Jones really not know what to do with Itoje?

Without any shadow of a doubt, Itoje is one of the most important components of England’s engine room, yet he rarely gets the recognition from Coach Eddie Jones that we feel he deserves in terms of a leadership role

Search YouTube for a clip of Maro Itoje’s 30 second motivational speech to his teammates in the England changing room following their narrow defeat to Scotland last weekend. Once you’ve watched it you’ll understand our conundrum. While we are delighted to see Tom Curry get a shot at wearing the Captain’s armband we have been consistently puzzled by England Coach Eddie Jones continuing reluctance to offer the same honor to Itoje. Itoje has the necessary experience and is such a talismanic figure in the England camp that, at a time when England needs some wise heads speaking from experience, it’s remarkable Itoje is not given more of a leadership role.

If that’s not enough then imagine our surprise at seeing him moved from his traditional role in the second row, to pair with current Captain Tom Curry in the back row. Is he moved there simply to negate the influence of Italy’s highly motivated young Captain Michele Lamaro? We have a hunch that it may well be the case allowing Tom Curry to steal the limelight as Captain of the day. Still we much prefer Itoje in the second row, a role he seems much more effective in. Sunday’s starting Hooker Jamie George has struggled of late with his lineout throwing for England, and is used to having Itoje as an easy target where he expects him to be. Just as England finally looked like they had a balanced back row for the Scotland match, Jones decides yet again to tinker with it. Against Italy he can probably afford to do so, but we still question the logic. Sunday will be the judge, but at least with Itoje you know he will rise to the occasion whatever is asked of him.

Rising to the challenge

At only 23 Italy Captain Michele Lamaro is adapting exceptionally well to the challenge of leading his beleaguered nation

Talking of leadership, we have to take our hat off to Italy’s newest Captain and back rower, Michele Lamaro. Watch a replay of the anthems at the Stade de France last Sunday, and it would be hard to find a more motivated leader, despite the obvious challenges that Italy continues to face in the Six Nations in their struggle to be competitive. He simply looks like a natural and his team respond well to him. He seems to have ditched some of the emotions that tripped him up last year, and now appears a remarkably calm and efficient operator in the heat of battle. In short, he may be young but is operating at a maturity level well above his years, and is a quality Italy have desperately needed since the departure of the legendary Sergio Parisse. Like Parisse, Lamaro has a phenomenal work rate and put in 21 tackles last weekend and played the full eighty minutes with no let up in intensity. He still has work to do in terms of technique and won’t be happy with the four tackles he missed, but there is no denying that he is rapidly putting his stamp on Italy’s emerging future. His contest with England’s Maro Itoje on Sunday, will be a genuine coming of age for Italy’s young but inspirational leader.

Chance for a whizz kid to shine

Scrum half Harry Randall brings a level of flair and pace to the position that is a refreshing change from regular incumbent Ben Youngs’ rather pedestrian approach to the role

England’s baby faced warrior Harry Randall is the most exciting thing that’s happened to the scrum half role in the English camp for a very long time. While Ben Youngs has been a reliable servant, there is no denying that the kind of fizz that Randall brings is exactly what England need to be competitive against the likes of France’s Antoine Dupont. While he may still be too raw and inexperienced to take on such heavyweights during the course of this year’s Championship, a golden opportunity to test his skills against the likes of Italy and Wales is exactly what England need to fast track him to the point where he can be a genuine option come the World Cup. His duel with Italy’s own fresh faced number nine barely out of his teenage years, Stephen Varney, should be one of the highlights of the afternoon. Varney looked very much the schoolboy against France last weekend, and Randall must surely fancy his and England’s chances in Rome on Sunday as a result.

The future of their respective countries is in both their hands

In the continuing theme of the battle of the fly halves that will dominate this year’s Championship, the future of both England and Italy lie with Marcus Smith and Paolo Garbisi

Yes we know we talked about Marcus Smith last weekend, but we have a hunch that it will be a recurring theme this Six Nations. The same can probably be said about Italy’s Paolo Garbisi. With both fly halves well shy of their 25th birthdays, the future is bright for both of their countries. Last weekend, despite moments of absolute genius, England’s Marcus Smith was nevertheless the apprentice to Scotland’s seasoned Finn Russell. After watching Squidge Rugby’s analysis of the dustup at Murrayfield, we found ourselves understanding to some extent Coach Eddie Jones’ reasoning for pulling Smith off the field. At times the pressure was getting to him and he was making some rather uncharacteristic schoolboy mistakes which his opposite number Finn Russell was capitalizing on. Still, we couldn’t help feeling that George Ford didn’t really add much to the equation to reverse England’s fortunes when he came on, and as a result it might have been better to keep Smith on and allow him to learn from his mistakes. Like many we felt that would have been the more prudent course of action, even if we could understand Jones’ reasoning. Shortly before Smith went off he scored a crucial try for England and seemed to be mastering the situation he found himself in and as a result it might of been better for his future development to let him stay the course on the field.

Much the same could be said of his Italian counterpart this weekend, Paolo Garbisi. Garbisi is vital to Italy’s future plans but had a real 50/50 game against France last weekend. His kick to put winger Tommaso Menoncello was exquisite, but he like Smith at times was guilty of schoolboy errors under pressure. However, much like England it is simply not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater at this stage. Unlike with Smith and England, Italy and Coach Kieran Crowley appreciate that they simply have no option other than sticking with Garbisi and helping him through his mistakes. It’s the right approach as Garbisi’s talent is there for all to see and given the fact that at the age of 21 he already has 14 caps to his name, he is only going to get better. He has already been fast tracked out of necessity much more than Smith and although the Englishman is the more naturally gifted of the two, Garbisi is more familiar with the big pressure moments that Sunday’s game will bring. It is going to be a fascinating contest between two world class youngsters. Smith may have the better setup behind him in terms of nurturing his development, but Garbisi’s star will keep rising and England will have to continue to keep him under pressure on Sunday.

While it’s hard to disagree with yet another loss for Italy and an emphatic win for England, this is still a match that holds plenty of interest for both supporters and neutrals alike. Italy could well end up being someone’s banana skin further down the road if they continue on their present trajectory. England meanwhile will want to get their Six Nations campaign back on track and will be aiming for a maximum points haul against a traditionally easy target. However, we have a hunch that Italy may not be quite the pushover that England may be expecting them to be this time around.