A perfect storm brews at Murrayfield between two sides with everything to prove and scores to settle!

Six Nations games between England and Scotland have always been packed brimful of expectation and emotion, but in recent years they have started to become the stuff of legend. Can anyone ever forget that remarkable Scotland comeback from 31-7 down in the second half in 2019 at Twickenham? Then there was last year’s heroics on the same ground as Scotland secured their first victory at England HQ since 1983. Ironically, Murrayfield doesn’t seem to produce the same level of success against the English. In their last five encounters at Murrayfield Scotland have only won one of them.

As for England, that defeat to Scotland last year at the start of the tournament on such hallowed ground stung them to the core, and in many ways set the tone for what would prove to be a disastrous English Six Nations campaign. To say that Eddie Jones and his charges are out to return the favor this time on Scotland’s home turf would be a bit of understatement. The conditions look set to be horrific and would seem to favor the grit and determination approach favored by England as opposed to the pace and skill game of Scotland. Both sides have players of enormous talent and could provide us with a thrill ride of note, but we fear that Mother Nature is likely going to put a bit of a damper on proceedings, excuse the pun. Consequently it will be more of a slog than a F1 race, and as a result the team that can endure the longest while keeping their composure and discipline will emerge the winner.

England’s front row may creak but the glue that binds it is exceptionally strong

England Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie has plenty of reasons to keep smiling

We have genuine concerns about England’s front row, particularly in terms of balance as we feel it is just not gelling. For us Kyle Sinckler is too much of liability in terms of discipline and technique at Tighthead despite his bruising abilities in the loose, and the same could be said to a certain degree of Ellis Genge on the other side. However, their man in the middle Luke Cowan-Dickie need make no apologies. In our opinion he’s the best option England have by a comfortable margin, and one that is only going to get better. England’s bench doesn’t really fill us with confidence either with the possible exception of renaissance man Joe Marler. While Scotland may also struggle with front row balance, and let’s not talk about their woeful lineout accuracy, we still feel it’s a more cohesive and effective unit. With that said though we feel it’s Cowan-Dickie’s technique and abilities in the set pieces that may ultimately give England the slight edge in the front row contests.

Scotland’s dynamic duo look set to cause havoc once more

One of England’s biggest problems on Saturday will be trying to wipe that irrepressible grin off of Scottish back rower Hamish Watson’s face

One of our favorite back row pairings in the Six Nations is back in action again on Saturday and will be up to their usual mischief. Scotland’s Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie take great pleasure in raining on England’s parade and are rather effective at it. Watson is everywhere disrupting rucks, making turnovers and generally making a massive nuisance of himself while Ritchie plays the role of enforcer in the set pieces and physical battles. The pair are ferocious competitors and take very few prisoners. They will be up against it this time as England finally look to have a settled and balanced back row, with some equally dynamic ball players. However, even if the conditions don’t allow Scotland their preferred chaos management stlye of game, much of the work done by these two will set the tone of how well Scotland will be able to cope with Plan B.

England finally decide what they want their back row to look like

“Alright mate – it’s not just a number then after all” – England Coach Eddie Jones at long last recognizes the value of a specialist number eight now that he is spoilt for choice

After seemingly denying the value of a specialist number eight, England Coach Eddie Jones has finally decided to listen to his critics, and include not just one but two in his matchday 23 to face Scotland. The long suffering Sam Simmonds finally gets to start at eight in place of Tom Curry. Curry fulfilled the role with admirable efficiency at times last year, but is still much more valuable as a flanker where he now finds himself along with wearing the Captain’s armband. For Simmonds though it’s been a long time coming and very much overdue given his outstanding form at club level with Exeter. England really are spoilt for choice here as once the dynamic Simmonds starts to tire, Jones gets to bring on Harlequins demolition expert Alex Dombrandt whose presence in an England jersey was consistently called for by England supporters during the course of last year. It’s a position where we feel Scotland are really going to struggle to compete, and despite Matt Fagerson being ably assisted by Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson, England may just have too much power here.

Wizarding Wars

When it comes to outrageous talent, it’s hard to beat Scotland’s Finn Russell and England’s Marcus Smith in the number 10 jersey

Of all the contests this weekend, the battle of the fly halves at Murrayfield will be the most influential. Marcus Smith may be the new kid on the block in terms of Test Rugby compared to Finn Russell who is no stranger to the roller coaster ride of the Six Nations, but the Englishman’s skill set is every bit as good as his opposite number. Both individuals are hungry for success, but we’d argue that as driven as Smith is, despite his youth he appears to have the more measured head on his shoulders. We are often in awe of Finn Russell who can produce miracles out of nothing, but all too often he loses sight of the larger picture, something we feel that Smith is better at grasping despite his lack of Test experience.

Russell is a world class 10 plain and simple, but we feel that he often only sees the game through the lenses of a fly half. Smith on the other hand, in the few Tests we’ve seen him play so far, seems to have a better eye to what the game may be looking like for the rest of his squad mates. He is a remarkable player, but despite his almost manic competitiveness he always looks like he has weighed up all his options before committing himself, even if he has done it in the blink of an eye. Although Finn Russell has become slightly less reckless in his approach to managing Scotland’s game, he is still prone to rolling the dice and hoping that luck favors the brave. Sometimes it works for Scotland with spectacular success but when it doesn’t Scotland start to unravel very quickly. We can’t wait to see who fortune favors on Saturday, but given the conditions the odds may be slightly stacked in the Smith camp.

Scotland’s Power and Pace combo may lose out to Mother Nature

It would be a great shame if we don’t get to see Scotland’s Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe operate at full throttle as a result of the weather

Unfortunately as talented as they are, the weather at Murrayfield on Saturday may just not favor the 100 mile an hour game that fullback Stuart Hogg and winger Duhan van der Merwe prefer. For Scotland’s fleet footed but devastatingly powerful winger raised on the hard dry pitches of the highveld, conditions may mean that we see little of him. With gale force winds predicted it’s also unlikely there will be a lot of aerial contests from which Hogg can launch his lightning fast counter attacks that can leave defenders guessing for an unbroken 50 metres. England’s Max Malins and new fullback sensation Freddie Steward can provide an equal number of thrills but we’d argue that the big English fullback is likely to be slightly better at adapting to the conditions despite his lack of Test experience. If the two Scots are allowed to run wild then England could be at sixes and sevens defensively, especially the new kids on the block in the back line. However, we can’t help get the feeling that simply may not be the case if Mother Nature has her way in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Either way it should be a cracking game and one of the most anticipated of the tournament and you won’t want to miss it. In many ways we feel that Scotland have more to prove of the two especially in front of a home crowd, and that added to the weather may mean England squeak a narrow win and level the playing field between these two sides after last year. But then nothing in this glorious tournament is ever a certainty and definitely not between these two sides, so bring on Saturday and let the game do the talking!

Ireland line up at the Aviva with a squad that looks set to take no Welsh prisoners!

And so it begins!!! The tournament that we anticipate more than any other is finally about to get underway. After the empty stadiums of the past two years, the crowds are back and will add that critical 16th man element to every home team as well as all the color and festive atmosphere the tournament has lacked courtesy of the pandemic. Covid is still likely to throw all the teams the odd curveball throughout the tournament, but with the World Cup only 18 months away and all six teams looking in fine fettle, this is likely to be a tournament to remember for many a year to come.

Ireland and Wales get us underway this Saturday, in wet and blustery conditions at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Ireland are one of the favorites to lift the trophy on March 19th, while defending champions Wales’ luck seems to have run out before the tournament has even started. But as everyone knows in recent years this is a tournament, that perhaps with the exception of Italy, the form book seems not to respect. In short, anything can happen on the day and while Ireland look an incredibly daunting prospect especially at home, to write off Wales’ before the opening whistle would be not only disrespectful but rather foolish to say the least. Wales got the better of Ireland last year in Cardiff in a hard fought encounter, and despite the conditions on Saturday expect no less in Dublin as both teams have everything to prove.

So here’s what got us talking ahead of this critical opening fixture for both sides.

The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Ireland’s front row is the most feared of any side in the tournament and rightly so

Everyone who has read this blog, knows that we think Ireland’s front row stocks of Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher and Tadgh Furlong are the benchmark by which all other teams will have to measure themselves against this Six Nations. They have arguably the world’s best Tighthead prop in Tadgh Furlong. On the opposite side the highly versatile Andrew Porter who can cover both Loosehead and Tighthead, is a wrecking ball of note. Add into the mix Ronan Kelleher who is probably one of the fastest and most destructive Hookers in the modern game and Ireland have it all going on up front. The only mild concern is Kelleher’s lineout throwing but it certainly looked like it had come on leaps and bounds during the November series and we’d argue Wales’ Ryan Elias has much more to worry about in that regard. Their bench are no slackers either but more on that in a minute. Wales are going to really struggle to compete with these three, especially in inclement weather. Expect Ireland to build a dominant platform up front that takes no prisoners and dictates the tone of the match from the outset.

Irelands wealth of forward riches now extend to the front row

Just when Ronan Kelleher thought it was safe to frame his Ireland 2 jersey, along comes Dan Sheehan

There is no doubt that incumbent Ronan Kelleher earned his stripes in 2021 to make him Irish Coach Andy Farrell’s first choice Hooker. However, if you’ve watched Leinster this season in the URC, young Dan Sheehan has been tearing up pitches wherever he goes. Boasting a skill set just as good as Kelleher’s, albeit with a slightly different approach to how he plays the position, Sheehan has been a revelation at Leinster. As a result we are delighted to see him get a spot on the bench for Ireland’s Six Nations opener. Ireland lose nothing other than experience by bringing him off the bench, and with an eye to the World Cup just around the corner, getting Sheehan some serious game time over the coming weeks will really strengthen Ireland’s depth and options in such a crucial position.

A crucial back row axis that despite missing some traditional firepower could well be Wales’ salvation

While Wales may be missing the likes of Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric, Ellis Jenkins and new kid on the block Taine Basham certainly made us sit up and take notice in November.

If you’re going to be even remotely competitive against Ireland, then the battles in the back row will be key. Lack firepower here and it will be all over but for the crying. While Wales are reeling from an injury list from hell in their back row stocks, it is definitely made up for in the shape of Ellis Jenkins and Taine Basham. Jenkins returned after two years out from a horrific injury to be Wales’ most impressive performer of their November campaign. Meanwhile, newcomer Taine Basham lived up to all the hype surrounding him. The two flankers will be up against it as they wrestle to keep Ireland’s Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier in check, but we fully expect to see them make a decent fist of it. Without question the battles fought in this part of the park will be the most important indicator of how Wales will fare in this match. If these two can slow down that powerhouse Irish back row and create some go forward ball of their own, then all of a sudden the bookmakers may have to start retooling their betting odds.

Just one of the many reasons that Ireland’s future looks so bright

Ireland’s Caelan Doris exceeded all expectations in his breakout year in 2021 and we can only imagine how much better he’ll be this year

One thing Ireland has become very, very good at in recent years is churning out a seemingly endless stream of world class back rowers. Caelan Doris is just one more recent example, but he could well end up becoming Ireland’s most important player this tournament. Alongside the fleet footed Josh van der Flier who is back to his very best, Doris took the rugby public by storm last year. Highly mobile, dynamic in the rucks and mauls and seemingly impossible to bring down, expect to see Doris featuring heavily in the highlights of Ireland’s exploits in the coming weeks. Alongside van der Flier and the remarkable Jack Conan, Doris could make it an exceptionally long and painful day at the office for the Welsh as this is an Irish back row that could prove next to impossible to contain.

Two Captains who suffer no illusions as to what’s at stake

Welsh fly half and Captain Dan Biggar knows like his opposite number Jonathan Sexton that your Six Nations opener will set the tone for the rest of your campaign.

Your heart has to go out to this year’s Welsh Captain Dan Biggar. How do you possibly step into the shoes of a persona as large as injured Welsh Captain and talisman Alun Wyn Jones? While Ireland struggles with the Sexton succession question, for now they know they simply can’t do without him. Fortunately for Ireland Coach Andy Farrell, Sexton’s recent form has proven that the wily veteran is still at the top of his game. If Biggar can figure out what some of the rabbits Sexton is likely to pull out his rather large hat might look like, he will be able to keep Wales in the match. However, in the conditions likely to plague the Aviva on Saturday afternoon your money has to be with Ireland’s man for all seasons. Like many of the matchups over the coming weeks, the battle of the fly halves will determine the outcome of this Six Nations and Saturday’s encounter in Dublin is a case in point. While every game is key in this tournament, your opener is arguably the most important in the competition. At this stage it’s a level playing field for everyone and how you succeed or fail in Round 1 can often set the tone for how the rest of your campaign will play out and how your opponents perceive you in terms of their own planning.

Conditions in Dublin on Saturday will mean that this contest will most likely be a war of attrition in the trenches amongst the forwards. It’s unlikely that we will see the speed and grace of Welsh winger Louis Rees-Zammit or the weaving runs of new Irish sensation and debutant Mack Hansen. As a result if that is the case it’s hard not to tip your hat in favor of the Irish for this one. Allied to Sexton’s game management Ireland are probably the better equipped side to manage such a slugfest. Either way, as an opener to the glorious festival of rugby we are about to indulge in over the coming weeks we couldn’t ask for better!

This year’s Six Nations looks set to be the most exciting and unpredictable annual classic that we’ve seen in a very long time!!!!

Yes it’s finally here, a tournament that for most of us is the highlight of our annual rugby calendar. That in no way detracts from the Rugby Championship for our Southern Hemisphere friends but as International Test Rugby’s oldest annual dustup, the Six Nations has so much history behind it that it’s hard to top in terms of a sense of occasion. Some editions have been less than stellar but this year’s competition looks set to have us glued to our TV screens for the next two months. Add into the mix the colorful crowds, which are such an integral and important part of this classic tournament, and ladies and gentleman get ready to start your engines this Saturday!

Good natured debates are already crowding the airwaves and discussions in pubs and bars around the globe as rugby’s oldest tournament prepares to spool up once more. There is no doubt that as always there are some clear front runners, but in our opinion this year’s tournament looks set to be one of the closest in history. We are fairly certain however that a Grand Slam for any of the six participants is quite frankly out of the question. Even the best, whom many think this year are France are going to encounter a banana skin along the way to Super Saturday on March 19th.

So without any further ado, let’s do our own bit of initial crystal ball gazing as to what the teams might be able to expect out of this year’s tournament.

France – the sleeping giant is finally awake!

We have to go along with the general consensus that France look like the team to beat this year, but a Grand Slam is not in the mix for les Bleus

Oh France what will you give us this year? The rugby media is literally fainting at the door to the French dressing room, such is the adulation for Fabien Galthie and his charges. To be honest we find it all a bit much. Don’t get us wrong we hold France in the greatest regard and think that this current group of individuals in blue jerseys is one of the most formidable units in Test rugby. But invincible – absolutely not. Sure they have a pretty admirable draw card with home matches against their two toughest opponents England and Ireland, but consistency is just not a strong suit in France’s arsenal. Under Galthie they are almost there and this is probably the most composed and clinical French side we’ve seen in the last 50 years. The killer instinct is there without the emotion which at times has tripped them up on so many occasions.

However, as we saw last year they are still prone to moments that defy all logic and scupper their lofty ambitions. As good as France are presently, we just can’t see them winning every single match. Away matches in Cardiff and Murrayfield could be their greatest stumbling blocks, especially as Scotland managed to pull one over on them in Paris last year. While we think they should comfortably get the measure of England in Paris in their final match, even that is not a given. What happens if England’s new breed of talent turn the tables upside down and arrive at the Stade de France unbeaten on March 19th? There’s also that rather problematic visit of a red hot Ireland in Round 2 – a side who knows what it’s like to upset France on home soil against all the odds. So in short nothing is a given for France this year.

It’s pretty hard to see any weaknesses in this French side, but if we had to pick out any it would perhaps be in their front row. We’re just not convinced they’ve found the right balance there yet as compared to a side like Ireland. But apart from that it’s a pretty impressive looking squad from 1 to 23, even despite the absence of one or two stars from last year. Their second row stocks look sound, particularly in the shape of newcomer Thibaud Flament. Their back row, like Ireland and England’s, packs a hefty punch, while their half back pairings are the stuff of fantasy. In the centres they appear to have lots of exciting options and their back line just oozes class and pedigree.

They are missing some key players through injury most notably last year’s Captain Charles Ollivon, and you can almost be certain that Covid and its mutations along with further injuries will have an impact on the squad roster as the tournament unfolds. Although this concern will not be unique to France and is one faced by all the competitors. In short, expect the 2022 edition of France to wow us every weekend, and most likely go on to lift the trophy on March 19th. However it won’t be on the back of a Grand Slam and the road there will involve a few more nail biting finishes than Monsieur Galthie would probably like.

Ireland – the side everyone seems afraid of!

Ireland look just as good as France in our opinion and will be the side that most likely wrecks everyone’s Grand Slam hopes

Ireland definitely won’t repeat their Grand Slam success of 2018, but they are going to be everyone’s biggest problem side. Beat Ireland and then you can start to entertain thoughts of Six Nations Glory. There are still some personnel questions, such as how much longer can Ireland really rely on Jonathan Sexton, especially with a World Cup just round the corner? What’s more important – claiming a Six Nations crown with Sexton at the helm or using the tournament to put his understudies to the ultimate Test? We’ll leave that one up for debate.

With that aside though Ireland look in terrifyingly rude health. They have depth in every position, with an increasingly impressive crop of youngsters rapidly stepping up to take on the legacy that Sexton and his league of veterans will leave behind. The Irish front row is hands down the strongest in the tournament, as is probably their back row, with only a few lingering question marks of how to achieve the best balance in the second row. Apart from the ongoing debates about the halfback berths, there is talent aplenty there, and a daunting mix of veterans and youngsters look set to make up midfield and back line pairings that would put a smile on any Coach’s face. Whatever you say about Sexton’s age there is no doubt that at the swansong of his career he is playing some of the best rugby of his illustrious playing days, and there is definitely still life left in the old dog yet.

Ireland have arguably their two toughest fixtures on the road, against England and France, and it remains to be seen how good this new look Ireland is on the road. Their enterprise and speed of play is an absolute joy to watch and will provide France and England with a plethora of headaches in how to contain it, let alone a hospital full of bruised bodies. The rather stodgy, but defensively sound and disciplined Ireland of the Joe Schmidt era has evolved into a Hummer chassis with a Ferrari engine and Mercedes reliability. In short, it’s going to hurt you and keep you guessing while reaching for the oxygen tanks at half time. We see a strong second place finish for Ireland provided they can handle either England or France, but beware of the Scottish smoking gun when it shows up at the Aviva.

England – Eddie Jones’ young whizz kids will impress but remain pretenders to the throne for now

“Oh alright – let’s do this change thing” – Eddie Jones is finally forced to play his young guns and so far it all looks rather promising as a work in progress even if it is perhaps too little too late in terms of 2023

Has Eddie Jones finally taken popular opinion into account in his selection decisions? Not a man to be swayed by what the media or lesser mortals like the general public and England supporters think, Jones’ rather Thatcherite approach to Coaching has meant that England’s aspiring youngsters have not seen much game time until lately. With his regular choice at Captain, Owen Farrell out with injury for the entire tournament, and his second choice Courtney Lawes probably in the same boat, Jones has been forced to embrace change at long last. This is one of the most exciting looking English units we’ve seen since 2015.

England are still too raw in our opinion to lift this year’s silverware, but they have everything to prove and in their enthusiasm to do so will upset most of their opponents over the coming weeks. Like Ireland, they will deny anyone who has the gall to think a Grand Slam is a possibility this year. France may be a bridge too far in the final round in Paris, but Ireland are certainly a tasty proposition on home soil in front of an ecstatic Twickenham crowd. They also have the advantage of an under strength Welsh side paying them a visit. However, their opener in the hostile cauldron of Murrayfield will be the sternest test of this new look England.

Make no mistake this is a very good English side. Their front and second rows do concern us and we feel may struggle, especially against Ireland. However, from there they go from strength to strength. It seems Jones is finally about to establish the balanced back row he has lacked for so long. His halfback options, led by the truly outstanding Marcus Smith look strong and we really hope that Harry Randall and Raffi Quirke are going to get lots of game time alongside him in the scrum half position. England’s centre pairings are really the only other weak link in the chain Henry Slade excepted. However, out wide and at the back, with their find of last year Freddie Steward, they look solid though perhaps not as accomplished as their French rivals.

In short, we expect England to charge hard for a solid third place finish, and possibly even second place if France and Ireland have too many consistency wobbles along the road to March 19th.

Scotland – more like a smoking howitzer than just a gun

Scotland are having rather a lot of fun these days at everyone else’s expense

Scotland have excelled in the last few years at wrecking their Six Nations’ opponents parties. While they are not quite at the stage where they can realistically entertain ideas of lifting Six Nations silverware, they are really good at destroying everybody else’s ambitions to do the same. Scotland are a really good side that for the most part are a joy to watch and, next to France, probably play the tournament’s most exciting brand of rugby. The problem is that they tend to like throwing caution to the wind a bit too much for our liking, and it has a habit of wrecking their own party. Their joyful exuberance simply gets in the way of finishing the job all too often. While we sincerely hope this year will be different, with Finn Russell running the show at fly half, we still feel that there is an element of recklessness at times which will cause Scotland to fall at the odd hurdle over the next two months.

This is not to say that we think Scotland are not a good side. On the contrary, but consistency is simply not part of their makeup. Brilliant one weekend, but a shambles the next, particularly if the stretcher bearers make their way on to the pitch during the course of the tournament exposing Scotland’s lack of depth. However, last year we felt that Scotland did actually make strides to tighten up their lack of consistency, but finishing out big games especially under pressure is still not their strong suit. They can do it, as we saw in their opener against England at Twickenham last year and that epic win on the road over France. The problem is they just can’t seem to do it week in week out, and despite the joyful delirium always present at Murrayfield in the stands, it remains a mixed bag in terms of being a successful hunting ground for the Scots. Nevertheless they are no doubt taking a shot if confidence from the fact they are facing two of their toughest opponents, England and France, on said hallowed home ground.

We have concerns about their front row and lack of effectiveness in the lineouts. Their back row stocks are world class, but we are slightly puzzled that they only have one specialist fly half in Finn Russell and that smacks dangerously of putting all your eggs in one basket. However, those Scottish backs and centers are a nightmare for defenses to deal with, so there will be definitely plenty of flair on hand from the darker blue equivalent of les Bleus and in Chris Harris they have one of Test Rugby’s best defensive midfielders.

We really wrestled with predicting an outcome for Scotland this Six Nations. They will definitely finish at least fourth, but we have a hunch that a third place finish is not out of the question especially if one of the front three of France, Ireland and England fail to fire. We love watching Scotland play and they should do so much better than the results they seem to consistently end up with in the tournament. We can’t wait to see what Scotland’s 2022 Six Nations journey ultimately ends up being, but be prepared to strap yourself in for a thrill ride.

Wales – Down but not Out

While this Six Nations may smack of past glories in terms of last year – write Wales off at your peril!

Wales as so often in recent years, appear to be heading into this Six Nations with one hand tied behind their backs, as a number of their key players find themselves on the injury list. Their most notable omissions are Captain and talisman Alun Wyn Jones, and all star flankers Josh Navidi, Taulupe Faletau and our favourite Welsh player of all time Justin Tipuric to name but a few. However, this is Wales we’re talking about. Apart from tough trips to Twickenham and Dublin, their fixture list favors them taking full advantage of the legendary Principality Stadium and its 75,000 Welshmen in full song, which as everyone knows is one of the most powerful 16th men out there.

Their injury list from hell also means should they submit any more bodies to the stretcher bearers during the course of the tournament, they will start to run alarmingly thin on depth. However, Wales are a side that despite this seem able to punch way above their weight especially on home soil. Expect no different this year. While they are likely to suffer at scrum time, they will compete at lineout time and their back row led by renaissance man par excellence Ellis Jenkins are set to thrill and be a constant thorn in opposition defenses. If Dan Biggar can fine tune his communication skills with referees then Welsh game plans will be ably managed, alongside some dynamic scrum halves who excel at making the most out of their dynamic loose forwards. Even if Dan Biggar goes missing, Welsh Coach Dan Pivac has decided to bolster his stocks with no less than three other specialist fly halves. We have to admit we found this decision rather strange to say the least, despite Biggar and Anscombe’s ongoing injury concerns along with Priestland’s age. It’s a capable if not flash set of backs and centers, with the exception of greased lightning in the shape of winger Louis Rees-Zammit. However, we were puzzled at the omission of big bruising winger Owen Lane, and surely he could have taken one of the four fly half berths.

We have a hunch that the pundits may be right and, despite being Six Nations champions last year, Wales may find themselves finishing fifth. However, we feel that of all the predictions we are making in this piece, this is the one most likely to be way off base. We really have trouble seeing Wales finish so low, even if all the cool headed science and statistics would indicate that this is the Men in Red’s likely fortune this year. So we’ll stick with the convictions of rugby brains much wiser than ours for now but are thoroughly prepared to be proven wrong, and for Welsh supporters we certainly hope this will ultimately be the case.

Italy – does the promise of yet another false dawn beckon?

We’ve talked up Italy so often in the past only to be bitterly disappointed come the end of the tournament, but could this year finally be different?

It seems every year at the start of the Six Nations we herald what is supposed to be the dawn of a new era in Italian rugby only to find ourselves struggling to figure out what all the fuss was about, as Italy walk away with yet another Wooden Spoon. While we are hard pressed to see anything different happening this year, we have to admit that we are cautiously optimistic that Italy may at least be genuinely competitive over the next two months. There won’t be too many opportunities for a surprise win, and the only real possibility is their game in the final round against a possibly weakened and floundering Welsh side. But even that is a genuine long shot as Italy have to travel to the cauldron of the Principality Stadium to achieve it. If Wales’ Six Nations campaign has been a shambles up to that point the Cardiff faithful will expect nothing less than a wholesale slaughter of the hapless Italians.

So yes, this year doesn’t look too promising for new Coach Kieran Crowley and his charges, so why the optimism you might ask? We still think Italy will emerge winless, but in the process they are likely to give one or two sides a genuine fright. This is a very youthful and energetic Italian side and arguably the youngest in the competition. The academy system in Italy is finally starting to bear fruit and while Zebre are still a very long way from striking fear into the hearts of their opponents, Benetton (Crowley’s former employer) have been a quiet success story. They won the Rainbow Cup last year in the old PRO 14 and this year have been competitive in the United Rugby Championship. This current Italian squad benefits from having the core of that Benetton squad. Captain Michele Lamaro is the youngest leader in the tournament, but has shown a maturity beyond his years in his duties both with Italy and Benetton. The talent that has made Italy increasingly competitive in the U20 Six Nations is now firmly embedded into this senior squad. Paolo Garbisi is a increasingly effective game manager at fly half, and is a genuine world class talent. Rugby is now being offered in schools in Italy alongside football and interest is growing. Don’t forget, it took France 49 years to clinch their first outright Six Nations Championship and look at them now!

There are no clear areas where Italy can dominate any of their opponents but there is enough talent spread across all fifteen positions that Italy can at least be competitive. If they can manage their discipline which all too often gets away from them and keep up the kind of focus and effort that saw them hold New Zealand scoreless for the first thirty minutes last November, then Italy could finally start to show the glimmerings of a coming of age in the Six Nations. The debates as to whether or not they should be in the tournament in the first place, we’d argue are irrelevant, but we hope that Italy finally starts to silence them this year. While they are unlikely to win any of their matches, if they can emerge with at least 3 losing bonus points by keeping the score line to a difference of less than seven points in three of their matches then there will definitely be reasons for thinking positively about the future.

So yes sadly it’s yet another Wooden Spoon for Italy this year, but one awarded with a sense of optimism as we very much doubt that Italy are going to be a pushover in five straight matches especially at home. Scotland will need to be on their guard if Italy have managed to emerge with some degree of credibility from three very tough opening rounds against France, England and Ireland and who knows where Wales will be come March 19th?

So that’s a wrap for now. Enjoy the tournament everyone we think it’s going to be an absolute belter this year. I’ll do my best to try and get previews out for this weekend’s matches if the pressure of the day job permits, and if nothing else at least get a podcast out for each of the games.

November Internationals – North vs South and what we’ve learned – Part 5

After a month of truly vintage North vs South International Test Rugby, we take a look at what the respective Coaches of the big Ten learnt about their charges. I’ll try and get at least one a week out which should be a good segue into the buildup for the Six Nations in the New Year but, as mentioned before, work at the moment is getting the better of me and likely to continue to do so for the next few weeks.

In each of these five pieces we’ll pick out two of the teams in order of their success ratio this month; focus on what the Coaches must be feeling; pick a player that stood out the most and finally pick what we think is the kind of starting XV that will set them up well for 2022 and beyond.

So without any further ado in this last instalment let’s look at two sides who can feel extremely pleased with their November Test window results – Ireland and France.

Ireland – Won 3 – Lost 0

We had our doubts at first about Ireland Coach Andy Farrell, but after this November have put most of them on the shelf as the Men in Green looked the sharpest they’ve been since the heady days of 2018

In many ways we feel we owe Ireland Coach Andy Farrell a few apologies. Like many we had grave doubts about his appointment as Joe Schmidt’s successor after Ireland’s dismal showing at the last World Cup. Was Schmidt’s deputy who had helped preside over a disastrous 2019, really the right man for the job? His first two years in office did little to convince us otherwise, but in our skepticism we overlooked the quiet revolution that Farrell was putting in place. He essentially asked his charges to keep what was good about the Schmidt era – the clinical execution and solid discipline but at the same time embrace a new sense of freedom of expression in how they played the game, and accept that no two Saturdays are ever the same in how you need to approach your opposition.

Under Schmidt Ireland became mired in a game plan and set of processes that ultimately stifled their creativity and made it easy for other teams to figure them out. They were very good at what they did, but sadly far too predictable. While Farrell can hardly be credited with introducing French flair to Irish rugby, there is definitely a sense of Gaelic panache that has made them a very entertaining and effective side to watch and a handful for opposition sides to get to grips with, as no two Saturdays now with Ireland can ever be described as predictable. There’s a creativity and energy to this team that bodes well for the future. Nevertheless all this praise is dished out with a serious note of caution. We’ve seen Ireland peak a year too early out from the World Cup far too often in the last twenty years and then exit quietly stage left with a whimper. Fingers crossed that this time around it’s a rebuild that can stand the test of time.

Ireland got their November campaign off to a stellar start as they thumped a Japanese side that many had thought would give them a run for their money. Most of us were left scratching our heads as to where the Japanese side that had taken the Lions and then Ireland to task over the summer had disappeared to. Apparently they resurfaced against Scotland a fortnight later, but were nowhere to be seen in Dublin as a turbocharged Irish outfit cruised past them 60-5 in a nine try field day which saw Ireland make an incredible 581 run metres.

Ireland then faced the All Blacks in an encounter that appears to be getting increasingly difficult for the New Zealanders. Dublin is now one of those grounds that holds no certainty for the Men in Black, and last month’s encounter was a case in point. Both sides came charging out of the blocks right from the get go, and things initially seemed to be favoring Ireland. After silencing his critics about his defensive abilities a few moments earlier, winger James Lowe then did what he does best and with ball in hand showed his former teammates from the Land of the Long White Cloud a clean set of heels which left them floundering. New Zealand would strike back just before half time, but for a good thirty minutes we got to see an expressive and expansive Ireland that we had rarely got to see under Schmidt, all operating at a hundred miles an hour.

Ireland kept up the pressure in the second half, and scored two fine tries in quick succession. As they headed into the last quarter Ireland found themselves 10 points ahead. A slightly purple patch then ensued as Ireland appeared to switch off as New Zealand upped their game another few gears and clawed their way back into contention through a Will Jordan try. However, Ireland regrouped, refocused and for the last fifteen minutes simply turned the screw on an All Black side seeming to struggle to come to terms with what they were up against. Joey Carberry came on for Jonathan Sexton and calmly slotted three penalty goals and had the kind of game that showed so much promise five years ago in Chicago against New Zealand.

The pressure Ireland heaped on New Zealand was phenomenal but perhaps the statistic that stood out the most was the fact that they forced the All Blacks to make a staggering 224 tackles. That is 128 more than Ireland were required to make. Ireland won 132 rucks compared to only 57 for New Zealand. In short, Ireland took the game to New Zealand at a truly frenetic pace, that lost nothing in terms of physicality and execution, while dominating territory and possession. It was a spectacle to watch and Ireland have clearly laid down a marker for the Six Nations.

Their final match of their November campaign against a tired and frustrated Argentinian outfit, was nowhere near the same calibre in terms of spectacle, but Ireland never let up in intensity. Much like in the match against Japan, Ireland had a field day when it came to scoring tries, but ironically Argentina proved to be a thorny opponent despite what the numbers on the scoreboard suggested come the final whistle. Once again though it was Ireland’s exuberant yet clinical but expansive game plan that ultimately ran rings around an exhausted Argentinian defense. Argentina were brave and worthy opponents but against this new look Ireland, they were more than just a little outclassed.

In many ways Ireland really only had one heavyweight opponent this November in the shape of New Zealand, as did France for that matter. Compare this to England, Wales and Scotland who all had to face both Australia and South Africa, and you can understand the argument in some circles that it’s hard to judge just where Ireland really are at the moment. However, their performance against one of the best teams in the world was so impressive and emphatic that if they can keep it up there is little doubt that they are genuine contenders along with England and France for Six Nations glory come February.

Andy Farrell can reflect on a job well done and a genuinely exciting and capable squad set to do battle come the Six Nations in February. Ireland showed in November that their core skills are sound and that they are playing with an energy and creativity that we haven’t seen for quite some time. Ireland possess probably one of the best front rows in International Test rugby at the moment and to be honest we’re hard pressed to find its equal in the Six Nations competitors. Lineout accuracy could still use some work, but Hooker Ronan Kelleher grows in confidence by the day, and his play in the loose has to be seen to be believed. Ireland’s second row stocks are equally robust, and there is clearly a secret factory buried deep in the mountains of Connemara churning out world class back rowers on an almost daily basis.

The conundrum around the future halfback question in Ireland continues, and after a month where incumbent fly half Jonathan Sexton played some of the best rugby we’ve ever seen him play, it is probably still likely to go unanswered for a while yet. Joey Carberry made his long awaited return from injury in style against both New Zealand and Argentina but can he keep the stretcher bearers at bay in the long run? At scrum half Jamison Gibson-Park silenced his critics at Conor Murray’s expense, but there is a raft of talented options at Andy Farrell’s disposal that just don’t seem to be getting game time. Until these questions get answered it’s hard to get too excited about Ireland’s current renaissance and its longevity come the World Cup.

In the backs and the centers though Ireland appears to be blessed. James Lowe has finally shown that he can defend as well as he can attack, and in Lowe and Conway alone Ireland has plenty of strength out wide, along with Keith Earls who also looks raring to go these days. In the center channels Ireland is truly spoilt for choice and at fullback they have one of the best in the business, the outstanding Hugo Keenan. In short, Ireland look like they love playing rugby again and are blossoming under the new freedom of expression they are being allowed under Farrell. To sum up, watch this space and if the few concerns can get answered in the next twelve months, Irish supporters may well be travelling to France in 2023 with both eyes firmly glued to the pitch as opposed to one eyeing up the nearest exit.

Still some things to work on, but a force to be reckoned with

So many players stood up and were counted for Ireland in November, but for us Ronan Kelleher’s coming of age in an Irish jersey was something to behold

The Irish Hooker still has plenty to work on, but his three performances in November were so impressive that the errors he did make are easily glossed over. He was literally on fire for 150 minutes, and his effort against New Zealand was immense. Defensively sound and an absolute tiger in the loose, Kelleher simply gets better with every outing. His ferocious physicality and turn of pace was key in unravelling New Zealand, and he is going to be a genuine menace to opposition defenses come the Six Nations. He is improving so quickly that we simply had to list him as the player that stood out the most for us this month. His influence on proceedings in all three matches was instrumental in getting Ireland on the front foot and for us he embodied that Irish spirit of days gone by and made famous in that memorable changing room rant by the legendary Paul O’Connell.

So here’s the Lineout’s Ireland starting XV:

  1. Loosehead Prop – Andrew Porter – Partnered with Furlong ensures that the Irish front row is rock solid, guarantees good go forward ball for his teammates and is a vital asset in those body pileups on the opposition try line.
  2. Hooker – Ronan Kelleher – Thoroughly enjoyed watching Kelleher last month, an absolute tiger in the loose and probably one of the quickest thinking Hookers around – lineout work still needs improving but such a positive investment for the future.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Tadhg Furlong – As he has all year the “Jukebox” just kept putting out those chart topping hits all November, but has a rather handy set of dance moves to go with them.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Tadhg Beirne – One of our favourites in the current crop of Irish players. Equally at home in the back row, but superbly effective wherever you put him and his teammates feed off his irrepressible energy and enthusiasm for the the task at hand.
  5. Number 5 Lock – James Ryan – getting back to his best after a quiet year but Ian Henderson is pushing him for the jersey.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Caelan Doris – Man of the Match against New Zealand, and part of the almost ridiculous depth in numbers in the back row that Ireland possesses.
  7. Openside Flanker – Josh van der Flier – Had one of his best months in the green jersey to date and thrives on the new sense of creativity being promoted in the way Ireland play the game.
  8. Number 8 – Jack Conan – Arguably one of the best in his position in Test Rugby and almost made New Zealand’s Ardie Savea look like a beginner.
  9. Scrum Half – Jamison Gibson-Park – While the fly half question remains a problem issue for Ireland, the 9 jersey is not with Craig Casey, John Cooney, Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath and Nathan Doak all looking to get bench time next year. For now though the Kiwi import did more than enough in November to cement his place as Ireland’s starter and Ireland’s new style suits him particularly well.
  10. Fly Half – Jonathan Sexton – Ireland’s genuine superstar was back to his very best this November after a period where his star had seemed to slowly dip. When he’s enjoying himself, which he clearly is at the moment, his age almost seems irrelevant. Nevertheless injury concerns and the “age factor” make it critical that Ireland make a genuine investment in life “beyond Jonny” in the next 18 months and commit to it.
  11. Left Wing – James Lowe – The electric winger finally showed that he his more than just a flash pair of heels as he finally added some sound defensive skills to his impressive attacking repertoire.
  12. Inside Centre – Robbie Henshaw – Didn’t play as much as we would have liked in November, but when he did and partnered with Ringrose showed just what an intelligent center pairing Ireland are blessed with. Bundee Aki did exceptionally well against New Zealand in his place, but Henshaw is still our go to man.
  13. Outside Centre – Gary Ringrose – Another Irish player back to his absolute best in November. Partnered with Henshaw, Ireland possess one of the best brains trusts in the business in the midfield.
  14. Right Wing – Andrew Conway – We’ve always rated the Munsterman, and have been surprised that he hasn’t featured more in the big Tests since the World Cup. Coach Farrell clearly understood the error in his omission in November, and Conway got the game time he so thoroughly deserved. A very complete player out wide.
  15. FullbackHugo Keenan – Definite runner up for Ireland’s player of the month, Keenan has taken Irish rugby by storm since last year. Not the biggest lad on the park, but punches way above his weight and clearly coats his hands in Super Glue prior to every game as he simply doesn’t drop balls no matter what kind of pressure he’s under. Opposition sides will kick to him at their own peril come the Six Nations. Defensively could still do with some minor tweaks, but overall an absolutely solid player who ensures that the back of the park is a genuine safe zone for Ireland.

France – Won 3 – Lost 0

Fabien Galthie knows he has a class product at his disposal and France look in alarmingly rude health as they start the countdown to their own World Cup

Like Ireland, France really only got put under the microscope once in November against New Zealand, although Argentina did make them realize there were a few cobwebs to blow off since their Australian tour earlier this summer. However, France’s dismantling of New Zealand was probably the best game of the month. It was a glorious celebration of French rugby and why they still are probably one of the most unpredictable and attractive teams in World Rugby to watch. Some of their moves appear almost demented, and yet under Galthie it all looks so incredibly organized and calmly executed. Take for example fly half Romain Ntamack’s run from out of his own in goal area that saw France make it to within millimeters of New Zealand’s 22. For any other team that would be a gamble of almost suicidal proportions but Ntamack and France made it all appear a perfectly logical thing to do, and executed in a manner that left nothing to chance. There were numerous other moments like that in the match, but in short France have simply taken creativity and daring to another level.

France got their November campaign off to a challenging start against Argentina. The Pumas despite a poor year turned up in Paris determined to play, and France at times looked a long way from the well oiled machine that would send the All Blacks packing a fortnight later. The first quarter was a genuine arm wrestle with Argentina having the upper hand. The two teams went into the sheds with France hanging on to a narrow lead. Argentina came out of the blocks firing in the opening stanzas of the second half and almost got the lead back, but that stellar French defense, which has become such a key feature of their recent successes, came to the fore and momentum slowly and almost inevitably swung back in favor of the French and would remain that way till the final whistle. Still it had been a valuable wake up call and excellent preparation for what was to come at the end of the month.

Next up it was a feisty encounter against a very plucky Georgian outfit, who like Argentina the week before did not seem rattled by the caliber of their opponents. Georgia gave France a genuine Test and at times France almost looked overwhelmed by Georgia’s relentless physicality, while some fast hands from the Men from the Caucasus tested French defences out wide, something England and Ireland would have been keenly aware of. Ultimately France ran away with it but they had been given plenty of food for thought in the process.

Lastly it was France’s turn to meet an All Black side still reeling from what had just happened to them in Dublin. It was a mirror image of what will take place in just under two years time in the opening game of the 2023 World Cup and the 80,000 French fans in the Stade de France made sure that there was nothing lacking in the sense of occasion. It seemed remarkable to think that France hadn’t beaten the All Blacks at home since 1973, and that ironically their numerous successes against the Men in Black since then had all been away from home.

What followed was 80 minutes of glorious attacking rugby all backed up by a defensive platform that rarely faltered. France’s forwards are just as talented in the attacking department as the backs and this was evidenced by Hooker Peato Mauvaka getting Les Bleus’ first try after a mere three minutes. French exuberance though saw some lapses in discipline as the All Blacks regrouped and the gap was narrowed. The final thirty minutes of the first half were all about France however, as they ran in two tries and the Men in Blue headed into the sheds 24-6. It looked all over bar the singing as the teams ran out for the second half and the Stade de France was a deafening cauldron. All credit to New Zealand that they managed to put all that behind them and be the first side to get points on the board through a Jordie Barrett try. Rieko Ioane then added another and all of a sudden the inevitable All Black comeback seemed on the cards. Ardie Savea added a further five points converted by Jordie Barrett.

With twenty minutes to go, the scoreline was on a knife edge at 27-25 in favor of France. France then proceeded to regroup and produced the best final quarter we’ve seen from them in many a year. France were bold as evidenced by fly half Ntamack’s seemingly mad run from his in goal area. More importantly they simply ramped up the pressure on a New Zealand outfit gaining in confidence and proceeded to snuff out the All Blacks sense of new found optimism. In the final twenty minutes France scored 13 unanswered points, the highlight of which was winger Damian Penaud’s superb try. It was an historic win, but as the last match of the Autumn series we really had been treated to a case of saving the best for last.

What was significant about that match was how this French side were able to regroup and refocus after New Zealand had fought their way back into the match, a trait that would have served French sides well in the past but all too often went missing. Ironically New Zealand had the upper hand in many of the statistics, but France simply made better use of the moments that they were in control than the New Zealanders. There was plenty of French flair but unlike in years gone by it was exceptionally well organized and at times looked almost effortless. Despite having only a 69% and 71% success rate in the scrums and lineouts respectively compared to the All Blacks 100% in both, France still managed to control the ebb and flow of the game to their advantage. In short, they made New Zealand run to stand still.

As epic as that win against New Zealand was and how good France looked, Galthie and his charges know there is plenty of work to be done before France’s Six Nations opener against Italy on February 6th. Their front row needs some work to make it competitive against the likes of Ireland, and their scrum overall looks a bit creaky to say the least. Lineout throwing can also be a bit of a hit and miss affair. In the second row, France can rest easy especially with the exceptional Cameron Woki in their ranks. Their back row is almost as healthy as England and Ireland’s in terms of depth and ability. Their halfback options however, particularly in the number 10 jersey are the stuff of every Coach’s wildest fantasies. Meanwhile their centre options look increasingly impressive with Gael Fickou’s wise head marshalling France’s midfield efforts. Out wide France are equally blessed with Damian Penaud in particular really showing his worth during November. Lastly at fullback France have not just one but two game changing options in Melvyn Jaminet and Brice Dulin. In short, this is a youthful and exceptionally talented French team boasting an enviable level of depth – ideal qualities leading up to a World Cup.

Where French flair becomes calculated genius

Fly half Romain Ntamack showed in this almost suicidal act of daring just how good France have become at what would appear to be the impossible

While French scrum half Antoine Dupont may be World Rugby’s poster boy right now, as the above clip shows, it’s Ntamack’s skill set and vision that is such a core component of French Rugby’s renaissance under Fabien Galthie. There are very few players who would even think of attempting Ntamack’s seemingly outrageous plays from nothing, and yet somehow the Toulouse fly half makes it look perfectly natural and something he doesn’t even have to think twice about. There are very few players who possess his ability to seize a one off opportunity and turn it into an exquisitely structured set of phases. A visionary player who looks set to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors and change the way we think the game can be played. In short, French flair with a plan.

So here’s the Lineout’s French starting XV:

  1. Loosehead Prop – Cyril Baille – Best of the bunch in a role that still remains a problem for France.
  2. Hooker – Peato Mauvaka – Definitely needs work on his lineout throws, and could be more effective in the scrums, but cannot fault the effort levels and effectiveness on defence and off the back of rolling mauls which made him Man of the match against New Zealand.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Demba Bamba – Always started from the bench but with regular play just gets better and better and could bring that impact factor for the full eighty minutes if fit enough.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Cameron Woki – Equally at home in the back row, Woki is quality through and through and definitely one of France’s strongest assets in the buildup to the World Cup.
  5. Number 5 Lock – Paul Willemse – The South African import continued to make his presence felt particularly in the set pieces.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Thibaud Flament – One of the finds of the month for France and a highly versatile forward who can also operate effectively in the second row.
  7. Openside Flanker – Anthony Jelonch – In the absence of regular and Captain Charles Ollivon, Jelonch has filled the void in more ways than one and is one of France’s most underrated players.
  8. Number 8 – Gregory Alldritt – Powerful, effective and the consummate 8 – a core part of France’s new spine.
  9. Scrum Half – Antoine Dupont – Deserves every accolade he gets – the world’s most lethal number nine plain and simple.
  10. Fly Half – Romain Ntamack – Still being chased hard by Matthieu Jallibert but against New Zealand showed just what an artist he really is.
  11. Left Wing – Gabin Villiere – He may not be the biggest winger on the park but is utterly fearless and seems to revel in mixing it in with the forwards when needed. Pace and skill out wide that is paying dividends for France.
  12. Inside Centre – Jonathan Danty – Despite his size is extraordinarily nimble on his feet, and his physicality makes him almost impossible to bring down.
  13. Outside Centre – Gael Fickou – France’s midfield general.
  14. Right Wing – Damian Penaud – Back to his barnstorming best in November, though as always minor tweaks in his defensive set could be useful ahead of the Six Nations.
  15. FullbackMelvyn Jaminet – Like England’s Freddie Steward has carved his name in stone on the 15 jersey this year in a remarkably short space of time.

So that’s it for now everyone till the New Year. Thanks to everyone who has read our musings and helped this blog have its best year ever. Onwards and upwards for 2022 and here’s hoping that COVID and all its various mutations finally start to leave our beloved game alone. In the meantime, take care everyone stay safe and have a wonderful holiday period with family and friends and here’s looking forward to what should be a fantastic year of rugby!

November Internationals – North vs South and what we’ve learned – Part 4

After a month of truly vintage North vs South International Test Rugby, we take a look at what the respective Coaches of the big Ten learnt about their charges. I’ll try and get at least one a week out which should be a good segue into the buildup for the Six Nations in the New Year but, as mentioned before, work at the moment is getting the better of me and likely to continue to do so for the next few weeks.

In each of these five pieces we’ll pick out two of the teams in order of their success ratio this month; focus on what the Coaches must be feeling; pick a player that stood out the most and finally pick what we think is the kind of starting XV that will set them up well for 2022 and beyond.

So without any further ado let’s look at two sides, who can feel fairly pleased with their November Test window results – South Africa and Ireland.

South Africa – Won 2 – Lost 1

Although Jacques Nienaber fell at the last hurdle against England, it certainly wasn’t for the want of trying and overall this November will be a month South Africa will look back on fondly.

South Africa ended their 2021 season in fine style and their final match against England was a Test match of truly epic proportions. The margins were so fine, that although South Africa lost by a point, they have little if anything to apologize for. Had Captain Siya Kolisi not lost sight of the bigger picture in a moment that was out of character for the talismanic Springbok leader, we might well have been writing a different postscript to a match that will stay on our highlights reel for many years to come.

Still despite that serious error of judgement Kolisi and Coach Jacques Nienaber must surely feel rather pleased with their end of year efforts. Their November campaign got off to a rain sodden start in Cardiff, but although such conditions usually tend to favor their opponents, South Africa demonstrated that they too can be masters of proceedings in the wet. They dominated possession and territory, ran the ball almost three times as much as Wales and refreshingly trusted the power and effectiveness of their pack to turn that possession and territory into points on the board. Their kicking game was measured and precise, and they used it to ensure that Wales were having to do all the work. Their set piece work was brutally efficient and to top it all off there was that monster kick at goal from long range specialist Francois Steyn. It wasn’t a pretty game at times and intensely physical, but the Springboks showed why they are such a force to be reckoned with in matches of that nature.

Next up they faced a plucky Scotland who simply couldn’t get the measure of the green and gold juggernaut that showed up at Murrayfield. Once again South Africa brought their power game and in a match all about territory and possession, the Boks showed their pedigree for the second time in a week. They were the more disciplined of the two in a contest where emotions could easily have got the better of both sides. They dominated Scotland in the set pieces, but their defences were tested by a Scottish side determined to find some gaps, and at times South Africa struggled to contain the expansive Scots. Still the unrelenting pressure South Africa were able to put on their opponents for the full eighty minutes took its toll as Scotland struggled to keep their focus and discipline in the final quarter, allowing the Springboks to slot 9 unanswered points from penalty kicks.

Last up was arguably one of the three best Test matches of a month that provided us with plenty. South Africa travelled to Twickenham to meet an English side with a grudge to settle after their World Cup final exit at the hands of the Springboks. It was a game of two halves. In the first England clearly had the upper hand. England looked like they were holding their own in the physical stakes and if anything appeared to have the edge. South Africa’s only saving grace was England’s almost laughable discipline at times, which allowed Handre Pollard to keep the scoreboard ticking over and the Springboks in touch. In the second half however, South Africa were a changed side and that fire and fury which had been somewhat lacking in the first forty was back with a vengeance, with Francois Steyn’s boot once more providing the long range artillery that had cost Wales and Scotland so dearly. With five minutes left on the clock, the most intense of arm wrestles looked set to end in South Africa’s favor as the visitors led 26-24. Then Captain Siya Kolisi, in a moment which he will want to forget in a hurry, tackled a man in the air and cut his team down to fourteen men. England could sense that, without their talismanic leader on the pitch and a man down, South Africa could be rattled. They poured on the pressure and the inevitable last gasp penalty was theirs as the clock turned red and South Africa could only imagine what might have been as they walked away from a one point loss. It had been an enthralling contest from start to finish, and although England were the victors South Africa had made them sweat it to the very last second. It was a tussle of two exceptionally worthy and evenly matched opponents.

Coach Jacques Nienaber would still have returned home pleased with his charges’ postcript to 2021 and the multiple challenges it posed himself and his side. There were plenty of positives but also some genuine concerns going forward. South Africa’s front row stocks pose no such worries, and look set to continue delivering the goods up to and beyond the next World Cup. Likewise in the second row, however in the back row the cracks are starting to appear. Duane Vermeulen is unlikely to be at his best come the next World Cup despite the force he still is at the moment. Consequently, some fresh blood is needed here and urgently. Their stocks just don’t seem that deep. Kwagga Smith must surely have silenced his critics once and for all this November, but without Smith, Vermeulen, Mostert and Kolisi on the pitch South Africa are simply not as effective in the back row as some of their opponents. While it is hoped that Pieter-Steph du Toit will soon be back in the Springbok fold, some depth development is desperately needed here.

The same could be said in the half back department. While Elton Jantjies finally seemed to transform into a Test level 10, there really is noone else apart from him and the injury prone Handre Pollard. South Africa’s scrum half stocks look healthier but could still do with some younger blood. On the wings South Africa still look in rude health and they are blessed with one of Test Rugby’s most effective centre partnerships in Lukhanyo Am and Damian de Allende, the latter being a player who has come on in leaps and bounds in the last three years. However, without de Allende and Am, it’s hard to see anyone else stepping up to the plate for the future. The same can be said of the fullback position which is probably ringing the loudest alarm bells back in South Africa. Willie le Roux has clearly lost his edge and has done for quite some time now, and as impressive as Francois Steyn was this tour, he like Vermeulen is in the swansong of his career. The fact that rising star and utility back Aphelele Fassi got no game time whatsoever on this tour is a decision that is going to come back and haunt Nienaber and his team sooner rather than later.

France 2023 is just under two full seasons away, so there is still time to fix the cracks, but a concerted effort will be needed and the time and call for fresh faces to be increasingly sprinkled in amongst the seasoned and highly capable veterans has never been more pressing.

The embodiment of just how much South Africa can hurt you

Just when we thought that “big Eben” had gone MIA, he put in a month of performances that shook the bedrock of International Test Rugby

“Big Eben” was back to his rampaging best this tour, and it became evident how much the Springboks had missed his fire and brimstone approach to the game. While he has been in the mix all year, it wasn’t until that second Test against New Zealand that the mighty Bok centre burst back into his “Raging Bull” persona. The rather subdued and at times almost disinterested Etzebeth that we saw during the Lions series and the first four games of the Rugby Championship was simply a forgotten memory this November. He was back to his indestructible and rampaging best. Getting under the skin of the opposition but staying just the right side of the referee’s whistle, he was a master of the Dark Arts, and brutally effective in the set pieces. Terrorizing hapless scrum halves daring to box kick, wreaking havoc in the lineouts and being an immovable object in the rucks and mauls, Etzebeth was South Africa’s catalyst for everything they did well this month. He was everywhere and his team fed off his seemingly inexhaustible energy, and it’s those qualities that made him South Africa’s most valuable player this month.

So here’s the Lineout’s South African starting XV:

  1. Loosehead Prop – Steven Kitshoff – Closed the game out for South Africa every time he came on as part of the fabled “Bomb Squad”. Only England’s Joe Marler seemed able to really cope with him.
  2. Hooker – Bongi Mbonambi – Malcolm Marx may have got all the glory as part of the “Bomb Squad”, but so often Mbonambi sets the tone for what follows in the set pieces, particularly in the lineouts. Struggled slightly to get parity in the scrums against Wales and England, but overall needs to make very few apologies and can be just as dynamic with ball in hand as Marx.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Trevor Nyakane – As he has been all year, just a rock solid component of South Africa’s front row, and no wonder he’s been snapped up by Racing 92 in France apparently for a record sum.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Eben Etzebeth – “Big Eben” was at his absolute best this November and definitely has earned a few months of R & R.
  5. Number 5 Lock – Lood de Jager – Like Etzebeth just simply didn’t put a foot wrong all month – devastatingly effective.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Siya Kolisi – Put in some truly phenomenal performances and really led from the front. His yellow card against England was unfortunate but could have been avoided. Nevertheless he is one of those rare players that genuinely sacrifices everything for the jersey and his players and 99.9% of the time delivers on that commitment. As good as he is though he needs an understudy.
  7. Openside Flanker – Kwagga Smith – Finally getting the credit he deserves. He may not be the biggest man on the park, but just like Scotland’s Hamish Watson, he’s everywhere and makes his presence count.
  8. Number 8 – Duane Vermeulen – “Thor” may be getting slightly long in the tooth but he’s still got it all going on, and Ulster look set to reap the benefit. However, like Kolisi he desperately needs an understudy for his position when injury takes its toll.
  9. Scrum Half – Cobus Reinach – Just as dynamic as Faf de Klerk, but smarter with ball in hand and less prone to kicking perfectly good possession away.
  10. Fly Half – Handre Pollard – Still prone to switching off at key moments and his goal kicking can be erratic, but brings a calm head to proceedings when needed and at least this month showed a much more judicious and effective use of the boot.
  11. Left Wing – Makazole Mapimpi – When South Africa used him properly which they pretty much did all November, he showed what a world class strike threat he is with magical feet and hands – a truly gifted footballer.
  12. Inside Centre – Damian de Allende – Has matured into such an intelligent yet intensely physical player – partnered with Am he forms one of the most effective center partnerships in Test Rugby. South Africa do need to find an understudy though.
  13. Outside Centre – Lukhanyo Am – South Africa’s version of Albus Dumbledore the legendary wizard of Harry Potter fame. The man is simply a genius, plain and simple with a very, very good rugby brain. Like de Allende though needs an understudy.
  14. Right Wing – Aphelele Fassi – What hang on he wasn’t even on the tour we hear you say!!! Absolutely correct, but Jesse Kriel is not the answer and South Africa need one here and at fullback. Even more pressing South Africa need him in the team if they are serious about being competitive come France 2023. We’d prefer to have him at fullback but will settle for him out wide.
  15. FullbackFrancois Steyn – Has tended to look a bit rubbery and out of shape in recent years, but clearly has hit the gym and vitamins lately. Was on song this tour and maybe there really is one more World Cup left in the wily old dog. That boot is still the stuff of legends, and he immediately made a difference every time he came on for the increasingly ineffective Willie le Roux. Played intelligently and was clearly having the time of his life. Great to see him back to his best.

England – Won 3 – Lost 0

Eddie Jones has finally decided to embrace change, and although it may be too little too late, the initial results look exceptionally promising

So after far too much procrastination if you ask us, Eddie Jones finally decided, with just under two years left before the next global showdown, to give his wealth of young bloods a shot at the bright lights. Whether it is too little too late is hard to judge at this stage but the early results certainly look like they are bearing fruit. Admittedly England’s completely one sided thrashing of a makeshift Tongan side at the beginning of their campaign told us little if anything about this new look Red Rose side. In reality a pointless game that served as nothing more than a training run for the two showpiece events of the month for England, Australia and a rematch with their World Cup nemesis South Africa.

In their second match, against a Wallaby side smarting from their recent defeat to Scotland, England were utterly dominant. Eddie Jones’ young guns completely outclassed their Wallaby opponents, while England’s regular stalwarts showed their pedigree. Scrum half Ben Youngs combined exceptionally well with England’s hottest property since Johnny Wilkinson, fly half Marcus Smith and Youngs seemed to get a new lease of life in the process, causing their Australian counterparts all kinds of headaches. England’s front row pushed their Wallaby counterparts all over the park, while the lineouts although a fair contest were all about England. In short, England dominated every single statistic of the afternoon bar one – that of their success rate in the tackle department, something they improved on dramatically the following weekend against South Africa. The only reason they got away with it was the fact that Australia didn’t fare much better in the same area, not helped by the fact that they were constantly having to cover England’s exuberant running game which saw them make twice the number of metres than the Australians. England punished Australia’s sloppy discipline and scored the game’s only tries. In short, Australia failed to make an impact against an English side that looked slick and full of youthful energy.

Their final match of the year saw England have an opportunity to settle the score with South Africa after their defeat to the same opponents in the World Cup final. It was a tense affair in which emotions ran high and the physicality from both sides was off the charts. It was a Test match for the ages and really could have gone either way. In the end after establishing an early dominance, England, and particularly their crop of new kids on the block, held their nerve under the most intense pressure and clawed back a win that had looked like it was slipping away at the death. Manu Tuilagi scored England’s opening try, but after only three minutes was subbed off with injury and surely must have made the argument once and for all that as talented as he is, he is simply not a long term option for England looking ahead to France 2023. Coach Eddie Jones seems to regard him as the key to England’s success but sadly his ongoing battle with injury makes this far too much of a gamble. England have equally powerful center options and it’s time to start considering them as regulars albeit at Tuilagi’s expense.

England met South Africa’s physicality head on and while they may not have been able to quite match it, they made an exceptionally respectable fist of it and for the most part held their own. Where they got the better of the South Africans was in game management and being more inventive with ball in hand. England outscored South Africa in the try department 3 to 1, made all their kicks at goal and in the loose come ruck time were able to compete with South Africa’s brute force. In short, England played a smarter game for most of the eighty minutes and benefitted from Handre Pollard’s difficulties in the goalkicking department, leaving six crucial points gone begging. England were pushed hard make no mistake and had South Africa been a little bit sharper and more clinical in their execution, then it could well have gone the other way – something that Ireland and France will be keenly aware of come February. England did struggle to contain South Africa at scrum time, and their discipline at times was woeful. If Eddie Jones can’t get on top of this come the Six Nations then all of the promise shown by England this November could come to naught.

Nevertheless there were so many positives for England in November that they far outweigh the negatives of which there were relatively few. England’s front row does need some serious work between now and the Six Nations as does their accuracy in the lineouts. However, their second row looked exceptionally solid and Jonny Hill had one of his best months in the white jersey alongside the outstanding Maro Itoje. England’s back row still seems slightly unbalanced, but it’s more an issue of Jones being spoilt for choice in his options, with all of them seeming to become more versatile in covering the three positions with every match they play.

In the halfbacks, new fly half sensation Marcus Smith lived up to and exceeded all expectations while seeming to inject new pace and vigor into his scrum half partner Ben Youngs’ game, while up and coming youngster Raffi Quirke made it absolutely clear that he is far more than just an able understudy to Youngs.

In the centers, our concerns about Manu Tuilagi not being the Messiah that Jones wants him to be despite his exceptional talents, became painfully obvious, while Owen Farrell’s star seems to be slowly fading into obscurity. It’s one area for concern along with the scrum heading into the Six Nations. Out wide though England do look good with the constant threat of Jonny May and the newcomers Max Malins and Joe Merchant putting in very respectable shifts during November. We were suprised though to only see the exceptional Adam Radwan appear once in November and in England’s easiest match against Tonga. Lastly, England finally have a proper fullback in the shape of Freddie Steward who for us was England’s revelation of the month. England have struggled for a while now with the position, but in the space of three short weeks, Steward has carved his name in stone on the back of the fifteen jersey. Outstanding under the high ball and running in two superb tries, England finally have the real deal at fullback in the shape of Steward. France’s Melvyn Jaminet and Ireland’s Hugo Keenan will be paying close attention.

One area of major concern that remains for England is their discipline or more accurately the lack of it and the resulting penalty count. It may not have been the highest amongst the Autumn Nations competitors but it was certainly in there with a chance, and considerably higher than their two main rivals for Six Nations silverware come February- France and Ireland. Definitely some extra homework needed here over the holidays.

While there has been much said about new fly half sensation Marcus Smith, it’s fullback Freddie Steward who stole the show in for us in a position that has been until now England’s Achilles Heel

All the hype in November was around England’s long awaited successor to the George Ford/Owen Farrell era in the shape of Marcus Smith. Smith did not disappoint and left no doubt in anybody’s mind that England’s future at 10 has arrived and is likely to be there for many years to come. However, perhaps more important was the arrival of Freddie Steward at fullback. England have struggled for several years now to find a player who ticks all the boxes in the fifteen jersey. In the shape of Steward they have finally found one. We were quite literally blown away by how competent a player Steward is in a position that up to now has been a soft target for England’s opponents. Completely fearless and effective under the high ball, possessing a very useful boot in open play with a turn of speed that at times could even give fellow English speedster Jonny May a run for his money and sound defensively, Steward is probably England’s most important find of 2021. England now have a complete back line, something which is likely to pay huge dividends come the Six Nations and which has been sorely lacking in recent years.

So here’s the Lineout’s England starting XV:

  1. Loosehead Prop – Bevan Rodd – Needs some work but the youngster made an impressive debut against top quality opposition.
  2. Hooker – Jamie Blamire – His lineout throwing really needs some work, but his ability to cross the whitewash restores some credibility to the English front row. Will get better and definitely a prospect worth sticking with for the future.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Kyle Sinckler – Best of a problem area for England and some depth needs to be found here as his discipline is a definite weak link in the Red Rose’s armor.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Maro Itoje – Brings some real fire and grit to England’s second row and was able to match up to South Africa’s Etzebeth well, though has a tendency to see the red mist in the heat of battle and push the boundaries, but getting better.
  5. Number 5 Lock – Jonny Hill – After some criticism in the past acquitted himself well but against South Africa was overshadowed by Charlie Ewels off the bench so needs to keep on his toes for the Six Nations.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Courtney Lawes – Did an admirable job, but still not convinced that he is England’s long term option, with surely some type of combination comprising any of Alex Dombrandt, Sam Underhill, Sam Simmonds and Tom Curry being the way forward .
  7. Openside Flanker – Sam Underhill – Always excellent but Jones needs to figure out how to build his back row with the above mentioned combinations.
  8. Number 8 – Tom Curry – Despite our reservations and unlike on the Lions tour adapted well to life in the number 8 jersey and simply has to be in the England back row somewhere. However Jones is so spoilt for choice here with Dombrandt and Simmonds and really needs to figure out what he wants his back row to look like given the extraordinary riches at his disposal.
  9. Scrum Half – Ben Youngs – Seems to have been “born again” alongside newcomer Marcus Smith but needs to watch his back with Raffi Quirke breathing down his neck.
  10. Fly Half – Marcus Smith – Took his opportunities on the big stage with both hands and came out shining. A huge threat for England come the Six Nations.
  11. Left Wing – Jonny May – Surprisingly quiet by his usual standards but still lethal when given the chance.
  12. Inside Centre – Owen Farrell – Provided a wise head to assist Smith but looking increasingly redundant and England need some options here.
  13. Outside Centre – Henry Slade – The only real spark in England’s centre pairings with Tuilagi too unreliable due to injury.
  14. Right Wing – Max Malins – More of a fullback but seems comfortable out wide and with Steward nailing down the 15 jersey simply have to get him in somewhere. A talented enough player that he will adapt and when on song looks electric.
  15. FullbackFreddie Steward – Utterly outstanding all month and a revelation in a position that has been hemorrhaging England points for far too long. Has made the 15 jersey his own with no further debate necessary.

Well that’s it for now. We hope to finish up this series this week with our final instalment on France and Ireland. However, work and holiday preparations may get in the way. Still will give it our best college try. In the meantime stay safe everyone and happy holidays!

November Internationals – North vs South and what we’ve learned – Part 3

After a month of truly vintage North vs South International Test Rugby, we take a look at what the respective Coaches of the big Ten learnt about their charges. We also pick our player of the month from each of the teams as well as a starting XV for each of them and which we think would provide the platform they need for 2022 and beyond as the countdown to the World Cup begins. I’ll try and get at least one a week out which should be a good segue into the buildup for the Six Nations in the New Year but, as mentioned before, work at the moment is getting the better of me and likely to continue to do so for the next few weeks.

In each of these five pieces we’ll pick out two of the teams in order of their success ratio this month; focus on what the Coaches must be feeling; pick a player that stood out the most and finally pick what we think is the kind of starting XV that will set them up well for 2022 and beyond.

So without any further ado let’s look at two sides, who had a mixed bag in relation to the expectations surrounding them ahead of the November Test window- Wales and Scotland.

Wales – Won 2 – Lost 1

It was a month of ups and downs for Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac, but certainly one where there were grounds for optimism

First of all before you say it, yes we know the actual record is won 2 and lost 2. However, we are not including that Test against New Zealand at the end of October and which fell outside the November Test window. It was a thumping at the hands of the All Blacks but in all reality was it ever going to be anything else? A cobbled together Welsh side, missing some of their star players through either injury or not available due to club duties beyond Welsh borders, took on for all intents and purposes a full strength All Black side. A pointless game which as we would see later taught us little about Wales and absolutely nothing about New Zealand, as the All Blacks steadily imploded during the course of November.

Wales’ first proper Test was in appalling conditions against World Champions South Africa. Despite the weather it was a proper Test match that went down to the wire. It was a hard fought encounter that saw the lead change hands on a regular basis. The weather didn’t allow for much in the way of a running game, as due to Covid the famous Principality Roof had to remain open. Instead it was a game of fine margins, and the lack of discipline prevalent amongst both sides meant the game was for the most part decided on penalties. South Africa’s famous “Bomb Squad” came on early in the second half and despite some heroic resistance from Wales the dam eventually burst and South Africa would score the one and only match winning try. Next up Wales took on a Fijian side that had clearly come to play and proceeded to make the Men in Red work exceptionally hard. Wales profited from Fiji’s red card after 24 minutes which until then had seen Fiji have the upper hand, especially on attack. Nevertheless at half time Wales were only ahead by one point. Despite the one man advantage Wales struggled to contain the exuberant Islanders and Fiji once more started to pull away. However, Pivac can take comfort in the final quarter display from his charges and an impressive shift from the bench. Wales were under the gun but they held their nerve and essentially played the game they should have played from the outset against a Fijian side finally starting to tire. In the end it was a comfortable 38-23 win for Wales but they couldn’t have asked for better preparation ahead of their final encounter with Australia.

The final match against the Wallabies was a tense and at times controversial affair, but overall Wales should feel pleased that once again they managed to hold their nerve and snatch what had begun to look like an impossible victory. Australian discipline was poor to say the least throughout November, and without their talismanic Captain Michael Hooper as well as coming off the back of two losses to Scotland and England, Wales knew that fortune favored the bold and Australia were vulnerable. It was a scrappy game at times but one that kept you on the edge of your seat. Early into the second half it looked like Wales had closed the shop on their Australian visitors, but a lack of concentration saw the Wallabies come storming back into the match and with only two minutes left on the clock, Wales were trailing by two points. However, a determined Welsh onslaught in the Australian 22, saw Wallaby discipline crack with time in the red, and Rhys Priestland calmly slotted the three pointer and 65,000 Welshmen breathed a collective sigh of relief as their team squeaked through with a narrow one point win.

Overall, Wayne Pivac can feel confident heading into the Six Nations, but will be concerned that on attack Wales are nowhere near their English, Scottish, Irish or French counterparts. Defensively solid, but unable to really turn promising attacks into points on the board, Pivac and his charges will have plenty of homework ahead of Europe’s showpiece event in two months time.

In the front row it is very much a mixed bag for Wales. While Hooker Ryan Elias’ lineout throwing is a bit hit and miss and overall their front row found it hard to compete, there is potential there once Elias finds his groove and they figure out their prop combinations. In the second row, Wales are definitely competitive and Adam Beard continues to come of age. In the back row though Wales and Pivac should definitely feel excited. The return of flanker Ellis Jenkins was a revelation and he is clearly Captain material. Newcomer Taine Balsham got better and better with every game and the whole unit was ably held together by Aaron Wainwright. With the return of Welsh “Superman” Justin Tipuric for the Six Nations, Wales should feel more than a little optimistic here. In the halfbacks there is reliability in the shape of Dan Biggar and Tomos Williams rarely put a foot wrong in the scrum half berth. In the centres though Wales clearly are still a work in progress with nothing really nailed down. In the back three we really liked the look of Johnny McNicholl in addition to the always consistent Liam Williams at fullback while Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit are proven commodities out wide if they can just be put into the right space with adequate support.

Heroic Return

We had our concerns around the wisdom of throwing flanker Ellis Jenkins into three highly physical Test matches so soon after his return from major injury issues – but he clearly seized the chance with both hands and at times left us speechless

Like we said in our previews of November’s action, we had serious concerns surrounding Ellis Jenkins’ welfare when we learnt that he was being thrust back into the Test arena against probably the most physically demanding side on the planet – South Africa. Jenkins had only just returned to rugby after almost three years on the sidelines due to a horrific injury sustained playing against the same opponents in 2018. In November, Jenkins ended up being Wales’ most valuable player and Coach Wayne Pivac must surely be looking at Jenkins becoming the successor to the legendary Alun Wyn Jones as the great man looks set to relinquish the Captain’s armband before the next World Cup. It was hard to believe that we were watching the same Jenkins who was stretchered off under oxygen and seemed unlikely to ever play again that fateful November day three years ago. This November, Jenkins played like a man possessed yet it all looked remarkably calm and composed but devastatingly effective.

So here’s the Lineout’s Welsh starting XV:

  1. Loosehead Prop – Wyn Jones – Definitely a problem area for Wales as part of a creaking front row, but still the best option Wales has and had his best game against Australia.
  2. Hooker – Ryan Elias – His lineout throwing is a genuine concern for Wales, but his ability to cross the whitewash restores some credibility to the Welsh front row with two tries against Fiji and one against Australia. Will get better and definitely a prospect for the future.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Tomas Francis – Once again, best of a problem area for Wales.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Will Rowlands – Not convinced that Wales have figured out their second row stocks in the twilight of Alun Wyn Jones career, but Rowlands made a decent fist of a very physical confrontation with South Africa, but didn’t look as sharp against Fiji and is under threat from Christ Tshiunza and Ben Carter.
  5. Number 5 Lock – Adam Beard – After plenty of criticism in the past Beard is now an integral part of the Welsh second row and acquitted himself well especially against South Africa.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Ellis Jenkins – His return to the Welsh fold has been the most exciting event of the year, and surely Wales’ successor to the mighty Alun Wyn Jones for the Captaincy. Phenomenal performances in all three Tests.
  7. Openside Flanker – Taine Basham – Probably Wales’ most promising debutant of 2021. Rose to the occasion and is clearly going to feature heavily in the forthcoming Six Nations – genuine talent and also acquitted himself well in the number 8 role against Fiji.
  8. Number 8 – Aaron Wainwright – Dynamic ball carrier but defensively could use some work as missed a couple of key tackles in both the South African and Australian games.
  9. Scrum Half – Tomos Williams – Definitely Wales’ most dynamic offering in this department and looks like he’s got the Six Nations starting berth.
  10. Fly Half – Dan Biggar – Calmly steered the ship for Wales in all three matches and still really no competition when it comes to the big Tests.
  11. Left Wing – Josh Adams – Mr. Reliable for Wales in both defence and attack.
  12. Inside Centre – Nick Tompkins – Excellent on attack but part of a porous midfield defence for Wales.
  13. Outside Centre – Uilisi Halaholo – Really struggled to find the right fit here, though apart from disciplinary lapses Halaholo acquitted himself well against Australia and was the standout in a generally poor effort here from Wales, even if he was switched from outside to the inside channel. Nevertheless too many tackles missed across the board here for Wales.
  14. Right Wing – Louis Rees-Zammit – Not as prolific as he could have been, but perhaps because Pivac decided to switch him and Adams, the Welsh speedster traditionally plies his trade on the left wing. Still put in some good shifts, gets better defensively with every outing and still one of the fastest men on the pitch.
  15. FullbackLiam Williams – Still a class act at the back for Wales and a master of the counterattack, though struggled at first to get the measure of Fiji.

Scotland – Won 2 – Lost 1

Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend may not be a fan favorite but he and his charges still have plenty of reasons to be cheerful

A bit like Wales’ meaningless clash with New Zealand in October, we won’t be talking about the equally pointless dead rubber between Scotland and Tonga. Instead we’ll be focusing on what was for the most part a pretty positive November for Scotland and Gregor Townsend. As they head into a Six Nations that sees them having the advantage of hosting two of the Tournament’s Red hot favorites England and France at home, the work done in November should set them up well provided some important lessons get taken on board between now and then.

Scotland opened their November account in a seesaw low scoring match against Australia. The revelation of the match was debutant Hooker Ewan Ashman. Coming onto the pitch after only eleven minutes, as starter George Turner was taken off due to injury, Ashman took the Scottish rugby world by storm, scoring a try that displayed some aerial skills more akin to a winger than a Hooker. It was a real arm wrestle with the Wallabies and could have gone either way, but Scotland doggedly stuck to the task at hand and got the better of an Australian side that was clearly beginning to suffer a degree of self-doubt. It was a game of very fine margins, but Scotland were just slightly more precise in their execution when it mattered most. Next up Scotland faced a Springbok side brimming with confidence after a gritty win over Wales. South Africa brought all the physicality and then some that they are renown for, and this time around Scotland struggled to keep up. Scotland’s goal kicking was way off the mark, and resulted in them losing an easy 9 points. They were dominated at scrum time by the big and bruising South African pack and their lineouts simply weren’t effective. In short, they got bossed by South Africa and only really held their own in the rucks and a slightly better success rate when it came to the tackle count. However, they were ultimately outclassed by their opponents and if they hope to stand a chance against England, France and Ireland then Townsend knows his charges will need to up their game dramatically.

Their last match saw them get to grips with a Japanese side that up till then had failed to fire a shot. However, the Japanese team that showed up at Murrayfield was very different in character to the one that got blitzed 60-5 by Ireland at the start of the month. It was a thrilling encounter by two sides who, with the possible exception of Fiji, love to run the ball more than any other. Japan were in it till the end and the final 15 minutes was a tense affair for Scottish supporters. However, it was Scotland’s ability to turn searing line breaks into points on the board that gave them the edge, with Duhan van der Merwe, Stuart Hogg and Darcy Graham all putting on fine displays of how the Scots can be so fleet of foot. Against equally creative sides like France such skills will be key.

In the front row there are concerns for Scotland, make no mistake but we’d also argue there is enough to work with there that, come the Six Nations, the alarm bells should not be ringing. In the second row Scotland look dependable but perhaps not as dynamic as their English, Irish and French counterparts. The back row though does appear to be in rude health, even if they perhaps had a slightly quiet November by their standards. Once again though there is enough talent to work with, that come the Six Nations Scotland should feel confident. It was the half back pairings that we felt didn’t quite fire. Ali Price was solid but Finn Russell had one of his more mercurial months and Scotland will really need to address the goalkicking issues in time for their first Six Nations match against England. In the centers Scotland look strong both in defense and on attack, while the back three is simply buzzing with talent and skill.

Heading into the Six Nations Gregor Townsend will need to improve the success rate of his charges in the scrums and at lineout time. A 59% success rate in the scrums over the month is simply unacceptable at this level and the lineouts weren’t much better at 82%. Goal kicking was also a bit of disaster with Scotland only managing a 62% success rate with similar figures of 83% for their tackle count. In short, Scotland are an absolute joy to watch on attack and have some truly silky skills, but unless some of the core basics of their game get tightened up, it could be a rocky Six Nations for the Men in Blue despite their wealth of talent.

While there were moments of frustration in November for Scottish Captain and fullback Stuart Hogg, he himself was at his very best running in three fine tries of his own that showed off the threat he provides from deep.

Scotland’s Captain was once more the catalyst that gets his team on the front foot in November. He has grown superbly into the role of Captain and from deep he is still one of International Rugby’s most dangerous individuals. A master of the counterattack and able to carve up huge chunks of the pitch seemingly unopposed, his skill with ball in hand and off the foot are extremely impressive. He is simply a player who makes things happen for his team. Without him on the pitch Scotland’s wealth of talent runs the risk of looking slightly ordinary, but with Hogg, Scotland and their back line in particular trip the light fantastic. He’ll be one of the most entertaining players of the upcoming Six Nations, and the contests between him and England’s Freddie Steward, Ireland’s Hugo Keenan and France’s Melvyn Jaminet look set to be very tasty indeed and well worth the price of admission.

So here’s the Lineout’s Scottish starting XV:

  1. Loosehead PropPierre Schoeman – In a faltering unit the South African import provided the most stability but still a huge amount of work to be done to integrate his exceptional skills into a platform that actually works.
  2. Hooker Ewan Ashman – Canada’s loss but Scotland’s gain. The Toronto native made the world sit up and take note in his debut against Australia with a winger’s try. Was also Scotland’s most successful lineout thrower in November. A work in progress but absolutely worth the investment.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Zander Fagerson – Discipline was a real issue for the talented Tighthead in November and took away from some othewise good performances. Nevertheless like the rest of his front row colleagues really needs to get to the bottom of what’s not working at the coal face before the Six Nations kicks off.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Sam Skinner – Quietly effective in the set pieces and combined well with his partner Grant Gilchrist but could do more.
  5. Number 5 Lock – Grant Gilchrist – With Skinner was effective but can do so much more and will need to come February.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Jamie Ritchie – Seems more effective here than on the openside. Excellent against Australia and Japan but found South Africa hard going where he was switched to the openside.
  7. Openside Flanker – Hamish Watson – Not his most prolific month and at times he simply wasn’t producing at the level we’ve come to expect, but finished off at his rampaging best against Japan.
  8. Number 8 – Matt Fagerson – Really struggled with the physicality of South Africa but still worth sticking with.
  9. Scrum Half – Ali Price – Always competitive and actually showed up his half back partner Finn Russell on more than one occasion and in general was far more productive.
  10. Fly Half – Finn Russell – Glimpses of Finn “the Magician” were there in November but the inconsistency that he suffers from coupled to some bad decision making and execution was there for all to see and let’s not talk about his goal kicking. Still seems to save his best for the Six Nations, so will reserve judgement till then.
  11. Left Wing – Duhan van der Merwe – Utterly lethal with ball in hand but not the world’s best distributor when it appears obvious that the try line is not his to cross and defensively got exposed by South Africa.
  12. Inside Centre – Sam Johnson – The Aussie import was sorely missed against South Africa, but was key in the wins over the Wallabies and Japan.
  13. Outside Centre – Chris Harris – Defensively rock solid and increasingly impressive looking on attack. One of Scotland’s most underrated assets.
  14. Right Wing – Darcy Graham – No stranger to the try line and capable of some mesmerizing runs, but still needs to tighten up his defensive work, as he had a shocker in the missed tackle department against Japan.
  15. Fullback – Stuart Hogg – Scotland’s best player of November by a country mile, an excellent leader of men when under pressure and a counterattacking genius.

Well that wraps up Part Three. Unfortunately work is going to once more get the better of me until next week. Consequently, I will have to do the final two instalments looking at England and South Africa and France and Ireland later next week. Sorry for the silence but unfortunately the day job takes precedence in terms of paying the bills for now.

So till we meet again over England and South Africa next week, take care everyone, stay safe and enjoy the opening round of the Heineken Cup this weekend – details on how to watch out tomorrow on the TV Page.

November Internationals – North vs South and what we’ve learned – Part 2

After a month of truly vintage North vs South International Test Rugby, we take a look at what the respective Coaches of the big Ten learnt about their charges. We also pick our player of the month from each of the teams as well as a starting XV for each of them and which we think would provide the platform they need for 2022 and beyond as the countdown to the World Cup begins. I’ll try and get at least one a week out which should be a good segue into the buildup for the Six Nations in the New Year but, as mentioned before, work at the moment is getting the better of me and likely to continue to do so for the next few weeks.

In each of these five pieces we’ll pick out two of the teams in order of their success ratio this month; focus on what the Coaches must be feeling; pick a player that stood out the most and finally pick what we think is the kind of starting XV that will set them up well for 2022 and beyond.

So without any further ado let’s look at two sides, who arguably fared rather poorly in relation to the expectations surrounding them ahead of the November Test window- Australia and New Zealand.

Australia – Won 0 – Lost 3

Dave Rennie’s year didn’t quite end the way the Rugby Championship did

It’s definitely been a year of ups and downs for Australian Coach Dave Rennie. It got off to a good start against France, hit a major speed bump in the Bledisloe Cup, recovered spectacularly for the rest of the Rugby Championship and went out with a whimper as Australia finished their year in the UK. Now to add insult to injury Rennie seems in frustration to have resorted to “Rassiegate” type tactics to question the integrity of the officiating. In short, despite some definite promise shown by the Wallabies there were some annoying distractions that got in the way of an otherwise genuine renaissance in Australian rugby.

Rennie was dealt his first blow just ahead of the November tour. Three of his key players, fly half Quade Cooper, centre Samu Kerevi, and winger Marika Koroibete, who had played such a crucial role in turning around the Wallabies fortunes after the Bledisloe fiasco, decided to opt out of the tour. Cooper, Kerevi and also Sean McMahon decided that their commitment to the mighty Yen outweighed national concerns and Koroibete decided to remain with his young family after the birth of his third child. While Koroibete’s decision was understandable in the case of the other three, surely something could have been worked out with their clubs, especially as said clubs had no qualms releasing their own Japanese players for International duty. His second and perhaps more critical blow was the loss of Captain and Wallaby talisman Michael Hooper to injury for the remainder of the tour early in the second half of the game against England. Without Hooper on the field the Wallabies just aren’t the same, despite a brave showing in their final match against Wales.

Looking past the three back to back losses, it’s not all gloom and doom after this tour. Apart from the game against England, Australia were highly competitive and they only lost to Scotland and Wales by the narrowest of margins. Scotland only won by two points from a penalty, with the lead changing hands on a regular basis. Against England, Australia came unstuck dramatically. Their discipline was a mess, and the loss of Hooper on the 55th minute and for the rest of the tour was a bitter blow to a side already struggling to contain an English side that, much like the Wallabies earlier in the year, was in the process of reinventing itself. Against Wales and without their inspirational Captain, the Wallabies discipline once again became a liability. Rob Valetini put in a shocking tackle on Adam Beard and saw Red only 15 minutes into the game. Australia showed some real heart to hang in with 14 men and only lose by one point. A penalty goal at the death by Wales resulting from an offside infringement from a harried and exhausted Australian defence brought an end to a tough November campaign. An incensed Rennie who felt that the officiating was biased against his charges and inconsistently applied then proceeded to embark on his own version of Rassiegate and we all know how that ended for the former South African Coach.

In short, Australia’s November tour was messy and fractured but apart from the England game they will take heart from the fact that their other two losses were by the narrowest of margins. All Australia’s recent successes had been at home, and once more the Wallabies proved that in general they struggle as a touring side. Their front row started to creak under pressure again, although they do seem to have addressed their lineout issues for the most part. The second row desperately needs some stability in terms of personnel, and the back row although a potent weapon needs a better understanding of the rule book as well as some stability in selection choices. In the half backs the potential is there, and certainly Australia can boast some considerable riches in the scrum half department in the shape of veteran Nic White and impressive youngster Tate McDermott – that is at least one area that won’t be causing Australian supporters any sleepless nights. However, Australia still lack a reliable fly half. Noah Lolesio still has a long way to go, James O’Connor is good but still too inconsistent and rough round the edges and who knows where Quade Cooper stands in the grand scheme of things? In the centers there is a heap of potential but again it still needs time to develop and in the back three, the fullback question continues unanswered with only the left wing position held by Andrew Kellaway an absolute drop dead certainty when it comes to selection.

Still the Wallabies most reliable and important asset now and for France 2023

The loss of inspirational Wallaby Captain Michael Hooper was a bitter pill to swallow for a side that was clearly struggling with life on the road

Michael Hooper is to the Wallabies what petroleum is to the internal combustion engine. As their most capped Captain to date, Hooper has been a huge servant to Australian rugby and is the glue that holds the team together. Without him on the pitch they are a different beast. They are still a potent threat, but the belief that Hooper brings is lacking at critical moments as was evidenced against Wales. He is one of the most visible Captains in International Test Rugby both with the officials and his charges. His work rate is the stuff of legends and few leaders can pick their teammates up off the floor the way Hooper can when things aren’t going their way. Despite whatever deficiencies Coach Dave Rennie may have felt there were in the officiating during their final match on the field, we can’t help feeling that had Hooper been on the pitch the Wallabies would have risen above it and their last game would not have ended in a one point loss. There are few players in the modern game who are genuinely irreplaceable, but Hooper is definitely one of them.

So here’s the Lineout’s Australian starting XV:

  1. Loosehead Prop – James Slipper – Looked good against Scotland, but struggled against England especially playing out of position on the tighthead and gave away too many penalties against Wales. But still Australia’s only genuine option given his experience.
  2. Hooker – Folau Faingaa – Despite a wobble against England his lineout accuracy has come on in leaps and bounds and a useful scrummager and powerful carrier.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Taniela Tupou – The “Tongan Thor” brings the goods every time and adds a skill set that goes well above and beyond his role in the front row. An impact player but really should be used as a starter to ensure Australia get some dominance up front early.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Rory Arnold – Despite the return of Will Skelton to the Wallaby fold Arnold’s partnership with Izack Rodda looked like the most stable second row Australia have had in a while and needs to continue.
  5. Number 5 Lock – Izack Rodda – One of the Wallabies most underappreciated assets in our opinion, Rodda brought stability and composure to the Wallabies in the second row and in the set pieces. Combined well with Arnold to give Australia an effective platform.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Robert Leota – Discipline not the best but dynamic in the loose and at the breakdown as well as someone who can get Australia some genuine go forward ball.
  7. Openside Flanker – Michael Hooper – Enough said already as without him Australia struggle.
  8. No 8 – Rob Valetini – Despite the messy and costly red card against Wales, there is no doubting the power and pace the big man brings to the Wallaby back row. Had a good tour apart from the Welsh match and was one of the few players who managed to make a decent fist of trying to contain England’s rampant back row.
  9. Scrum Half – Nic White – The wise old fox had a good tour and always provided crisp and smart delivery to his forward pack. Ably understudied by Tate McDermott ensures that Australia are safe at 9.
  10. Fly Half – James O’Connor – Despite all the attention on Quade Cooper this summer, O’Connor is still probably a safer bet and kicked well against England scoring all Australia’s points.
  11. Left Wing – Izaia Perese – In the absence of Marika Koroibete we thought the youngster outshone Tom Wright and Jordan Petaia. Better disciplined than Wright, stronger defensively than Petaia and possessing an impressive set of dancing feet, Perese is well worth the investment despite his lack of Test experience. Could pay big dividends come the World Cup.
  12. Inside Centre – Hunter Paisami – Guilty of a few silly penalties but combines well with Ikitau on both attack and defence, making the foundation of a stable partnership.
  13. Outside Centre – Len Ikitau – Not quite as impressive as his performances in the Rugby Championship but still an impressive ball carrier who combines some imaginative running lines with Paisami’s more direct and physical approach. A promising duo in the making.
  14. Right Wing – Andrew Kellaway – Probably the best thing that has happened to the Wallabies in 2021. Impressive try scorer who looks increasing confident and capable in defense.
  15. Fullback – Tom Banks – Although he missed the tour through injury, we didn’t see anything from Kurtley Beale to make us feel that Banks’ job is under threat. In reality a position that Australia hasn’t quite found the right set of keys for and for which resumes are still being accepted.

New Zealand – Won 1 – Lost 2

Has Coach Ian Foster just presided over one of the most disastrous end of year tours in All Black history?

Make no mistake Ian Foster must be breathing a huge sigh of relief that his contract extension taking him up to the conclusion of the next World Cup was agreed before he left for the US and Europe. The knives will still be out once he steps off the plane this week in Auckland but his job is probably safe. He now faces a rather uncomfortable enquiry as New Zealand’s Rugby Union chiefs try to get their head around the events of the last few months, ever since the All Blacks loss to South Africa in the final Rugby Championship match.

It hasn’t been comfortable viewing for New Zealand supporters this past couple of weeks. We’re not counting New Zealand’s 100+ points romp against a hapless United States as that was simply not a contest, as was the case a week later against a desperately understrength Welsh side. The writing was on the wall though in their first game against Italy. Given the fact that it took them 27 minutes to get their first points on the board against an Italian side that hadn’t won a match since the last World Cup, the alarm bells must have been ringing back in Auckland. After that they managed to pull away relatively comfortably but it wasn’t an assured performance from the outset. Ireland simply outmuscled and outplayed them and France blew them off the park in a display of creativity and pace that was once the sole preserve of New Zealand. In short, a side that is used to sweeping all before them looked beyond average.

So what has gone so horribly wrong? New Zealand has a staggering depth of talent at its disposal, yet somehow very little of it is clicking. New Zealand have always looked a smart team, but quite frankly November made them look rather like a group of high school dropouts. The polish and shine just wasn’t there. New Zealand looked disorganised and at times bereft of ideas.

Their front row simply failed to impress and was bested by both Ireland and France, and their work in the set pieces lacked its customary efficiency. In the second row they once again got outplayed by their French and Irish counterparts and discipline left much to be desired at times. The back row never quite gelled, despite some stellar individual performances – here’s looking at you as always Ardie Savea. Their halfback pairings simply couldn’t get the measure of Ireland or France and even struggled to understand Italy at first. Their centre pairings were for the most part distinctly average and the back line fluffed their lines continuously while at the same time being starved of the kind of ball they are used to. In short, it was a November full of errors and poor choices made both in the Coaching box and on the field. New Zealand are not down and out but they are capable of so much better, and the next couple of months are going to involve some hard and painful video reviews in order to untangle the wreckage. There were some outstanding individual performances this month but as a team New Zealand simply didn’t work.

Still New Zealand’s leading proponent of a “shock and awe” approach to the game

One All Black player who can still walk away from November with his head held high is outstanding back rower Ardie Savea

Arguably New Zealand’s most consistent and impressive performer this month, Savea brings so much energy to the All Blacks’ efforts no matter the scoreline. Every performance is borderline manic, and we regard him as one of the most committed and fearless players in the modern game. Savea is always fighting, always trying to get his team on the front foot – he just simply never looks beat. Watch any of the highlights from this month, and Savea’s writhing almost possessed form is a feature of all of them. His energy and commitment is never in question and it’s those qualities allied to an impressive skill set that makes him New Zealand’s most valuable player this month despite the occasional slip up in discipline or execution. Like a Duracell bunny on steroids, Savea just never stops going even if everyone around him has seemingly forgotten what they are supposed to be doing with this funny shaped ball.

So here’s the Lineout’s New Zealand starting XV:

  1. Loosehead Prop – Joe Moody – Got bested by his opposite numbers in Dublin and Paris, but still probably the best New Zealand have got for now.
  2. Hooker – Dane Coles – Had better lineout success than Codie Taylor and is still more of an unpredictable threat out wide when he plays his fantasy position of back up winger.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Nepo Laulala – There simply because we couldn’t find anyone else who stood out in a position in which New Zealand got bossed around, and has more experience than everyone else.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Tupou Vaa’i – Looked much more impressive off the bench than stalwart Brodie Retallick. Maybe some time for fresh thinking in terms of selection decisions for this position.
  5. Number 5 Lock – Sam Whitelock – Still a presence but some fresh blood is desperately needed here.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Luke Jacobson – Struggled initially to get to grips with Italy but still such a force for the future.
  7. Openside Flanker – Dalton Papali’i – Had a few hit and miss moments but did what was asked of him for the most part and against Ireland was one of the better players for New Zealand.
  8. No 8 – Ardie Savea – As mentioned above how could you possibly choose anyone else, though just as useful and dangerous on the flanks and in many ways would prefer to see his talents used there.
  9. Scrum Half – Brad Weber – Injury kept him out of the Ireland game where he could have made a big difference and had to live in the shadow of a jet lagged Aaron Smith against France.
  10. Fly Half – Richie Mo’unga – Made to look distinctly average by both Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and France’s Romain Ntamack, but still a more reliable goal kicker than Barrett who failed to make an impact this month.
  11. Left Wing – Sevu Reece – Didn’t quite match up to the physicality brought by Ireland or France, but still pretty tough to catch once he gets a head of steam.
  12. Inside Centre – Anton Liennert-Brown – Still your thinking man’s centre but definitely more subdued this month than usual. Excuse the pun but Ireland’s Gary Ringrose ran rings around him.
  13. Outside Centre – Rieko Ioane – Impressed despite his more usual role on the wing. Not convinced the experiment worked but there were enough moments of brilliance to justify continuing with it.
  14. Right Wing – Will Jordan – Strangely quiet month for the try scoring machine, but Ireland and France made sure he simply had no ball to work with or if he did was summarily shoved into touch.
  15. Fullback – Damian McKenzie – New Zealand needed his X-factor to spark them into life at the back, which Jordi Barrett simply didn’t do. When you’re up against the likes of Ireland’s Hugo Keenan and France’s Melvyn Jaminet then you need McKenzie’s willingness to throw caution to the wind at times if you’re going to be able to compete. Jordi Barrett has a useful boot but he was too pedestrian to be able to compete with the likes of a new look France or Ireland.

So that’s it for now until next week, or as soon as work cuts me some free time. Next up – Wales and Scotland!

November Internationals – North vs South and what we’ve learned – Part 1

After a month of truly vintage North vs South International Test Rugby, we take a look at what the respective Coaches of the big Ten learnt about their charges. We also pick our player of the month from each of the teams as well as a starting XV for each of them and which we think would provide the platform they need for 2022 and beyond as the countdown to the World Cup begins. I apologize for not getting any posts out last week ahead of some rather important fixtures but, as mentioned before, work at the moment is getting the better of me and likely to continue to do so for the next few weeks.

In each of these five pieces we’ll pick out two of the teams in order of their success ratio this month; focus on what the Coaches must be feeling; pick a player that stood out the most and finally pick what we think is the kind of starting XV that will set them up well for 2022 and beyond.

So without any further ado let’s look at the two sides, that arguably fared the worst this month – Italy and Argentina.

Italy – Won 1 Lost 2

It’s really hard to know what to make of new Italy Coach Kieran Crowley so far with a mixed bag of talent at his disposal

Let’s be brutally honest, Kieran Crowley’s first series of matches in charge of the Azurri hasn’t been particularly edifying. Despite a feisty opening half hour in their opening game against New Zealand, the omens don’t look good for an Italian side apparently cruising for yet another Wooden Spoon in the Six Nations looming just over the horizon. They were dispatched by an Argentinian side who themselves had a horde of demons in their closet, and their final match saw them struggle to close the deal against a spirited Uruguayan outfit. In short, Italy despite some genuine talent in their ranks as a team still look ill disciplined and poorly organized. The recent successes of Benetton in the Rainbow Cup and URC look a long way from what unfolded at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico and in Parma. On the basis of that it’s hard to not look past the fact that, until the recent Rainbow Cup, Crowley’s time at Treviso saw the team fail to win any of their regular season games last year. For Canadians it’s also equally painful to be reminded that under Crowley’s tenure Canada began it’s long slow slide into obscurity in International Test Rugby.

Nevertheless onwards and upwards. Take some stock from that opening half hour against New Zealand and a laboured but important win over up and coming Uruguay. Italy need structure, discipline and patience. If Crowley can instill those qualities in his charges then there is hope. They don’t have much of a front row and until they sort that out then a lot of their set piece work will simply be a points opportunity for the opposition as scrums and lineouts are simply too much of a lottery at the moment. However their second and back row stocks do look promising and their forwards are getting some traction in the breakdown areas provided they keep their discipline. Defensively their second and back rows can put in some big shifts as well as get some good go forward ball. Their young half back pairing shows plenty of promise, and goalkicking for the most part is assured, developing patience under pressure will be key here. In the centres there is also plenty of promise, but the skill sets do need to be tightened up in both ball security and defence. Lastly in the back three Italy has plenty of gas and talent, and is perhaps their strongest hand, if they can just figure out how to use it properly. So there’s your homework gentlemen – get to it otherwise it’s going to be a long and uncomfortable Six Nations.

A blinding talent needing structure

Italian winger Monty Ioane was one of the few things about Italy that did NOT disappoint this month

There were few standout individual performances from Italy this month, but this gentlemen had the lion’s share of them. The Benetton winger is just pure class and every time he gets the ball magic happens for the Azurri. The problem is all too often he gets either a hail Mary pass or is isolated as he makes yet another dazzling break. Add to that a defensive skill set that is actually better than most in his team and Ioane is without doubt becoming one of Italy’s most important assets with plenty of good years ahead of him.

So here’s the Lineout’s Italian starting XV:

  1. Loosehead Prop – Danilo Fischetti – Despite some discipline and technique problems he’s still our number one pick and held his own against New Zealand for the first 30 minutes. Worth sticking with.
  2. Hooker – Gianmarco Lucchesi. -Still very green but ultimately more promising than Luca Bigi.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Marco Riccioni – Best of a poor selection and a problem position for Italy, but worth the effort in development.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Niccolo Cannone – Gets better with every outing, just needs more game time.
  5. Number 5 Lock – Federico Ruzza – By far Italy’s most potent threat in the second row and a turnover specialist. They need to stop starting him off the bench.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Sebastian Negri – One of Italy’s best players by a country mile. Always puts in huge shifts and is an absolute tackle machine.
  7. Openside Flanker – Michele Lamaro – One of Italy’s impressive young guns who shows more maturity than his 23 years would appear to justify. Definite Captain material provided he can keep his emotions and discipline in check.
  8. No 8 – Giovanni Licata – Raw but effective talent that is rapidly giving Braam Steyn a run for his money, and has youth on his side.
  9. Scrum half – Stephen Varney – Started well against New Zealand until Italy started to implode and the pressure got the better of him, but works very well with his half back partner Paolo Garbisi.
  10. Fly Half – Paolo Garbisi – Given that Italy has very few options here, they are thanking their lucky stars that the youngster has so much talent. Wasn’t at his best this month but still a major signpost for Italy’s future.
  11. Left Wing – Monty Ioane – One of Italy’s most dynamic players and a constant asset with ball in hand. Makes the metres, increasingly makes the tackles and is getting more imaginative and strong in his running lines while being pretty handy under the high ball.
  12. Inside Centre – Marco Zanon – Ball handling can be a bit suspect at times, but a gifted footballer who provides some real spark in the inside channels and master of the sidestep.
  13. Outside Centre – Juan Ignacio Brex – The Argentinian import has proven his worth so far this year as a strong ball carrier who is defensively sound.
  14. Right Wing – Edoardo Padovani – His Benetton form didn’t quite stand out this month and he is usually more of a fullback, but his ability to switch between the two positions is useful given Matteo Minozzi’s ongoing injury issues.
  15. Fullback – Matteo Minozzi – When on song as he was against New Zealand in that opening half hour, he’s gold for Italy and for such a small man surprisingly effective in the physical contests. Solid under the high ball and possessing some dancing feet, Minozzi is a real complement to players like Padovani, Ioane and Zanon. Here’s hoping his ongoing battles with injury give him a break in 2022.

Argentina – Won 1 Lost 2

Much maligned by many Argentine supporters, it’s been a tough year for Pumas Coach Mario Ledesma but we still think he’s the right man to take them to France in 2023

It’s been a tough year spent entirely on the road for Argentinian Coach Mario Ledesma and his charges. The euphoria of that historic win over the All Blacks last year now seems like ancient history. Since then it’s been a tough old twelve months for Ledesma. He has unearthed some exciting new talent, but we can’t help feeling that he is not being given the flexibility he needs to develop it by supporters back home demanding results which have been thin on the ground this past year. His hand has also been forced by injury at times, coupled with the mental fatigue of a year on the road in and out of Covid bubbles.

They may not have much to show in the way of results this year, but we saw enough to convince us that once this Argentinian team starts to click again, it will be the side that can be everyone banana’s skin. They gave France an exhausting arm wrestle for the full eighty minutes, and their win over Italy was convincing if not emphatic. However, Ireland was clearly a bridge too far at the end of a long hard twelve months.

This is a talented, powerful and very skilled team that for reasons best known to itself is just slightly dysfunctional at the moment. They have a world class front row that also has some depth to it off the bench, and in Montoya they have a leader worthy of the boots left behind by the legendary Agustin Creevy. Their second row is the stuff of nightmares, provided it can keep its discipline and is an absolute menace come lineout time. Although riddled with poor discipline this month, their back row is one of the hardest hitting units in International Test Rugby at the moment and defensively is capable of some truly Herculean shifts. There is talent aplenty in their halfback pairings, and we argue that the experiment, borne out of necessity due to Nicolas Sanchez’s injuries this month, of throwing fullback Santiago Carreras into the understudy role for Sanchez was a brave move and one worth sticking with. Sanchez needs a successor, and while Carreras may not be a goalkicker we felt that he has genuine potential as a playmaker who like Sanchez is not shy of the rough and tumble. Their centers are world class when they use them, which sadly wasn’t very often this month. Lastly their back three oozes class, but needs quality ball which they just didn’t get, and if new winger Mateo Carreras didn’t impress you then you’re probably not a rugby fan.

Solid and dependable

We have always had huge respect for Pumas Captain Julian Montoya especially after he stepped into the massive boots left behind by Agustin Creevy, but even when the going gets tough Montoya just doesn’t quit

He’s simply Argentina’s most valuable player at the moment and likely to remain so. He is a very different talisman for his team than his illustrious predecessor, but he is just as effective and his commitment to the cause and his teammates is always exemplary. On top of that he’s just downright good at the technical side of his job. Whenever he’s in the front row Argentina’s success rate automatically improves whether in the scrums or at the lineouts. His leadership style is quiet but forceful, and it would appear that his charges respect him both as a player and a leader. A competent and committed Captain who can keep his focus on the job at hand despite the scoreboard, while at the same time keeping his cool while those around him are losing theirs. In short, he’d be not only our pick for Argentina but also a Southern Hemisphere XV.

So here’s the Lineout’s Argentina starting XV:

  1. Loosehead Prop – Thomas Gallo – A revelation since Argentina’s tour to Wales this summer and rapidly making a name for himself at Benetton. Powerful scrummager who also has a rather handy eye for the try line.
  2. Hooker – Julian Montoya – One of the best, no need for further discussion.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Santiago Medrano – A long way from being the finished product but definitely the way forward and Gomez-Kodela will not make France 2023.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Guido Petti – Lacked some of his traditional fire this month, but still a devastatingly effective lineout poacher with a genuine turn of speed, and capable of some real heroics in defence.
  5. Number 5 Lock – Lucas Paulos – Still a bit green but better at managing his temperament than regular Tomas Lavanini. Definitely has the potential and more likely to stay on the right side of the referee’s whistle than red card liability Lavanini.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Pablo Matera – His discipline was poor this month but when it comes to physical commitment he’s hard to beat as is his eye for opportunity and causing havoc at the breakdowns and in the loose all coupled to a defensive effort that beggars belief at times.
  7. Openside Flanker – Marcos Kremer – Along with South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth, probably one of the most intimidating physical presences in International Test Rugby right now. Bulldozes opposition defenses into submission while presenting the equivalent of Hadrian’s Wall for them them to get through. Tough, hard and with ball in hand exceptionally difficult to bring down. Also seems impervious to injury. Like Matera had a poor month discipline wise and let his emotions get the better of him.
  8. No 8 – Facundo Isa – A bit of a problem position for Argentina at the moment, and although better than we’ve seen from Isa in a while, still not quite at the races and no clear favorite or specialist for the position.
  9. Scrum Half – Tomas Cubelli – Better showing from Cubelli and in many ways back to his best.
  10. Fly Half – Santiago Carreras – Despite the experiment we feel it’s worth sticking with. The lack of a goal kicker which Carreras clearly is not is a huge problem, but as a playmaker it’s been a good month of apprenticeship and we have a hunch it will pay dividends in the long run. Give it time.
  11. Left wing – Mateo Carreras – Young and slightly green around the edges but has no fear of the big occasions. Exceptionally exciting and talented young player that Argentina will really want to develop.
  12. Inside Centre – Jeronimo de la Feunte – Not a particularly flash month for the poweful centre, but a proven commodity and will no doubt be back to his best once he’s had some down time.
  13. Outside Centre – Lucio Cinti – Another new find who had little opportunity to shine, but when he did the skill set he can bring to Argentina’s midfield play was obvious.
  14. Right Wing – Bautista Delguy – Nobody really stood out for Argentina out wide on the right, but against France Delguy looked the most dangerous and has the advantage of being able to cover fullback if Boffelli is having a bad day. Best of a set of players who got little opportunity to shine.
  15. Fullback – Emiliano Boffelli – Scored some useful turnover ball for his side, and made some good metres but his goalkicking was erratic when Argentina needed it the most. Only player we got to see in the role during November, but not sure he’s still a shoe in for the World Cup.

That’s it for now, next up Australia and New Zealand!

It’s almost a new look England against an Australian side that has definitely advanced beyond the prototype stage!

As mentioned over on the TV page, I’m slightly slammed with work at the moment, but there are three genuinely tasty fixtures in this weekend’s second Round of the November Internationals that simply have to be acknowledged. So here are the things that struck me from each of the three, and in this final instalment we look at England vs Australia. I’d love to cover Wales and Fiji and Italy versus Argentina, as these matches also have the potential to provide some serious entertainment, but unfortunately time just doesn’t permit this week. I will be putting out a brief podcast on the Italy/Argentina game, even though I won’t be putting out a written piece on the game, as well as podcasts on all the games covered in the blog this week.

So we’ve waited a long time for an England squad that finally starts to look new, and on Saturday we almost get it. The starting XV isn’t all that fresh with the major exception being that fly half sensation Marcus Smith finally gets a start against top notch opposition. Freddie Steward also keeps his place at fullback, but apart from that it’s still for the most part business as usual for England. However, when you look at their bench, it’s almost a sea change. Sam Simmonds, back rower extraordinaire for Exeter finally gets included in a matchday 23 for England. Alex Dombrandt gets another shot from the bench, Max Malins in the backs, Raffi Quirke at scrum half and Jamie Blamire and Bevan Rodd in the front row. However, all eyes will be on Marcus Smith and if he makes a go of it expect him to get the nod next weekend in England’s World Cup grudge rematch with South Africa. Nevertheless just to keep it spicy Eddie Jones has stuck with some of his controversial selection and positional choices.

As for Australia, they are pretty happy with their new look, and despite coming unstuck against Scotland by the slimmest of margins last weekend, this is a unit that is humming quite nicely. They won’t be intimidated by England, even if some of their combinations aren’t quite clicking they way need to be against the big Northern Hemisphere sides. Add in the fact that they are clearly missing Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete, and things are not quite the way the Wallabies would like them to be. Nevertheless it’s still a pretty flash looking unit that knows how to score five pointers and has finally mastered the art of defence. They are familiar with each other and a culture of winning, something which this year has eluded England at key moments. Australia may not be as fully stocked as they would like for this one but make no mistake they will fancy their chances and have the talent to deliver on it.

England vs Australia – Saturday, November 13th – Twickenham

England may not be on a particularly healthy winning streak at the moment, but against Australia their stocks are riding high. In the last five encounters between the sides, England has won all of them. Australia still has the cold comfort of being the side that knocked England out of their own World Cup in the Pool stages, but since then it’s been pretty slim pickings against the Red Rose. England essentially start the process of building for the next World Cup on Saturday, mainly by ushering in Marcus Smith as the hottest thing to wear the ten jersey in white since Jonny Wilkinson. If you want excitement then the 22 year old rookie knows how to bring it on in stark contrast to his Captain Owen Farrell. But as flash as Smith is there is a surprisingly sharp rugby brain on those young shoulders. His creativity is something England have been craving and will need in order to counter the likes of France’s Matthieu Jalibert and Romain Ntamack come the Six Nations in two months.

For Australia, it’s all about building on what has been a remarkable turnaround in their fortunes since those three blowout losses to New Zealand earlier this year. Put those aside and the 2021 Wallaby vintage is proving to be an exceptionally robust offering. Defence which up to this year had been a bad joke in Australian rugby circles has suddenly become a creed to live and die by for this Wallaby squad, and the attacking enterprise and glorious running rugby of the 90s is back with a vengeance. In short, Australia are an exciting side to watch and they finally seem to know a thing or two about defence. They will need it and then some against an English side which looks set to turn a corner of their own.

Another in a long line of under appreciated Wallaby talent

Wallaby second rower Izack Rodda was always a player we thought had huge potential and his return to the Australian camp hasn’t proved us wrong

Ever since Izack Rodda burst onto the Wallaby scene in 2017, we’ve always thought he’d ultimately be one to watch. Sadly after a spell in France with Lyon, Australian rugby seemed to forget him. Consequently we were delighted to see him back this year and our faith in him has been rewarded. He missed all three Tests against the All Blacks but put in huge shifts against South Africa and Argentina, and was one of Australia’s most effective players against Scotland last Sunday. He’ll have his work cut out for him against the rather daunting figure of England’s Maro Itoje, but Australia can rest assured he’ll give as good as he gets and is unlikely to rise to Itoje trying to get under his skin. He just doesn’t seem to get rattled and that’s a quality Australia will need on Saturday.

Pick the odd one out

You guessed it the man in the middle Tom Curry – a flanker flanked by two number 8s.

On Saturday there are two highly competent number eights on the bench, but your starter number eight Tom Curry is by trade an openside flanker. Don’t get us wrong we think Curry is a genuinely great player, but we just don’t get Coach Eddie Jones’s positional thinking. We understand that Courtney Lawes has excelled in the back row compared to his traditional second row role so room had to be made for him. We also get the fact that Curry works so well with fellow “kamikaze twin” Sam Underhill, but surely in a game where England’s stocks are traditionally high players could afford to assume their traditional roles. While Curry had a good game against Tonga it didn’t really test his credentials as an eight – he could have played anywhere and looked good. In Australia’s Rob Valentini he’ll be up against a player who relishes the role of a big physical ball carrying eight ably supported by Captain Fantastic Michael Hooper. Dombrandt and Simmonds will appear for England as the match wears on, but the positional shifts that will have to take place in England’s back row as a result are anybody’s guess.

Lights, camera, action!!!

It’s finally here, England fly half Marcus Smith’s chance to shine on the big stage

We’ve waited all year and now it’s finally here, England finally decide to start their whizzkid fly half Marcus Smith in a major Test. Sure we got to see him against Tonga last weekend and were mesmerized by his ability, but if England are serious about their World Cup ambitions and a successful run up to it, then the youngster desperately needs big game time now and lots of it. While there is always the risk of throwing such promising talent into the fray too soon and seeing them eaten alive before they can reach their full potential, with Smith it’s definitely a risk worth taking. England need an option other than Owen Farrell and George Ford for not just this World Cup but those beyond it, and Smith is clearly the future. We cannot wait to see what the youngster can do up against a wily and pacy Wallaby outfit that has shown some genuine defensive nous of late. His opposite number James O’Connor still appears to be finding his feet, whereas Smith seems afraid of nothing and is clearly relishing the opportunity to make his case for France 2023 and beyond. It will be fascinating to see how Smith copes in this and most likely the match against South Africa, and his exploits are likely to feature heavily in this weekend’s highlight reels. He’ll have Owen Farrell on the pitch with him to lend some wisdom and a steadying hand, but we can’t wait to watch the fireworks.

Eddie Jones continues to keep us guessing with his positional switches

“Ok so I really like playing centre Eddie but yeah mate I guess I can give this wing thing a crack” – England centre Manu Tuilagi will adjust to life out wide on Saturday

England Coach Eddie Jones clearly sees centre Manu Tuilagi as his saviour and has made it clear that he regards him as key to England’s efforts in 2023. We get it, Tuilagi when fit is a LETHAL centre – so why not keep him there? Oh hang on sorry we forgot he needs to make room for Owen Farrell to chaperone Marcus Smith. Fair enough, but surely Adam Radwan, who so impressed against Tonga last week and doesn’t even make the bench for Saturday, would have been a better bet out wide than Tuilagi out of position. Perhaps the saving grace here is the fact that Tuilagi will only have to deal with Australia’s Tom Wright as opposed to the outstanding Andrew Kellaway, who will be Jonny May’s responsibility. If it’s an all out physical footrace between Wright and Tuilagi then our money’s on the man in the white jersey, the problem is Tuilagi is happier bashing his way up the middle and seems to run out of puff over distance. It’s a gamble we can’t wait to see play out either way.

Look who’s back?

Magician or court jester? Wallaby fullback Kurtley Beale makes his return to the Australian jersey, and which Beale will we get?

Kurtley Beale is one of those players who gets people out of their seats. When the utility back is on song he has produced some glorious moments for his country and the clubs he’s represented, most recently Racing 92 in France. The problem is when he’s having an off day things tend to go sideways quickly for not only him but the rest of his team. One thing he doesn’t seem overly comfortable with is the high ball and England are likely to ask him lots of questions on the subject all afternoon. However, with ball in hand his ability to counter attack from deep can equal any of the world’s best and his passing and kicking skills are hard to beat at pace. In short, there is very little middle ground with Beale – he’s either way off his game one day or a worthy contender for Man of the Match the next. Coach Dave Rennie will hope it’s the latter on Saturday.

This will be a contest make no mistake, but fortune clearly favors England at the moment, particularly when you look at the recent history between the two sides. Australia will be smarting from that narrow loss to Scotland and would love nothing better than to get one over the Men in White and their adoring fans at Fortress Twickenham. However, England look the more confident of the two sides and their new fly half is clearly chomping at the bit to get going against Australia. We don’t think the gap on the scoreboard is going to be as significant in England’s favor as many are predicting. It’s the first real Test of a slightly new look England against major opposition, and opening night nerves could get the better of them against an Australian side who won’t be feeling the pressure of an expectant Twickenham packed to the rafters and demanding results. It’s going to be a fascinating contest and a fitting end to a Super Saturday!

Ireland attempt to prove they’ve turned a corner against New Zealand

As mentioned over on the TV page, I’m slightly slammed with work at the moment, but there are three genuinely tasty fixtures in this weekend’s second Round of the November Internationals that simply have to be acknowledged. So here are the things that struck me from each of the three, with this second instalment looking at Ireland versus New Zealand. I’d love to cover Wales and Fiji and Italy versus Argentina, as these matches also have the potential to provide some serious entertainment, but unfortunately time just doesn’t permit this week.

In recent times, this fixture has provided us with some classics. We were fortunate enough to be at Soldier Field in Chicago that famous November afternoon five years ago when the Men in Green claimed their first ever All Black scalp. Since then encounters between the two have always (with the exception of the most recent World Cup quarter final) been tense and tight affairs with no quarters given on either side. Saturday’s reunion between the two in Dublin promises to be no different, and with the All Blacks occasionally misfiring at the moment, Ireland must surely be approaching this match with a healthy dose of optimism. Ireland made a Japanese side, that had been World Rugby’s new darlings since the last World Cup, look like rank amateurs in last Saturday’s 60-5 training romp. New Zealand will be a totally different proposition, but there is no denying that Ireland seem to have finally thrown off the shackles off the Joe Schmidt era and appear to want to play an exciting new brand of rugby, while having mastered the skills to go with it.

While it wasn’t New Zealand’s first choice team last weekend in Rome, there were still enough established starters in it that their inability to get on the scoreboard until the 27th minute will trouble the Coaching staff. Italy were able to ask them some serious questions in the first half, and in some cases New Zealand’s answers weren’t overly convincing. New Zealand have brought out the big guns for this Saturday, but we’re still not convinced that this is an All Black side capable of sweeping all and sundry aside, and in Ireland they will face a serious challenge. We’re not saying that New Zealand won’t be extremely difficult to beat, but invincible as in years gone by they certainly aren’t and consequently Ireland are likely to fancy their chances.

Ireland vs New Zealand – Saturday, November 13th – Dublin

Ireland come into this match off the back of a very flash performance against a Japanese side that clearly had no idea what had just hit them. However, as good as Ireland looked they weren’t really tested and Saturday’s encounter will be a vastly different prospect. Nevertheless, Ireland’s new look is polished with the old guard clearly mentoring the younger talent exceptionally well. If Ireland play like they did last Saturday, then they are much more capable of moving the ball around and adapting to changing circumstances than they have been in the past. In short, they were an exciting team to watch last weekend, and we sincerely hope they don’t revert to their old patterns against a much more challenging opponent.

New Zealand have in their last few matches looked a few degrees off the boil at times, and Ireland will be keen to exploit those weaknesses and moments of self doubt in the All Black set up. The problem is with New Zealand that they are able to fix whatever is tripping them up quicker than any other team on the planet. Since the defeat to South Africa and the wobbles against Italy last weekend in the first half, they will have probably written a complete manual on what they need to change and how to do it – while making it look ridiculously easy and simple all at the same time. There are enough wise heads in Saturday’s match day XV to ensure that whatever new Standard Operating Procedures they’ve come up with are adhered to in Dublin and very little is left to chance.

All the right stuff but needs some target practise

Irish Hooker Ronan Kelleher has been outstanding in everything else he does in the green jersey but hitting his targets come lineout time is still a concern

When you’re doing everything else so well and are such a huge asset to your team, it’s really unfortunate that just one minor detail that is so crucial to your role is holding you back. You guessed it we’re talking about Irish Hooker Ronan Kelleher’s success rate in the lineout. The rest of his game is so stellar that it really is frustrating that this one detail is still too much like playing the lottery for Ireland. Against Japan, Ireland could only manage a 67% success rate when it came to throwing the darts with Kelleher on the touchline. He simply has to do better and hopefully the Irish forwards Coach, the legendary Paul O’Connell, has been working with him to get this right. Against New Zealand it will be vital and the rest of Kelleher’s skill set is such a threat to the All Blacks that if he can just tighten up his throws then he could ultimately have a very large say in Saturday’s proceedings.

Part of the fix

Could Ian Henderson’s steady presence in the lineout alongside James Ryan help Kelleher find his targets better, as well as adding an edge of quiet aggression that Ireland need in the second row?

Given that James Ryan is a given in Ireland’s second row, it’s always a conundrum as to who to put alongside him. For a game of this stature it would appear that the Coaching staff have gone with Ian Henderson’s consistency and familiarity with the role, as well as his ability to get under the skin of his opponents come lineout time. Tadgh Beirne often gets the call, but we’d argue that for a match like this it’s better to have Beirne who is equally at home in the back or second rows, available on the bench to fill in where impact is most needed as the game unfolds. Instead put your specialist second rower Henderson in alongside Ryan at the start. Furthermore, we feel Henderson is often overlooked in Ireland’s decision making when it comes to selection and it’s good to see him get the game time he so deserves in such a high profile game.

Battle royale of the 8s

Potentially one of the most important contests of the afternoon – that between two of the modern game’s most dynamic 8s, New Zealand’s Ardie Savea and Ireland’s Jack Conan. The latter seen here on Lions duty in South Africa

Ireland’s Jack Conan was one of the most consistent players of the recent Lions tour to South Africa and one of Ireland’s best in this year’s Six Nations campaign. Ireland seem to have no shortage of quality back rowers, but Conan is rapidly starting to standout as one of the Northern Hemisphere’s very best. What Conan is to rugby North of the Equator, Ardie Savea has been the same to South of it and for a couple of years now. That the two are dynamic and powerful ball carriers is stating the obvious, but it’s their ability to spot gaps and gain valuable metres for their sides that marks them out. Once either of them have ball in hand and open space in front of them they are very hard to bring down, allied to a defensive set that ensures that opportunities in the loose for their opponents from the breakdown are few and far between. Savea may have the edge in securing turnover ball for his side but when it comes to run metres Conan is your man. As a result the contest between these two will be one of the highlights of the afternoon.

Finlay who?

Scrum half for New Zealand – Finlay Christie is rapidly becoming one to watch

New Zealand have long struggled, much as Ireland have with Conor Murray, as to who will replace Aaron Smith at scrum half when the legend eventually hangs up his hat. TJ Perenara seems to blow hot and cold too often for some, Brad Weber has also shown similar promise but seems to only have been recently discovered by All Black management and sadly for this match is out injured. Finlay Christie also appears to have been overlooked till recently. At 27 he is not exactly a spring chicken but like Weber has caught the eye of a Coaching team that until recently seemed to only have eyes for Perenara and Smith. With the World Cup rapidly approaching, New Zealand needs depth in the position and Christie and Weber are both key in that regard. Although Christie struggled to find his feet initially against Italy after coming off the bench after only 9 minutes for the injured Weber, he was the catalyst and scorer of New Zealand’s first try of what had been till then a fraught match for the Men in Black. He gets to start off the bench again this week, but if the pressure gets to Perenara expect to see him sooner rather than later and the contest between himself and Irish veteran Conor Murray will do wonders in furthering his apprenticeship.

As good as he was against Japan the key question simply wasn’t answered

Irish winger James Lowe had a fantastic afternoon against Japan, but not once was he tested defensively – an area that still remains a dangerous grey area for him and Ireland

While there was naturally a great deal of excitement about James Lowe’s performance in last Saturday’s romp against Japan, the elephant in the room when it comes to the Irish winger was not addressed – that of his defensive skills which have proven suspect too often. Japan simply didn’t require him to exercise much in the way of defense for the full eighty minutes. Therefore we learnt very little in terms of whether or not Lowe has addressed this major weakness in an otherwise impressive toolkit. We would hazard a guess and say no. While he may look less suspect at club level with Leinster, the men in Blue are so dominant at PRO 14 and now URC level that any deficiencies are usually papered over by the rest of his teammates. On Saturday, he’ll be up against All Black try scoring sensation Will Jordan and if he hasn’t improved in this area then it could well be a very long day at the office for Ireland. Fortunately Mr. Reliable for Ireland, Keith Earls is standing by on the bench should things unravel, and the Munster man’s overall skill set will put many an Irish supporters’ mind at ease, with try saving tackles being one of his specialities.

We have to confess to being more than just a little excited for this one. It should be an absolute cracker, with both sides capable of claiming the day’s honors. Both teams are playing an exciting brand of rugby, with Ireland in particular seeming to have found a new lease on life. It should be intensely physical but also a contest where both sides will seek opportunities to run the ball. New Zealand may have the edge in that department, but they won’t be discounting Ireland’s master tactician Johnny Sexton who like the rest of his team seems to have embraced Ireland’s new approach to playing a more open game. Two teams with everything to prove and a rather feisty history of late should provide for a riveting game you won’t want to miss on Saturday and one that at this stage is simply impossible to call!

Next up England vs Australia!