As we like to do once the year is done and dusted, we look back at a handful of Tier 2 countries who caught our eye this past year using our usual report card system. Furthermore, with the added frisson of a World Cup in prospect at the end of this year, we’ve chosen the four Tier 2 countries who are most likely to cause problems for the bigger teams in the Pool stages of this year’s global showdown in Japan. Our candidates for top troublemakers in the Pool stages of the World Cup this year are Japan, USA, Georgia and Fiji.

So without further ado, here are our four teams to watch.

Japan – 8/10

Japan only played five Tests in 2018, we’re not including their November match against a World XV, which for a country that is hosting the World Cup this year seemed slightly amiss. However, in all five outings Japan acquitted themselves well and left us in no doubt that at home and in front of an ecstatic crowd they will need to be taken very seriously indeed by their pool rivals in this year’s global showdown in the Brave Blossoms own backyard. Expect Ireland and Scotland as pool favourites to field their strongest sides against Japan to avoid a potentially embarrassing hiccough on their way to the knockout stages – all and sundry being painfully aware of South Africa’s wake up call at the last World Cup courtesy of the Japanese.

Japan got their 2018 campaign underway in a Two Test home series against Italy. The first match saw them comprehensively dispatch a strong Italian effort in the final quarter, with fly half Yu Tamura putting in some exquisite place kicking which showed just how dangerous Japan can be on attack and in space. The second fixture a week later saw Italy just manage to settle the score, as they got the better of another spirited Japanese challenge. Japan scored two brilliant tries in quick succession in the final quarter to get themselves right back in the match and set up a thrilling finale. Japan’s discipline let them down at times in the match which ultimately cost them. However, what both Tests showed is that Japan are perhaps at their strongest and most dangerous in the final quarter. As a result their pool opponents this year in the World Cup will need their wits about them for the full eighty minutes, as any lapses in concentration could prove fatal against a team that is able to produce some spectacular attacking rugby.

Next up for Japan was their final Test of the June series against fellow Tier Two heavyweights Georgia. Once more it was a sublime second half performance which saw Japan leave Georgia in their dust, as the brave Blossoms ran in three superb tries and totally eclipsed their visitors at the final whistle by 28-0.

Japan’s next encounter was a tall order as they played host to the world’s number 1 side New Zealand. While it may not have been a full strength All Black side it was still a signficant achievement for Japan to run in five tries against the world’s best.

Next it was off to England for November and a match at Twickenham. Japan may have ultimately come short against England, and sadly were unable to replicate their second half prowess of earlier in the year, but their dominance of England in the first half and their resulting well-earned lead at half time, went to show what a threat Japan will pose this year at the World Cup. Japan managed to hold onto that lead until just short of the final quarter, but there is no doubt they had one of Rugby’s superpowers on the ropes for a good hour. Furthermore to achieve that kind of dominance on the road can only make you wonder what they will be able to do at home come the World Cup. However, Japan will need to find that final quarter big match temperament, as there is no denying that once England clicked into gear in the final twenty minutes they ran away with the match and Japan was clearly bereft of ideas in response.

Japan’s last match of the year was an entertaining romp against fellow World Cup Pool A rivals Russia in Gloucester. It was a tight affair in the first half but there is no denying that Japan rediscovered their second half form and ran in three tries to Russia’s one, sealing the match and providing a fitting end to a remarkable year for Japanese rugby, and one which will surely put them in great shape as hosts of this year’s World Cup. Ireland, and Scotland in particular, will need to be wary of the Brave Blossoms. Ireland have the fortune of dealing with the Japanese threat after their opening game against Scotland. The Scots however, have to wait till the end of the pool stages and their final match before they are able to confront Japan. If injuries have not been kind to Scotland in the pool stages, Japan are in with a definite chance of reaching the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time in their history. Will fortune favor the Brave Blossoms? We can’t wait to find out!

Player of the year – Michael Leitch

Japan’s Captain extraordinaire was the stuff of legends in 2018. Constantly in the thick of the action and leading by example, Leitch put in some massive and inspirational performances for his team this year. As an example of a Captain who leads from the front there are few better examples than Michael Leitch. His efforts in the England game alone were enough to make him one of the standout players of 2018. He is clearly a talisman for his team, and provided he can steer clear of injury between now and that all important fixture with Scotland, he could well make history for his adopted country in 2019.

Player to watch in 2019 – Rikiya Matsuda

At 24 years of age and only a handful of caps to his name, Matsuda is one of Japan’s rapidly rising stars of the future. A master of the line break, his scintillating club form is likely to explode onto the international stage this year, especially in front of his home crowd at this year’s World Cup. One of those players who is absolutely lethal in any kind of space, as well as possessing a handy boot when it comes time for goal kicking duties, Matsuda is more than likely to get some headline space this year in the Brave Blossoms jersey.

Match of the year – England vs Japan – Twickenham – November 17th – England 35/Japan 15

The thriller at Twickenham really exemplified just how far Japan have come and how much of a threat they are likely to be on home soil come the World Cup. Despite the ultimate loss, it was without doubt the highlight of Japan’s 2018 season as their dominance of  England in the first half and their well-earned lead at the break made all of us sit up and take notice. The fact that Japan were well in the match until the final twenty minutes, will no doubt set alarm bells ringing in the Irish and Scottish camps as they are clearly the two heavyweights’ most dangerous opponent in Pool A should they let their concentration slip. Japan are only going to get better, and at home the miracle against South Africa we saw in the last World Cup is even more of a possibility should Ireland or Scotland not take them seriously.

USA – 9/10

11 games played in 2018, we’re not counting the game against the Maori All Blacks, and only one lost. Whichever way you cut it, that’s a pretty impressive record and one which continues to reinforce the belief that Rugby in the US is clearly developing some unstoppable momentum. The tight win against Scotland was clearly the highpoint of the year for the USA, and although the Scottish team had more of an experimental feel to it, it was still boasting some of the world’s best as a certain Stuart Hogg was wearing the number 15 jersey. Furthermore many of those same Scottish players are causing havoc at club level in Europe this year. The bottom line is that the USA can be competitive and although their final game of the year against Ireland may have been a bridge too far, there is no doubt that their heavyweight Pool C opponents in this year’s World Cup, England, France and Argentina will not be taking the threat they pose lightly.

The USA started their 2018 campaign in fine form as they recorded a clean sweep of the Americas Rugby Championship and were crowned champions for the second time in a row. In a feisty opener with Argentina, the USA were ultimately the better side. From here the Eagles simply got better and better as they summarily dispatched Canada, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay.

June saw the USA host Russia in a completely one-sided contest as the Eagles ran in 9 tries to the Russians one. Next up was the USA’s historic win over Scotland and their first ever win over a Tier 1 nation. Scotland fought them to the very last whistle as evidenced by the scoreline standing at 30-29 in favor of the Americans. The USA kept their composure in a very physical and tense contest and showed the kind of big match temperament they will need this autumn in Japan. Their final match of the month saw them demolish their age-old rivals Canada, and send the Canadians on their way to a repechage tournament for the last spot up for grabs in this year’s World Cup with the USA taking the much coveted Americas 1 spot.

A European tour in November continued to build on the Eagles remarkable run of form in 2018. This was put to the test initially against Samoa, which saw the Americans just edge out the Pacific Islanders by one point in a scoreline which was a mirror image of the Scottish Test earlier in the year. They then proceeded to dispatch Romania with ease before ending their year in Dublin. Sadly for the Americans this was perhaps a sobering way to end an otherwise remarkable year, as they were given a rather rude schooling by the Irish. The Men in Green ran in 8 tries to the Americans two, and sadly the USA never really looked in contention. Ireland ran proceedings from start to finish and the Eagles will know that they will need to step it up several gears, especially defensively, if they are to stand any chance against the strike threats that their Pool opponents England, France and Argentina have at their disposal.

While it has been a remarkable year for the USA, the Irish Test proved that there is still plenty of work for Coach Gary Gold to do to get the Eagles to the point where they can cause upsets on a regular basis. Their World Cup Pool is challenging to say the least, with Argentina starting to peak at just the right time, while England are on the rebound and France are once again the dark horse they invariably tend to be at World Cup time. If the USA were to finish third in such a group then it would be a notable achievement and help to consolidate and build on the growing interest in the game in the US. While we can’t help feeling that a place in the knockout stages is beyond their reach this year, we expect them to make life exceptionally difficult for their opponents in some highly entertaining matches. When the USA is playing in Japan at the end of the year you’re probably not going to want to miss it.

Player of the year – Cameron Dolan

The big number eight was at the centre of everything the USA did well this year, and in the game against Scotland in particular he put in a massive shift.  Highly mobile and very effective in the loose Dolan is exactly the kind of workhorse and solid back row platform teams need at this level. A reliable and consistent player that the USA will be expecting big things from come the World Cup.

Player to watch in 2019 – Will Hooley

Although the fly half until recently, has had to live in the shadow of AJ MacGinty, he is rapidly becoming an exceptional understudy and lends some real depth to the USA’s stocks at fly half. He is likely to get much more game time in the runup to the World Cup and expect to see him featuring heavily in the USA’s forthcoming Americas Rugby Championship as the Eagles look for a third consecutive title, and a fitting start to a World Cup year.

Match of the year – USA vs Scoltand – Houston – June 16th – USA 30/Scotland 29

Definitely the highlight of the year for a remarkable USA effort. Pushed to the absolute limits by the Scots, the Eagles managed to hang on and claim an historic victory. It’s precisely this kind of grit and determination that they will need against three exceptionally challenging opponents in this year’s World Cup. This is definitely a team on the up and up and the prospect of a big upset at this year’s World Cup is definitely not beyond the realm of possibility for Coach Gary Gold and his Eagles.

Georgia – 7/10

Georgia’s campaign started well with a comprehensive showing in the Rugby Europe Championship. With a solid Grand Slam under their belt they remained undefeated, and were clearly in a league of their own. All of which served to solidify their claim for a shot at inclusion in Europe’s premier tournament the Six Nations. While the debate continues, there is no denying that Georgia’s progress has been commendable, though whether they are ready for inclusion at this stage is likely to remain in doubt until they can beat Italy on a regular basis. However, of one thing we can be certain, while Georgia may still possess a forwards heavy game, there is no denying that they now have a much more balanced game with some equally talented players in the backs.

Next up for Georgia was a trip to the Pacific Islands in June, for a modified version of the annual Pacific Nations Cup, with Georgia being the only participant not from the Islands. Playing in the heat of the Islands is always a challenge and Georgia clearly struggled to find their feet at times. They were able to put up a credible showing against Tonga, and squeaked out a narrow win, but were outclassed by Fiji’s dazzling set of skills across the park. Considering that Fiji are their leading Tier 2 opponents in their World Cup pool this year, they will need to address the deficiencies shown against the Fijians quickly despite enjoying a half time lead over the Islanders. Georgia then travelled to Japan for a match against this year’s World Cup hosts. This was clearly a bridge too far and a match Georgia will most likely want to forget in a hurry as they lost by a score of 28-0. Georgia suffered from a lack of discipline and seemed to have no answers to Japan’s fast paced brand of attacking rugby.

Georgia’s biggest game of the year was without a doubt their November Test against Italy. A big performance here was vital if the calls for Georgia to be included in the tournament, possibly at Italy’s expense, were to be taken seriously. Consequently Georgia made the trip to Italy knowing that the stakes were high. It was an entertaining match from both sides, who were clearly aware of the what was on the line in terms of bragging rights. Both teams played well, but ultimately Italy showed they had the better big game temperament, and in the final ten minutes slowly got a stranglehold on proceedings. However, it was a close tussle for much of the match, and if these two sides were to play each other regularly few would doubt that Georgia could soon be getting the better of their Italian rivals.

Their final two matches of the year saw them take on Samoa and Tonga at home. The fervor with which rugby is supported in Georgia was clearly on display and the home team pulled out all the stops in two brilliant displays. They first dispatched Samoa and then put Tonga to the sword in a much more convincing performance than that displayed in their narrow win over the Islanders earlier in the year in the Pacific Nations Cup.

While clearly continuing to build and with a much more rounded team on display this year, Georgia still have plenty of work to do if they are to be one of the favorite underdogs of this year’s World Cup. Their discipline in the heat of the moment continues to trip them up, and the interchange between their bruising forward pack and their backs is still a work in progress. However, improvement continues and with another strong performance likely in the Europe Rugby Championship this year and some exciting warm up games against Scotland prior to the World Cup, we still hold that they could end up being one of the surprise packages of the tournament. Either way, when Georgia plays you probably don’t want to miss it once the World Cup gets underway.

Player of the year – Otar Giorgadze

The big number eight is one of Georgia’s most industrious players and a proven ball carrier who can make the most of the physical exchanges. With some solid experience in France which continues this year at club level, expect Giorgadze to be causing all kinds of problems come the World Cup.

Player to watch in 2019 – Zurab Dzneladze

We really liked seeing the left winger in action this year for Georgia. While not exactly a spring chicken at 27, he seems to have really come into his own this year in the national jersey and exemplifies the new look backs that Georgia are starting to develop. With a good strike rate with ball in hand and some solid defence, this player exemplifies the new versatility that Georgia are seeking in their backs. Definitely one to watch in 2019.

Match of the year – Georgia vs Tonga – Tbilisi – November 24th – Georgia 20/Tonga 9

A match where Georgia got the better of Tonga by a healthy margin, after running them so close in the Pacific Nations Cup, was a fitting end to another solid year of progress for Georgia. Add to that the phenomenal atmosphere clearly on display for home matches in Tbilisi and this had all the hallmarks of a classic Test match, with Georgia putting in a dominant display.

Fiji – 8/10

It has been quite the year for Fiji with the win over France being the crowning achievement. Fiji have shown in the last five years that they have finally made the transition from a pure running game that, although showing off some dazzling skills,usually fell apart against teams with dominant forward packs, to a much more holistic approach. Fiji now have some devastating forwards who possess the handling skills of their sevens stars but also are increasingly more proficient at the nuances of the modern game up front. In short, expect Fiji to be one of the biggest smoking guns come the World Cup for their pool opponents Australia and Wales.

Fiji got their year off to a flying start by beating both Samoa and Georgia in the Pacific Nations Cup. However, their discipline in the Samoan game was poor and it almost cost them the match. Nevertheless they were able to make a comprehensive statement against World Cup Pool D rivals Georgia by beating them by a healthy margin of 37-15. In the final match of the tournament, their discipline let them down once more costing them the game against Tonga. While they still managed to win the tournament, they know their discipline will need to be better by the time they head to Japan.

Fiji finished 2018 with a three Test tour to Europe where they took on Scotland, France and their other Tier 2 Pool D opponents Uruguay. In their opening match against Scotland their discipline was once more their Achilles Heel despite running in two very impressive tries. However, they completely eclipsed Uruguay, running in a 68-7 scoreline. Their last game of the year was their finest as they took on France at the famous Stade de France in Paris. It was a consummate performance from Fiji which ticked all the boxes. A watertight defence, solid discipline and some exceptional handling skills as their backs and forwards interlaced almost effortlessly, ensured that Fiji ran the match from start to finish. It was a textbook effort and one which has clearly fired a warning shot that Australia and Wales will need to heed carefully as they look to play Fiji in Japan this year at the World Cup. If Fiji play like they did in France, then they are more than capable of securing a place in the knockout stages. Whichever way you cut it, we imagine that this is one team that neutral supporters will be watching with great enthusiasm this year in Japan – we know we will!

Player of the year – Peceli Yato

The blindside flanker who plies his trade at club level with French giants Clermont Auvergne, is a force of nature and someone who most defences will be ensuring they work hard at containing come the World Cup. Fast, powerful and possessing some extraordinary handling skills for a big forward, Yato is the complete package and exemplifies the kind of new generation of forwards who are making such a mark for Fiji.

Player to watch in 2019 – Semi Radrada

This extraordinary centre has been making headlines since he made his Test debut for Fiji in 2018. Blindingly quick and almost impossible to bring down, this try seeking missile is set to light the World Cup on fire this year in Japan. If he is in the starting lineup for Fiji you won’t to miss it!

Match of the year – France vs Fiji – Paris – November 24th – France 14/Fiji 21

Controlled, focused and with some breathtaking skills on display, this was one of the highlights of the year Test wise – full stop. Fiji never took their foot off the gas from the opening whistle and it was a spectacular demonstration of running rugby coupled to some resolute defence. Rugby World Cup 2019 – you have been warned!!!

Endnote

Next up we’ll be looking at a turbulent 2018 for Canada, but which still managed to end with them grabbing the last slot up for grabs at this year’s World Cup. After that we’ll be putting out our 2018 report cards on Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and then into the Six Nations! Watch this space!

So as we do at the end of every year, we look back on the last twelve months of International Rugby and pick our Team of the Year. A team is nothing without a good bench, so in fairness to all the outstanding performances we’ve seen from some remarkable players this year, we always pick our starter for the position but also pick who we would want to have on the bench for said spot. In a year which has seen some fantastic rugby and a genuine levelling of the playing field in terms of the gap between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, this year’s team caused heated debate amongst the Lineout’s selectors but eventually a squad of 15 starters and 15 benchers was settled on.

While this year’s selection has a distinctly greenish tinge to it from both Hemispheres, it does reflect the fact that Ireland dominated Europe while at the same time acheiving some notable victories over their Southern rivals. Meanwhile South Africa’s Renaissance after long years in the wilderness was one of the most exciting events in International Rugby since the last World Cup. However, our starting XV does have some notables from around the globe, with France, Wales and New Zealand getting a shot at glory. Our bench though remains heavily dominated by gentlemen wearing black shirts, reflecting that they may not have grabbed as many headlines this year, but they are still the team against which everyone else measures success. Perhaps much to everyone’s surprise, it’s been the reliability factor that has swayed our selectors more than panache or X-factor this year. So while we are sure that allegations of bias will be levelled against us over these choices we think it remains true to the selection criteria used.

In addition to the players, we also pick our Team, Coach, Referee, and lastly Game of the Year, with all four of these categories having a runner-up. Like we say it’s been a genuine arm wrestle amongst us to come to some common agreement, but after much debate and several pints it’s done. So without any further ado this is who the Lineout thought really stood out in 2018.

The Lineout’s Team of 2018

1 – Loosehead Prop – Steven Kitshoff – South Africa

We’ve always been huge fans of the “ginger ninja” and this was one of our easier selections, as there was unanimous delight in seeing a player we think has been one of South Africa’s up and coming stars for the last two years, finally getting the recognition he deserves. Possessing superb technique at the coal face, as well as being a strike threat of note close to the try line, the Springbok is likely to be hugely problematic for his opponents come the World Cup.

On the bench – Cian Healy – Ireland

You’ll notice that a theme of “reliability” will run through a lot of our selections, and Healy fits that bill perfectly.  His work rate is off the charts and he was often in the thick of all the physical work that helped Ireland to their remarkable success this year. A seasoned veteran and campaigner, Healy is precisely the kind of player you would want to bring on if things were coming unstuck.

2 – Hooker – Guilhem Guirado – France

This position caused massive debate amongst us, but eventually we settled on the Frenchman. His team may have had mixed results this year, but there is no denying the super human effort that France’s Captain put in to galvanise his team to go the extra yard. Invariably the Man of the Match for France in every game he played for them this year, Guirado is such an inspirational player we felt we just had to have him in our starting XV. Couple that to a phenomenal work rate and all round reliability, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better player in terms of knowing what you’ll get from them when they run onto the pitch. In short, one of International Rugby’s most underrated players.

On the bench – Codie Taylor – New Zealand

One of the biggest attributes of Taylor this year was his reliability. He may not be the flashiest player at Hooker or have the mercurial skill set at times of South Africa’s Malcolm Marx, but there is no question that he provided All Black Coach Steve Hansen with a solid platform in the scrum throughout the year. Furthermore he has simply taken over where Dane Coles left off with effortless ease. A bruising and steadfast ball carrier who simply does his job, and precisely the kind of player you would look to restore order in the final quarter.

3 – Tighthead Prop – Tadhg Furlong – Ireland

Another easy decision for the selectors. The Irishman has been one of the standout players of the year full stop. More to the point he is one of the few players that when making our choice, we realised we couldn’t single out a match this year where it could have been said that he had an off day. A player who puts in 110% continuously, never seems to tire and appears impervious to injury. In short – indestructible. Could you ask for anything more?

On the bench – Owen Franks – New Zealand

Our heart continued to break this year for the veteran All Black as he earned his 100th Test Cap but still remained without a try to his name. Once again the word reliable comes to mind when talking about Franks. Quite simply one of the best Tightheads the game has ever seen, Franks is someone you know you can count on for stability when the chips are down.

4 – Lock – Brodie Retallick – New Zealand

Once again a bit of a no brainer on this one. Retallick was truly extraordinary this year, and his performance in appalling conditions against England perhaps best summed up the impact this player can have on a match. Retallick’s efforts single-handedly got New Zealand back into the game and turned the screw on England. In addition to being a remarkably gifted player, he also is able to inspire a certain degree of fear in his opponents. With the ability to make a mockery of opposition team’s efforts in the lineouts, the sight of the 2 metre plus giant running at full speed had most of us ducking for cover behind the bar this year. Definitely one of International Rugby’s ultimate weapons and someone you would not think twice about including in your starting XV.

On the bench – RG Snyman – South Africa

Another player who quite simply scared the living daylights out of us this year, the giant Springbok made everyone sit up and take notice in his first year at Test level. In the best tradition of intensely physical Springbok forwards, Snyman brought some real grunt and power to South Africa’s efforts up front this year. While his discipline occasionally needs some work, expect to see the big man cause opposition defences plenty of sleepless nights next year in Japan.

5 – Lock – James Ryan – Ireland

The Irish youngster has turned heads repeatedly in his first full year of International Rugby. Another of those players who seems impervious to either fatigue or injury he will play a huge part in Ireland’s efforts next year in Japan. Like his fellow countryman Tadhg Furlong, Ryan puts in a massive effort every time he dons the green jersey and as shown this year was able to match one of the world’s best, Sam Whitelock of New Zealand, with ease.

On the bench – Sam Whitelock – New Zealand

This All Black veteran stood in admirably for regular Captain Kieran Read during France’s visit to New Zealand in June, and like so many of our selections he just is the epitome of cool, calm and collected reliability. One of the most dependable and safe heads in the International game.

6 – Blindside Flanker – Peter O’Mahony – Ireland

The Irishman’s monumental performance in the match against New Zealand, was for us without a doubt one of the most impressive individual performances of the year. Involved in simply everything Ireland did that day, he was a huge inspiration to the rest of his teammates, even battling through pain at times to make the statement that Ireland mean business next year in Japan. A quiet and modest man who embodies all the best qualities of Irish fury on a rugby pitch, O’Mahony has become the team’s talisman in so much of what was good about what they achieved this year. A fearsome presence who is the epitome of big match temperament.

On the bench – Pablo Matera – Argentina

While he still may have to work on his discipline at times, there is no doubt that Agustin Creevy’s successor as Captain has been a revelation for the Pumas this year. The devastatingly effective loose forward is another of those players who seems capable of a 90 minute game without missing a beat. Matera is aware he has a potentially lethal side at his disposal, and expect he and the rest of his team to be a major hiccough in England and France’s World Cup ambitions next year.

7 – Openside Flanker – Pieter-Steph du Toit – South Africa

The big South African’s emotions at the final whistle in that historic triumph in Wellington this year said it all about this remarkable player. Equally at home in the second row, du Toit’s performances at 7 this year have really stood out. A player who gives his all to the cause and delivers the goods at the same time, is someone few Coaches would want to be without. Du Toit has epitomised those qualities all year and for us was an easy choice for our starting XV.

On the bench – Justin Tipuric – Wales

As regular readers of this blog know, we are huge fans of the dynamic Welshman. Long regarded by us as Wales’ most underrated player, Tipuric really came to the fore this year and was a massive part of Wales steady progress up the World Rankings in 2018. Once again a player who embodies reliability and an off the charts work rate, Tipuric will be essential to Welsh ambitions next year as they seek to solidify their position as the second best side in the Northern Hemisphere.

8 – CJ Stander – Ireland

Perhaps not the flashiest number eight, but as a reliable workhorse there are few better in the modern game. A ferocious ball carrier who is always in the thick of the action and who clearly relishes the physical aspect of the game, Stander can be counted on to make the important yards for his team when you need them most.

On the bench – David Pocock – Australia

In a year which Australia will want to forget as quickly as possible, Pocock is the only Wallaby who makes it into our side for 2018. While he has clearly battled with ongoing injury issues this year, you would be hard pressed to find evidence of it in his performances. His never say die attitude and constant effort even when battling through the pain barrier was one of the few standout aspects of an otherwise dismal Wallaby effort this year. Often expected to produce miracles by his lacklustre colleagues, Pocock is a talent that better teams would have been able to make much more effective use of.

9 – Scrum Half – Faf de Klerk – South Africa

The pint-sized South African stole the show this year in the scrum half position. He was key to South Africa’s revival in 2018, and his absence from the November Internationals for the Springboks was telling, with the exception of the French Test. The word electric comes to mind when describing a player who seems to exhibit no fear whatsoever, and in defence is able to bring down opponents more than twice his size. A remarkable player who is the definition of spark and unpredictability, while at the same time being able to punch way above his weight.

On the bench – Conor Murray – Ireland

While he may have missed Ireland’s historic first ever defeat of New Zealand on Irish soil, Murray was instrumental in Ireland’s Six Nations Grand Slam and their successful tour of Australia. Rated as the world’s best and now back from injury after missing Ireland’s November Internationals, Murray is likely to be one of the biggest names in next year’s global showdown in Japan.

10 – Fly Half – Jonathan Sexton – Ireland

World Rugby’s Player of the Year in 2018 sums it up nicely. Sexton has been one of the best in the world in his position for a good few years now, but 2018 was definitely something special. He is clearly the back room conductor of every Irish performance, and seems to know exactly how to run a game. As we saw in Ireland’s opening match of this year’s Six Nations against France, Sexton is a master of composure under pressure. Despite seeming to have a complete disregard for his own personal safety, there is no question that Ireland are something unique when he is on the pitch. If he can avoid injury between now and Japan, he along with Conor Murray are likely to be the linchpins of any Irish success at the World Cup.

On the bench – Beauden Barrett – New Zealand

While there is no denying that he had a few off days this year, he is still a player that most Coaches would want to see on their teamsheets. His goalkicking may occasionally be off the mark and it seems remarkable to think that the drop goal is not part of his regular routine. However, his ability to create something from seemingly nothing is unique in International Rugby. Along with fellow All Black Damian McKenzie and Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale, Barrett is the definition of X-factor.

11 – Left Wing – Jacob Stockdale – Ireland

2018’s king of the intercept, has had a remarkable year. His tries against New Zealand and England were crucial watershed moments for Ireland and displayed a set of skills that at times defied belief. Of one thing you can be sure, the likelihood of Stockdale crossing the whitewash is almost a given in any match. Over and above his legendary try scoring abilities the Irish winger has also become much stronger in defence. In short the complete package out wide.

On the bench – Rieko Ioane – New Zealand

There were times this year that we felt that the All Black winger was kept quiet, admittedly more by resolute defence from opposition teams painfully aware of the threat this extraordinary player possesses, than a poor showing on his part. However, there is no denying that Ioane is destined to be one of New Zealand’s greats. Give this man any kind of space and you are in for a world of hurt.

12 – Inside Centre – Bundee Aki – Ireland

Some might be surprised to see us give this position to Aki over New Zealand’s Ryan Crotty. However, Aki had such a breakout year for Ireland and was such an impressive ball carrier that we simply had to give him the nod over the All Black. Once again Aki, may not be the most gifted footballer out there, but his willingness to constantly put his body on the line and make the hard yards made him such a key part of Ireland’s biggest moments this year. He is a bruising ball carrier who defences find very hard to bring down. Like many of our selections he may not be the flashiest player on the pitch but he was devastatingly effective for Ireland at getting the basics right this year.

On the bench – Ryan Crotty – New Zealand

A quality player through and through, we were delighted to see Crotty make a spectacular return from injury. Once again Crotty comes in high on the reliability list for us and as a result is one of those go to players when the chips are down. Basically impossible to keep off any Coach’s teamsheet.

13 – Outside Centre – Jonathan Davies – Wales

Once again a very tough choice here, with many worthy contenders. However, for us Davies gets the nod, as much like Tipuric, we feel he has been one of the key architects of Welsh successes this year. A highly creative player with a keen eye for opportunity, he rarely failed to impress. One of International Rugby’s sharpest minds, we are expecting big things from the Welshman next year in Japan.

On the bench – Huw Jones – Scotland

While Scotland may not always have impressed this year, Jones did so consistently. Some of his breaks in open play were a joy to watch and we rate the Scotsman very highly. A very talented player who given any kind of space suddenly becomes absolutely lethal.

14 – Right Wing – Ben Smith – New Zealand

The veteran All Black is the epitome of class. Always seemingly in the right place at the right time, Smith is your textbook winger while at the same time providing his team with a rock solid defence. As evidenced several times this year, his ability to contort his body to remain within the field of play and score seemingly impossible tries is the stuff of legends – and he makes it all look so utterly effortless.

On the bench – Bautista Delguy – Argentina

While Argentina had a challenging year, this is one player who really made us sit up and take notice. Some of his counterattacks from deep within his own 22 this year were the stuff of legends. Given the fact he is only 21, expect him to be grabbing plenty more headlines in 2019.

15 – Fullback – Rob Kearney – Ireland

There were fullbacks with a lot more panache than Rob Kearney out there this year, but nobody quietly answered their country’s call on every big occasion under pressure better than the Irishman in 2018. On our reliability meter, Kearney probably registered the highest this year. He just quietly and efficiently did everything his team expected him to do, and did it well. As your last line of defence you couldn’t have asked for a better player.

On the bench – Damian McKenzie – New Zealand

We were once again amazed by the sheer genius of this player who proved that size is irrelevant. With ball in hand he is probably the most exciting player in Test rugby right now. Able to evade tackles at will, and leave hapless defenders clutching at thin air, he is the ultimate proponent of the “now you see me – now you don’t” style of attacking rugby. Almost impossible to read defensively, he is likely to continue to provide his opponents with sleepless nights throughout 2019.

Team of the Year – Ireland

Just look at the record – Six Nations Grand Slam, Series win in Australia and a clean sweep of the November Internationals including a much coveted All Black scalp. 12 played, 11 won and 1 lost. The record speaks for itself. Meanwhile all this was built on Irish dominance of European club rugby in 2018. Some say that Ireland may have peaked too early in relation to next year’s World Cup, and while history may provide good grounds for such statements to be made, the foundation on which Irish rugby success is now built has never looked more sound. A team that now boasts some extraordinary depth and unity of purpose will be very hard to beat in 2019, and while they are likely to find it harder to maintain that dominance next year against much more determined opposition, they will still be one of the benchmark teams to beat. This superb video summary from the folks at Raw Rugby on YouTube kind of says it all.

Runner-up – South Africa

One of International Rugby’s traditional super powers, South Africa have spent far too long in the wilderness of International Rugby since the last World Cup. Consequently, for the good of the global game we were delighted to see them rise from the ashes once more this year under new Coach Rassie Erasmus. We were lucky enough to attend their season opener in Washington against Wales, and although not the greatest spectacle, their narrow loss showed that some momentum was beginning to build. Their series triumph over England in June solidified that claim. Although there were some low points in their Rugby Championship campaign, a strong second place finish and managing to beat the All Blacks on the road and run them exceptionally close at home was the clearest evidence that the Boks were back, and that one of International Test rugby’s greatest rivalries was alive and kicking once more. Their end of year Tour also provided enough highlights, despite the narrow loss to England. The defeat to Wales clearly showed a group of players starting to run out of steam at the end of a tumultuous season, but there had been enough high points this year and some serious talent on display to leave us in no doubt that South Africa are likely to be a very serious contender for World Cup glory next year.

Coach of the Year – Joe Schmidt – Ireland

While 2019 sees the New Zealander head into his last year in charge of Ireland, 2018 demonstrated to full effect how far he has brought the Men in Green. They are without doubt New Zealand’s equal, and as such, serious contenders for next year’s World Cup. A triumph next year in Japan, by adding International Rugby’s ultimate prize to Ireland’s already sizeable silverware cabinet, would be the ultimate crowning glory and send off to Schmidt’s remarkable time with Ireland. The changes he has wrought since taking the reins in 2013 have had a significant trickle down effect throughout Irish rugby as evidenced by the continuing success of Irish teams at club level. In short despite a relatively small player base, Ireland boasts a level of depth that is the envy of much larger unions. A remarkably humble and modest man who possesses perhaps the sharpest tactical brain in International Rugby, Schmidt has gained the complete trust and confidence of his players and the country as a whole. By the time he leaves Ireland at the end of next year’s World Cup, his six-year tenure with the national side will leave a legacy that should benefit Irish rugby for generations to come. While his plans post Ireland remain unclear there is no doubt that his place in history is assured.

Runner-up – Rassie Erasmus – South Africa

Since taking over early this year from the ill-fated Allister Coetzee, Erasmus has transformed Springbok rugby. His selection policy has been consistent and has produced results. The side is clearly more settled and focused than we have seen for a very long time. Players appear to understand what is expected of them and how to deliver on the day. There is a passion behind the jersey that was sadly lacking during the tenure of Erasmus’ predecessor. In short Erasmus’ efforts in the ridiculously short space of six months have brought the Springboks back into contention on the World Stage. The age-old rivalry between New Zealand and South Africa, which had provided so many of Test Rugby’s greatest moments over the years, but which had sadly lost its lustre since the last World Cup, is back with a vengeance and arguably produced two of the best Tests of 2018. There is still plenty of work to do, but the total renaissance of Springbok rugby in a mere six months under Erasmus has been remarkable. In doing so he has unearthed some genuine world-class players who are likely to provide plenty of excitement at next year’s World Cup.

Referee of the Year – Wayne Barnes – England

As regular readers of this blog know we traditionally have not been a fan of the Englishman, and while we still have doubts about his ability to spot the odd errant forward pass, we must say that in terms of consistency he has got the nod from us this year. His ability to defuse tense situations, while at the same time being able to clearly explain his thinking and the ebb and flow of the game to the players, has really matured this year, to the point we felt he was the easiest referee for players to understand and work with in 2018. There were very few surprises with Barnes this year, and players could for the most part walk onto the pitch knowing what to expect from the Englishman and how to play the game as a result. While like all the referees this year, he was not completely without error, let’s face it, it’s still probably one of the hardest and most thankless jobs on the planet. However, we questioned his decisions far less than many other of the referees this year much to our surprise, and enjoyed his consistency and clear explanations.

Runner-up – Nigel Owens – Wales

Like many we feel that the iconic Welsh referee lost some of his accuracy at times this year, but there is no question that International Rugby’s favourite headmaster still takes some beating. There are very few grey areas with Owens and players know that if they keep disregarding his advice then in no time at all life is likely to become very difficult for them. While we felt his consistency in 2018 wasn’t quite up to his very high standards of years gone by, he is still a class act and probably one of International Rugby’s greatest wits and masters of the one-liner. A legend in his own time who clearly isn’t done yet and one of the best there is – plain and simple.

Game of the Year – New Zealand vs South Africa – September 15th, 2018 – Wellington – Rugby Championship

No we are not trying to highlight New Zealand’s two losses in 2018, but the desire to beat the mighty All Blacks produced something special in their opponents and resulted in arguably two of the best Tests of not only 2018, but also since the last World Cup. If that is not a testimony to how much esteem New Zealand is held in then we don’t know what is. South Africa’s triumph over New Zealand a long way from home was something very special. A Springbok side that had been written off heading into the match after their defeat to Australia the week before, defied all the odds and produced a 23 man effort which was the stuff of legends. It had all the qualities of a great Test match, tries galore, huge physicality, heroic defence and a game in the balance for the full eighty minutes. It was breathtaking stuff from both sides, but the emotion on Springbok flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit’s face at the final whistle summed up the truly superhuman effort by South Africa that day to defy the odds and beat the All Blacks in their own backyard. The return match in South Africa two weeks later was just as exciting, but the Wellington victory was something that restored the pride to a Springbok jersey that until then had never quite recovered from the rot that set in after that shock defeat to Japan in the pool stages of the last World Cup. As a result there is no question that it was probably the most important game of the year.

Runner-up – Ireland vs New Zealand – November 17th, 2018 – Dublin – November Internationals

The thriller in Dublin produced heroics from Ireland similar to South Africa’s efforts in Wellington mentioned above. Furthermore missing some key players, most notably scrum half Conor Murray, a very good Irish side showed that depth is one thing they have plenty of. They simply starved New Zealand of the ball and kept them tryless which is something you don’t see very often. Furthermore, the only try scored in the match by Irish winger Jacob Stockdale was arguably one of the best of the year, and showed a pedigree equal to if not better than that which has traditionally been the preserve of the All Blacks alone. Flanker Peter O’Mahony’s titanic efforts throughout the match, even battling through serious pain at one point to make a try saving intercept, was the stuff of legends. It was a remarkable team effort and one which will live long in the annals of Irish rugby history.

Endnote

Well that’s it for this year folks and WHAT a year it has been. As we head into a World Cup year there is so much to look forward to. This is probably going to be the most evenly contested World Cup since the tournament’s inception in 1987. New Zealand and Ireland are still clearly the front-runners, however, Wales and South Africa are more than capable of upsetting their plans, while France, Argentina and England will fancy their chances of unseating the front runners on their way to the final. So take a much-needed breather till February and the start of the Six Nations – we think you might need it.

We’ll be back first thing in the New Year with our report cards for 2018 on Canada and the four Tier 2 nations most likely to cause havoc in the pool stages of next year’s World Cup as well as Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Till then Happy New Year everyone, and thanks to all of you who helped get our numbers up to 10,000 this year since we started four years ago.

To keep you going till the start of the Six Nations here’s a SUPERB try summary of 2018 from Extra Offload on YouTube.

 

 

Rugby – a personal journey

Posted: December 21, 2018 in General Commentary

Not our usual fare but with the holiday season upon us we thought we’d add a personal note to our regular musings. As the international season takes a much-needed break over the holidays, we thought we too would make a departure from our customary thoughts on the global game and add in a personal twist to reflect the mood of this special time of year.

As a result we’ve asked our resident scribe to look back over his own 50 year personal journey with our glorious sport. In doing so we hope to illustrate how international rugby in particular has come to reflect a myriad of values, which many of us hold so dear and reinforces the point that “it’s more than just a game”.

From North to South and everything in between – a lifetime’s connection with Rugby

As a passionate supporter of rugby for the last 50 years, I have marvelled at how much the game has changed, but more importantly how much it has always been in the background to moments in my own life that have shaped the way I look at the world around me.

Like many people, my introduction to rugby started at a very early age. As a five-year old schoolboy in New Zealand in the late 1960s, rugby was perhaps even more of a national religion then than it is now in the professional era. One had little choice in those days, but somehow the rough and tumble of the school playing fields was exactly where every little tyke missing his first few baby teeth wanted to be. As a totally legitimate excuse to get covered in mud and provide the washing machine with plenty of work, rugby was high on the list of priorities in every small boy’s mind in New Zealand. While I may have lost touch with them once I left New Zealand, some of those friendships forged on the playing fields of Russelly Park primary school in Christchurch remain poignant to this day – I can still remember my first ever “best mate” Graham, as clear as if it were yesterday. When we left school we would spend hours in our respective backyards, kicking, chasing and tackling each other over mini rugby balls. In 1969 I was just as thrilled being parked in front of our parents black and white TV watching New Zealand beat Wales in the second of two Tests, as I was watching those historic images of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface a month later (although slightly more excited that Neil Armstrong had the same first name as me).

Shortly after that I left New Zealand which as far as I was concerned, was sheer folly by my parents, and found myself uprooted to Canada. Sadly, I was to lose touch with the sport that had so shaped my early childhood days, as in Canada in the early 70s rugby appeared to be some sort of bizarre sport played only in the realms of Middle Earth. Instead I was surrounded by hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer. I wasn’t a great skater and spent far too much time falling over to be useful, and baseball to me seemed to be a mildly more exciting version of cricket which I had never taken to in New Zealand. With no kindred spirits like Graham around, I had to resort to playing imaginary rugby on my own in our backyard with a miniature American football.

As the years passed, and with no rugby on TV I gradually forgot about rugby until one fall day in Montreal in 1978. We’d just moved again, for the sixth time in almost as many years since coming to Canada, and now found ourselves in Montreal. As an English speaker and in a province caught up in the rapidly rising push towards the province’s first referendum on independence, schooling was proving a challenge. As my father was working for the UN’s civil aviation body based in Montreal, through a generous allowance I found myself at one of the city’s two private boys’ schools.

My transition to this new place of learning was not going smoothly. I struggled to fit in and also found myself on the wrong side of the school bullies. I had noticed that the school had a rugby programme, but felt that my own growth hadn’t kept pace with what was needed to survive on the rugby pitch, and as a result I would no doubt be brutalised even more by several of the school toughs who were also on the rugby team. I was further intimidated by the rugby coach who was a fierce Ulsterman and also the school geometry teacher, who regularly terrorized his students if he felt they were not paying sufficient attention to Pythagoras by slamming a thick rope on their desks to “focus the mind” as he put it.

On a grey September afternoon at the beginning of term, I was practising for the 200 metre sprint, as I felt that this was my safest option for after school sports. On the adjacent field I could hear Mr. Wright at full throttle admonishing a hapless group of forwards. As I reached the end of my first sprint, I noticed Mr. Wright gesticulating wildly at me. Fearing an encounter with the rope in geometry the next day should I pretend to ignore him, I approached him with more than a hint of trepidation. Much to my surprise I was greeted with a warm smile and a hearty handshake. He immediately suggested that I take a spot on the wing, and while I was at it try my hand at goal kicking as he was rather short in that department that year. I made the usual protests, I wasn’t big enough, hadn’t played since I was 7 among many – all of which fell on deaf ears. He assured me that despite his diminutive size he had been a devastatingly effective scrum half in his heyday. When I questioned my ability to bring down a loose forward at full throttle he expounded the efficacy of a skillful ankle tackle. In short, I wasn’t getting out of it.

What ensued was a remarkable two years which I wouldn’t have missed for the world and which rekindled my childhood love of the oval ball. In my first year, it was indeed the school of hard knocks, but what I realised was that Mr. Wright, despite his outward bluster, was one of the most talented and dedicated mentors and coaches I would ever have during my academic life. He was a man totally committed to the success of his charges, and one who simply brought out the best in us as both individuals and a team. By my second year, I had become an accomplished goal kicker and a respectable winger as part of a very successful school team. Much to my surprise in one of my first practices I flattened one of my arch enemies, who was our blindside flanker, and thereafter I was never troubled by the school bullies. Mr. Wright was passionate about rugby and his beloved Ireland and what both could teach young minds. I still have the fondest memories of sitting down with him and the team to watch VHS tapes of Ireland’s Five Nations games every year, as that was the only way to watch them in Canada in those days. In doing so he provided a fascinating insight into the history of rugby and its unifying force in his own divided country. As Canada looked to be torn apart by a referendum, they were lessons we all took to heart, as well as a bunch of us becoming passionate Irish rugby supporters from that day onwards.

I spent the remainder of my teenage years in Kenya, as my father’s work took him to East Africa. I immediately signed up for the school rugby team, and although still not the biggest teenager, I managed to be fast enough on my feet and able to outwit my burlier opponents. Africa had all the excitement and openness both on and off the pitch that young men and women at that age crave. While my studies may have suffered, the friendships I made on the rugby pitch with my teammates from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds would shape me for the rest of my life. Our school was not one of Kenya’s elite schools but it had a proud tradition, and our team of misfits were surprisingly successful, perhaps as a result of our brutal fitness regime imposed by a borderline sadistic Welsh coach. Nevertheless, one of our proudest moments was playing one of Zimbabwe’s premier schools, and beating them in a two match series. In our ragtag uniforms which consisted of a red cotton jersey which always faded to pink after the initial wash, we took on the boys from a newly independent Zimbabwe in their immaculate and very flash kit, which turned more than a few female heads in the stands much to our chagrin. I’d watched Ireland win the Five Nations that year, and remember feeling more than just a little pumped to try and replicate Ireland’s underdog success story in our own battle against Zimbabwe’s heavyweights.

With a heavy heart I left Africa behind and headed to England and university. I tried out for the rugby team, but by this stage I had definitely stopped growing at the required rate, while my teammates and opponents only seemed to be getting bigger. In an initial practise I was bundled into touch by a giant lock forward and as my body attempted to continue its trajectory to the other side of the pitch to avoid him, he and my knees continued their journey into the hoardings. That was the beginning of a string of injuries that essentially put my playing days to a quick and painful end.

It was the inability to play any more that perhaps heightened my enthusiasm for the sport as a spectator, to the point where it became a borderline obsession. Ireland still remained my team and I remember many a happy beer soaked afternoon watching the Men in Green have some genuine success for the most part in the mid 80s. While cramming for finals in my last year, I still managed to make time for the thrill of the inaugural World Cup in New Zealand.

After university my employment choices brought me back to Africa, and Southern Africa which itself was in the midst of massive change. Zimbabwe had only been independent for eight years, and South Africa’s troubled history looked to be on the brink of the same kind of transformation that was being hinted at as the Berlin Wall appeared to be on the verge of collapse in Europe. I spent most of my time at the end of the 80s and very early 90s in Botswana and Lesotho. I can well remember the excitement in a bar in Maseru, as I and the crowd watched the Springboks long-awaited return to international rugby against their most revered rivals New Zealand’s All Blacks in 1992, after South Africa’s painful isolation from international sport in the 1980s.

I then spent several years in a part of the world that like South Africa, was being torn apart by conflict – the former Yugoslavia. As the Berlin Wall fell, communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe fell like dominoes. Unfortunately Yugoslavia’s exit from its communist past ended in a brutal ethnic conflict that tore communities apart. In a time of darkness, I was once more humbled by rugby’s ability to bring people together. In the 1995 World Cup, my local staff knowing I was a rugby nut, managed to find me a TV and a means of obtaining reception for the entire tournament. One of my fondest memories is of staff from the three different sides of the conflict uniting with me around a flickering TV screen to cheer on the exploits of South Africa, as they sought to use the World Cup to heal the wounds of their own divided society. As we crowded around the TV in our office amidst the rubble of a once peaceful and culturally diverse city, we were all moved by the sight of Springbok Captain Francois Pienaar and South Africa’s first democratically elected President Nelson Mandela embracing the Webb Ellis trophy, and the power of this unique sport to bring opposites together on a foundation of unwavering mutual respect.

I was lucky enough to spend more time in Africa after Yugoslavia, and in particular South Africa. Although it wasn’t quite the same as I imagine what it might have been in 1995, watching South Africa win their second World Cup in France surrounded by some great South African friends in Cape Town was something special. The blood runs green in our house as my wife is a proud South African, so green jerseys whether they be Irish or South African are in plentiful supply. Our son wears both with pride and was thrilled to go and see South Africa play Wales in Washington this year, although he hopes his idol Johnny Sexton won’t retire before he gets a chance to see him play in green at the Aviva in Dublin.

I probably watch more rugby now than I ever have, family and work permitting, but still marvel at the thrill of the International game, and the unique respect shown by supporters to each other. I was fortunate enough to attend the last World Cup and although gutted at seeing my beloved Ireland knocked out of the quarter-finals yet again by an exceptional Argentinian side, I loved every minute of sharing in the Argentinian supporters’ party as the final whistle was blown. Once again I was humbled as the massive line of weary and devastated Irish supporters waiting for the train to London after the match, as one gave a large group of passing Argentinian fans a rousing round of applause.

In short why do I love this game? Because of the respect it holds as its core value more than any other sport I know. We can all cheer together, cry together and most important of all laugh together. Name a classic Test match, and you can probably remember exactly where you were, who you were with and what you were doing that day – I know I can! In fifty years of playing and watching rugby I have become part of a global family that has provided me with a wealth of memories, good times and remarkable friendships.

As we enter another World Cup year that perhaps promises to be full of more surprises than all the past 8 tournaments put together, we raise a toast to our great sport and all its glory. Happy holidays to everyone from me and the Lineout, and a thousand thanks to everyone who has read our musings over the last four years. Here’s to a 2019 that should provide us all with plenty of memories and LOTS to talk about!

 

 

 

 

 

In a month that saw plenty of excitement, we learnt a great deal about the pecking order in International Rugby and what it means, with less than a year to go before the final whistle in Japan and the crowning of a new World Champion. There were upsets, there was controversy, but throughout we were treated to a month of Test Rugby that had plenty of excitement and which kept us glued to our TV screens.

England managed to resurrect themselves from a year which up till then they would rather have forgotten. France, showed signs of character at times, but ultimately made us think twice about how far French rugby has really progressed under new management, when they were beaten by a highly entertaining and enterprising Fijian side. Ireland led by example from start to finish and completed a remarkable year which left no doubt about their position as the number two side in the world. Italy sadly gave us and their supporters little to cheer about other than silencing their critics by defeating Six Nations aspirants Georgia. Scotland provided plenty of excitement but lacked the ability to close out a potential quarter-final opponent in the World Cup – South Africa. Finally Wales cemented their position as the second best team in the Northern Hemisphere with a clean sweep of their four internationals, including two Southern Hemisphere scalps –  Australia and South Africa.

For the Southern Hemisphere teams it was a tough end to the year. Argentina, despite their successes in the Rugby Championship, faded at the end of a long hard season which has seen very little rotation of players. As a result a tired group put up some valiant resistance at times but ultimately lost all three key matches, and most importantly their game against next year’s pool opponents in the World Cup – France. Australia were dire – plain and simple. The Wallaby ship is seriously adrift with no sign of cohesion amongst the crew and management. Australia’s end of year tour started with a loss to their pool opponents next year in Japan, as Wales finally managed to get a home win against them. The Wallabies laboured to a win over a hapless Italy, but looked a shambles against England, with the players clearly wanting nothing more than to get on the long flight home and forget yet another wasted year. New Zealand had perhaps their hardest ever November tour since the last World Cup. They had to work hard to squeak past the old enemy England in appalling weather and a week later were taught a painful lesson in game management by a clinical Ireland. New Zealand ended their tour by piling all their frustrations on Italy as they literally put the Azurri to the sword in their final match of the year. Finally South Africa continued to build on the progress shown during the Rugby Championship and that historic defeat of New Zealand in Wellington. They were unlucky to lose to England by the slimmest of margins possible, but redeemed themselves against France a week later and then again in their encounter with Scotland. However, the puff seemed to go out of their sails as they came short against a Welsh team who had simply got better and better throughout the course of the month.

Perhaps the biggest surprise and talking point of the month however was the performance of some of the Tier 2 nations. Fiji gave Scotland a challenging first half at the beginning of the month and then went on to claim a famous victory against France by the end of it. But perhaps the most pleasing performance came from next year’s World Cup hosts Japan. At the end of their first half against England, they had easily outplayed the Men in White, and although England were able to regroup in the second half, there was no question that Japan’s Pool A rivals will have to take them very seriously indeed next year. With a rapturous home crowd cheering Japan on, Ireland and Scotland will have to be well prepared if they are to avoid one of the biggest potential upsets of 2019.

So as we say we couldn’t have asked for a better month of Test Rugby one year out from the World Cup. There was plenty to talk about so here’s a quick wrap up of the key points that came out of this month’s action for us.

The gap between North and South would appear to be nonexistent

Ireland’s victory over New Zealand has meant that although New Zealand still sit comfortably at the top of the world rankings, the North/South divide has finally closed. The All Blacks still possess a remarkable ability to regroup, but they are no longer invincible and as we have seen repeatedly this year – put them under pressure and they make mistakes. There is no doubt that they will be back to their best come the World Cup, but by the same token after an intensely competitive Six Nations next year, Ireland and Wales should be humming along just as well with England catching up fast. Meanwhile, the rest of the Southern Hemisphere are very much on a level playing field with their Northern rivals. South Africa look likely to be the side to pose the most problems next year, but Argentina are also on track to pack a few surprises. It is really only Australia who find themselves out in the cold heading into the run up to the World Cup. There are simply no givens for next year’s global showdown, but one thing is for certain the Northern Hemisphere sides are looking in the most robust health since the tournament was first introduced in 1987.

There are some front-runners for World Cup glory next year but no favorites

Ireland’s victory over New Zealand was without doubt the highlight of a memorable month of Test Rugby. However, in fairness to Ireland we are not going to fall into the trap of labelling them with the burden of favorites for next year’s global showdown in Japan. Very strong contenders yes – but favorites no. While they and New Zealand may have their noses out in front in terms of the form race, there is no question that Wales could also go all the way along with South Africa. England could also end up being the surprise package of the tournament after surviving a purple patch which has provided them with a wealth of valuable experience. After this month we can only comfortably call the favorites to get to the quarter finals, beyond that it is wide open which makes it one of the most potentially exciting World Cups since the tournament’s inception 30 years ago.

England are back and Australia would appear beyond redemption

This past month saw England rise once more from the ashes, just as they did immediately after their shock exit from the last World Cup. Sure the twelve months since the end of the 2017 Six Nations and this November was not a happy time in the England camp but that appears to be behind them now. Their two big Southern Hemisphere scalps came in the shape of South Africa and Australia. At the same time they were able to hold the World Champions, New Zealand, to a one point difference, albeit on the losing side which is a significant achievement. Many were predicting disaster for the Men in White this November against New Zealand and South Africa, with the possible exception of the match against Australia being their only redemption against the Southern Hemisphere superpowers. However, they surpassed expectations and can feel exceptionally well pleased with their efforts this past month. What has perhaps been the most rewarding aspect of the whole experience has been the ability to really blood some new players. Names like Sam Underhill, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Zach Mercer have all injected some much-needed life into an English back row that had become a bad joke. Meanwhile Joe Cokanasiga had everyone sit up and take notice in the Australia match as he provided a stunning complement to Jonny May on the opposite wing. England have found the depth they need up front and in the backs, and if they get back to their form winning ways of 2016/17 then they will definitely be the smoking gun of next year’s World Cup.

The only real question for us is the Captaincy when it comes to England. While we don’t deny that Owen Farrell is a brilliant player, we still remain unconvinced that his leadership skills are what England needs under pressure. His decision-making at times leaves a lot to be desired and his tackle technique definitely needs some work. He has had a habit of costing England dearly in big matches under pressure, and we still don’t see that has really changed. Like we say we don’t deny his skill, tenacity and all round committment, we just have trouble seeing him as the calm head England needs at the helm, especially when things aren’t going their way. The problem is if not Hartley or Farrell then who? For us that is the biggest question England has left to answer.

As we saw in their final match against England, Australia are clearly at sea without a paddle. Despite a raft of talented individual players, the Wallabies as a team simply don’t work. Add to that the fact that there is relatively little depth to their squad, and it is hard to see them getting much farther than the quarter finals in Japan next year, and if Fiji play like they did against France then even that might be a tall order. Michael Cheika seems out of touch with both his players and what he wants the team to look like, and the players seem unable to understand what kind of game it is they are meant to be playing. With precious few opportunities to play again as a unit before the World Cup, we really don’t see how Australia will be able to set their ship on a straight course once more. A World Cup without a competitive Australia will be a loss to the tournament as a whole, but it is in serious danger of becoming a reality.

Scotland and France still have work to do while Italy seems to have made little if any progress

Sure Italy did enough to beat Georgia and once more silence those who wish to see them fight for their place in the Six Nations on a yearly basis with the threat of relegation hanging over their heads. However, that is about all that can be said for the Azurri’s November campaign. For them to really show that there has been some genuine progress since the last World Cup, they needed a win against a vulnerable and demoralised Australian side that were there for the taking. Sadly they fell far short of the mark. With them most likely ending up the whipping boys once more of next year’s Six Nations, Italy will once more have to look at yet another 4 years of wasted opportunity.

Scotland played some terrific rugby this month make no mistake. They showed once more that they can go head to head with some of the world’s best, however closing out big games still remains problematic. While few felt they would beat Wales in Cardiff, they really needed to beat South Africa to make a statement that life beyond the quarter finals in Japan next year is a definite possibility. It didn’t happen and Scotland know they still have plenty of work to do to make such a promising side go the distance it needs to. They are blessed with some exceptional talent across the park, and some surprising depth, however that big match temperament still eludes them to some degree. With a tough schedule of away games in next year’s Six Nations, it remains to be seen if Scotland can get their house in sufficient order in time for Japan.

France meanwhile will be pleased with their much-needed victory against Argentina, who are their pool rivals next year in Japan. However, that was the sole highlight in an otherwise depressingly familiar November. They fell at the last hurdle to South Africa, and completely lost the plot against a sparkling Fijian side. Despite some stellar and inspirational performances, especially from their Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, their wasn’t enough collective grit from France to get the job done under pressure. If significant progress isn’t made in next year’s Six Nations, then France will have a mountain to climb come September and the World Cup. Consequently, a third place finish or better in the Six Nations must be their objective for the next three months as a bare minimum.

The top Tier 2 nations are going to be a handful at next year’s World Cup and could end up being genuine banana skins for some of the Tier 1 big guns

Japan’s outstanding performance against England and Fiji’s historic victory over France, proved that the Tier 2 countries may well be some of the more traditional rugby powers’ undoing at next year’s World Cup. Japan in front of their home crowd are likely to be exceptionally dangerous, and what we saw against England is likely to prove to be a mere teaser for what they can do as hosts of the biggest rugby spectacle on earth. Both Scotland and Ireland will need to be on their guard, as a quarter-final spot is not beyond Japan’s reach.

Fiji meanwhile have always been a joy to watch. However, what really stood out in their performance against France was the fact that they have become so much more than just a flashy set of backs. They possess some exceptionally skilled and powerful forwards, and their backs remain some of the most unpredictable and dangerous in Test Rugby. Australia after their woes this month, must surely be feeling more than a little nervous about their pool encounter with Fiji next year in the World Cup. Fiji could well send Australia packing before the knockout stages have even begun. Just like Japan a quarter-final spot is not beyond the realm of possibility for Fiji next year. Even Wales are no doubt feeling slightly edgy about meeting the Pacific Islanders.

With less than a year to go to the greatest Rugby show on earth, World Rugby really needs to sort out the mess that officiating has become

There were simply too many poor calls and controversies in the officiating this November, and there is no denying that at times it detracted from the quality of rugby on display. The tackle law needs some serious revision and subsequent consistency applied in terms of officiating, as does the on field interpretation of what is and what is not an offside position. Furthermore, if the TMOs, as they are now supposed to be, are to be a last resort then that also needs to be reinforced. There were too many occasions this month where they still had a leading role in affecting referees’ on field decisions or even leading or prompting the referee to revisit a decision.

In short, the lack of consistently applied standards to the refereeing of the game detracts from growing the game for a larger global audience and those to new to the game. Furthermore, it has a negative impact on players as they are increasingly unsure of what they can and cannot get away with in the eyes of the officials, making strategy and planning almost impossible at times. Perhaps most important of all, the constant interruption and lack of clarity is energy sapping and frustrating for both players and spectators alike. While we are the first to admit that referees face by far the most difficult job on the pitch, consistency in terms of interpretation of arguably one of sport’s most complex set of rules must still be a paramount concern for both them and their superiors. In the sport’s showpiece tournament next year in Japan this has to be got right. Let’s hope that as a step on the road to ensuring this, next year’s Six Nations is the proving ground to fixing the issues to the point where we and countless others no longer have to write about it.

Endnote

Although there is no International Rugby till the Six Nations in February, we won’t be silent and have a few things we’ll be looking at between now and then. Between now and the beginning of January we’ll be putting out our annual report cards on the Rugby Championship participants – Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With Canada having just snagged the last World Cup berth up for grabs we’ll be handing out our report card on their turbulent season this year and a look ahead to next year’s Americas Rugby Championship. We’ll also be putting together report cards on the four Tier 2 nations we think are most likely to cause problems at next year’s World Cup for some of the bigger guns – Japan, Fiji, the USA and Georgia. There’s also the small matter of putting out our team of 2018, though it may take a while as this topic is hotly debated amongst us all to the point where reaching a common consensus is proving to be tricky to say the least. Lastly as the European Champions Cup pool rounds draw to a close in January we’ll be having a look at what we can expect from the next year’s Six Nations tournament as a result

It’s been a terrific year and thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read our amateurish musings over the past twelve months which has helped get our visitor numbers up to the 10,000 mark. Bring on 2019 and all the excitement it has in store!!!

 

 

 

 

Like we say the remarkable Test match in Dublin last weekend lived up to its billing and then some! While this weekend’s final round of the November Test window may not quite have the aura of that memorable occasion there is still much to capture our interest this coming Saturday. Scotland once again kick off the action as they host Argentina, and they will be looking to finish their November campaign with a bang after narrowly losing to South Africa. England then take on a Wallaby side that is still struggling to convince despite a win against Italy. England will need to sharpen their skills after looking decidedly less than flash against a spirited Japanese team last weekend. The big fixture of this weekend is without a doubt the match between Wales and South Africa. Both sides are on a roll after a successful November campaign and look to be evenly matched as the number 2 side in the Northern Hemisphere meets number two in the Southern Hemisphere.

In other November action, Ireland take on the USA, France meet up with Fiji and Italy have the unenviable task of doing battle with an All Black side smarting from their loss to Ireland the week before. Canada also take on Hong in their last match in the World Cup repechage tournament in France. With two solid wins behind them they look well placed to book their berth to Japan next year. As much as we would like to cover all these games in addition to the three main matches this weekend, we are sadly constrained once more by time and resources, so will have to focus our attention on events in Edinburgh, Twickenham and Cardiff this Saturday.

So without further ado here’s what got us talking about the upcoming action.

Scotland vs Argentina – Saturday, November 24th – Murrayfield

Scotland stayed true to form last weekend and their opening forty minutes against South Africa was played at a blistering pace. Both their tries showed some genuine brilliance on attack and their skill at getting the ball through the hands at speed on their first try was a joy to watch. However, at times they looked frail defensively and while mixing it physically with South Africa is always a challenge, it was clear that at times they were struggling to remain competitive. South Africa meanwhile clearly had the upper hand up front, and courtesy of Scotland’s fast paced game occasionally proving too ambitious, South Africa were able to play a more composed and structured game. South Africa once more were able to show a resolve similar to that shown in Paris the week before. They simply didn’t panic despite Scotland putting them under pressure continuously in the second half. Their defence held firm and they were able to turn Scotland’s mistakes to their advantage, with Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjiies’ boots sealing the deal for the Springboks.

Argentina know that they can play just as quickly as Scotland in the backs and have a fly half who is the measure of Scotland’s Finn Russell. The Pumas also boast a forward pack that can put Scotland under the same kind of pressure they got from the Springboks. However, the Pumas scrum still remains a major Achilles Heel for them and they appear to be fading in terms of overall potency after a long hard season together both at Super Rugby and Test Level as the inevitable fatigue sets in.

We know Russell’s played the position before but definitely a first for us

Finn Russell has apparently played at centre before but we are not familiar with him in the role. As a result Saturday’s contest holds plenty of interest. Relieved of the burden of game management from the fly half position we are curious to see if Russell’s quick turn of pace and unpredictability may actually be more suited to the inside channels. His partnership with the electric Huw Jones should provide plenty of sparks, as well as him being able to provide support to his understudy at fly half, Adam Hastings. Between Jones, Russell and Hastings, this could prove to be a deadly axis which Argentina could struggle to get to grips with.

Argentina’s scrum is a mess – plain and simple

Given that the Pumas Coach Mario Ledesma is a veteran warrior of the front row, it is hard to understand Argentina’s continuing problems at the coal face. But problems there are as we clearly saw against France. The Pumas either went backwards or collapsed at scrum time. There were the odd moments where they seemed to hold their ground but in general they were completely overpowered by the French. Scotland were able to hold their own for the most part against a fearsome South African front row, so we can’t help feeling that unless Ledesma has worked miracles in the space of a week from a squad clearly starting to show the strains of a long season – it could well be a troublesome afternoon for the Pumas in the set pieces.

If the Pumas debutant in the back row can hold his own, this should be one of the best contests of the afternoon

One consistent area of strength for Argentina has been their back row this year. In Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio the Pumas are rock solid and it will be interesting to see how debutant Rodrigo Bruni complements a fearsome unit. Having said that they will be up against an equally slick group in the shape of Scotland’s Hamish Watson who was outstanding last week against South Africa along with newcomer James Ritchie who the more we see the more we like. Saturday also sees the return of Josh Strauss to the starting XV back row for Scotland. One of Scotland’s most underrated players, the South African born flanker should be able to match up to the Pumas physicality with ease.

Scotland’s young bucks get a superb examination ahead of the Six Nations

Winger Blair Kinghorn and fly half Adam Hastings have but a handful of caps between them for Scotland, especially in the starting XV. However, both have the ability to impress but will need to be at their absolute best on Saturday, as they face the two players who have consistently stood out for the Pumas this November – fly half Nicolas Sanchez and winger Ramiro Moyano. Kinghorn is going to have his work cut out containing the fleet-footed Pumas speedster who is also exceptionally handy under the high ball despite his smaller frame. Meanwhile Adam Hastings will need to make sure that it is not Sanchez who is running the show on Saturday. Hastings will be ably assisted by Russell in the centre of the park, but he couldn’t ask for a better test ahead of the Six Nations as how to operate under pressure and manage a free-flowing game against one of the world’s best. The rain that was predicted for tomorrow looks to hold off till much later in the evening, so we should be in for a fast and furious match between two sides who love to run the ball.

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg may be the world’s best counter attacker but Argentina are packing a back three who can do the same in their sleep

If the end of a long hard season hasn’t depleted the Pumas’ tanks, then this could well be their last hurrah of a year that has seen some genuine success. Stuart Hogg may be the best in the world from bursting out of his own 22 and causing complete havoc, but watch the Pumas back three this season and each of them have similar abilities. Winger Bautista Delguy and fullback Emiliano Boffelli have made some extraordinary metres this year, and if they have one last big game left in them, this could well be it. We all know what Ramiro Moyano can do, and while individually none of them may be able to hold a candle to Hogg on his own, as a counterattacking unit they could well negate the presence of the Scotsman if Argentina really bring their A game.

Verdict

On paper these two sides look relatively evenly matched. However, Argentina’s ongoing problems at scrum time and the fact that they are starting to show signs of their traditional end of year fadeout, make it hard for us to believe that they are likely to really make a statement at Murrayfield on Saturday. Scotland on the other hand will want to finish their November campaign on a positive note. It has been a frustrating month for the Scots after losing their opener to Wales and then a disappointing loss to South Africa. The comprehensive win over Fiji showed the Scots in fine form, but this month will mean little without a least one big Southern Hemisphere scalp. Hence the form book would indicate, and we tend to agree that Scotland will take Argentina in the Pumas last major outing of a long hard season by five points!

England vs Australia – Saturday, November 24th – Twickenham

England will not have been happy with their opening forty minutes against Japan last Saturday. They simply looked half asleep against a team that had clearly come to play. Order was restored in the second half, but they had clearly been given a massive wake up call by a side they had grossly underestimated. That is unlikely to be the case this weekend, as they will look to claim a decisive victory over a talented but badly misfiring Wallaby side. England need a decisive victory over their last Southern Hemisphere visitor after having squeaked past the Springboks by a point and just coming agonizingly short of an historic win over the All Blacks. Australia meanwhile will seek to end a disappointing November with a win over a side that has caused them nothing but heartache since the last World Cup. While Australia got a much-needed win over Italy last weekend, it wasn’t exactly pretty and has also left them with some worrying injury concerns, most notably to flanker David Pocock.

Could the absence of David Pocock end up being a blessing in disguise for Australia

Before you start wondering what we’ve been drinking by making a such a statement, think about it for a moment. Pocock has sadly been plagued by injury this year, and to be honest has not been at his best this season. That is said with no disrespect to the great man, but we feel he has been press ganged into Wallaby duty all season and it has clearly taken its toll. Furthermore, his partnership with Michael Hooper in the back row has been questioned as together they make Australia slightly lopsided in terms of balance. As a result Australia may finally have a unit that works properly on Saturday. Jack Dempsey has the talent but really needs an opportunity to shine, but with both Hooper and Pocock in the back row he is often completely overshadowed and slightly ineffective. The big question mark lies around Pete Samu at Test level, as we all know his pedigree with the Crusaders in Super Rugby. However, if this unit fires it may end up providing Pocock with the ability to be rested for key matches leading up to the World Cup and thus ultimately return to his best just when Australia need him most.

Talking of back rows, England almost has one at long last

Number eight Mark Wilson has been one of THE standout players for England this November and Sam Underhill was absolutely immense against New Zealand a fortnight ago. We have to confess to being slightly puzzled at Zach Mercer’s implosion against Japan last weekend, as we felt he still offered much more in the long-term than Brad Shields who gets the nod in the starting XV for tomorrow. However, there is no denying that in Wilson and Underhill England have some real force and one can even start talking about balance once more in the back row. This will be a real chance for them to really make a statement that they are the way forward for England leading up to the World Cup. If they can dominate an Australian unit that is still a work in progress, then we can think of no better justification.

Morale is probably at rock bottom in the Australian camp, but who will provide the spark of inspiration?

Sticking to form we are going to look to the Wallaby second row once more. As regular readers know, we feel Australia needs some grit in the style of the great John Eales, and we’ve staked our bet on Adam Coleman to ultimately provide it. In situations this year where Australia have clearly been battling a crisis of confidence, Coleman has often been the one spark of consistency and determination in an otherwise lacklustre performance. We feel he partners well with Izack Rodda, and if the two of them can compete with England’s Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes and actually win some key battles in the air, we are willing to bet that this will spur the rest of the Wallabies on. They will be up against it, as after a generally poor year, Itoje has finally found his rhythm once more, and Lawes is coming back into his own after injury. If the Wallaby pair can disrupt the Englishmen at lineout time, especially given that Jamie George has been battling with lineout accuracy then this could be a turning point that could spark Australia out of their collective disarray on Saturday.

Cheika’s selections once more have us scratching our head

Yes we know some of it has been forced by disciplinary issues, but we were fairly certain that this year proved Bernard Foley does not operate well in the centre channels. Although Matt Toomua is effective at both number 10 and 12, he is more suited to the centre as support to Bernard Foley – not the other way round. Once more we feel that Coach Michael Cheika has dug another few feet of a hole it looks like he is unlikely to get out of, by reverting to an experiment that clearly did not work. We’re still not entirely convinced by England’s centre offerings, but still feel they are going to be more effective than the Wallaby muddle.

We may be the only ones saying so, but we are not overly concerned about Folau switching back to fullback even if it may seem tough on Dane Haylett-Petty

A bit like Adam Coleman, Dane Haylett-Petty has been one of the few Wallaby players to consistently stand out this year. Although we have traditionally felt his talents are better suited to the wing in terms of crossing the whitewash for Australia, there is no denying that he has performed admirably at fullback this year. Having said that we do not feel that Israel Folau has performed all that well on the wing and thus this is one of the few positional changes made by Chieka for Saturday’s match that actually makes sense to us. Haylett-Petty can do both, but Folau can’t and Haylett-Petty is more likely to bag a much-needed five pointer from out wide than at fullback for Australia. Consequently, we can’t wait to see if we are proved right on this one on Saturday. If we aren’t and Folau has an off day while Haylett-Petty shines, are we looking at the ultimate sidelining of Folau as Australia desperately seek to find a back row combination that gels?

Verdict

Our overall impression of Australia at the moment is that, just like this time last year, they just want to get on the plane and go home and reflect on yet another disastrous season. In their last match of 2017 they were utterly blown away by a Scottish side who clearly recognised that the Wallabies were down and out. Australia find themselves in exactly the same position, made worse by the fact that it is less than a year out from the World Cup. With Coach Michael Cheika’s tenure clearly in question, a blowout to England similar to the Scottish fiasco last year would surely spell the end for the beleaguered Coach who has sadly done little to endear himself to the public or his team. Will we see a similar rant to the one in Salta at half time which had such a galvanizing effect on his team? In the cauldron that is Twickenham we fear that such a rant would simply demoralize a team already dramatically low on confidence. With all that said, Australia clearly find themselves with their backs against the wall up against an English side that smells blood and wants to end their year with two Southern Hemisphere scalps. Despite England’s slip up against Japan last weekend, we feel they are well placed to achieve their goals tomorrow and thus give them the spoils by 8 points!

Wales vs South Africa – Saturday, November 24th – Cardiff

The number two sides in their respective hemispheres meet in this clash that is clearly being seen as the big fixture of the weekend. Wales are clearly on an upward trajectory but it is not without its purple patches. They struggled to turn a match they should have won against England in the Six Nations to their comprehensive advantage. Against Australia they struggled to cross the whitewash this month, despite getting a much-needed win. They clearly have depth and talent in abundance, but it hasn’t quite developed that killer instinct to close out big matches against quality opposition. South Africa seem to have found that ability in the last six months and more importantly have been able to take it with them on the road. It will be a fascinating test of composure for both sides and one which will tell us much about how these two smoking guns are likely to perform in the World Cup next year.

Wales have a good front row but that South African unit, especially with Kitshoff in the mix look ominous

Wales know that if they want to go the distance next year in Japan they will need to be at their best here. In Ken Owens they have a seasoned and effective campaigner with Nicky Smith and Tomas Francis providing excellent support. However, as seen against Scotland last weekend South Africa’s Steven Kitshoff is such a live wire, coupled to Malcolm Marx’s destructive capabilities that Wales are going to have to be at their very best here. Perhaps their best chance of success is to disrupt Marx’s lineout throwing, as if that goes awry, Marx’s game tends to go with it.

Wales have some of the best depth in the second row we’ve seen in years

We’ve always felt that despite the presence of the legendary Alun-Wyn Jones that the second row has been a weak spot in the Welsh set up. No longer, youngster Adam Beard is a complete firecracker and Cory Hill is a more than able replacement. Admittedly South Africa are looking equally fearsome here, but if the Welsh trio can hold their own and even gain some dominance on this part of the park it could be a very good day out for Wales, but it is still a very big ask. If they pass the test then Wales head into the runup to next year’s Six Nations and the World Cup in exceptionally fine form.

Is Justin Tipuric the new Sam Warburton?

As readers of this blog know we are some of Tipuric’s biggest fans, and felt that the formidable Welsh back rower has had to live in the shadow of Sam Warburton for too long. With Warburton’s retirement from International rugby this year, Wales lose a legend but could not ask for a better replacement. Tipuric is clearly relishing the opportunity to grab centre stage, something he needs to do as Josh Navidi and Adam Shingler are also waiting in the wings in a part of the park in which Wales is genuinely blessed with depth. However, there is something about the talismanic presence that Tipuric brings to the position coupled to a superhuman work rate that is so inspirational to the rest of his colleagues. In that vein alone he is a worthy successor to Warburton.

Wales depth continues at half back

One of the things that has impressed us most about Wales continued improvement over the last year has been the development of some genuine depth in these two key positions. In the scrum half department, in particular it has got to the point where one can hardly remember the name Rhys Webb who was Wales’ guarantee for starting at 9 up to 2017. The depth continues at fly half, with last year’s regular Dan Biggar constantly having to play second fiddle to Gareth Anscombe even for matches of this stature. All players have been shrewdly rotated to ensure that they get sufficient game time and as a result, Wales are looking very much locked and loaded in this part of the park for the World Cup.

If Aphiwe Dyantyi can contain Wales’ George North then he has surely passed his defensive apprenticeship

We all know that Dyantyi is a try scoring machine, but at the start of the year there were massive question marks around his defensive abilities. Consequently, the focus of 2018 has been on how well the elusive Springbok winger can make the tackles that count. In George North, he has a big bruising opponent who is notoriously difficult to bring down once he has built up a head of steam. What has impressed us with Dyantyi is his relative fearlessness and when he does make the tackles, they often count. He no doubt still has much to learn but if he manages to keep North in check and bring the big Welshman down at speed, then we would argue that he has graduated with honor from his year at Springbok defensive college.

Verdict

South Africa are for once looking very good in November, something we are not traditionally used to saying about them at this time of the year. The fact that they are looking this good on the road, bodes extremely well for their buildup to the World Cup. Cardiff is always a very daunting place to play and has not been a happy hunting ground for the Springboks. With a Welsh side looking very much their equal, this will be an exceptionally stern Test and will tell us how far this Springbok side has come since they narrowly lost to Wales in Washington, DC a mere five months ago. Wales will want to put a lot more points on the board than they managed against their other Southern Hemisphere opponents Australia this month. However, that was an Australian side in crisis, something their opponents tomorrow do not appear to be in. Wales will be worried that they were unable to get the points they needed against a poor Australian side to give them any genuine comfort on the scoreboard. Against a Springbok side that finally seems to be hitting all the right notes, Wales will have to put in one of their best performances of the year. What is for certain is that if Wales fix the execution issues they had against Australia and are able to mix it with the Springbok pack, then this could be a match that will rival the intensity of the Ireland/New Zealand and England/New Zealand matches earlier this month. We are really struggling to call this one, but despite home advantage for Wales, we feel that South Africa have been so well tried and tested this month that they could just sneak it by two points! However, we’re simply not putting any bets on it and think this will be a very fitting finale to a superb month of Test rugby.

Now that we’ve finally had a chance to catch our breath after the thriller in Dublin, we can put pen to paper on a few things that stood out for us after a memorable weekend. There is no question that the showdown in Dublin between Ireland and New Zealand provided the most talking points, as two fantastic sides did not disappoint in a Test match that lived up to and exceeded the expectations around it. Ireland put in a truly massive performance and in doing so proved that even without some of their key players they can go head to head with the world’s best and come out on top. There is still a lot of rugby to be played between now and the World Cup, and as delighted as we were to see Ireland turn history and form upside down this past weekend, we aren’t going to get carried away just yet and start tipping them as favorites. The players and their remarkable Coach Joe Schmidt are wisely taking it as one game at a time in terms of their focus and preparation. That in itself will put them in a very strong position for Japan next year. Ireland have been talked up before and you almost sense that the players and Coaches are reluctant to get too carried away – enjoy the moment sure, but focus on what is immediately in front of you first and foremost.

Away from the main event in Dublin, we were also treated to an enthralling game between South Africa and Scotland, and a match which saw France get a much-needed win over their pool opponents in next year’s World Cup – Argentina. South Africa once more showed remarkable composure to get the job done under pressure against an exceptionally feisty and competitive Scotland. The first half as predicted was highly frenetic with tries aplenty, while the second was a solid effort from the Springboks on defensive duty as they withstood a constant onslaught from Scotland. In Lille, France looked the more composed of the two sides in their encounter with Argentina. The South Americans had plenty of sparkle, but as the match wore on they looked increasingly tired, and the complete lack of an effective scrum was their ultimate undoing, as discipline and handling errors continued to mount. France meanwhile managed to find their rhythm and sustain it for the full eighty minutes. France will have made a statement to Argentina that come next year in Japan when the two meet in the pool stages, les Bleus have the edge, especially if Argentina are unable to fix their scrum issues by then.

Lastly from a Canadian point of view, Canada managed to draw ever closer to securing the last spot up for grabs at next year’s World Cup with a fine win over Germany. They have one game left to play against Hong Kong, but barring any major slip ups, they should be able to start looking at travel arrangements to Japan next year.

So here’s what got us talking on Sunday, with a clear focus on the events in Dublin.

Ireland finally head to a World Cup with a squad that boasts a formidable degree of depth

We genuinely believed that without the likes of scrum half Conor Murray, centre Robbie Henshaw and flankers Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien, Ireland would find it hard to go toe to toe with the world’s number 1 team for a full eighty minutes. As a result, Ireland’s emphatic win over, what for all intents and purposes was a full strength New Zealand side on Saturday night in Dublin, was a remarkable achievement. What’s more important is that it means Ireland can travel to Japan next year, knowing that they can compete with the world’s best in a tournament in which attrition will be a significant factor. They have a player base that they can rotate effectively to ensure that they can remain competitive all the way to the end. Keiran Marmion and Luke McGrath are not Ireland’s first choice scrum halves but both stepped up to the plate and put in admirable performances. Flanker Josh van der Flier also put in a massive shift and showcased the talent and skill he brings to the position. Meanwhile the first choice regulars simply outdid themselves in a performance that was one for the ages. It was a complete team effort and a credit to players and coaching staff alike. In short, in terms of a classic Test match it doesn’t get much better than that.

It was hard to single out one player, but this surely was one of the most inspirational performances we’ve seen on a rugby pitch in a long time.

As we’ve already said, it was a monumental team effort from Ireland on Saturday night, but O’Mahony’s performance perhaps best encapsulated the sheer determination that Ireland put on display in Dublin. The standing ovation he so justly deserved from the packed Aviva Stadium when he left the field on the 63rd minute summed up the impact he had on the match. The man was simply everywhere, and at times while clearly battling through the pain barrier, he still managed to be where Ireland needed him to be, effecting turnover after turnover. It was an inspirational display that clearly had a huge impact in terms of galvanizing his colleagues to even greater heights, and it captivated the imagination of 51,000 enthralled spectators in the Aviva and the countless millions watching on TV screens around the world.

You don’t often see New Zealand being held tryless and that is the biggest testimony to how effective this Irish defence has become

Admittedly the British and Irish Lions managed to do it last year in Wellington, but it is an exceptionally rare occasion. This isn’t to say that New Zealand didn’t come close to a five pointer – they did on numerous occasions. However, Ireland’s defence was truly remarkable as it never really looked like cracking. They were exceptionally well organised, and on the odd occassion when they weren’t the amount of pressure that they had managed to maintain on New Zealand for the full eighty minutes often forced the All Blacks into mistakes. That pressure was the most remarkable aspect of Ireland’s game on Saturday night. It was utterly relentless and even as a spectator you felt drained at the end of eighty minutes. New Zealand may still be the best team in the world, but put them under nonstop pressure and they suddenly become mortal. Couple that with perhaps the best disciplinary record in Test Rugby right now, and Ireland were going to be more than a handful for the world’s best. Ireland were able to exert all that pressure while still managing to keep on the right side of referee Wayne Barnes’ whistle. On top of that they were absolutely clinical in everything they did, and their execution backed them up. Throw in a crowd who utterly got behind their boys, and New Zealand were up against it from the closing bars of “Ireland’s Call”. Jacob Stockdale’s remarkable try was simply icing on the cake of a truly phenomenal performance!

South Africa once more show the resolve needed to win big matches away from home

There is no doubt that South Africa were put under the pump by Scotland on Saturday. Their performance to keep a rampant Scottish side tryless in the second half required a calmness and focus we are not used to seeing from them until this year, especially on the road. Handre Pollard had another masterclass at fly half, and once more effortlessly slotted into the centre channels once Elton Jantjiies replaced him late in the second half. Jantjies also seems to perform much better in the role if Pollard is kept on the field, and this has been a key factor in both the France and Scotland games. South Africa can also take great heart in Embrose Papier’s first real examination under pressure at scrum half. We felt he offered quick and efficient delivery and stood up well on his first major outing at Test level. There is no question that this is now an accomplished Springbok unit that is starting to hit all the right notes, and one that is blessed with a forward pack that provides them with such a solid platform. For us the only question really remains around the centre channels, but even that is starting to provide more answers than questions these days. In short, South Africa are back with a bang and should they get one over the Welsh this weekend, they will be able to look back on 2018 as a genuine success that has once more made them a real contender for World Cup glory next year!

France continue to build quietly, and may well end up surprising us all next year

No it wasn’t exactly the match of the weekend in Lille, but there were moments that were genuinely entertaining from both France and Argentina. In this match Argentina started to show the signs of a long season of playing together and a scrum that simply doesn’t work. They started very brightly, but by the end were slowly but surely going backwards and that initial spark was long gone. France on the other hand looked the part. They were for the most part efficient and worked well together as a unit. As expected they pushed Argentina around at scrum time, and their set pieces worked that much better than the Pumas. The opportunities they did create were well taken, and in the second half they capitalised on a Pumas outfit starting to run out of puff and ideas. Furthermore they managed for large periods of the match to keep Argentina’s key playmaker, fly half Nicolas Sanchez, in check. They didn’t negate his presence on the field, but they did make it difficult for him to operate with the kind of freedom he needs. Pumas winger Moyano did give the French huge problems, as evidenced by his fine try, but once he was sadly relegated to the sidelines with injury in the 63rd minute, Argentina no longer looked as much of a threat out wide. It may not have been spectacular by les Bleus but it was an assured performance, with enough sparkle at times to give them a much-needed confidence boost ahead of next year’s Six Nations and their critical World Cup opener against Argentina on September 21st.

Endnote

As you can imagine New Zealand’s Steve and Ireland’s Gareth from the 1014 on YouTube had a lot to say on the proceedings between their two countries. Enjoy yet another superb breakdown of the action by the two greatest rugby sages on the Internet, and make sure you subscribe to help them push such remarkable content to greater heights! We’d also recommend you watch the match again with their second screen playing alongside as it offers some fascinating insights as the game unfolds.

There is no doubt that this weekend’s fixture in Dublin is one of the most anticipated Tests of the year, and one which will tell us a lot about how close the number two side Ireland is to the world’s best New Zealand. Ireland know that should they lose, there can be no excuses and that they must continue to raise the bar in terms of both their depth and skill if they are genuine about their aspirations to lift the Webb Ellis trophy next year in Japan. If New Zealand come away the losers, they know that their position at the top of Rugby’s world order is still secure for the moment, but England, Ireland and South Africa will be snapping hard at their heels come the World Cup next year, by which time the gap between these four rugby superpowers is likely to be minimal at best. New Zealand will know that in order to hang onto their dominance of the global game, they will have to, as they have so often, reinvent how the game is played.

Before we get underway in Dublin on Saturday, South Africa travel to Edinburgh to take on a Scottish side that obliterated a spirited Fijian challenge last weekend. Scotland seemed to have managed the unthinkable and seem able to play a faster game than Fiji, who have been the traditional speed kings of Test Rugby up till now. Scotland also don’t seem short on the brawn factor either and should be able to match up to the fearsome physical challenge that South Africa will bring. The Springboks showed a resolve in the final five minutes against France last weekend that we have rarely seen from them on the road, and snatched the win. In Wellington earlier this year they hung on to a famous victory like men possessed, but in Paris last Saturday they knew what they had to do and calmly and efficiently set about doing it without panicking, despite the seconds clicking down on the clock.

After the dustup in Dublin, we end the day in Northern France, as Argentina travel to Lille to take on a French side reeling from the loss to South Africa at the death in Paris last weekend. Nevertheless, there were still plenty of things for France to feel positive about, but if they are to avoid the type of schooling Argentina provided Ireland with at times last weekend, then they will need to improve on that performance. Argentina may have lost to Ireland, but they made them work for it in no uncertain terms. It was only a continually creaking scrum that really let them down. It is likely to be a bruising encounter and one in which Argentina after their exploits in Dublin will fancy their chances, and if that back three from the Pumas get a sniff of space it could be a long afternoon for the French. As the last crack at a Southern Hemisphere side before the World Cup, France will know they need to make a statement on Saturday in Lille, especially as these two sides will be fighting it out in the same pool for a ticket to the knockout stages in next year’s global showdown.

In other November action, Italy taken on an Australian side reeling from one crisis to another, Wales do battle with Tonga and England get to regroup with Japan. Much like last week, while we recognise the importance of these matches, due to limited resources we sadly won’t be covering them, as well as Canada’s key World Cup Repechage tournament fixture with Germany this weekend in France.

So, here’s what got us talking about each of the three key fixtures this weekend.

Scotland vs South Africa  – Saturday, November 17th – Murrayfield

South Africa travel to Edinburgh knowing that their performance against England was just short of the mark to get the win, and while they got the job done in Paris, they left it till far too late to seal the deal. Scotland will give them no easy breaks, and given the blistering tempo at which Scotland likes to play the game these days South Africa know they are going to have their hands full, especially defensively. The only way for them to keep out of danger is to simply suffocate the ball and give Scotland’s speed merchants no room in which to operate. However, Scotland as evidenced last week can pack some physical punch of their own, and Saturday’s contest should provide plenty of entertainment across the park.

If Scotland’s forward pack can mix it with South Africa, then the keys to the match may have been found

Everyone knows what Scotland’s backs can do, but the question remains as to how effective their forward pack really is. Against arguably the most punishing set of forwards in the world, Scotland will have the ultimate litmus Test with South Africa. Scotland ultimately got pushed around by Wales up front in their November opener, and Fiji are not renown for their forward prowess. As a result, Saturday’s Test will reveal a great deal about Scotland’s stocks in this department.

Another chance for Scotland’s Sam Skinner to really shine

Skinner was one of the talking points of Scotland’s demolition of Fiji last weekend. The debutant was a lethal weapon for the Scots against the Fijians and if he can build on that performance up against a seemingly immoveable Springbok back row, then Scotland will feel well pleased. However, the 23-year-old will have to hold his own against the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen.

Pollard vs Russell – versatility meets unpredictability

After the England match, Pollard clearly got his groove back for South Africa in Paris and as the game progressed, he became increasingly confident, so much so that he slotted effortlessly into the centre channel in the last quarter of the match once Elton Jantjies took over at fly half. Finn Russell on the other hand, very rarely does the same thing twice on a rugby field making it impossible at times to read Scotland defensively. Russell’s risk taking is at times legendary, however, if the execution isn’t there then it makes Scotland highly vulnerable. Pollard is the more cautious but reliable of the two, and is less likely to try something he knows his colleagues have only a 50/50 chance of pulling off. A fascinating contest in store here between these two.

Embrose Papier’s big day for the Springboks

South Africa are once more denied the services of the exceptional Faf de Klerk at scrum half, and instead have to rely on the relatively untested merits of Embrose Papier. There is no question he packs a bit more fizz in his delivery than the slightly more pedestrian Ivan van Zyl. However, he has precious little game time at this level under his belt. South Africa know they need to develop depth in a position that will be crucial to their chances at next year’s World Cup. Papier’s slightly quicker reflexes and pace of delivery is likely to suit what should be a much faster flowing game than what South Africa experienced against England. If he performs well, then Coach Rassie Erasmus can put a big check mark against depth at scrum half on his to do list.

Another huge defensive test awaits South Africa out wide

The debate continues around whether or not South Africa still has a credible defense out wide. There will be no better test than Saturday as they attempt to contain Huw Jones up the middle, and Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour out wide, with Seymour having scored a hat trick against Fiji. There is also a gentleman by the name of Stuart Hogg at fullback for Scotland who makes a habit of shredding defences from all over the park. Much like Argentina’s back three, this group of Scotsmen are going to be coming at South Africa from all angles all afternoon, if South Africa’s forwards don’t manage to stifle Scotland’s creativity. Pass this test and Erasmus will know he’s made some genuine progress on defence.

Verdict

This is for us the hardest contest to call this weekend. If South Africa are able to continually frustrate Scotland by denying them quick ball, as well as letting their own two wingers go to work, then it should be South Africa’s day. However, Scotland play at such breakneck speed and with such panache at times, they could manage to cause enough confusion to prevent South Africa getting any kind of cohesion in their defensive structures. We saw what Scotland did to Australia last year, and South Africa are still only just emerging from the kind of wilderness that the Wallabies now find themselves utterly lost in. We can’t help but get the feeling that Scotland, in front of the Murrayfield faithful, are just that much more up for this one, despite the highly physical and daunting threat that a rapidly improving South Africa offers. If Faf de Klerk was in the lineup for South Africa we would be giving them the edge, but without him South Africa are faced with a few more unknowns than Scotland on Saturday. Just like in Paris a close and hard-fought match awaits, but one in which Scotland should just rule the day by two points!

Ireland vs New Zealand – Saturday, November 17th – Dublin

Yes, it’s finally here. While taking nothing away from the titanic struggle between England and New Zealand last weekend, this match is still the big ticket for the November Internationals this year. It’s the best of the North meeting the best of the South and as a result is without a doubt the Test of the Year. Whoever, wins or loses will not result in New Zealand falling from their lofty position at the top of the world rankings just yet, but it will tell us a great deal about whether or not New Zealand still remain in a league of their own.

While England managed to keep within one point of New Zealand last weekend, and consequently put the All Blacks under the sort of pressure they are only just becoming used to of late, it ultimately wasn’t enough to prevent New Zealand from calmly wrestling back control of the game and emerging shaken but confident victors. It’s that quality of being able to come from behind without ever really looking panicked, that has become so synonymous with their success. They’ve only looked genuinely rattled twice in the last 3 years – once in Chicago two years ago against Ireland and most recently in Wellington against the Springboks. They arrive in Dublin with a lethal looking side that will require Ireland to be at their very best.

Ireland meanwhile come into the match, at the height of an unparalleled wave of success. However, they meet New Zealand without two players who were key to that famous victory in Chicago two years ago – scrum half Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw. More to the point, Ireland know that they cannot use this as an excuse if they play poorly on Saturday and suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of New Zealand. If you want to compete with the very best in the world, especially in the endurance marathon that is the World Cup, you simply have to be able to weather the inevitable attrition of some of your key players. As many people who are familiar with our musings know, we regard the lack of game time for Ireland’s half back understudies to Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton as their one potential Achilles Heel in the buildup to next year’s World Cup. If Keiran Marmion, Luke McGrath and Joey Carberry acquit themselves well this Saturday against the World’s best, then Coach Joe Schmidt can feel he has found the last missing link in the development of an Irish World Cup squad.

Rory Best has to be his best

As we mentioned in our post action musings from last weekend, we felt that Rory Best was slightly off the mark last weekend. The veteran hooker continued to lead from the front, but his accuracy at lineout time continued to leave us with concerns. Furthermore, he just looked off the pace for much of the match. We all know what the great man can do, but Ireland need him to bring his A game on Saturday and then some. We also felt that in the final quarter, Peter O’Mahony lent a certain edge to the Captaincy that Ireland needed to get over a troublesome opponent in the shape of Argentina. New Zealand are likely to be just as unsettling and Best really needs to rise to the occasion both in terms of execution and leadership. Without a doubt the biggest game he will play between now and the World Cup.

The second row contest – one of the biggest on the park

Saturday will take us back to prehistoric times as giants will once more roam the land in the lineouts. Ireland’s James Ryan wasn’t in Chicago for that famous victory but he has become such an integral part of Ireland’s success in the blink of an eye that it is hard to believe he wasn’t. Meanwhile, Devin Toner will add another towering dimension to Ireland’s second row. Ireland will need it as they go up against the best second row pair on the planet in the shape of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Retallick singlehandedly turned the game to New Zealand’s advantage by taking complete control of the lineouts away from England last weekend. The communication between Rory Best and his jumpers has to be perfect on Saturday, if Ireland are to avoid what happened to England last weekend.

Dan Leavy could have made the number 7 jersey his once and for all – but now it is Josh van der Flier’s turn to steal the limelight

When we published this last night this was a burning question. However, on waking up this morning we learnt that Leavy is out at the last minute and in steps Josh van der Flier. Consequently this comment and its response below are irrelevant in the context of tomorrow’s match. Having said that though, if Van der Flier can also step up in place of both Leavy and O’Brien, then it will raise even more questions for Joe Schmidt as to which of these three is his regular starter for the number 7 berth between now and the World Cup. Given the quality of all three players, this is a dilemma that most Coaches would dearly love to have.

One of the sad sights of Ireland’s encounter last weekend with Argentina was Sean O’Brien once more leaving the field with injury. Still for Dan Leavy it was opportunity knocks. As gutted as we all are for O’Brien, there is no question that Leavy is far more than just an able replacement. He was a force of nature from the moment he came on against the Pumas, and seems to relish an intense physical contest while at the same time seeming impervious to fatigue. As we said earlier this week, the man appears to have no off switch, much like his second row colleague James Ryan. If Leavy puts in a massive shift against New Zealand on Saturday, then irrespective of O’Brien’s recovery time, Coach Joe Schmidt will find it increasingly difficult to not see him as a starter in his World Cup plans over the next twelve months.

Depth at nine – now’s the time!

Ireland may be without the services of talismanic scrum half Conor Murray on Saturday, but they couldn’t have a better opportunity to really see the calibre of their stocks in this position. Murray has been such an integral part of Ireland’s success since the last World Cup that Ireland find themselves unsure of how well they can cope without him. Consequently, despite the fact that Murray’s two understudies Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath now have to step out of the frying pan and into the fire, Ireland couldn’t ask for a better examination of how much they need to do to develop the needed depth in this part of the park between now and Japan next year. Marmion has proven himself under pressure in an Irish jersey, but Luke McGrath has simply never had to face this kind of test. If they pass with flying colors then much of Ireland will sleep better on Saturday night.

Ireland’s back three will face their biggest Test and we’re not talking about Jacob Stockdale’s try scoring ability

If we see one area that Ireland may really struggle with on Saturday – it’s here. Sure, we all want to see the maestro of the try line for Ireland, winger Jacob Stockdale, grab at least one five pointer. However, if Ireland are to survive on Saturday, they really need to keep New Zealand’s back three in check defensively. While Ireland are masters of possession, they have proven vulnerable to the counter attack, and in Rieko Ioane, but particularly Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie, New Zealand possess Test Rugby’s ultimate weapons. Ireland’s Rob Kearney may be one of the undisputed champions of the high ball, but will he, Stockdale and Earls be able to contain McKenzie’s bursts from deep? The diminutive All Black fullback has defenders clawing helplessly at thin air as he does his own rendition of “Riverdance” across the park. A huge Test awaits the Irish trio and if they manage to get through it, Ireland will breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Verdict

Ireland know they are up against it on Saturday, and that it is going to take a very special team effort to pull off what would still be considered an upset if they were to beat New Zealand. Even without Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw, it is a very good Irish team that is coached by one of the best, if not THE best, tactical brains in Test Rugby in the shape of Joe Schmidt. However, New Zealand haven’t been the number one team in the world for the last nine years by accident. There is no team more clinical or ruthless in its approach to the modern game. They may have had their odd wobble this year, but in our humble opinion, we’ve never felt they’ve looked all that vulnerable – occasionally rattled yes but not vulnerable. Ireland may have a game plan to put them under pressure and get them to make mistakes, but there is no team that makes better use of the twenty minutes at half time in the sheds. For their opponents the final forty minutes is a nerve-racking affair of hanging on for dear life as New Zealand figure out how to play them at their own game and turn it to their advantage. Consequently, for us, it may be down to the wire, but Ireland have more questions to answer than New Zealand does on Saturday. Therefore, despite a titanic struggle at times, the All Blacks should seal this by eight points in a final ten minutes in which Ireland learn a great deal about themselves and what they need to do before Japan! However, in order to create yet another piece of sporting history between these two great sides we hope Ireland prove us wrong.

France vs Argentina – Saturday, November 17th – Lille

In days gone by, France would have been seen as the side with all the flair and panache and Argentina the side to grind out a punishing and physical contest. How times have changed as the roles are now completely reversed. Argentina still possess a formidable pack of forwards, but their skill lies more in disruption and ball carrying than it does in bludgeoning an opposition into submission. Argentina’s backs are like French backs of old and fizz with excitement and creativity. France have become a big punishing side, with sufficient pace in some of their backs to make opposition sides pay for their mistakes. But if you’re looking for French flair on Saturday, there’s likely to be more on offer in the tango.

France will be licking their wounds after being robbed at the death by South Africa. Argentina meanwhile arrive in France, full of confidence knowing that they gave Ireland a serious workout last weekend in Dublin. Argentina really only have one documented weakness at the moment, their scrum, while this is a French team that is not nearly as coherent and familiar with each other as the Pumas. However, both teams find themselves in similar positions – teams that can and should be having more success than the results they have to show for their efforts this year. If both teams turn up full of intent and get the basics right, this should be a very worthwhile match from a spectator point of view.

We didn’t see much in the way of hope for Argentina’s scrum last weekend

We are really struggling to understand why this traditional strength for Argentina is proving so problematic of late. Sadly, we didn’t see much last weekend to convince us that a turnaround in Argentina’s scrum fortunes is on the cards any time soon. Hooker Agustin Creevy is world class, but his support seems to be creaking around him. Although France struggled at times here against South Africa, we still felt they were competitive, which sadly is not something we can say about Argentina at the moment. We hope that November provides Argentina with the insight they need to fix it, but for now it’s looking like multiple visits to the drawing board.

France are likely to battle in the second row

Although we felt he had a better game than we expected him to have, Yoann Maestri and Sebastien Vahaamahina often looked panicked and overwhelmed against South Africa. By comparison Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini and Matias Alemanno looked almost composed last weekend against Ireland, which is definitely not a quality we are used to associating with Lavanini. Lavanini’s discipline and maturity have improved leaps and bounds this year and along with Alemanno, Argentina have a devastatingly effective and mobile second row unit. France needed to be better here last weekend and this Saturday will demand more of the same.

France need three Arthur Iturrias

Don’t get us wrong, Louis Picamoles and Wenceslas Lauret had good games last weekend but Iturria kept grabbing the headlines. Every time France did something positive the flanker’s name seemed to pop up. He will be up against a genuine powerhouse Pumas back row, but expect this 24-year-old to cause Argentina plenty of headaches on Saturday.

Moyano vs Thomas – one of the best contests of the weekend

That both these individuals have plenty of pace and an ability to turn on a dime is an understatement of the highest order. The weather conditions in Lille on Saturday look to favor a running game, and these two wingers are extraordinary proponents of such a contest. Argentina’s Ramiro Moyano has been for us one of the most exciting players to watch this year in open play and some of his running lines have been truly breathtaking. France’s Teddy Thomas is of the same calibre, though we feel that Moyano is better defensively. Watching these two in action will be a thrilling prospect on Saturday, and the more dominant of the two will most likely be on the winning side. To add to France’s headaches, there is also an Argentinian who goes by the name of Bautista Delguy who has probably featured in a few of Frenchman Yoann Huget’s nightmares this week.

In with the old and in with the new – the battle at 15

The New World in the shape of Argentina’s Emiliano Boffelli meets the Old World on Saturday in the form of France’s Maxime Medard. The French veteran is playing some of the best rugby of an illustrious career while Boffelli is the rookie everyone keeps talking about. Both are huge threats in their own right, are but players with very different styles, particularly on the counterattack. However, we feel that the Argentinian is more likely to grab the headlines as he features as part of a back three that have now been playing together continuously at both club and Test level since February. Unless fatigue gets the better of them this is ultimately a highly seasoned Argentinian unit, even if France may be packing more in the experience department.

Verdict

France should win and will want to win. While the latter part of that statement is clearly stating the obvious, after the disappointment of last week it will be high on the list of their priorities. However, Argentina will also want to make a statement on this tour that they mean business at next year’s World Cup in one of their last major international outings before an abbreviated Rugby Championship next year. Two equally matched sides with plenty to prove should make for an even and entertaining match. However, because we were so impressed with how well Argentina coped with the second best side in the world last week, even if Ireland were misfiring, we think the Pumas might have the edge this weekend. Familiarity and a Coach who knows how to get results, make us lean toward Argentina as slight favourites in Lille on Saturday by four points!

Endnote

As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our posts this month with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there, subscribe and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content. In the meantime, here’s their excellent look at the kinds of tactical discussions that might be going on in the Irish and New Zealand think tanks this week.