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

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

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

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

South Africa – Won 2 – Lost 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The embodiment of just how much South Africa can hurt you

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

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

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

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

England – Won 3 – Lost 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wales – Won 2 – Lost 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroic Return

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

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

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

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

Scotland – Won 2 – Lost 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia – Won 0 – Lost 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Zealand – Won 1 – Lost 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy – Won 1 Lost 2

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

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

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

A blinding talent needing structure

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

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

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

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

Argentina – Won 1 Lost 2

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

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

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

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

Solid and dependable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England vs Australia – Saturday, November 13th – Twickenham

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

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

Another in a long line of under appreciated Wallaby talent

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

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

Pick the odd one out

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

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

Lights, camera, action!!!

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

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

Eddie Jones continues to keep us guessing with his positional switches

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

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

Look who’s back?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the right stuff but needs some target practise

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

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

Part of the fix

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

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

Battle royale of the 8s

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

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

Finlay who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up England vs Australia!

Scotland look to take on South Africa by muscling up!

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

Last weekend’s dustup at Murrayfield between Scotland and Australia may have been a low scoring affair but it certainly didn’t disappoint in terms of excitement. It was a helter skelter affair from both sides, and if you liked running rugby then it was clear from the opening five minutes that you’d come to the right place. It was a game where as good as your attack was the defence was better. Throw in the inevitable errors and as a result it was never going to be a try fest per se, but there were countless attempts at crossing the whitewash from both sides which made for a very entertaining match. Scotland though will want to cut down the error rate and slow things down a bit, as if they thought the Australian defence was good, they are likely to find the Springbok version suffocating.

South Africa against Wales last weekend, consolidated their physical game plan in the rain while at the same time continuing to be more cautiously adventurous and backing the forward momentum of their set piece play. As we saw in the final Test of the Rugby Championship against New Zealand, South Africa are growing increasingly confident with hanging on to the ball as opposed to a kicking game that simply hands possession back to the opposition. In short, there’s not too much point in having one of the world’s best units of heavy artillery if you’re not willing to use it to put points on the board and create an attacking platform. It’s a refreshing change and it’s cleary working for South Africa.

Scotland will have to match the Springbok brawn up front as much as they will have to use the imagination of their backs to try and unpick a defensive system that looks rather impenetrable to say the least. It will be a very different Test of character than what they faced against Australia, but if they can get through this both in one piece injury wise and holding their own on the scoreboard then they will be more than just a little excited about the Six Nations looming just around the corner.

Scotland vs South Africa – Saturday, November 13th – Murrayfield

While Scotland’s win over Australia last weekend was a Test of how well they can hold up against sides like the Wallabies who love to play at speed, this weekend’s match is very much a test of Scotland’s staying power under intense physical pressure. The Springbok squad that rolls out onto the pitch on Saturday in Murrayfield is not for the faint hearted. It’s full of big bruising units who increasingly look to attack as much as they defend. In short, it’s going to be a game of attrition and Scotland while pleased with their win over Australia, will be aware that they’ve only had a six day turnaround for this one.

South Africa arrive in Murrayfield on a roll, and last weekend’s titanic struggle with Wales was engrossing stuff to say the least. South Africa held on in the foul Cardiff weather to secure an ultimately convincing win against a solid Welsh effort. While their often criticised game plan hasn’t changed much, it has become more effective while at the same time becoming slightly more adventurous and clinical. They seem to have realised the ball is their friend and hanging on to it off the back of some impressive work by their forward pack can pay dividends. They know that given half a chance Scotland’s set of maverick backs will run at them all day and as a result it will be better to be with the ball than without it.

A former Bull meets another

There were several standout performances from Scotland last Sunday, but loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman continued to impress and Coach Gregor Townsend will be relying on his uncompromising physicality to match what he knows South Africa will bring to the party. The South African import who learnt his trade with the Bulls under 20s, goes up against a senior Bull in the shape of the equally impressive Trevor Nyakane. Nyakane is having the best season of his career to date and the battle at scrum time between him and Schoeman will be a real gauge of how well Scotland will be able to face up to the meat grinder South Africa are bringing to Murrayfield. If Scotland can remain competitive at the coalface it will determine how well the rest of their pack will front up. In Schoeman, Hooker Stuart McInally and Zander Fagerson they have a trio who should be able hold their own.

Is it a bird – no it’s a Hooker!

Scottish replacement Hooker Ewan Ashman stole the headlines against Australia with a try more akin to a winger than a front row forward

Given Canada’s dismal performances at the moment, there must be more than a few wondering how we never got our hands on Toronto born Ewan Ashman. The Hooker got involved in last weekend’s match far earlier than he expected after having to come off the bench for George Turner after only 12 minutes in. To say that it was a debut that took the rugby press by storm is an understatement. The Scottish hooker turned in a outstanding 68 minute shift culminating in a try that saw him jot the ball down in the corner with some acrobatics to keep the ball and his feet away from the touch line that would have been the envy of many a winger. His set piece work was solid, his lineout throwing was accurate – in short a dream debut. He makes the bench again this week and while he might not get the same amount of game time as he did last week, we can’t wait for whatever kind of cameo he ends up getting.

South Africa’s unsung hero

Although there were many contenders for Man of the Match last week, we felt that South African back rower Kwagga Smith was unlucky not to get the nod

We sincerely hope that after last weekend, Kwagga Smith’s place in the Springbok squad is no longer up for debate. His stats last weekend were impressive, 9 tackles, 2 crucial turnovers and 2 defenders beaten. His work rate is always impressive, he seems to be everywhere and is, just like Scotland’s Hamish Watson, a downright menace in the back row for South Africa. Physically he’s almost exactly the same stature as Watson which left us puzzled as to why we see the Scot on the bench yet Smith in the Springbok starting lineup. The Springboks as masters of hard hitting physical contact seem quite happy with Smith’s size, yet for this match Scotland have decided that they want to start with the big men in the shape of Jamie Ritchie, Nick Haining and Matt Fagerson. It will be fascinating to see when Watson gets brought into the fray to counter the outright nuisance factor of Smith.

Has he finally matured into a Test 10?

It’s been a long time coming but it seems we just had to be patient as Springbok fly half Elton Jantjies has finally brought his Super Rugby talents to the Test arena

We’ll be the first to admit that we’ve given Springbok fly half Elton Jantjies a lot of stick over the years. We’ve always admired his skills in Super Rugby but somehow such skills always seemed to vanish the minute he pulled on the green jersey. His last couple of outings however, have revised our opinions. He was excellent in closing out the Springboks recent win over New Zealand, and looked composed last weekend when he came off the bench against Wales in appalling conditions. This week is a big Test as Coach Jacques Nienaber has given him the starting berth. As long as Jantjies continues in the vein of his last few games, then we’d argue it could be a master stroke. Regular starter Handre Pollard is perhaps too conservative to be able to deal with Scotland’s maverick fly half Finn Russell, whereas there is a serious streak of flair in Jantjies and he has been known to pull off some rather remarkable and bold moves in the past. Provided that Jantjies understands that endlessly kicking to a very pacy and mobile Scottish back line is going to cause his team all kinds of headaches defensively, it could well be time for Jantjies to put on show some of those pinpoint kicks to put his own backs in space that he is famous for with the Lions in Super Rugby. Just pick your moments carefully Elton – that’s all we and your teammates ask!

Another Scottish newbie seeks to impress on the big stage!

Against Tonga Scottish newcomer Rufus McLean was electric on the wing

When your Coach says to you that on only your second cap you’re going up against one of the paciest and most inventive wingers in Test Rugby, South Africa’s Makazole Mapimpi, then if that’s not a vote of confidence in your abilities then we don’t know what is! Scottish Winger Rufus McLean was a joy to watch against Tonga, but South Africa will be the sternest possible Test the 21 year old could ask for on only his second outing in the blue jersey. If he can create the kind of magic he put on display against Tonga orchestrated by Chief Wizard Finn Russell, while keeping South Africa’s Makazole Mapimpi in check then Scotland will feel more than a little confident heading into next year’s Six Nations. We just hope that putting the youngster under such pressure so soon doesn’t break his spirit. He seems a fairly confident young man so we think he might just rise to the occasion.

The weather for Saturday’s match looks set to cooperate and unlike South Africa’s rain soaked encounter with Wales, it should be a fine day for some running rugby. The Springboks while still holding true to what they believe works for them, seem to have developed a more rounded and complete game since the Lions series. Their physical prowess is not in doubt, but they now seem much more confident in using it to support their efforts with ball in hand. It’s going to be a big bruising afternoon in Murrayfield, and as talented as Scotland are they may just not have enough to put the brakes on a Springbok juggernaut that is once more developing a rather frightening head of steam. Either way we’re in for a contest of two very different playing styles and this is a game you simply won’t want to miss – plain and simple!

Next up – Ireland vs New Zealand!

A Whirlwind Tour of this weekend’s Autumn International action – Part 3

As mentioned over on the TV page, work is dominating my life at the moment, so there is very little time to watch all the great rugby coming our way over the next three weeks, let alone write about it. However, with so much to talk about, felt I had to get something down on paper ahead of the opening weekend of the November Test window which will offer us some mouth watering contests. So instead of a piece on each of the games, sadly this week I am having to do a quick round of the key matches and a bullet point version of what struck me the most. I’ll also be attempting to put out a podcast before kickoff of the Italy/New Zealand game tomorrow morning.

So without any further ado let’s get into Part 3 and probably the game I’m looking forward to the most!

France vs Argentina – Saturday, November 6th – Paris

On paper given the recent form of both sides, this should be a fairly straight forward exercise favoring France. In the eight times the two sides have met since 2012 France have won five times. However, many of the encounters have been tight affairs and clashes between these two sides are usually worth the price of admission and ones which seem to bring out the best in both of them. Consequently, while the form book favors France by a considerable margin this is a match you may well find that your curiosity gets the better of you and you can’t look away. This could be one of the unlikely upsets of the month – remote but not impossible.

The weight of the world on some very young shoulders – French scrum half Antoine Dupont is handed the Captaincy

Antoine Dupont is arguably one of the best, if not the best, players in the global game right now. In terms of a rugby brain it is hard to find better allied to a skill set that at times defies belief. With regular French Captain Charles Ollivon out with injury, Dupont finds himself being handed the leader’s armband. While there is no doubting his ability, he has never Captained his club side Toulouse let alone the national side. While one can understand the rationale behind it, there is also a fear that the burden will constrict his freedom and natural joie de vivre on the pitch, qualities that serve his team so well in battle. To be honest we were surprised that back rower Anthony Jelonch didn’t get the honors after doing such a sterling job in the role this summer on France’s whirlwind tour to Australia. It’s a gamble by French Coach Fabien Galthie and we sincerely hope it’s one that pays off, especially with New Zealand lying in wait at the end of the month.

Otherwise France pack a powerful squad for this one. It’s a solid front row, with Hooker Julien Marchand looking to build on his excellent showing in Australia. Anthony Jelonch returns at 8, alongside the outstanding Cameron Woki. France are employing a powerhouse playmaking trio, comprising of Dupont at scrum half, Matthieu Jalibert at fly half and a new role for Romain Ntamack in the centres. If that doesn’t reek of razzle dazzle then we don’t know what does and the rest of the rugby world will need to pay close attention. Out wide France ooze class with Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere, and Gael Fickou will ably marshal France’s midfield defences alongside Ntamack. Lastly one of the revelations of the Australian tour fullback Melvyn Jaminet earns a starting berth and rightly so.

A star studded bench featuring the superb utility forward Gregory Alldritt and bruising centre Jonathan Danty completes a pretty impressive looking French roster.

One to watch – Argentine prop Thomas Gallo

Argentina bring some big names to Paris for this encounter, but one guy who may not feature in the who’s who of Pumas rugby is prop Thomas Gallo. However, we have a hunch that the youngster will be by the end of this month. On debut in Argentina’s final Rugby Championship match against Australia he scored both of the Pumas tries. In short, this young man is going places in a hurry and France will need to try and stop him dead in his tracks from the outset.

For the rest, Argentina bring a star studded cast to Paris, but somehow they are having trouble remembering their lines as an ensemble so far this year. Hooker and Captain Julian Montoya was arguably the best number 2 of the Rugby Championship but allied to a losing cause. He was a fan favorite and is rapidly rising to the lofty heights of his predecessor, the legendary Agustin Creevy. It’s a powerful and dynamic second row with Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti allied to a bone crunching and highly mobile back row of Pablo Matera, Facundo Isa and the outstanding Marcos Kremer. With fly half Nicolas Sanchez not quite match fit, Santiago Carreras continues his impressive apprenticeship in the ten jersey alongside the experienced Tomas Cubelli at scrum half. The centres and back line are all world class, they just have to gel as a unit to realize their individual brilliance.

In short it’s a quality Pumas side that just needs to keep its cool in terms of discipline and organisation and work together as cohesive unit. If they can do that, this could be a very tight and enthralling contest. If they don’t then by the time the second half gets underway it’s likely to be all about one team in dark blue jerseys till the final whistle. It may be a dead rubber if Argentina’s poor form continues, but if not this could arguably be one of the best contests of the weekend. If nothing else we have a hunch that at least the first half will be well worth your time tomorrow!

Scotland vs Australia – Sunday, November 7th – Murrayfield

If you ask us this is the game we are most looking forward to this weekend. Two teams who just keep getting better and better and who simply love to run the ball. As excitement machines these are two of the best sides we’ll see this month. In short, if you only watch one game this weekend, this is the one we think that merits your undivided attention. Since 2006 the sides have met eight times and it’s level at 4 all.

Scotland’s chief mischief maker fly half Finn Russell is back to do over three weekends what he wasn’t allowed to do on the Lions tour

Scotland are once more reunited with Finn Russell and many wonder how different the Lions series would have gone had he been allowed to weave his magic. Alas it wasn’t to be, but Scotland will want to make sure that within reason the playmaking maverick will be given free reign over the next three weeks. While he is still prone to bouts of recklessness there is no doubt the impish fly half has brought a slightly calmer and more measured approach to his game this year. The unpredictability is still there which makes him such a nightmare for opposition defences to read, but it’s a bit more thought out than in the past and slightly less impulsive. In short, he is just as gifted as he’s always been but with experience is now packing a rugby intellect to match the skill set.

Much the same can be said of the rest of the Scottish lineup to meet this Australian outfit that suddenly seems to be going places in a hurry. The front row has been blighted by injury, but is still packing some decent threats in the shape of new man Pierre Schoeman and Zander Fagerson with George Turner needing to have the kind of performance at Hooker that helped Scotland overturn England at Twickenham in the Six Nations. It’s the back row though that excites us the most, with Jamie Ritchie, the irrepressible Hamish Watson and Matt Fagerson – all wrecking balls in their own right but welded together present an ominous force. We’ve already highlighted the quality in the half backs with Ali Price adding significant value to the scrum half berth. The backs all ooze speed and a set of heels that are going to give the Wallabies defensive structures an extreme workout. When you have the class of wingers Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham being ably assisted by Captain and fullback Stuart Hogg, backed up by Chris Harris and Sam Johnson in the centre channels, Scotland will be spoilt for choice in terms of how they’ll want to run the ball on Sunday. Perhaps our only regret is not getting a chance to see Glasgow Warriors fly half Ross Thompson get another chance off the bench.

He may not be Finn Russell but reformed Wallaby fly half James O’Connor will relish the opportunity to stamp his authority back on the 10 jersey

All the talk this year so far when it comes to the Wallabies has been about the comeback of Quade Cooper in fly half berth, but O’Connor has also made his return and cleaned up his act considerably in the process. The quality was always there, but much like Cooper it was mired in personal excesses. There is no doubt he is a talented player and while he may not be able to pull rabbits out of the hat to the same degree as his Scottish counterpart, he can pack some surprises of his own when he needs to. He couldn’t ask for a better Test of how far he’s managed to progress his game in the last year than by going up against the Scottish magician. If he can hold his own and keep the Wallabies on the front foot and with the upper hand, then expect to see the Australian media suddenly forget all about Quade Cooper’s miracle comeback.

For the rest of it, despite the absence of Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete for this match, it’s still an exciting and rejuvenated Wallaby side brimming with confidence that takes to the field in Edinburgh on Sunday. Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie has decided to keep his star front rower Taniela Tupou on the bench for this one, but expect to see the Wallaby wonder weapon sooner rather than later. There’s lot of talk about the return of Will Skelton in the second row, as he features on the bench for the first time for the Wallabies since 2016. Rob Valetini and Captain Michael Hooper pack a back row that can go head to head with Scotland’s best. We’ve already mentioned James O’Connor while Nic White needs no introduction as the cheeky but resourceful Wallaby scrum half. Andrew Kellaway makes an interesting shift from the wing, where he scored try after try for Australia during the Rugby Championship to shore up the position that Australia does seem to struggle with at the moment, that of fullback. It’s quality for quality in the rest of the backs to match Scotland’s speedsters, but Australia’s defences will be tested and Jordan Petaia really needs to step up and be counted out wide, as good as he is on attack.

It’s a quality bench that sees another Wallaby return to action after a spell away, utility back Kurtley Beale. We’d argue that in Nic White and his replacement Tate McDermott, Australia have the better set of options in getting go forward ball from the scrum half position.

In short, this should be an absolute thriller of running and attacking rugby, ably assisted by a cooperative weather forecast. Of all the games this weekend, this is our number one pick and the one we feel you won’t want to miss. We have a hunch you’re going to be on the edge of your seat until the final whistle, having been fully entertained for the full eighty minutes.

So that’s it for now folks. Enjoy what should be a stellar weekend of Test Rugby and best of all another two to come. I’ll try and bash out a podcast or two early tomorrow morning before everything kicks off. Till then take care and stay safe!

A Whirlwind Tour of this weekend’s Autumn International action – Part 2

As mentioned over on the TV page, work is dominating my life at the moment, so there is very little time to watch all the great rugby coming our way over the next three weeks, let alone write about it. However, with so much to talk about, felt I had to get something down on paper ahead of the opening weekend of the November Test window which will offer us some mouth watering contests. So instead of a piece on each of the games, sadly this week I am having to do a quick round of the key matches and a bullet point version of what struck me the most. I’ll also be attempting to put out a podcast before kickoff of the Italy/New Zealand game tomorrow morning.

So without any further ado let’s get into Part 2!

England vs Tonga – Saturday, November 6th – Twickenham

While the result is not really in doubt this is the first look at a supposedly new English side. In reality we don’t think it’s all that refreshing and as always Coach Eddie Jones’ selections leave us slightly puzzled. Against a cobbled together Tongan side, we thought it would be a golden opportunity for a sea change in England selection policy to find and prove some much needed, and in some cases blatantly obvious, depth ahead of two challenging fixtures with Australia and South Africa.

Is this all we get in terms of new blood when there is so much more? Winger Adam Radwan and fullback Freddie Steward

As usual England Coach Eddie Jones proves obstinate in his selection policies. Surely this match which should be a mere formality for England, without any disrespect to a spirited but cobbled together Tongan side, is the perfect opportunity to start some of the new talent that Eddie Jones knows his side needs ahead of the World Cup and with two challenging fixtures this month against Australia and South Africa. Instead it’s business as usual with a few perplexing positional calls. The front row is tried and trusted as is the second row, with a host of familiar and formidable faces, most notably lock Maro Itoje. However, it’s the back row that has left most of us confused and English supporters fuming. While there is no denying how well Tom Curry works with Sam Underhill, the ‘kamikaze twins’ work best as flankers, and as he proved this year in the Six Nations and on the Lions tour Curry is not a number eight. England’s best prospects at eight are Sam Simmonds who once again, for reasons that beggar understanding, finds himself nowhere near the squad and a natural number eight Alex Dombrandt is consigned to the bench.

While there are concerns about an injury to superstar English fly half in the making Marcus Smith, surely this match was an opportunity to blood someone other than the ponderous Owen Farrell and the equally pedestrian Ben Youngs at scrum half, as there is simply no vision for the future here and time is running out with the World Cup less than two years away. In short, the only look at the future we get in England’s starting fifteen tomorrow is in the shape of Adam Radwan on the wing and Freddie Steward, both of whom thoroughly impressed during England’s summer tussles with the USA and Canada. Eddie Jones continues to pin his hopes on centre Manu Tuilagi, but we think we can say with absolute certainty that he is likely to be out with yet another one of the seemingly endless injuries that have sadly plagued this talented player’s career. There is some scope to look into the crystal ball of England’s future on the bench, but it’s still far less than we had expected for a match like this.

Tonga will be bolstered by the inclusion of Glasgow Warriors impressive winger Walter Fifita

Tonga produces talented rugby players of that there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever. Ask any Coach in New Zealand or Australia or talent scout in Europe. The problem is that as a national side they get to spend so little time together, that representative Tongan teams always feel patched together. They play with plenty of heart and can often punch way above their weight as individuals, but rarely are able to play as a cohesive unit. It’s a big ask for them on Saturday especially up against an English side that shows little in the way of experimentation and plenty of familiar faces.

We just hope it won’t be a completely one sided romp for the Men in White and that in the process Tonga are able to ask England some questions that Coach Eddie Jones has either decided to ignore or feels are not relevant to a World Cup that is starting to approach his charges at a rate of knots.

Wales vs South Africa – Saturday, November 6th – Cardiff

Along with France vs Argentina and Scotland vs Australia on Sunday, this is one of the three big games of the weekend and of the two games in this Part 2 of our look at the weekend’s action the one you won’t want to miss. Wales have a good track record against South Africa, but the Springboks found their mojo against New Zealand and are once again looking competent and confident. Something which Wales to be honest are not looking right now after their hiding at the hands of New Zealand and as usual an injury list from hell.

Two vital missing ingredients last weekend – fly half Dan Biggar and winger sensation Louis Rees-Zammit

Last weekend’s encounter against New Zealand was definitely a Test too soon for a Welsh side depleted by injury and several key players on Premiership duty in England. Things are rosier on the latter front this weekend as fly half Dan Biggar and winger Louis Rees-Zammit return for duty. Dan Biggar’s playmaking skills and ever reliable boot allied to the sheer pace and ability of the most exciting find in Welsh rugby in the last five years, winger Louis Rees-Zammit, will mean that Wales are likely to be infinitely more competitive than they were last weekend against a powerhouse All Black outfit.

In the front row Hooker Ryan Elias will be feeling the pressure after failing to deliver last weekend, especially at lineout time. Wales will be feeling the loss of talismanic Captain Alun Wyn Jones in the second row and on the pitch in general, while Adam Beard despite looking good in the Six Nations and on the Lions tour struggled for the most part to get to grips with Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock last Saturday. It’s a competitive Welsh back row with Aaron Wainwright and Taine Balsham, with both looking good against the All Blacks last weekend despite the latter’s lack of Test experience. However, they are up against a powerhouse Springbok set of forwards who caused all kinds of grief for New Zealand in the Rugby Championship. As good as he is, many feel that the return of flanker Ellis Jenkins from injury in a match that is likely to be intensely physical, is definitely a bridge too soon.

As already mentioned Wales will breathe a sigh of relief with Dan Biggar back in the mix at fly half as he’s a good match for Handre Pollard, and Tomos Williams at scrum half also impressed yet again last weekend. We just don’t feel that the Welsh centre pairing of Jonathan Davies and Nick Tompkins is a match for an increasingly electric and imaginative Springbok offering of Lukhanyo Am and Damian de Allende. Wales will place a great deal of hope in wingers Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit and if Biggar and the rest of his colleagues can get these two in space then it could be a long day at the office for South Africa, as well as both players being sound in defence. It’s a decent bench for Wales with Liam Williams able to cover for Johnny McNicholl should South Africa choose to stick with their tried and trusted aerial assault.

South Africa may be without Faf de Klerk at scrum half but it will be Herschel Jantjies chance to shine

Herschel Jantjies has had to live in the shadow of regular Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk since that memorable win over the All Blacks in New Zealand three years ago when he wore the 9 jersey. As a result we feel his game has suffered somewhat. We know what he can do he just needs the opportunity to do so. As a result this November tour is his golden opportunity. With de Klerk out injured it is likely that Jantjies will start in all three of the Springboks’ Tests. After tomorrow’s match he will get his chance to measure his mettle against Scotland and England, and a good performance in Cardiff should get him back on the upwards trajectory we first saw back in 2018.

South Africa’s last match of the Rugby Championship against New Zealand this year, and arguably their best game since their World Cup triumph over England, saw them finally show some ambition in attack and trust themselves to make their renown physicality count with ball in hand. This belief led to points on the board while keeping New Zealand out of the match as much as possible. They toned down their much criticised kicking game, used the boot more sparingly and effectively and trusted the momentum and physicality of their pack to release their backs. If they employ a similar approach against Wales it could be a long and tiring day at the coalface for the Men in Red with few weaknesses to exploit. It’s a solid Springbok lineup for Saturday’s game and we are hard pressed to find fault with it. If anything our only gripes are once again the absence of Aphelele Fassi in the backs and Jesse Kriel being a starting winger. In Kriel’s case we think there are better options and he is still more suited to the centre role as a bench replacement, while Steyn who makes the bench can simply be too hot and cold for our liking. Lastly we still remain to be convinced by fullback Damian Willemse at Test level, and feel that not giving Fassi a shot here is an opportunity gone missing yet again. The fact that Fassi doesn’t even make the bench leaves us muttering under our breath.

South Africa have the potential to reverse an unfortunate history of being on the wrong side of the scoreline in Cardiff, but this is a strengthened Welsh side smarting from their pounding at the hands of the All Blacks. The Principality Stadium was packed to the rafters last weekend for the first time since the pandemic and with the famous crowd demanding nothing less than outright victory from what looks to be a much more competitive Welsh side, expect this fixture to be rather feisty to say the least. It’s definitely our pick of the two matches in this piece if you only get to watch one of them!

A Whirlwind Tour of this weekend’s Autumn International action – Part 1

As mentioned over on the TV page, work is dominating my life at the moment, so there is very little time to watch all the great rugby coming our way over the next three weeks, let alone write about it. However, with so much to talk about, felt I had to get something down on paper ahead of the opening weekend of the November Test window which will offer us some mouth watering contests. So instead of a piece on each of the games, sadly this week I am having to do a quick round of the key matches and a bullet point version of what struck me the most. I’ll also try and put out a podcast if time permits.

So without any further ado let’s get into it!

Italy vs New Zealand – Saturday, November 6th – Rome

Italy get the party started on Saturday with a rather daunting fixture against the mighty All Blacks. As much as it is likely to be a one sided contest, Italy know they have nothing to lose and are likely using this match to get some game time for players they will be counting on for the two matches they will be targeting this month Argentina and Uruguay.

It’s time for Italy’s wonder kid fly half Paolo Garbisi to shine

With the exception of a few French and English based and Zebre players this is essentially URC side Benetton vs the All Blacks and with good reason. Benetton have certainly looked enterprising in the URC and are proving to be an exceptionally competitive team even if they are slightly shy on results. However, Saturday’s game sees the return to the Azurri of arguably their biggest star from club duty in France with Montpelier – fly half Paolo Garbisi. He’ll be up against one of the world’s best in the shape of New Zealand’s Richie Mo’unga, but if he can keep his cool and not kick the ball away without purpose which he is prone to do under pressure, then it will bode well for Italy’s other two Tests of the month against Argentina and Uruguay. Italy also have a new Coach former Benetton and Canada Coach Kieran Crowley. Let’s face it his track record with Benetton isn’t exactly stellar despite them winning the recent Rainbow Cup, and with Canada there was also little to write home about. Italy look strong in the back row and in the half backs. Their backs are exciting and they have a useful center pairing in Marco Zanon and a player to watch as far as we are concerned Juan Ignacio Brex.

In short, Italy will need to play smart and not kick the ball away except maybe to George Bridge who seems uncomfortable under the high ball, avoid chucking the ball around too much and watch their discipline.

The big news is the return of back rower Sam Cane to the All Black Captaincy

Although it is not New Zealand’s first string side, and with no disrespect to Italy it doesn’t need to be, it’s hard to see anything other than a comfortable win for the Men in Black. The big news is the return of back rower Sam Cane to the Captaincy and his first international outing since coming back from injury. It’s a strong front row from New Zealand especially with Hooker Dane Coles in the mix. However, it’s the back row of Cane and newcomer Luke Jacobsen who we’ve found rather impressive shored up by Hoskins Sotutu who is getting a lot of headline space at Super Rugby level with the Blues. We’re happy to see Brad Weber get another shot at scrum half but watch for another rising star Finlay Christie when he comes off the bench. Sevu Reece returns on the wing after blitzing the Americans and Damian McKenzie looks as always to cause havoc at fullback. The big question mark will be George Bridge on the wing who absolutely went to pieces under the high ball against South Africa even if he is rather handy with ball in hand.

In short, it’s likely to be all about New Zealand as they get some useful game time for their bench to feature against tougher opponents in the shape of Ireland and France.

Ireland vs Japan – Saturday, November 6th – Dublin

This game back in July was a thriller while we also felt Japan acquitted themselves very well against a formidable looking Wallaby outfit last month. Japan are one of the most entertaining sides to watch in Test rugby right now, while Ireland will want to find their groove in preparation for their showpiece event of the month – next weekend’s encounter with New Zealand.

Not done yet – Irish fly half Jonathan Sexton really does seem to be irreplaceable but many are wondering if time is running out with the World Cup less than two years away

Ireland without many of their key players away on Lions duty found Japan a bit of a handful this summer to say the least . With all their big guns turning out for this one, it’s a mark of the respect Ireland are showing to a Japanese side that continues to impress. Ireland will want to stop Japan showcasing their creativity and ability to pull off some of the most remarkable offloads in the modern game. In order to do that, it is not surprising that legendary Irish fly half Jonathan Sexton returns to duty to try and contain and slow down the Japanese mavericks. The problem is that there is no genuine replacement for him on the radar and with the next World Cup less than two years away at which time he will be 38, it is no wonder that Irish fans are having a few sleepless nights at the moment. However, along with Sexton, Ireland are packing a bruising outfit that is likely to stifle any kind of creativity that Japan will no doubt try and produce. We’re pleased to see dynamic Hooker Ronan Kelleher get the start tomorrow as part of a powerhouse Irish front row, which Japan will struggle to compete with. The second row of James Ryan and Tadgh Beirne won’t make life any easier for Japan while the back row sees experience from Jack Conan and Josh Van der Flier with excitement in the shape of newcomer Caelan Doris.

For this match we would have preferred to see some of the understudies for the scrum half position get a shot but clearly it’s not to be. It’s a powerful and creative centre pairing of Bundee Aki and the elusive Gary Ringrose, while the back line continues to explore the defensive liabilities of winger James Lowe, but should be comfortable with Andrew Conway. Fullback Hugo Keenan, who we thought should have seen Lions duty, will have his work cut out with trying to contain Japanese superstar Kotaro Matsushima, but the Leinster man seems to be able to cope with whatever challenges get sent his way. It’s a quality bench but our highlight will be seeing winger Keith Earls back in action. Earls has had a remarkable battle with injury of late but is playing some of the best rugby of his career and clearly enjoying himself.

Japan’s Mr. Excitement – fullback Kotaro Matsushima

Keep your eyes peeled on Saturday for the jersey wearing number 15. Japanese fullback Kotaro Matsushima who currently plies his trade with French side Clermont Ferrand, makes a return to the Japanese jersey and given that he lit up the World Cup, Ireland will really want to keep the Blossoms speedster in check. As Japan showed over the summer though they can be competitive and gave both the Lions and Ireland a run for their money and most recently the Wallabies. With essentially a full strength side this is a Japanese team to reckon with. Look out for number 8 Kazuki Himeno’s battle with Jack Conan and if you want some spirited encounters then look no further than the creative and dynamic halfback pairing of scrum half Yutaka Nagare and fly half Yu Tamara. Japan have some pacy backs and then there is a certain Mr. Matsushima as the last line of defence.

Ireland should emerge winners but are going to be asked some serious questions in the process, which will be excellent preparation for their ultimate challenge this month, next weekend’s fixture with the All Blacks. However, expect Japan to entertain from start to finish and you won’t want to miss this one.

We’ll be back shortly with parts 2 and 3. So enjoy these two and if you only watch one tomorrow then obviously our money is on the Ireland/Japan fixture.