With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 3 where we take a look at how Scotland fared.

Scotland – 7/10

Scotland have consistently gone from strength to strength in the last eighteen months. The departure of former Coach Vern Cotter at the end of the 2017 Six Nations, had many wondering if the renaissance he’d brought to Scottish rugby could continue under his successor Gregor Townsend. The short answer to that would appear to be that such concerns were completely unfounded! Townsend saw his side finish strongly in this year’s Six Nations, after a very successful November series of home Internationals, and end the year with a satisfying tour of the Americas which saw plenty of development in terms of depth. Scotland are a contender make no mistake, and they are more than capable of making it to a semi-final berth in Japan next year.

Scotland’s season got off to an encouraging start in November with a high scoring win against Samoa, but despite the victory it was a confusing and at times unsettling performance for Scotland and their fans. Scotland were leading 32-10 at the fifty minute mark. Somehow though in the next 15 minutes they would let Samoa right back into it as the Pacific Islanders would score two tries. The final quarter of the match was a frenetic affair with both sides seemingly scoring at will and Samoa in it right till the death. Given that 11 tries were scored and Scotland bagged six of them, it was worrying that Scotland found it so hard to put Samoa out of the game until literally the final whistle. Defensively at times they looked naive, a trait which has caught them napping more than once this year.

Scotland clearly spent a lot of time looking at the video footage of the match and the effort they put in against New Zealand the following weekend was vastly improved. For us in many ways it was Scotland’s most memorable performance of the year, despite the narrow loss. It was a thrilling match that had everyone on the edge of their seats till the final whistle. Scotland were brave in attack, but truly epic in defence. If Stuart Hogg’s desperate last-ditch pass had gone to Scottish hands in the final minute after a fantastic breakout, then Scotland would have made history. Sadly though it wasn’t to be and Scotland could only imagine what might have been. Nevertheless, it had been a thrilling performance which saw Scotland dominate the All Blacks for large chunks of the match.

Scotland’s final encounter of the November fixture list was an absolute blinder as they recorded a staggering 53-24 win over the Wallabies, who themselves were looking much improved having just beaten New Zealand a few weeks previously. Scotland completely outclassed Australia and ran in an astonishing eight tries, some of which were sublime to watch. What was even more heartening for Scottish supporters was that this was all without talismanic fullback Stuart Hogg.

The start of Scotland’s Six Nations campaign, however brought them back down to earth with a resounding thump, as Wales comfortably cruised past a Scottish side that once again looked at sixes and sevens defensively. The following week, in front of an ecstatic Murrayfield crowd, Scotland regained their groove despite being sorely tested at times by a French side clearly going through their own renaissance. Although the Scots were made to work hard, they still ended up being the better side and walked away with a hard-earned 32-26 victory. Greig Laidlaw’s boot also ensured that France would pay dearly for their growing lack of discipline in the second half. The momentum continued a fortnight later as Scotland played host to Six Nations champions England. It was the Scots first Six Nations victory over England in 10 years. Scotland opened proceedings with an emphatic first half performance that ultimately left England with too much to do.

Scotland would head out on the road for their final two encounters of the Six Nations, and despite some brave efforts the wheels started to come off the bus. They are clearly a side to be reckoned with at home, but as a travelling side they still need to convince. They were thrashed comprehensively by Ireland in Dublin, by an Irish side that was rapidly building momentum for their ultimate Grand Slam Six Nations campaign. For Scotland’s final effort in Rome, they struggled to contain a feisty Italian side desperately attempting to salvage some pride from an otherwise disappointing campaign. Scotland squeaked the win and ultimately 3rd place in the Championship, but it wasn’t pretty and once again defensive frailties and over ambitious playmaking by fly half Finn Russell almost cost them dearly.

Scotland would end the year with a tour to the Americas which saw them take a development squad to Canada, the USA and Argentina. While there were very few surprises at them walking over a hapless Canadian side, eyebrows were raised as the USA gave them a real run for their money and emerged the winners by one point. Scotland would bounce back though as they went on to demolish a rudderless Pumas side 44-15. Although they will have been unhappy with the loss to the USA, the tour unearthed plenty of new and exciting talent ahead of their final year of preparation for next year’s World Cup in Japan.

There is no question that Scotland is in a good place heading into the 2018/19 season. A strong showing in November will give their rivals plenty of food for thought. If they are able to continue that form into another positive Six Nations performance which sees continued development of some of their newer players, then Scotland should be in an excellent position to provide a real challenge in Japan.

However, doubts remain about the consistency of their defence, as well as their ability to pull off big wins away from the hallowed ground of Murrayfield. Furthermore, as talented as he is, Scottish fly half Finn Russell may not have as much of a role in Scotland’s efforts this year as he will be playing his club rugby in France. Scotland, have consistently been brilliant one week and then rather average the next. They will really need to address this in 2018/19 as well as find some depth at fly half should Russell not be able to play the kind of role they would like. This may in itself not be such bad news as we have felt that although he is a remarkable player, Russell has a tendency to be overly ambitious at times and lacks the execution needed to pull off some rather adventurous plays. Therefore if Scotland can use this coming season to find a reliable back up for Russell as well as strengthen their defensive abilities then it should be another excellent year for them. We certainly hope so, as we hold to our view that they are without a doubt one of the most exciting attacking teams in International Rugby at the moment.

Match of the year – Scotland vs Australia – Murrayfield – November 25th – Scotland 53/Australia 24

In a truly emphatic win over the Wallabies, the “new” Scotland was on display at its best. The eight try epic by the Men in Blue was enthralling to watch and the fact that they achieved it without arguably their best player, fullback Stuart Hogg, on the field says a lot about where this Scottish side is headed.

Player of the year – Stuart Hogg

We really struggled with this one as there were so many impressive performances from Scottish players across the park this season. Nevertheless, the turbocharged fullback continues to light up pitches around the globe with his extraordinary line breaks and counter attacks. Hogg guarantees excitement and unpredictability and is clearly one of Scotland’s most daunting strike threats and a perpetual headache for opposition defences.

Player to watch in 2019 – George Turner

The Hooker who really stood out on the tour to the Americas this year, made us sit up and take notice from the minute he came off the bench against Canada. He backed that up with two solid performances against the USA and Argentina. Fast, powerful and able to cover vast amounts of the park, in the best tradition of New Zealand Hooker/utility back Dane Coles, we feel there is a very bright future ahead of this young man in a Scottish jersey and hope to see more of him this season.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Scotland’s best match of the year against Australia, in which they showed us that they can mix it up with the Southern Hemisphere and rack up some big points in the process. Scotland mean business and with the depth they are starting to develop are only going to get better. It still may be early days, and there are still some outstanding issues as mentioned above, but Scotland will be a force to be reckoned with this season and ultimately in Japan just over a year away.

To be continued – up next England!

 

Super Rugby comes to a close, as we eagerly await the start of the Rugby Championship in just over two weeks. New Zealand teams, and the Crusaders in particular, have once again dominated the competition, but its latter stages also showed that this year’s Rugby Championship should be a much more open contest than in previous years. There have been some very strong showings from South African teams, and with the Springbok renaissance that took place recently against England, we’re hoping for a competitive Championship this year. This year’s Super Rugby final should give us a tantalizing look at what we might expect to see when the Springboks and All Blacks clash heads next month.

This year’s final is a repeat of last year’s with the only difference being that the Lions are racking up the air miles en route to New Zealand, whereas last year it was the Crusaders making the long trek to Johannesburg. Given the travel factor and the small matter of the Crusaders essentially being an All Black undercover squad, it is hard to imagine the Lions upsetting the odds tomorrow in Christchurch. We are hoping for plenty of thrills and the South Africans have some real game breakers amongst their ranks. Malcolm Marx, Kwagga Smith, Marnus Schoeman and Aphiwe Dyantyi are all players who can in a heartbeat turn a match on its head. However, as we saw last weekend in the Crusaders semi-final clash with the Hurricanes, the Christchurch outfit can create opportunities and capitalise on them from anywhere on the park, and their counterattacking ability from deep is rather alarming to say the least.

Despite this match perhaps ending up as a bit of an anticlimax after two thrilling semi-finals last weekend, we are still looking forward to it. As mentioned above, we’re more than just a little curious if for no other reason than it being an exciting teaser for the Southern Hemisphere heavyweight showdown starting in a fortnight’s time.

Crusaders vs Lions
Saturday, August 4th
Christchurch

We haven’t had much time to chat about this one so, as a slight departure from our usual form, here’s a brief summary of our talking points leading up to the match.

The Lions rolling maul. Once it picks up speed it seems to have a life of its own that other teams struggle to contain. The Crusaders have a formidable forward pack, but provided the Lions are match fit and not overly jet lagged, the New Zealanders will find managing this weapon in the Lions arsenal exhausting.

Defensive liabilities of the Lions especially in the backs. The Lions have too many missed tackles going against their names in this competition for our liking. When you consider the quality of the Crusaders backs, especially what we saw from them last weekend, brilliantly orchestrated by fly half Richie Mo’unga then this could in the first quarter be the death of the Lions tomorrow. Given that the Lions seem to put themselves in a position of having to play catch up rugby, this could well be their undoing.

Elton Jantjies. Fly half Jantjies has failed dismally in this role at Test level, and let’s face it for all intents and purposes tomorrow is a dress rehearsal for the Springboks upcoming Tests in the Rugby Championship. While he performed well at home last weekend, we fear that his tendency to kick perfectly good ball away under pressure will be the Achilles Heel for the Lions as it is so often for the Springboks when Jantjies is wearing the number 10 jersey. He is a class player at Super Rugby level, and we hate to appear negative, but like many have serious concerns about his ability in matches like these especially a long way from home. He simply is no match for the Crusaders Richie Mo’unga, and we fear that the Lions could really lose the plot here tomorrow and struggle to exert any kind of control over the match.

Is he fit enough to do this again?

There is no question that winger Aphiwe Dyantyi scored the try of the weekend in Johannesburg last Saturday, and possibly of the tournament. However, the cost was a hamstring tweak that may still be giving him grief. Nevertheless, if he can bring this kind of impact off the bench in the final quarter, and the Lions are in it with less than a score separating the two sides, then bring on the fireworks!

Richie Mo’unga and the All Blacks. We feel that this match will be Mo’unga’s calling card to wrestle a starting slot at number ten for the All Blacks away from incumbent Beauden Barrett in the coming weeks in one or two of New Zealand’s Rugby Championship encounters. No pressure Richie and we’re sure your primary focus will be on the job at hand.

Our prediction. We’re really hoping that this ends up being one of those finals for the ages. However, looking at the up and down form of the Lions this season and the clinical efficiency of the Crusaders barring one or two blips, it’s fairly clear that the South African squad have more on their plate to deal with than the home side. Is an upset in the making? We’d love to see it for the history books, but reality sets in and leaves us with the conviction that the Lions will bring plenty of heart and spirit, but the home town heroes are going to wrap this up comfortably and thus the Crusaders to bring the trophy home by 12 points!

Endnote

If you follow us on Facebook, they’ve made it harder to link this to our resident scribe’s profile so we have created a Facebook page for the Lineout, so please feel free to check it out: https://www.facebook.com/pg/therugbylineout/posts/

We’re even toying with the idea of YouTube come October…………….watch this space!

Last weekend’s Super Rugby quarter-finals certainly did not disappoint in terms of thrills and spills. The Hurricanes were lucky to hang on to a narrow one point victory against the Chiefs, with the latter setting the final three minutes of the match alight and giving Hurricanes supporters serious blood pressure problems. There were few if any surprises in Christchurch as the dominant team of the competition, New Zealand’s Crusaders cruised past South Africa’s Sharks.

Meanwhile in Sydney the Waratahs looked done and dusted by the end of the first half as the Highlanders had run rings around them. In the second half we were treated to the comeback performance of the tournament, as the Waratahs would rebound from a 23-6 deficit, and put 24 unanswered points past the Kiwi outfit to win the match 30-23. Finally in Johannesburg, it was clearly a bridge too far at altitude for the underdog team of the tournament, Argentina’s Jaguares. Despite an exceptionally strong showing in the second half of the tournament which saw the South Americans clinch their first ever spot in a Super Rugby playoff round, taking on the Lions on their own ground was always going to be a big ask. The Lions, as they have done for the last few years, really seem to come into their own at this stage of the tournament and last weekend was no exception, with a superb all round performance comfortably securing them a spot in this weekend’s semi-finals, and a home game to boot.

So let’s have a look at the two mouth-watering fixtures we are being treated to this weekend in closer detail.

Crusaders vs Hurricanes
Saturday, July 28th
Christchurch

The question really comes down to can anyone stop this season’s top form team the Crusaders? If any team is likely to do it then the Hurricanes probably stand the best chance. They’ll be upset about their defensive lapses in the final quarter last weekend against the Chiefs which almost saw them lose their semi-final spot. Nevertheless, the Hurricanes possess some of New Zealand’s best rugby talent in their ranks and as a result despite the seeming invincibility of the Crusaders, they will be more than up for the challenge.

What we are in store for this weekend is a battle royale between two exceptional sides. The Crusaders are back to the type of form that saw them mop up the competition year after year, and as Super Rugby’s most successful franchise they clearly have a solid track record on which to build. The Hurricanes have been the one side that has consistently snapped at their heels over the years, and as a result the rivalry on show this Saturday will be well worth the price of admission.

The Crusaders forward pack boasts a wealth of experience and talent that the Hurricanes will be hard pressed to beat, and in the front and second rows, we are fairly certain that it is going to be the Crusaders who will be dictating proceedings. The Crusaders front row is for all intents and purposes an All Black platform, and the familiarity of these three with each other under pressure will be a formidable asset. With Kieran Read back in the mix for the Crusaders, and seemingly back to his best from the moment he walked onto the pitch earlier this month, it will be difficult for the Hurricanes forward contingent to match up to the experience that the Crusaders will possess under the leadership of Read in the forward battles.

Despite the Crusaders likely dominance up front, once it comes to the question of who is pulling the strings behind the scrum and at half back, the Hurricanes suddenly come into their own. The Hurricanes half back pairing is absolutely world-class in the shape of scrum half TJ Perenara and fly half Beauden Barrett, even if the latter has lost some of his customary flair this season both in a Hurricanes and All Black jersey. We think that TJ Perenara based on form may well pip regular All Black stalwart Aaron Smith for the starting 9 jersey in next month’s Rugby Championship, such is the form of the feisty scrum half. The Crusaders offering is perhaps less well-known but has proved this season that they will be names to watch in the future. Richie Mo’unga in particular is likely to figure in All Black Coach Steve Hansen’s plans for both the upcoming Rugby Championship and the World Cup, especially as depth at fly half has been a problem for New Zealand.

In the backs, the two sides will be much more evenly matched, and this is where the most sparks are likely to fly on Saturday. In a very tight contest we are tipping our hats in favor of the Hurricanes here by the slightest of margins. Winger Julian Savea, aka “the Bus”, seems to be back to his barnstorming best in his final season in New Zealand before the lure of the Euro next year in France takes him away. Meanwhile his partner out wide Ben Lam has the potential to shred the best of defences. With Jordi Barrett and the exceptional Ngani Laumape at centre and speedster Nehe Milner-Skudder at fullback, this is an exciting set of options in the backs. Much as one would see the Crusaders forward pack being a starting All Black contingent, one could say the same of the Hurricanes offering from 9-15. The Crusaders also have some exciting talent on offer, but the sheer pedigree and class of the Hurricanes in this part of the park will really take some beating.

In short, hard to call but we think that home advantage and the consistency of form for the Crusaders will see them take a tight and exciting contest. Despite the Hurricanes prowess in the backs, we expect to see the Crusaders forward pack slam the door on the kind of possession that the Hurricanes would need to unleash their strike weapons at the back. Furthermore, as we saw last weekend, the Crusaders ability to create turnovers under pressure and then turn them into counter attacks from deep is extraordinary. The Hurricanes will be up for the challenge and should make this a spectacle well worth watching, but ultimately the Crusaders to take it by a converted try and thus seven points!

Lions vs Waratahs
Saturday, July 28th
Johannesburg

The Waratahs comeback last weekend against the Highlanders was without question one of the highlights of this year’s Super Rugby season. We had to confess that at half time we had written the Australians off, as it seemed to mirror the poor form of Australian sides in the competition in the last few years. However, we perhaps forgot to factor in the utterly remarkable ability that three Waratahs players have to completely turn a game on its head. Fly half Bernard Foley, centre Kurtley Beale and fullback Israel Folau are extraordinary players, and Beale in particular has consistently been front and centre of our pick for a World XV in the last two years. Beale’s ability to create opportunities in the blink of an eye is exceptional and he is just as good at doing it for the Waratahs as he is for the Wallabies. In short the man is a magician. The Lions will be desperately trying to figure out how to contain him for a full eighty minutes, especially with Folau and Foley set to be some of the rabbits he is likely to pull out of his hat.

That being said however, the Lions have their own secret weapon in the shape of Hooker Malcolm Marx. Much as Beale is to our World XV in the backs, Marx has a similar role in the forwards. A truly exceptional player who can also create opportunities out of thin air, coupled to an ability to generate turnovers at will. If you need further evidence, just flip over to our TV listings page where we have video highlights of the Lions/Jaguares match last weekend.

Up front, at home and with the altitude we are putting our money wholeheartedly on the Lions. Even Ruan Dreyer who was the weak link in the Lions and Springbok front row last season seems to have finally got his technique right, making the Lions a significant threat at the coal face of the scrum. The Waratahs also look solid but the Lions with Malcolm Marx front and centre should easily get the best of the contest here, ably supported in the second row by Franco Mostert whose work rate last weekend was exceptional. The Lions dominance should also continue in the back row, with Captain Warren Whiteley back to his best form after a lengthy spell out with injury, and Kwagga Smith possessing more X-factor than most defenses know what to do with, despite a rather quiet showing from him last weekend. The Waratahs will be competitive here, make no mistake, but the Lions should have the upper hand by a comfortable margin.

Much like the Crusaders/Hurricanes match up though things start to even out, once you start looking at the back and half back pairings. Bernard Foley at number ten for the Waratahs has had an outstanding season and was superb last weekend against the Highlanders. While his opposite number for the Lions Elton Jantjies also had an excellent outing last weekend, we still feel he is a liability under pressure. His weaknesses in a Springbok jersey despite his obvious talent are well documented, especially if he starts kicking away possession and putting high balls up for Israel Folau to run riot with.

The sheer genius of Kurtley Beale at centre and fullback Israel Folau will be what the Waratahs will be counting on at Ellis Park to get them out of jail. Taqele Naiyaravoro is also likely to cause all kinds of problems for the Lions defences, as will Beale’s centre partner Curtis Rona. However, Ruan Combrinck on the wing for the Lions and Harold Vorster at centre were outstanding last weekend and will provide plenty of challenge of their own for the Waratahs defences. Winger Aphiwe Dyantyi caught our eye in South Africa’s recent demolition of England in June, and Andries Coetzee looked very good against the Jaguares last weekend, despite blowing somewhat hot and cold this season.

Once again, another fascinating contest awaits, and the battle of the halfbacks on Saturday will be key. However, even if Jantjies has a wobble we still feel that the Lions at home will be a bridge too far for a Waratahs side that has built some remarkable momentum this season. There will be plenty of sparks and moments of genius from both sides, but our money is firmly on the Lions to set up a repeat of last year’s final with the Crusaders. The Lions to grind out a win over a classy Waratahs side by four points!

Endnote

We’ll end this with a shout out to Gareth Mason and his YouTube channel. If you want passion and enthusiasm about the game, then give the G-Man a bit of your time every week. We thoroughly enjoy his enthusiastic musings on our great game, and his output is remarkable. So give his preview of the weekend’s action a thumbs up!

Yes we apologise to our Southern Hemisphere friends. We haven’t forgotten you and are VERY much aware that there has been a rather exciting tournament going on over the last six months, despite our focus on the Six Nations and the June Internationals. The new slimmer Super Rugby format with just fifteen teams as opposed to the botched and cumbersome 18 team arrangement of last year, has provided a much better competition.

While New Zealand continue to dominate the tournament, there has been some real heart and enterprise from South African sides, and the recent long-awaited promise of Argentina’s Jaguares has finally started to emerge. Australian sides have even managed to pick up on some of the energy displayed by the Wallabies in the last 12 months. In short, it’s been a much more competitive and exciting tournament this year. This weekend’s semifinals should provide some great contests and we can’t wait, especially as the next three weekends will give us a fascinating insight into what we can expect for the forthcoming Rugby Championship in August. We haven’t had much of a chance to catch this season’s action but have every intention of committing to the remainder of what should be a great tournament.

Hurricanes vs Chiefs
Friday, July 20th
Wellington

Two of the competition’s most exciting sides of the last few years go head to head in what should be an absolute cracker of a match – with even the notorious Wellington weather set to co-operate. It may be a New Zealand derby, but there should be sparks aplenty between these two North Island rivals.

For the Hurricanes, the players we are really looking forward to seeing are the centre pairing of Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett, especially as we have traditionally only seen Barrett in the fullback role. Also will this be winger Julian Savea’s swan song in New Zealand before he heads to Toulon and France. Lastly we always enjoy seeing the exceptional Nehe Milner-Skudder who takes the fullback role on Friday night, and sincerely hope he can remain injury free for the Rugby Championship.

For the Chiefs, we are looking for thrills and spills aplenty from fly half Damian McKenzie and centre Anton-Lienert Brown. We’re also looking forward to seeing lock Brodie Retallick back in action after his absence for the All Blacks during the June Internationals.

An exciting match in prospect but one which we think the Hurricanes will just sneak, especially given the threats present in their backs. It will be close but the Hurricanes to edge it by four!

Crusaders vs Sharks
Saturday, July 20th
Christchurch

With their place in the knockout stages sealed early on, it would seem that the Crusaders took their foot off the gas in the final pool stages of the competition. However, expect them to ramp it up once more come Saturday. It will be a very hard task for South Africa’s Sharks to overcome the Kiwi Super Rugby juggernaut at home in Christchurch, but they certainly have some speedsters in the backs as we saw in the recent exploits of the Springboks against England, and a gritty front row looks set to pack down against the Crusaders front three.

We are excited to see Keiran Read back in action for the Crusaders, as like Brodie Retallick he was not present during the All Black series against France. However, what we are really looking forward to seeing is Crusaders centre Jack Goodhue in action, as we have heard nothing but good things about the youngster and are curious to see if his performances will merit an All Black call up for the Rugby Championship. Lukhanyo Am really made the headlines at centre for the Springboks this June, so expect the Sharks to look to him for some magic on Saturday along with Lwazi Mvovo on the wing. The battle of the two front rows, should also be one of the best contests of the match as both teams have proven match winners here.

Nevertheless it’s hard not to see the Crusaders coming away with a convincing win, given it’s home ground and their form for the majority of the season. The Sharks will put up a brave fight but ultimately it will be the Crusaders day by 16 points!

Waratahs vs Highlanders
Saturday, July 20th
Sydney

Australian teams have had a bit of a resurgence in the latter stages of the competition and the Waratahs in particular. However, New Zealand’s Highlanders are always difficult to beat especially in high stakes matches like this one.

To be honest we haven’t seen too much of these two teams to really judge other than what we know of their international players. On that note though, despite it being in the Waratahs backyard we feel that the Highlanders have the slight advantage given the calibre of Internationals in their ranks. Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and Liam Squire pack some serious pedigree. Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau do the same for the Waratahs, but the Highlanders still seem to have the bigger numbers in terms of star internationals. Consequently we’re handing this one to the Highlanders by six points!

Lions vs Jaguares
Saturday, July 20th
Johannesburg

For us this could be the most fascinating contest of the weekend. The Jaguares have surprised everyone in the last half of the competition, while the Lions have gone off the boil somewhat.

On paper we actually, perhaps to the surprise of some, feel that the Jaguares have the better team, despite the presence of Lions superstars like Hooker Malcolm Marx, lock Franco Mostert, flanker Kwagga Smith,  and wingers Aphiwe Dyantyi and Ruan Combrinck.

However, the Jaguares have looked a very balanced and cohesive side of late from 1-15. They have an exceptionally solid front row which appears well-disciplined. We were surprised to see Marcos Kremer shifted from the back row to the second row, where he has been outstanding all season, especially with Matias Alemanno and Tomas Lavanini on the bench as second row replacements. Guido Petti as Kremer’s partner in the second row has been exemplary and was one of the few players who made a name for himself in Argentina’s recent dismal two test series against Wales. However, it’s those Jaguares backs that are likely to be the Lions biggest concerns, especially a gentleman on the wing by the name of Bautista Delguy and Emiliano Boffelli at fullback. We have thoroughly enjoyed watching Delguy in action and expect to see big things from this young man come Argentina’s campaign in the World Cup.

It should be a close and thrilling encounter. However, have the Jaguares got one more game at altitude left in them? Let alone the travel schedule ahead of them if they do go through to the next round. The Lions traditionally turn on the pressure in front of the Ellis Park faithful, and it’s hard to see them let this one slip them by. Furthermore, the Jaguares have not fared well in their last two matches on the road in South Africa and we can’t help feeling that this is likely to be a bridge too far for them. A thrilling game at times with some spectacular running rugby in prospect from both sides, but the Lions to have the upper hand at the final whistle by five points!

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 2 where we take a look at how France fared.

France – 6/10

While like Italy, France were often short on results, they put in some stellar performances and certainly in the Six Nations, surprised most of us. France were subjected to a coaching change at the start of 2018, as Jacques Brunel was appointed to take over from Guy Noves, after a poor run of form by France in the November Internationals. As most regular readers of this blog know, we didn’t rate Brunel during his tenure with Italy, but we have been forced to eat our words for the most part this year, as France certainly looked sharp in the Six Nations, and despite finishing without a win on a three Test tour of New Zealand, they caused the All Blacks plenty of problems, even when forced to play for most of the second Test with only 14 men.

As already mentioned, France will want to forget the opening salvos of their season in November, as there was no question that they played poorly. They struggled to gain any traction in their opening Test against New Zealand, despite the All Blacks perhaps looking a tad weary. Their next encounter was with South Africa, in what proved to be a very messy and unattractive game from both sides. South Africa were also waiting for the axe to fall on outgoing Coach Alastair Coetzee’s head, and French Coach Noves could clearly see the knives being drawn for him as well. In a scrappy encounter, South Africa edged out Les Bleus by one point. With Guy Noves clearly on his way to the nearest exits, France struggled against their final November opponent Japan, and could only manage a draw.

The end of November saw the finish of Guy Noves’ short lived reign in charge and Jacques Brunel, the former Italian Coach appointed to the role. As mentioned earlier, we were slightly bemused by this decision to say the least, having being seriously underwhelmed by Brunel’s track record with the Azurri. Consequently, we expected to see France duking it out with Italy for the Wooden Spoon in the Six Nations. Instead we were made to eat humble pie.

France opened their Six Nations campaign with a thriller in Paris against Ireland. In an exceptionally tight and physical match, Ireland were only able to snatch victory at the death, and an impenetrable French defence kept the Irishmen well short of the try line for the full eighty minutes. Furthermore, it would only be France who were able to cross the whitewash, through some truly dazzling footwork by one of their genuine superstars, winger Teddy Thomas. France were unlucky to say the least and what a different Six Nations in might have been had not Irish fly half Johnny Sexton swung the match in Ireland’s favor with a last-minute drop goal, and ultimately set the Men in Green on the road to the Grand Slam.

However, it was clear that there was a snap in the French step again, and French flair in attack seemed to be making a comeback, allied to a superb defensive effort. Next up they travelled to Scotland and produced another thrilling spectacle which they were unlucky to lose. Scotland had to draw on every ounce of their ability to get the win, but poor French discipline in the final quarter of the match was France’s undoing.

France then got their first win of the competition, as they dismantled Italy in Marseille, especially in the second half. It was this match that clearly set them on the right foot for their encounter with England in Paris. We had a sneaking feeling that this would be the one match that France would really turn up for in the Six Nations and we were not disappointed. It was a fiery and determined French performance in which, once again, their defence proved superlative.

France put in another gritty performance against Wales in their final encounter of the Six Nations, in which they lost by a single point, but took solace in the fact that despite only two wins in the tournament they would ultimately finish ahead of England in fourth place.

From there it was off to New Zealand for a daunting three Test series. French touring sides at the end of their season have been traditionally poor, and most pundits, ourselves included had written them off against the All Blacks. What surprised everyone, including the All Blacks, was that this was a French side that never gave up, despite ultimately being comprehensively beaten in all three Tests.

In the first Test in which they suffered their heaviest loss, they can take enormous heart from the fact that at half time they were actually in the lead. Furthermore, to add insult to injury, the referee’s whistle seemed to be consistently and in many cases controversially biased against them throughout the series, which didn’t help their cause. Despite this, they simply never gave up as epitomised by their performance in the second Test. For us, despite France coming out on the losing side, this was their finest performance of the year and highlighted just how competitive in the face of enormous odds this new look French team can be. France were forced to play with only 14 men for 68 minutes, after fullback Benjamin Fall was given a controversial red card for a high tackle on New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett. Despite this setback, France came at New Zealand continuously and actually outplayed the All Blacks in the second half. However, sadly for France, New Zealand capitalised on their early advantage and left the French with too much to do, despite some real heroics on the field. The final Test however would be a bridge too far for France by a significant margin. Nevertheless, it still didn’t prevent France from playing some exquisite attacking rugby at times, and throughout the series they managed to produce some magical moments. While they will have been disappointed with losing the series 3-0, their attitude throughout and skill on show should give them plenty of confidence to build on for their preparations for the World Cup.

In short, it’s been a mixed bag for France this season, but there is no getting away from the fact that they have shown the beginnings of a real renaissance in French rugby. They once more have a powerful, mobile and dangerous forward pack, allied to some genuinely exciting backs who are clearly putting the flair back into French rugby. While their half back combinations still need some work and definition, there is plenty of talent coming through the ranks in this part of the field. To add to their cause in the half back department, veteran scrum half Morgan Parra showed that there is plenty of life left in this seasoned warrior that France can draw on for Japan. Although they only won 2 of their 11 matches this season, they ran many of their opponents far too close for comfort. Consequently, France are back and mean business and we can’t wait to see what they can do in 2018/2019.

Match of the year – New Zealand vs France – Wellington – June 16th – New Zealand 26/France 13

Although many thought that their win against England in the Six Nations was the highlight of their season, for us this match was France’s finest display despite the loss. It was a determined and at times sublime performance by France in the face of overwhelming odds. Furthermore, it epitomised the new never say die attitude of this next generation French team as they battled courageously a long way from home with just 14 men for 68 minutes against the best team in the world. regardless of the result the second half performance by France is the stuff of any Coach’s motivational video library!

Player of the year – Teddy Thomas

This was an exceptionally difficult call as so many French players stood up and were counted this year. However, it was the French winger’s ability to score some truly exquisite tries this past season that sees him get the nod, especially as he was the definition of the return to “French flair”.

Player to watch in 2019 – Kelian Galletier

We have liked the look of the 26-year-old French flanker, ever since he burst onto the scene for France in 2016. He epitomizes the new look French back row which has started to become increasingly dangerous in the last few years with the likes of Wenceslas Lauret, Yacouba Camara, Marco Tauleigne and Kevin Gourdon alongside him. His work rate in the second Test against New Zealand this June was utterly outstanding and expect him to be a real leader in the making in this new look French side in the coming years.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of France’s best match of the year against New Zealand, in which they showed us that France are not to be trifled with even when the odds seem set against them. The French effort in the second Test against the All Blacks was absolutely outstanding and definitely rang the alarm bells for their pool opponents in next year’s World Cup, one of whom will be England whose cage they have already rattled this past season.

To be continued – up next Scotland!

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 1 where we take a look at how Italy fared.

Italy – 5/10

Yes there have been some positives for Italy this season but sadly they have been few and far between. Despite the efforts made by their Coach Conor O’Shea and some exciting new talent, Italy can’t seem to last more than 50 minutes at Test level. There is plenty to work with, but given their track record this past season, it is hard to imagine them making much of a mark come the World Cup in Japan next year, especially when you consider that they would have to upset either a dominant New Zealand side or a resurgent Springbok unit to get beyond the Pool stages. That being said however, it surely takes the pressure off O’Shea to produce miracles come the World Cup. Instead, he can focus on to making Italy a strong third place finisher in their Pool, especially as they are likely to face two teams still to be determined. Consequently, Italy can use the tournament as the building blocks by which to mount a genuine challenge come the next global showdown four years later in France.

Italy opened their season in November with an optimistic start against Fiji, but thereafter it soon went downhill, as they were comprehensively beaten by Argentina and a poor South African side. The last two matches in particular were torrid affairs and a poor advertisement for not only Italian rugby but the sport in general. Even the talismanic Sergio Parisse seemed unable to lift Italy out of its malaise. In short, it was a worrying omen for how much of Italy’s season would progress.

The Six Nations, despite Italy comfortably taking the wooden spoon, would still see some exciting play from the Azurri. In an otherwise forgettable campaign they unearthed some genuine world-class talent that bodes well for the future. Despite their opening drubbing at the hands of England, flanker Sebastian Negri immediately grabbed the headlines and was from the outset one of Italy’s shining lights of the tournament. Meanwhile in the backs, Italy also produced some nuggets but none more so than fullback Matteo Minozzi and centre Tommaso Castello. The fullback in particular was one of the most exciting players of the tournament, and despite Italy ending up winless, they still provided some real sparks in attack and at times were a pleasure to watch.

Despite coming severely unstuck against Ireland, France and Wales, the Italians managed to save their best performance of the Six Nations for last as they took on a highly rated Scottish side in Rome. In front of an ecstatic crowd they just narrowly missed getting their first win of the tournament, as Scotland put on the afterburners in the final 15 minutes of the match and managed to eke out a narrow win. Once again though, despite a commanding performance in the first three-quarters of the match, Italy once again faded in the final twenty. This inability to go the distance in the last quarter of big games continues to be Italy’s Achilles Heel.

Italy ended their season in Japan, which was excellent preparation for next year’s global showdown. Their opening match saw them unable to contain a rampant Japanese side, but by the time of their second and final Test they seemed to have regained the composure that they will need for next year, and put in a solid performance that gave them a win and a real high note to end the year with.

On looking at their results, it may seem hard to feel that Italy got much out of this year. However, if you look deeper and regard it as a year in which Italy sought to learn a great deal about its next generation of players and develop some depth, then it can be considered a success. They have a respectable front and second row, albeit still needing some work on discipline and technique. Their back row, especially in the form of Sebastian Negri shows some real promise, although a replacement for the legendary Sergio Parisse at eight really needs to be found post Japan 2019. Their half back pairings also started to gel well at times this year, and in the backs there is a growing nucleus of young and potent strike threats, especially in the shape of Matteo Minozzi.

Italy needed to get results and they will be disappointed that this year has been such a lean season, hence us sadly giving them such a low score. However, at times they really did capture the imagination and this young squad produced some superb rugby. We sincerely believe that Italy and Conor O’Shea’s coaching team are headed for a better season starting in September, and although it’s very early days there is plenty for Italian supporters to feel optimistic about. Italy need to really develop this young group of exciting players for life beyond Japan 2019, and use the coming season as a key stepping stone in this process. One thing Italy surprisingly had no trouble doing this past season was score tries. 18 tries in ten matches is certainly respectable for any International side.

We genuinely believe that Italy will be better this year and are capable of one or two upsets. Either way there is enough promise in this young squad to make us want to see how much better they could be this year, especially if they find an extra fifteen minutes in the tank for all their Tests in the buildup to next year’s World Cup. Definitely very much a work in progress but one worth watching!

Match of the year – Italy vs Scotland – Rome – March 17th – Italy 27/Scotland 29

The thriller in Rome, was without a doubt Italy’s best performance of the year. Fly half Tommaso Allan’s two tries really summed up how this player really came of age for Italy this season, and how when Italy click they really can be a difficult side to contain. Italy were competitive, and although they faded in the final quarter, they gave us a thrilling spectacle of attacking rugby at times coupled to some dogged defence. It was the kind of performance that Italy will really need to draw on for the coming season.

Player of the year – Tommaso Allan

We’ve always been a fan of the young Italian fly half ever since his debut for Italy four years ago. He lends some real flair and brains to the 10 jersey for the Azurri, and a reliable boot when needed. His game management is really starting to develop, and he is likely to be one of Italy’s leaders in years to come. In short, a very valuable player for Italy who is really starting to show the maturity and composure needed at this level.

Player to watch in 2019 – Matteo Minozzi

This was a tough one for us as we were almost tempted to have Minozzi share the honors with flanker Sebastian Negri, such was the calibre of the flanker’s efforts this past season for Italy. However, Minozzi at fullback has been so exciting to watch in his first season with Italy that we just had to give it to him. At the tender age of 22, he shows an ability and wisdom well beyond his years. Furthermore, despite his small stature he was often remarkable in defence at times.  Minozzi was often seen putting in those critical last-ditch tackles as well as punching well above his weight. Expect plenty more fireworks from the Italian pocket-sized speedster this season.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Italy’s best Test of the year against Scotland during the Six Nations, in which they came so close to setting the tone they wanted and need for this upcoming season!

To be continued – up next France!

This is just a quick update as to what we plan to do, as you may have noticed we’ve been a bit quiet since the end of the June Test window. Yes there’s still lots to mull over from last month’s action which we have every intention of doing. However, our resident scribe is trapped in Florida on an intensive training course at the moment, so not much time to put pen to paper. What is coming up when he gets back though is:

  • Report Cards for the Six Nations competitors as they take a break for the summer after a long hard season;
  • A look at the knockout stages of this year’s Super Rugby and what it may mean for the upcoming Rugby Championship;
  • And yes most important of all a look ahead to August’s International action as we get ready for the Rugby Championship.

So we”ll be back later in the month, but till then enjoy the Super Rugby and to keep you going here is a little reminder of some of last month’s best action on YouTube courtesy of the good folks at Rugby 4 Life – give them a thumbs up!