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.

A Test too soon?

Wales take on New Zealand this weekend in a game that, similar to last weekend’s misguided matchup between the All Blacks and the USA, appears to be poorly timed and leaving one team with one hand tied behind its back. Wales are without a number of key players doing club duty in England’s domestic Premiership this weekend, and while we don’t doubt for a second the resolve of Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac’s charges, for many of them it could be a bridge too far against an All Black side suffering no such constraints.

New Zealand come into this game with a full complement of superstars, and although there are some key names missing such as scrum half Aaron Smith, this is not an All Black side most of us would want to meet in a dark alley let alone on a rugby pitch. Big, powerful, fast and exceptionally talented, All Black Coach Ian Foster has picked a side that few can argue with.

Wales on the other hand have a blend of wise old heads and rather exciting albeit slightly raw talent. It’s very much a case of a souped up muscle car put together in someone’s garage taking on a Formula 1 car. There is room for surprises and Wales will bring some real grunt to this contest, but it’s hard to see them going toe to toe with an All Black machine that has rarely faltered so far this year. However,take a fired up Welsh side, give them the underdog label and then stick them in front of an ardent Principality Stadium crowd and who knows what might happen?

A time for cool heads at the coalface

Ironically it would appear that all the pressure is on New Zealand’s Codie Taylor as opposed to Wales’ Ryan Elias despite the Welshman’s lack of caps

Wales’ Hooker Ryan Elias may not have quite the same number of Test caps as his illustrious opponent Codie Taylor on Saturday, but he has put in some solid performances in the Welsh jersey. While his club side Scarlets may be struggling a bit at the moment, his former boss at Parc Y Scarlets, Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac is fully cognizant of what Elias can bring to the Welsh party.

New Zealand’s Codie Taylor on the other hand will be feeling the heat on Saturday. There is no question that he has not been at his best of late, with his work at the set pieces less than stellar at several key moments in New Zealand’s 2021 season. Consequently the pressure is all on him as opposed to his Welsh opposite number, as the New Zealander has everything to prove with his rival Dane Coles breathing down his neck for the starter 2 jersey.

As a result despite his lack of experience against the kind of powerhouse front row that New Zealand are bringing to Cardiff, Elias may be the more comfortable of the two Hookers. With all the spotlights being on his opposite number, he may be less prone to mistakes and allowed to enjoy the privilege of measuring himself against one of the best sides in the world.

The ultimate Welsh warhorse

He may not be quite as quick as he used to be, but he still remains indestructible and one of the finest leaders of men any side could ask for

Welsh Captain and second rower Alun Wyn Jones is a legend plain and simple. We all marveled at his superhuman return from a dislocated shoulder this summer after Captaining the Lions against Japan. In a mere four weeks, he was back at it leading the Lions against arguably THE most physically demanding side on the planet – the Springboks. Wales are a completely different beast with him on the park, and the youngsters in the squad will benefit from his leadership and calmness on the pitch against seemingly overwhelming odds. Jones’ battle with his opposite number, New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick will be worth the price of admission alone this Saturday, with the All Black giving away far too many penalties for New Zealand Coach Ian Foster’s liking at the moment.

New kids on the block – but impressive works in progress

If you want a look at some rising talent in New Zealand and Wales then look no further than back rowers Ethan Blackadder and Taine Balsham

New Zealand back rower Ethan Blackadder comes from a rather impressive pedigree. His father Todd Blackadder has Captained the All Blacks and currently is regarded by many as the best Coach in New Zealand and some would argue should have got the top job. But ancestry aside Blackadder is definitely the real deal, albeit a bit rough around the edges still. He’s a versatile player who can when needed switch to the second row. His ball security may not be the best at times but this is definitely a player to watch as New Zealand starts to draw up their training squads for the next World Cup.

Meanwhile, Wales’ Taine Balsham is arguably the most exciting newcomer to take to the field for Wales on Saturday. He looked good off the bench this summer against Canada and consequently is rewarded with this first start for the Men in Red. As your first start, it doesn’t get much bigger than this but Wales need to find some fresh talent in the back row to shore up their stocks, given that both Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi are out with injury. Balsham is a natural fit despite the up and down form so far this season of his club side the Dragons in the URC. With fellow Dragons Ross Moriarty and Aaron Wainwright alongside him the youngster should feel right at home.

Is his star waning?

While scrum half TJ Perenara’s acting skills during the haka are second to none, those on the field have started to look questionable

All Black scrum TJ Perenara has had to live in the shadow of Aaron Smith all his career, and it would appear that this year it is starting to show. He now has Brad Weber hot on his heels to secure the second choice 9 jersey, and it would appear that Weber is starting to pull ahead. Perenara has just not been that sharp in the last two years. Famous for his constant chirping at the referees, it has unfortunately cost his team on a few occasions, as he has spent more time trying to officiate than actually play the game as well as giving away silly penalties. While his ability to rattle the opposition is clearly part of his skill set, he simply doesn’t have the eye for space and opportunity that Smith and Weber do.

He’ll be up against Wales and Cardiff Blues Tomos Williams who can be a real live wire, but is also likely to remain oblivious to Perenara’s endless commentary. The race for the number one spot on Wayne Pivac’s team sheet for the scrum half berth is definitely on, and we’d argue that Williams’ eye for opportunity may see him get the nod come the end of November.

A welcome return to the Welsh fold

We are delighted to see Gareth Anscombe back in the mix for Wales at fly half

Wales need an understudy for Dan Biggar and they need it quickly. Rhys Priestland who makes the bench for Wales for this match, has put in some impressive performances, but given his age it is unlikely he’ll be a prospect for the next World Cup and beyond. As a result Gareth Anscombe, who ironically is also qualified to play for New Zealand, is the real deal and his return from injury is probably the best early Christmas present Wayne Pivac will get this year, barring a possible earlier than expected recovery of Welsh backrower Justin Tipuric. Anscombe’s playmaking skills are solid and they’ll need to be up against Test Rugby’s ultimate opportunist New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett. Where Anscombe may not be the silky operator Barrett is, his goal kicking is infinitely more reliable than the All Black’s. If it comes down to a goal kicking penalty contest then our money’s on Anscombe.

It’s hard to disagree with the bookies, pundits and people infinitely wiser than ourselves when it comes to matters of the oval ball, who argue that this is a Test that has come a week too soon. Without some of their England based players Wales simply cannot match the pedigree that this All Black side has to offer. However, what we can’t agree with is the fact that everyone seems to have written Wales off before referee Mathieu Raynal has blown the first whistle. We have a hunch that by doing so Wales head into this match feeling very comfortable with the underdog label, as well as much of the pressure being all on their opponents’ shoulders. While the assumption that New Zealand will win, is probably a fairly comfortable one, we still think this is going to be a hard fought and closely contested affair. New Zealand have shown that they can be vulnerable this year and scoreboard pressure is something they don’t seem to cope well with. There’s enough talent in this Welsh squad to recognize any potential weaknesses and how to exploit them.

While it may be a Test too soon in terms of personnel as far as Wales are concerned, we don’t think you’ll want to miss it. Wales will ask New Zealand plenty of questions and whatever the outcome this should be an entertaining Test match. Remember miracles do happen, ask any Munster supporter about that famous day in 1978. Hopefully this Welsh squad will have watched a replay of that memorable match for inspiration to help give them a shot at slaying the Goliath wearing black on Saturday!

North American World Cup woes and a competition that is really catching our attention!

The headline news for us here in Canada is that for the first time since its inception in 1987, Canada has failed to qualify for the Rugby World Cup. However, more to the point is the question concerning what has clearly gone so horribly wrong in the last six years. Remember that thrilling match against Italy in the 2015 tournament where we almost caused a major upset. The same tournament where winger DTH van der Merwe was one of the leading try scorers. Go back even further to 1991 where Canada actually competed in a quarter final. Always a feisty and nuggety opponent in the past, Canada are now on the verge or receding into rugby obscurity.

Meanwhile, it’s not exactly a rosy picture south of the border either, as the USA failed to qualify in their first attempt, after losing the Americas 1 berth at the 2023 World Cup to Uruguay. They now face a tricky road ahead as they have to overcome an increasingly confident and fired up Chilean team, and if that fails then there is the humility of a last chance repechage tournament. Despite the advent of Major League Rugby here in North America it seems there is little if any benefit to the fortunes of the national sides. If anything both Canada and the USA look poorer after 3 years of the MLR. As rugby seems to be going backwards in North America, by contrast in South America it would appear to be going from strength to strength.

On a happier note, despite our initial reservations about the new United Rugby Championship, the successor to the old PRO14 has really caught our attention. The addition of four South African teams to the mix, has proven to be an exciting development, despite their shaky start in the opening two rounds. Meanwhile last year’s Rainbow Cup champions Italian side Benetton are proving that they are no flash in the pan and are definite contenders for a strong finish. It’s a fascinating tournament which has a real international feel to it and is so far serving up some spicy offerings.

North America and Rugby World Cup 2023

The flag is definitely at half mast in Canada and falling

Canada’s loss to Chile on aggregate was painful to watch as was the realisation that the earliest we can hope to see the boys compete in the global showdown is in 2027. It’s going to be a long 6 year wait and if that is going to become a reality then some hard decisions need to be made and quickly. For far too long the powers governing the sport in this country from the haughtily named Rugby Canada Centre of Excellence in Langford, BC have embraced mediocrity as their benchmark. A drastic shakeup is needed from top to bottom. Here’s what we think needs to happen and fast.

Kingsley Jones may be a lovely chap, but there is no getting away from the fact that under his coaching tenure Canada’s fall from grace has been almost dizzying. The negatives far outweigh the positives that he and his staff like to twitter on about in post match conferences attempting to explain yet another in a long line of losses. Teams need results and Canada can count them on one hand in the five years that Jones and company have been in charge. In short, he and the rest of his team need to go. Instead bring in some coaches from the MLR who know the players, watch and work with them week in week out and have an understanding of what works and what doesn’t in this part of the world.

There seems to be a communications barrier with Kingsley Jones and Canada

The sevens and fifteen a side games need to be split in terms of development. With the advent of the MLR, there are enough Canadian players in the league that the endless cross coding favored by Rugby Canada must come to an end. We’ve been saying it for years now, and foolishly believed that we’d been heard. However, players are expected to jump from one code to the other in a desperate attempt by Rugby Canada to show results either on the annual sevens global circuit or the fifteen a side Test calendar. The two codes require a vastly different playing style and levels of fitness and training. In short, have players do one or the other but not both.

Rugby Canada must be doing more to promote the MLR and the ability for Canadian talent to participate in it, as well as pressing the case for at least a second Canadian franchise. Furthermore, efforts to help promising players get contracts in the highly competitive European leagues should also be a priority. The more exposure that Canadian players can get to top quality competition in Europe, the stronger the national team will become, supported by the continued development of the home grown MLR. It will be far better to get Canadian players exposure both in the MLR and abroad than simply drafting in foreign players who just aren’t good enough for their own national sides. That is not a slight to any of the players we have brought in from overseas, and Canada is not exactly unique in this regard. The Americans seem equally desperate to find anyone in Ireland with some kind of distant link to the US, whilst Scotland seem to have discovered an hitherto unknown kilt wearing clan of Afrikaners up on the highveld. All credit to all these players who are serving their adopted homelands so well, but preferably not at the expense of home grown players as this will do little to grow the game in countries such as Canada.

Get a national broadcaster on board. The fact that we can’t watch our own national team in this country on a regular domestic network is simply unacceptable. While the Rugby Championship was in full swing, and prior to that France’s tour to Australia coverage was provided on TSN. However, Canadians had to scour the Internet to find a source willing to show our own team facing up against Wales and England and then the all important recent World Cup qualifiers. It was expensive to watch and difficult to access for many. Once again another epic failure in growing the game in this country and getting it to a wider audience.

Lastly, get some proper venues for important Test matches. Watching Canada’s recent World Cup qualifiers was an eye opener. Canada hosted these games in tiny makeshift grounds that struggled to get a decent number of supporters in to cheer on the boys. While St. John’s was a worthy venue with a small but very vocal crowd that really got behind the team, it’s not exactly a classic Test arena and neither is Langford. Perhaps the powers that be thought that playing two matches at completely opposite ends of the country would somehow unite the country behind the sport. However, matches of such importance require venues suited to the occasion. Compare by contrast the stadiums in the US, or even better Valparaiso in Chile and best of all Montivideo in Uruguay. All provided an atmosphere that was somehow lacking at Canada’s home grounds despite the best efforts of the small but vocal Canadian crowds. In short, they looked like proper stadiums compared to the out of the way practice fields that both Langford and St.John’s felt and looked like.

On the flip side, our heartfelt congratulations to Uruguay who have qualified for the World Cup, and even though it was at Canada’s expense, Chile’s succesful bid to remain in the hunt for the Americas 2 berth. Rugby in South America clearly has a pulse and a desire to go places. The passion is there and it is starting to produce results, and in the case of Uruguay big ones at that. It has to be said that Chile looked the part in both their matches against us, whereas apart from that opening game against the USA in St. John’s the Canadian players often looked disinterested, frustrated and highly disjointed. Uruguay and Chile looked like well oiled machines and played like a team – Canada and the USA did not and will hopefully learn some useful lessons in the process.

Our heartfelt congratulations to Uruguay who claimed the first Americas berth for the 2023 Rugby World Cup

United Rugby Championship

A tournament that is rapidly starting to deliver and one which has a real international flavor

We have to confess that we are thoroughly enjoying this new tournament which replaces the old PRO 14. It has a real international feel to it, and regular season weekends have suddenly got so much more interesting, as clubs from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa and Wales slug it out. The South African sides struggled to find their footing at first in the competition, and the hype surrounding their arrival seemed to be slightly overblown. However, the last two rounds have seen them rise to the challenge and get progressively better. They now return home to await the arrival of their Northern rivals at the end of November, as well as the return of several up and coming Springboks. On home soil they should be a real headache for the Celtic and Italian teams, as well as the altitude factor being thrown into the mix in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Meanwhile, Rainbow Cup Champions Italian side Benetton Treviso are proving that their shock win over South Africa’s Bulls to claim the trophy was no flash in the pan. They are playing some exciting rugby which could adapt well to the hard and fast pitches in South Africa, as well as them being slightly more used to the summer heat in the Southern Hemisphere than their colleagues in the British Isles. Their discipline remains their Achilles Heel, but they are a real pleasure to watch and their narrow loss to Welsh side Ospreys last weekend was exciting viewing.

Irish sides still look all conquering just as they did in the old PRO14 and Leinster in particular appear invincible, whilst Welsh sides promise much but deliver significantly less. The two Scottish teams however look like genuine threats this year. In short, we’re finding it a highly entertaining competition that looks set to only get better as it gets closer to the business end of the tournament. If you haven’t caught any of it to date, then you might want to get in on the action in the coming months.

Well time to sign off for now. As mentioned on the TV page, although the November Internationals are just around the corner, I’ve been given a ton of work commitments next month that will make it difficult to get things out on a regular basis blog wise. I’ll do the best I can, but can’t make any promises. I will update the TV page religiously every week with all the game listings along with a few thoughts on the games and links to highlights. I’ll also try and punch out a podcast or two every week. So bear with me, and like I say I’ll do my best to get stuff out as and when I can, it just won’t be with its usual regularity during a Test window but I will try and at least get something out on the biggest games. Till then stay safe everyone and here’s to what should be a bumper November as far as top notch Tests go!

The Rugby Championship saves its best for last as we review the tournament and Canada makes the long trek to the Andes with more than a few mountains to climb!

This year’s Rugby Championship after several false starts and plenty of hiccoughs along the way finished with an epic showdown last weekend between New Zealand and South Africa. While South Africa may have faltered a few times this Championship and their game plan has been under considerable scrutiny by supporters and media alike, they produced their best for last and with the All Blacks gave us a Test match for the ages and one which paid tribute to the legendary rivalry between these two great sides. It was riveting stuff from start to finish and a fabulous advert for our glorious game. South Africa may have only ended up finishing third overall but those two performances against New Zealand proved that the Springbok machine, despite needing some fine tuning and much needed development for the future, is a rather daunting prospect for any side seeking to knock them off their perch at the top of the World Rankings Table.

New Zealand won the tournament almost effortlessly until those last two games against their greatest rivals South Africa. They breezed past Australia and Argentina, and squeaked a narrow and messy win against the Springboks in Round 5 which saw them with the Championship sewn up by the time they headed into last weekend’s epic showdown with South Africa. New Zealand looked good make no mistake and were worthy winners, but as the two Tests against South Africa showed this is not the all conquering All Black side of the Richie McCaw years. Are they contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy in two years time in France? Absolutely, but this is still a side with plenty of work to do, and that clinical finishing that is a hallmark of the All Blacks is just not there yet at the level of consistency needed.

Australia after being given a hiding by New Zealand in the first two rounds, suddenly came alive for their final four games. While we think it’s rather premature to think, as some are saying, that they are in the hunt to lift the World Cup in two years time, if they keep developing the way they are then it’s a distinct possibility. In getting past the World Champions South Africa twice in a row, Australia showed that the investment they are making in this new crop of Wallaby talent is paying huge dividends. The Championship saw the return to the fold of some old veterans, most notably fly half Quade Cooper, and this exciting blend of raw, youthful talent with some wise and skillful older heads is proving to be a winning formula that just gets better with every outing. In short – WATCH THIS SPACE!

Argentina sadly failed to fire a shot in this tournament, and left it clutching nothing but the wooden spoon and some seriously wounded pride. It would seem that a year spent mostly on the road and in and out of various COVID bubbles, has taken its toll. Argentina looked disjointed and just couldn’t seem to click as a unit despite some outstanding individual performances. However, in all their games they never looked like they lacked the passion synonymous with the Pumas jersey. At times their defense was heroic and one of the best aspects of their performances, showing a cohesion that the rest of their game lacked. In short, this is not a team that is down and out and bereft of talent. On the contrary, the talent is there and has the potential to make Argentina once more the top flight Test side that has consistently turned heads at the last two World Cups. Much like Australia, in addition to the quality experienced players at their disposal they have unearthed a raft of new talent that is already looking ominous and likely to amass some serious experience in Europe in the next two years.

So here’s our review of how we thought each of the four participating teams fared as well as a look ahead to Canada’s absolutely critical second round of their qualifying bid for the World Cup against Chile. They secured an uncomfortably narrow victory last weekend, meaning that Chile only has to beat them at home this Saturday by two points to knock Canada out of contention. In short, tense times in the Andes this weekend.

New Zealand

New Zealand emerged as worthy Champions this year as they have done nine times over since it was expanded to include Argentina in 2012. In the 11 Championships since 2012 New Zealand have won nine of them with Australia and South Africa claiming a title each.

New Zealand had to chop and change their squad several times during the Championship, and some rather experimental sides emerged as a result. This in part explains some of New Zealand’s weaker performances especially against South Africa as they were without some of their key players. Nevertheless, they still looked the business more often than not. However,they struggled at times with aerial assaults favored by teams such as South Africa, something that Ireland and France will be keenly aware of and hoping to exploit next month.

Some players that really caught our eye and ones we hope to see more of in the next year are back rowers Akira Ioane and Luke Jacobsen, scrum half Brad Weber and winger Will Jordan. Meanwhile all the usual suspects like Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Rieko Ioane, Brodie Retallick, Ardie Savea – the list simply goes on and on, brought plenty of the razzle dazzle which makes New Zealand such an exciting side to watch. When New Zealand can perform so well with their B or even C string sides, you know the rest of the world will be looking nervously over their shoulder in the run up to France 2023. This video is a fairly accurate summary of just how well New Zealand are starting to warm up.

South Africa exposed some chinks in the armor but it was hard to critique an All Black side that looks alarmingly good

Australia

After watching the Wallabies receive a rather stern schooling from the All Blacks in the first two rounds of the Rugby Championship, we never really thought that we’d see Australia finish as this year’s runners up despite their impressive series win against France earlier this summer. The improvement in Australia, starting with that memorable but closely fought victory over reigning World Champions South Africa, was the start of a Wallaby rugby renaissance that has been long overdue. There were so many impressive performances, but this young lad who, prior to the tournament hardly anyone had ever heard of, took the Championship by storm and scored more tries than anyone else – wing sensation Andrew Kellaway. He will definitely be a player to watch next month as the Wallabies embark on a tour of Europe which sees them take on England’s young guns, as well as Wales and Scotland.

Australia’s most exciting find of 2021 – winger Andrew Kellaway

As impressive as Kellaway was, there were other highly notable names that played a part in this year’s Wallaby rebirth. Prop Taniela Tupou was simply outstanding demonstrating a range of skills more befitting halfbacks and wingers at times. Darcy Swain was a revelation in a second row that looks very impressive indeed with Matthew Philip and the return of Izack Rodda. Their back row was simply superb with Captain extraordinaire Michael Hooper becoming the Wallabies most capped Skipper and newcomer Rob Valetini was outstanding at number eight. A big bruising ball carrier who is almost impossible to stop, Australia looked in exceptionally rude health with Valetini getting better with every outing and then bolstered by the long overdue return of Sean McMahon. Tate McDermott impressed as Australia’s next generation scrum half, while Quade Cooper made a spectacular comeback to the Wallaby fold at fly half – demonstrating a maturity and composure often lacking in his younger days despite his obvious talent. Samu Kerevi tore up the centre channels and we’ve already sung the praises of Andrew Kellaway ably assisted by the superb Marika Koroibete.

In short, a remarkable tournament for Australia and it was superb to see the Wallabies back in contention for top honors in Test rugby.

South Africa

On home soil, South Africa dispatched Argentina twice with ease, but then as they often do found life on the road slightly more challenging than they had imagined. They wobbled dramatically in two back to back defeats to Australia. However, as they always do they raised their game dramatically against their most famous rivals New Zealand. In the first Test they ran a misfiring New Zealand side close, but that final Test last weekend produced THE game of the tournament and potentially the year. It was a game that did the rivalry between these two legendary sides justice – it was hugely physical, filled with game changing moments and the scoreline changed hands almost as often as Guinness barrels are changed at the Aviva during an England/Ireland match.

It was thrilling stuff and kept us on the edge of our seats. What was perhaps most impressive was how South Africa finally backed themselves and decided to use their physical prowess to play with ball in hand instead of simply relying on their much maligned kicking game. At key moments they capitalized on the forward momentum their pack was giving them over New Zealand and used it build an attacking platform. It was a breath of fresh air and if they move forward with it then England, Scotland and Wales could all be in for a rather torrid time next month.

It’s going to take a pretty special match to beat the intensity of South Africa and New Zealand’s Round 6 encounter in the Rugby Championship

Their famous Bomb Squad front row of Malcolm Marx, Stephen Kitshoff and Vincent Koch were superb off the bench against New Zealand and Argentina, while Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe all put in some outstanding efforts this tournament as starters. Once Eben Etzebeth got all his fury and fire back again he was immense in the second Test against New Zealand, and his partner Lood de Jager was arguably the best lock of the tournament. Captain Siya Kolisi consistently led the back row and his team as a whole from the front, with his two performances against the All Blacks being perhaps some of his finest of an increasingly illustrious career. Kwagga Smith proved what value he is to the Springbok cause provided they use him in a roving wing forward role, while Franco Mostert quietly but effectively produced the goods for South Africa week in week out, whether in second or back row.

South Africa’s halfbacks had a mixed tournament. Faf de Klerk was not at his best at times and was often guilty of the aimless kicking game that got South Africa into difficulty against Australia. Handre Pollard lacked consistency for much of the tournament, with him having serious off days with the boot when it came to goal kicking accuracy. South Africa need some development for the future there, make no mistake and sooner rather than later, though it was heartening to see Elton Jantjies finally make the transition to a Test level 10, in that final game of the Championship.

South Africa’s backs were outstanding when they had the ball, which sadly happened far too little until the final game. Makazole Mapimpi looked sharp as did Sibu Nkosi out wide, while Lukhanyo Am’s try assist in the final Test showed what a brillliant organiser he is of South Africa’s midfield efforts. Am is a truly gifted centre ably assisted by the exceptionally powerful Damian de Allende. However, at fullback South Africa desperately need to look to the future as sadly Willie le Roux was a consistent weak link in their armor. We sincerely hope that come their November tour to Europe we’ll be seeing a lot of Aphelele Fassi as the way forward in the fullback role.

South Africa started with a flourish against Argentina, went horribly off boil against Australia but returned with a bang against New Zealand. In short they have a huge amount of work to do to remain competitive in the run up to the World Cup, but as last Saturday showed – as reigning World Champions they are still very much alive.

Argentina

A tournament they would probably rather forget, but moments like this showed us that the Pumas are still a sleeping giant! What was perhaps even more heartening about this try was that it was set up by a long overdue understudy for star fly half Nicholas Sanchez, newcomer Santiago Carreras.

Just one small example of what Argentina can do on attack when it all comes together

That was the overriding impression of Argentina’s Rugby Championship campaign – it was an exercise in development. Coach Mario Ledesma blooded a significant proportion of new talent, some by choice and some by necessity but in most cases the results of the exercise were positive. The more experienced members of the squad, although they often failed to gel with the newcomers as a unit performed admirably at an individual level. Captain and Hooker Julian Montoya was arguably the best in his position and led by example whatever his team’s standing on the scoreboard. The Argentinian second row of Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti, ably assisted by Matias Alemanno were a menace for opposition teams come lineout time. In the back row Marcos Kremer put in one powerhouse performance after another. On the wing Emiliano Boffelli scored Argentina’s best try of the tournament and showed how much the Pumas have missed him due to injury recently, coupled to a boot that is one of the most powerful in the modern game.

However, it was Argentina’s new crop of talent that really impressed us and must surely give the Pumas hope for a brighter future. Replacement Hooker Thomas Gallo really made us sit up and take notice in the Pumas final game against Australia, when he scored two tries on his debut and we can’t wait for his return to Italian club side Benetton in the United Rugby Championship. Flanker Juan Martin Gonzalez looks like another in a long line of quality Pumas back rowers in the making. Replacement scrum half Gonzalo Garcia made some energy filled appearances off the bench, and often looked more of a threat than regular starter Gonzalo Bertranou. Santiago Carreras made a seemingly effortless transition from fullback to becoming fly half Nicolas Sanchez’s replacement in the making and was one of the Pumas most exciting players on attack. The new center partnership of Santiago Chocobares and Olympic sevens stars Lucio Cinti looks exceptionally promising.

It was a tough tournament for an Argentinian side simply not used to coming away empty handed from the Rugby Championship. Nevertheless some vital work in squad development for the future was made and from what we saw, we feel fairly confident that the Pumas will be back challenging the world’s best in time for the next World Cup. Patience will be their most important virtue over the coming months, but the improvements will come.

Canada head to South America knowing that their duel with Chile is do or die stuff

Firstly, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t even know all of this is going on and that Canada is once more teetering on the brink of not qualifying for the next World Cup. The publicity on Canada’s campaign to qualify for the next global showdown is almost nonexistent. Finding replays of their first match against Chile last weekend which they narrowly won is almost impossible.

Canada failed in their bid to secure the first World Cup berth for the Americas as they lost the series against the US on aggregate, despite winning their first game against the Eagles which was arguably the best performance we’d seen them give in years. The win against Chile last weekend looked labored at times and discipline was not always the best. While the officiating was at times confusing, it can’t be used as an excuse for yet another sub par performance. As usual it wasn’t for want of effort from the boys, but as a unit they simply didn’t look as cohesive as Chile, and in the second game against the USA before that they looked a shambles.

Canada keeps making winning look like exceptionally hard work

Chile head into Saturday’s match as favorites, being the home side coupled to coming off the back of a number of impressive performances to date, including a one point loss to Canada in Langford last weekend. Canada have the potential but somehow it is just not being realized, and it’s getting increasingly hard to keep making excuses for them. Captain and flanker Lucas Rumball along with centre Ben LeSage are both top notch players and this weekend sees the added bonus of Canada benefitting from the return of all star back rower Tyler Ardron. Rookie centre Spencer Jones is probably the most exciting thing that has happened to Canada for a long time as is scrum half Ross Braude. However, we’re concerned by the lack of fullback Cooper Coats for Saturday’s match and still not convinced that fly half Peter Nelson is the way forward for Canada. It’s going to be a hard afternoon in Valparaiso for Canada make no mistake.

If Chile do beat Canada by 2 points on Saturday and thus knock us out of the running for that second Americas berth, then there is still the last chance saloon repechage tournament next November, but for a country that once was knocking at the door of the top ten in the 90s, it is a sad reflection of how far rugby has fallen in this country in the last 30 years.

We’ll be putting out a digest of the week on the podcast tomorrow, but till then stay safe and here’s hoping that Canada can give us reasons to be cheerful on Saturday!

South Africa stick to their guns against an All Black side that rarely falters twice!

Despite the gloom and doom surrounding South Africa’s “conservative” or “boring” game plan, call it what you will – as rugby fans we were treated to one hell of a Test match last Saturday to mark the 100th encounter between New Zealand and South Africa. There is no denying that New Zealand had a rather off day at the office and whether or not that was a direct result of South Africa’s controversial playing style remains hotly contested by fans and pundits in both camps. South Africa’s physicality was as always immense, and Captain Siya Kolisi really did lead from the front in delivering it to New Zealand. Nevertheless, as the game wore on and South Africa seemed to have the edge we like many were left speechless at the number of times the Springboks kicked away valuable possession and poorly to boot (excuse the pun). As a result, you can’t help feeling that they simply got lucky towards the end that the scoreline wasn’t larger in favor of New Zealand. It was a narrow loss agreed but one that could have been potentially embarrassing had New Zealand brought their A game.

What you can’t take away is the fact that it was South Africa’s third consecutive loss this tournament, and they are now in danger of having to content themselves with a third place finish. We don’t hold much to the fact that they have lost the number one spot in the World Rankings, as they didn’t have to do much to keep it in the first place considering that they took almost two years off from International Rugby. To be honest the World Rankings don’t really mean much in our opinion – it’s just a numbers and statistics exercise. With the Coaching staff consistently defending a game plan that the rest of the world is rapidly starting to figure out, it doesn’t look like South Africa are going to address a seemingly inevitable slide down the global pecking order any time soon. Are they a bad team bereft of talent? Absolutely not, and many of their problems are a relatively easy fix with the right mindset in the Coaching box. They may even still win the odd big game with this mindset, but they won’t be doing it consistently. South Africa had the physical parity and momentum in the last five minutes of the game last Saturday to back themselves and keep the ball in hand and go on to win the match. Instead they chose to pursue an utterly aimless, ineffective and poorly executed kicking game which ultimately cost them the contest.

As for New Zealand, they were not at their best last weekend by a considerable margin. We will agree that some of that was caused by the relentless pressure they were under from South Africa and an inability to effectively deal with the constant aerial assault favored by the Springboks. However, one thing the All Blacks do better than any other team on the planet is fix the things that didn’t work for them the previous weekend. This is not a team that is stuck in its ways. They adapt and restructure themselves quicker and more effectively than any International side out there. New Zealand will definitely have some tricks up their sleeves on Saturday, but judging from the press statements coming out of the Springbok camp, we’re not convinced that South Africa have their own set of surprises in store.

If South Africa want to ensure possession then talk to this man

The lineout provides such a key platform for the Springboks to exert their traditional physical dominance and Hooker Bongi Mbonambi has been consistent in ensuring this happensit’s just a shame they’re not using it to build momentum

Does this sound familiar? Hooker Bongi Mbonambi makes a good throw into the lineout. One of the big second rowers, most likely Lood de Jager makes a fine catch, Mbonambi rushes to the back of the maul, South Africa start rolling forward and then scrum half Faf de Klerk takes the ball and kicks it away. All that hard work for very little gain. South Africa could be doing so much more with Mbonambi’s lineout work. He’s already proven that once he has the ball it’s very difficult to wrestle it off him, either when he’s attached to the back of a rolling maul or breaking loose. With a pod of his bruising forwards around him, Mbonambi and his colleagues could be such an effective weapon if they were just allowed to hang onto the ball. We lost count of how many times we threw things at the TV last week as all that good work went to waste time and time again as the ball was kicked away to little or no gain. Enough said, just let Mbonambi and his replacement Marx along with that admirable Springbok forward pack make the hard yards and create the opportunities that South Africa says its physicality can supposedly guarantee them – please!!!

A player who we feel has been unfairly criticized and not allowed to realize his potential

Springbok utility forward Kwagga Smith isn’t being used in a way that highlights his strengths – it’s the game plan that’s the problem not him!

As regular readers of this blog know we’re big fans of South African back rower Kwagga Smith. He’s at his best when South Africa use him as one of those roving wing forwards that Springbok sides of old used to excel at producing. In South Africa’s current game plan, Smith is a bit of a fish out of water and the fault is not his own. He was devastatingly effective as a sevens player and took those core skills and made them work for the Lions in Super Rugby. Remember when he almost outran winger Waisake Naholo in that famous Barbarians game against New Zealand in 2017? This is a very good player whose talents are just not being realized as a result of South Africa’s current game plan. Get Kwagga spooled up and South Africa would not be accused of playing “boring” rugby. The experiments with him at number eight were a waste of his talents as he’s happiest as a roving openside flanker. His defensive work is solid but he excels at capitalizing on spilled and loose ball. If South Africa can use their physical strengths to allow Smith such opportunities we could be in for a rather exciting afternoon.

He may not be Pieter-Steph Du Toit but he is one of South Africa’s hardest grafting players

Springbok utility forward Franco Mostert seems to always live in the shadow of Eben Etzebeth or Pieter-Steph du Toit, but he is one of their most valuable players whatever position he plays

When it comes to sheer effort and a never say die attitude there are few players that embody these qualities better than Springbok utility forward Franco Mostert. He is equally at home in the second and back rows, and his work rate is exemplary. Invariably sporting multiple bandages by the end of a game, he is a player who constantly puts his body on the line for his colleagues. We’ve always felt he is one of South Africa’s most underrated assets. Saturday’s match sees him start on the bench, but given his ability across the park he’ll be a great counter to any of the New Zealand offerings either in the starting fifteen or off the replacements bench. This is a player who can produce those big game efforts when you need them most, so expect him to be called into the fray with plenty of time still left on the clock. We have a hunch that his talents will most likely be called upon in the second row, but if the pack needs to be shuffled as the game unfolds Mostert is a great option to have.

Ian Foster’s enviable dilemma

So who is All Black Coach Ian Foster’s first choice ten – Richie Mo’unga or Beauden Barrett?

We’d hazard a guess and say that, despite All Black Coach Ian Foster’s embarrassment of riches in the fly half department, he’s settled on Richie Mo’unga as his first choice fly half. Mo’unga has looked the sharper playmaker of the two since the World Cup and there is no denying that his goal kicking accuracy tends to be much more of a bankable commodity than Barrett’s. Barrett’s play style does suit certain opponents better as he is a slightly more direct player in space than Mo’unga, but his real strength is that unlike Mo’unga he can alternate effortlessly between the fullback and half back role. On Saturday, though Foster has preferred Barrett as his first choice fly half with Mo’unga as the understudy. The competition between these two for securing that number 10 jersey leading up to the World Cup will be fierce and Saturday will be a prime case in point, as amicable as their on field partnership appears to be. Barrett will just have to hope that he brings his goalkicking boots with him, as if not the argument could be done and dusted sooner than expected.

With this guy on the field New Zealand are a different beast

Another player who we feel has been slightly underrated by the All Black coaching staff in years gone by – All Black center Anton Lienert-Brown has become the complete player since the last World Cup

While there has been a great deal of talk about New Zealand centre David Havili’s return to the All Black fold since his injury, we feel that the real sensation of the center channels for New Zealand is being slightly overlooked in the form of Anton-Lienert-Brown. If you look at recent history Lienert-Brown has had to live in the shadow of his peers often at New Zealand’s expense. His partnership with Ryan Crotty was devastating but he was often overlooked in favor of Sonny Bill Williams, who we always felt was slightly over rated in the latter stages of his career. However, in the last year he has clearly made the 13 jersey his own. A highly creative center who excels at breaking the gain line and creating space out wide for New Zealand’s back line to thrive on, Lienert-Brown will be more than a match for the slightly more predictable Damian de Allende of South Africa. Defensively sound, but having a turn of pace similar to the great Conrad Smith, keeping him in check will be one of South Africa’s biggest problems on Saturday, and all the more reason for them to avoid handing him possession by constantly kicking the ball away.

While it is hard to argue against New Zealand wrapping up the Rugby Championship equivalent of a Grand Slam on Saturday in their second Test against the Springboks, we are still confident that another epic match worthy of the history between these two famous rivals is in the making. Perhaps the bluster by the South African Coaching staff and players about the integrity of their game plan really is all smoke and mirrors and something radically different is in store, but we somehow doubt it. We haven’t seen any evidence of it to date, and you don’t completely overhaul a team’s so called DNA in the space of a mere six days. Either way we can’t wait for proceedings to begin, and just hope that this time we aren’t hurling things at our TV screens as we watch a quality South African side squander hard earned possession once more. Onwards and upwards for both sides!!!

Argentina face a new raft of challenges to their faltering Rugby Championship campaign while Australia look to finish theirs on a high note!

Last weekend saw Argentina lose their fifth match in a row in this year’s Rugby Championship, against a team that they probably fancied their chances against earlier this summer. Such hopes seem to have been well and truly dashed, as their campaign seems destined to stagger to a miserable end on Saturday against the Wallabies. It’s very hard to recognize the Pumas side that stunned the world last year by beating the All Blacks in their first match out of their year long Covid isolation. There are glimmers of hope and we’d argue that this isn’t a bad Argentinian side, but for reasons best known to perhaps only themselves they are simply failing to fire a shot so far this tournament.

Australia on the other hand seem to be going from strength to strength, something that their long suffering supporters are clearly rejoicing at. Although the All Blacks are still out of reach, it’s hard to argue against this Australian side not being a match for the rest of Test rugby’s giants. In short, they must be feeling more than just a little excited about their journey to Europe next month and the prospect of duels with Japan, Scotland, England and Wales.

This weekend’s final Rugby Championship match for both Argentina and Australia, sees Australia trying to cement a strong second place finish, while Argentina will no doubt try to salvage some pride and register their first win. This week has seen the Pumas snubbed out of an official photo shoot, and then to add insult to injury some of the players went and shot themselves in the foot by breaking Covid protocols. In short this is a tournament that Argentina will most likely seek to forget in a hurry and instead focus on preparations for a challenging European tour.

For Australia though the party is just getting started. They are favourites to get their fourth consecutive victory in this tournament on Saturday, and with good reason. The side that looked so out of its depth against New Zealand this year, has fine tuned the systems and plans that worked so well in the summer series against France, and now Australia are looking very much like potential World Cup contenders if they can stay on this trajectory. The big litmus Test will be how they perform on the road, traditionally an Achilles Heel for them in recent years, but right now all the indications are pointing to a Wallaby machine in rather rude health and clearly enjoying themselves.

Where has it all gone so wrong?

Pumas Coach Mario Ledesma seems at a loss to understand how an Argentinian side that looked so impressive last year, has simply failed to deliver this year

It certainly must be a lonely year at the top for Pumas Coach Mario Ledesma. Contrast his rather glum face these days with the euphoria last year as his charges claimed their first ever win over the All Blacks. It’s hard to fathom why things have gone so awry this year. They have the talent and players, but somehow none of it is clicking right now. There have been some impressive individual performances and at times their defense as a unit has been heroic, but on attack they look to be at sixes and sevens and their discipline is shaky at best.

There is no denying that perhaps more than any other international team, Argentina have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. First there was the year long isolation post the World Cup, and then for many of the senior players a year on the road spent bouncing from one Covid bubble to the next. Time with family and friends has been a luxury and a life on the road has had to supplant the comforts of home for over a year now. In short, are they just tired of the circus?

We sincerely hope not, as International Rugby is a poorer playing field without a competitive Pumas side. Their forthcoming tour to Europe next month, will be a challenging affair as they take on France and Ireland. With the prospect of very little if any time at home between the end of the Rugby Championship and the start of the November Tests, your heart has to go out to players and staff as a seemingly interminable life out of a suitcase continues to hang over them. That being said, never count them out. There has been no shortage of passion and emotion and the pride in the jersey is as strong as ever. This may be the toughest year the Pumas will face in this World Cup cycle, but we’re confident they’ll be back when it matters most.

The law of diminishing returns

Folau Faingaa’s accuracy at the lineout has been waning steadily since he took over from Paenga-Amosa

Since taking over from Brandon Paenga-Amosa at Hooker, Folau Faingaa has seen a dip in his accuracy come lineout time and last weekend against Argentina got the alarm bells ringing. Australia had a poor day at the office last weekend in this department and only had a 77% success rate come lineout time which, had the Argentinians been able to take their chances, could have cost them dearly. Faingaa’s initial work looked promising but for reasons best known to himself and Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie it definitely looks to be the one weak link in an otherwise rather shiny suit of Wallaby armor. Argentina will know this and with individuals like Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti all looking to cause havoc come lineout time and exploit such weaknesses, Australia will be really hoping that Faingaa has been getting some serious dart throwing practice in this week.

The return of a genuine Wallaby danger man

It’s hard to believe that we haven’t seen Wallaby utility forward Sean McMahon in Australian colors since 2017

After a long stint in Japan which he may have thought had put an end to his Wallaby career forever, impressive back rower Sean McMahon makes a return to international duty for Australia. We were convinced he was the next big thing in the land down under and were rather surprised to see him disappear completely off the radar four years ago. A big bruising ball carrier who excels in the physical battles and has a handy turn of pace to go with it, he is exactly the kind of player that would fit into Australia’s expansive but powerful new game plan. While his comeback sees him starting on the bench for this match, we have a strong hunch we’ll be seeing him sooner rather than later as the match unfolds. Quade Cooper’s fairytale return to Australian rugby has caught all the media headlines so far, but this is one fascinating sub plot in the Wallabies rebirth you won’t want to miss.

The whizz kid is back

James O’Connor like Quade Cooper seems to have matured and shed his bad boy image for a more composed and measured approach to the game

It’s definitely been a year of comebacks for Australian players left out in the wilderness. Quade Cooper, Sean McMahon and now James O’Connor who finds himself on the bench for Saturday’s final Rugby Championship match against Argentina. He made an impressive return to form with the Queensland Reds, and although they didn’t exactly shine against their Kiwi opponents in Super Rugby, O’Connor’s natural talents at fly half were readily apparent. He definitely needs to cut his teeth again at the International level, and Saturday’s fixture is a golden opportunity to do so. With Quade Cooper on song, Noah Lolesio a work in progress and now James O’Connor warming up, Australia’s game management could be the complete package come their November tour.

Argentina desperately need a bit of Moroni magic on Saturday!

Pumas winger Matias Moroni is a prodigious try scorer for Argentina and they will need him to spark their back line into life on Saturday

Reliable and solid are the two words that come to mind when speaking of Pumas winger Matias Moroni. He will be a superb test of new Wallaby sensation Andrew Kellaway’s defensive abilities. If Moroni can feed off some of the breaks and space that Pumas novice fly half Santiago Carreras found last Saturday, then the Wallabies could find themselves scrambling in defense. Moroni combines the power and pace that is synomyous with the Argentinian game, but which sadly has so far failed to express itself on the pitch this year. His colleague out wide Emiliano Boffelli brings many of the same qualities combined with a lethal boot. We’d argue that the contest between these two and Australia’s Jordan Petaia and Andrew Kellaway could be one of the most entertaining of the afternoon, provided the South American duo get the ball they need.

It’s hard to predict an Argentine renaissance on Saturday, as they just haven’t shown much evidence of it so far. Last Saturday’s game against Australia was probably the best of their campaign despite the loss. Nevertheless, it’s the end of one hard road and the start of another for Argentina. Whether or not it will be enough motivation to lay down a statement of intent for what is to come remains to be seen. For their sake we hope so, as this is a side that should be doing better than their current form would have us believe.

Australia meanwhile, are unlikely to get too carried away till the final whistle. The Pumas are always a challenge no matter what the form books say, and one that will leave the Wallabies nursing more than just a few bruises and bumps on Sunday. However, despite the pride, passion and legendary physicality that the Pumas will bring to the pitch on Saturday, it’s hard to see them getting past this shiny and rather skillful Wallaby outfit that is brimming with confidence and enthusiasm for the task at hand!

Argentina will need to show the same kind of mettle they showed last weekend as Australia seek to prove that their upwards trajectory is no flash in the pan!

We always look forward to the two fixtures between Australia and Argentina in the Rugby Championship. Invariably the teams are evenly matched and have everything to play for, especially pride as they seek to avoid a bottom spot on the standings table. Consequently, they are invariably tight tense affairs. Last year neither side could get the better of each other and both matches ended in a draw. Sadly this year Argentina are yet to fire a shot in the Championship. However having said that we got a glimmer last weekend against New Zealand that the Pumas are finally starting to click once more. Australia meanwhile, are brimming with confidence after they taught South Africa some valuable lessons, not just once but twice. Pride, passion and plenty of points to prove for both sides, mean that these two games between Australia and Argentina should make for a heady cocktail of Test Rugby.

Just as good if not better than his illustrious predecessor

Pumas Hooker and Captain Julian Montoya has been every bit as good as his legendary predecessor Agustin Creevy and despite Argentina’s current troubles has consistently impressed

Former Pumas Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy is a legend in his own time and his successor Julian Montoya is rapidly proving that he is of the same caliber. He has been one of the shining lights of an otherwise troubled Pumas Rugby Championship campaign. We simply cannot fault any of his performances, and as a leader Argentina could not ask for better. He seems a modest man who simply prefers to get on quietly with the job at hand. He leads quietly but forcefully from the front and every time Argentina does something well you can be pretty sure Montoya has had a hand in it. He earns and commands respect from his players, opponents and referees every game.

A powerhouse Australian second row

Australia’s Matthew Philip and Izack Rodda will provide the kind of physical grunt needed to contain Argentina on Saturday

In our opinion, Izack Rodda’s return to duty in the Wallaby second row has been a real boost after a spell in France where he had a huge impact at Lyon. We always felt he was slightly underrated, and couldn’t blame him for getting fed up with the circus that was Australian rugby until relatively recently. Paired with Matthew Philip who clearly has a very bright future ahead of him in Wallaby colors, this is precisely the kind of physical unit that Australia will need to contain the likes of Pumas bruisers Tomas Lavanini and Matias Alemanno. The lineout is going to be one of the most hotly contested parts of the park in Townsville on Saturday and most likely set some crucial platforms for both sides. With Darcy Swain and Guido Petti on the bench for Australia and Argentina respectively, you’ll want to make sure that you don’t miss a single throw in.

Like his Captain, a player who has consistently delivered whatever the scoreline

Flanker and sometimes lock, Marcos Kremer has probably been Argentina’s player of the tournament

We have to confess to being slightly in awe of Marcos Kremer. Despite Argentina’s misfortunes this year, this is one player who hasn’t had a bad game. Last weekend against New Zealand was perhaps his best effort to date. While it may seem obvious just from his sheer size alone, Kremer is a huge physical presence on the park for the Pumas. He is utterly tireless, seems impervious to injury and whereas most players tire in the final quarter he manages to find an extra burst of energy. Dominant at lineout time, a tackle count off the charts and a menace at the breakdowns and the loose, Kremer is one of the most complete Pumas players we’ve seen in the last twenty years. We tipped him to be a player likely to make a mark when he first burst onto the scene in 2016 and he hasn’t disappointed us once since then. If we or anybody else had to pick a World XV, you’d be hard pressed not to have Kremer’s name on the team sheet. Kremer’s opposite number, Australia’s Robert Leota is probably not going to remember much of Saturday’s game as he and his colleagues suffer a succession of body crunching tackles from the giant Argentinian.

A certain Mr. Ikitau has just entered the pitch – players be warned!

Wallaby centre Len Ikitau wasn’t just good against South Africa last weekend – he was downright fantastic!

Wallaby centre Len Ikitau had set the tone for South Africa’s second defeat to the Wallabies last weekend by the first quarter. Scoring two superb tries was just the start to a flawless performance that made his South African opponents appear amateurs by comparison. Pretty good for a guy with only a handful of caps to his name. Great players in the making invariably have a breakout game and last Saturday was Ikitau’s. Alongside Samu Kerevi he made Australia highly effective in the centre channels, and defensively Australia finally started to show that they had read the manual on the subject. In short, Ikitau made sure Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie will be featuring him in his World Cup preparations. If the Pumas centre Santiago Chocobares brings his A game on Saturday then this could easily be one of the most exciting contests on the park, but the talented Argentinian is going to have his hands full keeping the Wallaby center in check.

He may only make the bench, but if you want impact then Jordan Petaia is definitely part of Australia’s arsenal of secret weapons

Winger Jordan Petaia may not get a starting berth given Marika Koroibete and Andrew Kellaway’s current form, but in terms of impact he can offer plenty

In a way we feel a bit sorry for Wallaby winger Jordan Petaia. The powerful Queensland Reds speedster, appears to have to content himself with a place on the bench for now, such is the form of fellow wingers Marika Koroibete and Andrew Kellaway. We felt for this match that Kellaway and Petaia could have swapped roles with Kellaway warming the bench. However, Coach Dave Rennie clearly sees Petaia as one of his impact men. Petaia is, along with Kellaway, part of what looks like a rosy future for Australia out wide. However, until recently Australia’s defense on the fringes has looked suspect and Petaia in particular, with Kellaway seeming to make a better fist of it with each outing. Nevertheless in terms of breaking the gain line and making meters Australia need Petaia. He’s more powerful with ball in hand than Kellaway and it will be interesting to see how the Wallaby Coaching staff decide to use the two players in the buildup to the World Cup. Either way, once Petaia is on the field Australia will want to make sure he gets plenty of ball.

Despite Argentina’s current woes and Australia’s new found success, we feel that this match is far from being a dead rubber and could actually be the more entertaining of the two Rugby Championship games this weekend. Provided Argentina bring the same kind of grit and work rate they did to their second match with New Zealand last weekend, this could be a tight affair. Let’s face it, that Pumas defense is almost superhuman at times, and something the Wallabies could do well to learn from. In short, we don’t think you’re going to want to miss this one!