The Lineout’s Team of the Year 2014

Everyone else has done it so the Lineout might as well have a crack – so here it is The Lineout’s
team of the year 2014.  Slight variation on the theme here – I may not necessarily be choosing the year’s best players but instead the players that stood out the most to me during this year’s big Internationals and more than anything else the players I enjoyed watching the most.  So I imagine this selection will be open to much criticism, and may not be a world-beating XV, but hopefully we will all agree that this selection would certainly provide us with much excitement and a healthy dose of entertaining rugby.  So here we go 1-15 and as well the coach we would like to have directing this outfit and the referee we would like to have calling the shots.

1.  Marcos Ayerza – Argentina – Bench – Jack McGrath – Ireland
Ayerza was an integral part of this year’s dominant scrum performance by Los Pumas.  With his cohorts Augustin Creevy and Ramiro Herrera how many times did we see at the call of engage the Pumas scrum simply roll over the opposition or hold firm as a rock under pressure.  The Argentinian front row was a clinical masterpiece throughout the year and Ayerza was unwavering on the loosehead.  Simply put Ayerza was devastating and will definitely be one to watch at next year’s World Cup.  If I had to bring on a substitute for his position then my back up go to man would be Jack McGrath for Ireland who proved how much depth Ireland is developing and a player who showed impressive resolve against the big Southern Hemisphere teams – a man to be relied on under pressure.

2.  Agustin Creevy – Argentina – Bench – Dane Coles – New Zealand
Once again, the Argentinian powerhouse scrum gets the nod here in the form of Agustin Creevy at hooker.  All year-long he was solid and reliable and throw into the mix his exemplary leadership as Captain this year of the Pumas and there is no doubt he would be my go to man in this position.  Calm and composed under pressure, he consistently held his forwards together against the giants of the Southern Hemisphere and was a constant thorn in the side of All Black, Wallaby and Springbok forward packs during this year’s Rugby Championship. In short, brilliant and totally deserved all the praise he got from around the world this year.  If I had to substitute him during the match then my bench warmer for his role would be New Zealand’s Dane Coles who had an impressive and consistent performance for the All Blacks and when it mattered was always Mr. Reliable.

3.  Ramiro Herrera – Argentina – Bench – Owen Franks – New Zealand
I know I am probably going to be accused of a complete bias towards Argentina, and I will shamelessly admit it in this selection.  Even though his form cooled a bit at the end of the year, Herrera was still the last link in that devastating front three from Argentina that caused havoc during this year’s Rugby Championship.  In the win over Australia in the last game of the Rugby Championship, the shout of heave from Los Pumas front three continuously caused the Wallaby scrum to reel backwards.  In short, it was inspirational to watch and I thoroughly enjoyed it and Herrera’s contribution to Argentina’s scrum throughout the year given his relative lack of International Test experience was immense.  Once again, one to watch next year as he is no doubt only going to get better.  Coming off the bench to take his place I would want to see New Zealand’s Owen Franks who also had a fantastic year and like pretty well everyone in the All Black camp was a model of how to clinically play the position and provide consistent and reliable service to the rest of your team.

4. Brodie Retallick – New Zealand – Bench – Eben Etzebeth – South Africa
A no brainer here, I doubt there are any rugby fans out there this year who were not enthralled with the New Zealander’s performance as he worked his socks off to gain the title of player of the year.  Retallick was truly immense in every game he played and was the complete rugby player, displaying talents as a forward, centre, winger, scrum half – in short any role that he was called on to fill in the heat of play.  His sheer physical presence coupled with superb athleticism which often translated into runs reminiscent of great All Black wingers, thrilled audiences around the globe throughout 2014 and he is a serious weapon in New Zealand’s assault on the World Cup in 2015.  Although he had mixed fortunes this year, South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth would be the man I would call off the bench for Retallick.  Etzebeth is a truly committed player and is only going to get better with more experience at Test Level and will be a significant component of the Springboks World Cup campaign.  Despite some temperamental lapses in discipline, Etzebeth is a strong player with plenty of talent and a superb work rate, one to watch in 2015.

5. Paul O’Connell – Ireland – Bench – Courtney Lawes – England
If you were looking for an example of leadership of men this year then look no further.  For me, although perhaps not the best number 5 this year, O’Connell gets this spot more on his role as Captain.  Time and again he rallied his troops and was that quintessential talisman that a great rugby team can rally around.  Add to that factor that this is a man who at the relatively advanced age of 35 is probably playing the best rugby of his life and you can’t help but give him the nod at number 5.  O’Connell’s commitment and phenomenal effort every time Ireland played this year was inspirational as was his solid and determined leadership of his troops. Although I felt his lineout work at times was not as good as say last year, he nevertheless made his presence known for the full eighty minutes of every Irish game this year.  One of the legends of the game.  Coming off the bench to replace him at the 70 minute mark, I would be comfortable with England’s Courtney Lawes based on his incredible performance against Australia this November.  From an England team that for the most part failed to impress me this year, Lawes was one of the standout performers.  He was superb in England’s tour of New Zealand and his effort in the game against Australia was one of the key performances that set the platform for a well worked English victory through their forwards. Lawes will be a significant threat to any team in the World Cup next year and will help to ensure English forward dominance – a big, dangerous and exceptionally capable player who other teams will have to take into account.

6. Peter O’Mahony – Ireland – Bench – Marcel Coetzee – South Africa
Yes I know you’re all saying, not another Irish selection and believe me this was a tough one especially as I thought that Coetzee was one of the most underrated players of the year.  Still, O’Mahony gets the nod as he is rapidly becoming an exemplary understudy to the game’s Captain of the year Paul O’Connell.  There is no question that O’Mahony was a key part of the Irish miracle this year.  His speed at the breakdown coupled with his ability to keep his discipline which has not always been a strong Irish trait has been exemplary this year.  Furthermore his ability to read the game and get Ireland’s forwards creating the right kind of space for the rest of the team was great to watch this year.  So yes from a purely personal bias he gets my selection. Coming off the bench to replace him I would feel pretty good about South Africa’s Marcel Coetzee.  If I hadn’t enjoyed watching O’Mahony so much this year, then Coetzee would definitely have been my first choice.  I am always amazed that this player gets as little recognition as he does as for me he is one of the most competent, hard-working and reliable players in the International game right now.  He’s powerful, fast and seemingly tireless as was evidenced in every game the Springboks played this year.  In some fairly woeful Springbok performances this year, Coetzee was always reliable and played a consistently sound game – a good man to have under pressure.

7. Michael Hooper – Australia – Bench – Richie McCaw – New Zealand
Let me start by saying that this was not an easy decision for me.  I’m going to be honest, I actually don’t like Michael Hooper, his attitude personifies a lot of the off field drama that has detracted from Australia’s performance this year.  Nevertheless, I grudgingly have to admit that on the field I thoroughly enjoyed watching him.  Every game for Australia featured a huge performance from Hooper and in some cases his performance was so immense that we were left wondering if there were actually any other Australian players on the field.  In every Wallaby game, Hooper was everywhere on the pitch, doing pretty well everything.  Yes he is annoying and comes across as an arrogant spoilt brat trying to outdo Richie McCaw who he obviously regards as his equal.  Whereas McCaw is quietly effective at getting away with a lot of questionable play, Hooper’s incessant chirping of the referee means that he never will quite be the legend that McCaw has become, but in the process will provide us with plenty of entertaining rugby.  McCaw is the player he is because he manages for the most part to not draw attention to himself, whereas Hooper is constantly seeking the limelight.  Nevertheless, as much as he irritated me, I really enjoyed watching Hooper this year and he was definitely a bright spark in an inconsistent Wallaby side.  I agree with many that he is not the right choice for Captain but his work rate and willingness to put his body on the line continuously gets him the nod for my number 7.  Coming off the bench, there is very little to be said – the man – the legend – the McCaw.  Richie McCaw for all his faults is the ultimate rugby workhorse and we will all sadly miss him if does retire after the 2015 World Cup.  He’s the man we all love to hate but at the end of every All Black game grudgingly have to admit that he is the glue that locks this phenomenal All Black side together.

8. Duane Vermeulen – South Africa – Bench – Ben Morgan – England
Once again another no-brainer on this one. This guy was fantastic all year and despite the Springboks hot and cold performances, Vermeulen was always consistent.  Vermeulen was essentially a one man demolition team throughout 2014.  Seemingly immune to pain and with a work rate that never let up, Vermeulen was rightly one of the contenders for player of the year.  He displays a maturity and intelligence well beyond his years and is a total asset to the Springboks and will be a force to reckon with at the World Cup.  His efforts alone often lifted his teammates out of the doldrums that they slipped into too often this year.  In short, one of the most exciting players we got to watch in 2014 and we all look forward to more of the same in 2015.  Coming off the bench, should Vermeulen seem to tire I would not hesitate in bringing on England’s Ben Morgan.  His performance against Australia in England’s last test of the year was a revelation and one I thoroughly enjoyed – in short a vintage performance.  With the right team firing around him, this guy is going to be lethal in 2015 and I can see him causing all kinds of problems for England’s Six Nations opponents in 2015 and then taking this to another level at the World Cup.  In short, look for the white shirt and the black scrum cap – it’s going to be everywhere next year.

9. Conor Murray – Ireland – Bench – Aaron Smith – New Zealand
Another tough decision here as both these guys were on fire in 2014.  However, New Zealand were a given all 2014 whereas Ireland ended up being the dark horse and it was Murray’s contribution to this green X-factor that gets him the nod as my starting number 9.  We got a taste of how impressive he could be at the end of last year when Ireland narrowly lost to a shocked All Black side.  Murray took this performance into 2014 and kept it going all year.  His vision of the game and how to play the gaps and find space was exemplary and couple this with some ferocious tackling and superb defence and for me he just edges out Aaron Smith.  Murray is a very clever player who combines his brain with some impressive physicality and blistering speed.  He’s good, very good and can often cover for any weaknesses in those around him.  Coming off the bench though, it’s an easy choice to pick New Zealand’s Aaron Smith.  He had a truly great year, and was always exciting to watch and effortlessly adapted to whoever was wearing the number 10 shirt for New Zealand.  Definitely the All Blacks’ pocket battleship.

10. Beauden Barrett – New Zealand – Bench – Jonathan Sexton – Ireland
Yes I can hear the murmurs of surprise on this one given my slight bias towards all things Irish.  However, in terms of revelation player of the year Barrett gets the nod over Sexton.  We all know what to expect from Sexton and to be honest once or twice I felt he didn’t quite deliver, however Barrett dazzled us all year.  I think the consensus was that there was a great player in Barrett waiting to come out to the full and this happened this year in no uncertain measure.  Sure once or twice he had an off day with the boot and struggled to deliver on goal kicking duty, but when he was on song he was electric.  Furthermore he has a rapidly developing intelligence as evidenced in the game against Wales in November, combined with some blistering speed with ball in hand.  For me he was unquestionably one of the standout players of 2014 and provided excitement by the bucketload.  New Zealand go into the World Cup with three of the world’s best fly halves – what a luxury! However, if you need an impact player and probably the smartest number 10 in the world right now then I would have no hesitation in bringing on Ireland’s Johnny Sexton as my go to number ten.  When it mattered all year-long, Sexton was there for Ireland and his skillful manipulation of the game and tactical understanding of his opposition’s weaknesses was perhaps best displayed in Ireland’s clinical dismantling of South Africa in November.  Come World Cup time expect Sexton to be in the running for one of the players of the tournament.

11. Julian Savea – New Zealand – Bench – Rob Horne – Australia
New Zealand’s Savea was quite simply the ultimate winger this year, giving us one spectacular try after another.  Graceful yet strong under pressure, this guy is going to give opposing teams all kinds of headaches next year.  Once he gets the ball you just know something fantastic is about to happen.  Fast, strong and dangerous, Savea is going to provide us with plenty of magical moments in 2015.  Coming off the bench I would stick my neck out and put in Australia’s Rob Horne.  Although inconsistent at times, when playing well he is a very reliable and exciting player to watch who works exceptionally hard.  If he can tighten up some of his finishing skills then he will definitely be one to watch next year.

12. Jean De Villiers – South Africa – Bench – Matt Toomua – Australia
Once again, I am picking De Villiers more for his leadership role than his actual play at centre, which nevertheless was strong and consistent for the Springboks in 2014.  His horrific injury in their last game against Wales saddened us all.  De Villiers was a class act throughout 2014 and the epitome of the game’s ultimate sportsman.  His experience was there for everyone to see, coupled with a willingness to consistently put his body on the line for his country, sadly with tragic results in their last game against Wales.  Always graceful in defeat and full of praise for his opponents when victorious, it was a pleasure to watch De Villiers throughout 2014.  When coupled with the exciting newcomer Jan Serfontein, De Villiers gave us many exciting moments in 2014.  Hopefully for a lesser injury than his knee, I would bring on Australia’s Matt Toomua as a replacement.  Toomua was highly effective in midfield and when paired up with the spectacular Kuridrani made Australia an extremely problematic defensive proposition for opposing teams.  Often overlooked and consistently underrated, expect to see Toomua much more in the limelight in 2015.

13. Tevita Kuridrani – Australia – Bench – Jan Serfontein – South Africa
Definitely one of the most exciting players we got to watch in 2014, and one who will be a huge danger factor in 2015.  You know this guy is only going to get better and better.  Kuridrani was a revelation for Australia in 2014.  Exceptionally fast and strong, he consistently blasted huge holes in opposing defences.  If not tactically contained by some solid work by a smart opposition fly half, Kuridrani will run opposing teams ragged. Kuridrani will be one of Australia’s key weapons in their World Cup campaign and Australia’s opponents will have to work hard to contain this danger man.  If I had to replace Kuridrani then I would have no hesitation in bringing on another find of the year in South Africa’s Jan Serfontein.  Apart from South Africa’s game against Wales in November, this guy was a revelation and when paired up with the experienced De Villiers played like a five-year veteran.  If Heineke Meyer has any sense for the World Cup then this is where he will put his money for 2015.  Solid, reliable and courageous – Serfontein will be a player to watch next year.

14. Cornal Hendricks – South Africa – Bench – Adam Ashley-Cooper – Australia
Once again, I’m going for the wow and excitement factor here.  Cornal Hendricks really impressed us this year with some spectacular tries.  His blinding pace with ball in hand coupled with some of the most dazzling footwork in dodging, weaving and at times leaping over hapless defenders was mesmerizing and a thrill to watch.  He may not have been the best winger or the most consistent, but when he was on form he often left us speechless.  Furthermore, even when we didn’t see him impress it was more a question of the fact that opposition sides recognised his potential and made sure he didn’t get quick ball, rather than actual deficiencies in Hendricks’ gameplay.  Off the bench, another veteran who impressed us this year would be called in as an impact player in the form of Australia’s Adam Ashley-Cooper.  In his hundred test cap year, he once again showed the experience that makes him such a valuable go to player when the chips are down and the pressure is on.  If anything this year saw this player rejuvenated and I expect we will see him shine in 2015.

15. Israel Dagg – New Zealand – Bench – Rob Kearney – Ireland
I struggled with this one, as had the November Tests not taken place then my easy choice would actually have been South Africa’s Willie le Roux, however, he had such an abysmal November that there was no way he could make the selection. Therefore, I decided once more to be slightly controversial and choose Israel Dagg. Let’s face it what you are looking for in your last line of defence is someone who is consistent and can also kickstart your back line into action.  For me the player who did this most impressively all year long was New Zealand’s Israel Dagg even though he wasn’t always their first choice fullback.  Always consistent, good with the boot and under the high ball matched up with some blistering pace with ball in hand, Dagg would be the man I would want to rely on at 15.  If the opposition started to bombard us with high balls towards the end of the match, then I would have no hesitation in bringing on Ireland’s Rob Kearney.  Kearney is always solid under the high ball and his strength and speed ensure that the ball is soon well on its way out of your 22 and into more comfortable territory where you can start to regain some territorial advantage.  Always exciting to watch and one of the most courageous players in the International game, Kearney is a consistently safe bet.

So there you go that’s the team, controversial perhaps, but I would enjoy watching them go about their business.  Last but not least who would we have to coach this fine group of gentlemen and oversee the rules on the pitch?

Coach – Joe Schmidt – Ireland – Assistant Coach – Steve Hansen – New Zealand
I am sure there are no surprises here and the fact that two New Zealanders take these spots.  I give Schmidt the nod as Steve Hansen built his team in 2013, and has merely put the finishing touches on it this year. Schmidt however in the year he has been in charge has built a world-class side, and in doing so shown that he has a remarkably sharp rugby brain.  In short, a master tactician who has comfortably won the support and backing of his players.  Ireland must feel quietly confident about the year ahead, and Schmidt is showing his pedigree by not getting carried away with what could be and choosing to focus instead on each match and the task at hand.  It is still a tall order for Ireland to get the label of dark horse for 2015 in England at this stage but if they impress during the Six Nations then there is no doubt they will be well on their way to make waves come October.  As an assistant, Steve Hansen is a no brainer.  He has produced without doubt the most complete rugby team in the International game and one which will be extremely hard to beat come the World Cup.  Hansen is the world’s most complete coach who demands nothing less from his players while keeping their respect at the same time – he gets the best because he is one of the best.

Referee – Craig Joubert – South Africa
Always consistent and fair, the two key qualities in a referee, Joubert gets the nod here.  In a year where we have seen some pretty poor refereeing even from some of the legends like Nigel Owens, Joubert has always maintained his consistency in his interpretation of the rules and allowing fast, free-flowing rugby which is ultimately a joy to watch and why we all love this great game. Thanks Craig and keep up the good work in 2015!

So here’s looking forward to a spectacular 2015 and Happy New Year everyone!!

Italy’s representative struggles for credibility in the European Champions Cup

European Champions Cup

This week, we continue to look at the European Champions Cup and focus on one the Six Nations countries’ participants in the tournament. This week it is Italy’s turn as we look at round 4, made slightly easier by the fact that they only have one team in the competition. As the old Heineken Cup tournament was painfully being reinvented last year, there was much debate on how teams from the participating countries should be selected, and that places should only be awarded on form and merit. There was obvious concern from the smaller unions that this would then have the competition representing only teams from the two big main unions, England and France. While this was a justifiable concern, in the case of Italy as evidenced by this past weekend’s action in Northampton, it does mean that some pools will have a weaker mix of teams than others. In the Six Nations, Italy is a spirited and worthy opponent and as we saw this past November is more than capable of making life difficult for the big teams, witness their close match with the Springboks. However, at the club level they have yet to reach such lofty heights and more often than not Italian club teams are made whipping boys and used as soft matches for the rest of their pool opponents. This is not fair to Italian players or their fans and damaging to the confidence of the national side as a whole.

Northampton vs Treviso
Final Score – Nor 67/Tre 0
Northampton

To say that this was a painful match to watch if you were a Treviso supporter would be mild to say the least. As the top team in the English Premiership went up against the worst team in the Pro 12 championship, one couldn’t help but feel that a very one-sided contest was in the making. In the end the scoreline said it all, as Northampton ran home 67 points unanswered.

Whether Treviso was overwhelmed, demoralised from not having won a single match yet in the Champions Cup, or from only managing one win in nine outings in the Pro 12 we will never know. It was thrilling to watch Northampton’s all-stars at full throttle but depressing to watch an ill-disciplined and poorly organised Treviso outfit make mistake after mistake. Yes Northampton played well, but that was a relatively easy task when put up against opposition that simply didn’t show up on the day. Furthermore, although Northampton’s form in the Aviva Premiership hasn’t quite been replicated in Europe; as a result of their two fixtures against Treviso they now sit comfortably at the top of their pool, along with Racing Metro. This means that by round 4 this pool is simply a two-horse race. One could argue how fair this is, as surely when the pools were allocated, Northampton and Racing Metro must have felt that they could take it relatively easy in the pool stages in order to reach the knockout rounds unlike teams in the other pools.

As mentioned above, I do not mean to belittle Italian rugby. Particularly at Six Nations time, I really enjoy watching Italy especially when they upset bigger teams like France, but at the European Champions Cup level there is a serious imbalance. What really should happen is that the two Italian Club teams Treviso and Zebre should be competing in the European Challenge Cup where they would be much more competitive. Treviso’s spot in the Champions Cup should be made available to one of the Celtic Nations. With the recent impressive resurgence of Scottish Rugby as witnessed in the November Tests, Edinburgh would be a prime candidate. Ireland’s Connacht and Wales’ Cardiff would also be suitable contenders for the spot. Based on consistent performances by Italian teams in the European Challenge Cup and hopefully Treviso or Zebre reaching a semi-final or even final, then promotion to the Champions Cup tournament would be totally justified. However, on present form we are a long way off from this. If Italian players can get exposure to top quality competition where they are contenders as they could be in the Challenge Cup this will be beneficial to the development of the game in Italy as opposed to the humiliating one-sided thrashings they are getting at the Champions Cup Level. Meanwhile Italian players playing for other European teams in the Champions Cup will bring this top-level experience to the national side come International Test time. This to me is a much more sensible integration of Italy and Italian players into the European structure particularly at Club Level. Italy’s place in the Six Nations is cast in stone and they are continuing to grow as a national side into worthy Test opponents. However, at the provincial level there is a fundamental disconnect between performances in the European Champions Cup and Italy’s performance at International Test level. It is my hope for the sake of Italian rugby and ultimately the well-being of Italy’s national side that this can be addressed in years to come.

After a stellar November, Ireland stumbles at the provincial level in the European Champions Cup

European Champions Cup

This week we look at how Ireland’s three provinces in the European Champions Cup, fared in the third round of the tournament.  After an exceptionally successful November campaign which saw Ireland win all three of their Internationals including the two against Southern Hemisphere giants Australia and South Africa, all eyes were on Ulster, Leinster and Munster to see if this success could carry through to the provincial level.  Furthermore after all the hype surrounding the Irish performance in November, would the standard of play in the European Champions Cup in December give us an insight into how Ireland might fare in the Six Nations?  I for one, am not a great believer in the theory that how teams do at club level competitions is a reflection of how the corresponding national teams will perform.  Super Rugby form in the Southern Hemisphere does not often translate into international Test success, if that is so then Australia should have won the Rugby Championship this year and cleaned up on their November tour – not the case.  Also South Africa should have also done much better in past years than they have.  So on that note although relevant the performances by the three Irish provincial sides in the third week of the European Champions Cup should not necessarily be read as an indication of how Ireland may or may not perform in the Six Nations but should help focus national coach Joe Schmidt on some areas that his charges will need to work on come February/March next year.

Munster vs Clermont Auvergne
Final Score – Mun 9/Cle 16
Thomond Park

No doubt the big upset of the weekend as Thomond Park has been a fortress for Munster throughout the history of the tournament and a win here for a visiting team is a task of Herculean proportions.  However, at no time did Clermont look daunted by the task ahead of them and produced a superb performance masterfully orchestrated by the boot of their exceptional fly half Camille Lopez to see them emerge deserved winners as a stunned silence fell on Thomond Park.

Despite the traditional physicality of Munster, some uncharacteristic mistakes especially at the breakdown and some line-outs gone begging helped ensure that Clermont were able to spread Munster wide and thin on defence which saw them get two tries in the first half and ultimately this scoring cushion would give Clermont the edge, forcing Munster to have to chase the game for the second half.  While Munster were accurate with the boot through Ian Keatley who kept them within reach of Clermont throughout and helped ensure a losing bonus point for Munster, Clermont were able to match man for man Munster’s physicality.  What was particularly impressive and perhaps worrying from an Irish perspective was that despite Munster being firmly camped in Clermont’s half for a good twenty minutes of the second half they were unable to translate this territory and possession into points.  Despite Ireland’s success in November we saw this a few times and it will be an area of concern for Joe Schmidt come February, especially up against the enormous physicality of a side like England.

I thought that Ireland displayed several weaknesses in the line-out in November and this was evident in this game despite the towering presence of Paul O’Connell.  A snatch of the ball from a Munster throw in during the dying minutes of the game by Clermont ensured that a draw for Munster was out of the question, leaving the Thomond Park faithful to mull over what will be an uphill battle for the rest of the tournament for Peter O’Mahony and the boys in red.

Ulster vs Scarlets
Final Score – Uls 24/Sca 9
Belfast

Ulster in front of a rapturous home crowd came out firing in this must win match in order to get their European campaign back on track, and in doing so scored four well worked tries.  At times it was a scrappy game and  a challenging swirling wind meant that extreme care was necessary when exercising kicking options but to Ulster’s credit they were more clinical in their execution of this aspect of the game.  Despite the difficult conditions Ulster played a tactically more astute game especially in the second half, and the contribution of returning South African scrum half Ruan Pienaar to this was immense, perhaps South African coach Heineke Meyer should have been watching this game.

The Scarlets never gave up for the full eighty minutes but much like the Munster game Ulster’s opening two tries would give the Ulstermen that critical cushion on the score line.  It was a clinical display from Ulster which saw  some key performances from Irish stalwarts such as Tommy Bowe, Rory Best and Darren Cave all of which bodes well for Ireland’s Six Nations campaign as well as seeing an Irish provincial side get their European Champions Cup efforts back on track even though they essentially need to win all remaining three matches in their pool including an away game against French giants Toulon.  A very  tough test of Irish resolve awaits the men from Belfast which if successful would lend some real character to Ireland’s Six Nations campaign next year.

Harlequins vs Leinster
Final Score Har 24/Lei 18
The Stoop

From an Irish perspective although a loss by Leinster, this was nevertheless one of the better games of the weekend. This was a very hard-fought game and Leinster battled bravely to get the losing bonus point and keep their campaign hopes alive with a return fixture to be held in Dublin the following weekend.

Harlequins displayed much of the physicality that had been evident in England’s autumn Internationals and particularly in the last match against Australia. At half time the game was a totally even contest with both sides trading penalties and neither able to cross the other’s try line due to some outstanding defence. Of the two sides for the first fifty minutes of the game, Leinster seemed to have the edge over their English rivals but ultimately some poor finishing touches at key moments let them down. It was exciting rugby with the ball constantly changing ends of the field and both teams playing some superb rugby. Ultimately, English veteran Nick Easter showed that age is of no concern as ultimately through some superb work from his forward pack the number eight bludgeoned his way to the Leinster try line and opened up the scoring in Harlequins favour. Leinster then made a concerted effort to return the favour but to no avail and in a desperate move on attack Rob Kearney made an uncharacteristic error in an offload to Noel Reid and Harlequins Fijian whirlwind, Aseli Tikoirotuma, made the intercept from deep within his own 22 and the rest was history.

Leinster battled bravely for the remainder of the match and the boot of Ian Madigan kept them in touch and within striking distance of Harlequins, but the Englishmen held on through some brilliant defence. Although the loss will be hard to swallow for Leinster, they can take heart in some key performances that bode well for the remainder of their campaign. Darragh Fanning on the wing was particularly impressive and is some exciting new talent for Ireland going into the future. The centre pairing of D’Arcy and Madigan worked well and Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald barring a few errors looked to be returning to form. Meanwhile an Irish all-star forward pack boasting the likes of Heaslip, Cronin, McGrath, Ruddock, Ross and Devin Toner looked solid under pressure for much of the match. However, once again as in the Munster game the line-out looked weak at times and some defensive lapses by the forwards will need to be tightened up along with greater accuracy at the breakdown when under extreme physical pressure. A match which will hopefully give Irish coach Joe Schmidt much to think about and work with for the Six Nations, despite Leinster now having to work that much harder to keep their European Champions Cup campaign on track.

In short, a troubling weekend for Irish teams in which many expected them to dominate but in which they sadly came slightly short. A sobering lesson that despite the euphoria of Ireland’s performance in the November tests, all teams must focus on the job at hand and not get too carried away by thoughts of future glory. There is enough talent in Ireland at the moment that I am confident this weekend’s upsets were a mere blip on the radar and a reorganisation and healthy dose of self-analysis will see Ireland’s provincial sides dust themselves off and tighten up the gaps in their game plans. Let’s face it this is only the halfway mark in what promises to be a nail biting European Champions Cup!

England find redemption through their forwards while Wales do enough to salvage some pride!

November Internationals

We look at the last two internationals of a thrilling November, as England and Australia took part in an epic battle at Twickenham, while Wales finally managed to claim a Southern Hemisphere scalp in Cardiff as a badly misfiring South Africa cracked under Wales’ physical pressure.

England vs Australia
Final Score – Eng 26/Aus 18
Twickenham

England had fallen to South Africa and New Zealand in November, albeit not by huge margins, but an unconvincing win over Samoa the weekend prior to this match had left England with the need to come out and show that they are a side to be reckoned with and a serious contender for next year’s World Cup.  To say the pressure on them was enormous would be an understatement.

Australia on the other hand, were also looking to make a point.  After starting their November series with a convincing win over Wales the wheels had then fallen off in Paris and Dublin.  However, as many in the international press pointed out in some ways despite the importance of ending their tour with a win, a loss would not have been as catastrophic for them as it would have been for England.  Australia were on this tour with a new coach and although they were reeling from an unexpected loss in Paris and a tough battle in Dublin, coach Michael Cheika’s efforts were showing some fruit as Australia were certainly an exciting team to watch and seemed to be settling quickly.

England, had to win this game though as a third straight loss to one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three at home would have been inexcusable and apart from the damage to the side’s confidence going into next year’s World Cup as hosts, serious questions would have been raised as to whether England could even make it past their pool stages, with at best a quarter-final finish.  On the basis of this performance, while there is still a huge amount of work to do particularly amongst the back line, it would seem that England have finally got positions 1-10 right, and their forward pack alone can win them big games.

To be honest Australia didn’t play badly, it was just that England were so overwhelmingly physical up front that Australia’s back line were denied the space to really work their magic.  There were some impressive breaks through the English line by Australia’s back line who all had a good game with an excellent centerfield pairing between Matt Toomua and Adam Ashley-Cooper, along with Rob Horne and Henry Speight who always threatened on the wing, particularly Rob Horne.  Although Australia matched England for tries scored it was the accuracy of George Ford’s kicking game matched to Australia giving away too many penalties at the breakdown that allowed England to pull away.  As was exposed in Dublin the week before, although electric with ball in hand Australian fullback Israel Folau has a poor defensive game particularly with the boot when under pressure and Ford, like Ireland’s Johnny Sexton the week before, was relentless in exposing this vulnerability.

Australia may have had the more impressive back line interplay, but ultimately it would be England’s day based on a monumental forward performance.  The English scrum was truly impressive and the white juggernaut continually rolled over Australia.  England’s line-out play was equally impressive, and this coupled with solid work at the base of the scrum by scrum half Ben Youngs and a brilliant kicking game by George Ford at fly half – this was England’s day.  If England’s back line had managed to click as well as Australia’s the score line would have been much more in England’s favour.

What was obvious to me from this game and the previous week’s effort against Samoa is that England surely must have resolved the fly half debate in the form of George Ford vs Owen Farrell.  George Ford’s composure against Australia and some of the biggest pressure a player is likely to face in his career was exemplary.  He was asked to put in a massive performance under enormous pressure, especially given his lack of experience at Test level, and he delivered well and above the call of duty.  I cannot say that Farrell manages to keep the same level of composure and solid decision-making under similar pressure.  Therefore if English coach Stuart Lancaster has any sense, then for the Six Nations as preparation for next year’s World Cup, Ford should be England’s starting fly half to continue to develop his skills particularly in big pressure matches.

There were many outstanding performances from England’s forward pack, but without a doubt Ben Morgan left the crowd enthralled.  Morgan’s black scrum cap was everywhere on the park – he was quick, fast and accurate in everything he did and under huge pressure his discipline was superb.  His two tries were a master class display of superb finishing from a committed and impressive forward performance.

Ultimately in this match Australia were out muscled by England and despite Australia bringing on a complete set of fresh legs for the last quarter of the match, fatigue in the rest of the Australian line up and growing confidence from a fired up England, left Australia without answers.  It was a great contest and a fitting end to the November Internationals but England dug deep, very deep and walked away deserved and comfortable winners.  England still need to figure out how to get their back line working as well as their forward pack, as without this in the months between now and the Six Nations teams will figure out to get behind England’s forwards and open up their defences.  However, for England there is much to build on from this performance and there is now definite light at the end of what could have been a very dark and gloomy November.  For Australia, there is plenty to work with and this is an exceptionally talented team, and with some key forwards coming back for next year such as Stephen Moore and Scott Fardy, many of Australia’s forward problems should become a thing of the past.  Australia are still building and on present form are likely to peak just before the World Cup as England are likely to do, depending on their form in the Six Nations, making these two teams two potentially serious contenders for the Webb Ellis Trophy next October.  For both teams a fascinating year awaits with everything to prove.

Wales vs South Africa
Final Score – Wal 12/ SA 6
Cardiff

Let’s be honest this was not an attractive game as the sheer bone crunching physicality of it, at times almost painful to watch, made for less of a spectacle than the England/Australia game as an end to the November Internationals.  Instead, we watched a committed Wales take on a faltering and exhausted looking Springbok side, who to be honest didn’t really show up on the day.  Wales maintained their composure throughout and by putting enormous physical pressure on South Africa ultimately wore them down and caused them by the end of the game to play like ragtag schoolboys.  Perhaps worst of all was the gut wrenching injury to Springbok captain Jean de Villiers which puts him out of rugby for at least the next 8 months and in doubt for the World Cup.  As a result South Africa end the year with a poor tour and injury to one of their key players and sources of inspiration to the rest of the side.  Wales on the other hand gave coach Warren Gatland a little bit of breathing space heading into next year’s Six Nations and something to work with for the future.

For both sides as in the England/Australia match up a win was critical.  Wales had an awful November being put to the sword by both Australia and New Zealand, with the likelihood of them ever beating a major Southern Hemisphere side starting to look like the stuff of fantasy.  South Africa on the other hand, after being comprehensively beaten by an Irish team on the rise, managed to put in a big performance against England the following weekend, to then struggle to get past Italy.  In short, it wasn’t looking good for the Springboks and a trend was starting to emerge, they can play brilliantly at home but can’t get the big wins away from home.

As mentioned this was not a pretty game to watch, and when the sounds of the collisions between players are being picked up by the referee’s microphone it gives you an idea of how intensely physical this game was.  Wales played the more determined and committed game and it was this combined with some ferocious tackling by all fifteen red shirts even against players twice their size, recall the try saving tackle by Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny on the towering form of South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth, that ultimately carried the day for Wales.  It was the sheer dedication to making tackles at all cost that impressed me most about Wales, as well as all 15 players throwing themselves with abandon at the South African line with no seeming regard to their physical well-being.  Leigh Halfpenny was spot on with his kicking game, while Captain Sam Warburton was immense in defence and attack as well as showing some truly spectacular passing skills for Wales.  Dan Biggar at fly half for Wales showed why he is a player coming into the peak of his game and played some smart rugby at times even though several obvious drop goal opportunities went begging which would have given Wales a much more comfortable lead.

In a try less match, Wales played the more accurate kicking game and their relentless physical pressure caused South Africa to crack and give away penalties providing the Welsh with more shots at goal.  South Africa had moments of brilliance but nothing seemed to really fire for them.  Their forward pack looked tired, raising concerns for next year, and the back line simply made too many errors.  Willie le Roux at fullback had a truly woeful game with numerous knock-ons and kicks failing to find touch.  In the last ten minutes of the game, Francois Hougaard was brought on to replace Cobus Reinach which to me was a huge mistake especially as Reinach was one of the few players having a good game.  I have written enough about my view that Hougaard has little or no value added to any Springbok side and this was borne out by several knock-ons and him kicking the ball away aimlessly after taking a quick tap when South Africa, having been given a penalty, could have kicked for territory and had one last charge at an exhausted Welsh line.  Hopefully, this will end the Reinach/Hougaard debate and we will see Reinach as first choice scrum half for the World Cup.  Although the sending off of Springbok winger Cornal Hendricks for ten minutes at the sixty-five minute mark was questionable for an alleged aerial challenge against his Welsh counterpart, I doubt this would have made much of a difference.  Despite Hendricks being one South Africa’s star players this year, even he seemed oddly quiet on the wing for much of the match.

As the final whistle blew the Welsh deserved the celebration, it wasn’t a spectacular or exciting display of rugby for much of the match, but what Wales did for the full eighty minutes was devastatingly effective against an off-form Springbok side.  Wales still have an enormous amount of work to do if they are to be Six Nations contenders let alone for the World Cup, but this win proved that the will is there and Wales have some impressive individual talents.  If Wales can couple their strong defensive skills to a an attacking game that consistently gets them across their opponents’ whitewash then they will be back in the hunt next year, as well as doing what they did in this match playing a full eighty minutes and not running out of steam at the 70 minute mark.

As for South Africa, as a good friend of mine from South Africa said recently, South Africa seem to have fallen into a rut this year of only playing up to the standard they perceive their opponents are at, and then find themselves trapped into only playing as much as the opposition allows and not really playing their own game.  The Welsh game also showed South Africa starting to kick away perfectly good possession which many hoped had been put to bed once and for all by the end of this year’s Rugby Championship.  The injury to talismanic figure Jean de Villiers will also leave a scar.  In short, it has been a very bleak November for South Africa which showed the alarming tendency borne out for most of the year, that they only really impress when playing at home.  Going into a World Cup year where 7 critical matches will be played away from home, this is a serious concern.  South Africa must in the course of next year’s abbreviated Rugby Championship win all their away games convincingly.  If this can’t be done then they could well be on their way home by the quarter finals.  This is a talented and world-class team – find out how to win well and consistently away from home and the rest should be history – a tall ask.  Let’s hope for the sake of a fabulous tournament next year South Africa figure out how to do this and be the great competitors we all know they can be!

Canada’s European Tour ends with some positives but plenty of homework to do!

Canada’s end of year European Tour

Having already looked at one of Canada’s three Internationals in Europe this November against Namibia, we’ll take a quick look at their last two matches against Samoa and Romania, the latter being of particular interest as Romania will be our pool opponents in next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Canada vs Samoa
Final Score Can 13/Sam 23
Vannes, France

Despite the match opening under a torrential downpour, this game provided plenty of entertainment and some great running rugby by both sides.  There is no doubt that the slippery conditions made for some tricky handling early on, but fortunately the weather eased up and allowed for a second half in which players did not have to contend with the rain.

This was an important match for Canada, as despite the off field political problems currently plaguing Samoan rugby, this Pacific Island nation is some real quality opposition for Canada and thus excellent preparation for next year’s World Cup.  Despite the internal turmoil facing the Samoan players it was clear from their opening challenge that they had come to play and do their country proud and showcase why they have been such a problem side for big teams like Wales.

The first half saw some enterprising rugby from both sides and solid defence, however, at half time the game had seen both sides fail to cross the whitewash and instead trade penalties with the Samoans being much more effective in this department.  Samoa enjoyed the bulk of possession and Canada obviously needed to rethink their attacking game if they were to crack the Samoan line.

Canada came out of the blocks in the second half firing.  Scrum half Gordon McRorie, despite some initial handling errors in the first half was having a great game and was finding Conor Trainor in centre field with increasing accuracy.  Trainor was making some serious inroads into the Samoan defence which gave the Canadian attack a much needed sense of urgency and purpose.  However, at the same time it also displayed some glaring weaknesses in the Canadian skill set.  We played some exciting running rugby at times in the second half, but I couldn’t help feeling that some of the passing although adventurous was often downright risky.  Up against better opposition next year such passing will simply lead to intercept after intercept by teams like France and Ireland who will be our two big pool opponents.  Some of Canada’s passes although spectacular had more in common with volleyball at times than rugby.  It is clear that this is the influence of Canada’s successful experience in sevens rugby but at the fifteen a side game it is borderline suicidal at times and Canada will need to watch this as they prepare for next year.  This was clearly shown by a brilliant break by Trainor which was followed up by a poor offload to McRorie causing him to knock the ball on but which otherwise would have almost certainly led to a try.  Canada sometimes need to have more confidence in their ability to hang on to the ball and go to ground and rely on their forwards to get good ruck ball and open up another passage of phases to release the backline.  There seemed to be a reluctance to do this at key times in the game and which would ultimately cost Canada dearly.

Nevertheless , some excellent touch finding by James Pritchard at fullback got Canada some good lineout possession and once more danger man Trainor was off to score a brilliant try down the blindside.  Canada were back in the hunt only trailing Samoa by 13-16.  It was here however, that just as against Namibia the week before, Canada seemed to run out of ideas in the last ten minutes, allowing Samoa to comfortably pull away.  Once more some seriously risky passing by Nanyak Dala caused Canada to lose possession and Samoa pounce on the opportunity to cross the Canadian try line and start to put the game out of sight.  With Samoa pushing hard, causing Canada to make mistakes another Samoan penalty put the game out of reach and Samoa emerged deserved winners at 23-13.  There was much to take heart from for Canada in this game especially on attack.  If Canada can tighten up the passing and handling errors and watch their discipline in defence then there is plenty of room for optimism.  However, at the moment based on this outing Canada has a great deal of work to do if they want to be competitive against the bigger nations next year.

Romania vs Canada
Final Score – Rom 18/ Can 9
Bucharest

A very important match for Canada and one which they needed to end the year with on a high sadly went begging for Canada on a perfect afternoon for rugby in the Romanian capital.  Canada will face Romania in the Pool stages of their World Cup campaign next year and a convincing win would have been an important confidence booster.  Canada didn’t play badly but Romania’s highly effective scrum and rolling maul eventually wore them down and just as in the previous two November tests, Canada seemed to run out of ideas and energy in the last 10 minutes of the game, which is an area the coaching staff really must work on in the next ten months if Canada is to put in any kind of credible performance at the World Cup.  We have some great talent and good players but at the moment are lacking in the ability to finish out tough games – whether this is lack of fitness or a skill set issue or a combination of the two is hard to judge – but it must be addressed by next September.

As in their previous two outings this month Canada looked impressive on attack though as in the match against Samoa some exciting but highly risky passing manoeuvres were in evidence.  In a try less match, both sides traded penalties with Romanian fly half Florin Vlaicu’s boot punishing Canada in the second half through a series of penalties as the relentless physicality of the Romanians eventually pushed Canada into making too many mistakes and breakdowns in discipline.

As he has throughout November, Canadian fullback James Pritchard played a solid game with the boot and managed to get Canada on the scoreboard first.  Gordon McRorie at scrum half also contributed a further two penalties for Canada but that was as far as Canada could get in terms of points in a tough physical battle.

As the game progressed you could sense the Romanians gaining in confidence and to their credit their set-piece play was superb even if none of it resulted in a try.  Canada made a valiant attempt at getting across the Romanian line in the latter half of the second half but as we have seen all month after 70 minutes the Canadians were exhausted and looked out of ideas.  A very motivated Romanian side kept them pinned all match and were effective in shutting down breaks by the always dangerous DTH Van der Merwe and Conor Trainer along with Ospreys star Jeff Hassler.  In the end, Canada entertained but failed to inspire and ultimately walk away with a much needed win and Romania were the deserved victors through a gritty but consistent display of rugby.  Canada may have been the more exciting team to watch on the field, but Romania got the job done and did it well.

So as we end the month, it is with several notes of concern for Canada.  A good side has provided us with some exciting rugby but which sadly did not translate into results.  I felt slightly concerned by many in the media especially in Canada hailing the games against Samoa and Romania as narrow losses.  A narrow loss is less than a converted try and in both cases the score difference was significantly more than this.  I do not mean to be critical as I, like everyone else in Canada, want to see us do well next year but in order to do that we have to be honest and by doing so help the coaching staff and players identify the areas that need work.  A little bit less emphasis on razzle dazzle in attack and more on getting the basics right and playing a full game of eighty minutes is what is needed.  I have no doubt we have the talent; we just lack the polish and cohesion to pull it off at the moment.  Here’s hoping we’ll find it by next September.

On a side note, I was very disappointed to see the lack of coverage of these games in Canada this month.  I am sure Canada would have benefited from the extra motivation of knowing fans at home were cheering them on.  TSN provided excellent coverage of Canada’s campaign in the recent Women’s World Cup, as well as Canada’s home games this year.  However, for these matches one had to seek out obscure links on YouTube after the match.  For the Romanian game which one would have thought would have been a big draw for Canadian rugby viewers given we will be playing them in next year’s World Cup, the only coverage was a Romanian broadcast on YouTube with no English commentary.  If we are to get behind the team and give them the support they need surely this needs to be addressed especially in the year leading up to a World Cup.  Hopefully the folks at TSN broadband are reading this.

Last stand for England and Wales while Australia and South Africa seek redemption

November Internationals – Europe

This weekend sees the end of an exciting month of International Test Rugby
with England, South Africa, Wales and Australia having everything to play for:

We also look back on last weekend’s action and three outstanding matches in Dublin, Cardiff and Paris, in which New Zealand as always calmly asserted their dominance over an impressive Welsh start; Argentina showed that their improvement over the summer was no fluke and Ireland set themselves as the benchmark of Northern Hemisphere rugby.

France vs Argentina
Final Score – Fra 13/Arg 18
Paris

As predicted, this was a tough battle but which ultimately favoured Argentina as they sought to prove that they are a team on the rise and look set to be a problem team to beat in next year’s World Cup.  When they are fired up they are a match for any of the best sides in the world and the French experienced this first hand on Saturday in Paris.

After two initial below par outings this November, Argentina took a further step forward and came back into form guided by the skilled efforts and control of the superb Nicolas Sanchez, who ironically has now been snatched up by French Top 14 side  Toulon.  It wasn’t the world’s most exciting or attractive game, and as always was marred by the bizarre refereeing style of George Clancy, but Argentina played a stronger tactical game, pinpointed France’s weaknesses and ultimately outmuscled Les Bleus.

By the end of the first thirty minutes Argentina had opened up a commanding 15-0 lead through a masterful display of the boot from Sanchez and Hernandez.  After this France tried valiantly for the next 50 minutes to fight back and did score the game’s only try, but for the most part looked overwhelmed by the sheer physicality of the Argentine attack and particularly heroic defence for the last quarter of the game.  It was the last 20 minutes where France spent a great deal of time camped in Argentina’s 22 that the brilliance of Argentina’s defence really shone through.  The Pumas threw themselves valiantly to a man at every French attack, causing the error and penalty count to grow against the French as they increasingly found themselves frustrated by their inability to find the keys to unlock a monumental Argentine defence.  Despite a bizarre decision by Clancy to not allow France a penalty after he had given them advantage as the ball went to ground in the dying seconds of the game, it still doesn’t detract that Argentina hung on to the very end and ultimately won the day.  Their inability to finish big games in the past now seems to be a mere memory and they can go into 2015 reflecting on a year that has seen them make enormous progress as a world class side.

Wales vs New Zealand
Final Score – Wal 16/NZ 34
Cardiff

Quite simply put, if you’re a Welsh supporter there are no excuses for this game.  Wales should have and could have won this game.  Instead they were completely blown out of the park in the last ten minutes of the game and that is putting it politely.  What must be incredibly frustrating for Welsh supporters is that for 69 minutes Wales played a solid game, to then only be utterly eclipsed in the last 11 minutes.  In the end, Wales were made to look like an aspiring rugby nation at the hands of a master class in the shape of New Zealand.

Ireland’s loss to New Zealand on their final game of the year in 2013 was obviously not on the required watching list for this Welsh team.  It is the last ten minutes of every game where New Zealand become almost superhuman especially if they are trailing.  Wales played a solid game for the first 65 minutes and of particular note was a solid Welsh defence that matched up well to their All Black counterparts.  Where Wales ultimately fell down was in the finishing and playing of an eighty minute game.  The first 60 minutes were a thrilling encounter which saw the ball being played in both teams’ halves as possession seemed to be on an equal footing.  However, New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett at fly half showed once again as the clock wound down, why he has had such a good year and leaves New Zealand with the luxury of three first choice fly halves.  Barrett’s eye for gaps in the Welsh defence and how to make the men in red have to make continuously desperate tackles ultimately saw New Zealand run in three unanswered tries in the space of 11 minutes.  In short, New Zealand hit full throttle and exhausted an already tired and cracking Welsh defence.

After this match questions will have to be asked in Wales about match fitness and how to find tactical answers to the likes of New Zealand if they are to stand any chance at next year’s World Cup.  Wales’ story all year has been one of so close yet so far and for a Welsh public desperate for big results this is just not good enough.  The time for hard questions and even harder answers has come and I do not envy the Welsh coaching staff over the next few months.

Ireland vs Australia
Final Score – Ire 26/Aus 23
Dublin

Ireland1Ireland3

Ireland2As predicted the Dublin thriller provided everyone with 80 minutes of first rate International Test Rugby and all credit to two teams who gave us a spectacle we will remember for a long time to come.

The first half alone left many in the stands, yours truly included, feeling that they had got more than their admission price with 5 tries being scored and the two sides level at 20-20.  Ireland, much as they did last year against New Zealand came screaming out of the blocks with two superb tries in rapid succession.  Irish fly half Johnny Sexton’s surgical precision in finding Simon Zebo on the wing to race across for the first try, while Tommy Bowe’s eye for an opportunity saw him intercept a slightly wayward pass from Australian scrum half Nick Phipps, and proceed to run unopposed from Ireland’s 22 to cross the white line.  The Irish crowd were on their feet and sensing something great.  Australia then struck back immediately with two superb tries of their own, even though the second came off a distinctly forward pass.  However, even if the try hadn’t been awarded Australia would still have had a shot at goal as there was a lack of Irish discipline in the ruck.  Foley missed the conversion but at 17-12 Australia were definitely back in the hunt.  Both sides traded penalties, with Australia then throwing in a magically worked try from some superb midfield efforts by Matt Toomua and Bernard Foley to see Phipps once more crash over the Irish white line and at half time the scores were level at 20-20.

The next half while not the try fest of the first was equally exciting as both sides sought to crack the other side’s defences.  The Irish crowd went deathly quiet after star fly half Johnny Sexton was taken off the field for analysis for possible concussion after a nasty collision, only to return several minutes later to a rapturous welcome from the Aviva faithful even though Ian Madigan ably took his place on the field for the last ten minutes showing once more the depth this Irish side is developing.  Australia brought out the big guns of Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale to inject some more pace into an already impressive backline, but to Ireland’s credit their defence especially at the breakdown was exemplary.  Despite some impressive line breaks Australia just couldn’t break the Irish defence, and given the number of times Ireland was able to get turnover ball, it was easy work for them to make the Australians have to start all over again on attack.

It was close and both sides played a great game but ultimately Ireland did enough this time to hang on to the end.  Sexton kept his composure and slotted two penalties and with fifteen minutes left it was Ireland’s game to win.  It was this phase of this game where Ireland really showed they had the edge unlike in the match against New Zealand last year and proved that some serious lessons have been learned by the Men in Green.  On the referee’s final whistle the sound coming out of the Aviva could probably have been heard all the way to Australia.  Two valiant sides had toughed it out but in the end Ireland were the deserved winners this time.  Irish eyes are indeed smiling and having claimed two of the biggest scalps in International Rugby this month, South Africa and Australia, Ireland and coach Joe Schmidt can reflect on a job exceptionally well done.  There is no question that Ireland are now the form team in the Northern Hemisphere and will be the team to beat come the Six Nations in February/March of next year.  Like many in the Irish press after this match I will resist the temptation to look too far forward to the World Cup.  Ireland still has work to do particularly in the area of lineouts as we saw in this match, before they get the full accolade of dark horse for the World Cup from me.  But for now – go lads go – you’re on a roll!

Fixtures this weekend

England vs Australia
Saturday, November 29th
Twickenham

To say that the stakes aren’t high for both sides in this game would be the understatement of the year.  England simply have to win in order to salvage something from an otherwise disastrous November campaign.  Australia have to prove that the two upsets in Dublin and especially Paris, were mere hiccups in the consolidation of a world class side more than capable of challenging for World Cup honors next year.

I was interested to see the selection of Billy Twelvetrees at centre for England, and this could be a positive choice for England.  He can occasionally be inconsistent but when on form is a very exciting player to watch and may provide the glue as well as the spark to hold a misfiring backline together and get them going.  England should be able to outmuscle Australia upfront provided they keep their discipline.  If England can dominate Australia up front for the full 80 minutes and wear them down this will make it difficult for Australia to effectively unleash their backline which is a serious concern for England.  Although this English side has heaps of potential it is yet to look like a finished product, if Australia can rattle them early on and build up a convincing lead, then England will be in trouble.

For Australia despite some weaknesses that have been exposed this month, they look far more like a composed side than their English counterparts particularly in the backs.  In the backline England have been easily exposed and provided Australia can challenge England up front for the full eighty minutes then they will ultimately punch holes in an indecisive English backline lacking in confidence and sound decision making under pressure.  Expect Australia’s Michael Hooper to be all over the park and being a constant thorn in England’s side while probably managing to cross the white line for the Wallabies as well.

England will be under enormous pressure and in many ways more so than Australia.  I hope for England’s morale they can pull off an epic performance that will help to restore some pride and confidence in the side, but I can’t help feeling that a low point has been reached that it may be too hard to rise above if Australia come out firing for the full 80 minutes.  As a result, it will be close but ultimately I cannot help feeling that Australia are ultimately going to come out on top.  The must win scenario for England has given the Australians an underdog status which they seem to be relishing and which England must be concerned about.  Either way an intense encounter awaits!

Wales vs South Africa
Saturday, November 29th
Cardiff

If you’re looking for predictions this is probably the easiest one to make.  If Wales can find an extra 10 minutes in their game plan, then they certainly have the skill set and talent to walk away the winners here.  However, their form for the last six months would not really lead any of us to believe that this is likely to be the case on Saturday.  For that matter, their form against Southern Hemisphere teams in the last several years also means that they are even more up against it.

South Africa despite the upset against Ireland and a poor showing in Italy have still shown this year that they can finish off big games when up against the wall.  If you look at the starting lineup for South Africa, you can’t help but be impressed.  Willie Le Roux will hopefully find his form again and with the electric Cornal Hendricks on the wing, backed up by the centre field pairing of De Villiers and Serfontein, South Africa’s backline is incredibly dangerous, even without Bryan Habana and Lwazi Mvovo in his place.  Coach Heineke Meyer has wisely chosen to go with Pat Lambie at fly half given his outstanding composure in big pressure matches like this.  Wales have a strong forward pack and Sam Warburton will be his dangerous self but overall it will be hard for Wales to match up to a Springbok pack boasting the likes of Bismarck du Plessis, Duane Vermuelen,  Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth and Beast Mtawarira.  Once again I am heartened by Meyer’s decision to start Cobus Reinaach over Hougaard at scrum half and despite his inexperience at this level he was outstanding against England.  In short, this is a strong Springbok side which has learnt some hard lessons this month and one which will be hard to beat.

South Africa go into this having to win to prove that the November tour has been a success and a sound platform on which to build for next year’s World Cup.  Wales on the other hand are suffering a confidence crisis similar to their English counterparts, and thus a win will be just as critical to them.  However, at the end the day this is probably going to be South Africa’s day leaving Wales with some deep soul searching to do in the next few months over a long dark winter.

All eyes are on Dublin this weekend!

November Internationals – Europe

It’s another exciting weekend ahead for Test Rugby as the November

Internationals continue and we look at three upcoming fixtures:

France vs Argentina – Paris
Wales vs New Zealand – Cardiff
Ireland vs Australia – Twickenham

It will be a bit of brief post this week as yours truly is on his way to be amongst the masses at Dublin this Saturday at the Aviva Stadium for what should be the fixture of the weekend  – Ireland vs Australia.  So I apologise that I won’t be reviewing the previous weekend’s outstanding games by South Africa and France as well as not looking at South Africa’s fixture this weekend with Italy.

Fixtures this weekend

France vs Argentina
Saturday, November 22nd
Paris

Expect a battle royale this weekend in Paris.  There was plenty of French flair on offer last weekend in Paris against Australia as we finally saw a French unit starting to click and which managed to hold on against Australia who aside from disciplinary lapses which ultimately cost them the game, fought hard to try and close France out of the game in the last quarter.

There has been enough said of the spectacular Teddy Thomas, and obviously not much more I can say.  The man is an electric talent; raw on experience which clearly shows but as his game develops he will be a major international star.  Slot him into a well organised team that knows how to use his strengths and cover for his weaknesses and suddenly France has some attacking prowess they have not had for a long time.

Argentina will recognise this and you can be sure that Nicolas Sanchez will be working hard to make sure that Thomas does not get the space he needs, while Argentina’s ferocious forwards will have to work really hard to deny their French counterparts quick front foot ball.  There is no doubt that the Pumas will consider this match to be THE test of their November campaign and I think it unlikely that they will show the same complacency and lack of composure that cost them the match in Scotland and caused them to have to work far harder than they should have in Rome.  Although they carried the day in Rome, they were far from convincing at times and certainly not the polished outfit we saw during the Rugby Championship.

However, as he has for Clermont Auvergne, Camille Lopez will match Nicolas Sanchez in every department and this will be one of the key battles of the match.  It was heartening to see France’s performance in the forwards department in the match against Australia and they will have to step up a notch if Argentina show up in form in this area on Saturday.  Furthermore, the French were extremely impressive in defence and missed very few tackles effectively shutting down the likes of Folau and Kuridrani, the latter in particular was not allowed any room at all to the point where he hardly featured in Australia’s game.

Be assured that as Argentina’s last game together of the year, they will want to end on a high.  It will be a tough and gritty contest, but if Argentina stay focused and use the best scrum in the world to full effect, I am willing to bet that it will be incredibly close but Argentina will just squeak past Les Bleus.  Either way expect a dramatically improved performance from Los Pumas than we have seen this November and a spirted performance from a French side finally showing the world why they are considered one of the sleeping giants of world rugby.

Wales vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 22nd
Cardiff

Given the way New Zealand are playing at the moment I think there are few of us who are doubting a comprehensive win by the Men in Black in Cardiff on Saturday.  This is not to be disrespectful to Wales, but let’s be honest the All Blacks are in a league of their own and as their last game of the year, you can be assured that they will finish in style and be keen to make a statement and set the benchmark.

So Wales, will go into this as massive underdogs, which will mean that they will either play the game of their lives and shock the world or simply reinforce rugby’s status quo.  Let’s all remind ourselves of what happened to Ireland as the team that everyone had written off when they went up against the All Blacks on their final game of the year.  However, I can’t see the same happening this year.  The wakeup call New Zealand got in Dublin last year is unlikely to be repeated again this year.  New Zealand have shown conclusively that they learn from their mistakes better than any other team in the world.

Wales have the skill as well as individual and collective talents to take on New Zealand where it matters, but this year they have consistently been unable to close out games against the big teams.  Therefore as much as I expect to see a spirited Welsh performance that will make the previous weekend’s lacklustre effort against Fiji seem like ancient history, expect a fired up New Zealand to walk away with this one comfortably.  For Welsh rugby let’s hope we’re proved wrong!

Ireland vs Australia
Saturday, November 22nd
Dublin

And so we come to THE BIG ONE of the weekend, and which yours truly will be luckily attending in person.  As Ireland and Australia duke it out to see who really is the world’s third best team if the IRB rankings really mean as much as we would like them to mean, both sides have sensibly tried to detract attention from this and focus instead on the task at hand.  Ireland at the moment are on a high and are discovering an exciting life post Brian O’Driscoll as well as realising that there is now some serious depth developing in Irish rugby.

Australia will have everything to prove and everything to lose.  There is no doubt they are smarting from being pipped out of third by the Irish however temporary it may be.  Furthermore, the rumble in Paris has no doubt been a rallying point and one which will make them work even harder to re-establish themselves in rugby’s pecking order.  Just like the wounded Springboks proved so devastating against England, I fear that the Irish will be up against a similar scenario with the Wallabies this weekend in Dublin.  Australia continue with experimentation in the midfield by starting Henry Speight at 11, which given such a high pressure game I feel is a tad risky.  Whatever their faults the current Wallabies side has a considerable amount of time in together over the last few months and I would argue is worth sticking with.  Speight although brilliant has not had that luxury and if anything may be lacking in game time especially at such a high level.  Much has been said of the possible impact of Cooper, Beale and Genia as they are brought off the bench towards the end of the game – I think it is safe to say that it will either prove an enormous asset to Australia or a serious handicap depending if this trio bring their A game or another questionable round of nervy decision making.

Ultimately, this contest will be won in the battles of the halves, and for the first three quarters of the match I expect to see Ireland have the ascendancy in this department.  The Sexton/Murray partnership has more technical savvy than that of Foley/Phipps.  If Ireland win this battle and build a convincing lead in the first three quarters and manage to shut down the danger men of Kuridrani and Folau, then the pressure may cause Cooper/Genia to crack and have one of their throwaway games once they are brought on.  Ireland’s forward pack should be able to put enough pressure on their Australian counterparts to cause them to have the lapses of discipline we have seen all too often in the Wallabies.

In the end I would argue this the hardest of all the November Internationals to call.  Michael Cheika knows Irish rugby well through his time at Leinster and is likely to have his charges well prepared for whatever the Men in Green can throw at Australia.  Ireland are on a high and the Dublin faithful will be a powerful sixteenth man, ably led by one of International Rugby’s talismans Paul O’Connell.  It is going to be close – so close – but wearing my heart on my sleeve I am putting a bet on Ireland to take the spoils by a mere point or two.  Hang on to your seats people!

A good showing against Namibia while a big challenge awaits in the form of Samoa

 

Canada’s November Internationals

In the hype surrounding the big November Internationals it is easy to overlook the fact that Canada this November has three Internationals of note against Namibia, Samoa and Romania.  All three matches are being played in Europe and this past weekend saw Canada in action against Namibia in Wales at Colwyn Bay.

Canada vs Namibia
Final Score – Can 17/Nam 13
Colwyn Bay

This was an impressive outing for Canada, though I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Canada that such matches lack the spectacle that surrounds the Internationals being played by the top ten International teams this month.   The tiny crowd present dimmed in comparison with the huge crowds seen at Twickenham, Cardiff and Dublin.  Nevertheless an important outing for the Canucks and one in which they acquitted themselves well.  Sadly it was also hard to watch this game in Canada, with the only links being a video on the Rugby Canada website that is available on YouTube.

That aside, it was a good game for Canada, though match fitness was a concern towards the end of the game as Namibia came surging back and began to run Canada very close and dominated much of the possession in the last ten minutes.  In a tight physical match, both forward packs put in huge performances, but for much of the match Canada were in the ascendancy with the very impressive Nanyak Dala being the only try scorer for Canada.  Namibia’s only try also came from a forward which gives you an idea of the physical nature of this game.

Gordon McRorie had a very good day with the boot, and put in a particularly impressive long range penalty kick while Conor Braid’s experience at Glasgow Warriors showed by him consistently providing good field position for Canada.  It was also encouraging to see Canada not afraid to spread the ball wide and there was some adventurous if not slightly risky passing for much of the game.  Nevertheless, Canada still managed to maintain good go forward ball throughout much of the game with surprisingly few handling errors.  I was also pleased to see that Canada was quick to pull in support at the breakdown with the forwards doing good work to capitalise on good line breaks made by Canada’s backline.  Jeff Hasler’s stellar form in Europe with Welsh club Ospreys was in evidence for much of the game with him making several thrilling breaks down the outside.

However, the last ten minutes of the game will be a concern for Canada as they started to look tired and made several defensive lapses which Namibia were quick to pounce on.  As Canada go up against Samoa this weekend, they will need to take their performance to the next level as Samoa is never an easy team to beat and has a proud reputation of upsetting many of the big International teams.

Fixtures this weekend for Canada

Canada vs Samoa – Vannes, France

Of the three Internationals Canada are playing this month, this is by far their sternest test and some real quality preparation for next year’s World Cup.  Samoa have the reputation of being giant slayers, just look at their history of shattering Wales’ World Cup dreams over the years, so Canada will need to be at the top of their game.  Samoa at the moment are suffering from internal management issues with the players threatening to boycott their fixture with England in a fortnight’s time, and no doubt this has been a distraction to the team’s preparation.  Nevertheless this is a proud rugby nation who are still keen to prove that they are a side to be reckoned with.

Canada will go into this game with some confidence from their match against Namibia.  The slightly adventurous passing seen against Namibia will need to be reined in as Samoa will pounce on any gaps that this may create.  The defensive lapses seen at the end of the match against Namibia will need to be tightened up as Samoa are a big and powerful side and there is no doubt that the up-front battles will cause Canada all kinds of fatigue issues as the game wears on.  Canada can take heart in a solid performance by their scrum against Namibia and will need to build on this for Samoa.  If Canada can hold their discipline in the scrum and at the breakdown, and McRorie can continue to provide sterling service to his backline Canada should be competitive for the full 80 minutes.  The big question mark will be what Samoan team will turn out on Saturday?  If Samoa runs onto the field feeling that this is an opportunity to show the world that the politics ruining the internal structure of their game are merely a side show, then I can’t help feeling that in a tight physical battle Samoa will ultimately come out on top.  Either way a fascinating contest awaits us and some excellent preparation for Canada’s World Cup effort next year will be made.

The openining matches in November’s Internationals see heartbreak for Wales and England while Irish and Scottish eyes are smiling!

November Internationals – Europe

It’s another exciting weekend ahead for Test Rugby as the November Internationals continue and we look at four upcoming fixtures:

Italy vs Argentina – Genoa

England vs South Africa – Twickenham

Scotland vs New Zealand – Edinburgh

France vs Australia – Paris

First up we’ll review the previous weekend’s action by England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Wales vs Australia
Final Score – Aus 33/Wales 28
Cardiff

As predicted a tight physical battle was the order of the day with some spectacular line breaks from both sides, but a contest that once again ultimately ended in heartbreak for the Welsh.  Make no mistake Wales brought their A game but in the end it was all about finishing and in this department Australia provided their Welsh hosts with a classy demonstration of this fundamental principle of Test Rugby.

Wales fought valiantly for the full eighty minutes but it was clearly obvious that for the last ten minutes the majority of Welsh players were starting to look exhausted despite fresh legs off the bench.  Australia also looked as though they had been put through the ringer, but still nevertheless managed to hold their composure better and ultimately hold up in defence and attack.  The Welsh cause wasn’t helped by some critical injuries and the loss of Leigh Halfpenny before half time with his replacement Dan Biggar soon to follow.

Australia can take great heart from their first performance under new coach Michael Cheika, with Bernard Foley at fly half doing a superb job of marshalling his troops for the full 80 minutes, leaving us all wondering why there was ever any debate about making him Australia’s first choice number 10.  Israel Folau was immense in this match and showed off his full range of running and attacking skills, while at the same time showing some big improvements in his defensive skills.  Tevita Kuridrani continued to impress and is a serious threat to any defence in world rugby and one France will need to work hard to contain this weekend.  Michael Hooper, although his usual argumentative self, was outstanding and continued to put in a 110 percent effort for the full 80 minutes.

Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb opened the Welsh account with a superb try that had the Millennium crowd feeling that this could finally be Wales’ day against the Wallabies.  Sam Warburton was inspirational and deserves being singled out as Planet Rugby’s best number six of the weekend.  George North provided the crowd with ample demonstrations of his potential and skill set lining Alex Cuthbert up for another superb Welsh crossing of the Wallaby white line in answer to a superb Folau try set up by Michael Hooper.  As predicted last week the first half of this match provided us with some magic moment tries from both sides.

The second half however was much more a war of attrition for both teams.  Although both sides made some exciting line breaks, it was a much tighter and defensive game as Wales and Australia sought to wear each other down and force mistakes.  In this regard Wales seemed to have the edge over Australia as after multiple resets, ill-discipline by Australia resulted in Wales being awarded a penalty try.  However, the moment Wales has been waiting for so long against Australia was not to be, as Australia’s Bernard Foley calmly took control of Australia’s tactical game and nudged Wales aside as they left him uncovered in front of the Welsh goal allowing him to take a drop goal.  Ill-discipline from a Welsh side looking dead on their feet at the end cost them the penalty efficiently taken by Foley who was flawless with the boot all match, and Wales had too much to do with too little time to deny Australia the win.

It was close, it was exciting but sadly just not enough once more for Wales against their World Cup Pool opponents next year.  Wales played well but Australia ultimately were better at going the distance.  If Wales can take this performance and build on it going up against the All Blacks then expect next year’s repeat of this fixture at the World Cup to be close – very close.  Australia under new management will be confident going up against a French team this weekend that has talent but lacks structure, and relish some excellent preparation for two tough challenges from Ireland and England.

England vs New Zealand
Final Score – NZ 24/Eng 21
Twickenham

The big fixture of the weekend provided much of the spectacle predicted, although the second half of the match was sadly marred by atrocious weather which New Zealand were more effective at mastering.

England started the match with flying colors with a spectacular individual try from Johnny May which showed that England has plenty of attacking power and line speed in the backline.  May kept this level of performance up throughout the match and was constantly looking for gaps and opportunities in New Zealand’s defense.  In the battle of the fullbacks, Mike Brown seemed slightly off form and was not as impressive as his All Black counterpart Israel Dagg.  However, New Zealand showed that they were more than capable of soaking up England’s continuous pressure despite a rapturous  and deafening Twickenham crowd.  On that note I must say that the English crowd did not do themselves any favours throughout this match, and we were forced to bear witness to one of the most loutish spectacles of crowd behaviour I have seen in a long time in International Rugby.  It was unsportsmanlike and showed the English public as being arrogant and very poor losers.   The deafening booing of New Zealand Captain Richie McCaw at his post-match interview was shameful.  England need to actually become the team their misguided fans so obviously believe they already are first, and such fan behaviour will not help England’s cause and it was clear that it was an embarrassment to the English players at times.

In the first half, England could feel proud of their performance they matched up to New Zealand in every facet of the game and at half time England were deservedly in front against a slightly off color All Black side.  However, the second half was a completely different game in which New Zealand showed how they are masters at adapting their game plan to changing conditions, whereas England essentially lost the plot.  There is no doubt that the second half was marred by appalling weather conditions and some bizarre referring by Nigel Owens, who once was one of the best referees in the game in my opinion but in recent times I feel   has become a law unto himself, which had an effect on both teams’ performance.  However, Nigel Owens did give England the upper hand by sin binning Dan Coles for a nasty kick which had been triggered by the equally temperamental Dylan Hartley.  It was here where the difference between the two sides came to the fore.  New Zealand even with a man down completely outplayed England and had them on the back foot for the entire 10 minutes.  At this level of rugby if you cannot capitalise on the other team being a man down, and actually get outplayed by them then the end result is going to be inevitable which England found to their cost.  New Zealand got ahead on the score line and kept England pinned in their own half.  Instead of looking like a fifteen man team, England looked nervous and disorganised against a relentless and clinical New Zealand.

A game that should have been England’s ultimately slipped away, and that has been the standard headline for all of England’s meetings with New Zealand in the last year.  There was much to take heart from in England’s performance but as I said last week,  New Zealand are very much the finished product while England still looks far too experimental.  With a huge game ahead of them against a wounded Springbok side with everything to prove, it is not going to get any easier for England.   As next year’s World Cup looms on the horizon, if England want to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in their own backyard, the time is running out to find solutions.  If they don’t put in a convincing performance against South Africa this weekend, then I question how much home advantage next year’s World Cup really will be for England.  We continue to wait and see!

Ireland vs South Africa
Final Score – Ire 29/SA 15
Dublin

This ultimately was THE fixture of the weekend, particularly in terms of us understanding where the Northern Hemisphere is in relation the Southern Hemisphere.  As the second best team in the South took on the second best team in the North, rankings were at stake and the world pecking order looked set to be determined.

South Africa came into this game full of promise, fresh off two spectacular wins against Australia and New Zealand.  Ireland as Six Nations champions looked good but riddled with injuries were lacking several key players.  Add to this the fact that this was Ireland’s first outing without the ‘Great One’, Brian O’Driscoll and the bookies were all favouring a comprehensive win by South Africa.  How wrong they were and how delighted Irish fans were to be.

Of all the performances we saw this weekend, there is no question that from a Northern Hemisphere perspective Ireland played the most clinical game and were the team of the weekend.  They outplayed South Africa and played a brilliant tactical game ably marshalled by Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray who is playing out of his skin at the moment.  Ireland did make some mistakes, I thought their lineout was weak at times and their scrum could have been better, but overall this was a huge Irish performance that provided us with a thrilling spectacle and a well-deserved win for the Men in Green.  In short, a great start to Ireland’s season which also showed that despite their injuries Ireland is blessed with some serious depth and has enormous potential.

South Africa on the other hand it must be said played poorly.  In particular, Handre Pollard, Francois Hougaard and Willie le Roux around whom South Africa build much of their game did not play well.  Le Roux’s passing and handling skills were well below form, Pollard was effectively kicked into corners by Sexton and had a woeful kicking game while Hougaard had a shocker of a game.  I have always said that Hougaard is a very poor choice as South Africa’s first line scrum half and this was borne out in his performance in this match.  Admittedly he was put under enormous pressure from Ireland at the breakdown who were all over their South African counterparts in ferocious numbers.  You could see that such intense pressure from Ireland knocked the confidence out of both Pollard and Hougaard causing them to make far too many errors reminiscent of a school playing field than an International Test Match.

Ireland effectively silenced Habana and Hendricks on the wing, providing them none of the room and space they are accustomed to working with.  South Africa’s bizarre decision making to not take points on offer and instead to kick for touch, smacked almost of arrogance but more of foolishness when looking at how rock solid and well organized Ireland’s defence was proving to be.

Every single Irish player stood up and was counted, and what was encouraging was Rhys Ruddock in his first cap for Ireland crossing the Springbok white line in a brilliantly executed try.  For any rugby fan watching Conor Murray surgically kick to the touch line to find a waiting Tommy Bowe to then race over for Ireland’s second try was pure magic.  Ireland were brilliant and South Africa simply did not match up to them where it mattered.  If this was Ireland’s second string team, we have much to look forward to once a more full strength side matches up against Australia in a fortnight.

South Africa I am sure will pick themselves up from this and dust themselves off in readiness for their encounter with England this weekend.  There is no question that this was a bad day at the office for one of the world’s top sides.  There was no hesitation from South Africa’s players and management admitting in defeat that they were outplayed by a tactically superior Ireland.  This does not mean that they are down and out though.  This is a good Springbok side which has a strong blend of exciting young talent and experienced old hands.  If they can fix the problems at scrum half which I see as their biggest Achilles heel, then expect them to be a completely different team a week later against England.  They have merely suffered a setback and a prudent England will hopefully realise this in their planning.

Scotland vs Argentina
Final Score – Sco 41/Arg 31
Edinburgh

It would seem that Scottish rugby is finally out of the doldrums – spearheaded by the exceptional Gray brothers and Greg Laidlaw.  Throw in a dash of Vern Cotter Top 14 experience at the coaching level and it would seem that watching rugby north of Hadrian’s Wall may once more be an enjoyable experience.

Many predicted that with Argentina’s consistently improved performances in the recent Rugby Championship the result of this game was a foregone conclusion, particularly given the woes of Scottish rugby in recent years.  However, there were many, myself included, who felt that Glasgow Warriors’ outstanding efforts in European competition so far this year would form the base of a solid Scottish effort that could certainly put the Pumas to the Test.  We were not proved wrong.

Scotland came charging out of the blocks in this match and showed serious intent.  A new coach, some serious new talent and a will to win have finally taken Scotland out of the depths of their recent miseries.  Argentina on the other hand, looked half asleep for much of the match and when they really did start taking the game to Scotland it was too little too late.  They will have to shape up dramatically if they expect to come away with a positive result in Paris.  Argentina seemed to lack confidence and their discipline which had been so impressive in the Rugby Championship was often seriously lacking particularly at scrum time and the breakdowns.  The legendary Pumas scrum was often pushed around by Scotland which was not helped by the departure of Captain Agustin Creevy early on.

Scotland on the other hand were clearly enjoying themselves and played an expansive and exciting brand of rugby which left the Murrayfield faithful dancing in the stands.  While their new found adventurism may need to be tempered when they come up against New Zealand this weekend it was heartening to see this once proud rugby nation seizing every opportunity that came their way.  What particularly impressed me was Scotland’s speed at the breakdown and corresponding quick ball and line speed.  Coach Vern Cotter has obviously studied the Pumas who have been particularly effective at this this year as well as taking notes from Ireland’s skill set in this area.  However, all credit must go to a Scottish team that was well prepared and took their chances well.

The Gray brothers were truly immense in this game and will strike fear into any opposition that has to deal with them.  Richie Gray brings a well-known pedigree to the Scottish forward pack but his younger brother amply showed that he is not just in his brother’s shadow by being first to crash across the white line for Scotland.  Both brothers were tireless and were the backbone of Scotland’s defence and attack, effectively closing out opportunities for Argentina to get good quick front foot ball and helping Scotland push the fabled Argentine scrum around the park.  The halfback pairing of the experienced and exceptionally talented Greg Laidlaw playing as Captain at scrum half, and newcomer Finn Russell at fly half was exceptionally effective in picking open space for Scotland to use and get behind Argentina’s defences, while Scotland’s backline were no slackers either.

Argentina had moments of brilliance and in the last ten minutes of the game seemed to dig deeper and find some of the recent Pumas magic.  Their opening try in the match was also worth noting as they counter-attacked from deep within their own territory.  However, there was no real spark or apparent game plan in Argentina’s performance and they often seemed disorganised and confused in defence.  Perhaps this is a result of not having played together for a few weeks since the intensive time together during the Rugby Championship, and for many of Argentina’s key players having to quickly readjust from hectic club schedules in Europe since the Rugby Championship.  Who knows?  However, by the time they face France I am fairly certain that what we saw against Scotland will be a distant memory.  This is a quality Pumas side that simply needs to find the glue that bonded them all so effectively into a complete team during the Rugby Championship.  I still hold that Argentina will be one of the dark horses of next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Fixtures this weekend

Italy vs Argentina – Genoa

 This fixture has been wisely moved from Saturday to Friday to prevent injury to players as a result of the torrential rains predicted to hit the area on the weekend.

As Italy’s first big match up of the month after an impressive performance against a demoralized Samoa, many people will be interested to see how this season’s version of Italy shapes up against a Puma side still reeling from their defeat to Scotland.

With Italian stalwarts like Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni in the line-up there will be some experienced and stable heads in a team with lots of promising new talent.  However, Italy has had a lacklustre run of it so far this year, with poor performances for the most part, especially in the Six Nations.  Argentina meanwhile will be without Augustin Creevy and instead Tomas Cubelli at scrum half steps into the Captain’s shoes.  Despite the loss to Scotland, Daniel Hourcade has chosen to give some of his less experienced players a chance to shine, which surely must be some indication of the Pumas expectations and confidence going into this match.  Nevertheless there are still enough names in the squad that impressed all and sundry during the recent Rugby Championship to provide Italy with a significant challenge.

Italy has strengths in the scrum and should be able to stand up to the Pumas in the forward battles as long as they can match Argentina’s pace at the breakdown, which with Sergio Parisse in the line there is certainly the potential to do.  The question marks for Italy remain in the mid and back field areas.  Although not playing in the starting fifteen Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez is on the bench and you can be sure he will be called in as soon as it is felt Italy is winning the midfield battle.  Argentina has more proven class in their centres and backline than Italy and it is here combined with solid forward pressure that Argentina should progressively start to pull away from Italy as the match wears on.  Expect Italy to start fast and full of intent, but ultimately the solid foundation Argentina has built over the last few months, despite the hiccough at Murrayfield should see them come out on top.

South Africa vs England – Twickenham 

This is THE fixture of the weekend.  The stakes here for both sides are huge as they both seek to turn failure into success.  There is no question that England took their narrow loss to the All Blacks hard, while South Africa were left without answers as Ireland left them in the dust in Dublin.  A loss for either of these two teams on Saturday will have catastrophic consequences on morale and confidence.  Therefore we can expect an epic battle as these two teams seek to get their November campaigns back on track.

England have made few changes to a side that narrowly lost to the All Blacks and for the most part the side that stepped up last weekend is the same this weekend.  The major difference being Owen Farrell starting at number ten instead of on the bench and Semesa Rokoduguni starting this match on the bench after his quiet but impressive start against New Zealand last week.

South Africa meanwhile have made some significant changes, mainly to their midfield pairing.  The young but experienced Patrick Lambie replaces Handre Pollard at fly half, although Pollard will be keeping the bench warm.  As impressive as Pollard was in South Africa’s last two games of the Rugby Championship, he lacks the presence of mind and experience under pressure that Lambie is capable of showing.  Lambie’s nerves in South Africa’s final game of the Championship against New Zealand as he slotted a penalty from almost halfway were the stuff of legends, and I think Meyer is making the right call for such a critical game.  Much debate has been rightly centred around South Africa’s key weakness at scrum half.  Hougaard had a woeful game in Dublin, and even though he is more experienced than Cobus Reinaach I still think it is worth the risk of putting Reinach in at number nine.  I have consistently in the last few months voiced my reservations about Hougaard and he has done little on the field to change that opinion.  Reinaach on the other hand has shown some serious speed and solid handling of the ball under pressure as well as having a respectable kicking game that can complement Lambie’s skills in this area.  If given the right opportunity to develop his skill set in big games like this I certainly think he is more than capable of delivering when it matters in a year’s time at the World Cup.

I have reservations about Meyer selecting JP Pietersen over Cornal Hendricks at 14, despite the value added of Pietersen’s physicality in the match against Ireland and his resulting try when he came off the bench.  It was not that Hendricks played badly last weekend, it was just that Ireland were devastatingly effective in shutting him down.  Hendricks will start this game on the bench and it will be interesting to see when and under what circumstances Meyer will choose to use him.  Also of note Mohoje will start the match on the bench while Schalk Burger gets the start at flanker.  Although Mohoje is an impressive stock for the future, Burger is playing some of the best rugby of his life at the moment after a few cold years and his experience will help add some stability to the Springbok pack as they face a solid English challenge.

Discipline for both sides will be key as well as hanging on to good possession and resisting the temptation to kick needlessly.  If frustration sets in expect to see plenty of yellow cards with the likes of Dylan Hartley leading the charge.  If this does happen then expect to see both sides trading penalty kicks to determine the winner of the match. Should this be the case my money is on Patrick Lambie rather than Owen Farrell to carry the day and the Springboks walk away the winners.  Either way we are in for a really close and fascinating encounter. 

Scotland vs New Zealand – Edinburgh

Let’s be honest, as heartening as it was to see Scotland raise their game against Argentina after so long in the wilderness, this is a tall ask.  Expect a solid and spirited challenge from Scotland which will make the All Blacks work hard.  However despite all Scotland’s considerable talent, it is unlikely they will be able to contend with the powerhouse of the All Blacks.  I hope to be able to eat my hat, and we see an upset of the year take place but I somehow doubt it.

Although New Zealand have chosen to rest some of their big guns for this match and preserve them for the match against Wales, there is so much depth in New Zealand that even their C team could be any other country’s A team.

Scotland will take the game to New Zealand and expect the dynamic Gray brothers to be at the forefront of a stiff Scottish challenge.  However, this new and exciting looking Scottish side has yet to face the kind of pressure that the All Blacks can put on teams.  Expect a tight and gritty first half, but I am fairly sure we will see New Zealand pull effortlessly away in the second half.  It won’t be a whitewash or a thrashing but anything less than a comfortable win for New Zealand is unlikely. 

France vs Australia – Paris

The question on everyone’s lips for this game is which French team will turn up?  We have a pretty good idea by now of what we can expect from Australia, but what does France have to match it?  France’s outing last weekend against Fiji showed some promise, but at the same time against a weak opposition France still looked shaky and at times did not control the game as one would expect them to do.  Against Australia this will be a concern.  Australia were challenged by Wales last weekend, make no mistake but they ultimately were able to do what was necessary to win against a strong Welsh team.

France has definite potential in key areas.  Scott Spedding was impressive at fullback especially when teamed up with rising star Teddy Thomas on the wing.  Camille Lopez as he has so far this season in Europe was consistent at fly half and played well with the boot.  However, their forward pack for me has too many questions around it.  With Toulon’s Maxime Mermoz and Mathieu Bastareaud on the bench further devastating firepower is available in midfield should Coach Saint-Andre choose to use it.  This match sees the return of the always impressive Thierry Dusatoir who although slightly off form always has the ability to raise his game when big occasions demand it.

Australia meanwhile have a solid side that is essentially unchanged from that which ultimately put Wales to the sword last weekend.  While it is unlikely they will underestimate the difficulty of playing France at home, it has to be said their track record against Les Bleus this year after a convincing 3 match series win in Australia in June will surely leave them feeling anxious but confident about what they will be up against in Paris on Saturday.  Barring a French Renaissance, I think it is safe to expect to see Australia get past a still experimental French side and use this to prepare for the serious challenges that lie in store for them with Ireland and England.

The Northern Hemisphere prepares for their annual wake up call from the Southern Hemisphere!

November Internationals – Europe

It’s an exciting weekend ahead for Test Rugby as the November Internationals get into full swing with four great encounters to get us started this Saturday:

Wales vs Australia – Cardiff
England vs New Zealand – Twickenham
Ireland vs South Africa – Dublin
Scotland vs Argentina – Edinburgh

Expect full throttle contests in all four matches as with a year to go before the World Cup, the next month will provide a fascinating insight into what to watch for in next year’s global showdown.

Wales vs Australia
Saturday, November 8th
Cardiff

As Australia start with their third coach, Michael Cheika in the space of a year, all eyes are on the Wallabies to see if the change in coaching management will finally bring a sense of stability to an Australian side bursting at the seams with potential and thus allow them to really shine. There have been numerous articles written about the “problem attitude” in the Wallaby camp and a clash between players’ egos and management and so it will be interesting to see if Cheika’s tenure will be able to gel a talented Wallaby side and allow them to play as the world class fifteen we all know they are capable of being.

Wales on the other hand, are desperate for a win against Australia and a vocal Millennium stadium crowd will expect nothing less. Wales have walked away winless from their last ten encounters with the Wallabies.  Coach Warren Gatland will be keen to show that much like Australia, the off-field dramas surrounding Welsh rugby in the past year have not compromised Wales’ ability to field a world class side capable of lifting the trophy at next year’s World Cup.  The roller coaster fortunes of Wales in the last few years have been frustrating for Welsh supporters – Grand Slam winners in the Six Nations one year only to battle it out for the wooden spoon the following year.  When Wales dig deep and play well they are exceptional, the problem is they have become like the French – you never know which Welsh team you are going to get on any given day.

Wales should be able to match Australia up front; the question marks will arise around the battles in the midfield and backline. Although Wales has some world class players in these areas, with the exceptional Leigh Halfpenny set to match up against the danger man of Israel Folau from Australia, I can’t help feeling that Australia has the edge here.  As mentioned above, one of the key battles here will be Halfpenny versus Folau, and I personally feel that the Welsh fullback has a better tactical game than his Australian counterpart.  However, although Wales have quality players from 9 to 14, I ultimately think Australia’s powerhouse in this area will ultimately win them the game.  The phenomenal Tevita Kuridrani alone should cause Wales all kinds of problems in defence and Australia have serious quality at centre and on the wings that I feel will ultimately outclass Wales as the game progresses.

Both teams will go into this with everything to prove and expect no quarters to be given, especially as this will be a dress rehearsal for their pool game in next year’s World Cup. Despite Wales having plenty of quality, I can’t help feeling that Australia ultimately has greater depth and will start to pull away from Wales in the last quarter.  The Millennium Stadium crowd will definitely be a strong 16th man but it remains to be seen whether this will provide Wales with sufficient momentum and motivation to see them squeak past Australia for the full 80 minutes.  Therefore, I predict a tight, physical defensive game with Australia eventually figuring out the key strike areas to break through and ultimately walk away with the win.  Despite the physical and defensive nature of the game expect to see one or two magic moment tries from both sides.  Either way I think we are in for a thrilling opener to the November Internationals.

England vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 8th
Twickenham

No question that this is the most eagerly anticipated game of the weekend. The Northern Hemisphere’s heavyweight meets the best team in World Rugby.  Despite many thinking that England have the potential to knock the All Blacks off their pedestal especially after New Zealand’s loss in the final game of the Rugby Championship to South Africa, I for one don’t see it happening.  Having watched English teams’ opening salvoes in the European Championship I didn’t see anything that could match up to the depth and quality the All Blacks have on their books at the moment.  England will have everything to play for especially as many feel this could be a dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup final at Twickenham and a good showing with a year to go will give them enormous confidence.  However, the All Blacks have been playing together as a unit now for the last six months and this time together and consistent track record will simply be too much for a still slightly experimental England.

New Zealand are unquestionably the finished product while England are still putting the last touches on the squad they will take to next year’s World Cup. Furthermore New Zealand have tried and tested depth of at least two players in every position on the field whereas the same cannot be said of England injuries withstanding.

Nevertheless, this match will offer plenty of excitement and there is no question that England will throw everything they have in their playbook against the All Blacks for the full 80 minutes. It is going to be close but I can’t help feeling that New Zealand will eventually pull away the winners especially in the last quarter.  One thing we have seen this year is New Zealand’s remarkable ability to learn from their mistakes while playing a match and quickly adapt and rectify the situation before the final whistle.  No other team in world rugby has the ability to do this consistently week in and week out.  England may during the course of the half time beak be able to adjust their playing style to address any weakness or errors they may have encountered in the first half, but watch New Zealand then get the measure of this with 20 minutes to go and pull away leaving England once more scratching their heads.  England is a good team, but New Zealand have shown us at the moment they are in a league of their own.  With a year to go before the World Cup, England will relish the opportunity of taking on the world’s best and use the next 12 months to figure out what they have to do to win the most important match of their careers against the All Blacks just once in 2015, but it won’t happen this year.  Either way, this Saturday’s contest at Twickenham will provide plenty of spectacle and showpiece the best our glorious game has to offer to the world.  Enjoy!

Ireland vs South Africa
Saturday, November 8th
Dublin

This is unquestionably the other big fixture of the weekend. Ireland as reigning Six Nations champions up against the second best team in the world.  This is a Springbok side that is growing in confidence after their last two games of this year’s Rugby Championship which saw them demolish Australia and finally break the All Blacks’ winning streak.

For Ireland there are simply too many question marks around their squad to be able to predict anything other than a win for the Springboks. There is no doubt that Ireland boast a strong side that like the Springboks has an exciting mix of youth and experience.  However this is not the Irish team that almost took down the All Blacks last November and went on to lift the Six Nations trophy.  The biggest question on everyone’s lips is how will Ireland play without the legendary figure of Brian O’Driscoll?  Furthermore add to this an injury list from hell that sees Ireland without the wrecking ball form of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Sean O’Brien. I don’t think anyone expects a miracle against a Springbok side that is finally starting to look like a complete outfit and one that can take the All Blacks on at their own game.

Joe Schmidt has proven himself to be a superb coach and is doing excellent work in preparing the Men in Green for next year’s World Cup, but Ireland’s first game of the season against the current powerhouse form of the Springboks is a tall ask. The untried centre pairing of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw, while boasting plenty of promise for the future is unlikely to click as smoothly as the tried and trusted combination of youth and experience in South Africa’s Jean de Villiers and Jan Serfontein.   While impressive,  I can’t see Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo outclassing the legendary Bryan Habana and as far as I am concerned the winger of the year Cornal Hendricks.  The battle between Rob Kearney and Willie le Roux at fullback will be a fascinating contrast of styles as two of the world’s best number 15s go head to head.  Johnny Sexton’s experience at number ten will be something that Ireland will be banking on provided he can keep his head in such a high pressure game and he may just have the edge over the extremely impressive Handre Pollard who really came into his own in the Springboks last two games against Australia and New Zealand.  Pollard is better with ball in hand but Sexton has a better tactical vision of the game, though Pollard is catching up fast.

The one area where Ireland will definitely have the edge over South Africa is at scrum half. There is no question that Conor Murray is a contender for the world’s best number nine along with New Zealand’s Aaron Smith.  His physicality and eye for how play is unfolding is on a par with his New Zealand counterpart and in my opinion far superior to that of South Africa’s Francois Hougaard.  Hougaard is no slacker but not the finished product that his Irish counterpart has proven himself to be.

Up front, Ireland has some definite strengths and the lineout battles between the talismanic figures of Paul O’Connell and Victor Matfield will be the stuff of legends while Devin Toner versus Eben Etzebeth will provide another thrilling contest. Meanwhile the spectacular Duane Vermuelen will battle it out at number eight with the always reliable form of Ireland’s workhorse captain Jamie Heaslip.  Add  Peter O’Mahony and Jack McGrath to Ireland’s forward mix and despite the absence of Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Rory Best, this Irish forward pack is not to be taken lightly.

So the question remains can a new look Irish team go the distance against a proven Springbok side bursting at the seams with confidence and talent? Even though I will wear my heart on my sleeve and admit that I am a hard core Irish supporter, I can’t see the Men in Green getting past the Springboks on their first outing of a new season.  The only thing that could sway things in Ireland’s favour is that South Africa have yet to prove that they can be a world class side away from home this year.  Add to this the fact that wet and windy conditions caused the Springboks to come rather unstuck tactically on several occasions this year and there is a very remote outside chance that Ireland could end up putting in a performance on par with that against the All Blacks last November.  However, I can’t help feeling that Heineke Meyer and the Springboks have learnt too many painful lessons this year to fall into such traps again, therefore a thrilling contest awaits us but ultimately one that will benefit South Africa on the day.  What Irish fans can hope for is that their team goes the distance with the Springboks for the full 80 minutes and can take this into a winning performance against Australia in a fortnight’s time.

Scotland vs Argentina
Saturday, November 8th
Edinburgh

If you are a Pumas or Scottish supporter there is much too look forward to in this fixture. Scotland have shown enormous promise at a European level so far this season as Glasgow Warriors have produced some spectacular performances in the Pro 12 and European Champions Cup tournaments.  Scotland has talent and with a new coach who can hopefully get the most out of his players, Scotland’s time at the bottom of the European rugby tank is rapidly coming to an end.  Meanwhile Argentina arrive at Murrayfield having shown the world during the recent Rugby Championship that they are one of the world’s most improved sides and are on the verge of great things to come – in short the perfect place to be in your preparation for a World Cup with a year to go.

There is no question that Argentina at the moment have a world class side capable of upsetting anyone, and as a result Scotland will need to dig deep to get past this South American powerhouse. Argentina really have no weaknesses at the moment.  Their forward pack is the stuff of legends, their halfback pairing is solid and Nicolas Sanchez was one of the most outstanding fly halves of the Rugby Championship this year.  Add to this an electric backline boasting the talents of Juan Hernandez, Marcelo Bosch,  Joaquin Tuculet and Juan Imhoff and you realize that Argentina has a complete team with a solid bench to back them up.  Even without the inspirational figure of Juan Martin Hernandez Lobbe barking at the back of the scrum, Augustin Creevy’s solid leadership and quiet confidence will provide strength and composure to Argentina’s efforts.  Argentina have at last proved that they can play for the full eighty minutes as well as showing they are masters of all types of weather conditions, and thus the omens look good for them at Murrayfield this weekend.

Scotland however can go into this game with confidence, despite some gaps in experience when matched up against their South American counterparts. New Scottish coach Vern Cotter brings with him a wealth of experience from his time at Clermont and understands how to develop winning ways in a team.  The Scottish line up for Saturday boasts a healthy presence of Glasgow Warriors players especially in the backline.  In the forwards, one of the world’s best when he is in form is represented by the towering form of Richie Gray.  If Scotland rise to the support of a vocal home crowd and weather the onslaught of relentless Argentine pressure at the breakdown they could pull off an upset.  However, as much as I think we all want to see Scotland lift themselves out of the drudgery of their last few years, I can’t help feeling that up against an extremely impressive and highly motivated Pumas squad it may be too much to ask.  Daniel Hourcade has done a fantastic job with the Pumas in the last six months and they are definitely showing signs of being the giant slayers they were at the 2007 World Cup.  As a result in a potentially thrilling match with lots to look forward to for both sides, I predict Argentina ultimately will edge out Scotland in a gritty and hard fought contest.