Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

When we first looked at the pools draw for this World Cup, we felt that possibly the pool stages may have ended up being rather one-sided. In many ways they were, certainly in the case of Pool B. However, as always some of the Tier 2 nations packed some genuine punch. Uruguay were well worth their admission, as were Georgia and Fiji in Pool D and Japan completely turned the form book on its head in Pool A, much to the chagrin of Ireland and Scotland. The tournament in that respect has completely exceeded expectations and Japan have been a genuine revelation – their offloading game against Scotland was truly spectacular and had to be seen to be believed. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the tournament was the fact that despite the advent of a professional league in North America, Canada and the United States were sadly uncompetitive in their respective pools, with Canada having the added injury of being unable to play the only match they had a genuine shot at glory in against Namibia due to Typhoon Hagibis.

All that aside after a month of some glorious rugby, the business end of the tournament really gets underway on Saturday with the quarter finals. We’ll be having a look at all four matches, but as we only have the team sheets for the first round of Quarter Finals on Saturday, we’ll take a look at Wales vs France and Japan vs South Africa tomorrow.

As expected England topped their pool and now face an Australian side that got the job done but often looked less than convincing in their journey to the knockout stages. England really only had Argentina to test their resolve, after their final match with France was called off due to Typhoon Hagibis. Australia provided us with one of the best games of the pool stages in their thrilling second half comeback against a Welsh side who just managed to hang on to the narrowest of wins. By the same token Australia almost got embarrassed by Fiji and found the going tough at times against Georgia. The Wallabies will have the advantage of being slightly fresher out of the blocks than England, as their final game was not subjected to the vagaries of Typhoon Hagibis. 

England have looked dominant in their run up to their quarter finals after having dispatched Tonga, USA and Argentina with relative ease. They probably could have done without the enforced 14 day break between their game against Argentina and Saturday’s clash with Australia, but the flip side of the coin is it has given them time to sort out any niggling injuries picked up in the pool stages as well as allowing the team ample preparation time. While hardly ideal, were England to come short against Australia on Saturday, it would be a rather weak excuse.

Next up is New Zealand against Ireland, in a match that has so many subplots it would be worthy movie or thriller material. New Zealand will be seeking revenge for Ireland messing with their dominance of the global game in the last four years, in addition to the pressure of ensuring a spot in the semi-finals. Ireland, no doubt would have preferred the Springboks as a quarter final opponent, especially as the form that catapulted them to the top of the world rankings last year has all but deserted them of late. Sure they put away Scotland and Samoa convincingly, but their loss to Japan highlighted some glaring gaps in both strategy and execution on Ireland’s part. Their labored win over Russia did little to convince the rest of the world that Ireland are potential title holders. Ireland simply don’t look the part at the moment and it will take a monumental shift in both execution and effort on Saturday to get Ireland’s World Cup campaign back on track. Ireland have beaten New Zealand in two of their three encounters since the last World Cup, but for all intents and purposes that is now ancient and irrelevant history.

New Zealand on the other hand are having no such problems in their campaign. Their only major concern is likely to be the fact that so far in this World Cup they have only been put to the test once and that was four weeks ago, which is a very long time in the scope of a tournament like this. Their opening game of the tournament against South Africa is the only time that New Zealand have really felt any kind of genuine pressure. Their Sunday strolls in the park against Canada and Namibia, were simply that – good-natured training sessions amongst friends, and we say that in no disrespect to these two opponents who certainly threw everything they had into both matches, even if the outcome had been essentially predicted in the last century. As a result it is a fit and well rested New Zealand that takes on Ireland, but without the benefit of some genuinely hard fought clashes behind them to draw on in terms of big match preparation in the tournament so far. Add to the fact that Ireland would seem to have become New Zealand’s new bogey team, a title held until recently by France. As a result it is likely that there have been just a few jitters in the All Blacks camp this week, should the ghosts of 1999 and 2007 come back to haunt them, albeit in green rather than blue jerseys this time.

So without any further ado here’s our five talking points coming out of Saturday’s big bill of two mouth watering encounters!

England vs Australia – Saturday, October 19th – Oita

Since 2000 these two sides have met 25 times, and England have the healthier balance on the outcome sheet by a considerable margin, especially come World Cup time with the exception of that rather topical loss in the Pool stages of the last World Cup. If the statistics of these two teams aren’t enough of an argument in England’s favor come the World Cup since the turn of the century, there is the small matter of Australia’s form these last four years which is about as consistent as the value of airline shares on the stock exchange. One moment absolutely scintillating and capable of turning the All Blacks inside out and the next minute being blown off the park by any of the Tier one sides, the Wallabies are simply too unpredictable. In many ways they have become the Southern Hemisphere’s version of France in years gone by – in other words which Wallaby team will turn up on Saturday?

England meanwhile do not seem to be suffering the same identity crisis and with the exception of New Zealand, in many ways have looked the most self assured of all the competitors at this year’s World Cup. While they had a relatively easy journey to this quarter-final, courtesy of Typhoon Hagibis, there is no denying that they look a very capable side and one which barring one or two concerns certainly seems to know the type of game they want to play and how to execute it. In short, barring a few lingering questions around big match temperament and lapses in concentration, England look very much like a side who has every intention of being in Yokohama on November 2nd, and the skill set to ensure that becomes a reality.

England’s tight five to establish front foot dominance

Australia’s scrum has improved dramatically in the last year, but England’s has been all powerful. With a powerhouse front row, with a lethal second row providing some real stability and aggression in the set pieces, Australia are going to find the going tough here on Saturday. Like we say Australia have got better but not good enough to cope with England’s all out power, aggression and technical proficiency at the coalface. Australia may be a bit more competitive in the lineouts courtesy of Rory Arnold, Isaac Rodda and Adam Coleman, but with a power packed bench England are likely to be simply too much of a handful for Australia. It will be the platform from which England’s technical proficiency will be built on Saturday, leaving Australia with too much to do in terms of simply attempting to gain parity, let alone build a foundation of their own.

Australia will get some parity in the back row but even with Pocock and Hooper in the mix they won’t get the kind of dominance in the loose they tend to thrive on

If this was England’s back row of the first three years since the 2015 World Cup then we’d argue that Pocock and Hooper would be licking their lips. The problem is it isn’t and anything Pocock and Hooper can do, England’s back row for Saturday can do as well and in many cases probably better. As regular readers of this blog know, we simply cannot rate England’s Tom Curry highly enough. He’s England’s best find of the last four years and future Captain material at the tender age of 21. While the Australian duo, and Hooper in particular thrive in the loose, so too do England’s Sam Underhill and Curry. Add in to the mix England’s one man panzer division in the shape of Billy Vunipola and we just can’t see Australia keeping up here despite Pocock and Hooper’s exceptional talents.

It may seem harsh for George Ford, but Coach Eddie Jones has probably made the call he will stick by to the final should England get that far

George Ford has put in some big performances in the past few months in an English jersey, but when it comes down to the wire for the big games, Eddie Jones is likely to stick with Owen Farrell as his pivot to call the shots in the big games. Given what is at stake, it would seem to be the right call as Farrell seems to have a tighter hold on his game management skills from the ten slot than in the centres. For this match Jones probably could have got away with Ford at ten and Farrell at twelve as Australia do not really posess a world class number ten at the moment. However, for the clashes with England’s potential opponents in the next round, Jones needs some consistency in selection. Furthermore, Ben Youngs who has been seen as England’s weakest link of late at scrum half does seem to play better alongside Farrell than Ford. Ford will still have a chance to bring some impact in the final quarter but expect to see him on the bench for the remainder of the tournament as Jones hedges his bets on a combination that has served him well.

Wallabies Coach Cheika rolls the dice, but this could work out well for him as Eddie Jones also appears to throw caution to the wind

We think that it’s a bold decision by Jones to suddenly insert Henry Slade into the centre channels for a match of such importance, given the fact that the English centre has very little game time under his belt heading into this match. An absolutely brilliant player on his day with some outstanding skill sets, Slade has the potential to set the pitch alight. But then so too does Jordan Petaia for the Wallabies, which in many ways is an even bolder gamble by Cheika. The nineteen year old has very limited Super Rugby experience and even less Test experience. In terms of a leap of faith it doesn’t get much bigger than this. He has a huge amount of talent of that there is no doubt, but whether or not he will be able bring it to this kind of stage remains to be seen. If he does and Slade fails to find his groove and gel with Tuilagi, then with the electric Samu Kerevi alongside him Australia could end up with some momentum changing moments in this part of the park.

Hopefully this is the game where Elliot Daly finally has his detractors leave him alone

We’ve struggled with a lot of the criticism directed at Elliot Daly, England’s fullback on Saturday. Agreed he’s made mistakes in the past, but in our opinion he’s been there when England have needed him, has an exceptionally reliable boot and overall puts in the effort as well as creating some special moments of his own. In short we fail to see the problem. Very few if any of the teams in this competition have a water tight fifteen, and Daly is no exception, but in terms of reliability and doing what it says on the tin, then we find it hard to argue against Daly. In short, we’re fans and think Jones is doing the right thing by sticking with Daly and we really hope he has the kind of performance on Saturday that puts such debates to bed once and for all.

Verdict

Although much has been made of England’s bench, in terms of it closing up shop in England’s favor on Saturday, apart from the front row replacements, we’d argue that it is one area where the two sides are on par. However, it still doesn’t detract from the fact that overall we feel England is simply going to do too much damage in the first hour, for a bench to really make that much of an impact on Saturday. Unless Australia have studied France’s exploits of the 1999 and 2007 World Cups and embraced their underdog status and with it a plan to turn the form books upside down, then it’s hard to see anything other than a fairly convincing England victory. Barring any surprises from Australia and the dreaded English “choke” factor under pressure, then the Men in White to keep moving forward to next weekend by 13 points!

New Zealand vs Ireland – Saturday, October 19th – Tokyo

Australia may have taken some notes out of French play books of years gone by, but Ireland are likely to have made them mandatory viewing each night as they desperately seek to come up with something that New Zealand are not expecting. Let’s be honest the Ireland of 2019 has become beyond predictable and as a result it is going to take a bag full of surprises and an Irish side that New Zealand and the rest of the world has never seen before, if they are to reverse history and go beyond the quarter finals for the first time in the Emerald Isle’s spirited but ultimately disappointing World Cup history.

New Zealand will be fully aware of this and the fact that Ireland have been the annoying thorn in their side since the last World Cup. In short as far as the All Blacks are concerned it’s time to bury this cheeky green demon once and for all, and what better stage to do it on than the World Cup. New Zealand have had their ups and downs this year make no mistake, but they haven’t quite hit the lows that Ireland have in their dizzying fall from their successes of 2018. New Zealand when they click, and they still do with alarming regularity, look unstoppable and while the golden years since 2011 may be coming to an end, this group of rather extraordinary sportsmen aren’t quite done yet.

The “Tadhg” is back and Ireland will need every ounce of the raging bull on Saturday

After a rather quiet 2019, in Ireland’s final pool game against Samoa, the Irish tighthead prop exploded back into his groove. Tadhg Furlong’s influence on Ireland’s fortunes was immediate and set the tone for much of the match. He and New Zealand’s Joe Moody are likely to have a great deal to say to each other on Saturday, but if the Wexford tank hits his mark in Tokyo, New Zealand could face a long day at the coalface as well as having a few broken bodies across the park as the Irish prop seems almost impossible to bring down once he’s built up a head of steam.

Ireland like to suffocate the ball and slow the game down, but referee Nigel Owens likes the game to flow – consequently Irish discipline and keeping on the right side of the laws will be paramount

Ireland are blessed with a superb disciplinary record, which of late has, fairly or unfairly depending on your point of view, lost some of its lustre. The dangers of slowing the ball down bring with it all kinds of issues around the fringes of the laws, territory which New Zealand excels at operating in. Ireland will need to keep it tight but also ensure that the game flows while at the same time not leaving themselves exposed especially in the loose. Ireland’s speed at the breakdown, their rush defense and efficiency at the ruck have all been exemplary under Coach Joe Schmidt, but the aggression and physicality New Zealand are likely to bring to the contact areas on Saturday are going to put this under the most extreme pressure. If Ireland are able to match this and not get bullied by New Zealand and consequently avoid costly disciplinary mistakes then they are in with a chance, but it will be a key area of concern for them and should they not master it, New Zealand will quickly run away with the match by dominating its momentum.

It’s Ireland’s back row that is perhaps their biggest concern

Once a thing of pride it seems to have lost its way not helped by injury, but Ireland’s back row efforts just don’t seem to be matching up to the competition of late. The heroics of Peter O’Mahony on that famous day back in Dublin last year against a group of individuals in black jerseys seem to be nothing more than a distant memory, while CJ Stander seems to have gone into hibernation – even if we did see flashes of his old self against Samoa. Even Josh van der Flier has been strangely quiet this year. It’s a good back row make no mistake, but New Zealand’s offering is simply humming with precision and an all out physicality that is hard to match. Ardie Savea is such a live wire he is almost impossible to read and opposition defenses are never quite sure where he is likely to pop out, and once he does good luck trying to catch him. Sam Cane is back to the bruising ball carrier he loves to be and Kieran Read although not quite the force he once was still lends that steady hand of leadership and provides the glue that keeps this unit together.

If you want entertainment then look no further than the respective nine and tens

What a match up – plain and simple!!! New Zealand’s Richie Mo’unga may not have the pedigree and track record of the other three gentlemen he will be sharing this part of the park with on Saturday, but he certainly has the skill set to mix it with the best of them. We have to confess to being surprised at Aaron Smith getting the nod for the starting berth for the All Blacks at scrum half as we still feel that TJ Perenara is the more explosive of the two and thus a greater handful for the Irish defenses. Nevertheless, if the Irish forwards are managing to go toe to toe with their All Black counterparts and holding their discipline, then the playing field suddenly starts to level, especially if Ireland’s Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton hit their traditional high notes in terms of game management.

It’s a great set of Irish backs as a unit, but New Zealand look like they have more individual try scorers

If you look at the backs from both sides, then it’s really only Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour who stand out as dead ringer candidates likely to get familiar with the opposition try line for Ireland. Gary Ringrose also has some genuine dancing feet for Ireland in the center of the park and knows how to use them in space and create opportunities for the rest of his teammates. However for New Zealand, Richie Mo’unga, Sevu Reece, Beauden Barrett, George Bridge and Anton Liennert-Brown all seem to do it with alarming regularity. New Zealand have a set of backs who are more than comfortable operating as free agents, whereas Ireland’s backs thrive off a more orchestrated approach with the exception of Stockdale and Larmour. Consequently if Ireland are going to keep New Zealand at bay, denying any space whatsoever to five key players will be a much more challenging task than New Zealand having to keep only two or three Irish players in check who can really capitalize on broken play at speed.

Verdict

We would dearly love to see Ireland break their long suffering penury at the stocks in World Cup quarter finals, but it is hard to see it happening based on their buildup to Saturday’s match. They just haven’t looked the part so far this year, leading to the inevitable call that they peaked too early for this World Cup. All the evidence would tend to support that claim as other teams have left them in their wake in the last few months. Still to write off what is essentially an exceptionally talented group of world class players would be sheer folly, and New Zealand have clearly recognized this. Ireland may be down, but when it comes to passion and fire there are few teams who can top the Irish, and as a result they are definitely not out yet. They desperately need some new tricks up their sleeve though as they have sadly become far too easy to read. Whether or not they have been saving themselves for this moment and we will see a side full of surprises remains to be seen, but there is that nagging feeling that it all may be too little too late. New Zealand are building towards one last great hurrah for this group of players and it is going to take a very special team to derail them. Ireland may well end up giving them a fight to remember, but it is hard to see anything other than an All Black victory by 12 points!

With all the rugby going on at the moment, we have to confess to finding it hard to keep a handle on all of it and a balance with work and family. As a result it’s a slightly abbreviated look at some of this weekend’s action. After a bumper crop of top notch matches in Round 1, the pickings are slightly slimmer this weekend, but some big matches are on offer. We’ve picked out three that perhaps best capture the flavor of what is already proving to be a memorable World Cup.

First up is tomorrow’s headliner between hosts Japan and one of the tournament favorites Ireland. The Irish have recognized the potential banana skin posed by Japan in front of what should be a very vocal crowd in Fukoroi. Ireland field a full strength side with only one or two omissions, fully aware that Japan will throw everything at them. After Scotland’s annihilation at the hands of the Irish, Japan are probably looking at their final match of the Pool stages with the Scots to attempt one of the tournament’s big upsets. However, they couldn’t ask for better preparation than Ireland who would appear to be regaining the form that made them such a force in 2018.

For us though it is Sunday that provides the bulk of the action. It is Uruguay who caused the first big upset of the tournament, with their historic win over Fiji, and what a match it was! It caught the imagination of the fans in attendance and was a fabulous match to watch. Georgia also put on an impressive second half display against Wales. On the basis of that we think that Sunday’s fixture between Georgia and Uruguay could end up being one of the best Tier 2 Pool games of the entire tournament. Uruguay will have had a shorter turnaround than the Georgians but if they play with the same kind of heart and conviction they showed against Fiji, then as a spectacle this could be quite the match, as Georgia are also not short on passion and hard graft.

We end with THE big match of the weekend as Pool D’s heavyweights, Australia and Wales do battle. Wales may have blown Georgia away in the first half  of their World Cup opener but the Georgians came back with a real vengeance in the second half and caused the Welsh all kinds of problems. In Australia’s case they suffered a serious case of opening night nerves as Fiji had them on the ropes in the first half. They were able to regroup for the second half and ultimately secure the victory, but there is no denying that they had been asked some serious questions along the way. As a result this could be a very even contest on Sunday as both sides seek to gain ascendancy in Pool D.

Japan vs Ireland – Saturday, September 28th – Fukuroi

Arguably Ireland’s second most difficult game of the Pool stages and one which will require another emphatic performance similar to that against Scotland. Ireland will be well aware that they have struggled at times this year to hit the ground running. Should they have the kind of off day that we saw a lot of during the Six Nations, then Japan could fancy their chances at an upset akin to their triumph over South Africa in the last World Cup.

However, Ireland in their last three games prior to the World Cup would appear to have started to hit their straps again. The performance we saw against Scotland, admittedly an exceptionally poor Scottish effort, in tough conditions demonstrated that Ireland would appear to be back on an upward trajectory just when they need it most.

Japan got the job done against Russia, but didn’t look like the giant killers that some imagine they may be in front of their home crowds on Rugby’s biggest stage. There’s certainly enough there to cause Ireland problems, but at this stage we’re not quite envisaging an upset on Saturday, especially with Ireland fielding an exceptionally capable squad which clearly recognizes and respects the potential threat Japan could pose.

Ireland will want to see a good outing from winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney after they missed the Scotland game due to injury. Meanwhile Jacob Stockdale will need to be at his best to contain Japanese try scoring machine Kotaro Matsushima who looked outstanding against Russia. CJ Stander was back to his bruising best for Ireland and will really need to step up again against Japan’s Amanaki Mafi who is genuinely world class. Also after an outstanding contribution from Jack Carty who took over from Johnny Sexton in the last quarter against Scotland, the young Irish fly half gets the nod at the starting 10 spot for this match. Irish supporters will also be keen to see Joey Carberry make an appearance as Carty’s replacement, after Carberry’s absence with injury.

Overall, despite what we think will be an exceptionally vigorous Japanese challenge, there is just too much class, pedigree and experience in this Irish match day 23 to make the likelihood of an upset a reality. Japan will be brave make no mistake and cause Ireland some problems, but Ireland to ultimately seal the deal by 16 points!

Georgia vs Uruguay – Sunday, September 29th – Kumagaya

After both sides exploits against Wales and Fiji, we have to confess that we are really looking forward to this one. While Uruguay managed to win their match after a heroic effort, Georgia certainly gave Wales an uphill battle at times in the second half. Both these teams really play with their hearts on their sleeves and are likely to be firm crowd favorites during the pool stages.

Georgia are keen to make a statement this tournament as they continue to push for a spot in the Six Nations, and a strong third place finish in their pool would further strengthen that argument. Uruguay meanwhile will continue to be an emerging rugby force in the Americas and with an increasing number of their players plying their trade in Major league Rugby in the US and Top 14 in France, they will also be chasing that third spot and automatic qualification for the next World Cup in France in 2023.

As a result two highly entertaining sides with plenty of grit go head to head with each other. Georgia should have the better forward pack, but as Uruguay showed against Fiji their forwards are no slouches. Uruguay should have the edge in the backs, having displayed some lovely running in the Fiji game, but Georgia has also come a long way since the days of them being recognized as a bone crushing set of forwards but not much else. They too have some silky backs, and as we saw against Wales they were able to make some damaging incisions into the Welsh defenses. In short, two very high quality Tier 2 sides who should provide one of the best underdog competitions of the tournament. Georgia’s reputation being the more heavyweight of the two should see them through in a very tight contest by two points!

Australia vs Wales – Sunday, September 29th – Tokyo

Without a doubt the showpiece event of the weekend! Barring any major upsets this contest will decide Pool D, despite Wales and Australia in particular having their odd moments of uncertainty against Georgia and Fiji. Australia as we predicted found that their rather exuberant running game at times would catch them out against Fiji, particularly if the execution wasn’t quite up to scratch. It wasn’t in the first half and Fiji capitalized as there is nothing they love better than unstructured open play. Australia adopted a much more conservative approach in the second half and it paid dividends.

Wales appeared to take their foot off the gas in the second half against Georgia, and got the rudest of wake up calls for the first quarter. A mistake they are unlikely to repeat against Australia. Much like Scotland though they have serious concerns about how deep they can go into this tournament should the injury gods not be kind to them in the Pool stages.

For a match of this significance both teams are packing a powerhouse match day 23 and bringing out all their big guns. While Wales managed to beat Australia in Cardiff last November for the first time in 8 years, it was at home, and the Welsh record against the Wallabies is not a favorable one. However, this Wallaby side blows so hot and cold, much like the French, that we are all wondering which Wallaby team will turn up on Sunday, even if it looks almost exactly the same on the team sheet bar one or two exceptions as the one that went up against Fiji. Wales meanwhile bring to Tokyo essentially the same team that faced off against Georgia.

The battle of the back rows should be one for the ages with David Pocock and Michael Hooper of Australia up against Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi. Newcomers Isi Naisarani for Australia and Aaron Wainwright for Wales have both impressed, and should be well mentored by the four veterans surrounding them. The battle between Justin Tipuric and David Pocock though is one of the key battles on the park. Pocock seems back to his best after injury and Tipuric is probably one of Test Rugby’s most dependable men in a crisis.

Australia though have gone for a sea change in the half backs, while Wales stick with the tried and trusted formula of Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar. Biggar really seems to have a handle on how to pull Wales out of the fire should things start getting away from them and his goal kicking appears to be spot on. Australia bring Will Genia and Bernard Foley back into the mix and for a match of this importance, and despite being really impressed with Nic White, we feel it is the right call. Christian Lealiifano just didn’t seem in the match last weekend for the Wallabies and Bernard Foley and Matt Toomua look like more reliable platforms at number 10. The other notable inclusion for Australia is the long awaited return of Adam Ashley-Cooper on the right wing. However, we feel that the outstanding winger’s best days may be behind him, so expect to see Fijian missile Marika Koroibete and centre Samu Kerevi have more to say in the try scoring department for Australia on Sunday.

The benches look solid, but Australia may have the edge in their front row replacements, as we saw last week against Fiji. Otherwise we think it’s fairly even, and it’s another big call for Welsh fly half Rhys Patchell on the replacements bench. However, we’ve been fans of the Scarlets play maker for a while now and for the most part he seems to rise to big occasions like Sunday’s match.

Two very evenly matched teams face up in what should be a thrilling contest. Two teams who love to run the ball, with Wales perhaps having the better kicking game, but Australia a more enterprising and unpredictable back line. In the forwards it’s even stevens, with the Welsh pack perhaps being the more settled of the two. In short, almost impossible to call but we’re hedging our bets that Wales have a better understanding of the type of game they want to play and how to execute it. No we haven’t been taking betting tips from Rob Howley, but we’re giving it to Wales by three!

While the opener with Japan and Russia had its merit, there is no denying that this is the first of the weekend’s key fixtures that have got everyone talking. Australia come into this tournament rather like the Southern Hemisphere’s version of France. Brilliant one day, hopeless the next – the question on everyone’s lips is which Australian team will show up in Sapporo tomorrow and will it be good enough to maintain consistency over seven matches on the trot? We have to be honest we have our doubts.

Up against them is a Fijian side that packs more excitement than a river barge full of fireworks in Sydney Harbor on New Year’s Eve. Fiji have become everyone’s banana skin in waiting and Australia know that if they are not at their best, they could very well slide into touch and out of the tournament before it’s really got going. Perhaps because of that it is no coincidence that Australia’s starting XV for tomorrow boasts 3 Fijian born players, who may have that edge in understanding how to get past their fellow countrymen in white jerseys.

Fiji have always been entertaining to watch at World Cups, but there is something distinctly different about the 2019 edition. Renowned for extraordinary speed and ball handling skills, Fiji has now developed a holistic approach to their game that also boasts a competent forward pack. The worrying thing for opposition sides is that many of those forwards also boast the same speed and ball handling skills that in the past have made their backs so famous. Fiji still lack a lot of the overall structure necessary to win at this level, but there is no denying that they have the power, pace and above all skill to upset many an apple cart, as France found out the hard way last November.

Australia vs Fiji – Saturday, September 21st – Sapporo

Australia will want to keep this game tight, as any propensity for loose play could see Fiji run riot

Don’t expect any fireworks from the Wallabies tomorrow in Sapporo. Their biggest concern will be keeping this game as tight and structured as possible, as space and loose play are just a few of Fiji’s favorite things. Australia have their own attacking threats up the middle and out wide make no mistake, but their defensive skills will be put to the Test first and foremost. We just think it is unlikely that Australia are going to lay on too much of the razzle dazzle in attack, when they have a set of Fijian opportunistic speedsters waiting to pounce on any mistake, and let’s face it when Australian execution on attack is off, it’s really off. As a result if you’re looking for excitement from the Wallabies tomorrow, you’re probably backing the wrong horse. True blue conservatism is likely to be the order of the day, especially with opening night jitters coming into play for Australia.

This edition of the Flying Fijians is a lot more than just fleet footed dazzling ball handling skills

Like we said above, Fijian rugby is clearly a different beast than what we’re used to. They can still take your breath away starting deep in their own 22, from some outlandish ball playing up the entire length of the field, but now they can also set that in motion from the set pieces. They are better organised and are much more of a team effort than a collection of individuals naturally blessed with the kind of skills most players only develop after years of grueling effort. In short, they have been and continue to be one of our favorite sides to watch, but the odds on them getting past some of the big teams are significantly increased as they have become much more clinical and accomplished in their approach to the game.

Their scrum may still be a little suspect, and question marks still linger around their overall defensive skills. However, on attack they can menace from the set pieces and in open play. Expect to see second rower Leone Nakarawa transform from a lineout wrecking force of nature to instant winger in the blink of an eye, while Peceli Yato causes just as much grief in the back row. They have an accomplished half back pairing, and then there’s the small matter of some of those backs, with Semi Radradra being any defensive coach’s worst nightmare, but plenty of others dominating the headlines while on club duty in France such as Waisea Nayaclevu, Josua Tuisova and Levani Botia.

If you are suffering from opening night nerves, something Australia have seemed prone to, then Fiji is probably the last side you want to meet

Australia do seem to be rattled by big occasions lately, and the opening game of a World Cup is a prime example of where the Wallabies’ nerves could get the better of them, especially against a side as unpredictable as Fiji. Australia would probably have been much more comfortable with someone like Uruguay or Georgia as their first order of business. Their recent warm up encounter with Samoa was a tight affair and didn’t exactly make the Wallabies look like giant killers, and Fiji are twice the side that Samoa is. Fiji are likely to come into this match feeling like they have nothing to lose, and eager to chance their hand at spoiling Australia and Wales’ assumed progress to the knockout stages. Australia on the other hand are under all kinds of pressure from the get go. A dismal couple of years since the last World Cup and a public back home demanding results lest the game slip further into obscurity in the Australian sporting psyche, means that they have much more to prove than Fiji.

Verdict

Australia should and can win this match. However, we very much doubt that it will be a comfortable affair for the Wallabies. We fully expect to see Fiji run them very close at times and genuinely strike fear into the hearts of Michael Hooper and his charges. Expect to see the odd dazed look from Wallaby players as Fiji pull off a seemingly impossible try. Nevertheless, Australia seem pretty hell bent on laying down a marker that they want to maintain for the rest of this World Cup and tomorrow’s match will be the first step in the process. Let’s face it, everyone had written them off at the last World Cup and they made it to the final. An edgy but conservative display from Australia should get them their first win of the tournament by six points, but Fiji to give them numerous hair raising moments that will test their resolve to the full!

 

Yes we know, Scotland also travel to Toulon to get their World Cup preparations underway but we won’t be covering it as we are unable to watch it here in Canada (though we will be able to get the return fixture at Murrayfield next weekend and thus will cover that).

However, there is plenty to look forward to this Saturday, as the matter of the Bledisloe Cup will be settled between New Zealand and Australia, and Argentina travel to South Africa to take on a Springbok side that is positively humming after lifting the Rugby Championship (or TriNations as it was formerly known) silverware for the first time in 10 years last weekend.

Meanwhile in Cardiff, England arrive to really up the ante in their World Cup preparations with Coach Eddie Jones already having named his Rugby World Cup squad of 31 players, 23 of whom will be seeing action on Saturday. Wales have already started to reel from pre-Japan injuries and without the depth at their disposal that England has, will no doubt be taking a cautious approach to this weekend’s proceedings.

So without further ado, here’s what got us pondering this week in relation to Saturday’s showdowns.

New Zealand vs Australia – Saturday, August 17th – Auckland

First up, our heartfelt apologies to the Wallabies after we had essentially written them off last weekend. That was a quality performance that was long overdue for Australia, and one we always felt they had in them, but were struggling to figure out how to execute. The radical turnaround in their fortunes against the number one team in the world, was however not what we were expecting. So as we say egg all over our faces and congratulations to the team and their supporters.

New Zealand were not their usual sprightly selves and one could argue they haven’t been for quite some time now, and there is no doubt that being reduced to fourteen men for the last half of the match didn’t help their cause much either. However, New Zealand foibles aside, Australia put in the best performance we’ve seen from a Wallaby side in at least two years. They were clinical, efficient and downright enterprising at times, as well as making sure they capitalized on the All Blacks’ mistakes of which there were many. It was a sparkling Australian performance and one which give them plenty of confidence in the buildup to their World Cup – the trick now is to maintain that standard.

New Zealand are clearly a conundrum at the moment. Whether or not it is a case of Coach Steve Hansen trying to lull the opposition into a state of complacency is debatable. However, there is no getting away from the fact that even if he is reluctant to show his hand this far out from Japan, New Zealand are looking a long way from being the self assured side that for the last five years has comfortably kept the opposition at arms length, barring the odd hiccough. Nevertheless, we still don’t buy the argument that they are all of a sudden a World Cup pushover. In the last twelve months they have only lost three times. Admittedly they have also been pushed incredibly close at times in the last year, but their win ratio is still pretty impeccable and the envy of most teams.

It is after all Eden Park we are talking about on Saturday, as well as the fact that lightning rarely strikes men dressed in black twice

If ever there was a hallowed ground for a team then Auckland’s Eden Park surely ticks all the boxes. As the All Blacks spiritual fortress the ground has been kind to them like no other team on earth. New Zealand have not lost a rugby match here since July 3, 1994 (in an epic match against France which I can remember to this day). So yes it is over 25 years and 42 matches later, that anyone has had the gall to upset New Zealand’s finest on this cherished turf. As good as Australia were last weekend against New Zealand, they are going to have to be even better by at least another gear or two to pull off the same unthinkable feat in Auckland. Throw into that equation the fact that the All Blacks simply do not suffer back to back losses very often – 2011 to be precise and by two different teams. So Australia may fancy their chances, but unless New Zealand play worse than they did in Perth (which on home ground is rather unlikely) then Australia will need quite a bit more than just a few lucky rabbit feet and one hell of a game plan this Saturday.

Our biggest surprise last week – the Wallaby scrum

It was competitive – plain and simple – and provided Australia a solid platform and Tolu Latu’s dart throwing skills at lineout time were for the most part pretty accurate. New Zealand have decided to change things up a bit here on Saturday with Owen Franks not even making the bench in place of Nepo Lualala. Even Dane Coles was fairly ineffectual as a backup winger, a role he usually causes all kinds of havoc in. In short Australia seemed to have the measure of New Zealand at the coalface and how to contain the nuisance factor of Dane Coles in loose play. It will be interesting to see this weekend if that was simply a temporary reprieve for the Wallabies.

That Australian second row means business

We stuck our necks out last weekend by saying we felt that Australia’s stocks in the second row were in exceptionally rude health. We were certainly not disappointed. Izack Rodda and Rory Arnold played a huge part in the Wallabies success in Perth and the long awaited return of Adam Coleman from injury when he came off the bench also did not disappoint. This week Rodda keeps his place, while Coleman gets a starting berth. Arnold gets given a much needed break to be replaced by Rob Simmons on the bench which may be one of the few weak links in the Wallabies armour in this part of the park.

New Zealand’s back row needs to step up

With the exception of Ardie Savea, who despite being out of position continued to play like a man possessed, New Zealand looked well off the boil here last Saturday, with the Australians grabbing all the headlines in this part of the park. We doubt they will have it that easy again this weekend, but New Zealand really need to assert some authority once more here.

Given the events of last weekend we were once again surprised at the halfback combinations for New Zealand as well as those in the backs

We’ve said it before and last weekend seemed to bear us out – Aaron Smith is not New Zealand’s first choice scrum half anymore and in reality hasn’t been for quite some time. Consequently, given the events of last weekend we were more than a little surprised to see him get the starting berth for Saturday’s match. TJ Perenara is a much more difficult proposition for opposition sides, and while he makes the bench again in this match, expect to see him sooner rather than later if things are not going well for New Zealand from the outset. Furthermore, the Richie Mo’unga/Beauden Barrett 10-15 axis is not really working, and Mo’unga seems to be struggling to bring his Super Rugby game to the Test arena. For a match with Bledisloe silverware on the line we would have thought Hansen would have reverted to the tried and trusted formula of Barrett at 10 and Ben Smith at fullback instead of the wing as he was last weekend.

Talking of the rest of the backs the omission of Ben Smith really caught us off guard. While we didn’t quite get to see him at his best last weekend on the wing, his experience at fullback is pretty hard to replicate. Furthermore much like the Mo’unga experiment we’re not sure George Bridge or Sevu Reece will translate their Super Rugby form to the Test arena. Add in the fact Sonny Bill Williams’ one dimensional play is unlikely to be able to counteract the high stepping antics of the Wallabies James O’Connor and Samu Kerevi, and New Zealand’s selection policy for a match where one of their most prized pieces of silverware is on the line, is slightly baffling.

Verdict

All these variables aside, it is still hard for most of us to get our head around the fact that New Zealand would a) lose at Eden Park, b) lose two back to back matches to the same opponent and in the process c) give up the Bledisloe Cup. If this Wallaby team plays anything like they did in Perth, then they will be good but we still find it hard to believe they are THAT good to pull off the unthinkable scenario above. If they can play to that level, and we think they are more than capable of doing so, then one thing is for certain – we are in for one hell of a Test match! However, as close as it may be at times, this is one occasion where it is simply impossible for us to buck the form and history books and thus we give it to New Zealand by six!

Wales vs England – Saturday, August 17th – Cardiff

Wales World Cup anxiety is now in full swing after last weekend’s tussle with England at Twickenham. All the teams are now playing Russian Roulette with the injury wheel in these warmup games and Wales have been the first to list a fatality. Last weekend’s match saw fly half Gareth Anscombe who played such a large role in Wales’ Six Nations Grand Slam campaign, succumb to a World Cup ending injury. Wales now have to dig deep into their depth stocks in a race against time to find a reliable second choice fly half to support Dan Biggar.

England have no such problems, and in an almost cavalier attitude, Coach Eddie Jones became the first to name his 31 man World Cup squad, 23 of whom see action on Saturday. Last weekend he got a chance to have one last look at a few players on his shopping list and it would appear they ticked all the right boxes in the Coach’s estimation. Consequently it is a strong England side that runs out onto the Cardiff pitch on Saturday, and one which knows it has two tough matches in which to really refine structures and combinations, without the need to compete for places. Some may say it was bold and brash to name your squad so early, but it certainly has its merits if you ask us, whether you’re a fan of Jones or not.

England’s front five will be hard to beat and Wales clearly struggled to get any traction here last Saturday

England were dominant here last weekend, and even with the noise of the Cardiff faithful as encouragement for the Men in Red, we don’t see much change here on Saturday. England’s substitutes really didn’t get much of a look in here last weekend except for George Kruis, but except the England bench to provide plenty of niggle and frustration for an embattled Welsh tight five on Saturday.

Where you might see a change in Welsh fortunes is later in the game off the bench in the back row

Wales were competitive here last weekend make no mistake, even if at times they were shaded by an all star English contingent of Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry and a suprisingly robust performance from Lewis Ludlum. In the half hour he was in the match Tom Curry showed what genuine world class pedigree he already offers England despite his youth, and seeing him leave the field with injury must have caused consternation in the English camp. However, it would appear it is only a temporary setback and he was more than ably replaced by Courtney Lawes who had a barnstormer of a game. This weekend, sees Wales have Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler on the bench and in our opinion these two are superb individually, but together they are something special for Wales and an attack threat that England will really need to contain.

How much of a loss will Gareth Anscombe be to Wales – while England’s new half back pairing shone

The loss of Welsh flyhalf Gareth Anscombe last weekend was a bitter blow for Wales, especially as he will miss the World Cup. England on the other hand can feel absolutely delighted with the partnership of debutant scrum half Willi Heinz and established fly half George North. Once again we feel we perhaps owe the Leicester Tigers playmaker and fly half an apology after last Saturday. Ford put in a superbly controlled and measured performance, while scrum half Willi Heinz ensured fast and crisp delivery off the base of the scrum and at the rucks. England looked sharp here and with Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs on the bench this weekend, this is a powerhouse quartet for the Men in White. Wales look good as well with Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies but should they suffer any further injuries here it could be a very long afternoon for the Welsh with nothing in the tank to provide the kind of quality cover they need to match England’s offerings.

The English backs were outstanding last weekend and another powerhouse display looks to be in the making

England really topped the charts last weekend in back field play, and that was without the likes of winger Jonny May. We thought the return of centre Jonathan Joseph and winger Anthony Watson was something England have been missing, with neither player seeming to miss a step. Joe Cokanasiga showed that he is not just a new Jonah Lomu in the making, as he also proved pretty handy in the forward battles close to the try line. Elliot Daly took a cheeky drop goal and continued to reinforce our belief that despite the odd “off” day he is one of England’s most valuable assets in both defence and attack. This weekend sees one more Test debut for England in the shape of winger Ruaridh McConnochie, but given his supporting cast we doubt he’ll disappoint. Wales were competitive here make no mistake with Jonathan Davies and George North in particular catching the eye on numerous occasions, but there is no denying that England ran the show for the most part in this part of the park.

The English bench should seal the deal on Saturday

As mentioned above, for us the only Welsh bench offering that should really set alarm bells ringing for England is the back row partnership of Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler. Otherwise that is a rather daunting English bench facing up to a capable but still relatively green Welsh bench.

Verdict

Wales are always tough to beat in Cardiff, but there is no denying they looked rusty and a little creaky against England last weekend. The loss of playmaker Gareth Anscombe is a further setback, and despite a vociferous home crowd rising to the occasion that encounters between these two traditional rivals always generate, form would seem to favour England for this one. England look well drilled, disciplined and very sure of what they want to achieve. Wales on the other hand know what they want to be, but perhaps lack the same degree of clarity as to how to go about getting it. They have had a good year leading up to this point make no mistake, but after last weekend there is the inevitable question being asked as whether or not they peaked too early in a World Cup year. As always expect this to be a ferocious contest with no quarter given and much tighter than last week, but a more settled and focused English side to take it by five points!

South Africa vs Argentina – Saturday, August 17th – Pretoria

Argentina’s preparations for the World Cup do not appear to be going according to plan. Despite holding the All Blacks close in their Rugby Championship opener, they have looked a shadow of the team that set the last Rugby World Cup alight. A humiliating defeat to Australia and then a comprehensive schooling by South Africa in the final match of the tournament, has left this Pumas side with little confidence as they prepare to face South Africa in this World Cup warm up match. This is their last game before their World Cup opener against France, and consequently even though there may be no silverware on offer the Pumas really need a strong showing here. The last time these two met in a World Cup year, Argentina not only claimed their first ever victory over the Springboks, they did it on South African soil to boot. They will be hoping that some of that same inspiration that served the 2015 squad so well will be with them in Pretoria this weekend.

South Africa on the other hand are riding high. Deserved winners of the Rugby Championship, they swept past both Australia and Argentina, and held the All Blacks to a draw in New Zealand. Coach Rassie Erasmus seems to know how to get the most out of his charges, despite a constantly changing team sheet. He can feel pleased with the depth he has available, while at the same time not having to lose too much sleep over his selection decisions for any given match. The players are clearly enjoying themselves and the pride in the famous jersey, which had seemed absent in recent years, is back with a vengeance. In short the Boks are back and are a team to be feared once more.

With some silverware in the cupboard it’s clearly time for one last bit of experimentation for South Africa

South Africa are not exactly throwing caution to the wind on this one, especially given what happened in 2015, but as a “friendly” and the Rugby Championship not on the line, the focus of this match is one last look at the depth tank. That is the only reason we can think of when we look at the front row selections for South Africa. We would imagine that Coach Rassie Erasmus has his front row World Cup squad already picked with perhaps just one floater left to fill. Of the selections for Saturday’s match we’d argue that the spot likely has Vincent Koch’s name on it, but no harm in having one last look at what else you’ve got in case of injury between now and the World Cup. Therefore for the other five front rowers turning out in a Springbok jersey on Saturday the pressure is on for a BIG game.

Talking of scrums – where has Argentina’s gone?

Argentina are in the emergency ward in this department – plain and simple. Once a key foundation of their game, the scrum is now for the most part an enormous liability for the Pumas. This is made all the more ironic when you consider that Coach Mario Ledesma in his playing days was one of the cornerstones of that foundation. We really haven’t seen much evidence that Argentina is making much progress in getting its house in order here. If this doesn’t happen soon then Argentina may find themselves on the plane home after the pool stages in Japan. We are not quite sure why this is the case as there are some quality players in Argentina’s front row offerings, but somehow as a whole the unit just isn’t working. South Africa’s piecemeal scrum offering on Saturday should provide the Pumas a perfect opportunity to start getting back on track here and restoring some much needed confidence to a clearly beleaguered unit.

Argentina need to play to their strengths and not let an inexperienced halfback duo waste good possession gained by a powerful back row.

Argentina’s second and back rows can compete with the best on any given day, and in Saturday’s offerings we’d argue they have the kind of edge they had back on that famous day in Durban back in 2015. However, the Pumas young halfback partnership tends to squander an awful lot of good possession by either reckless passing off the back of the scrum and rucks, or aimless kicking by the fly half. Given that Argentina will be looking to scrum halves Felipe Ezcurra, Gonzalo Bertranou and fly half Joaquin Diaz Bonilla to provide backup to incumbents Tomas Cubelli and Nicolas Sanchez during the World Cup – Saturday’s match is crucial in terms of World Cup preparation. They will be up against one of South Africa’s finest returning sons Cobus Reinach, so will have to be on top of their game, with Faf de Klerk frothing at the mouth on the bench to get involved if Reinach fails to rise to the occasion. Springbok fly half Elton Jantjies seems to have gotten over his own penchant for aimlessly kicking the ball away so the Pumas will have to be at their best here.

If you fancy a flutter on the horses then we’d put your money on the Pumas

This is one area of the park where we think Argentina could really lay down a marker for that type of free flowing game they seem to really excel at come the World Cup. Ramiro Moyano is a well known commodity to the racing fraternity out wide, but for us it is Sebastian Cancelliere who is also likely to be generating a lot of excitement come the World Cup. For the Argentina XV side in the Americas Rugby Championship and more recently with the Jaguares, the twenty five year old has consistently impressed and we are surprised that it has taken him this long to secure a regular Pumas starting jersey. South Africa pack some punch here make no mistake, but our money is on the Pumas out wide on Saturday.

Verdict

How you call this one will depend very much on what Pumas team shows up on Saturday. If we get the kind of Pumas team we see so often at the end of the Rugby Championship, then for all intents and purposes you can write them off and hand it to the Springboks with no further discussion. It will also depend on what kind of Springboks team will show up as this has a much more piecemeal and experimental look to it than what we saw during the Rugby Championship. Argentina need to find their groove in their final match before the World Cup, so we’re hoping they will be like one of those French surprise teams that steals the show with some champagne rugby when you’re least expecting it. However, reality at the moment would tend to dictate otherwise and given the Pumas problems at scrum time, it’s fairly easy to argue that Argentina is the side with everything to prove and the Springboks the team with nothing to lose. As a result we hand it to the Springboks by eight, in a match that may not be quite the spectacle needed to cap off what should otherwise be a very interesting weekend of Test Rugby!

We’re continuing with looking at this weekend’s action and with the teamsheets still to be announced for the England/Wales game, we’ll be covering the first of the Rugby Championship matches this weekend between Australia and New Zealand along with the first of the European World Cup warmups between Ireland and Italy. We’ll put out our thoughts on the England/Wales clash at Twickenham on Sunday once the teams are announced.

New Zealand travel to Australia, hoping that Argentina will do them a favour later in the day if they still hope to lift the silverware for the Rugby Championship. Failing that though, two important agendas are still on the table for both teams. Saturday’s match sees the first of two annual Bledisloe Cup matches between Australia and New Zealand – a trophy almost as hotly contested and meaningful as the World Cup itself. Just as important will be the settling of World Cup squads and one of the last chances the selectors will have to pick their 31 ticket holders for Japan. New Zealand perhaps have far less to prove in this department than Australia, but they also know there is significant room for improvement. Australia on the other hand need to find some answers and quickly. Despite their recent win over Argentina, it was less than convincing and their demolition at the hands of South Africa means that the Wallabies, unlike New Zealand, find themselves scrambling to define who goes to Japan and what type of game they want to play once they get there.

Italy travel to Dublin, looking to experiment, whereas Ireland will simply be looking to consolidate depth and hopefully avoid pointless injuries in the process. With no silverware on offer we have to confess that this series of warmup matches for the Six Nations competitors right before the World Cup are always a nerve wracking affair, for Coaches, players and supporters and we are all likely to breathe a huge sigh of relief once they are over and hopefully our respective teams have emerged unscathed.

So here’s what got us talking about these two matches.

Australia vs New Zealand – Saturday, August 10th – Perth

Australia really need some good news at the moment but may be hard pressed to find it in Western Australia on Saturday, despite Perth being a relatively happy hunting ground for the Wallabies. Sure they beat Argentina a fortnight ago, but it was a dire game of rugby which showed off very little skill from either side, with Australia winning by simply making slightly fewer mistakes than the Pumas. An inspirational performance it was not.

New Zealand on the other hand have now been pushed hard twice. They managed to eke out a tough win against a determined and highly capable Pumas side in Buenos Aires, but a week later could only manage a draw with a Springbok side that simply refused to quit. While both matches are hardly indications of the All Blacks suddenly becoming vulnerable, there is no doubt that there isn’t quite the polish that we have come to expect from the World Champions as they seek to experiment with some injury enforced combinations.

If Australia could actually hang on to the ball then they really could cause some grief

This single point has been our overriding impression of the Wallabies at the moment. In both their game against the Springboks and the match with the Pumas, we lost track of how many times they dropped or coughed up the ball. Promising breaks were squandered through endless knock ons and fumbles made worse by poor and erratic passing. Tactically there didn’t seem to be too much situational awareness either, and their execution looked promising but ultimately sloppy. We simply think that Australia should be far better than the sum of their parts would seem to indicate. Once they do get it right then, they could well be a force to be reckoned with. However, in their current condition and with the sands of time rapidly running out before the World Cup it would appear that Australia have the odds stacked against them.

One of the world’s best front rows is likely to cause Australia all kinds of heartache

Whichever way you cut it that is an outstanding All Black front row. Sure South Africa seemed to get the measure of it, but there are very few sides who can and Australia in their present shape are unlikely to be one of them. Add Dane Coles lurking menacingly on the wings whenever he’s not packed down in the scrum and Australia are likely to feel frustrated and rather ineffective for the full eighty minutes.

In the second row Australia continue to get ten points for effort

This is one aspect of the Wallabies game where their supporters could feel that there is something to cheer about. With Adam Coleman hopefully being fit for the World Cup, you could argue that Australia’s stocks here are strong. We felt that Rory Arnold and Izack Rodda have been reliably consistent in the second row, and often given the Wallabies something to work with, even if the rest of their teammates then proceed to drop the ball.

He’s back just when New Zealand need him most

There is no denying that the All Blacks really missed Ardie Savea against South Africa. The powerhouse utility forward is a complete force of nature and almost impossible to read and we wish Australia’s Michael Hooper and his back row colleagues the best of luck in trying to contain him. It’s an accomplished and capable New Zealand back row but with Savea in the mix it becomes a defensive nightmare for any opposition. Savea has more than earned his place as an All Black starter and we expect to see him as such in every one of New Zealand’s key matches in the coming months.

Nic White returns and for a match of this stature we think it’s the right call but also feel that an opportunity to create some depth is being missed

While Will Genia may be Coach Michael Cheika’s go to scrum half, we feel that Nic White brings a lot to the table despite being on the losing side against South Africa at the start of the competition. While Will Genia was one of the better Wallaby players against Argentina, we felt that Nic White actually brought more to the table in terms of quick and efficient delivery from the scrum half berth, and varied the Wallabies pace and style of play in a way that has been long overdue. Although his teammates were rarely able to capitalize on the opportunities he created, he still offers some depth to the position that Australia desperately needs for the World Cup. However as a depth creating exercise we are also surprised to not see any use of Brumbies scrum half Joe Powell on the bench, but given it’s a Bledisloe Cup match we can understand the caution.

Verdict

If they can hang on to the ball and gain some parity with New Zealand in the set pieces then Australia could be in with a shout for this one. However, based simply on the form of the two sides it’s hard to see anything other than predominantly one way traffic for New Zealand. Australia need to up their game significantly if they are to be competitive on Saturday and we haven’t seen much ability from this beleaguered Wallaby side to do so of late. New Zealand may not be overly fussed about this abbreviated edition of the Rugby Championship and its silverware, but they and the rest of their fellow countrymen always care about the Bledisloe Cup. Consequently we see New Zealand taking Saturday’s game by a comfortable margin of 12 points.

Ireland vs Italy – Saturday, August 10th – Dublin

Ireland start their World Cup preparations with a relatively straightforward exercise against an experimental Italian side. For the most part it’s an Irish side we all recognize, and while it may not be Ireland’s first choice team, this is an exceptionally capable side that will give this new look Italy a serious workout. Given the dip in form of many of Ireland’s key players this season we’d actually argue that what we see on Saturday may not always be that different from some of the starting lineups we’re going to see for many of Ireland’s World Cup matches, especially in the Pool stages.

While we understand Italy’s need for experimentation especially after a poor Six Nations, we’re not sure Dublin is the place to do it

It’s interesting to surmise what Conor O’Shea’s logic is for this match. We’d have thought that you would have gone the experimental route for Italy’s two middle warmup games against France and Russia, with more of your key players participating in the opener against Ireland and the final warmup match against England to build some important confidence at the start and end of a challenging set of matches. On the flip side a good performance on Saturday and Italy can use the next four weeks to really build some momentum. However, unfortunately a lot of O’Shea’s rolls of the dice have not gone favourably, but we hope for his sake he’s got this gamble right.

Ireland field a positive halfback combination that smacks of depth and the future

Former Leinster teammates Luke McGrath and Joey Carberry occupy the scrum and fly half berths respectively. Carberry since moving to Munster and getting regular starts has come along in leaps and bounds, while McGrath has really grown into the scrum half role at Leinster this year. This is Ireland’s most probable halfback combination post Japan and in the lead up to the next World Cup, whilst at the same time providing Ireland with excellent depth heading into the tournament next month. However, with Kieran Marmion also a proven commodity on the bench at scrum half and the rapidly rising star of Jack Carty as Carberry’s replacement, Ireland really do look in exceptionally rude health in this part of the park. All this adds to the pedigree that established veterans like Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton already bring to the positions.

Chris Farrel makes a welcome return for Ireland in the centre of the park

Irish supporters will be delighted to see Chris Farrell back in the green after injury ruled him out of this year’s Six Nations. The big centre packs some real punch to Ireland’s efforts up the middle of the park and allied to the vision of Gary Ringrose this could be an outstanding combination on Saturday. They’ll have to deal with Italy’s Marco Zanon who is one of Italy’s rising stars and the rather capable Tommaso Benvenuti, but the latter is out of his preferred position on the wing, so the Irish pair should dictate proceedings.

Talking of highly anticipated returns, Italy will be watching Matteo Minozzi carefully

The Italian fullback was one of the stars of the 2018 Six Nations, but sadly was ruled out of this year’s competition due to injury, and Italy certainly missed him. He starts on the bench this for this match, which is a wise call but he is a player that we are really looking forward to seeing in action again for the Azurri, as he is one of their most exciting talents. If he remains injury free expect this player to feature heavily in any headlines about Italy in Japan.

The last time he played Italy, he stole the show and Ireland will probably expect him to do the same again

Fullback Jordan Larmour missed Ireland’s tepid Six Nations performance against Italy, and Irish supporters probably wished he hadn’t. The last time he played Italy in their exhibition match in Chicago in last year’s November Internationals he ran in three tries against the Azurri. With his defensive abilities dramatically improved though still needing some work, expect the Irish fullback to put in a big shift on Saturday, and really lay down a marker that he is the future of the 15 jersey for Ireland once Rob Kearney hangs up his boots after Japan.

Verdict

With no disrespect to Italy, and despite Ireland’s dip in form this year, this is not exactly a hard game to call. Italy seek to find out a bit more about their depth, but it is doubtful they are expecting much more than that from Saturday’s proceedings. Ireland meanwhile will look to solidify their second choice string while also giving players the chance to rattle the cage for those in Ireland’s regular starting lineup. There is enough talent in this squad to cause Coach Joe Schmidt to hardly blink an eye when it comes to selection for some of Ireland’s big games come the World Cup. He already has most of the answers he needs about the majority of the players that take to the field on Saturday, and instead is focusing on giving them some much needed game time. Italy as always to be brave and perhaps surprise us with some dazzling individual performances, but Ireland to comfortably settle proceedings by 22 points, in what should be a convincing team effort!

Test Rugby is now in full swing and will remain so till the beginning of November and the final whistle of the World Cup. As a result there is plenty of action to be had this weekend. The Rugby Championship and Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa’s unofficial warm up for Japan continues in its abbreviated format this weekend. South Africa travel to Wellington to attempt to repeat their historic win against New Zealand on the same ground a year ago. Meanwhile Argentina travel to Australia to take on the Wallabies in Brisbane and also hope to repeat their famous victory on Australian soil last year. Lastly Canada travel to Denver before heading down to the South Pacific and take on the USA for the second time this year.

Unfortunately due to the pressures of work this week, we’ve been unable to do our usual five talking points for each match, but here’s a quick summary of what we’re looking at for all three games.

New Zealand vs South Africa – Saturday, July 27th – Wellington

Without a doubt given the thrill of last year’s spectacle, this is THE big fixture of the weekend. South Africa are fielding an exceptionally strong squad for this encounter as are New Zealand who will be keen to seek revenge for their defeat on home soil last year by the Springboks. South Africa arrive brimming with confidence after a comprehensive thrashing of Australia last weekend, made all the more impressive without some of their key players. Admittedly Australia are not exactly setting the world on fire at the moment, but it was still an important win that saw a well disciplined and cohesive Springbok performance. New Zealand on the other hand, although not fielding their strongest side, struggled to keep Argentina at bay last weekend, and were lucky to come away with a narrow win.

This weekend sees both sides field their first choice lineups, and given the form of both teams, promises to be an exciting encounter and a mirror image of both sides’ opening match in the World Cup in two months time.

Looking at the lineups, a couple of things stand out for us most notably the appearance of the two main contenders for the All Black 10 jersey on the field together. Beauden Barrett reverts to the fullback position for this match, while Richie Mo’unga takes up his usual spot with the Crusaders and New Zealand at fly half. Barrett ultimately got the job done last weekend but we felt that Argentina often had his measure and it wasn’t his greatest day at the office. In the case of Mo’unga we have yet to see him have a bad day this year, and if he can translate this form to Test level in an intensely physical and demanding Test, then the race for the selectors first choice will be that much tighter between the two fly halves. Barrett has not played fullback at Test level for quite some time, almost six years ago to be precise against Japan, and he has only played three times in the 15 jersey for the Men in Black. There is no doubting his versatility but to shift one of your key play makers to such a relatively unfamiliar position for such a big game, will really be a testimony to Barrett’s abilities if he pulls it off with flying colors. He’ll be up against one of Test Rugby’s best in the shape of Willie le Roux and we’d argue that in the aerial contests the South African may come off better given his familiarity with the position.

TJ Perenara gets the starting scrum half berth this weekend, and deservedly so in our opinion for a match of this stature. We’d argue he is New Zealand’s form number 9 by a country mile at the moment, and his rival Aaron Smith didn’t really do anything last weekend to make us sit up and take notice, and was often outplayed by Argentina’s Tomas Cubelli. Perenara will need to be on his toes as he goes head to head with South Africa’s live wire Faf de Klerk and with try scoring debutant machine Herschel Jantjies on the bench New Zealand will really have to keep their wits about them in this part of the park.

The back row for South Africa sees the highly anticipated return of one of our favorite Springboks Kwagga Smith. For us he is the try scoring equivalent of New Zealand’s Ardie Savea who we are surprised to see sit this one out. Whenever Smith is on the field South Africa’s X-factor goes up another few notches. He may not be the whirlwind wrecking ball that Savea is, but he is one of Test Rugby’s most glorious opportunists. Add to the mix the figure of flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, whose emotions at the end of last year’s match on the same ground so effectively summed up what that victory meant to the Springboks, and South Africa will be hard to beat up front.

Our last big surprise for a game with so much riding on it was the decision by New Zealand to start Sonny Bill Williams. This surely must be the last chance saloon for the All Black centre, as in our opinion, with no disrespect to the great man we feel he is past his sell by date and brings nothing particularly dynamic to an area of the park that will be hotly contested, with South Africa’s Lukhanyo Am being an exciting prospect for the Springboks and Damian de Allende having dramatically upped his game since last year.

Lastly we feel South Africa pack an absolute power house bench. New Zealand’s offering from the sidelines is respectable make no mistake, but we feel if South Africa have the edge by the time the bench becomes a factor it could swing the game in the Springboks favor.

Verdict

Either way a huge match in prospect and one you won’t want to miss. Despite their shock defeat last year, the likelihood of New Zealand losing at home twice in a row and at the same venue to boot seems on paper to be rather remote. We think South Africa is fielding a team more than capable of matching up to the All Blacks, but New Zealand will have a fairly hefty point to prove in front of a home crowd who will make sure they remember why they’re there. Consequently in a hard fought match we’re giving it to New Zealand by five, perhaps more than anything on the premise that lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice!

Australia vs Argentina – Saturday, July 27th – Brisbane

Last year Australia got ultimately shown the door by a better disciplined and structured Pumas side. We’d argue the Pumas are even better organised and focused than they were last year, and despite their loss last weekend will be buoyed by the fact that they made the best team in the world work for a full eighty minutes last Saturday. Australia to be honest, seemed no better than they were last season and if anything a tad worse. Their match against South Africa was riddled with schoolboy mistakes, handling errors and a general lack of cohesion and poor execution. To get past a Pumas side that is really starting to click nicely they are going to have to be a lot better, and home advantage alone is unlikely to address the error count we saw last week.

Argentina seem to have finally addressed their scrum problems, while we have seen little if any evidence that Australia have got their house in order in this department. Argentina still have plenty of work to do, but guiding proceedings at the coalface is the exceptionally capable Julian Montoya. Argentina to make some much needed progress here on Saturday, most likely at Australia’s expense, with the Wallabies misery likely to be compounded in the second row, as Argentina’s Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini show them how it’s done.

Australia’s problems are unlikely to improve in the back row, with the talking point of the week being the eagerly awaited return of Facundo Isa to the Pumas number eight jersey. Throw in the wrecking ball that is Pablo Matera who is likely to make mincemeat of the Wallabies Michael Hooper and we just can’t see Australia making any inroads here. In short, when it comes to the battles up front we have a hunch that Australia may find themselves completely outclassed.

Things get better for Australia in the backs, but even there we’d argue Argentina don’t have too much to worry about, especially given Australia’s lack of ball handling skills last weekend. The one positive we did see for Australia was the welcome return to the scrum half berth of Nic White, and in one of the very few standout Wallaby performances last weekend, White has given Will Genia a lot to think about this Saturday as he makes his bid for the first choice scrum half berth. Australia pack some very big, powerful and mobile units in their set of backs both on the wing and the center channels this weekend, and Kurtley Beale  immediately made his presence known last Saturday when he came off the bench. He has also proven himself handy in the fullback position which is where he starts this week. Argentina though possess some devastating speed merchants and Saturday also sees the long overdue return of European based winger Santiago Cordero who made plenty of headlines for the Pumas at the last World Cup. With the exception of perhaps the physical aspect, it is very much a question of Argentina being able to say to Australia, “anything you can do, we can do better” in back play.

Verdict

Australia may be at home, and on paper have a very good looking spreadsheet from 9-15, but up front we feel they just don’t have parity with Argentina. Add to that the fact that the Pumas are no slouchers from 9-15 themselves, and we’d argue that Argentina look much more like the finished product. With the exception of their two overseas based players this is a very settled and familiar unit, that has already proved that it can rise to the occasion. Australia may have home advantage but we feel that Argentina have a better understanding of what game they want to play. Consequently in what should be an absolutely fascinating contest we’re handing it to the Pumas by 2!

USA vs Canada – Saturday, July 27th – Denver

We’ll be completely honest, after two months of cheering on the Toronto Arrows close to home, we were a little disappointed to see less players from the successful MLR side than we were expecting for such a crunch match, unless Coach Kingsley Jones is saving his best for arguably one of Canada’s most challenging encounters this year – the game with Fiji. Canada is boasting some very big names for this match, most notably the incomparable winger DTH van der Merwe who is truly world-class. However, we felt that Toronto Arrows scrum half Jamie Mackenzie was certainly worth inclusion over the remarkably pedestrian Gordon McRorie.

Furthermore the fact that neither second rower Mike Sheppard or winger Dan Moor even made it to the bench left us puzzled. One thing we were delighted to see though was the return of number eight Tyler Ardron, who always brings such shape and presence to a Canadian side, while newcomer Ben LeSage gets a worthy call up to the centers.

The Americans are also open to experimentation, but having watched the last half of the MLR season with interest, there are a lot of very familiar looking and exceptionally capable American players in this starting XV. Based on what we saw this year, Canada are really going to have to work hard to contain the threat posed by second rower Nick Civetta, flanker John Quill, and number eight Cam Dolan.

After a very successful season with English Premiership side Sale Sharks, Eagles Irish import fly half AJ MacGinty returns to service for the USA, and his game management skills are going to really put Canadian newcomer and fellow Irish import Paul Nelson to the test.

Verdict

Canada need a big performance on Saturday, but their away form has for quite some time now been poor. However, the one saving grace is that they did manage to run the United States close in their last encounter which was also on the road. If the likes of DTH van der Merwe can find the gaps in what would appear to be a fairly solid US defense, then Canada could come out of this on a positive note in their build up to the World Cup. However, we can’t help feeling that it’s still a tall order especially for some of the less experienced players in the squad, as well as those whose continued selection leaves us slightly puzzled. Consequently, in front of a home crowd, and with some serious talent in the mix, the USA should ultimately pull ahead and get the job done by eight points!

 

 

 

 

 

As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby, and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

Australia – 4/10

No matter which way you cut it, 2018 was a truly dismal year for Australian Rugby. Of 13 Tests played the Wallabies managed a paltry 4 wins, and for much of the year looked in a complete state of disarray on and off the pitch. Meanwhile constant tinkering with the make up and balance of the squad, a misguided obsession with playing players out of position and a game plan that none of the players seemed to understand meant that Australia in 2018 looked a shadow of the great Wallaby teams of old. Rarely getting the basics right and attempting to play what seemed to be an overly complicated game plan without the requisite skills, meant that by their final Test of the year against England, all the players really wanted to do was pack their bags and forget about 2018 as quickly as possible. All this confusion heightened calls for Coach Michael Cheika to step down and based on the results of 2018 it was hard to argue against it, even if it meant a wholesale change in the coaching setup at such a critical juncture in Australia’s World Cup preparation. Cheika has miraculously survived, but is left with very little time and games available to turn things around before the Wallabies travel to Japan in September.

Australia got their 2018 season underway in June, with a much-anticipated three Test series against Ireland. The opening match gave Australian supporters much to cheer about. Ireland looked rusty and Australia were clearly the better side and walked away with a stylish and convincing win. However, Ireland were back to their best in the second Test, and Ireland simply looked better at the basics while Australia although impressive in attack all too often tended to over complicate things. With the series level, Australia headed into the third and final Test rattled but clearly confident of their ability to take the series. They certainly took the game to Ireland, but once again Ireland just seemed the more composed of the two sides, and Sexton’s boot ensured that Ireland had the edge when it came to vital points on offer. Nevertheless, it had been a highly entertaining series and although Australia were not the victors there were still plenty of positives on display to give one cause to think that 2018 would be the year where the Wallabies really started to hit their straps in time for the World Cup.

The Rugby Championship/Bledisloe Cup however would sadly shatter that sense of optimism for the most part. Australia’s opening game against New Zealand showed a glimmer of hope in the first 40 minutes, but after that it was all one way traffic favoring the Men in Black. The return fixture at Eden Park did nothing to dispel the growing sense of doom pervading the Australian camp as the All Blacks ultimately ran rings around a Wallaby side that gradually imploded as the match wore on.

The next two rounds of the Championship would produce one of Australia’s best performances of the year and one of their worst. In the match against South Africa, the Wallabies were without three key players David Pocock, Israel Folau and Adam Coleman. However, they started the match at an intense tempo and managed to maintain it coupled to some solid defence that managed to hold a Springbok team at bay, especially in the final ten minutes. It wasn’t pretty at times, but given their injury list the Wallabies showed some real character to get the win. Things would then unravel dramatically a week later with the visit of the Pumas. Once again there was some enterprising play from the Australians but the Pumas just looked that more clinical and sure of what they were trying to do. Australia’s continued experiment with Kurtley Beale at fly half and Israel Folau on the wing was clearly not working with neither player confident or sure of their roles. Furthermore, when Australia did have chances they were usually butchered by attempting plays that appeared far more complicated than they needed to be. Argentina’s defence in the final ten minutes was rock solid despite a concerted Australian assault, and they ultimately took the spoils as Australia saw yet another match go begging.

The final two rounds of the Rugby Championship clearly demonstrated the crisis in confidence that was starting to pervade the Wallaby camp. Even with the Springboks down to 14 men in the final quarter the Wallabies simply could not get across the South African whitewash and once more looked confused as to what kind of game they were supposed to be playing as the Folau/Beale experiment continued to trip over its own feet. Furthermore the Wallabies were getting seriously pushed around in the forward battles as they found themselves increasingly starved of possession. Their final match of the Championship against Argentina was very much a match of two halves. In the first half Australia were beyond dire. After an absolute roasting in the changing room at half time by Coach Michael Cheika, Australia emerged a side transformed and one which had clearly had the fear of God put into them. They produced arguably their best forty minutes of 2018 and ultimately THE comeback of the year to seal the match in their favor at 45-34, after trailing the Pumas 31-7 at half time. It showed what Australia can do with their gifted set of backs by keeping it simple and their forwards getting the basics right. It was clean and uncomplicated rugby and it worked like a charm.

Australia then travelled to Japan to get a taste of the atmosphere for the World Cup for the final Bledisloe Cup match. However, once again for reasons best known to himself, Coach Michael Cheika continued to tinker and this time put Israel Folau at centre, having been unhappy with the experiment of having him on the wing. Australia looked disorganised and their discipline also started to fall apart and the All Blacks ran out comfortable winners at 37-20. A clearly frustrated Wallaby side then headed to Europe for three Tests, starting with Wales. Australia had an enviable record at the Principality Stadium and were also buoyed by having beaten Wales in their last 13 encounters. Surely the record was set to be broken and while as a spectacle the game provided very little, Wales got the better of a gruelling arm wrestle.

Australia then travelled to Italy for a game they simply had to win, as a loss to the Azurri would have been the most telling indictment of how far the Wallabies had fallen in 2018. Once again although not the most riveting of games from a spectator point of view, and despite some costly lapses in discipline by Australia, the Wallabies still emerged comfortable winners and thus avoided a banana skin that it would have been hard for them to recover from. Their final Test of a turgid 2018 was against an English side clearly on the rebound from their own troubled 12 months. England put in a rampant display against a Wallaby side that had clearly run out of motivation and ideas and just wanted a miserable year to end. While Israel Folau was back to his regular position at fullback and scored both of Australia’s tries as a result, it was a lacklustre Australian effort compared to a powerhouse English performance. Australia quietly slipped away to Heathrow and the long journey home to reflect on a year they no doubt would rather forget as quickly as possible.

Hopefully all the hard knocks Australia took this year will have provided them with some valuable lessons. They are likely to play with a greater sense of purpose this year, and most likely go back to the basics and tried and trusted combinations of players in positions they are more comfortable with. There was a great deal of experimentation by Australia in 2018, and in general most of it did not work, but better to find that out now than during the World Cup. So for 2019 Australia should revert to what works best to unleash a lethal set of backs, shore up the discipline and make sure the first and second rows can compete with the world’s best. The imbalance in Australia’s back row also needs to be addressed with Michael Hooper needing to get back to his best and the team as a whole to stop relying on the outstanding David Pocock to single-handedly produce miracles for them.

With Rugby Union continuing to be in a state of crisis in Australia, as Australian sides continue to fare poorly in Super Rugby coupled to a relatively small player base as opposed to other national sports, it will be a challenge for Australia to really develop the depth needed to compete at this year’s World Cup. Australia can put out a very good match day 23, but once the inevitable injuries of a World Cup campaign kick in we can’t help feeling that Australia will continue to be found wanting in 2019 in terms of depth. While we were not one of the voices baying for Michael Cheika’s head last year, and are glad for both him and Australia that he will remain in charge till the conclusion of the World Cup, he really needs to demonstrate that he has taken the painful lessons of 2018 for both himself and his charges on board. If he and his team can do that and some much-needed depth can be found in the next nine months, then there is no reason that Australia cannot be the competitive force they always are come the World Cup – but after 2018 there is no denying it is a VERY tall order indeed!

Player of the year – David Pocock

Pocock’s return from injury this year was a godsend for the Wallabies and this outstanding player did not disappoint. However, at times his team lost the plot while expecting him to singlehandedly turn matches around. As a player who puts his body on the line like few others, Pocock did not disappoint but it clearly took its toll, as he was clearly battling through the pain barrier at times. Given his injury history it remains to be seen how much longer he can continue in this Superman role, and the rest of his team really need to step up and shoulder the burden. Otherwise we fear that one of Australia’s most valuable players may simply not make it to the World Cup this year. By far Australia’s best player even in some of their more dire performances in 2018, Pocock remains Australia’s most valuable commodity.

Player to watch in 2019 – Jack Maddocks

Maddocks’ one try against New Zealand in the opening Bledisloe Cup match epitomised the depth that Australia needs to develop and why Maddocks is such a key player in that regard. The utility back may not have been able to replicate that performance in subsequent games in 2018, and he clearly has a lot to learn defensively, but there is a real spark here with a player able to play a wide variety of positions and thus provide valuable cover from the bench for the World Cup. Definitely one to watch in 2019 and hopefully Australia can find a few more like him.

Match of the year – Argentina vs Australia – Salta – October 6th – Australia 45/Argentina 34

Yes there is no denying that Australia’s first half performance was appalling in this match, but you still have to hand it to them for one of the greatest comebacks in a second half that we have seen in a long time. Furthermore, it epitomised that although shaken this Wallaby side is far from down and out, and when on song can produce some truly breathtaking attacking rugby. As a result it would be foolish to write them off in this year’s World Cup despite the tribulations of 2018. They have plenty of work to do, but as this match showed, put some fire in their bellies and they are a very dangerous side.

Next up – New Zealand!