Posts Tagged ‘Bledisloe Cup’

It’s been a long time coming but it’s finally here – the 2020 Six Nations Super Saturday. Despite France going into a second lockdown as a result of COVID-19, the French Minister of Sport has confirmed that elite sport will be exempted. As a result the final and all important match of the day in Paris, which will confirm who is going to be lifting the silverware, will be taking place.

Wales and Scotland get us started on Saturday in Llanelli and while neither side is in the hunt for any silverware a win is critical, especially for Wales who are in desperate need of a victory and a halt to four straight defeats. Scotland will look to finish well and settle themselves for the upcoming Autumn Nations Cup in November. England need a massive points haul and a bonus point against Italy, something which a team of their caliber should have no trouble achieving, even if it means travelling to Rome. If England get the job done the silverware is theirs pending the outcome of the France/Ireland game. So ultimately England will have to wait and see if either France or Ireland can secure a bonus point in their struggles. If neither get that elusive bonus point then it’s England’s tournament, but if they do then either Ireland or France will be hoisting the trophy on Saturday night. If you want a tournament that is going to go to the final whistle of the final match, then make sure you are in your own lockdown in front of the TV on Saturday!

Let’s not forget about Bledisloe 3 if all the above excitement is not enough for you. New Zealand travel to Australia to take on a Wallaby side smarting from a comprehensive schooling by the All Blacks at Auckland’s Eden Park two weeks ago. It’s an experimental Wallaby side that will know that home advantage is simply not going to be enough on Saturday. The All Blacks are once again reverting to traditional form. After a slow start, by the time the second half of Bledisloe Cup 2 got underway, New Zealand were operating at full throttle again while still managing to blood some new talent of their own. It should still be a highly entertaining match, but we can’t help feeling a little anxious for the Wallabies given the strength of the visitors lineup, and this will be a definite test to see what tricks new Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie really does have up his sleeve. New All Black Coach Ian Foster after a shaky start in Wellington seems to have taken a firm hand to steering New Zealand’s ship and Saturday’s match will be the litmus test of how well his methods can adapt to life on the road, as the Kiwis take up residence in Australia for the next six weeks for the Rugby Championship.

Six Nations

Wales vs Scotland – Saturday, October 31st – Llanelli

There is no silverware up for grabs for either side on Saturday, but Wales will want to right their ship after four straight defeats. Scotland on the other hand, will be feeling confident after beating title favorites France earlier this year. Furthermore the Scots haven’t exactly been thrashed by their opponents and both their losses in this year’s championships to England and Ireland were only by 7 point margins. The Scots seem to be clicking nicely while Wales look slightly at sea despite some obvious talent.

Wales recent friendly against France last weekend in Paris saw the Welsh eclipsed by 38-21 as France played all the rugby and the Welsh by comparison looked rather flat and lifeless. Even traditional stalwarts like Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric seemed to have alarmingly quiet games by their standards. The French ran rings around Wales in the set pieces and in attack proceeded to make a mockery of the Welsh defenses. Wales did get on the scoreboard first with a nicely worked try from fullback Leigh Halfpenny in the opening minute, but that was about the only time there was any genuine spark or flow to the Welsh attack, apart from a gritty well worked forwards try in the final ten minutes. France on the other hand were all flair and excitement after that initial wake up call from Wales. Add to that some exceptionally well organized defenses and there was no denying that this is a very well put together and thought out French team.

Scotland had Georgia as their warm up last weekend and fared considerably better in their contest, demolishing a brave but ultimately seriously undercooked Georgian side 48-7 at Murrayfield. Scotland’s favourite problem child Finn Russell returned to the fold and immediately set about proving why Scotland simply can’t do without his services when he came off the bench. Meanwhile an aggressive and quick forward pack negated the traditional physical threat posed by the Georgians. Scotland’s pacy backline showed they will need to be watched with caution next month in the Autumn Nations Cup. Scotland look like a side able to provide us with plenty of entertainment in November and we look forward to seeing them in some very tasty encounters in the Autumn Nations Cup.

This weekend’s Six Nations encounter sees Scotland make relatively few changes to the side that made life such a misery for the Georgians last Friday. The injured Matt Fagerson is replaced by Blade Thomson at number eight and in the second row Jonny Gray returns. Finn Russell gets a deserved start at fly half and in the backs Scotland welcome back Stuart Hogg after the fullback returns from a string of competitive successes with English club Exeter. As we saw last weekend, it’s a Scottish side that oozes quality. Their front row proved steady under fire from Georgia in the set pieces. Scotland’s second row, especially with Jonny Gray in the mix will be highly competitive come lineout time. At the breakdowns that back row has generated a healthy respect from opponents throughout the Six Nations with Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie in particular proving to be the bedrock of Scotland’s ability to really mix things up in the loose. Lastly that set of backs is class through and through and winger Darcy Graham didn’t disappoint last week. Expect more of the same this week, made more potent by the addition of Stuart Hogg.

Wales are a conundrum, after the highs of the latter Gatland years, they definitely seem to be trending downward. We don’t think it’s permanent, there is too much talent in this team for that to be the case, but they are clearly struggling to adapt to new Coach Wayne Pivac’s style or he to them. For this match Pivac makes some wholesale changes and we would argue that after last week they are merited. We still feel that Wales are going to get bossed around in the front row and there are relatively few changes for Saturday’s match, as they struggled with France last week whereas Scotland contained Georgia’s supposed scrummaging prowess. What will be interesting to see is the second row partnership betweeen Will Rowlands and Alun Wyn-Jones. Wyn-Jones is a known commodity even if he had a relatively quiet game by his standards last weekend, but Rowlands has been an outstanding performer for English premiership side Wasps. The Welsh back row needs to make much more of a statement than they did against France. Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau did put in a shift but somehow it just didn’t match up to the power being generated by their French opponents. They are not going to get much more of a break from Scotland’s Watson and Ritchie.

In the backs, Rhys Webb misses out at scrum half due to injury in favor of Gareth Davies, but in our opinion this is to Wales’ benefit. Wales looked more energetic and organised when Davies came on in the French game, and for us is the better option. We’re still not convinced that fullback Leigh Halfpenny is as comfortable under the high ball as he used to be, but Saturday’s match sees the return of Liam Williams to the wing opposite Josh Adams, and this back three could spell trouble for Scotland. Williams ability to create opportunities and handle whatever kind of aerial assault Scotland will fire at Wales is something the Men in Red have lacked of late. Lastly that center pairing in Wales really needs to be counted as last weekend it clearly wasn’t, with both Jonathan Davies and Nick Tompkins struggling to find any sort of cohesion. With Owen Watkin replacing Tompkins this weekend Wales really need to click here.

It should be a good match for spectators with a lively Scottish side wanting to build on some positive momentum and a Welsh team desperately seeking something to cheer about on home soil. For us though it’s the more dynamic and opportunistic Scots who the scoreboard will likely favor most.

Italy vs England – Saturday, October 31st – Rome

After watching Italy get dismantled yet again in the Six Nations, it’s hard 20 years on from Italy’s initial entry into the tournament to still find positive things to write about them. Sure there is lots of individual talent in Italy but none of it seems to get harnessed into a cohesive plan for really putting Italy on the map in terms of International Rugby. Instead, the other Six Nations sadly view matches with Italy as points haul opportunities. This is certainly the case with England this weekend as they travel to Rome looking to get maximum points on the board including a bonus point, whilst hoping at the same time that neither Ireland or France are able to do the same, and thus allow England to claim the title. You’d have to argue the odds are in their favor, and the defensive slip ups that caused Ireland to throw away seven points in the overall points difference between them and England, are unlikely to be present in the English camp on Saturday. You’d think – but then we thought that about the World Cup final.

However, Italy are not South Africa, even if they are being coached by one. They bring a slightly punchier side to this encounter, with the big ticket item being the inclusion of Wasps all star fullback and try scoring machine Matteo Minozzi. The Italian back is world class and to be fair so are some of his teammates. Despite being on the back end of an Irish hiding last weekend, fly half Paolo Garbisi’s try at the death, that could end up being Ireland’s undoing in the points race this weekend, was absolutely top flight. In short, this guy is good and could be the spark that really lets Italy create some special moments. Considering that was his first outing in an Italian jersey, that’s a pretty impressive debut. Italy has a solid back row even if they failed to make much of an impression against a very impressive Irish trio last weekend. However, we anticipate them struggling in the set pieces and apart from Minozzi, there just isn’t the pedigree in their backs to be able to compete with the likes of England’s offerings, especially Jonny May.

As for England, given the strength of their star studded match day 23 it’s really hard to find any weaknesses and see anything other than Italy being completely and utterly steamrollered into submission. The only possible weak links being George Furbank at fullback, who may be Coach Eddie Jones’ wonder child but so far has singularly failed to impress at Test Level in an English jersey, and Owen Farrell’s difficulties with tackling technique. Apart from that though we just can’t see any chinks in England’s armor other than possibly scrum half Ben Youngs having one of his increasingly frequent off days or Billy Vunipola discovering yet another part of his physique that is an injury liability.

It’s really difficult to see a scoreline that doesn’t have England sitting on at least 55-60 points, most of which could well be unanswered. Expect at least six tries by the Men in White securing the much needed bonus point, and a points difference that will have both France and Ireland sweating bullets heading into the last game of the tournament on Saturday night in Paris.

France vs Ireland – Saturday, October 31st – Paris

Super Saturday will reach its nailbiting finish for fans in Paris. France and Ireland will know what they need to do after watching England and Italy. Consequently the pressure will be on as English, French and Irish fans huddle nervously around their television screens. Fortunately the match is going ahead despite the nationwide lockdown in France, and thank heavens, as after the most protracted and unusual Six Nations campaign in history, we doubt most of us could handle any more suspense.

Both sides make very few changes to the lineups that worked so well for them last weekend, and for the most part where those changes do take place they are enforced due to injury. Ireland bring in prop Cian Healy to the front row for his 100th cap, while France keep the same unit that bossed Wales around. We’re backing France on this one as they just seem slightly steadier in the discipline stakes compared to the Irish. The second rows stay the same for both sides, but for us Ireland have got this hands down, especially in terms of keeping on the right side of referee Wayne Barnes’ whistle. French second rower Bernard le Roux must surely consider himself lucky to be running out on the pitch Saturday after trying to rearrange Welsh Captain Alun Wyn-Jones face last weekend. Le Roux’s colleague Willemse is also not known for his disciplinary reliability.

The match up of the weekend surely has to be the battle of the back rows. Ireland’s CJ Stander as the undisputed veteran shepherds his two young charges Caelan Doris and Will Connors with the green trio being devastatingly effective last weekend against Italy. By the same token the French trio led by Captain Charles Ollivon, a role he appears to be excelling at, were also taking no prisoners last weekend against Wales and clearly got the better of some notable Welsh talent.

The huge smoking gun on the field is the great contest of young versus the old in the halfbacks. France’s dynamic duo are truly world class, and in our opinion are already outshining their Irish counterparts who were until very recently considered one of the world’s most dangerous pairings. Ireland’s Murray and Sexton still take some beating, but there is no question that they are not nearly as shiny as the two young French mavericks who have set Six Nations pitches alight this year. At the moment Murray simply cannot match France’s Antoine Dupont’s lightning fast reflexes and decision making, and Ntamack’s ability to control the ebb and flow of a game coupled to a very useful boot is perhaps more consistent than Ireland’s legendary Sexton. However, the Irish pair have a wealth of Test experience between them and on such a big occasion as Saturday’s encounter, it will be interesting to see how much of a difference this makes when the chips are down for both sides.

The contest between France’s Virimi Vakatawa and Ireland’s Bundee Aki on Saturday is one we can’t wait to see unfold. The dynamic French centre is a handful to bring down, but provided Aki can read his dance moves he certainly packs the punch to stop a freight train dead in its tracks. The loss of Ireland’s Garry Ringrose to injury is a genuine blow for the Irish as his inventiveness and speed in the centre channels creates far more opportunity than the rather predictable smash and grab up the middle routine favored by Aki and Henshaw.

Hugo Keenan had a dream debut for Ireland on the wing against Italy scoring two fine tries, but his defensive capabilities were rarely tested by the Azurri. Jacob Stockdale at fullback continues to be a worry in that department as evidenced by fly half Paolo Garbisi completely wrong footing him for a try that may be critical if matters are to be decided on points differences alone. Andrew Conway had a good run of it last weekend, but sadly although featuring heavily in the run of play was unlucky not to cross the whitewash for Ireland and is a player who we feel is one of the Men in Green’s most underrated talents. However, that French back three is a potent unit in its own right and Ireland can simply not allow their guard down for a second.

Both sides pack quality benches and ultimately this match is set to be a barnstormer in the making with the weather favoring an exciting running game – something France in particular just love to do at the moment. We have to admit to being slightly surprised at the pundits voting so heavily in favor for Ireland on this one. Consequently we’re going to play devil’s advocate and say that we think Ireland are going to have their work cut out against a French side that, apart from that hiccough on the road against Scotland, have looked the most exciting and dangerous side in the tournament by a country mile. To make these qualities all the more convincing the French finally look like they have systems in place that can utilize some rather extraordinary talent to its fullest potential. The Irish are an impressive and equally talented unit, but when it comes to the unexpected and how to capitalize on it, we’d argue that quality has a distinctly French flavor to it this year. In a country heading into another dark couple of weeks, France perhaps more than Ireland need something to cheer about, and we feel that a certain group of men in blue jerseys might just have the motivation and skill set to give it to them on Saturday night in Paris!

Bledisloe 3

Australia vs New Zealand – Saturday, October 31st – Sydney

Australia have to win this one – plain and simple. If they don’t then that’s it for the Bledisloe Cup for another year in the All Blacks favor, and also puts New Zealand well on the way to sweeping all before them in the Rugby Championship over the next six weeks. Australia take the bold move of blooding some very impressive but untested talent at this level, and you have to wonder if results this year are less important than the first tentative steps of building a new team and vision for the 2023 World Cup. While we’re sure that’s a large part of it, we don’t doubt for a moment, that a key priority of new Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie’s first year is a win over Australia’s biggest rivals.

New Zealand also bring some untried talent to the table, but much less so than Australia, and there are fewer changes to the side that so effectively dismantled Australia in the second half of Bledisloe 2. Hoskins Sotutu gets a start at number eight, in place of Ardie Savea who is on family leave this weekend, after having a game where he was back to his manic writhing best. Sotutu caught a lot of attention with the Auckland Blues in this years Super Rugby Aotearoa competition, and his debut for the All Blacks has been eagerly anticipated. Sam Whitelock returns to the second row, and his experience and work rate will be of enormous benefit ahead of a tough six weeks on the road. Jack Goodhue returned to his best a fortnight ago and expect more of the same now he has adjusted to his new hairstyle. We couldn’t say enough good things about winger Caleb Clarke’s debut in Bledisloe 2 and as impressive as Filipo Daugunu’s debut has been for the Wallabies he simply could not contain the All Blacks newest wrecking ball, causing him to probably need a stiff drink before bed this entire week.

For us this encounter’s most interesting aspect is a chance to really get a look at some of Australia’s emerging new talent under the most intense pressure. There has been a great deal of hype about fly half Noah Lolesio, scrum half Tate McDermott and Irae Simone at centre with all three being standout performers in this year’s Super Rugby AU. The trio get their chance to prove their worth on Saturday, with Lolesio and Simone in particular getting starting berths.

Australia’s biggest weakness still seems to be in terms of discipline and in Bledisloe 2 it continued to put them on the back foot. Back rower Ned Hanigan, despite our reservations about him in this department, did put in a solid performance at key moments in Bledisloe 2 but you have to temper that with the fact that for every positive thing he did he would follow it up with a costly mistake. One gentleman who continues to prove his worth for Australia in his first campaign in a Wallaby jersey is Harry Wilson at number eight. A genuine find for Australia and in the two matches we’ve seen him play in for the Wallabies he hasn’t put a foot wrong – a genuine talent that is destined to be one of the greats. Saturday’s match also sees the return of Dane Haylett-Petty who on a good day can be one of Australia’s most dynamic players, it’s just that he hasn’t had too many of those good days recently – here’s hoping Saturday sees him back to his best.

It’s an outstanding All Black lineup against a relatively unproven but talented Australian team. The pressure on Dave Rennie’s predominantly young charges will be massive on Saturday, and it may be just a bit too soon for them to be handle the pitfalls of such a big stage and at home to boot. New Zealand still know how to win, regardless of the change in management and as a group have tasted victory more often than defeat. The World Cup is no doubt a distant memory and a team that is still better at reinventing itself than any other will take some beating on Saturday in Sydney. Beaten they can be but probably not by a Wallaby side packing plenty of energy but still lacking the cohesion needed for the big occasions under pressure.

Enjoy what should be the kind of weekend that perhaps some of us thought would be the stuff of fantasy only this year. Our hearts go out to everyone in France this weekend as they face a gloomy autumn under lockdown – let’s hope that whatever the outcomes this Saturday, it’s one everyone will remember for a long time to come as time well spent!

In case you missed the two friendlies last week here are the highlights with the Ireland/Italy game highlights over on the TV/Internet listings page along with the Bledisloe story so far.

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!