Posts Tagged ‘England’

Yes that magical moment that only comes around once every four years is finally upon us. The World Cup final! It’s been a tournament full of twists and surprises. Japan’s meteoric rise to superstar status, England’s demolition of New Zealand – the list goes on. Meanwhile France and Ireland held true to form and squandered their chances at glory in the quarter finals. France blew it through their mercurial form and a blatant act of stupidity. Ireland meanwhile peaked far too early and by the time the tournament kicked off were out of ideas and essentially a spent force needing to go back to the drawing board. Wales it has to be said found themselves lucky to make the semis courtesy of France, but much like Ireland seemed to run out of steam as the tournament progressed. Australia’s dismal form of the last few years continued and much like Ireland their quarter final exit was clearly on the cards before the tournament even began.

So six weeks later here we are and it’s England versus South Africa. England in many ways have been a revelation and if a team has had the perfect trajectory to the final then it is Eddie Jones’ Men in White. They have simply got better and better with every match of 2019, and without a doubt look the most complete unit in this World Cup. A bruising yet highly mobile and skilled set of forwards, a slick half back pairing to manage proceedings and a set of backs that pack grace, power and speed. Whichever way you cut it they fully deserve their shot at glory on Saturday, and it is going to take a monumental effort from South Africa to derail the English World Cup Express.

South Africa may have lost to New Zealand in their opening match, and the history books seem to indicate that that is as good as the kiss of death in a World Cup final. South Africa’s road to the final may not have been pretty, but brutally efficient it has been. They may not have been the most imaginative team in the tournament, but defensively they pose an enormous challenge. In short, this is a team it is very difficult to wear down, and the physical costs of doing so are enormous. England may be the more creative side, but South Africa have the potential to put up probably the most resolute defense the English have faced all year. South Africa have their own X-factor in the shape of winger Cheslin Kolbe, so that although they may not have the overall pace and imagination of England out wide, they can still be a threat. Couple that to a forward pack that England will be able to go toe to toe with, but the question remains at what cost physically? In short, nothing is guaranteed on Saturday even if on paper the odds would tend to favor England.

England definitely can and we think should get to lift the Webb Ellis trophy on Saturday for the second time in the tournament’s history, but South Africa will have a lot to say about it and clearly fancy their chances of lifting it themselves for a third time. It should be an epic contest and one worthy of a final, so here’s what got us talking.

England vs South Africa – Saturday, November 2nd – Yokohama

Two big bruising sides meet at Rugby’s ultimate crossroads on Saturday. South Africa are better known for being a side that will simply obliterate an opposition through sheer physical prowess, while England have shown both creativity and a pace and power that can be a match for anyone. England look the most complete side, but whether or not it can break down the kind of Berlin Wall that South Africa represents remains to be seen.

England have gone from strength to strength in 2019, but South Africa have also undergone a dramatic transformation under Coach Rassie Erasmus in the last eighteen months. His job will be done come the final whistle on Saturday, but there is no doubt that he has provided his charges with a sense of belief that November 2nd could be their day. It remains to be seen however, if a relatively one dimensional game plan, albeit built around a daunting physical presence on the pitch, will be enough to overcome an English outfit that has managed to combine brawn with pace and creativity.

Expect the front rows from both sides to stand firm, but England’s offering to create more opportunity once the ball is loose

South Africa have a very good scrum, and with the likes of  Tendai”Beast” Mtawarira in the mix it’s unlikely to budge much under English pressure. However, once the ball comes loose we just feel the English trio of Sinckler, George and Vunipola are likely to do more with it than the South Africans. If England can really put South Africa under the pump here for the first hour, then they may well have done enough to negate the impact of South Africa’s bench replacements in the front row. Vincent Koch, Steven Kitshoff and Malcolm Marx in particular are well known for their ability to create absolute havoc and we’d argue are a much more dangerous offering than England have on the bench. How much South Africa have been made to go backwards here in the first hour will determine how much of an impact a dangerous Springbok bench are likely to have. If the scores are close then England could be in trouble here come the three quarters mark.

The most fascinating and telling contest of the afternoon – the second and back row battles

Let’s be honest, perhaps apart from seeing what Cheslin Kolbe can do, this is the contest we are all most looking forward to on Saturday. South Africa have an outstanding back row, and Captain Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen are back to their very best, while as regular readers know, we rate Pieter-Steph du Toit as one of the best in the world. By the same token however, there is no getting away from the fact that the English back row of youngsters Sam Underhill and Tom Curry or the “Kamikaze kids” as they have become known as, are rapidly becoming the new global benchmark on what you want your back row to look and operate like. Add into the mix the bruising power of Billy Vunipola and there is no question that that English back row is going to take some beating on Saturday. It’s powerful, fast and highly mobile and as  good as South Africa are, we feel they are going to have trouble matching up to such a well drilled and highly skilled English unit. Much like the front row though, keep the scorelines tight and England may find themselves in hot water come the sixty minute mark as that South African bench comes into play. This is perhaps even more prevalent when talking of the second rows. Maro Itoje has been in a class of his own for England this tournament, and in our opinion can easily negate the physicality and in your face niggles of South Africa particularly at the lineout. However, both Franco Mostert and the rather terrifying prospect of South Africa’s own “caveman” RG Snyman on the bench is something we doubt England are looking forward to having to contend with. Once again if the scores are tight here as we get to the final twenty expect some bother for England.

England’s game management should prove superior

Although Handre Pollard had a superb outing for the Springboks at fly half in their semi-final win over Wales, we were not as impressed with the South African half back pairing as a unit. England look sharper here in George Ford and Ben Youngs allied to Owen Farrell’s ability to pull strings from the center and shift back to number ten when needed. In our opinion, Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk’s box kicking last weekend was almost a liability for South Africa. South Africa kicked away far too much valuable possession last weekend, without really providing a platform for their backs to work off. A lot of it seemed pointless and had Wales been a bit more adventurous last Sunday it could have all gone rather sideways for South Africa. Given England’s abilities under the high ball, this could prove a very costly tactic for the Springboks on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see if de Klerk has been instructed to keep the kicking to a minimum. The English triumvirate just look like they have a better sense of what they are trying to achieve and a back line more than capable of using the platforms they create to their full advantage. South Africa just don’t look creative enough here to really bother England in our opinion. Pollard may excel at punishing England with the boot, if the contact aspect of the game leads to lapses in English discipline, but whether or not he will be able to pull the strings in the same way the Farrell/Ford axis can, remains to be seen.

South Africa need to go wide and have plenty of gas to do so

South Africa bring two very exciting wingers to Saturday’s contest. South African supporters will be delighted to see the return of Cheslin Kolbe, as will every neutral on Saturday. Makazole Mapimpi is a flyer of note and has really grown into the tournament, but Kolbe is South Africa’s biggest X-factor. While he may provide plenty of excitement in open space, he has also shown that he can defend and tackle well beyond his own weight. Just watch him bringing down New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick at speed if you don’t believe us. To match them England boast perhaps the fastest man in rugby’s 100 metre sprint through Jonny May, and Anthony Watson has been outstanding in both attack and defense for the Men in White. The English pair have been given much more work to do this tournament by their half backs than their South African counterparts, and there is no doubt they go into this match as the more well rounded and finely tuned unit. At fullback South Africa have looked distinctly vulnerable, and last weekend Willie le Roux struggled to hang onto the ball throughout the match. With Elliot Daly having a power boot to get England out of trouble as well as being consistently reliable in the air, expect to see Francois Steyn on the pitch sooner rather than later to provide South Africa with some parity here, unless le Roux ends up having one of those blinders he occasionally pulls out his hat. Despite the presence of Kolbe here for South Africa, we think overall England are packing a set of backs and centers who are much more comfortable operating as a unit. South Africa seem to operate more as a group of individuals in the backs and this could ultimately be their undoing on Saturday, as they don’t quite have the seamless transition between the physical prowess of their forwards and the speed of their backs, a linkage that England seems to have mastered.

It’s all in the benches

This is where, as we’ve said throughout this piece, the match could well be won or lost. While England perhaps offer the more cohesive starting fifteen, South Africa have the bench to unravel what good work it may have done, should the scores be close come the sixty minute mark. Also with the injury to replacement scrum half for England Willi Heinz, England Coach Eddie Jones has been forced to draft in Ben Spencer who has not played in this tournament so far, and it’s a big ask for him to come to the fore in such a high stakes match. South Africa’s scrum half replacement Herschel Jantjies, while only having a few Test caps under his belt has not seemed to suffer from stage fright whatsoever for the big occasions, and along with Kolbe is another part of South Africa’s X-factor component. England themselves pack a star studded bench, and anyone would want the likes of Dan Cole, Jonathan Joseph, Mark Wilson and George Kruis backing up their efforts, but we just feel overall South Africa are packing the more tried and trusted bigger guns on their bench.

Verdict

Form and the history books would seem to hand this one to England, and we have a hard time disagreeing with that assertion. England’s performance against New Zealand was something to behold, and combined the attractiveness of Japan’s offloading game with a physical presence that suffocated the All Blacks. It was an inventive and highly mobile performance from England that highlighted a superb all round skill set and the power and pace to keep the opposition at bay. Overall England have looked the most complete and well rounded team of the tournament, and they will be very hard to beat. South Africa’s motivation will be off the charts and expect them to give England an exceptionally tough physical challenge, but whether or not they will be able to match’s England’s imagination and creativity is up for debate. South Africa will have to do much more than simply bludgeon England into submission, and to date we haven’t really seen them demonstrate an ability to adapt their game plan to do otherwise. Nevertheless, Saturday’s final sees two of rugby’s finest brains in terms of the Coaching box in Eddie Jones and Rassie Erasmus, so who knows how this week’s training sessions have gone. In short, these are two teams who will spare no punches and will throw everything at tomorrow’s proceedings. It should be a tense and at times tight affair, but pick a winner we must and for now our gut is saying a more clinical and well structured English team to get their hands on the Webb Ellis trophy by four points!

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!

Canada and the USA kick off exceptionally challenging World Cup campaigns tomorrow. Canada get their journey in what is essentially the “Pool of no Hope” underway, while the USA commence operations in the “Pool of Death”. In short both teams have the unenviable task of collectively facing up to five of the best teams in the world.

In Canada’s case, New Zealand and South Africa are so beyond them in terms of skill levels at the moment that one is almost scared to watch. Although they managed to give Italy one hell of a scare at the last World Cup, given Canada’s form of late, it’s hard to imagine a repeat performance on the same scale. That leaves a possible consolation win against Namibia as the best that Canada can realistically look forward to, and even that could be a challenge.

For the USA, they start their World Cup journey against a menacing looking English side, widely tipped by many to top Pool C and ultimately have a shot at lifting the tournament’s silverware. If that wasn’t challenging enough the Eagles then have to face France and follow it up with Argentina. You could not ask for three tougher back to back matches at World Cup intensity. While it’s difficult to realistically see the Eagles getting past any of these three heavyweights, even mercurial France, you’d have to argue that they are in a better position than Canada at having an outside chance of causing an upset. With France prone to massive concentration lapses come World Cup, the USA may find les Bleus their biggest potential wild card. Although France beat Argentina by the narrowest of margins at the start of this tournament, and in our opinion some help from the officials, they seem incapable of playing a solid game of two halves at the moment. Argentina on the other hand got better as the match progressed. England would appear to be in a league of their own in terms of Pool C, so it is likely that the USA is targeting a performance tomorrow more than a result. Put in two good games against France and Argentina and then Tonga should be theirs for the taking.

The growth of professional rugby in North America through Major League Rugby is clearly starting to pay dividends, as the shock win for Uruguay today over Fiji showed. With many of the Uruguayan team plying their trade in the MLR, and for Canadian fans two players in the Toronto Arrows, the evidence was there for all to see as there were several standout performances from MLR based players. While it still may be a stretch for Canada or the USA to take down any of the six big guns they will be facing this World Cup, the boost to rugby in North America and the continued expansion of the MLR would be enormous were they to do so.

Italy vs Canada – Thursday, September 26th – Fukuoka

This match in the last World Cup provided the 2015 tournament with one of its most memorable tries, as Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe produced a mesmerizing display of footwork and ball handling skills. In case you’ve forgotten cast your minds back to this.

This will probably be the legendary Canadian winger’s last World Cup, but we can only hope that he still has a few more vintage moments like this left up his sleeve over the next three weeks. Sadly though the rest of his team have struggled to match up since the last World Cup, and even DTH himself has been ominously quiet in the red jersey for much of the four year period leading up to tomorrow.

Canada has struggled plain and simple since the last World Cup and now find themselves ranked 22nd in the world and if things don’t start to improve soon, could find themselves skirting the borders of becoming a Tier 3 nation. We’re still quite a ways from that, though the dizzying fall of Canadian rugby from being ranked 12th in the world at the start of the 2011 World Cup, to their current position of 22 makes for depressing reading. As to what’s gone wrong, there are a myriad of reasons, but gone wrong it has and given the rather daunting Pool Canada find themselves in this year, one has to wonder what further damage will be done to a country whose rugby identity seems in tatters.

Italy will be a tough call tomorrow, and unlikely to be such an opportunity for an upset as they were four years ago. While Italy themselves have failed to really progress beyond being Six Nations wooden spoon holders, the point is they still compete in such competitions as well as having the opportunity to face the big Southern Hemisphere sides every year in November. They have even claimed the odd big scalp such as South Africa, France and Argentina, something it would seem Canada can only dream about at present. Canada will bring plenty of passion and heart to proceedings tomorrow, but whether or not it will be enough to unseat a side to determined to finish with nothing less than third place in their Pool is questionable. Watch the above video again though and you can’t blame Canada for thinking big.

As Canada’s only outside chance at a big upset, we once again scratched our heads over the selection for this one

Let’s be completely honest, the chance of Canada in its present condition upsetting New Zealand or South Africa’s apple cart is such a pipe dream it’s sadly laughable. Surely an upset against Italy and a win over Namibia, thus potentially securing them a third place finish in the Pool and automatic qualification for the next World Cup, given their struggle to qualify for this one would have been the goal. Consequently, you would have thought the selectors would have placed all the emphasis on this match as Canada’s number one priority. Agreed one doesn’t want to completely lose face against New Zealand and South Africa, but the bigger picture should surely have been the priority. While we accept that the loss of Evan Olmstead and Taylor Paris have no doubt forced the selectors hand somewhat, we still remain somewhat baffled. In truth it’s only in the back row and on the wings, where we feel Canada will be truly competitive on Thursday. For the rest of it, well we may be surprised but we’re not holding our breath. Italy on the other hand appear to be taking no chances and field a squad that has proved themselves at European club level as well as catching the eye at times during the Six Nations.

Canada’s back row – something to get excited about

While we took one look at Italy’s back row offering for this match and almost recoiled in horror as it boasts some very frightening characters, Canada should also be able to provide plenty of heart and all out grit here to try and counter it. As regular readers of this blog know, we are huge fans of Toronto Arrows stalwart Mike Sheppard who finds himself moved from the second row to the back for this match. However, his work rate is off the charts and never say die attitude will be an enormous talisman to Canada tomorrow. Tyler Ardron has been hands down Canada’s best player of 2019, and Lucas Rumball appears to have recovered from the injury that saw him miss much of the Toronto Arrows MLR campaign. It may not be the world’s flashiest back row but it is one that can definitely muscle up to the likes of Sebastien Negri, Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn, even if the Italian trio are the more fancied unit. The three Canadians will put their bodies on the line and then some tomorrow and expect plenty of heroics from the Canuck trio.

Canada’s half back combination really needs to click tomorrow and hasn’t shown much evidence of it so far

We won’t say much about the choice of the rather pedestrian scrum half Gordon McRorie for this match, since we’ve said enough already on that score this year. However, he and Irish import Peter Nelson don’t appear to complement each other, and up against a very composed high energy Italian unit, we feel Canada is going to struggle tomorrow. Jamie Mackenzie makes the bench as scrum half cover, and we’d prefer to see him on sooner rather than later tomorrow, as Italy’s bench offerings for both positions will continue to provide pace and accuracy.

Canada may have DTH but Italy have Matteo Minozzi

Agreed DTH van der Merwe plays on the wing and Minozzi at fullback, but whatever DTH can do so can Minozzi and probably more at this stage. The electric Italian fullback really lit up the 2018 Six Nations for Italy and was one of the players of the tournament, but injury left him sidelined for a year. He appeared to be spooling up nicely against Namibia last week and Canada are going to have to watch him like a hawk, as just like DTH he is absolutely lethal given any kind of space. Tommaso Benvenuti against the legendary Canadian winger should also be a tasty match up, backed up by a bruising and highly mobile Italian centre unit. If Canada make the mistake of relying too heavily on DTH to get them out of jail or work miracles, as they tend to do all too often, Canada could be in for a long afternoon.

Verdict

This may have been one of the great matches of the 2015 World Cup Pool Stages, but we fear this edition may not have quite the same luster. If Canada are to reverse their seemingly inevitable slide into the abyss of Tier 3 rugby then arguably this is their biggest match of this World Cup, yet we can’t help feeling that they are heading into it with one hand tied behind their back. We sincerely hope it is not the case and we will have plenty of egg to wipe off our face tomorrow morning, but we simply can’t get the tea leaves to arrange themselves with any great degree of optimism. A tough encounter in which, as they always do, Canada will put up a brave fight, but which the Azurri will comfortably take by 21 points!

England vs USA – Thursday, September 26th – Kobe

If the USA are to make a statement that they are genuinely an emerging rugby power, and that the growth of a professional league in North America is strengthening that contention, then perhaps more than any other tomorrow’s match against England will be the proof, irrespective of the fact that an upset is not really on the cards. If the USA are able to make England question themselves to a greater degree than Tonga did, and on the basis of that go on to score an upset over Argentina or France, then the argument that American rugby has come of age will be hard to dispute. They certainly have the squad to do it tomorrow with a good mix of players plying their trade in Europe and the MLR.

England bring their usual powerhouse squad, and know that they may be facing a side very keen to make a point. England perhaps underestimated Tonga at their peril in their World Cup opener and at times seemed off the mark. However, they still ultimately kept Tonga comfortably at bay and perhaps most telling of all not a single Tongan crossed the English whitewash. The USA might be able to match it up front with England relatively well tomorrow but we’re not convinced their backs are of equal caliber. England will want an emphatic victory over a challenging opponent tomorrow that pushes them hard in preparation for their crucial encounters with France and Argentina – we think in the shape of the Eagles they may well get it.

You might end up seeing the name John Quill a lot in this tournament

If the niggling injuries that have haunted the big American back rower don’t come back to haunt him this World Cup, then Quill could be one of the Eagles big breakout players this tournament. We’ve been particularly impressed with his antics in the MLR with Rugby United New York this season, and he couldn’t ask for a better test of his mettle in the shape of England’s Tom Curry. Curry is arguably one of England’s most important players, and in our opinion an English Captain in waiting for the next tournament in 2023. If Quill can match up to him, then the USA have a genuine big match talent for this World Cup. With Quill ably assisted by another of the USA’s headline grabbing players, number 8 Cam Dolan, expect some fireworks in this part of the park from the Americans, even up against the likes of Curry, Billy Vunipola and Mark Wilson.

Another benchmark of how far the USA has come will be the contest between AJ MacGinty and England’s George Ford

The USA’s Irish import brings some real pedigree to the Eagles. He is already a well recognized facet of the English Premiership in his regular exploits with Sale Sharks, but MacGinty is a talent that the USA holds dear to its plans for this World Cup. If MacGinty can run the game for the Americans to the degree where his opposite number George Ford is unable to really carve out a genuine advantage for England, then the Americans could definitely rattle the English. As we have seen on numerous occasions this year when England, and Ford in particular are spooked, they tend to unravel slightly. When he is on form there is no denying that MacGinty is capable of pulling it off, and the Eagles will be placing a great deal of trust in their play maker tomorrow. If MacGinty can keep them in it and force Ford’s hand, then the Eagles will certainly be able to keep the English on their toes. Owen Farrell will ultimately be there for England to restore order should MacGinty become too problematic, but expect the American play maker to make life difficult at times for England, and punish them with the boot for any disciplinary infractions.

At the end of the day though it’s that English set of backs that will really test how far the Eagles have come in the last four years

The Americans may be courageous and play with plenty of heart in this part of the park, but we have trouble seeing them really containing the likes of Piers Francis, Joe Cokanasiga, Jamie Joseph and Anthony Watson. Despite some feeling that Elliot Daly shouldn’t be England’s first choice fullback we beg to differ. Sure he makes the odd mistake but in general he is a pretty reliable and capable backstop for England with a rather handy boot. Our one over riding impression of MLR rugby is that while there may be lots of tries by the league’s backs they emanate from generally poor back line defense. A trait which the Americans may end up paying heavily for tomorrow. While their forwards may be able to grunt it out with England, defensively we feel they may struggle to contain England at the back.

Verdict

While we don’t feel this is a match that’s too hard to call, we do feel that it could well be one of the most interesting of the Pool Stages. A big brash rugby nation desperate to prove that it is a growing force to be reckoned with, up against the game’s traditional order. While the Eagles will clearly want to cause the upset of the century, a solid performance against England that sees them remain competitive with the Men in White till the final whistle will be more important than the result. If they do manage that then they will make a big statement about where Rugby in the US is headed. England should anticipate a Test match that will be excellent preparation for their must win encounters with France and Argentina, but one which they should ultimately emerge comfortable winners by 18 points!

 

Ireland travel to Twickenham this weekend in their first of a gruelling round of three back to back World Cup warmup games which sees them up against England and then two encounters against the Welsh. England have one more match after this before Japan, so after coming unstuck against Wales last weekend will clearly want to put in a strong performance against a side that has rained on their parade more than they would have perhaps liked in the last few years. Ireland also need to find the form that had them being billed as World Cup contenders last year, but so far this year has all but deserted them. A poor Six Nations campaign has left Ireland needing to find answers and quickly.

Scotland were given an exceptionally rude wake up call last weekend in Nice by a rampant French side that looked very slick indeed. Whether that was one of those infamous one off French displays that we will now have to wait to see repeated at some point where we least expect it, remains to be seen. However, if they can keep up the kind of intensity they showed last weekend, then they will no doubt head into this World Cup with the label of dark horse, which has so often been their exclusive preserve with the exception of the 2015 edition of the tournament. Scotland surely cannot be as bad again as they were in Nice, and on the hallowed ground of Murrayfield expect a more convincing performance. However, if they do end up being blown out of the water again by “les Bleus” then Ireland may at least feel that their own progression from the pools is assured at Scotland’s expense.

It’s an interesting weekend ahead, and performance rather than results will be key as well as keeping the injury demons at bay. However, there is little doubt that in Ireland and Scotland’s case with places up for grabs on the plane to Japan, there should be a little more intensity on offer than an out of season “friendly” usually generates. Here’s what we’ll be looking at this weekend.

Scotland vs France – Saturday, August 24th – Murrayfield

We have to confess to being slightly perplexed at Scotland’s exceptionally inept display last weekend in Nice, especially with so many names in the Scottish squad that you would assume to be first choice picks for Japan. Whether Scottish players had taken their summer vacations far too seriously and as a result were beyond rusty is debatable, but as professionals you would have thought that even with a much needed break they would still have managed to show up to some degree on the day. France on the other hand looked as though the TOP 14 final had only been yesterday, as they were full of enterprise, skill and all round panache. Whether or not they will be able to maintain this is the quintessential question when talking of French teams and as a result Saturday’s result will say a great deal in terms of where France are at in terms of their potential form heading into the World Cup.

Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend wields the axe across the board and rings the changes

After their shambolic performance last weekend, there are very few survivors taking to the field on Saturday for Scotland. Only fullback Stuart Hogg gets to keep his place and probably only because Scotland has two options for the position, both of whom played last Saturday and will do so again this weekend. Scotland lacked any kind of bite whatsoever last weekend and could almost have been accused of not really caring about proceedings. They’ll need to make a massive step up this weekend in front of the Murrayfield faithful who will simply not tolerate another schooling from their French visitors. Scotland suffer the same problem as France, brilliant one day and then a disaster the next. The Twickenham “miracle” at the end of this year’s Six Nations, now seems just that based on their performance in Nice. They will need to dig deep and rediscover that form that makes them as entertaining to watch as Fiji at times.

There is something strange brewing in France – consistency in selection

After years of watching the team sheets change dramatically from one match to another, this weekend’s team list looks almost identical to last week’s. The only difference being that some of the starters are now on the bench and vice versa. Is French Coach Jacques Brunel going to do away with the French propensity to chop and change and instead focus on a settled squad – a luxury French teams have been denied for at least the last five years? We have to confess to finding it hard to believe that Brunel himself is the proponent for such a radical change in French thinking, but if the experiment works on Saturday, then the long overdue call for such an approach will finally have been justified.

He almost singlehandedly reversed Scotland’s fortunes against England in the Six Nations and Scotland will be looking to Hamish Watson to do the same again this weekend.

The energy that Hamish Watson injects into any Scottish performance is now legendary and Scotland clearly missed the dynamic loose forward last weekend. Perhaps more than any other Scottish player he epitomizes the image of grabbing a match by the scruff of the neck and shaking some sense into it. His value to any Scottish team and their endeavours in Japan is an absolute given, and Scotland will be crossing their fingers that he escapes this match injury free.

Two of the most exciting half backs in Test Rugby set out to try and bamboozle each other

French scrum half Antoine Dupont and Scottish fly half Finn Russell, are two of the modern games most prominent masters of the X-factor. Both players excel at seizing sudden and unexpected opportunities that leave opposition defences completely wrong footed. With an exceptional set of footballing skills, these two players are always fascinating to watch, and the added bonus of having them both on the same pitch makes this a contest well worth watching. As masters of the element of surprise, expect plenty of enterprise and borderline reckless chance taking on Saturday.

In a stable of top quality backs how good has Damian Penaud become?

As you may recall, in this year’s Six Nations we kept lamenting French Coach Jacques Brunel’s insistence on playing Damian Penaud out of position on the wing. Up to that point the Clermont player had been known as a centre and a fine one at that. He clearly struggled initially with life on the wing despite a series of brave efforts. However, he has clearly matured into the role to the point now where he looks as though he has always played there and seems completely at ease running the touch lines. Expect him to be one of France’s danger men on Saturday.

Verdict

This is one of those calls where you would think the obvious is a given. However, after Scotland’s abject performance in France last weekend and “les Bleus” seeming renaissance ahead of the World Cup, anything could happen at Murrayfield on Saturday. Of one thing we are certain, this is a quality French side that will take some beating. However, their next big hurdle is to prove that they can produce this kind of form on the road, a talent that has often been missing from their armoury in recent years. Meanwhile an equally talented Scottish team needs to fire, and a rousing Murrayfield encouragement should be just the tonic needed. It should all provide for an entertaining contest, but Scotland should surely at home be the dominant side, albeit one pushed hard. We think Scotland are likely to bounce back and make it one apiece, but it won’t be easy and expect the scoreboard to tick over from both sides, with the Scots squeaking it out by 3 points!

England vs Ireland – Saturday, August 24th – Twickenham

England know what their World Cup squad looks like and after tomorrow Ireland should have a pretty good idea of what their selection for Japan should look like. The Emerald Isle’s World Cup warmup opener against Italy saw Ireland get the job done, but a few worrying injuries put a damper on an already conservative approach. Saturday see them face an English side feeling confident but disappointed by their loss to Wales last weekend. It’s very much a first choice England squad running out onto the pitch at Twickenham on Saturday, and Ireland have responded accordingly in their selections, with only fly half Jonathan Sexton and second rower James Ryan being the only notable omissions. England will no doubt focus on performance first and results second, but much like against the Welsh, neither team will want to lose this one. In short in terms of quality preparation for Japan, and provided the injury demons are kept at bay, it doesn’t get much better than this.

The return of Tom Curry to full match fitness it without doubt the best news England has had all month

He may not have much Test experience but his value to England has already been cast in stone, and expect the young flanker to have a huge role to play in Japan. As a result the sight of him hobbling off in England’s first game against Wales this month, must have set alarm bells ringing across the land. His return tomorrow could not be more welcome, and having to deal with the likes of Peter O’Mahony and Josh Van der Flier will be superb practice for the challenges that lie ahead. Our estimation of Curry is so high that we wouldn’t be surprised to see him sporting the Captain’s jersey come the next World Cup.

Ireland’s second row – a chance to shine under pressure

Jean Kleyn stepped up to the plate against Italy, and Ian Henderson will need to make a similar impression on Saturday, as places up for grabs in Ireland’s second row offerings for Japan are likely to be hotly contested. With James Ryan likely to be the only dead ringer for the World Cup at this stage, expect all four Irish second rowers starting and on the bench to play out of their skins on Saturday, meaning that England’s exceptionally capable trio of Maro Itoje, George Kruis and the indomitable Courtney Lawes will need to be at their best.

A slight surprise at seeing George Ford starting at 10 again, but he has clearly earned it

George Ford was outstanding against Wales in the opening World Cup warmup match for England, and despite the loss a week later in Cardiff he still put in a respectable performance. This match will probably see Owen Farrell move to the fly half position at some point in the match, allowing Jonathan Joseph to take over his starting position at centre. Coach Eddie Jones clearly favours this in terms of rotating his two World Cup number 10s, and consequently Ford continues to get the opportunity to make up for lost time after a poor domestic season.

We are delighted to see Ross Byrne get another start at 10 in an Irish jersey

Jonathan Sexton’s understudy at Leinster, Ross Byrne has impressed at club and European level but really needs to settle into the role at Test level. With the outstanding Joey Carberry in a race to be fit for Japan, Byrne has been given a golden opportunity to provide some much needed back up to Ireland’s two first choice number 10s. We think he is a quality player and very much, along with Carberry, the new face of the 10 jersey for Ireland once Jonathan Sexton hangs up his boots. His battle with George Ford should be one of the afternoon’s most fascinating contests.

If both half back pairings fire this could be a fantastic afternoon of running rugby

The backs selections for both teams ooze quality and excitement. Jordan Larmour, Gary Ringrose and Jacob Stockdale for Ireland can really put on a show and Jonny May, Jonathan Joseph and Joe Cokanasiga can do the same for England. Manu Tuilagi also looked rather frightening with ball in hand for England in his appearances off the bench against Wales, whilst Andrew Conway can also run a good touch line for Ireland. We’d argue that in terms of service delivery from the fly half department and overall game management, England are likely to be better served but there is plenty of potential for Ireland to upset the apple cart here on Saturday. As a result this could end up being a high scoring game and certainly one high in entertainment value if free flowing attacking rugby is your cup of tea.

Verdict

Ireland may still remember fondly their Grand Slam win at Twickenham in last year’s Six Nations, but for all intents and purposes that is all ancient history. England are the form team and it is Ireland who have everything to prove. However, as a result they couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to dispel the claim that they peaked too early for the World Cup. Nevertheless this looks like a very settled and focused English team, and Ireland have yet to show us anything comparable this year, and while they are a team brimming with World Class talent, it simply hasn’t gelled so far this year the way England have. As a result, we’re handing this to England by six points, but expect to see Ireland’s first really clinical performance of the year, and one which gives us a hint that they are regrouping to be the force everyone originally thought they’d be in Japan!

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!

It may be a World Cup warmup match, but an encounter between Wales and England is always something special and an occasion to be savoured. This weekend is no exception, as these two great rivals meet at Twickenham and with it all the atmosphere that such matches bring. For Wales the goal will be to continue the momentum they built up as Six Nations Grand Slam Champions, and while England are probably more focused on getting their squad in order for the World Cup, there is also the small matter of avenging that defeat in Cardiff earlier this year.

Wales run with a trusty group of players and it would appear that they know the squad they want to take to Japan. What is perhaps of greater concern to them, much more so than England, is the risk of injury – as lose any of these players and all of a sudden the Welsh depth tank starts to look a bit empty. England on the other hand have no such problems, and consequently are clearly looking to this match and probably the other three this month to find out a bit more about the depth they have available to them. To that effect, for those of us not familiar with English club rugby there are quite a few names on the team sheet we simply know very little about. However, there are also plenty of familiar faces who haven’t quite had an opportunity to shine in an England jersey so far this year, and who will be really keen to lay down a marker that they deserve a seat on the plane to Tokyo.

Consequently, although this match may not mean that much in terms of what is at stake for the teams as a whole, there will be plenty on the line for some of the individual players involved to ensure that it is a highly entertaining contest. Here are the main question marks that came up for us heading into the match.

England vs Wales – Sunday, August 11th – Twickenham

Wales are clearly looking to this match to keep their momentum going in what has been a remarkably successful year. If they come away unbeaten in the course of the next four weeks, then the label of dark horse will be replaced by genuine contenders at the global showpiece in Japan next month. Expectations will be high and even with no silverware on offer for this match, rest assured that an opportunity for Wales to turn over England at Fortress Twickenham will be high on the agenda of players and supporters alike.

The question is will this slightly experimental English side let them have their way, and does Coach Eddie Jones even really care about Sunday’s result? Obviously he would not want to see his charges made a mockery of by the Welsh, but the win while potential icing on the cake, is probably not his main focus on Sunday. Instead it is a last chance for some players to stick their hands up for World Cup selection as he intends to name his World Cup squad this Monday. On that note you have to wonder how fair that is to some of the players who have hardly had a chance till now to prove themselves. Put your hands up if you know anything about Lewis Ludlum, Joe Marchant, Jack Singleton, Ruaridh McConnochie and the biggest surprise Willi Heinz. From a depth perspective it will be fascinating to see what hidden gems England are about to uncover.

There are no surprises from either sides in the front rows at least

The only possible omission being Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler for England, but otherwise it’s business as usual for both sides at the coalface. However, given England’s shambolic performance in their last Six Nations match against Scotland, perhaps the absence of George and Sinckler is no bad thing. England still bring plenty of familiarity in their offering, though we still wonder at the disciplinary liability that Joe Marler presents for England. The Welsh front row though needs no introduction and played a large part in Wales’ successful Six Nations campaign this year. As a result it presents a golden opportunity for England’s representatives to really make their case to Eddie Jones if they can keep the Men in White competitive here.

Where England need make no excuses is in the back row

If Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola are not on the plane to Japan, then something will be seriously amiss in Eddie Jones’ thinking. We very much doubt that these three gentlemen have anything whatsoever to prove to their boss on Sunday. Wales pack some heavyweights here, especially in one of the Lineout’s all time favourite players Justin Tipuric, as well as the long awaited return to Welsh service of Aaron Shingler who had to sit out the Six Nations due to injury. Nevertheless, we can’t help feeling that the English trio is the more dynamic and could really build the platform England needs to go on the offensive.

Who is Willi Heinz and is a game against Wales the right place to make his mark?

Sure the Kiwi, now England qualified, scrum half had a very successful domestic season with Gloucester, but on the European stage Gloucester fared very poorly raising question marks about his ability to handle high stakes matches with an international flavour. Furthermore, given the depth of resources in England, you have to wonder about Eddie Jones obsession with bringing in ostensibly overseas talent. Agreed other teams are doing it, but they with the exception of possibly France, have much smaller player bases – not the case in England. We would have thought that this would have been a golden opportunity to put Ben Spencer or Dan Robison to the test. Don’t get us wrong, we are not anti foreign born players by any stretch of the imagination, but given the depth of resources in England we still find this a slightly strange call so close to the World Cup.

As this is the last chance to have a look before the World Cup, we are amazed at the omission of Danny Cipriani at fly half

Sure George Ford rescued England at the death from a humiliating defeat at Twickenham by Scotland in the last match of the Six Nations, but in reality that has been his only claim to fame for quite some time now. His club Leicester Tigers have become the laughing stock of both the English Premiership and the European Champions Cup, and we find it hard to believe that he is the best England has to offer outside of Owen Farrell in the position. Despite the English public’s love/hate relationship with Cipriani, there is no denying he brings plenty of imagination and unpredictability to the position, something you would think England could really do with at the World Cup. By the same token is this George Ford’s last chance to shine? Has Jones already made up his mind to surprise everyone and simply announce on Monday he is taking Cipriani without having the need to look at him in an England jersey? The plot thickens!

The return of Joe Cokanasiga is something everyone wants to see

England’s supposed wonder weapon on the wing had to live in the shadow of the outstanding Jonny May the last time these two sides met in the Six Nations, and was sorely missed against Scotland. Quite why the turbocharged winger finds it so hard to find favour with Eddie Jones is a mystery. However, of one thing you can be certain, he is unlikely to let his chance to be noticed go missing on Sunday. Once again though we are scratching our heads at him starting on the bench, though we have a hunch we are likely to see him much sooner than we did the last time he was included in Welsh and English festivities. Is this, like the Cipriani question, another case of Jones not wanting to show his hand? Either way we’re looking forward to seeing Cokanasiga having an opportunity to scorch some turf on Sunday!

Verdict

This is a very good Welsh team – plain and simple, who are going to be very hard to beat on Sunday. They know each other exceptionally well, have the benefit of a winning culture behind them and know the kind of game they want to play and their roles and responsibilities in implementing it. England’s slightly eclectic mix of talented but unfamiliar players don’t quite have the same gel factor. Despite home advantage it’s England with everything to prove, but for once they may be genuinely relishing the underdog tag which could ultimately work to their advantage. Having said that however, we find it hard to imagine such an accomplished Welsh unit getting caught off guard by England on Sunday. Wales are more than likely to play it safe against an English team they are probably unsure of in terms of what to expect. However, the Welsh defence has been absolutely watertight this year, and despite whatever surprises this English team may have up their sleeves, Wales are likely to be too hard of a nut to crack on Sunday. Consequently, in what should be an entertaining match with England doing most of the attacking, we’re handing it to the Welsh defence to keep things safe and in order for the Men in Red by four points!

As the last major competition faced by the Six Nations competitors before they head to Japan in September, we take a look at each of the countries and how their performances over the last two months may or may not have a bearing on their fortunes at the forthcoming World Cup.

As always the Six Nations dished up its usual fare of twists and turns and downright surprises, perhaps best epitomised by the final match between England and Scotland in which an injury ravaged Scotland defied all the odds and almost pulled off one of the biggest upsets since the last World Cup. The top three finishers, Wales, England and Ireland, certainly justified the hype surrounding them but particularly for England and Ireland, we were still left with more questions than answers. There was disappointment for some, most notably Ireland, who for the most part failed to turn up during the tournament, having entered as favourites. However, Wales lived up to their dark horse billing and swept all aside in a well deserved though not always convincing Grand Slam performance. England clearly showed they have regrouped since their disastrous showing in last year’s tournament, but still left many of us scratching our heads over their disastrous second half showings against Wales and Scotland.

The bottom half of the table was once more filled with the usual suspects France, Scotland and Italy. France continue to be a conundrum. A brilliant performance against Scotland was about the only bright light in an otherwise disastrous campaign. We thought we were witnessing a new era in French rugby in the opening 40 minutes of their campaign against Wales, but their second half implosion soon dispelled such illusions.

Scotland as always played some thrilling rugby, but the injury gods wrought havoc on their campaign and despite a convincing opening win over Italy, they battled for the rest of the tournament. However, it would be harsh to judge them solely on their position of fifth in the table. They gave Wales an almighty scare at one point, and caused Ireland to have to work exceptionally hard for a win. However, the high point of their campaign was without a doubt their final match at Twickenham, and that epic draw with England. To be honest they came within an inch of the biggest upset of the tournament, as England scored the equalizer in the dying minute. However, they can take the honors for providing us with the one of the most spectacular comebacks against all odds in the history of the tournament.

Lastly, Italy ended the tournament winless and as a result set the debate alight once more about their place in the competition and the thorny question of relegation. It is still unlikely to happen given the commercial structure of the Championship, but given that they are winless in the tournament since 2015, something needs to change and fast. However, despite their failings we felt this year’s edition of the Six Nations did offer some hope for Italy as a raft of new talent caught our eye. There was some exceptionally positive play from Italy this year, and we feel there is enough emerging talent that it would still be premature to consider axing Italy in favor of another emerging European nation such as Georgia. We felt there was enough promise shown this year, despite the results to allow Italy another chance to prove us all wrong in the 2020 edition of the tournament.

So without any further ado let’s have a look at what got us talking in relation to the six participants as they head into the World Cup.

Wales

In the end worthy Grand Slam champions, and a team that has no doubt got their Pool D rivals in the World Cup into more than just a mild sweat. They weren’t the flashiest side in the tournament, but there is no denying they looked the most settled and seemed better than most at adapting to and playing what was in front of them. If that’s not a recipe for success then we don’t know what is. Masters of the basics, with clever but not overly ambitious game plans that for the most part were superbly executed. Their only real blemish during the entire tournament was a very shaky, almost clueless performance in the opening forty minutes against France in their first match. Sure they looked a little unsure of themselves against Italy, and clearly felt the heat of Scotland’s wrath away from home, but once they hit their straps against France in the tournament opener they never really seemed to look rattled again. Perhaps more than any other team in the championship they showed that rugby is actually a simple game that if played well can get results. Their complete dominance of Ireland in their final match of the tournament was utterly clinical, and an example of a team playing at the peak of their efficiency. Well drilled, well-disciplined and with an absolute understanding of what they need to do and how to do it – in short 15 players acting as one. While they may not have set the pitches alight this tournament, despite some outstanding tries, their composure under pressure and a superhuman defence was what in our opinion got them the Grand Slam.

So how has their Grand Slam finish positioned them for the World Cup? Rather well we think. Of their Group D opponents, based on current form we can’t see anyone challenging Wales for a first place finish. Fiji could pull off the upset of the century, but Wales’ main rivals Australia appear in a shambles at the moment, and with Wales having such a phenomenal defence we feel they are more than capable of containing the potent strike threats the Wallabies do have going for them. From there it is either France or Argentina in the quarter finals. If that goes well and there is no reason to suppose it won’t, then Wales have either South Africa or Ireland to contend with in the semi finals most likely scenario. These are both sides Wales are capable of beating and as a result it is not that difficult to see Wales going all the way to the final. World Cup matches are rarely high scoring affairs, particularly towards the business end of the tournament, where defence under pressure becomes premium, a quality that Wales had in abundance in this Six Nations.

It’s still early days, and form can be a fickle thing, but Wales have shown both depth and resolve in this tournament, allied to a an ability to execute the essentials with almost flawless precision. Add to that leaders across the pitch allied to a committment and sense of purpose that few sides could match this Six Nations, and Wales certainly look the finished product heading into the World Cup.

England

England showed in November that after a 2018 Six Nations campaign that they would probably rather forget, they are back and mean business. A strong second place finish will give them some solid confidence with which to build for Japan. Some promising new talent has finally come of age, and England are starting to look for the most part a balanced and exceptionally capable team. However, this tournament highlighted some clear problems that England still need to address if they are serious about being World Cup contenders. When they are firing on all cylinders they look like an exceptionally dangerous outfit, but throw some doubt in there and the plot seems to unravel alarmingly quickly.

England got their campaign off to the most spectacular of starts by playing initial tournament favorites Ireland at their own game, and ramping up the intensity another few gears. At times they simply blew Ireland off the park with their speed and brutal efficiency. Ireland seemed completely taken aback by the power and intensity of the English effort and were clearly not used to being made to look second best, especially in the physical aspects of the game. England built on their success by putting a hapless French team to the sword a week later. Cleary buoyed by their success and brimming with confidence, the wheels fell off as they travelled to Cardiff to take on a Welsh side that many were tipping to lift the trophy. Wales had not really looked the part of ultimate Grand Slam champions up to that point, and it is hard to tell if England had underestimated their opponents, but this was not the England that blew France away and ruthlessly dispatched Ireland. England persisted with a game plan that was clearly playing into Welsh hands, and one that their opponents found as easy to read as an open book. It was painfully obvious that England’s kicking game was not working and yet they persisted with it right till the end, allowing Wales to increasingly dictate proceedings, to the point where England hardly had a say in the ebb and flow of the game in the second half. England regained their form against Italy, but in the final match against an injury ravaged Scotland at Fortress Twickenham, England threw away a 31-0 lead in the second half which beggared belief. When things were going England’s way they looked superb, but the minute momentum changed they seemed to lose the plot in the most dramatic fashion.

England have a very good team, make no mistake, but their decision-making and ability to cope under pressure has got the alarm bells ringing for the World Cup. Therein perhaps lies England’s biggest problem – leadership. For such a talented team, they seem rather bereft when it comes to having a cool head to turn things around when things are not going their way. While he may be a very talented player, we have said for a long time that we do not regard Owen Farrell as Captain material, and his performances this tournament have done little to change that view. He seems to lose the plot with referees when things aren’t going England’s way, his decision making is abysmal when the wheels fall off and his tackling skills are rapidly becoming a huge liability for England. He is a gifted player who perhaps is unable to exercise his considerable talents when faced with the burden of leadership. The problem is however, if not Farrell then who is England’s next Captain? At this stage and heading to the World Cup we are sadly still drawing blanks in terms of how to answer that question.

Until this is addressed England remain World Cup hopefuls, but unlikely to progress beyond the semi finals. It looks fairly certain that they will top their group, and get the better of a rudderless Wallaby side in the quarter finals. However, come the semi-finals their most likely opponent is New Zealand, and as we saw at Twickenham last November, their ability to wrestle control of the game back from the All Blacks once the Kiwis got the upper hand didn’t go well, a trait which was repeated in this Six Nations. Leadership is not something you develop overnight heading into a World Cup, and we fear that with less than six months to go before Japan it is England’s Achilles Heel and too little too late.

Ireland

Perhaps the overriding question going through everyone’s mind this Six Nations was where was Ireland? The all-conquering side of 2018 was nowhere to be seen in this year’s Six Nations. To be blunt they looked a shadow of the side that were ranked number two in the world heading into the tournament. Clumsy, ill-disciplined, unimaginative and devoid of the killer instinct and organisation that served them so well last year, Ireland simply failed to turn up in this Six Nations. Sure they still finished third, but suffered two humiliating losses in the process, and in a match where they should have claimed maximum points against Italy to help them in the standings race they put in one of the most lacklustre, disorganised and half-hearted Irish performances we have seen in a long time. In short, they were lucky to win in Rome. Whether the shock of the nature of their opening defeat to England at the start of the tournament, ended up being such a dent in their seemingly indestructible confidence remains up for debate. However, whichever way you cut it, if you are serious about going for the ultimate prize in Japan this year, you simply have to pick yourself up and come back the better team. Something Ireland simply did not do this Six Nations.

While they may have beaten Scotland away in Murrayfield, it often looked labored and the effort against Italy was downright shambolic. They appeared to have regained their confidence in a solid performance against France as they sought to regain honor in front of the Dublin faithful, but all that good work was completely undone a week later as they put in one of the most inept Irish displays we have ever seen against Wales, and essentially gifted them the Championship and the Grand Slam.

Much like England, Ireland’s leaders failed to step up when needed most. Fly half Johnny Sexton was more of a liability than an asset to Ireland in this tournament, and the likes of Conor Murray, Rory Best and Peter O’Mahony were simply not playing anywhere near the standards that we have come to expect from them. In short, despite some solid individual performances at times, Ireland rarely looked like a team and appeared disjointed and demoralised more often than not. Perhaps the only positive you could take from Ireland’s performance in this Six Nations is that it is surely the mother of all wake up calls needed by a team fancying themselves as a potential shoe-in for World Cup glory. The problem is, much like in England’s case, there is not much time left to fix the problems. Ireland will need to pick themselves up off the floor, and be able to do so on a regular basis if things are not going well during the pool stages of the World Cup.

Ireland’s draw in the World Cup is not favorable, and unless there is a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes, Ireland are once more heading for a quarter-final exit. There is no guarantee they will top their pool, especially if Scotland are operating at full strength and show the kind of passion and committment that almost derailed England. Japan at home will require the utmost vigilance and Samoa will pose all kinds of injury threats. If they get through their pool on top and unscathed then they have the unenvious task of having to face either New Zealand or South Africa. If they survive that then a probable rematch with England is on the cards for the semi-finals, with New Zealand or Wales waiting for them in the final. On the basis of the form they showed this Six Nations that is an exceptionally tall order. Ireland haven’t become a bad team overnight and will likely regroup, but if they are to get beyond the quarter-finals for the first time, a great deal of soul-searching will be required by all concerned between now and September.

France

We all had that fleeting impression in the first forty minutes of France’s opening game against Wales, that les Bleus were finally back, just in time for the World Cup. Sadly it was just that, a fleeting impression and no more. Perhaps most frustrating of all is that there is some genuine talent in this team, who are a joy to watch when things are going well. Endless and misguided tinkering by the coaching staff with selections and players’ roles ensured that France remain a talented but confused side. If France are being coached at all, we’d actually be surprised. France’s performances this Six Nations were characterised by individual flashes of brilliance that provided a spark of momentum that the whole team seemed able to seize on at times. A game plan or exactly what France are trying to achieve on the pitch however, still seems a mystery. There is some genuine raw talent in this French team – Felix Lambey, Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Artur Iturria, Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos – the list goes on. However, therein lies the problem as this talent is not being harnessed effectively by the coaching structures into a unified force with a clear sense of purpose.

France started their opening match against Wales well, but then lost all structure and form in the second half and suffered a humiliating loss at home in a match they should have won. Things got even worse as they put in an almost clueless performance against England a week later that was riddled with errors and woeful execution of the basics. They redeemed themselves against Scotland in what was easily their best performance of the tournament. However, another inept performance against Ireland and a labored effort against Italy, gave French supporters little if anything to cheer about, while the French coaching staff led by Jacques Brunel couldn’t have looked more disinterested if they tried.

There is no denying that barring a miracle, it would appear that France are headed for an early exit at the World Cup. Argentina with the return of many of their overseas based players are likely to be the kind of force to be reckoned with that they were at the last World Cup. Meanwhile England should have no trouble dispatching France based on what we saw this year. In the unlikely event France make it out of their pool, then they would have to face Wales in the quarter finals, and based on this Six Nations, we doubt that would end well. France as they have in the past, may well surprise us, and let’s face it they have the talent to do it, but it’s that complete lack of wherewithal at the coaching level that is most likely to prove France’s undoing in Japan.

Scotland

We make no bones about it – we LOVE watching Scotland play, and their epic draw with England at the end of this year’s Six Nations was the stuff of legends and had us raising the roof. If Scotland had not been crippled by injuries just imagine where they could have finished. The fact that they were able to stage one of the greatest comebacks in Six Nations history with so many of their key players missing, shows that they have developed some remarkable depth. Some of the younger players really stepped up and embraced the opportunities they got with both hands and left us spellbound in the process. Perhaps no player exemplified this more than young winger Darcy Graham who was utterly outstanding every time he came on. Scotland’s results in this Six Nations are hard to judge as some of their play was exceptional. Apart from a purple patch of ten minutes in their opener against Italy, they looked very impressive. While things did not go their way against Ireland and France in their next two matches, their fight back against Wales in the second half was noteworthy. However, it was that final match in Twickenham against England with a relatively green and inexperienced squad that produced one of the greatest comebacks in Six Nations history, and gave us a glimpse of the true potential of Scottish rugby. Scotland were very unlucky to lose a match that they almost won against all odds. Nevertheless to come back from 31-0 down in such an emphatic display of imaginative attacking rugby and ultimately draw the match, and do it all on the road with a half strength squad is no mean achievement, and deserves the utmost praise.

Scotland are a very good team and a joy to watch. What they need more than anything is consistency. However, they are well coached and blessed with some remarkable talent, all of which bodes well for a strong showing in the World Cup. If they were to top their pool then they could well be in with a shot at the semi-finals. To do that they would need to beat Ireland, something which they have shown they can do in the past, especially if Ireland have not solved their performance issues by the time Japan rolls around. Scotland have run both New Zealand and South Africa close in recent years, so although knocking either of these two giants out of contention would appear a stretch, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. Beating Wales in a semi-final may well be a bridge too far, but we still can’t help feeling that Scotland have the potential to surprise. Either way we won’t be missing a moment of their endeavours, even if it is only for the sheer enjoyment of watching a team that loves to run the ball only slightly less than Fiji.

Italy

We really enjoyed watching Italy at times during this year’s Six Nations, but felt utterly gutted for them, as once more they emerged with absolutely nothing to show for their efforts in terms of results. While they looked spritely and enterprising at times, there is no denying that we felt they never looked like they were going to win a match. Although they were blown off the park by England and Scotland, let’s look at the results a bit more objectively. At times they rattled ultimate Grand Slam winners Wales, and denied them a massive points haul. They did the same to Ireland, and clearly unhinged one of the top three teams in the world in the process. Finally, they came close to once more making life miserable for France. Are they competitive? Yes, but sadly lack the wherewithal to finish the job. However, what we were impressed by this year was the fact that Italy invariably tended to play their best rugby in the second half of every match, as opposed to simply fading into oblivion in the final forty minutes, as has been their habit in years gone by. Some much sought after staying power and stamina finally seems to have been achieved and over time it will start producing results.

Much like France there is some exceptional talent in this Italian team, and some names really stood out this tournament. Tito Tebaldi, Tommaso Allan, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri, Braam Steyn, Marco Zanon and Jake Polledri all demonstrated an exciting new backbone and core of leadership to the Italian team that has been long overdue. They have an exceptionally challenging World Cup ahead of them and no doubt know that anything other than a third place finish in their pool is wishful thinking, and that a place in the knockout stages is no more than a pipe dream. The likelihood of them dispatching either South Africa or New Zealand is not really on the cards. However, Canada and Tonga should be theirs for the taking. A strong third place finish in their Pool in Japan should set them up well for a more competitive showing in subsequent Six Nations and future World Cups. While some will once more be calling for their heads and a role for worthy up and coming contenders like Georgia in the Six Nations, we feel that on the basis of this year they still deserve more time to show us what they are made of in the long run.

Endnote

There is not much Test rugby on hand till the abbreviated Rugby Championship in July and the World Cup warm ups in August, now the Six Nations is over. However, we’ll be having a look at the recently concluded Americas Rugby Championship as well as what the forthcoming European Champions Cup and Super Rugby tournaments might tell us about form heading into the World Cup. So lot’s more to come as we get closer and closer to the BIG ONE in Japan.

Till then courtesy of BSPORTV on YouTube here’s a look back at some great moments over the last two months. Make sure you give them a big thumbs up and subscribe.