Posts Tagged ‘England’

Before we bash it too much – let’s all be brutally honest. While it may have struggled to fire our imaginations for the most part, in a year where we were starved of Test Rugby, the cobbled together Autumn Nations Cup did give us some worthwhile reasons to gather around our televisions, provide some heated chat sessions on our phones and down a few pints while partaking of our favorite Saturday afternoon pastime, picking apart a Test match. The quality at times was debatable, the broadcast rights for most (fortunately not us here in Canada – thanks DAZN for getting it right for once) were complicated to say the least, but there were some memorable moments.

Despite being drawn in the pool of death Georgia, proved that four back to back Test matches makes them a competitive side to the point where their final two matches were well worth watching. They made Ireland feel absolutely awful about themselves and gave us one of the best games of the tournament in their courageous struggle against a classy Fijian side. It is hoped that if we learnt nothing else from the Autumn Nations Cup it’s that this gallant group of lads from the Caucasus deserve and need continued regular exposure to this level of competition. The Georgian side that started the tournament was hardly recognizable when looking at the hardened group that were able to give Fiji a run for their money after three weeks of top level rugby.

Georgia asked Ireland some uncomfortable questions

Italy on the other hand showed us very little despite the fact that one of their matches against Fiji was cancelled. As a result the age old debate about whether the Six Nations should introduce the concept of relegation, most likely at Italy’s expense and Georgia’s benefit, is set to continue especially if Italy once again end up clutching the wooden spoon if this year’s Six Nations goes ahead. On the flip side there was plenty of talent on display from Italy, but as usual it seems almost impossible to harness it into a game winning platform. We’ll enter this year’s Six Nations making lots of promising noises about this Italian talent, but are likely to remain steadfastly skeptical about it actually producing results that can change Italy’s traditional fortunes in the tournament.

The passion is still there – but the results still sadly are not

Fiji sadly as a result of a COVID outbreak in their camp right from the get go had to forfeit their first three matches, but their one and only game against a very feisty group of Georgians was a glorious spectacle that only served to remind us of what we missed as a result of them only playing one instead of four matches. The flavour and spark they would have added to a tournament that desperately needed it would have been immense, but that magical 80 minutes against Georgia was worth the wait. We can still console ourselves with the fact that many of the Fijians that lit up our TV screens that first Saturday in December, will still be seen in Europe this year once the Champions Cup labors back into life after its COVID hiatus. Fiji like Georgia though must not be left out in the no man’s land of Test rugby as the bigger Unions tend to focus on themselves in the course of 2021 in an attempt to rejuvenate their traditional big ticket annual competitions and tours.

Come fly with us – the Flying Fijians!

Scotland were as always a feisty and unpredictable side, that when they get it right are a genuinely slippery and nuggety team to deal with. While they might not have finished as strongly as they would have liked, there was plenty of promise for a Six Nations campaign to get excited about. The traditional Achilles Heel of Scottish rugby was plain for all to see in the shape of injuries. Furthermore they only got to play three of their four scheduled matches due to the game with Fiji being forfeited. Their only win against Italy was a relatively lacklustre affair, and they were outclassed by an understrength French side and blitzed by an Irish side desperate to make a point after an embarrassing question and answer session with Georgia. However, despite lots of praise for some noteworthy individual displays we couldn’t help feeling that Scotland have some serious homework to do before their tricky Six Nations opener with England at Twickenham. The Autumn Nations Cup raised more questions than it answered as well as bringing home once more that depth is not Scotland’s strong point, which once the injuries start ramping up becomes seriously problematic.

World Class as long as the stretcher bearers stay away

Wales Autumn Nations Cup campaign was simply a reminder that 2020 was a year that they could not consign to the trash quickly enough. While they did manage to win two of their four games against Italy and Georgia, they were hardly convincing performances. Italy failed to impress throughout the entire tournament, so for Wales to lose their final match of the year against the tournament’s ultimate underachievers would just have been too much salt into an already gaping wound. Sure they held Georgia scoreless in a rather labored performance, after being thumped by Ireland in their tournament opener. But would the scoreline have been so pretty had they played the Georgians a week later by which time the Eastern Europeans were starting to warm up nicely after a year without Test Rugby? There were sparks of a Wales of old against England despite losing to the ultimate Tournament champions, and against Italy there were the beginnings of a possible Welsh renaissance spearheaded by the youngsters. But overall Wales hardly fired a shot in the tournament, and only against weaker sides.

However, we’d argue that Wales have fallen as far as they can and now it is only onwards and upwards. There is still the spine of a solid team once it has figured out how to transition to life under new Coach Wayne Pivac. Stalwarts like Justin Tipuric, who still remains a solid fan favorite here at the Lineout, were showing by the end of the year that they understood the kind of game Pivac wants them to play – even if it is a radical departure from the golden Gatland years that these veterans are used to. Add to that some very impressive young blood coming through the ranks that is only going to get better and we’d argue that by going through the crucible of 2020, the worst is behind Wales. While we still think that third place is probably the highest they can aspire to in the forthcoming Six Nations, a strong fourth place finish is definitely on the cards which could see Wales quietly but efficiently building into a problematic side for Australia and Fiji come the next World Cup. In short – watch this space!

Where there’s smoke – there will be fire once more!

Ireland are clearly the flash in the pan crew at the moment in Northern Hemisphre rugby. Brilliant one day – clueless and devoid of inspiration the next. Ireland’s performances throughout the Autumn Nations Cup seesawed between the sublime and the ridiculous. The sublime – Keith Earls performance, ably assisted at times by Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in the third place playoff against Scotland. The ridiculous – the insistence on playing winger Jacob Stockdale at fullback and ignoring completely the talents of Ulster scrum half John Cooney in favor of Jamison Gibson-Park for the entire tournament. Whether or not Ireland are gelling with new Coach Andy Farrell, or more to the point he actually knows what he is doing are debates that are likely to go on long into the night in the build up to this year’s Six Nations. What he does need to do though is take a long hard look at a few players who are clearly reaching their sell by dates, most notably fly half Jonathan Sexton, and develop some serious strength in depth – something which in reality Ireland has by the bucketload. They have outrageous depth from positions 1-8, some serious question marks around 9-10, but a raft of experienced and up and coming talent across 11-15.

Get the basics right, figure out what sort of game you want to play and there is absolutely no reason why Ireland should not be amongst the World Cup contenders on a regular basis from now till 2023. It’s the brain trust in the Coaching box that seems to be the biggest question mark and for us the jury still remains well and truly out. A great team on paper but one in danger of making the headlines for all the wrong reasons come match day. In short, of all the teams under the microscope in the coming months, Ireland are likely to feel the heat the most, both from their opponents and their supporters.

Ireland’s Mr. Nuggety – Keith Earls shows sometimes there is no substitute for experience

France – in short MAGNIFIQUE!!!!!!! Are these guys the team to watch this year, and probably for the next four years? Absolutely! As playing with the ball seems to have become a liability in the modern game, France under their brilliant Coaching brains trust and with a container ship load of young talent, have figured out a way to play a game in which possession results in points and plenty of them all scored in a fashion which is a joy to behold. As everyone else seems to want to turn our beloved game into a drudge fest of attrition, France have decided to throw the rule book out the window and be different and offer up a fast, free flowing but equally hard hitting game that is pure entertainment and a glorious celebration of our beloved sport. Despite everyone else’s best efforts to remove the word fun from rugby vocabulary, France are going hell for leather to ensure that it remains one of the sport’s guiding principles. There is so much talent in this team with the vast majority of it barely out of Test rugby kindergarten, and yet it is producing the kind of results attributed only to Test veterans.

France are already in ridiculously rude health at the start of this World Cup cycle. Is scrum half Antoine Dupont the world’s best rugby player right now? It’s pretty hard to argue against such a claim. But then there are so many other names that also spring to mind. Gregory Aldritt is probably in the mix for the world’s best number eight, Romain Ntamack for fly half, Virimi Vakatawa for the centres, Brice Dulin for fullback, Camille Chat for Hooker, Teddy Thomas for winger……the list goes on and on, and what’s more most of these guys are just getting started in their Test Rugby careers. The fact that a supposed 2nd/3rd string French side were able to give England’s very finest the fright of their lives at Twickenham and come within a hair’s breadth of throwing the form book completely out the window says it all.

Look out world you’ve been warned, and as for the Six Nations if they don’t pull off their first Grand Slam since 2010 then we may have to give up our feeble attempts at predicting the future of this noble sport. Enough said – but in conclusion if you don’t have any allegiances heading into this Six Nations we think you may just develop a penchant for the finer things in life made in France by the end of it.

It’s a kind of magic!

England ultimately won the whole thing and in short recovered spectacularly from their World Cup disappointment, but did they fire our imaginations in doing so? Sadly not with the exception of winger Jonny May who is an extraordinarily gifted athlete and always capable of single handed feats of brilliance that defy imagination. The rest of England’s gameplay however this year, although brutally effective in getting results, has put most of us to sleep. Their opener against Georgia was very impressive, but the poor Georgians thrust into the limelight after a year’s absence from Test Rugby were never going to be at the races against a World Cup finalist for their first match. Against Ireland, England got the job done, but that’s pretty much all you could say about 80 minutes of rugby which was more akin to watching two teams do their annual tax returns than an international sporting contest. The only exception in the game was winger Jonny May’s sudden realization that he actually hadn’t voted for Brexit and wanted to live and work in France.

The same approach was effectively adopted against Wales who were hardly making opposition sides lose too much sleep at night during 2020. In all of this there was a reluctance to blood new talent, especially in key positions such as the halfback berths, which is almost criminal at this stage in a country’s World Cup cycle.

England’s reluctance to play with ball in hand and simply suck the life out of opposition attacks with body numbing physicality, almost blew up in their face in the most spectacular fashion when they took on a supposedly second or third rate French team in the Final who made a mockery of the Men in White’s approach to modern day Test Rugby. England hung on, helped on occasion by some interesting officiating decisions, but we very much doubt that England’s current take on the game will get them another Six Nations title this year let alone a World Cup in four years. England had a successful if rather uninspiring 2020, but unless things change they are likely to find that everyone else has figured them out in 2021 and moved on, leaving England having to play catch up by the time the World Cup rolls around. It’s early days yet, and England has some exceptional players at its disposal, even if Coach Eddie Jones seems to reluctant to use them as much as he should. The world’s best but most boring side in 2020, and one still likely to do rather well in the forthcoming Six Nations. But if a change in tactics and personnel isn’t seen sooner rather than later England may look back on the first eighteen months of life after the last World Cup as opportunities missed rather than silverware on the shelf.

Well boys I always said filing our income tax return carefully would get us a healthy rebate cheque

We’ll be back with our usual previews of the Six Nations, provided it actually happens and COVID once more doesn’t get in the way. Till then stay safe everyone and here’s hoping that 2021 gives us the kind of oval ball year that we were all so sadly denied in 2020, albeit for all the right reasons!

It would appear on paper that the supposed showpiece event of the Autumn Nations Cup is for all intents and purposes a bit of a non event. England roll out all their big guns while France are left to assemble a rag tag team of scraps from what the domestic clubs feel they can live without this weekend. Is it a case of a Humvee competing in a Monster Truck final against a Trabant, or underneath that cardboard shell is there a set of well coached but unknown quantities for an unsuspecting English side. All the bluster and talking up of the match has come from the English camp this week, while the French team have gone about their business behind closed doors quietly accepting the hand that fate has dealt them. It’s very hard to see anything other than a decisive English victory against a cobbled together French side, but we can’t help feeling that there may be one or two surprising twists left in this tale of unfulfilled ambitions. While English Coach Eddie Jones swaggers and blusters his way around the media circuit stating the seemingly obvious in an attempt to get inside French heads prior to Sunday, we’ve heard very little from France leading us to believe that old adage that it’s the quiet, silent types who are the most dangerous.

We know everything about this English team but almost nothing about France on Sunday

C’est quoi ca?

We have to confess to knowing nothing about France from numbers 1-9 this week. Sure we’ve heard rumors and brushed up on our knowledge of all things TOP 14, but in all honesty the French forward pack for Sunday and their scrum half are simply unkown quantities to us. We’ve read some positive buzz about their exploits at club level, and have a hazy recollection of flanker Anthony Jelonch in action against the All Blacks three years ago, but for all intents and purposes it will be like opening a box of mystery presents on Sunday as far as we’re concerned. What we do think is being underestimated though is this French Coaching team’s abilities to whip a bunch of relative unknowns into a competent Test side. Under Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards France seem to be thriving and we very much doubt this forward pack are likely to be the deer in the headlights that most are predicting they will be.

Is Eddie Jones despite the bluster the more annoyed of the two Coaches?

Look mate I ordered champagne not house red!!!!

In his regular rounds of the rugby press this week, we’ve sensed an underlying tone of frustration in Eddie Jones assessment of what his charges will be up against this weekend. While he has paid the customary respects to his opponents, reading between the lines, we feel he is almost more annoyed about the selections that French Coach Fabien Galthie has been forced to make for this match than Galthie himself. Jones wanted to end this rather upside down year with a victory against his biggest Six Nations threat next year France. This match would have been the ideal preparation to really get the measure of the squad who denied him and his charges the Grand Slam this year, and who clearly fancy their chances of taking the title from him next year. This group of unknowns he now has to face provides him with a possible banana skin in terms of his immediate preparations for Sunday, and at the same time denies him the opportunity to have another look at the side he is likely to face at Twickenham next March. Of the two we’d say Jones may be the more frustrated right now as a result.

A brains trust that is clearly working

An unlikely but highly effective partnership – France’s Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards

Very few teams seem to have emerged from the last World Cup with a Coaching platform that has managed to embrace change and show promise for the next global showdown. France would appear to be the exception. While it may be a slightly unorthodox partnership there is no denying that France Head Coach Fabien Galthie and former Welsh defense Coach Shaun Edwards have managed to get their house in order right from the get go. They seem to be the only team that has managed to understand the fine balance between defense and attack and merge the two into a highly effective and attractive brand of rugby. Put a Fijian engine inside an English chassis, and you have France 2020. Add to that the fact that the pair of them seem almost gleeful at sifting through France’s toybox of talent regardless of its experience like two kids at Christmas. There is a genuine thirst for knowledge to find out as much as possible about everything France will have at its disposal over the next four years and manage those resources accordingly. If you’re going to watch anybody off the pitch over the next four years, pay close attention to these two gentlemen, and their fellow Northern Hemisphere counterparts might want to do the same.

Is it a plane, is it a bird – no it’s Gabin Villiere!

Villiere Flight 001 departing for Fiji!

France’s back line however for Sunday’s match may lack experience but we’ve already seen what they’re capable of. Jonathan Danty proved to be an outstanding centre in the mold of the old bruiser himself Mathieu Bastareaud against Italy. Whether or not he can measure up to England’s Owen Farrell and Henry Slade is an entirely different question but one we are looking forward to seeing him try to answer. It was winger Gabin Villiere who really made us sit up and take notice against Italy as he seemingly burst from nowhere from behind a lineout to score a classic 7s style try. The contest between him and his opposite number Anthony Watson should prove to be one of the most entertaining of the afternoon.

It’s a match that England, benefitting from 2,000 lucky fans in attendance for the first time in the competition, can and should win. France come into the match as a relative unknown, which adds an element of danger to the whole equation for England, but at times like these there is rarely a substitute for experience and that is something Eddie Jones’ charges bring to the contest by the bucket load. After our initial disappointment on hearing it would not be a full strength French team, as the week has wore on, our interest in this match has peaked so that we have a hunch this may not be the dead rubber the pundits are dismissing it as. Either way, you are unlikely to come away without some insight into what life will be like for next year’s two Six Nations title contenders and for that reason alone we’d argue it would be worth 2 hours of your time on Sunday.

Enjoy this year’s last hurrah this weekend, and we sincerely hope it will give us plenty to talk about as we look ahead to a return to normal service in 2021!

We rather regard this round of fixtures, before next Saturday’s finals as the contractual obligation weekend. We doubt it’s going to be particularly enthralling as a competition, especially with all three results being essentially foregone conclusions. England’s bruising pack and confident seasoned veterans are likely to put a squad of Welsh new kids on the block to the sword, even with a few wise old heads in the mix to lend a hand. France are the sports car squad of the tournament, and with plenty of heart and spirit Italy may give them a run for their money at times, but once again it’s hard to anticipate too much in the way of surprises when it comes to results. Lastly Ireland aim to be the third team to ensure that Georgia despite their bravery leave the tournament completely empty handed, especially as this is likely the Eastern Europeans last game in the tournament, with Fiji’s participation essentially having become null and void. Three games that have to be played but which ultimately have little or no bearing on the way the finals will be played out next weekend.

England and France are likely to top their respective pools, and thus compete for the first place final. Scotland and Ireland will battle it out in the second final. Wales unless they pull off a miracle this weekend will meet Italy in the third, leaving the hapless Georgians to claim seventh spot due to Fiji likely forfeiting their match with them for the last two spots in terms of ranking. Consequently since there is not a great deal to get excited about this weekend, we’re just looking at the four front running teams to see what we’ve learnt about them so far.

England – Solid as a rock but somehow just not that exciting

England have been the most competent team of the tournament by a country mile, but if it wasn’t for this guy would you really have noticed them?

Many have lamented that England have not looked overly impressive as an attacking unit. However, when you have someone like Jonny May, do you really need one? That try last weekend showed off the talents of a rather extrordinary and gifted athlete. The problem is that without Jonny May, England look rather one-dimensional and flat in attack, preferring instead to use that incredible forward platform to simply bludgeon the opposition into submission. England’s forwards division is without doubt the elite in Test Rugby right now and against teams even less imaginative than England (ie most of the Six Nations sides with the exception of France and possibly Scotland), brutally effective. Until England’s rivals in the Northern Hemisphere learn how to cope with this and negate it, then England really don’t have to worry too much. But figure it out they will and as we saw so dramatically last year in the World Cup final – teams from South of the Equator are already starting to get the measure of England.

Make no mistake England are outstanding at the moment. However, are they the finished product yet -definitely not. On paper they should make short work of Wales tomorrow, but what will another resounding victory against weaker opposition really teach them? England Coach Eddie Jones, keeps telling the world that the great secret of English attacking rugby is still to be revealed – the problem is he’s been saying that for quite a while now. If we don’t start seeing it though by the next Six Nations alarm bells should start ringing, as France seem to have exclusive rights to the blueprints.

France – the tournament’s sports car finds itself equally at home in the monster truck arena

France should cruise past Italy this weekend and set themselves up for a mouthwatering final next Saturday with England. They may have all the attacking skills that England would dearly love to emulate, despite Jonny May’s one man impersonations of the entire French back line – but increasingly the Men in Blue have proven that their forward pack is a 4×4 unit that takes no prisoners. France’s back row in particular have been magnificent with Captain Charles Ollivon and Gregory Aldritt being two of the most impressive performers of the tournament. What France finally have is a team, instead of a collection of exceptionally talented loose canons. Add a solid Coaching team that the players can relate to and allow those talents to flourish when the opportunities present themselves, and there is no denying that France look good right now. What’s more they appear to be only just getting started. They are young, hungry and clearly have their eyes on the main prize – France 2023. While results clearly matter to them at the moment, development of a squad that can lift rugby’s ultimate prize with all the inevitable hiccoughs along the way that provide the necessary learning would appear to be far more important. France seem quite happy to admit that they are still looking for answers, but in the process seem to be thoroughly enjoying the journey. This weekend will provide some insight into whether their incredible attacking game can still flourish without the likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa, and in the process give us some real insight into France’s depth. But just in case you’re worried there’s always their own answer to Jonny May.

Ireland – it’s not just about possession

One thing we’ve learned about Ireland this tournament is that they sure do like to hold on to the ball and let’s face it they’re pretty good at it. The problem is that there’s not much point to all that possession if you don’t actually do anything with it. We’ve also learnt that their increasing obsession with naturalizing Southern Hemisphere talent faster than a good pint of Guinness should really be poured is also not quite the answer. To be honest we don’t really understand this recent obsession. Ireland should be building to make France 2023 the first World Cup where they actually get beyond the quarter finals. In our humble opinion the best way to do this is to harness the wealth of emerging talent Ireland has at its disposal. Drafting in foreign players who may well be past their sell by dates come 2023 in order to get short term results is short sighted beyond belief. From what we’ve seen so far this tournament it’s also not producing results. You know we are not fans of Leinster Kiwi import Jamison Gibson-Park being drafted into the Irish squad at the expense of John Cooney. We thought he had a genuine shocker against England. Sure he and fellow New Zealand import James Lowe looked good against Wales, but then anybody could almost look sharp against Wales right now. If you’re going to lose to a quality side like England then at least learn something in the process, and to be honest we felt Ireland learnt nothing last Saturday.

There were some good individual performances from Ireland last weekend. We thought James Ryan stepped up to the leadership role well, despite the loss and let’s face it Ireland didn’t exactly get hammered last Saturday by the best team in the tournament. Keith Earls has consistently been one of our top Irish performers and didn’t disappoint last Saturday, but whether he will still be at his prime in three years time is questionable. We also thought Hugo Keenan was for the most part excellent under the high ball and feel that he is definitely, along with the injured Jordan Larmour, the future for Ireland at fullback – just give him time. Ireland’s back row as always were competitive but their scrum was a disaster as were a lot of their lineouts. James Lowe’s impressive start against Wales was completely negated by England’s water tight defenses and against similar caliber opposition you have to wonder if he is the wonder weapon Ireland and Coach Andy Farrell thought he was.

This Saturday, Ireland are still relying on a majority of big guns to put a hapless Georgian side to the sword. What they will learn out of the process is questionable. Bring in a raft of Ireland’s second strings and get the win, and then you might be talking. Consequently, Sunday’s match holds little in the way of interest for many and is one that would appear to be simply making up the numbers.

His time will come

Scotland – exciting but inconsistent

Scotland have not lost their appeal, and like many we are gutted that we won’t get to see one of the contests we were most looking forward to in this tournament, their date with Fiji this weekend. In general it’s been a rather encouraging year for Scotland. A lot of what they do works, much of it is built on a relatively youthful squad, and even the seasoned campaigners should all be the right side of the age curve in three years time. In short, what’s not to like about Scotland? It’s that lack of consistency which Scotland just can’t seem to wrap their heads around that worries us. Scotland remind us slightly of Argentina in the last World Cup cycle, just when they need it the most their concentration or focus goes out the window. A gifted team that somehow just doesn’t have that 80 minute killer instinct. Drive and committment is not the problem but focus does seem to be. Even with the extraordinary talents of the likes of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell there are lapses of concentration that are still proving too costly.

Talent though there is aplenty. Fine tune it, develop a bit more depth along with the positive vibes running through the Scottish camp right now and who knows how far this team can go in the next three years. Perhaps more than anyone for us, Jamie Ritchie epitomizes everything good about this new generation of Scottish players, and if this young man doesn’t find himself at a Lions jersey fitting session next year then there is simply no justice.

Man on a Mission

We apologize for not taking a look at the bottom feeders in the tournament this weekend – Wales, Italy, Georgia and Fiji. Unfortunately, work got the better of us and sadly with Fiji there is nothing to talk about. We will endeavor to do them justice later this week, and secretly hope that Wales surprise us all tomorrow and Georgia manage to get some points on the board at long last in Dublin.

The Autumn Nations Cup is now fully underway, but even though it was meant to skirt around the complications caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is affected nonetheless. Fiji’s participation in the tournament looks increasingly unlikely as the virus ravages through the Islanders’ squad, with their first two matches against France and Italy being cancelled. The other participants have played in cavernous, empty and lifeless stadiums which have done little to capture the imagination. Ireland cruised past a hapless Wales in a very one-sided match. Scotland and Italy provided 40 minutes of entertainment before the Azurri packed their bags and handed the match to Scotland in the second half. Lastly we watched England use a completely outclassed Georgian team as a training exercise in a soulless Twickenham doused by the elements. It hasn’t quite had the same luster as for example the crowds and rugby currently on display in Australia in the Tri-Nations.

Still this weekend it does offer up two encounters that are always worth watching. Scotland and France possess two squads fizzing with talent and energy, while watching England and Ireland renew their age old rivalry is always worth the price of admission. Wales look to Georgia to simply provide them with something they haven’t experienced since the start of the Six Nations – a win! It may be a tournament that is not exactly setting the world on fire, but in a year that has seen our beloved sport struggle to pick up the pieces of the pandemic and make something meaningful out of it, we should be grateful for what’s on offer and hope that this weekend will provide us with something to remember.

England vs Ireland – Saturday, November 21st – Twickenham

Despite our issues with an empty Twickenham, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t looking forward to this one. The silverware at the end of it is irrelevant, and let’s face it there’s never really any silverware on the line when the Southern Hemisphere boys come North in November which is what this tournament replaces. What’s more important is that it’s a match between two arch rivals both trying to establish their position in the global pecking order post the last World Cup. England are determined to put the memory of a final gone horribly wrong behind them and put the focus on the the fact that they are current Six Nations champions determined to be the dominant side in the Northern Hemisphere. Ireland look to start a new Chapter after a bitterly disappointing World Cup and endeavor to build a team that can harness the new talents coming through the system in time for the next global showdown in 2023. England seek to consolidate, with a few tweaks to fix the shortcomings highlighted in the World Cup, while Ireland look to finally give the next generation of Irish players the chance to claim their stake in Ireland’s future.

Consequently, Saturday’s fixture is vitally important to both sides. England may not be the world’s most exciting side at the moment, but few can deny their ruthless effectiveness. They were bitterly disappointed not to take the Grand Slam in this year’s Six Nations but will want to make a clean sweep of this tournament to fire a clear warning shot across the bows of their Six Nations rivals in 2021. Ireland have slowly started to click since their failure to revive their Six Nations aspirations in the final round against France, and although the jury is out on new Coach Andy Farrell, there is no denying that Ireland are looking a lot more lively and adventurous than they did in the Schmidt era in their last two outings. They too have their eye on the main prize next February/March and Saturday’s match will give us a good deal of insight as to how it may all play out next year.

No place for the faint hearted

Saturday’s clash sees some wise old heads and some angry young men come face to face in the front row. Ireland’s Andrew Porter simply oozes menace up against his seasoned English opponent Mako Vunipola who is probably one of the most immovable lumps of coal in the modern game. England’s Kyle Sinckler (aka Mr. Cheeky) is well practiced in the art of the wind up and the dark arts of what happens unseen at the coal face, while his opposite number Ireland’s Cian Healy excels at skirting along the very edges of the laws. Both sides pack very capable Hookers, though we have to say that Jamie George really has come of age for England in the last eighteen months to the point where we struggle to remember Dylan Hartley. Ronan Kelleher is doing great things at Leinster and that club form is increasingly being translated into Test performances of the same caliber. England though seem to be getting better results when it comes to developing a mean bench in this regard and Ellis Genge is a real thorn in any opposition side. In short, it’s going to be ugly in there on Saturday and rugby’s version of trench warfare at its best. The key will be who gets under whose skin the most and quickest, and we have a hunch that England are likely to be fastest out of the blocks in that regard, although in their eagerness Kyle Sinckler’s poor disciplinary record could trip them up.

A step in the right direction albeit on a very large stage

The best bit of news we’ve had this week, is seeing Ireland’s James Ryan’s name against the Captain’s slot for this match. As regular readers know we have tipped the outstanding second rower for the leadership role for the last two years, and have been adamant that he will be the one taking the armband to France in 2023. The only way he will get the experience needed to help him handle it, is to give him as much time as possible in the role between now and the next World Cup. Consequently, as his opening shot at glory he couldn’t ask for a bigger opportunity than England at Twickenham. It may lack the crowds on Saturday, but leading your troops against a pumped up England in their spiritual home is an extraordinary opportunity to put your skills to the test, and as baptisms of fire go it doesn’t get much bigger than this.

We think he’s up to the Test and then some, and even if he falters as he himself has admitted, he is surrounded by some wise and experienced heads, especially that of Peter O’Mahony who knows the pressure of the role on big occasions like this which should give him the support he needs. Whatever, the outcome as long as he puts in his traditional 110% effort, then the priority must be to stick with developing him in the role.

Talking of future Captains – Tom Curry your chance is now

England need to develop a future Captain and an understudy for Owen Farrell. We’ve said all along Curry is the man for the job, and Saturday is likely to be another opportunity for the outstanding back rower to stake his claim, especially as he gets to grips with one of Ireland’s wiliest characters and a Captain himself Peter O’Mahony. Paired up with his “Kamikaze twin” Sam Underhill this back row unit is quality through and through but then so is Ireland’s offering of O’Mahony, CJ Stander and the exceptional newcomer Caelan Doris. England’s Billy Vunipola though for us is past his best.

Eddie Jones continues to confound and frustrate

Some English supporters love him, others just don’t understand him. While Ireland appear more willing to take some risks in this match, not so England. It’s the same old halfback pairing that we’ve seen a thousand times before in Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell. Once again England have their younger guns at nine and ten on the bench. If Ireland are willing to throw James Ryan in at the deep end in the Captain’s role for this one, you have to wonder why England is not willing to do the same in the half back department. It’s an ideal opportunity to look to the future beyond Farrell and Youngs, but once more it looks to go begging. Some English supporters are tearing their hair out, especially as England’s young guns didn’t even get the starting berths for the Red Rose’s Saturday afternoon audition with Georgia last weekend for a famous Hollywood musical.

Ireland although injury enforced have no such issues and Ross Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park get the nod. Byrne has not exactly shone in an Ireland jersey, but Gibson-Park did excel last weekend in his debut in the green, despite our reservations. Perhaps together for Ireland they will be able to replicate the award winning form they produce week in week out for Leinster.

Ireland need to score tries and have they found an answer in James Lowe?

We thought he was an option Ireland needed to take a look at, and he didn’t disappoint last weekend against Wales. A constant threat with ball in hand, and had the delivery from his colleagues been slightly crisper he would have got more than just the one try on debut in an Irish jersey. Ireland need to score the big points rather than just chipping away at the scoreline with the boot. It cost them in the final match of this year’s Six Nations against France, as Ireland consistently fail to score more than three tries in matches and often struggle to get past two. In Paris they needed four and as usual came short of the mark. Every time Lowe got the ball against Wales he looked like scoring and as the team figure out how to use him more effectively and deliver him better ball, he could well end up being the missing key they’ve sought for so long.

If Ireland have watched the Argentina/All Blacks match this past weekend, then what’s to say a little bit of good old fashioned grit, passion and pride in the jersey isn’t enough to get them past an English side that does look rather daunting to say the least. Unlike New Zealand though, England have had the opportunity to have a long hard look at Ireland this year and even met them in person already which went rather well for the Men in White. Ireland will play a big game make no mistake and if anything seem to be relishing the kinds of freedoms not tolerated under Joe Schmidt’s tenure. However, we can’t see it being enough to get past an England side that has every intention of making this tournament theirs and theirs alone. Either way we’re in for a cracker of a match!

Wales vs Georgia – Saturday, November 21st – Llanelli

To be honest after watching Georgia be steamrollered by both Scotland and England in the last two weeks, we sadly don’t have a great deal to say about this one. Unfortunately so far Georgia appear to be in this simply to make up the numbers in a cobbled together tournament. We wish we could find more positives but sadly can’t. As we said last week, whoever decided to put Georgia in such a daunting pool, surely needs to be banned from drawing up tournament lists for life, as it is simply unfair. Georgia will play with heart, but are unlikely to emerge with much confidence from this tournament, while the side they are aiming to show up, Italy, has a relative Sunday stroll by comparison against opposition that may at least allow the Azurri some semblance of credibility. In Georgia’s Pool are all three Six Nations Champions of the last ten years – not exactly a level playing field is it? Italy in their Pool have the three Wooden Spoon Holders in the Six Nations of the last 20 years – we rest our case.

Wales may not look the part at the moment, and themselves narrowly avoided the wooden spoon in this year’s Six Nations Championship. However, they were Grand Slam winners last year as well as World Cup semi-finalists. Wales are currently on their longest losing streak in recent memory, and as a result Georgia may sense the chance for a truly historic opportunity. However, we just can’t see a Welsh side desperate for any kind of victory, as well as avoiding the kind of national crisis that a loss to Georgia would create, being the kind of early Christmas present the men from the Caucasus would so dearly love to unwrap. Furthermore, the weather forecast looks to be fairly dismal for Saturday in Llanelli, and this could well be one you may not pay much attention to unless you’re a Welsh supporter. Wales should break their losing streak in a rather bleak and uninspiring encounter for both sides while providing little in the way of a spectacle to lift the spirits of those watching. Sadly this may be more of a damp rubber than a dead rubber.

We wish both sides well, and our hearts go out to Georgia, but we’ll probably stay indoors for this one and let them muck it out in the Welsh rain and mud.

We’ll be back tomorrow with our views on France’s trip to Scotland once the team sheets are out.

In many ways there are unlikely to be too many surprises tomorrow in Florence or Twickenham, but the subplot running through tomorrow’s fixtures is enormous. What subplot you may ask? Italy and Georgia will both be on show tomorrow, and the Autumn Nations Cup is probably the biggest opportunity to date to lay to rest once and for all the debate about Italy’s place in the Six Nations, and Georgia’s chance to take it from them. Unfortunately we feel that it is Georgia who has been dealt a poor hand in this regard. Italy have to face France, Fiji and Scotland whilst the hapless Georgians have to take on Wales, Ireland and current Six Nations Champions England. Ireland could have won the Six Nations and although they may be going through a lean patch, let’s not forget Wales were Six Nations Grand Slam Champions last year. In short, Italy are likely to emerge looking much healthier in terms of their ability to compete than Georgia when the Autumn Nations Cup draws to a close.

Italy vs Scotland – Saturday, November 14th – Florence

Scotland come into this match feeling rather confident despite their injury list in the fly half department. A positive Six Nations with the crowning achievement being overturning this year’s tournament darlings France is something they can look back on with pride. Scotland may be frustratingly inconsistent at times, but there is no denying they are a team who is playing some very respectable rugby these days. Italy on the other hand remain International Rugby’s perpetual underachievers – with the slogan being “surely this is the year” – but sadly we’re all still waiting. However, there were some sparks in their recent defeat to England in the final round of the Six Nations. This tournament will determine whether or not Italy remain a flash in the pan or under new Coach Franco Smith may be finally turning a corner.

Scotland look tight in the front five but we can’t say the same about Italy

In Scotland’s most recent outings we’ve really liked Scotland’s reliable and solid approach to chores in the tight five. They just look steady and well drilled with everyone having an exceptionally good understanding of their roles. The front row with Stuart McInally, Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson have been outstanding with some solid support from the bench in the shape of WP Nel and new kid on the block Oliver Kebble. Italy’s unit on the other hand just doesn’t look the part. There have been some improvements in the second row but overall it is not something you feel the Azurri can depend on. Scotland have proved rather adept at using their efficiency in the tight five to create opportunities for rampaging loose forwards like Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson and a set of backs running on high octane fuel. Italy on the other hand struggle to create those linkages, consequently we expect to see Scotland dominate set piece and phase play from the get go tomorrow.

Italy’s back row though need offer no excuses

It may be a unit that Italy is struggling to integrate into its overall game plan – but a classy unit it is nonetheless. Jake Polledri is clearly England’s loss and we were impressed with the work rates of his colleagues Sebastian Negri and Braam Steyn against England in the final round of the Six Nations a fortnight ago. Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson are not two individuals we’d enjoy testing our mettle against in the Test Arena, but Italy can at least feel assured that they have a unit that can compete here. This undoubtedly will be the best aspect of Italy’s play tomorrow – so keep your eye on it.

Duncan Weir – we think Scotland may have missed you more than they care to admit

We allowed ourselves a wry smile to see who we think is one of Scotland’s most underrated players of the last five years be on the starting list for tomorrow’s game. Unfortunately Weir has had to live in the shadow of Scotland’s dynamic flyhalf duo Finn Russell and Adam Hastings – but make no mistake this guy is a VERY handy number 10. Remember this moment?

Consequently we were thrilled to see him back in Scotland’s starting lineup, albeit as a result of injuries to Hastings and Russell. The guy is a pocket rocket and a man with a keen eye for opportunity. Although he hasn’t worn a Scottish jersey since 2017, which we find really hard to believe, we feel Scotland could well suddenly realize tomorrow that overlooking Mr. Weir was a mistake. He is clearly enjoying his rugby with English side Worcester Warriors, and we certainly hope that his return to Test rugby will meet with similar success. The clash between him and impressive Italian debutant Paolo Garbisi should be a highly entertaining contest.

Another name Scotland will be glad to welcome back is Sam Johnson

Scotland see center Sam Johnson return to the fold, and we feel this is yet another bundle of excitement Coach Gregor Townsend brings to a world class set of backs. Although his performances this year haven’t quite caught the imagination like his debut year in 2019, the Australian import oozes potential. Back to his best and alongside Scottish firecrackers like wingers Darcy Graham, Duhan van der Merwe and the legendary Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg expect to see some exquisite running rugby tomorrow, and this unit to genuinely trouble the smoking gun in Scotland’s group – France.

It should be a great contest and we feel that Italy are likely to be much more competitive than we’ve seen so far this year, with Six Nations aspirants Georgia showcasing their talents in the same tournament breathing down their necks. Scotland should still comfortably take the win, but Italy are unlikely to be the whipping boys they were when the two met earlier in the year during the Six Nations.

England vs Georgia – Saturday, November 14th – Twickenham

Georgia will run out on the pitch at Twickenham with big aspirations but we really do fear that, given the squad English Coach Eddie Jones has assembled for this match, Europe’s best Tier 2 team will be brought down to earth with a resounding thump. Their remaining two matches in the Autumn Nations Cup are certainly not going to provide any relief to soften the landing.

England are clearly setting out their stall right from the get go, and we were surprised that for this, arguably the easiest fixture in their group, Eddie Jones has refrained for the most part from blooding new talent, which many feel he should have done. Sure he has made some positional tweaks, but has chosen to blood only 1 new cap in his starting 15, the exceptional Wasps back rower Jack Willis . Perhaps more concerning for English supporters is his seeming reluctance to blood new talent in his halfback selections, as he casts an eye to France and 2023.

Lambs to the slaughter?

Although we have the utmost respect for Georgia we just can’t see them being even remotely competitive against a Six Nations powerhouse trio. Their opener against England is likely to be an exercise in pain management, followed up by Wales who are likely to use the match to once and for all put a stop to the rot that has caused Welsh fans to wonder if rugby is still a national sport. Lastly they have a date with Ireland who are bursting at the seams with emerging talent. Apart from exposure to top level competition, this tournament is not going to be a particularly uplifting advertisement for Georgian rugby, and sadly make a mockery of the argument that they are ready for the Six Nations at Italy’s expense.

Italy are likely to fare much better than their rivals from the Caucasus. Scotland are a known commodity and are nursing a few key injuries, so that Italy’s opening encounter in Florence could well be a positive experience in terms of a respectable scoreline, even though we doubt that a Scottish side humming with talent and enthusiasm will let them have too much to say. With Fiji’s participation thrown into doubt due to COVID-19, Italy may then only have to face France. While the likelihood of them losing to Scotland and France is high, and they therefore will be desperately hoping that their encounter with Fiji does go ahead, they still would emerge from the tournament as more of the underdog than lambs to the slaughter – which sadly could be Georgia’s experience. If Italy are competitive and even manage to sneak a win against Scotland, then the argument about their place in the Six Nations is likely to be put to bed once and for all – sadly at Georgia’s expense.

We sincerely hope that our concerns about this emerging subplot and Georgia’s possible humiliation in this tournament do not come to fruition. We’ll be cheering them on as hard as we can, but the stars do not look like they have lined up well for the Georgians in this tournament. They will play with pride and passion, but as we saw against Scotland last month it simply isn’t enough to compete with Six Nations squads who are sadly light years away from them in terms of their development. A poor showing in this tournament could simply end up consigning Georgia to the wilderness of Test rugby for another decade, as they desperately seek regular participation in a tournament that is both meaningful and provides platforms in which to build and develop their confidence and skill levels. There is likely to be a revival of the Pacific Nations Cup for the Pacific Island countries and Japan, an increasingly competitive Americas Rugby Championship for North and South America – but for Georgia and the other Tier 2 European nations there is little to look forward to that can take them to where they need to be in terms of the next stage in their development in International Rugby. It is our sincere hope that whatever the outcome of the next four weeks, something is done to give Georgia the much needed shot in the arm it craves and deserves in the long-term.

If things are going well early for England – Jones really has no excuse to not bring the bench halfback pairing into play sooner rather than later

England need to develop a future halfback pairing for France 2023. Quite frankly we were left scratching our heads when we saw the team sheet, and saw the same old regulars starting in the 9 and 10 shirt. There is no denying Farrell’s ability, despite some of our reservations about his Captaincy, and Ben Youngs had a glorious 100th cap performance against Italy in the final round of the Six Nations. Georgia will be an awkward opponent but one that England as a unit should have no trouble suppressing. Hence we cannot understand why such prime candidates as Dan Robson and Max Malins don’t get the starting nod at scrum and fly half berths, instead of waiting it out on the bench. If they wobble then you can always bring on Youngs and Farrell to steady the ship, but surely asking them to simply keep the Georgian rout going rather than organize its onset is not how you develop future talent. Enough said, we’re armchair warriors and Jones is the professional Coach but he continues to befuddle us with his selection policies.

Georgia can ultimately hope that England, as they often do, walk into a match like this which on paper they should win blindfolded and proceed to fluff their lines. They’ve done it before and once they get rattled start to unravel rather quickly. However, against lesser sides it is usually rectified by half time. Georgia needs several variables to work in their favor such as Youngs having one of his shockers which appeared with alarming regularity in the run up to the World Cup, Owen Farrell to once more regard wild swinging arm chop tackles above the shoulder as legitimate and England generally to start questioning every decision referee Nigel Owens makes, in order for the men from the Caucasus to at least remain competitive tomorrow. They will wear their hearts on their sleeves and once more we’ll marvel at their bravery and good old fashioned rugby grit, but sadly we fear England will just prove to be too much of a mountain to climb tomorrow for them to emerge with any credibility on the scoreboard. Still on the plus side there’s always Wales next weekend, and they way the Men in Red are going these days maybe they could join the Six Nations relegation debate alongside Italy and Georgia.

We won’t be posting anything on the France vs Fiji match which was supposed to take place on Sunday, as it has now been cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Fijian camp. We hope it’s not permanent and sorry for the tardiness in getting this post out, but the day job got the better of me at the end of this week. Enjoy some great rugby this weekend and here’s looking forward to musing over this weekend’s events leading into Round 2!

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!