Posts Tagged ‘England’

What a weekend that was! Surprises galore and expectations shattered – but as a spectacle we couldn’t have asked for a better opening weekend. We had been wary of England but they ended up being the star performers of the weekend. Wales went missing completely in the first half of their match in Paris, while the French did the same in the second half. Meanwhile Scotland as expected did the business in Edinburgh, but as they tend to do fell asleep for fifteen minutes once they thought the game was comfortably won allowing Italy to come storming back into proceedings. However, perhaps the biggest shock of all was how tournament favourites Ireland, were denied the opportunity to play by a rampant England who played them at their own game but then took it to another level. How much the tone for the rest of the tournament has been set, especially by England remains to be seen but it was definitely an opening weekend that gave us plenty to think about heading into Round 2.

The opening match in Paris as France took on Wales had us speechless by the end of the first forty minutes. Where were Wales and what was this brutally physical and free-flowing French team, that combined a new-found aggression with their flair of days gone by? France dominated a Welsh side that appeared completely unprepared for what they were facing. Once Wales did figure it out, it was France who faded into obscurity in the second half, made worse by the kind of errors in execution that have sadly become part and parcel of French efforts in the last few years.

As predicted Scotland put in a mesmerizing display of attacking rugby against an Italian side that all too quickly conformed to expectations. However, Scotland fell asleep dramatically in the 65th minute, and all of a sudden for the next thirteen minutes the match was all about Italy as they ran in three unanswered tries in quick succession. In the process they highlighted some players that could definitely catch the eye this year and show that there is perhaps more to the Azurri than meets the eye. While Scotland were clearly the dominant side for the majority of the match and looked well organised and absolutely lethal in any kind of space, they will know that the kind of lapses in concentration they showed in the final quarter of the game,will see them put to the sword by a wounded Ireland this weekend.

As riveting as the two openers were, there was no denying that all eyes were ultimately drawn to the weekend’s main event – the clash between Ireland and England in Dublin. England had shown in November that they were back and mean business after the horror show that was their 2018 Six Nations campaign. Meanwhile as Grand Slam champions and an All Black scalp to boot, Ireland were the team to beat. What we witnessed was perhaps one of the most impressive English displays in a very long time. In reality it wasn’t just a masterful display by England, it was one of the most complete Test performances by any team since the last World Cup. England took Ireland on at their own game, and simply played a better and more masterful version of it. Ireland were simply not expecting it, and as a result failed to adapt and for much of the match looked bereft of ideas. They had become so reliant on their own brand of devastatingly effective and efficient rugby, that to have someone else take the blueprint and throw it back at you at twice the intensity, clearly left the Men in Green shell-shocked to say the least.

Ireland were soundly beaten by an English side that were masters of everything they tried their hand at in Dublin last Saturday. If England can build on this momentum and adapt it to the play styles of different sides in the competition, there is no doubt that the title of front-runner is probably theirs to hang onto, at least heading into this weekend. As for Ireland, they have may have received a much-needed and timely shock to the system, but to write them off after only one upset would be folly of the highest order. They still possess a strength in-depth that is the envy of most teams, and with one of the sharpest minds in the International game in the shape of Coach Joe Schmidt, Ireland are likely to come storming back with a vengeance this weekend in Edinburgh. Down but definitely not out!

So without further ado, let’s look ahead to the action this weekend and what has got us talking this week.

Scotland vs Ireland – Saturday, February 9th – Edinburgh

Scotland apart from a ten minute blip, albeit one which leaked 3 tries, looked sharp last weekend. Ireland on the other hand did not look so sharp, with several of their key playmakers looking decidedly undercooked. Ireland’s loss to England at home in Dublin in front of the Aviva faithful would have stung, and Scotland know they will have to face the wrath of a wounded Ireland.

Scotland’s free-flowing attacking rugby was a joy to watch last weekend, but it is highly unlikely that Ireland will give the likes of fullback Stuart Hogg and company the kind of space and freedom that Italy allowed them to operate in last Saturday. Scotland winger Blair Kinghorn stole the show last weekend with his hat trick of tries but this week sees him confined to the bench and a more experienced set of wingers attempting to contain the menace of Ireland’s Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale, even though the two Irishmen were somewhat off the boil last weekend.

Scotland know that if they walk away with a win, against what is expected to be a much more convincing Irish performance, then they could well be in contention for a shot at the title. However, that is assuming they can handle two tough away assignments against England and France and dispatch a Welsh side that didn’t exactly inspire a sense of shock and awe last Friday in Paris.

Ireland meanwhile know that anything less than an emphatic victory at Murrayfield means that their Six Nations is all but over this year, with only the promise of the World Cup to look forward to. However, heading into the World Cup after a poor Six Nations is not exactly the best tonic for a team, that faces the threat of elimination once more in the quarter finals should they not get past either New Zealand or South Africa. Ireland know they need to finish this tournament strongly, and a loss tomorrow would put any such aspirations beyond reach at least in terms of the Six Nations. In short, we are set up for one hell of a contest and probably THE game of the weekend!

Scotland’s front row stood up well and Ireland’s needs to do the same this week

It’s been a rare sight in recent times to see Ireland’s front row bossed around, but that is precisely what happened against England last week. Meanwhile Scotland held up well against Italy, but with no disrespect to Italy the Azurri are not renown for their scrummaging prowess and this weekend will be a much different prospect. We can’t imagine that Ireland will take the lessons of last weekend lightly and expect to see props Furlong and Healy back to their bruising best this Saturday. Add to that a gritty Irish bench to take over in the front row and much of what happens here will give us a clue to who will be in the ascendancy. Despite what happened last weekend, all signs would appear to favor the Men in Green. If Scotland get the better of them here, then it will perhaps be the biggest statement of intent in terms of their title aspirations. In short a key contest on Saturday.

The Rory Best question

We almost felt disloyal last week in some of our concerns regarding Rory Best. However, after watching the instantaneous impact that Sean Cronin had last Saturday when he came off the bench, the concern still holds. The question is not about Best’s efforts and leadership, but more as to how soon in this match Cronin will make an appearance. Ireland’s lineout throws got tighter and Ireland simply looked more dynamic in their driving mauls once Cronin came on. Given the role that Cronin is likely to play in the forthcoming World Cup, the need to give him more and more big game time such as a match like this is becoming ever more pressing.

Ireland takes a gamble in the second row

While James Ryan was one of the few Irish players who stood out against England, the loss of Devin Toner was a genuine blow even if the giant lock didn’t have one of his best games. Consequently, it will be a big Test to see if Quinn Roux can bring his stellar form at Connacht to the Test arena, but if he does it will tick yet another depth box for Coach Joe Schmidt. Roux is bolstered from the bench by his fellow Connacht teammate Ultan Dillane, who would also appear to be getting back to his best after a long battle with injury. The Irishmen will be up against one of Scotland’s finest in the form of Jonny Gray, and with Ryan likely to last the full eighty minutes it will be a golden opportunity for the boys from Connacht.

Scotland have found a real gem in Jamie Ritchie and as a result a back row that may give Ireland some grief

The loss of John Barclay due to injury was a bitter blow to the Scots, but we were exceptionally impressed by Jamie Ritchie last weekend as well as in November. Scotland have found a genuine talent, albeit still slightly raw, but a very exciting prospect for the World Cup. Ireland’s offering in the back row should be able to cope, but while perhaps not as much as last weekend it will still be stretched. Josh Strauss had a stellar game for Scotland last weekend and Ryan Wilson needs no introduction.

How will Scotland’s silky centres face up to the bruising physicality of Ireland in the centre of the park?

Tomorrow’s centre battles have a real beauty and the beast tinge to them. Scotland’s Huw Jones and Sam Johnson ran some exquisite lines last weekend, but Ireland’s Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell provide some bruising go forward ball that is very difficult to bring down. Which style has the ascendancy tomorrow will say much as to how this match ultimately plays out.

Verdict

It is hard to see Ireland taking two back to back losses in this year’s Six Nations. However, two years ago Murrayfield was not a happy hunting ground for them. If their confidence is rattled and Scotland get the upper hand early, especially with the crowd in full voice behind them, Ireland could see history repeat itself for them and their Six Nations campaign be all but over before it has really begun. Scotland have their tails up and are fielding an exceptionally capable team which, if it holds its nerve, could cause Ireland all sorts of problems especially if they are allowed to run the ball. However, Ireland still would seem to have too much pedigree behind them to slip up twice. It should be a cracker with Ireland looking to shut down Scotland’s back line and neutralise fly half Finn Russell from the outset. Consequently, it may not be the highest scoring game, but one in which we expect Ireland will just have a slightly better big game temperament. A tight and edgy game, with moments of brilliance from both sides, but one which Ireland should just get the upper hand in by four points!

Italy vs Wales – Saturday, February 9th – Rome

Italy sadly appeared to be the only team true to the form books last Saturday in Edinburgh. There was that glorious ten minute burst in the second half where they caught the Scots napping not just once but three times. However, they were chasing a lead that despite that brilliant passage of play was still utterly beyond their grasp. Wales on the other hand, had us wondering what all the fuss was about in terms of them being genuine title contenders when referee Wayne Barnes blew the half time whistle, and Wales found themselves staring at a 16-0 score line in favor of the French. Wales did make a remarkable recovery in a game of two halves, but even then they didn’t exactly blow the French away. There were some brilliant Welsh performances in the second half, make no mistake, but one still can’t gloss over that complete first half capitulation to the French. Wales looked beyond ordinary in the first half and on the basis of that, plus a relatively inexperienced side, Italy may just fancy their chances at home and given that remarkable passage of play by them last weekend in Edinburgh which showed us that there is still plenty of life left in the Azurri jersey.

Wales need some big points on Saturday, but we are not sure they have picked the team to do it.

Italy have stuck with a side that at times showed some genuine spark last weekend, and at home that could easily get ratched up a few gears. Wales however, have gone with a more experimental flavor. Is this over confidence that could end up backfiring on them or a necessary investment aimed at furthering Welsh depth for the World Cup? There are some notable omissions which we find hard to justify even if the belief is that Italy remains a soft target. Given a rather lacklustre performance last weekend which saw Wales come short on the points haul, teams invariably tend to use their fixture with Italy to help their points difference on the table. It’s a gamble from Wales but we are not convinced that it may pay off ,even though we side with the view that the match is theirs to win.

Where is Justin Tipuric?

Given that he was arguably the best Welsh player on the field last Saturday for the full eighty minutes, we find it remarkable that he doesn’t even make the bench for this match. While we appreciate that a player of such value perhaps needs to be rested, is now the right time to do it, especially as it means he will be without game time in three weeks before Wales’ crucial encounter with England. We feel this is a decision Wales could well regret especially if Italy suddenly turn into a banana skin.

Rattle Dan Biggar and Italy could profit, but if not expect the scoreboard to tick over continuously

It was interesting how much Biggar settled Wales last weekend once he came on, however, we also hold that get under his skin, throw him off his game and Wales start to come unstuck rather easily. Italy have a forward pack and a back row who can clearly do that with Sebastian Negri and Sergio Parisse, expert practitioners of the dark arts, and should this work it remains to be seen how much Gareth Anscombe can be relied on to rescue the cause, as he himself was clearly rattled by France’s stifling physicality last weekend.

If the big points are to come for Wales it will be through Josh Adams and Liam Williams

Williams stood up and was counted last weekend, but we felt Wales missed Adams. The dynamic young winger impressed us throughout 2018, and expect him to make similar statements on Saturday. Williams made some fantastic yards last weekend and ran some outstanding lines, so expect more of the same this weekend with the Welsh pair dominating the big points count.

The sooner Italy get Federico Ruzza onto the pitch the better

Italy’s find of 2019 for us by a country mile. We thought he really stood out last weekend from the minute he came on. A big mobile forward with some outstanding handling skills, we are expecting to see increasingly more of the Italian youngster as the tournament progresses. Definitely one to watch!

Verdict

We were not exactly blown away by Wales last weekend, but apart from ten minutes, the same could be said of Italy. If Wales don’t step it up quite a few gears, with a slightly experimental squad it could end up not being the Roman holiday in the sun they are expecting. That being said, we think that Wales are still the smoking gun in this tournament and are likely to start building some real momentum sooner rather than later, despite last weekend’s hiccoughs. However, Italy will be up for this and heartened by Wales’ first half implosion against France. At home the Azurri will be just that more fired up, and as a result a handful for Wales at times. Nevertheless, it still should be Wales’ day in the end, though with this squad by perhaps not as much as they would have liked or needed in the long run. Wales to emerge comfortable winners but only by 15 points!

England vs France – Sunday, February 10th – Twickenham

England obliterated Ireland last weekend in Dublin, in what was one of the most masterful performances by any Test side we’ve seen in a long while. England took Ireland’s playbook, adopted and improved on it, made it their own and ultimately denied Ireland any kind of foothold in the match. As a neutral you simply had to admire the clinically well executed nature of England’s approach to what had rightly been billed as an exceptionally difficult challenge. England looked completely assured in everything they did, while Ireland began to look increasingly desperate and frustrated as they sought to outthink a style of play that until then had almost been the exclusive preserve of the Men in Green.

France meanwhile will be kicking themselves, that after making such a highly rated Welsh team look downright ordinary in the first forty minutes, they then threw away a 16-0 lead in the second half and ended up losing a match which they had firmly in their grasp. France are clearly not an eighty minute team at the moment, and against such a brutally physical and efficient team as England, it is hard to see them making too many inroads this Sunday at Twickenham. However, this match invariably seems to produce something special in les Bleus, as one of Test rugby’s greatest rivalries once more takes centre stage. France, albeit at home in Paris, played a big part in derailing England’s Six Nations campaign last year, and England are unlikely to let them do so again this year.

Demba Bamba gets his baptism of fire

As readers of this blog know we are not huge fans of French prop Uini Atonio, even though his physicality came in useful at times last weekend. However, his scrummaging technique would appear to be a constant liability for France. Bamba on the other hand packs both in equal measure, and in the loose and with ball in hand is a complete live wire. Inexperienced he may be but there is a big game somewhere in this tournament for the youngster and will this be it? There is no question that he is up against one of the most frightening opposite numbers in the world right now in the shape of England’s Mako Vunipola, but if he makes a statement on Sunday then the jersey could well be his for the rest of the tournament.

Another one to watch for France – Felix Lambey

Yes it would appear that our biggest interest in this match is the test of France’s newbies. We’ve already talked about Bamba, but Lambey is another player who we think has a very big future ahead of him in a blue jersey. Inexperienced he may be, but there is no denying he rose to the occasion when he came on against Wales last weekend and was instrumental in giving France some fight back in an otherwise flawed second half. Definitely one of France’s danger men against a formidable and very experienced English second row.

The battle of the back rows will be the best contest of the afternoon

England’s back row last weekend was absolutely outstanding, but by the same token so was France’s even if they fell off the boil a bit in the second half against Wales. We still think that England are the stronger offering, but if this French back row can play for eighty minutes, then England will need to be at their best. Louis Picamoles was absolutely devastating and Arthur Iturria completely justified our faith in him, but then so did England’s Tom Curry even with his yellow card. Billy Vunipola is back to his best for England and the battle between him and Picamoles should be the highlight of the afternoon. Perhaps more so than any other part of the park, this will be where Sunday’s match is won or lost.

Owen Farrell

We feel we owe Farrell an apology after last weekend. He excelled in the Captain’s role despite some of the doubts we had about him in the position. If he can continue to bring that kind of composure and maturity to the rest of the tournament, then we will take back everything we’ve ever said and gladly eat humble pie. Farrell was outstanding against Ireland but clearly had the upper hand over his rivals. We still remain to be convinced that he has the big match temperament once things are not going his way. France have a habit of not playing to expectations, so this Sunday’s game should be an excellent opportunity to see how Farrell copes in the Captain’s role if things are clearly not going to plan.

Henry Slade take a bow!

We had been patiently waiting for the English centre to arrive, something he did with trumpets blaring in Dublin. Some had been critical of the English youngster, but we were firmly of the belief that get him more big match time and he would ultimately shine. Therefore, as you can imagine we were delighted by his stellar performance against Ireland – it was truly world-class. Now he has that experience under his belt, expect him to go from strength to strength. If France cannot contain him on Sunday, and we are not sure Geoffrey Doumayrou is the man to do it, then it could be a very long day at the office for Les Bleus. Slade has come into his own on the Test stage and although the Frenchman is a proven talent he is still not the finished product that the Englishman was in Dublin last Saturday.

Verdict

England are on a roll and then some! France showed some real class last weekend, but against a Welsh side that failed to show up for half the match. England were an outstanding 80 minute team last Saturday in Dublin, whereas France were a good opportunistic team for only 40 minutes, with occasional flashes of brilliance marred by woeful execution in the second half. On the basis of last weekend, therefore it is hard to see anything other than an emphatic English victory, especially in the comfort of fortress Twickenham. France may surprise at times and are likely to be far less predictable than the Irish which will inevitably throw England off their game. Furthermore, France always seems to find something special for this match, one of Test rugby’s greatest rivalries, though more often in Paris than Twickenham. Nevertheless, we just can’t see England being undone by France on Sunday, and despite an epic tussle at times, especially in the back row, England to take it by 8 points!

Endnote

As we will be doing at the end of every round of the Six Nations we’ll end our musings with the expert analysis provided from our favourite YouTubers, Steve and Gareth from The 1014. Enjoy and make sure you give them a big thumbs up and subscribe to keep their excellent content coming.

One of the great rugby highlights of the year gets underway on Friday. Last year’s Six Nations was an absolute thriller and this year looks set to be even more of a roller coaster. With less than nine months to go before the World Cup, this year’s Six Nations will tell us much about what we might expect in terms of how the global showdown may play out in Japan come September. There are favourites, dark horses, underdogs and a million and one questions to be answered over the next eight weeks.

Ireland have been labelled the favourites this year, and it is hard to dispute that on the basis of form. However, back to back Grand Slams could well be too much to ask for, based on the quality of the opposition this year. One thing Ireland does seem to have more of than anyone else though is depth, and in a tournament which inevitably takes such a heavy toll injury wise on your player base, Ireland looks in very rude health in this department. Superbly coached, well-drilled and perhaps the most cohesive team heading into the tournament, Ireland will be very hard to beat, especially if like last year they keep building momentum as the tournament progresses.

Wales are clearly the team most likely to give Ireland a run for their money this year. Coming off a nine match winning streak, and blessed with some exceptional young talent that seems to have bedded very well into the national side, Wales can certainly field a very strong match day 23. The question remains however, as to how much depth there still is as the tournament wears on and injuries start to take their toll. Many are billing Wales’ final match with Ireland in Cardiff on the last Saturday of the tournament as the Championship decider, however, if Wales’ stocks have been depleted by injury by that stage Ireland are likely to have more seasoned reserves to draw on. If Wales can keep the injuries down, then there is no question that they like Ireland are going to be one of the hardest teams to beat this year especially at home.

England seem to have recovered from the horror show that was their 2018 Six Nations and saw them finish fifth. After a successful November campaign which saw them take Australian and South African scalps and run New Zealand to within a point, England are clearly on the mend. How far they have come remains to be seen, and there are no easy games for them this year, especially as they have to play the two teams most likely to be in the running for top honors, Ireland and Wales on the road.

Scotland continue to look threatening, and their club form in Europe this year has been quite spectacular. With Murrayfield now a fortress for the Scots, they have been blessed with a fixture list that sees them with the advantage of getting to play Wales and Ireland at home, but two difficult trips to Twickenham and Paris will also need to be dealt with. On their day Scotland can potentially beat anyone, but a lack of depth once the injury list starts taking its toll and a lack of big game temperament away from home, means that Scotland will still be wearing the underdog shirt more often than not.

France continue their hot and cold form, but as always one cannot simply judge them on form as this tournament always seems to bring out something special in them, even if they fail to replicate it for the rest of the year. “Le Crunch” match with England regained its notoriety last year, and they managed to give Wales a torrid time in Cardiff as well as coming agonizingly close to scuppering Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions at the very outset of last year’s tournament. While it may be a well-worn cliché – to write the French off simply based on form alone would be suicidal. Always difficult to beat in Paris, and more than capable of producing an upset away from home, France are unlikely to be contenders for the trophy but are likely to spoil a few of the other teams’ parties along the way.

Lastly it looks like Italy will once more be bringing up the rear this year. While there have been some promising developments at club level, most notably Treviso, Italy are still a long way from where they need to be to really make a dent in the competition. Nevertheless they are a team who plays with their hearts on their sleeves and as such are always entertaining to watch. Although plagued by lapses of concentration, they at least did seem to find the ability to last the full eighty minutes last year, and came close to tripping Scotland up on the final day of the tournament. It’s hard to see them having anything other than the wooden spoon to hold again this year, but their endeavour and commitment will continue to make them worthy competitors. We’re struggling to see where that one elusive win might be on offer this year, but for their sake we sincerely hope they can pull off a much-needed upset.

So now the preamble is out of the way, let’s get into the details, as we raise five talking points for each match that we’ve been mulling over during the last week.

France vs Wales – Friday, February 1st – Paris

France proved they were difficult to beat at home in the Championship opener when they hosted eventual Grand Slam winners Ireland last year. Furthermore the last time they met Wales in Cardiff there was only one point in it favoring the Welsh. After a November campaign that showed promise but ultimately did little to inspire, after their shock defeat to Fiji, France have everything to prove. However as we have mentioned earlier this tournament invariably brings out the X-factor in France, and Coach Jacques Brunel has assembled a side that could pack some nasty surprises.

Wales arrive in Paris feeling confident after nine straight wins. They are clearly challengers to Ireland’s throne and will want to make the boldest of statements in Paris on Friday that such ambitions are completely justified. Possessing a bruising set of forwards, a smart and quick thinking half back duo and some highly skilled backs, Wales definitely arrive as the complete package, while there are considerably more question marks surrounding the French team they will face.

One player does not make a front row, no matter how good they are

As regular readers know we have the utmost respect for French Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, so much so that he made our team of 2018. However, despite his superhuman efforts, we feel he is the only strong link in an otherwise weak French front row. We are just not convinced by the scrummaging technique of his colleagues Jefferson Poirot and Uini Atonio in particular. The Welsh unit leaves us with no such concerns and despite Guirado’s best efforts we feel that France are going to get pushed around here on Friday. France will hope that Guirado can go the full eighty minutes and French sensation Demba Bamba get on early enough to make an impact, provided he is not overwhelmed by the occasion of his first Six Nations. How well the veteran and the youngster team up, if they are allowed to do so, could change the course of how the front row battles shape up, especially once Wales call in their bench.

One of the best contests of the afternoon – Vahaamahina vs Wyn-Jones

In the second rows there should be plenty of fireworks between the Welsh veteran and France’s Vahaamahina. These two giants’ lineout battles should be worth the price of admission alone. The Welshman will excel at getting his teammates to get under France’s skin and disrupt the set pieces, while the Frenchman showed some exceptional poaching abilities in the air last year, as well as being highly destructive in the loose. A fascinating battle of contrasting styles, and whoever gets the upper hand here is likely to give us an idea of the balance of power in the match.

The back row battle should be one of the weekend’s closest with France’s Arthur Iturria potentially grabbing the headlines

We must say we really like the look of both back rows. Wales field one of our favourite workhorses in the shape of the indomitable Justin Tipuric. If you’ve read our musings in the past you know we cannot rate the tireless Welshman highly enough. Meanwhile it’s great to see Josh Navidi back in a Welsh jersey after missing the November Internationals. Ross Moriarity completes a fearsome Welsh back row that should cause havoc for French defenses. Having said that though, we are really looking forward to seeing French flanker Arthur Iturria in action as we think he is likely to be one of the standout players of the tournament. He was one of the few French players to really catch the eye in the November Internationals. Wenceslas Lauret also impressed throughout the year, and veteran Louis Picamoles is back to his best. In short, this is a French unit that is more than capable of absorbing Welsh horsepower and dish out its own fair share of heartache.

Warren Gatland’s leap of faith

There is no question that Welsh youngster Tomos Williams will have everything to prove as he gets the starting nod over the much more experienced Gareth Davies at scrum half. In such a key match that is likely to set the tone for the rest of Wales Six Nations campaign, one has to admire Coach Warren Gatland’s faith in the youngster, especially given that he and his fly half partner Gareth Anscombe are up against a highly experienced French unit in the shape of Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez. However, it would appear that Gatland is banking on a fairly frantic first 50 minutes which will suit Williams playing style more, and then bring in the big guns Davies and Biggar to settle the nerves and the match for the final quarter as France are likely to start throwing caution to the wind, especially in conditions that are expected to be wet and slippery.

Meanwhile Jacques Brunel does the same with Romain Ntamack

As a Test debut it doesn’t get much bigger than this, but the Toulouse centre has been grabbing a lot of headlines lately at Club level and it was only a matter of time before he got his first Test cap. As a baptism of fire his opposite number is Welshman Jonathan Davies who is simply one of the world’s best. If Ntamack comes out of this in a positive light then there will be no better testimony of his skill and the role he is likely to play in the build up to France’s World Cup campaign. He will have the advantage of being partnered with the exceptional Wesley Fofana, and if it works this combination could really catch Wales napping – unlikely with Davies in the mix but definitely one of the most interesting contests on the park on Friday.

Verdict

This should be an excellent match and a fitting start to what promises to be a riveting Championship. France at home will be difficult with their supporters expecting and demanding a significantly more dynamic French team than the one on display in November. An intensely physical contest in which Wales should just have the edge especially in the front row, but expect plenty of surprises from France especially if they can find space for their backs to go to work in. Ultimately Wales’ form of late just looks too convincing allied to a tried and trusted group of players. Consequently France to keep Wales on their toes for the full eighty, but Wales to edge it by 6!

Scotland vs Italy – Saturday, February 2nd – Murrayfield

While it may not have the aura around it that the encounters in Paris and Dublin this weekend have, this still should be an exciting game especially if Scotland really put on the afterburners. Italy have some pace as well, though the loss of last year’s sensation, fullback Matteo Minozzi, to injury is a bitter blow for the Azurri. Italy have lost their last 17 Six Nations games so whichever way you cut it, it’s hard to feel optimistic about their chances this year. However, let’s not forget they pushed Scotland hard in Rome last year and almost caused a notable upset. Nevertheless Scotland’s speed merchants in the backs and a bruising forward pack coupled to home advantage make it hard to see anything other than a convincing win for Scotland.

While we may not follow Italian club rugby closely we have to confess to not seeing too many familiar faces

Sure there are some of the usual suspects there such as Sergio Parisse, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Michele Campagnaro, but the rest have had us scrambling to YouTube to catch up on who’s who in Italian rugby these days, especially when it comes to the bench. What we have seen has given us some cause for optimism, but we still can’t imagine it troubling a Scottish side bursting with talent, even if some of it is still a bit raw.

Laidlaw vs Price for Scotland

We have to confess to being slightly perplexed at seeing Greg Laidlaw starting for Ali Price in a match that should be a relatively straightforward exercise for Scotland. Laidlaw has more than enough experience and perhaps would have been better kept in reserve for Scotland’s first big encounter with Ireland next weekend. The only thing we can think of is the fact that the last time Italy won a Six Nations match it was at Murrayfield. Consequently it must be Coach Gregor Townsend trying to deal with “opening night nerves” and not leaving anything to chance by putting in the experienced Laidlaw to ensure that Scotland keeps the scoreboard constantly ticking over in the first 60 minutes to put Italy out of reach, and avoid any potential banana skins.

In Sergio Parisse’s last year who will take the mantle from Italy’s most legendary player

The great man will not see another World Cup, and Italy really need to use this year to find a suitable understudy and a similar talisman for the team. While it may be premature, his back row partner Sebastien Negri shows many of the qualities of his great mentor. Expect to see the flanker at the heart of everything that Italy does well this year. Negri was one of the few genuine standouts for Italy in last year’s Six Nations and expect him to make even more of a statement this year. The Captaincy may ultimately pass to Campagnaro, but Negri is a very worthy understudy in the making.

Blair Kinghorn to really make the headlines for Scotland this year

Just look at what the energetic winger is doing at Edinburgh and you’ll see why we can’t wait to see him in action this year. When allied to a superb Scottish back line boasting the likes of Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour, Kinghorn could really set pitches alight over the next few weeks.

Scotland will really hope the injury gods are kind to them in their Six Nations opener

We really like the look of the match day 23 going out against Italy on Saturday, but have to confess to be just a tad worried for the Scots as to how much depth there is in the tank for the remainder of the tournament. While a Scottish win on Saturday is not really in doubt, one could argue that a conservative win that avoided putting bodies at risk would be preferable to a high scoring match of reckless abandon, despite the spectacle this would provide for the Murrayfield faithful. Of the match day 23 running out on Saturday there is not much depth beyond it if the body count starts racking up in this opener, with every contest thereafter being that much more physical and demanding.

Verdict

We really don’t mean to be down on Italy, and would love to see them get a win, but sadly we just don’t see it happening on Saturday. This is a Scottish side with just far too much proven explosive talent, especially in the backs up against a relatively unknown Italian commodity. With Sergio Parisse in the mix, expect Italy to be no pushover, but Scotland to eventually open up the floodgates in the final quarter, albeit with an eye to the injury risk and walk away comfortable winners. Because of that though don’t expect a huge scoreline, but Scotland to take it by 13 points!

Ireland vs England – Saturday, February 2nd – Dublin

While the contest in France has a great deal of interest, there is no denying that this is the BIG one of this weekend. Perhaps England’s biggest grudge match at the moment, getting one over Ireland on Saturday, especially in Dublin would really set the tone for where England are headed in this Championship. Having said that however, England know they are up against it. Ireland are on a roll unprecedented in Irish rugby history, and it just seems to go from strength to strength. Since the last World Cup they have beaten New Zealand twice, won a Grand Slam and seem to have reinvented the definitions of organization and depth. Add to that the fact that England have only won in Dublin twice in nine trips to the Irish capital since 2003, and England would seem to have the bigger job on their hands. However, they also ran New Zealand exceptionally close in November, and in general had a superb month as long as you don’t mention that first half against Japan. The stage is set for one of Test rugby’s greatest rivalries to resume and expect no prisoners to be taken by both sides.

Rory Best vs Sean Cronin – the great internal debate

As the Irish Captain looks set to retire from Test rugby after the World Cup, 2019 will tell us much about the speed of ascendancy into the number 2 jersey of Sean Cronin. While few, ourselves included, would doubt the value that Best brings to the squad as a whole and his leadership, there is no denying that Cronin has had to wait in the wings for a very long time, and his statistics this year for Leinster are simply off the charts. Like Jacob Stockdale in the backs for Ireland, Cronin can almost be guaranteed to score a try in every match at club level. His work rate is legendary and his lineout throwing is often more accurate than Best’s. How Coach Joe Schmidt uses the pair of them in a match of such stature is likely to tell us much as to how their respective roles will play out this year.

England finally have a back row that works – for the most part

It’s been England’s bug bear for so long now it’s almost become a bit of a bad joke – especially given the player resources England have at their disposal. However, the November Internationals saw the nucleus of a unit that worked with Mark Wilson proving to be one of the finds of the year. This year Billy Vunipola returns and while we wish him all the best, we are not holding our breath as to the likelihood of him seeing out the tournament injury-free even though he appears to be back to his phenomenal best at club level. The loss of Sam Underhill for the entire tournament due to injury is a huge loss. Nevertheless for this match England’s back row offering looks solid with Vunipola, Wilson and a player we think has a massive future ahead of him for England, Tom Curry.

Talking of back rows, it’s a make or break year for Ireland’s Sean O’Brien

Everyone knows the value of the great man to Ireland, however injury has not been kind to him, and much like England’s Billy Vunipola, whether or not the Irish flanker will make it through the tournament unscathed is a big question mark. With Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy providing exceptionally healthy and robust competition for his jersey, O’Brien really needs to make this Six Nations his. However, Coach Joe Schmidt is clearly aware of the injury risk in a match that is likely to be intensely physical, and as a result Josh van der Flier gets the nod over O’Brien as a starter for this match. The number seven jersey is likely to be Ireland’s revolving door in terms of selection this tournament, and it will be fascinating to see who emerges the clear owner come March 16th.

Owen Farrell – asset or liability?

Last November saw the England fly half be classed as hero and villain in the same breath by rugby supporters around the globe, including a fair number of English supporters. Some see him as a liability, and despite his genius on the field, ability with the boot and skill at game management, we tend to fall more into the liability camp when talking about the Farrell question. His committment to his team and overall ability is not in question, but we do not feel the Captaincy role is one that he is suited for. Furthermore, we have noticed that his defensive positioning is often out of kilter at critical junctures in matches, forcing him into last-ditch desperate tackles and we all know how that went in November. His decision-making also leaves a great deal to be desired at times and on numerous occasions he has turned down easy points on offer, electing to kick to the corner against teams England are struggling to establish any kind of dominance over. Add to that a slightly impetuous nature, short fuse and challenging relationship with officials, and perhaps it is better to keep him out of the Captaincy role. His value to the team is not up for debate as that is a given. It is more a question of in what role and how to best use him. Something England have yet to nail down and which perhaps this Six Nations will finally provide in time for the World Cup.

The Robbie Henshaw experiment

Yes we know he used to play fullback for Connacht, but we were still surprised to see him get the nod over Rob Kearney for such a crucial game. Even more so considering that Henshaw has not played at fullback for Ireland and instead plies his trade in the centre channels when wearing the green jersey. Will England target him with the high balls that Kearney is traditionally so comfortable under? Or is Schmidt banking on Henshaw’s physicality to break down the attacks from the English back line? The contest between him and England’s Elliot Daly will be one of the most fascinating of the afternoon. Daly is a proven commodity and possesses an exceptionally handy boot, and between him and wingers Jack Nowell and Jonny May they should be able to provide Henshaw with plenty of work. Ireland have Jordan Larmour on the bench as solid cover, but his defensive skills still need some work. In the aerial battles on Saturday, we have a feeling that England may just get the better of Ireland, so how Ireland adapt their game to ensure that doesn’t happen will be something to watch for.

Verdict

Either way this will be an exceptionally fitting end to what should be a great opening weekend of Six Nations rugby. This should be a much better English side than the one Ireland faced at Twickenham last March. Two powerful packs go head to head, complemented by some back lines that can put on a show. It should be a thriller and one that it is likely to keep us on the edge of our seats. However, when it’s all said and done, we have to side with the form and history books. England are once more on the rise, but Ireland have already put in the hard graft in getting their structures and organisation right. Ireland have a better understanding of the game they want to play while England are still putting the finishing touches on theirs. That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of upsetting the odds, but we can’t help feeling is too much of a tall order on opening night. Consequently in a hard-fought match, Ireland to handle the basics better and walk away the winners by four points!

Endnote

Yes our favorite YouTubers are back Steve and Gareth from the 1014 and look set to have a ton of outstanding content lined up for this year’s Six Nations. Make sure you give them your support and subscribe to help them keep up their excellent ouput. We’ll be ending all our updates with one of their top-notch videos.

Like we say the remarkable Test match in Dublin last weekend lived up to its billing and then some! While this weekend’s final round of the November Test window may not quite have the aura of that memorable occasion there is still much to capture our interest this coming Saturday. Scotland once again kick off the action as they host Argentina, and they will be looking to finish their November campaign with a bang after narrowly losing to South Africa. England then take on a Wallaby side that is still struggling to convince despite a win against Italy. England will need to sharpen their skills after looking decidedly less than flash against a spirited Japanese team last weekend. The big fixture of this weekend is without a doubt the match between Wales and South Africa. Both sides are on a roll after a successful November campaign and look to be evenly matched as the number 2 side in the Northern Hemisphere meets number two in the Southern Hemisphere.

In other November action, Ireland take on the USA, France meet up with Fiji and Italy have the unenviable task of doing battle with an All Black side smarting from their loss to Ireland the week before. Canada also take on Hong in their last match in the World Cup repechage tournament in France. With two solid wins behind them they look well placed to book their berth to Japan next year. As much as we would like to cover all these games in addition to the three main matches this weekend, we are sadly constrained once more by time and resources, so will have to focus our attention on events in Edinburgh, Twickenham and Cardiff this Saturday.

So without further ado here’s what got us talking about the upcoming action.

Scotland vs Argentina – Saturday, November 24th – Murrayfield

Scotland stayed true to form last weekend and their opening forty minutes against South Africa was played at a blistering pace. Both their tries showed some genuine brilliance on attack and their skill at getting the ball through the hands at speed on their first try was a joy to watch. However, at times they looked frail defensively and while mixing it physically with South Africa is always a challenge, it was clear that at times they were struggling to remain competitive. South Africa meanwhile clearly had the upper hand up front, and courtesy of Scotland’s fast paced game occasionally proving too ambitious, South Africa were able to play a more composed and structured game. South Africa once more were able to show a resolve similar to that shown in Paris the week before. They simply didn’t panic despite Scotland putting them under pressure continuously in the second half. Their defence held firm and they were able to turn Scotland’s mistakes to their advantage, with Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjiies’ boots sealing the deal for the Springboks.

Argentina know that they can play just as quickly as Scotland in the backs and have a fly half who is the measure of Scotland’s Finn Russell. The Pumas also boast a forward pack that can put Scotland under the same kind of pressure they got from the Springboks. However, the Pumas scrum still remains a major Achilles Heel for them and they appear to be fading in terms of overall potency after a long hard season together both at Super Rugby and Test Level as the inevitable fatigue sets in.

We know Russell’s played the position before but definitely a first for us

Finn Russell has apparently played at centre before but we are not familiar with him in the role. As a result Saturday’s contest holds plenty of interest. Relieved of the burden of game management from the fly half position we are curious to see if Russell’s quick turn of pace and unpredictability may actually be more suited to the inside channels. His partnership with the electric Huw Jones should provide plenty of sparks, as well as him being able to provide support to his understudy at fly half, Adam Hastings. Between Jones, Russell and Hastings, this could prove to be a deadly axis which Argentina could struggle to get to grips with.

Argentina’s scrum is a mess – plain and simple

Given that the Pumas Coach Mario Ledesma is a veteran warrior of the front row, it is hard to understand Argentina’s continuing problems at the coal face. But problems there are as we clearly saw against France. The Pumas either went backwards or collapsed at scrum time. There were the odd moments where they seemed to hold their ground but in general they were completely overpowered by the French. Scotland were able to hold their own for the most part against a fearsome South African front row, so we can’t help feeling that unless Ledesma has worked miracles in the space of a week from a squad clearly starting to show the strains of a long season – it could well be a troublesome afternoon for the Pumas in the set pieces.

If the Pumas debutant in the back row can hold his own, this should be one of the best contests of the afternoon

One consistent area of strength for Argentina has been their back row this year. In Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio the Pumas are rock solid and it will be interesting to see how debutant Rodrigo Bruni complements a fearsome unit. Having said that they will be up against an equally slick group in the shape of Scotland’s Hamish Watson who was outstanding last week against South Africa along with newcomer James Ritchie who the more we see the more we like. Saturday also sees the return of Josh Strauss to the starting XV back row for Scotland. One of Scotland’s most underrated players, the South African born flanker should be able to match up to the Pumas physicality with ease.

Scotland’s young bucks get a superb examination ahead of the Six Nations

Winger Blair Kinghorn and fly half Adam Hastings have but a handful of caps between them for Scotland, especially in the starting XV. However, both have the ability to impress but will need to be at their absolute best on Saturday, as they face the two players who have consistently stood out for the Pumas this November – fly half Nicolas Sanchez and winger Ramiro Moyano. Kinghorn is going to have his work cut out containing the fleet-footed Pumas speedster who is also exceptionally handy under the high ball despite his smaller frame. Meanwhile Adam Hastings will need to make sure that it is not Sanchez who is running the show on Saturday. Hastings will be ably assisted by Russell in the centre of the park, but he couldn’t ask for a better test ahead of the Six Nations as how to operate under pressure and manage a free-flowing game against one of the world’s best. The rain that was predicted for tomorrow looks to hold off till much later in the evening, so we should be in for a fast and furious match between two sides who love to run the ball.

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg may be the world’s best counter attacker but Argentina are packing a back three who can do the same in their sleep

If the end of a long hard season hasn’t depleted the Pumas’ tanks, then this could well be their last hurrah of a year that has seen some genuine success. Stuart Hogg may be the best in the world from bursting out of his own 22 and causing complete havoc, but watch the Pumas back three this season and each of them have similar abilities. Winger Bautista Delguy and fullback Emiliano Boffelli have made some extraordinary metres this year, and if they have one last big game left in them, this could well be it. We all know what Ramiro Moyano can do, and while individually none of them may be able to hold a candle to Hogg on his own, as a counterattacking unit they could well negate the presence of the Scotsman if Argentina really bring their A game.

Verdict

On paper these two sides look relatively evenly matched. However, Argentina’s ongoing problems at scrum time and the fact that they are starting to show signs of their traditional end of year fadeout, make it hard for us to believe that they are likely to really make a statement at Murrayfield on Saturday. Scotland on the other hand will want to finish their November campaign on a positive note. It has been a frustrating month for the Scots after losing their opener to Wales and then a disappointing loss to South Africa. The comprehensive win over Fiji showed the Scots in fine form, but this month will mean little without a least one big Southern Hemisphere scalp. Hence the form book would indicate, and we tend to agree that Scotland will take Argentina in the Pumas last major outing of a long hard season by five points!

England vs Australia – Saturday, November 24th – Twickenham

England will not have been happy with their opening forty minutes against Japan last Saturday. They simply looked half asleep against a team that had clearly come to play. Order was restored in the second half, but they had clearly been given a massive wake up call by a side they had grossly underestimated. That is unlikely to be the case this weekend, as they will look to claim a decisive victory over a talented but badly misfiring Wallaby side. England need a decisive victory over their last Southern Hemisphere visitor after having squeaked past the Springboks by a point and just coming agonizingly short of an historic win over the All Blacks. Australia meanwhile will seek to end a disappointing November with a win over a side that has caused them nothing but heartache since the last World Cup. While Australia got a much-needed win over Italy last weekend, it wasn’t exactly pretty and has also left them with some worrying injury concerns, most notably to flanker David Pocock.

Could the absence of David Pocock end up being a blessing in disguise for Australia

Before you start wondering what we’ve been drinking by making a such a statement, think about it for a moment. Pocock has sadly been plagued by injury this year, and to be honest has not been at his best this season. That is said with no disrespect to the great man, but we feel he has been press ganged into Wallaby duty all season and it has clearly taken its toll. Furthermore, his partnership with Michael Hooper in the back row has been questioned as together they make Australia slightly lopsided in terms of balance. As a result Australia may finally have a unit that works properly on Saturday. Jack Dempsey has the talent but really needs an opportunity to shine, but with both Hooper and Pocock in the back row he is often completely overshadowed and slightly ineffective. The big question mark lies around Pete Samu at Test level, as we all know his pedigree with the Crusaders in Super Rugby. However, if this unit fires it may end up providing Pocock with the ability to be rested for key matches leading up to the World Cup and thus ultimately return to his best just when Australia need him most.

Talking of back rows, England almost has one at long last

Number eight Mark Wilson has been one of THE standout players for England this November and Sam Underhill was absolutely immense against New Zealand a fortnight ago. We have to confess to being slightly puzzled at Zach Mercer’s implosion against Japan last weekend, as we felt he still offered much more in the long-term than Brad Shields who gets the nod in the starting XV for tomorrow. However, there is no denying that in Wilson and Underhill England have some real force and one can even start talking about balance once more in the back row. This will be a real chance for them to really make a statement that they are the way forward for England leading up to the World Cup. If they can dominate an Australian unit that is still a work in progress, then we can think of no better justification.

Morale is probably at rock bottom in the Australian camp, but who will provide the spark of inspiration?

Sticking to form we are going to look to the Wallaby second row once more. As regular readers know, we feel Australia needs some grit in the style of the great John Eales, and we’ve staked our bet on Adam Coleman to ultimately provide it. In situations this year where Australia have clearly been battling a crisis of confidence, Coleman has often been the one spark of consistency and determination in an otherwise lacklustre performance. We feel he partners well with Izack Rodda, and if the two of them can compete with England’s Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes and actually win some key battles in the air, we are willing to bet that this will spur the rest of the Wallabies on. They will be up against it, as after a generally poor year, Itoje has finally found his rhythm once more, and Lawes is coming back into his own after injury. If the Wallaby pair can disrupt the Englishmen at lineout time, especially given that Jamie George has been battling with lineout accuracy then this could be a turning point that could spark Australia out of their collective disarray on Saturday.

Cheika’s selections once more have us scratching our head

Yes we know some of it has been forced by disciplinary issues, but we were fairly certain that this year proved Bernard Foley does not operate well in the centre channels. Although Matt Toomua is effective at both number 10 and 12, he is more suited to the centre as support to Bernard Foley – not the other way round. Once more we feel that Coach Michael Cheika has dug another few feet of a hole it looks like he is unlikely to get out of, by reverting to an experiment that clearly did not work. We’re still not entirely convinced by England’s centre offerings, but still feel they are going to be more effective than the Wallaby muddle.

We may be the only ones saying so, but we are not overly concerned about Folau switching back to fullback even if it may seem tough on Dane Haylett-Petty

A bit like Adam Coleman, Dane Haylett-Petty has been one of the few Wallaby players to consistently stand out this year. Although we have traditionally felt his talents are better suited to the wing in terms of crossing the whitewash for Australia, there is no denying that he has performed admirably at fullback this year. Having said that we do not feel that Israel Folau has performed all that well on the wing and thus this is one of the few positional changes made by Chieka for Saturday’s match that actually makes sense to us. Haylett-Petty can do both, but Folau can’t and Haylett-Petty is more likely to bag a much-needed five pointer from out wide than at fullback for Australia. Consequently, we can’t wait to see if we are proved right on this one on Saturday. If we aren’t and Folau has an off day while Haylett-Petty shines, are we looking at the ultimate sidelining of Folau as Australia desperately seek to find a back row combination that gels?

Verdict

Our overall impression of Australia at the moment is that, just like this time last year, they just want to get on the plane and go home and reflect on yet another disastrous season. In their last match of 2017 they were utterly blown away by a Scottish side who clearly recognised that the Wallabies were down and out. Australia find themselves in exactly the same position, made worse by the fact that it is less than a year out from the World Cup. With Coach Michael Cheika’s tenure clearly in question, a blowout to England similar to the Scottish fiasco last year would surely spell the end for the beleaguered Coach who has sadly done little to endear himself to the public or his team. Will we see a similar rant to the one in Salta at half time which had such a galvanizing effect on his team? In the cauldron that is Twickenham we fear that such a rant would simply demoralize a team already dramatically low on confidence. With all that said, Australia clearly find themselves with their backs against the wall up against an English side that smells blood and wants to end their year with two Southern Hemisphere scalps. Despite England’s slip up against Japan last weekend, we feel they are well placed to achieve their goals tomorrow and thus give them the spoils by 8 points!

Wales vs South Africa – Saturday, November 24th – Cardiff

The number two sides in their respective hemispheres meet in this clash that is clearly being seen as the big fixture of the weekend. Wales are clearly on an upward trajectory but it is not without its purple patches. They struggled to turn a match they should have won against England in the Six Nations to their comprehensive advantage. Against Australia they struggled to cross the whitewash this month, despite getting a much-needed win. They clearly have depth and talent in abundance, but it hasn’t quite developed that killer instinct to close out big matches against quality opposition. South Africa seem to have found that ability in the last six months and more importantly have been able to take it with them on the road. It will be a fascinating test of composure for both sides and one which will tell us much about how these two smoking guns are likely to perform in the World Cup next year.

Wales have a good front row but that South African unit, especially with Kitshoff in the mix look ominous

Wales know that if they want to go the distance next year in Japan they will need to be at their best here. In Ken Owens they have a seasoned and effective campaigner with Nicky Smith and Tomas Francis providing excellent support. However, as seen against Scotland last weekend South Africa’s Steven Kitshoff is such a live wire, coupled to Malcolm Marx’s destructive capabilities that Wales are going to have to be at their very best here. Perhaps their best chance of success is to disrupt Marx’s lineout throwing, as if that goes awry, Marx’s game tends to go with it.

Wales have some of the best depth in the second row we’ve seen in years

We’ve always felt that despite the presence of the legendary Alun-Wyn Jones that the second row has been a weak spot in the Welsh set up. No longer, youngster Adam Beard is a complete firecracker and Cory Hill is a more than able replacement. Admittedly South Africa are looking equally fearsome here, but if the Welsh trio can hold their own and even gain some dominance on this part of the park it could be a very good day out for Wales, but it is still a very big ask. If they pass the test then Wales head into the runup to next year’s Six Nations and the World Cup in exceptionally fine form.

Is Justin Tipuric the new Sam Warburton?

As readers of this blog know we are some of Tipuric’s biggest fans, and felt that the formidable Welsh back rower has had to live in the shadow of Sam Warburton for too long. With Warburton’s retirement from International rugby this year, Wales lose a legend but could not ask for a better replacement. Tipuric is clearly relishing the opportunity to grab centre stage, something he needs to do as Josh Navidi and Adam Shingler are also waiting in the wings in a part of the park in which Wales is genuinely blessed with depth. However, there is something about the talismanic presence that Tipuric brings to the position coupled to a superhuman work rate that is so inspirational to the rest of his colleagues. In that vein alone he is a worthy successor to Warburton.

Wales depth continues at half back

One of the things that has impressed us most about Wales continued improvement over the last year has been the development of some genuine depth in these two key positions. In the scrum half department, in particular it has got to the point where one can hardly remember the name Rhys Webb who was Wales’ guarantee for starting at 9 up to 2017. The depth continues at fly half, with last year’s regular Dan Biggar constantly having to play second fiddle to Gareth Anscombe even for matches of this stature. All players have been shrewdly rotated to ensure that they get sufficient game time and as a result, Wales are looking very much locked and loaded in this part of the park for the World Cup.

If Aphiwe Dyantyi can contain Wales’ George North then he has surely passed his defensive apprenticeship

We all know that Dyantyi is a try scoring machine, but at the start of the year there were massive question marks around his defensive abilities. Consequently, the focus of 2018 has been on how well the elusive Springbok winger can make the tackles that count. In George North, he has a big bruising opponent who is notoriously difficult to bring down once he has built up a head of steam. What has impressed us with Dyantyi is his relative fearlessness and when he does make the tackles, they often count. He no doubt still has much to learn but if he manages to keep North in check and bring the big Welshman down at speed, then we would argue that he has graduated with honor from his year at Springbok defensive college.

Verdict

South Africa are for once looking very good in November, something we are not traditionally used to saying about them at this time of the year. The fact that they are looking this good on the road, bodes extremely well for their buildup to the World Cup. Cardiff is always a very daunting place to play and has not been a happy hunting ground for the Springboks. With a Welsh side looking very much their equal, this will be an exceptionally stern Test and will tell us how far this Springbok side has come since they narrowly lost to Wales in Washington, DC a mere five months ago. Wales will want to put a lot more points on the board than they managed against their other Southern Hemisphere opponents Australia this month. However, that was an Australian side in crisis, something their opponents tomorrow do not appear to be in. Wales will be worried that they were unable to get the points they needed against a poor Australian side to give them any genuine comfort on the scoreboard. Against a Springbok side that finally seems to be hitting all the right notes, Wales will have to put in one of their best performances of the year. What is for certain is that if Wales fix the execution issues they had against Australia and are able to mix it with the Springbok pack, then this could be a match that will rival the intensity of the Ireland/New Zealand and England/New Zealand matches earlier this month. We are really struggling to call this one, but despite home advantage for Wales, we feel that South Africa have been so well tried and tested this month that they could just sneak it by two points! However, we’re simply not putting any bets on it and think this will be a very fitting finale to a superb month of Test rugby.

It’s not often that four Test matches over a November weekend live up to their billing. However, this weekend produced two titanic struggles and two matches, which although not the prettiest to watch at times, still provided some extraordinary moments.

Our two highlights of the weekend were without a doubt the Twickenham and Paris thrillers. England have really stepped up to the plate this November, and their win over first South Africa and then a loss to the All Blacks by a mere point must surely mark a dramatic reversal in their fortunes this year. While they get a relatively easier challenge this weekend against Japan, their final match of the month sees them with the opportunity to make it two Southern Hemisphere scalps out of three, as they take on a Wallaby side in crisis. France meanwhile will be gutted with their narrow loss at the death to South Africa, but can take heart in the fact that their first outing this November produced such quality against an impressive Springbok unit.

In Cardiff and Dublin there were some great moments as Wales finally ended their losing streak against Australia, and Ireland were put under some enormous pressure by a ferocious Pumas side. We never really felt that Wales or Ireland were going to lose, but Wales will be disappointed that despite dominating Australia they were unable to really get serious points on the scoreboard. Meanwhile Ireland were made to work exceptionally hard for their win over a rampant Pumas side. The game in Cardiff was not attractive by any stretch of the imagination as two sides played highly cautious rugby, leaving little to spark the imagination. Wales may have been more effective and got a critical win, but they will be frustrated that they couldn’t turn their attacks into points.

Ireland meanwhile, although being well off their usual pace, will still regard their epic tussle with Argentina as the perfect preparation for “THE BIG ONE” this weekend with New Zealand. Ireland will need to up their game considerably if they are to take on an All Black side recently rattled by England. In fairness to Argentina, apart from their scrum they came to Dublin hell-bent on causing havoc – a task in which they succeeded admirably. The Pumas had Ireland on the rack for a good hour, and it was only in the final quarter where Ireland managed to get the measure of Argentina and start playing the kind of rugby they needed to get the win.

Even Canada managed to get a solid win over Kenya in the first of three matches in France to determine who gets the last spot up for grabs at next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Just like last weekend, there was drama and controversy aplenty but here’s what got us talking on Sunday morning.

England are back but need better decision-making as New Zealand showed them how to close the deal once more

Just as in their performance against South Africa, England had a solid effort, put under the microscope once more by a 50/50 call. Last week it went in their favor but this time it wasn’t to be. It was a borderline call that put Courtney Lawes offside and thus denied England the try that would have sealed a classic Test match. The authorities have since deemed the officials had the correct interpretation of the rules, and from what we’ve seen it is marginal, but it would appear that a miniscule portion of Lawes’ right toe is in the offside position. Tough one but there it is. Just like South Africa squandering their chances against England the week before, England were guilty of doing the same. In appalling weather, they constantly decided to kick for touch rather than take the much easier points on offer between the sticks. This seemed even more prevalent once Owen Farrell took over the Captaincy from Dylan Hartley. A slippery ball and a swampy surface are always going to make the effectiveness of your driving maul from a 5 metre lineout questionable – the ball can pop out anywhere and your forwards are struggling with traction. England, like South Africa the week before left at least 6 points out on the park, which meant they would still have comfortably won even without the disallowed try.

On the positive side of things, England are clearly back in business. To hold the world’s best team at bay for as long as they did in appalling conditions, and ultimately lose by a point is something they can feel exceptionally good about. There is finally a back row that works and a back three that looks dangerous. Ben Youngs is regaining the form that made him so valuable to England’s efforts in the scrum half department, and Danny Care is an able replacement. The second row, and Maro Itoje in particular, also seem back to their best even if they struggled to contain the super human feats of Brodie Retallick in the lineouts. England’s decision-making needs some work, and we’re not convinced about their front row, centre pairings or fly half selections, but overall the change in England’s performance compared to six months ago is night and day.

New Zealand meanwhile may have been put under the kosh by England but they still showed the class and resilience they have to get the job done, even if their supporters’ hearts were in their mouths for the final five minutes. For us it was the class and skill shown in Damian McKenzie’s try, Brodie Retallick’s remarkable efforts at nullifying England’s lineouts and Barrett’s game management and decision-making in when and how to take the points that ultimately revealed the difference between the two sides in terms of big match temperament.

Wales continue to improve while Australia slide deeper into the abyss

There were some moments in that game that had us on our feet from a Welsh perspective – essentially any time centre Jonathan Davies or flanker Justin Tipuric were in charge of events. Tipuric in particular was immense for Wales and seemed a catalyst for many of Wales’ brightest moments in the game. The same can be said for Jonathan Davies. As a collective Wales put in a solid if uninspiring performance, which ultimately saw them come out on top in a contest that clearly meant so much to them. They were cautious and at times seemed overwhelmed by the occasion, as evidenced by Leigh Halfpenny fluffing a kick at goal right in front of the posts. There was little risk taking and given Australia’s ineptitude for much of the match it made for dire viewing at times. Wales are a more exciting team than that, but the win at whatever cost was clearly putting a lid on some of their more creative attributes. They got the job done, and Tipuric and Davies sought to inspire, but for the most part it was a pedestrian match that will not be remembered for much other than the low score and a much-needed Welsh victory.

Australia on the other hand were dire – plain and simple. First of all we struggled to try to figure out what kind of game Australia were trying to play. It looked overly complicated, especially in the set pieces, and players clearly had no understanding whatsoever of how to execute whatever it was they were supposed to be doing. We thought lock Adam Coleman put in a solid effort and seemed to be the only player who had an inkling of what was expected of him. Australia’s back row, despite David Pocock, looks increasingly unbalanced and Michael Hooper’s decision-making skills in such a low scoring match beggared belief at times. Increasingly of late, we’ve really noticed the lack of a Scott Fardy type figure in Australia’s back row – ask any Leinster supporter how much the ex-Wallaby has brought to the Irish club’s efforts in the European Champions Cup. Coach Michael Cheika despite being a YouTube sensation, increasingly looks out of touch, while at the same time constantly spouting on about the learning Australia is supposedly doing – even if his players are clearly struggling to figure out what language the playbook is written in as the first step in their learning process. Australia may have a potentially soft fixture with Italy this weekend, but even that is no guarantee. Italy’s tails are clearly up after their much-needed win over Georgia last weekend, and they will sense there is an opportunity for an upset here. In short, Australia look a mess from 1-15, despite some clear and obvious talent, and it is going to take a huge step up for them to avoid a banana skin in Italy and humiliation from a hungry and revitalized England.

Ireland get off to a scrappy start and need to make some hard decisions

There were some thrilling moments in this match from both sides, and there is no question that Ireland received a schooling at times from Argentina. We always thought this was going to be a tough encounter, especially as the Pumas have a history of raining on Ireland’s parade. However, as preparation for next weekend’s assignment with New Zealand, Ireland and Coach Joe Schmidt could not have asked for better. It was big, tough, fast and physical for the full eighty minutes. Sadly it took its toll on Ireland as flanker Sean O’Brien was once more taken from the field with an injury that will see him out of action till at least the New Year. The Irish back rower has really struggled of late with injury and one has to wonder how much more he can take, especially with the World Cup less than a year away. Still O’Brien’s loss is Dan Leavy’s gain, and he made sure that he stamped a solid claim on the number 7 jersey this weekend. In our opinion given O’Brien’s ongoing misfortune with injury and resulting time away from the game, it is increasingly difficult for Coach Joe Schmidt and the Irish selectors to deny Leavy a regular starting berth at 7. When he came on for the injured O’Brien against the Pumas his impact was felt immediately and he never let up for the rest of the match. Much like second rower James Ryan, Leavy seems to have no off button.

Ireland won’t be pleased with their struggles at lineout time, something which seemed to improve dramatically once second rower Devin Toner came on for Ian Henderson. However, Rory Best’s lineout throws also left a lot to be desired, and for a while now we’ve felt that Sean Cronin actually has better accuracy in such vital set pieces. Furthermore, we also couldn’t help but get the impression that in the final quarter once Peter O’Mahony was given the Captain’s armband, Ireland’s shape changed and they seemed to hit another gear, as well as become much more clinical. None of this is meant in any way to be disdainful of Rory Best and his leadership or ability. Best is an outstanding servant of Irish rugby and a big part of their success of the last few years. However, when he does have an off day Ireland clearly suffers. Even the incomparable Johnny Sexton had a very poor game by his standards until the final quarter. Jordan Larmour as we suspected, had a tough go of it at fullback and Argentina tested him to the full defensively, so much so that he was found wanting on occasion and as a result he was given little opportunity to show off the attacking skills that had everyone talking after the match with Italy the weekend before.

It wasn’t pretty from Ireland, but they got the job done, and by the final quarter seemed to have found their rhythm once more. In addition, both scrum halves who will have to do duty next weekend, as a result of the continued absence of Conor Murray, put in solid performances and each managed to bag a fine try. Ireland know they will need to take it up another couple of gears next weekend if they are to survive a day out with New Zealand in what is rightly being billed as the biggest Test of the year. Ireland still have plenty of work to do between now and next Saturday, but it still should be one hell of a contest!

South Africa leave it till the last minute, but show a resolve we have rarely seen from them, especially on the road

France will be bitterly disappointed with their loss at the death to South Africa. It was a great Test match and France acquitted themselves very well indeed, however, in a match running so closely on the margins France committed some key errors that ultimately decided the game. South Africa were made to work for every scrap, and it is clear that France are starting to click just in time to make them a genuine nuisance come the World Cup. However, the Springboks execution was for the most part just that much better, and their focus in the dying minutes showed a calmness and confidence that wasn’t all that different to that shown by a group of men in green jerseys who visited the French capital back in February this year.

France we felt had a lot to be pleased about. Their front row may have taken a bit of a beating at times, but their second row and their back row in particular stood up superbly to a very powerful challenge from South Africa. Their halfback pairing, especially Baptiste Serin at scrum half looked the part as did the bench pairing of Anthony Belleau and Antoine Dupont. France’s backs also impressed, especially veteran fullback Maxime Medard. In short, France are clearly finding their way again and could well end up as a smoking gun in next year’s World Cup. There is still a certain naiveté about them at times, but with the European Champions Cup and next year’s Six Nations in store for many of these players, France should be in fine form come the World Cup.

South Africa managed to put last week’s disappointment behind them, and with the return of key players like scrum half Faf de Klerk, fullback Willie le Roux and second rower Franco Mostert, South Africa played with an assurance that was lacking at key moments last weekend against England. Fly half Handre Pollard’s kicking game was rock solid and he switched effortlessly to centre once Elton Jantjies replaced him at ten in the final quarter. Malcolm Marx was a shadow of the player that raised so many eyebrows last weekend in terms of missed opportunities. He hit his targets in the lineouts, made life a misery for France in the scrums and the loose, and generally got back to the kind of form we are accustomed to seeing from this remarkable player. South Africa may have been slow to get out of the blocks in the first half, but by the hour mark they were starting to fizz. Furthermore with five minutes to go they just didn’t look like panicking. They knew what they had to do and set about doing it calmly and efficiently. There is no question that replacement Hooker Bongi Mbonambi’s radar like accuracy at lineout time helped enormously and his game breaking try at the death was just reward for his efforts.

It may be premature to say – but this is best evidence we’ve seen that the gap is closing between North and South, just in time for what should be one of the most closely contested World Cups ever!

That one point difference between England and New Zealand says a lot about how quickly some of the Northern Hemisphere sides are starting to catch up to the World’s number one side, the All Blacks. There is still a long way to go, but the fact that France almost beat South Africa while England held New Zealand to the death and lost by only a point, says a lot about what we could expect from next year’s World Cup. If Ireland are able to pull off the unthinkable without Conor Murray and beat New Zealand this weekend, then it would seem to indicate that the omens for a very closely contested and open World Cup next year are looking very good indeed. Argentina seem to be peaking at just the right time, Wales are looking like they are blessed with depth and know how to win, even if last weekend’s match wasn’t the best advertisement for the latter quality. England are back and everyone knows that Ireland are good – next weekend will simply tell us how good. South Africa are starting to hum, France are rising from the ashes and Scotland continue to look dangerous. The only real question mark is Australia, and we still argue that only a fool would write them off, even if your tea leaves are telling you to do so.

In short, on what is for all intents and purposes neutral ground for Rugby’s traditional superpowers, next year’s World Cup in Japan should be one of the most open and competitive in the tournament’s history. We will know a lot more once the next two weeks are over, but have to admit we are already getting more than just a little excited!

Endnote

As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our posts this month with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there, subscribe and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content. In the meantime here’s their excellent look at the England/New Zealand game.

So now it’s official as we head into the November Test window proper, despite last weekend’s headline encounter between England and South Africa. What was once the most anticipated contest since the last World Cup, that between England and New Zealand, now has to play second fiddle to the clash between Ireland and the All Blacks next weekend, but it is still an event that has had most of us talking for a very long time. Consequently, this Saturday’s match up between England and New Zealand will give us a good indicator of how far England have managed to dig themselves out of the rut that has been plaguing them since the start of 2018, and what Ireland are likely to have to contend with as they face the world’s best next weekend.

This weekend’s proceedings kick off with Italy against Georgia, which sadly due to a lack of time and resources we will not be covering. Scotland then take on Fiji which we are also having to gloss over due to the same reasons as Italy and Georgia, with no disrespect to four great sides.

The first big encounter which has got us talking is England vs New Zealand. England managed to hold a badly misfiring South Africa at bay last weekend by the narrowest of margins (and no we are not referring to the Farrell tackle – see our previous post in relation to our thoughts on that). England battled well against a powerful Springbok unit that clearly had a stranglehold on proceedings in the first half, but somehow managed to fluff numerous golden opportunities while they were camped deep in the English 22. In the second half, English fans will have taken heart in how well some of the newer English caps got to grips with the nature of a very physical game, and while they never really looked like crossing the South African whitewash, much heart and grit was displayed in a solid workmanlike performance coupled to some resolute defence. England in their current shape are a ways off from being a contender for the number 2 spot in the world rankings, which they were when this match was first announced. As a result for the neutral supporter the match has lost some of its billing with the clash between Ireland and New Zealand next weekend likely to provide more light on who’s who in the global pecking order of Test rugby. Nevertheless, a clash between these two rugby superpowers is always something to look forward to, and while many are seeing the result as a foregone conclusion, it is still likely to provide plenty of drama and excitement.

Next up Wales take on Australia and many are predicting that they will finally break the curse of not having beaten the Wallabies in their last thirteen encounters. Australia arrive struggling to fire as a unit despite being blessed with a wealth of individual talent, especially in the backs. Wales have built a solid foundation with plenty of depth and experience, and 2018 has been an outstanding year for them, finishing second in the Six Nations and clean sweep of their June tour against South Africa and Argentina. Last weekend against Scotland they looked a classy and slick outfit, that seems to have managed to combine an enviable balance of exceptional young talent and experienced campaigners. Australia meanwhile have shown that they can come back from almost insurmountable odds, as evidenced in their final game of the Rugby Championship against Argentina. At the end of a tough tournament and a long way from home the Wallabies were put to the sword by the Pumas in the first half, but somehow after a dressing room rant from Coach Michael Cheika, came back and won the game in emphatic style. Which Wallaby side will we see for eighty minutes on Saturday in Cardiff and will they remain as Wales’ ultimate problem side?

From Cardiff we travel across the Irish Sea as Ireland take on a resurgent Argentina under new management. Argentina arrive in Europe after a Rugby Championship which had many people sit up and take notice once more after Argentina seemed to fade off the radar somewhat prior to that. However, the Pumas will be kicking themselves after their last match with Australia in which they blew a seemingly invincible lead over the Wallabies. They will be looking to make a statement against Ireland that Argentina are back and, just as they always do, starting to look ominous a year out from the World Cup. Ireland meanwhile will no doubt be slightly nervous about this encounter, as Argentina are clearly their problem side. As successful a year as it has been for the Men in Green as they sit comfortably in the number two spot in the world rankings, they know that Argentina has the ability to rattle even the world’s best. Ireland’s outing in Chicago last weekend against a feeble Italian side was merely a warm up for the real work that lies ahead of them in two tough encounters over the next fortnight. Ireland may have beat Argentina last November, but this Pumas side is a very different animal which has the skill to capitalise on any opportunities Ireland give them.

We end the day in Paris as the Springboks seek to get their November tour back on track after struggling with the play book against England last Saturday. Despite the media attention focused on the Farrell tackle on centre Andre Esterhuizen in the dying minute of the game, the Springboks know that they had essentially thrown the game well before then by sloppy and poor execution, resulting in them leaving at least a ten point lead out on the park. France meanwhile are an intriguing beast. They clearly looker sharper and more focused this year under new Coach Jacques Brunel, but consistency remains their Achilles Heel. Much like England, injury woes from their gruelling domestic competition the TOP 14 have meant that les Bleus are missing some key players for three tough challenges this month. There are a lot more veterans in this French side than youngsters, at least in the starting XV. Will France regret this opportunity to throw caution to the wind and have one last shot at building some genuine depth before the World Cup?

As a Canadian based blog, it would be remiss of us to not mention the fact that our own Canadian boys taken on Kenya this weekend in France, in the first of three matches to snatch the last remaining slot for next year’s World Cup in Japan. We have been dismayed that there has been little to no media coverage of this in Canada, so much so that we are struggling to find out any information other than the starting lineups. Consequently, as much as we would like to cover it we are clutching at straws in terms of what to base our opinions on. As a result we are refraining from saying much about this week’s fixture, and hope to comment once we get a feel of where Canada is at having watched this first of three matches. Kenya is a side Canada knows well from the Sevens circuit, and this weekend should see an interesting encounter. The odds should favor Canada, but the game is in such a mess at the national level in this country at the moment that anything could happen. So we’ll leave it at that for now till we’ve watched the opening match.

So enough of the preamble and let’s get into our five talking points for each of this weekend’s big four matches.

England vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 10th
Twickenham

Until very recently this was being billed by many as the biggest game to be played between the last World Cup and next year’s global showdown in Japan. England were riding a remarkable wave of success that saw them as unbeatable, and number two in the World rankings. A stark contrast to their Pool stage exit from the 2015 World Cup which saw them as humiliated hosts. Then one rainy afternoon in Dublin last year, the English renaissance came to a sudden crashing halt and has never really recovered since. They have been eclipsed by Ireland and Wales in the world rankings, and as a result this fixture has lost some of the hype that had originally been built up around it.

England come into the match reeling from an injury count from hell, but can take some comfort from the fact that despite being written off against the Springboks they emerged the winners last weekend, albeit by the slimmest of margins. However, as much as we were happy to see England start to find their groove again, there is no denying that if South Africa had not made as many baffling errors in basic execution as they did, England would be heading into this match in a rather different state of mind. England were not exactly brilliant last weekend, but they were good enough at the basics to keep a clearly faltering Springbok side at bay. Still it’s Twickenham and the heady mix of 80,000 supporters and one of rugby’s greatest rivalries means there is always an element of what if, even if the odds would seem against it.

New Zealand meanwhile arrive at Twickenham brimming with confidence. They have been the best side in the world now for a long time, and don’t look like relinquishing their place at the top of the ladder anytime soon. While they themselves have misfired at times this year, most notably against South Africa in Wellington, they have always managed to come back and at the end of the day have only lost three matches in as many years. Only one of those three losses was by more than five points, and that honor goes to their opponents next weekend – Ireland. Invincible they are not, but we have trouble buying into the argument that they have looked vulnerable to any great degree. They can be beaten, but it is going to take a very special side to do it and one that is in the right head space to do so. We may be proven wrong, but we’re not sure England is that team right now.

England need Ben Moon to put in another big performance in what is likely to be an even more difficult front row battle than last week against the Springboks

Once he came on last weekend for Alec Hepburn, England’s fortunes in the scrum changed dramatically, against a powerful and for the most part dominant Springbok front row. Moon provided a solid platform that really got some traction going for England in a difficult contest. They will need more of the same this weekend, as this All Black front row is a lethal combination of power and mobility. All Black Hooker Codie Taylor seems to have stepped effortlessly into the huge boots left behind by the injured Dane Coles, while newcomer Karl Tuinukuafe and veteran Owen Franks need no introduction.

How do you compete with the two best locks in the world and keep your discipline?

England’s Maro Itoje who continued to struggle with discipline issues last week against South Africa, will be pushed even harder this weekend by the most professional and skilled second row on the planet – New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. Retallick is a force of nature who also excels at getting underneath oppositions’ skins, while Whitelock is the cool, calm voice of reason in the heat of battle. Itoje managed to get himself back on track in the second half against South Africa and arguably played the best rugby we’ve seen him play all year. There is no question he is a gifted player and his colleague George Kruis is a master of hard graft. However, remaining competitive against two of the world’s best, who are likely to stay on the pitch until New Zealand have built up a lead, and keep the penalty count down will be the ultimate test of how well the English pair can measure up on the world stage.

England had a back row last weekend, but we’re not so sure about this one

England were competitive in the back row last week, make no mistake. The loss of exceptional newcomer Tom Curry through injury is a massive blow. England manage to retain the services of Mark Wilson who excelled last weekend, along with Brad Shields who should at least be familiar with his opposition and former Hurricanes counterpart Ardie Savea. Still what is baffling us is the absence of Zach Mercer who we thought was exceptional last weekend when he came on for the injured Curry. Mercer doesn’t even make the bench. Given his stellar performance you would have thought that, even though this may well be a match England are likely to lose, the experience of going up against the world’s best in preparation for the World Cup would have been invaluable. Given the explosive power of Savea and Liam Squire for New Zealand, England may regret this selection decision.

Owen Farrell is unlikely to be a match for Beauden Barrett

Owen Farrell, despite the unfortunate controversy at the end of the match against the Springboks, had a good game last weekend. However, he does have a tendency to lose his cool as frustration gets the better of him and he spends too much time trying to chew the referee’s ear off. While his goal kicking may be more reliable than Barrett’s, his speed of thinking and sense of opportunity is nowhere near that of the New Zealander’s. Furthermore Barrett tends to spend as little time as possible discussing the finer points of the game with the officials and more time playing it. Don’t get us wrong Farrell is a very fine player, but Saturday’s contest is likely to show up the gulf in quality at fly half between the two sides.

The selectors dilemma when it comes to centres, but is it logical?

We have struggled of late with the choices made by many of the big teams in this part of the park and are just as perplexed this weekend. England’s to a certain extent are understandable as they are injury driven. However, as we said last week, is Ben Te’o really the best England has to offer for such a momentous encounter? We didn’t really see anything last weekend to justify such faith. Henry Slade is not a bad choice for England and he showed some sparkle last week, even if it didn’t really materialise into points on the board. As for New Zealand, we can only assume that this is Sonny Bill Williams last chance on the big stage to prove himself worthy of his continued favor in the eyes of the New Zealand selectors. We still have seen little of him in the past year that justifies the fascination. Instead, New Zealand’s big match centre pairings look much more dynamic with newcomer Jack Goodhue, who at least makes the starting XV for this match, and Ryan Crotty with Anton Liennert-Brown on the bench. Oh well jury is out on this one and we wait with bated breath to see how both sides work on the day!

England’s back three are likely to be heroes or villains on the day but nothing in between

Don’t get us wrong, England’s back three and especially fullback Elliot Daly and Jonny May are two of our favourite players on the Test circuit right now and a genuine credit to the English jersey. Furthermore, one could argue that Chris Ashton’s place in the squad is long overdue. However, when you look at the pedigree of New Zealand’s back three then the three English lads perhaps have the most difficult task of any English players on the park on Saturday. If they can’t contain New Zealand’s three wonder weapons they are likely to be vilified in the press the next day, but if they do somehow manage to contain the All Black magicians, expect them to be paraded through London streets at the top of an open double-decker bus on Sunday morning. We simply do not envy their job on Saturday and wish them well, but fear they will have the sternest examination of any of the English squad this weekend.

Verdict

Plain and simple, even against the world’s best never write off England at Twickenham no matter what the occasion, and they don’t get much bigger than this. Despite that though we just find it hard to see England containing an All Black unit that, despite a few wobbles this year, is still humming very nicely. Despite the odd mishap, the ability of this New Zealand side to regroup is remarkable and can happen in the blink of an eye – no Michael Cheika dressing room rant required for these boys. England are clearly relishing their underdog status this week and ultimately could pull off one of the biggest upsets since the last World Cup. Nevertheless, and with no disrespect to England we feel it may be a flight of fancy. New Zealand have been looking forward to this encounter for three years and are in fine fettle to make an emphatic statement on Saturday. Consequently, New Zealand should ultimately walk away with this by 13 points. We’ve enjoyed being proven wrong against the odds a few times this year, and would be delighted for England and their supporters if we end up having to eat our words again on Sunday morning – so good luck to both sides and here’s hoping it lives up to its original billing!

Wales vs Australia
Saturday, November 10th
Cardiff

It surely must be time for Wales! After 13 consecutive defeats by Australia, Wales must surely turn the corner and reverse the tide in Cardiff on Saturday. After what we saw of them last weekend, we genuinely feel that it is likely to be the case against a Wallaby side struggling with team identity and form.

We’ve always battled with trying to fathom why Wales can’t seem to beat Australia, especially at home. Given that many of the encounters have been agonizingly close, we battle to understand why Wales can’t haul themselves over that final hill and get the win. They are in fine form this year and boast an excellent combination of sparkling young talent and seasoned veterans. Furthermore, they look well organised and sure of themselves. These are all qualities that Australia struggle with and only occasionally manage to demonstrate. The final forty minutes of their last Rugby Championship encounter with Argentina being one of the rare examples. We have a hunch that Welsh eyes will be smiling on Saturday – but it is Australia so who really knows?

Big things expected of the Wallaby second row, but it might just work

We think Adam Coleman is a standout player for Australia and have been saying so for a while, and if things go Australia’s way this should be the Tour where he really lays down the marker we feel he needs to make. Furthermore, he is partnered by Izack Rodda who has also caught our eye of late. Australia’s lineouts in particular simply have to work, and establish some kind of dominant platform for Australia, especially as we feel that once again their scrum is likely to struggle. They’ll be up against it in the shape of Welsh talisman Alun-Wyn Jones, but we feel this is one area where Australia could pack a few unexpected punches on Saturday.

Another superhero performance will be required from Wales’ most underrated player Justin Tipuric

Regular readers of this blog will know that we regard Tipuric as Wales’ contribution to Marvel Comics Hall of Fame. That he is not considered Wales’ automatic go to starter in a match day XV has always baffled us slightly, but is also a testament to the depth Wales are traditionally blessed with in the back row. However, when you want that ultimate grunt factor of putting in a massive shift against the odds, there are few players as good as Tipuric. He will be up against it as he, along with Ross Moriarity and Dan Lydiate, will have to contain two of the world’s best poachers in the shape of Australia’s David Pocock and Michael Hooper. Tipuric’s colleagues are likely to have a lot to say, but it is Tipuric who is likely to be the talisman in terms of galvanizing the Welsh response to the Australian threat in this part of the park.

Jonathan Davies vs Kurtley Beale – a contest for the ages

Well it should be – if Kurtley Beale shows up, something he has rarely done this year, even when playing his preferred position at inside centre. However, Davies has been on song since his return from injury and just gets better and better with each outing. He may not have the turn of pace or sudden creativity of Beale, but he is a better tactical thinker and outstanding distributor of quality ball to his back line. If both these two bring their A game on Saturday, this contest alone should be enough in itself to justify the price of admission.

While we can understand Dane Haylett-Petty staying at fullback we just don’t see Israel Folau as a winger

Israel Folau has often been criticised as a slightly selfish player in terms of ball distribution, and this may be the reason why Coach Michael Cheika is persisting with the experiment of keeping him on the wing as opposed to his normal role at fullback. Haylett-Petty has proven himself to be equally comfortable with both roles as well as being a superb playmaker. However, given his height Folau may once again run the risk of repeated high tackles against his smaller and nimbler opponent, Wales’ Josh Adams. We just have a horrible feeling this is going to backfire once more on Australia on Saturday.

Wales know who they are as a team but Australia still need to look deeper than the jersey

After Michael Cheika’s now infamous rant in the changing room at half time in Salta, the Wallabies found the glue that brought them together as a team and they played some of their best rugby of the year. However, once again that quality eluded them a few weeks later as they sought to avoid yet more humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks in Japan. Once again they looked lacklustre, disorganised and off the pace. Watch Welsh performances this year and you won’t see a starker contrast. Australia know that the kind of mental fortitude required to get that team synergy goes much deeper than just understanding the value of the jersey. Wales seem to have figured it out and it remains to be seen if Australia can match it.

Verdict

Write Australia off at your peril, they may be going through a crisis of confidence and form at the moment, but this is a team that always surprises. Cardiff seems to be one of those grounds on which Australia seem to excel at silencing their critics. While history favors them doing so again, we just can’t help feeling that Wales are likely to reverse history on Saturday. Wales just look too sharp and like a team really enjoying playing together and building on each successive win. In front of an intensely vocal and large home crowd a fourteenth consecutive Welsh scalp for the Wallabies is probably going to be a bridge too far. As a result we are handing Wales this one by four points!

Ireland vs Argentina
Saturday, November 10th
Dublin

Last week’s encounter between Ireland and Italy in Chicago did little more than showcase a wealth of young Irish talent. As mesmerised as we all were by the sight of fullback Jordan Larmour scything his way through hapless Italian defences and Tadhg Beirne making a mockery of Italian set pieces – a reality check was needed. It was a great Irish display by their second and third string against an Italian side that was little more than a fill in practice squad for the Irish after the first forty minutes. This weekend’s encounter against a revitalized Argentinian side under new management will be a very different prospect.

One thing is for sure that Argentina’s scrum is unlikely to be much of a factor as in days of old

One of Argentina’s traditional strengths is no longer the wonder weapon it used to be for the South Americans. Under new Coach Mario Ledesma some improvements have been seen but it still creaks. By the time the World Cup rolls around we imagine it will be getting back to its former ways, but we don’t expect to see much improvement this week in Dublin. If it can remain remotely competitive against Ireland’s Rory Best, the incomparable Tadgh Furlong and Cian Healy, then you could argue that Ledesma will have already made enormous progress. But this is one area where Ireland are likely to establish early dominance and hang onto it as a key platform.

Guido Petti in the back row – unconventional but could be a stroke of genius

Argentina will not struggle at lineout time without him as Mattias Alemanno and Tomas Lavanini are more than capable of holding the fort. In the absence of the exceptional Marcos Kremer who has had to return to Argentina for family reasons, Petti’s inclusion in the back row is a good option. Dynamic in the loose and able to turn in a blistering pace with ball in hand, Petti seems perfectly at home in the ranging loose forward role. Ireland will need to keep a steady eye on him on Saturday.

Meanwhile it could be make or break for Ireland’s Sean O’Brien in the back row

Injury has not been kind to one of Ireland’s best in recent years, and with the exceptional Dan Leavy looking over his shoulder then it may be hard to argue his place in the starting XV for the match against New Zealand the following weekend, if O’Brien fails to put in a big shift on Saturday. Having said that big Test matches seem to produce something special in O’Brien, and this may be the catalyst that brings him back to his very best.

The great Irish scrum half debate

In the continued absence of Conor Murray for Ireland, some were surprised to see Kieran Marmion get the nod as the starting nine over Luke McGrath for this match. McGrath put in a polished performance against Italy last weekend and many thought as a result he would be a shoe in for this match. However, Coach Joe Schmidt knows he needs to have seen both Marmion and McGrath at Test level before the big decision of whom to play next weekend against the All Blacks. McGrath is still a relatively unknown quantity at Test level. Marmion on the other hand has produced a few miracles for Ireland in the last two years. His first was when he played out of position on the wing in Ireland’s epic win over Australia in 2016. Then in 2017 when Murray was ruled out of the Six Nations finale against England, in a tournament in which Ireland had struggled to find their groove, Marmion stepped in and was part of the squad to finally break England’s record-breaking winning streak. The man is a proven commodity under pressure in big matches. Consequently, for us Schmidt is making the right call this weekend.

Jordan Larmour looked fantastic last weekend but this weekend is a MASSIVE step up

Yes we too were blown away by the Larmour freak show last weekend in Chicago. Make no mistake, this is an exceptionally talented young man we’re talking about. However, Italy allowed him to show off his talents and rarely, if at all, asked him any questions defensively. Argentina has one of the best back lines in Test Rugby right now and fullback Emiliano Boffelli will put Larmour under the most rigorous examination, with Bautista Delguy and Ramiro Moyano also adding their own defensive conundrums to the equation. Essentially the three Pumas will be running at Larmour all afternoon if his colleagues can’t shut them down, causing the youngster to have to think on his feet at an alarming rate. If he passes the test and Kearney is still unavailable for the All Black clash then the rest of Ireland will sleep easier on Sunday night – but talk about pressure!

Verdict

Argentina will give Ireland much more of a run for their money than they did last year, and even then they were surprisingly competitive at times. However, the Pumas under new management are a radically different beast and starting to click. If Pumas fly half Nicolas Sanchez puts in the kind of performances we know he is capable of, the Pumas forwards keep Ireland busy and their back three run riot, then Ireland could ask for no better Test prior to their meeting next weekend with the All Blacks. Ireland will have to remain alert for the fully eighty minutes and keep the scoreboard ticking over regularly. If they don’t the Pumas could provide them with some nasty surprises. That said however, Ireland are likely to make a statement that says they are ready for the Test of the Year the following weekend against New Zealand. Consequently in what should be an exciting and hard-fought contest, Ireland to ultimately pull away by 11 points!

France vs South Africa
Saturday, November 10th
Paris

South Africa travel to Paris knowing they need to put that performance against England behind them and get back to the kind of form that caused New Zealand so much trouble in the recent Rugby Championship. They have the talent of that there is no question, and with the welcome return of three key players this weekend, it is unlikely that they will come as unstuck against France as they did against England. France so far this year are still a mystery side. They came the closest to denying Ireland their Six Nations Grand Slam, and despite being ultimately whitewashed by New Zealand on their summer tour, they still showed moments of brilliance that were enough to catch the world’s number one off guard on more than a few occasions. It will be a big ask for them to beat a wounded Springbok side that seems to finally be coming to terms with how to win away from home, despite hiccoughs in Argentina, Australia and most recently England. But as everyone knows, it’s France so anything could happen!

Malcolm Marx – where were you last week?

This was the question everyone was asking this week, as we watched arguably one of the best Hookers in the world miss three crucial lineouts, and by his standards have an exceptionally quiet afternoon at the breakdowns and in affecting turnover ball. Marx’s tendency to have a bad day at the lineout is well documented, however it rarely happens in back to back matches. Consequently we don’t expect to see him have a relapse this weekend. As a result France are likely to struggle to get to grips at the breakdowns and if their forwards can’t contain Marx’s characteristic rampaging runs, then South Africa should be able to turn the dominance they had last week in possession into actual points on the board in Paris.

And for France – Paul Gabrillagues where are you?

The second rower for us was one of the heroes of France’s tour to New Zealand this summer even if France walked away empty-handed after three matches. Gabrillagues on numerous occasions seemed to be constantly in the thick of things and making some hard yards for a French team under intense pressure, especially with 14 men. As a result we find his presence on the bench baffling, as Yoann Maestri offers far less of a threat in our view. It remains to be seen how long Gabrillagues has to spend on the bench, but for France’s sake we hope we see him on the pitch sooner rather than later.

An interesting back row contest that could be the surprise package of the match

We actually think that this could be one of the most exciting and closely fought contests on the pitch. The French trio, have some remarkable experience in the shape of Louis Picamoles while Wenceslas Lauret and Artur Iturria have made us sit up and take notice every time they’ve pulled on a blue jersey this year. South Africa’s tried and trusted trio need little introduction but we felt they didn’t make the impact expected of them against a far less experienced English trio last weekend. In short, there is going to be a lot to watch here on Saturday, and could provide some key turning points for both sides.

South Africa’s centre conundrum

First up we would like to apologise to Damian de Allende. For quite a while now we’ve given the Springbok centre the short end of the stick. While we like many felt our lack of enthusiasm for the big centre was justified we still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Despite being on the losing side last weekend, he finally made us tear up our critics’ notes. He put in a truly outstanding performance and showed a maturity and skill in his game that we simply haven’t seen up to now, as he was a constant thorn in the English defence. Unfortunately we couldn’t say that of his partner Jesse Kriel who for us remains far too one-dimensional and easy to read. When Andre Esterhuizen came on the field, a much more challenging threat was created for the English defences. As a result we are surprised to see Kriel start again and Esterhuizen not even make the bench.

Teddy Thomas vs Aphiwe Dyantyi – a contest to savor

To say we are looking forward to this one would be a massive understatement. With both wingers seemingly able to create and score tries at will, this should provide plenty of entertainment on Saturday. It’s still perhaps less what they can do with ball in hand and more what they can do on defence which is still the bigger question in most peoples’ minds. For us Dyantyi would appear to have made the most progress in that department. A fascinating contest between two very gifted strike runners awaits and, much like the battle of the back rows, should be one of the most riveting aspects of Saturday’s proceedings in Paris.

Verdict

France at this stage, and based on results this year, are still too much of an unknown quantity for us to predict where they may be on the scoreboard when referee Nigel Owens blows the final whistle in Paris. South Africa have a point to prove, and a win here will do much to put a seriously flawed performance against England behind them and allow them to move on to a challenging encounter with a fast and furious Scotland. Malcolm Marx is unlikely to fluff his lines on the throw ins as badly as he did against England, and the forwards in general should be able to stifle some hearty and proven French grunt up front. If the Springboks can keep Teddy Thomas in check then they should have enough firepower in the backs to be more effective in turning possession into points on the scoreboard. As a result we think a highly entertaining contest awaits, but one in which South Africa have read the right script and emerge the victors by six points!

Endnote

The biggest question on everybody’s lips this month is – how do you beat the All Blacks? Well we thought we’d let our favourite experts answer it for you. Yes Steve and Gareth from the 1014 are back with another fascinating instalment on just that subject. We imagine if they’ve got any common sense Ireland’s Joe Schmidt and England’s Eddie Jones have it on continuous play! Enjoy and give them a big thumbs up and subscribe to their outstanding content.

Yes we know it’s not the “official” window until this Saturday, but there is no denying that this weekend, and the England/South Africa match in particular, gave us plenty to think about as we chewed over our Sunday post action brunch this morning, as well as a few heated debates. So much so we felt we had to put pen to paper as to what had us agreeing to disagree this morning ahead of the November Internationals kicking into top gear this coming Saturday.

So here are the five key points that struck us after this weekend’s proceedings.

So let’s get the elephant out of the room first – that Farrell tackle

First and foremost whatever you may think, and believe us this caused some heated debate this morning over breakfast, that incident alone did not win or lose the Test match. South Africa lost the match by leaving at least ten points out on the park, which had they capitalised on would have meant that whatever the officials decision in the 82nd minute, it would have been inconsequential to the result. Sadly the Springboks were left clutching to a 50/50 call going in their favor to win a Test match. It was an unfortunate end to what had been a fascinating and intense Test match, even if the quality on offer from both sides was perhaps somewhat lacking at times.

As for the actual tackle, like we say it is 50/50. We had a look at the multiple replays of it that appeared on YouTube this morning. We are really struggling to see much attempt at wrapping by Farrell’s right arm which leads many to think he led with the shoulder. However, his saving grace does seem to be that the contact does fall appreciably below Esterhuizen’s shoulder. For that he can be grateful that the Springbok comes in at a towering 6’4/1.94 metres. A smaller player and that shoulder would have gone straight to the head and then none of us would be having this debate as Farrell would have seen at least yellow. Consequently, we would argue it was done without malice but lacked in technique, execution and timing but as a dangerous tackle per se it can, as the officials deemed, be given the benefit of the doubt and the rest is history. Like we say, it is sad that such a fascinating and intense match will likely be remembered for that final act rather than the titanic, albeit poorly executed by both sides, struggle that it was.

Bottom line, difficult call but in itself did not win or lose the game! There were far more telling factors that ultimately influenced the result. So time to move on!

South Africa have only themselves to blame for throwing the game in the first half, despite completely dominating possession

Now that we’ve dealt with that sideshow tackle at the end of the match, it is our firm belief that South Africa lost this match in the first half despite being the dominant side. As predicted they owned the exchanges in the tight five in the first forty minutes, although their back row was not as effective as we thought it would be – more on that later from an English perspective. It was while England were defending a five metre South African attacking lineout with 14 men that South Africa really threw the game. The fact that Marx missed the mark on three occasions on the English five metre line, one of which saw only 14 English defenders, was critical. South Africa’s driving maul was, as expected, clearly wearing down the English defences and it was only a matter of time before at least one five-pointer was in the bag for the Springboks. The fact that they came away with none is simply not good enough at Test level despite some heroic English defence.  Furthermore on that 5 metre lineout with 14 English defenders, South Africa not only threw away possession but also conceded a three-point penalty which saw England get their first points on the board. Coach Rassie Erasmus will know that at this level, if you are really serious about being World Cup contenders, you simply cannot afford such kinds of lapses in concentration.

Where was Malcolm Marx?

As we said in the preview, the South African Hooker is prone to misfiring badly in the lineout, but his presence in other areas of the game is so huge that it can sometimes negate a poor performance on the throw ins. However, even that didn’t materialise yesterday. Marx was far too quiet and only effected 1 turnover, whereas on a good day five turnovers seem to be his standard fare coupled to some bullocking runs to get South Africa into the opposition half. We saw little if any of that yesterday, and that coupled to his nightmare performance at the lineout and two vital kicks missed by Pollard meant that South Africa lost a key component of the formula that makes them so devastatingly effective and difficult to play against. Had all of this worked for them South Africa would have been at least 15 points ahead of England at the 82nd minute, making the final act of the game completely and utterly inconsequential.

England seem to have found their back row

England can feel well pleased with their performance yesterday, although they will be disappointed that they were unable to garner any points from crossing the South African whitewash, and instead had to rely on the boots of Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly to get them on the scoreboard. However, for us the key finding of yesterday was that they seem to have found a back row that works. Tom Curry is worth his weight in gold but was ably replaced by Zach Mercer. Meanwhile Mark Wilson put in a highly respectable shift at number eight despite his lack of Test experience. Brad Shields was solid and may play better against his New Zealand counterparts next weekend who he is more familiar with.

It was hard to really find the spirit in the other two matches this weekend – even though they may have been invaluable warm ups for the action to come

In both the Wales/Scotland and Ireland/Italy games it was hard to find that November flavor. Certainly there was plenty of emotion in the Wales/Scotland game and it was the more entertaining of the two contests, and both players and fans alike warmed to the cause generated by the presence of Doddie Weir in whose honor it was being held. However, it was still hard to get the feeling that these were relevant November internationals.

In the Wales/Scotland game, both sides will feel pleased with their exercises in depth development. Wales blend of experience and youth was clearly the dominant side, meaning that Wales have plenty to draw on for two tough encounters with Australia and South Africa this month. Scotland may have faltered at times, but there is plenty of raw talent there in their younger charges that just needs more exposure, something that Saturday’s outing will have benefitted enormously.

As for the Ireland/Italy game, we are not sure that Italy really learnt anything from the experience. Ireland on the other hand, will feel confident that their second/third string team were comfortable enough to make an emphatic statement in Chicago that Ireland has plenty of talent to work with to build a complete World Cup squad. What impressed us the most was how well Luke McGrath answered his country’s call at scrum half, and we want to see him get a similar opportunity against Argentina this Saturday in Dublin. It still may not be enough to get Ireland through their assignment with New Zealand should Conor Murray still not be available in a fortnight’s time, but it will be a huge stepping stone in addressing what is the last missing link in Ireland’s World Cup preparations.

And as for this guy, we’ll let the video do the talking.

Enjoy and we’ll be back for the official start of November’s feast of Test Rugby!

Endnote

As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our posts this month with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there, subscribe and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content. In the meantime here’s their excellent look at depth in the Six Nations teams.

Yes that’s right it’s one of our favourite times of the year, even if all the leaves are falling off the trees and reminding us that summer is but a distant memory. The November Internationals where North meets South once a year kicks off this weekend, and even though we are technically outside the “official Test window”, there are three intriguing encounters to look forward to this Saturday.

Intriguing they may be but there is no question that this weekend’s fixture between England and South Africa has enormous significance for both sides with everything to play for. England will want to redress the humiliation of a disastrous tour to South Africa in June, as well as break England’s poor run of form in 2018. For South Africa it will be an enormous Test of depth as they are without some key players that made such an impact during the series with England this year, as well as during the recent Rugby Championship. As an injury beset English squad looks to take on a formidable Springbok unit, albeit one with unknown quantities in a couple of vital positions, much will be learnt by both sides as to the quality of depth they are taking into the final twelve month run up to the World Cup next year.

Of the other two matches, Wales host Scotland in a rematch of their Six Nations encounter earlier this year. That match saw Scotland implode dramatically after such an impressive outing during the 2017 November Internationals, which had caused many to think they were to be the dark horse of 2018, especially in the Six Nations. Scotland are nursing their own injury woes, and are without a few key players as a result of this falling outside the “official”  Test window. Wales on the other hand look in robust health and in many ways have stolen Scotland’s thunder this year. Wales finished second in this year’s Six Nations and had a highly successful summer tour in which plenty was learnt about the depth they have in their squad. Wales will want to use this match to really lay down a marker to their other key opponents this month, South Africa and Australia.

Lastly, Ireland travel once more to the happy hunting grounds of Soldier Field in Chicago. While this weekend’s match doesn’t quite have the aura of that historic trip two years ago in which they claimed their first All Black scalp, it will be a valuable insight into the depth around key positions that is still keeping some Irish supporters awake at night, with the World Cup final less than a year away. Once more it’s a great opportunity to build the depth on the bench needed for two tough encounters this month, firstly with Argentina, and then arguably THE Test of the year against New Zealand.

We also appreciate that New Zealand are furthering their understanding of what it is like to play in Japan this weekend as they take on next year’s World Cup hosts. However, as we have been slightly under the gun this week, we’ve really only had time to have a look at the three matches listed above. So as always here are the five points per match that have got us talking this week.

Wales vs Scotland
Saturday, November 3rd
Cardiff

This match which is being held in honor of former player Doddie Weir and his crusade against Motor Neurone Disease, is a noble cause in itself. Both sides though are likely to come into this guns blazing. Scotland will seek to set the record straight and demonstrate that their blowout at the same venue against Wales in this year’s Six Nations was nothing more than a blip on the radar. Wales on the other hand will want to ensure that this showpiece of Welsh based players demonstrates that, as runners-up in this year’s Six Nations, South Africa and Australia will find them a force to be reckoned with. It would appear that Wales are starting to peak at just the right time for the World Cup and for once seem to be blessed with a depth of talent that bodes well for a successful campaign next year.

One of the best half back contests of the weekend

While some Scottish fans may be anxious at the absence of Finn Russell for this match, we’d argue that come the final whistle they may have a lot to be thankful for in the shape of newcomer Adam Hastings. Hastings seems to have slotted comfortably into the rather large shoes Russell left behind at Glasgow Warriors, once he left for a stint in France. Hastings has gone from strength to strength with Warriors and while Test Rugby is a huge step up we have a hunch Scotland may be pleasantly surprised by Hastings adaptability to the big occasion. Meanwhile, Gareth Anscombe has provided similar excitement for Wales in the last year and is rapidly being seen as a vital cog in Wales’ World Cup plans. Pair these two relative newcomers with the raw talent and energy of their scrum half partners Gareth Davies for Wales and Ali Price for Scotland, and there is a recipe for some serious excitement here. Both number 9s have now got some considerable Test experience behind them, and in our opinion Gareth Davies should be a shoe-in for the number one scrum half berth in Wales heading into the World Cup. This should be one of the most evenly matched and exciting contests on the field on Saturday.

Where is Josh Navidi for Wales?

Welsh based and with Cardiff Blues, we can only assume Coach Warren Gatland has chosen to rest Navidi and his back row colleague Aaron Shingler for the two big encounters with South Africa and Australia next month. Nevertheless, we were still surprised to see neither make the bench. That being said we are delighted to see Justin Tipuric back in action, as he has consistently ranked as one of our top players in the last five years for Wales. It’s a decent back row for Wales make no mistake, but it’s also a pretty fine offering from Scotland especially with bull terrier Hamish Watson in the mix and keep an eye to Matt Fagerson once he comes off the bench, so much so that Scotland could very well find themselves in the ascendancy here.

X-factor meets tactical genius

Another part of the park where a fascinating contest will unfold is in the centre channels. Wales’ Jonathan Davies is back to his very best and is one of the smartest centre tacticians out there. Powerful, fast and the thinking man’s centre, Davies will be a handful for the Scottish defences to contain. On the other hand so will Scotland’s Huw Jones, who is also a gifted visionary in the centre channels, but his sheer pace and unpredictability means that the Welsh defences will have their hands full trying to contain the explosive Scottish centre. Expect plenty of fireworks here on Saturday!

Will Wales’ Sevens gamble pay off in the shape of Luke Morgan?

The Welsh Sevens superstar gets his first cap for Wales this Saturday on the wing. The Sevens and Ospreys winger has lit up pitches for the last year, but whether or not he can make the transition to Test level remains to be seen, especially up against such a wily and dangerous opponent as Scotland’s Tommy Seymour who will put him through the most rigorous defensive examination. In short, some genuine excitement on offer here, especially if the Welsh experiment pays off.

Ultimately Wales’ look the more experienced outfit against an exciting but greener Scottish side

Whichever way you cut it, Wales just look the more seasoned campaigners when you break down the two squads. Scotland aren’t without some veterans and who wouldn’t want to have the likes of Jonny Gray, Hamish Watson, Tommy Seymour, Ali Price and co amongst your ranks. Nevertheless, Wales are still fielding a fairly top-heavy side of who’s who in Welsh rugby. Ken Owens, Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Gareth Davies, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny and George North all add a wealth of Test experience to every key component of this Welsh team. Consequently, despite some genuine experience and raw talent in the Scottish offering, Wales are still likely to be the more settled and balanced of the two sides on Saturday.

Verdict

We are unanimous in the opinion that Scotland will not be the shambles they were the last time they visited Cardiff in February this year. Even without some key names expect them to be ferociously competitive. However, Wales are on home ground in a Test match whose worthy cause is likely to get the emotions flowing. Add to that a very healthy and robust blend of youth and experience and we just feel that Wales are likely to get the upper hand on Saturday. Consequently we are handing this one to Wales by eight points!

England vs South Africa
Saturday, November 3rd
Twickenham

It may fall outside the “official” November Test window but that is about the only unofficial thing about this contest, and as a result it is without a doubt THE Test of the weekend. Both teams will want an emphatic victory and are likely to settle for nothing less. England and their Coach Eddie Jones will want to silence their critics and reverse once and for all England’s dramatic fall from the heights of International Rugby that has made headlines this year. South Africa on the other hand will want to show that the gains made under new Coach Rassie Erasmus are here to stay and that South Africa are once more a side to be feared. Furthermore, the Springboks will want to show as they did in their historic win in New Zealand during the recent Rugby Championship, that they can win big matches away from home, a quality that has eluded them for a long time up till now. A very high stakes game awaits for both sides, but there is no question that the victory is that much more important to a clearly beleaguered English side.

If South Africa’s front row can make a mockery of England in the opening stages, that could be the match, especially if Kitshoff and Marx are not kept at bay.

South Africa during the Rugby Championship realised that life becomes a lot easier for them if they can make the hard yards count in the first 60 minutes, rather than try to chase a scoreline. Who better than Hooker Malcolm Marx and Loosehead Prop Steven Kitshoff to ensure that such dominance is established first and foremost up front? These two are some of the best in the business at their trade, and are an absolute menace in generating turnover ball for their teams. Marx’s throwing at the lineout has occasionally misfired, but he is such a force to be reckoned with, both in the tight exchanges and in the loose, that one can almost overlook that. With ball in hand he is a force of nature, while Kitshoff excels at finding the gaps in any defensive wall inches from the try line. They are the blunt end of a very effective and bruisingly physical Springbok forward contingent that we fear England will find it hard to match on Saturday.

England need balance – South Africa already have it by the bucketload

Much has been talked about in relation to England’s lack of balance in the back row. In fairness to Eddie Jones and his men, that balance has been hard to develop as a result of a constant stream of injuries. Nevertheless, that Springbok back row looks the part, with Duane Vermeulen, Warren Whitelely and Siya Kolisi. They dismantled England in June and we expect them to do the same again this Saturday. As delighted as we are to see Tom Curry get a starting berth, we can’t help feeling that the rest of England’s back row offering is still unlikely to fire the way it needs to in order to contain the Springbok threat.

Maro Itoje needs to get a handle on his discipline as a very big game is required from him on Saturday

Like many we have been disappointed in the drop in form, particularly in terms of discipline, from what should be one of England’s standout players. That the man is a gifted rugby player is beyond question. However, it would seem that some of that recognition has gone to his head resulting in the odd pointless lapse in discipline. You can be assured that South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth, who is one of Test Rugby’s greatest windup artists will be looking to provoke the Englishman into such lapses. Expect some very heated debates and button pushing between these two especially at lineout time. Alongside the pair of them the much calmer heads of South Africa’s Pieter-Steph du Toit and England’s George Kruis should help to diffuse the tension in the second row, but the battle in the second rows is likely to be of titanic proportions and not made any easier for England once the giant figure of RG Snyman makes its way from the Springbok bench.

The biggest game of Ben Youngs career?

England need Ben Youngs on Saturday to have one of those Test career changing matches. Much like Maro Itoje, Youngs dip in form both at Club and Country level has been exceptionally difficult to fathom. Alongside fly half Owen Farrell, Youngs may find the spark that has been eluding him in his England partnership with George Ford. Furthermore, Youngs experience should get the better of South Africa’s Ivan Van Zyl. While South Africa will find it impossible to replicate the remarkable skill set of Faf de Klerk, we couldn’t help feeling that there were better options than Van Zyl, who has failed to set the world alight for us. We would have thought that although he may lack the dynamism South Africa are seeking in the position after de Klerk’s impact, Ross Cronje seemed a much more reliable option than Van Zyl whose lack of Test experience is alarming. While we appreciate that South Africa desperately need to develop depth at scrum half, is this the right match to be doing it in? In short we see this as a massive weakness in South Africa’s armory on Saturday, that England and Youngs in particular should be able to exploit to the full.

England’s centre choices

We are left scratching our heads on this one. Yes we know that England is beset with injury problems but is Ben Te’o really England’s best option right now and for a game of such stature? Agreed question marks have been raised around South Africa’s Jesse Kriel and especially Damian de Allende, and we’re the first to admit that we have been some of the biggest critics of de Allende. However, these two and de Allende in particular have really upped their game this year to the point where they are an impressive unit. We also think that South Africa’s bench offering in this department is also someone who can really make a difference in the shape of Andre Esterhuizen, who we feel is one of the most underrated Springbok players at the moment.

Verdict

This game will be won up front – of that we have no doubt. England would appear to have a more tried and tested back line on attack. However, South Africa also have the dancing feet of Aphiwe Dyantyi who lit up the Rugby Championship with his try scoring ability, in a similar vein to England’s Jonny May, although we think the South African is slightly more elusive and difficult to track. If Ben Youngs fires alongside Owen Farrell then the English half back partnership should have the edge over South Africa’s experimental unit, but if Youngs has another shocker then the stakes could even out. The resulting battle between Farrell and Pollard should be one for the ages and a real test of how far Pollard has come.

Nevertheless, we just get the feeling that South Africa are riding a more positive wave than England at the moment and their forward pack should get the upper hand on Saturday, provided they can keep the referee on their side. South Africa’s physicality is no longer the one-dimensional juggernaut it has tended to be in recent years, and has become a lot more mobile and destructive. As a result it is exhausting for oppostion sides to try and contain it for a full eighty minutes. While there are variables in South Africa’s backs, we still feel that even without the likes of De Klerk and le Roux, the Springboks look the more settled and cohesive unit. Therefore, in what should be a thriller of a contest, South Africa to produce the kind of defensive heroics we saw in Wellington in September, and the Springboks to edge a bruising encounter by five points!

Ireland vs Italy
Saturday, November 3rd
Chicago

We were fortunate enough to be amongst the 64,000 people treated to the rugby spectacle that took place the last time Ireland visited this famous ground, and claimed their first ever victory over the All Blacks. While Italy don’t quite have the same aura about them, and we doubt the stadium will be standing room only for this one, it is still an important match for both sides. Italy have some markers to lay down this November, most importantly to produce an emphatic victory over Georgia, whose constant improvement set against Italy’s permanent residency at the bottom of the Six Nations tables has led to calls of Georgia’s inclusion in the tournament – possibly at Italy’s expense.

Ireland meanwhile have this and the match next weekend back in Ireland against Argentina to prepare them for THE Test rugby event of the year – Ireland vs New Zealand in a fortnight’s time. With scrum half Conor Murray still out with injury, time is running out for Ireland to develop depth in the one key position in which they have little to none. Fly half Joey Carberry gets his start as the writing is clearly on the wall that he is Johnny Sexton’s understudy. However, at scrum half Ireland are still left with more questions than answers. Consequently, this Test will be an excellent opportunity to make some informed decisions on the biggest question facing Irish rugby at the moment. Ireland have developed extraordinary depth across the park in every other position, and once more this Test will be an excellent opportunity to get such depth the continued exposure it needs.

Is this Italy?

To be honest, the only household names in Italian rugby for us in this squad are centre Michele Campagnaro and fly half Carlo Canna. Where is centre Tommaso Castello, fullback Matteo Minozzi and flanker Sebastian Negri who so impressed during the Six Nations? Perhaps Coach Conor O’Shea is resting his big guns for the Georgia game, but we feel that against an impressive looking Irish squad, Italy are really going to be up against it on Saturday.

Luke McGrath finally gets a start for Ireland at scrum half

With question marks surrounding Conor Murray’s participation in the All Black game, Ireland need a massive game from impressive Leinster scrum half Luke McGrath. Our money is on him to get the starting berth for the All Black game should Murray not be available. His performances at Leinster have been outstanding and although European Champions Cup rugby is not quite the same as Test rugby, at times it is not far from it. We are delighted to finally see him get the recognition he deserves, and hope that this may be the start to a long and fruitful period in the green jersey.

Joey Carberry really needs to showcase his superb skill set

Increasingly confident at managing big games, as well as having the attacking abilities with ball in hand that no doubt made people sit up and take notice of New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett early in his career, Carberry really needs to lay down a marker on Saturday that he is more than just Johnny Sexton’s understudy. We’ve been increasingly impressed with the youngster’s skill set and he also shows the same fearless abandon that Sexton does both in attack and on defence. In short an excellent player that simply needs continued big match experience between now and the World Cup.

The Irish back row – a genuine wealth of talent

Ireland’s back row for this match sees the Leinster trio of Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier. The fact that this is Ireland’s second or third string offering in this department, just shows you the exceptional depth Ireland have developed here. In short this is simply one area of the park where any of their opponents are going to struggle to get the better of them. Expect these three to run riot with Italy on Saturday.

Get your chequebooks out and have a flutter on how many tries the Irish back three will bag in Chicago on Saturday

We’re going with a bare minimum of two apiece for Andrew Conway, Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour. These three youngsters are absolutely lethal, with Stockdale in particular seeming able to score at will from anywhere on the park. We just can’t see the Italian defences being able to keep these three in check, and an excellent confidence boost for the role that these three Irish speedsters are likely to play in Ireland’s matchups with Argentina and New Zealand. And while you’re at it, we also reckon that there are at least one apiece for the Irish centres Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki.

Verdict

Italy may learn a great deal about what kind of bench they can put together for the Georgia game, but apart from that we sadly don’t fancy their chances on Saturday against a very slick-looking Irish side, despite the youth and inexperience of some of the Men in Green. Ireland will use this as a building block on the road to meet New Zealand in a fortnight’s time, and also really get to grips with who is likely to wear the number nine jersey on November 17th. We hope that Italy can at least be competitive at times but can’t help feeling that Ireland is going to get a lot more out of this experience than the Azurri. Consequently, we are handing this to Ireland by a comfortable margin of 22 points!

Endnote

As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our posts this month with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there, subscribe and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content. In the meantime here’s their excellent preview of the November Internationals.