Posts Tagged ‘June Internationals 2018’

It has been a remarkable month of Test rugby and perhaps most important of all the participants have made huge strides in squad development. New Zealand have won their series against a spirited French team, and in this final Test really look to learn a lot about the depth of their reserves as they field a raft of new caps. France have fought bravely and with just 14 men almost from the outset in the second Test pushed New Zealand hard all the way to the final whistle. In the process, they learnt a great deal about some of their younger players, and we have to confess to liking what we saw. New Zealand, still look like the force to be reckoned with that we have come to expect, but the second Test showed some weaknesses and vulnerabilities that surely must provide some comfort to their opponents in this year’s upcoming Rugby Championship.

The series between Australia and Ireland heads into its final chapter this weekend, and what a ride it’s been! With the series tied one apiece and plenty of experimentation, albeit some of it enforced by injury, it has been a fascinating contest. This weekend’s finale sees both teams rolling the dice in terms of selection, but either way a contest that should provide plenty of excitement awaits and is by a country mile the highlight of the weekend’s action.

England lick their wounds after a disappointing series that has left them playing for pride on Saturday in Cape Town. Meanwhile a resurgent Springbok side has started their new era under Coach Rassie Erasmus with flying colors after winning the opening two matches of the series. Admittedly the first Test was won on a knife-edge by South Africa, but the second Test clearly showed the South Africans on an upward trajectory while England appeared to be going backwards and no closer to resolving the issues that have been prevalent throughout a troubled season.

Argentina lick their wounds and contemplate a coaching crisis as they prepare for a final Test against a developmental Scottish side this Saturday, after a poor showing in their two recent losses to Wales. There has been an axe hanging over Coach Daniel Hourcade’s head since the last World Cup, and it has finally fallen after a dismal two Test series against Wales. Hourcade’s position with the Pumas comes to an end after the Scottish Test. Nevertheless, despite the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the Pumas there is no denying that there is still some world-class talent in the squad. We feel that this match may bring out a better Pumas performance, especially against such an experimental Scottish side who themselves are struggling to come terms with their recent tour loss against the USA.

Lastly Canada take on the USA in Halifax this Saturday. To say that it has been a very unhappy month for Canada would be an understatement. The team looks in disarray and unable to string together any kind of coherent performance. Despite plenty of experimentation with starting selections, nothing has really stood out that makes one believe Canada is close to reversing its seemingly inevitable slide down the world rankings. The USA arrive in completely the opposite frame of mind and brimming with confidence. There seems to be some genuine world-class talent amongst their ranks backed up by a solid coaching regime. After a highly successful Americas Rugby Championship this year, the USA has looked solid in their two Test victories against Russia and Scotland this month. The Scotland match also showed some real resilience by the Eagles to get over a shaky start and get the win. Despite home advantage Canada will be up against it this weekend. Furthermore, to add insult to injury the game has received little if any coverage in the media in Canada and is not being televised on any Canadian networks.

Our resident scribe is on the road this week, so has not been able to put our musings to paper in as much detail as we usually like. Consequently, our in-depth look at this weekend’s action will be limited to the only series left to be decided between Australia and Ireland. For the rest we’ll offer some brief musings on what we think the outcome may be. So without any further ado let’s get into it.

New Zealand vs France
Saturday, June 23rd
Dunedin

It’s certainly an interesting selection from New Zealand for this one, and with the series wrapped up in their favor, Coach Steve Hansen clearly feels that now is the time to have a closer look at his resources. France on the other hand, field arguably their best side since the series began with the exception of Mathieu Basteraud and Remy Grosso absent. Although New Zealand may be experimenting somewhat it is still a formidable side that it is still likely to be exceptionally hard for France to get past.

That being said, New Zealand looked less than flash last Saturday in the second half and really struggled to put away a 14 man French side. With France at full strength and fielding a very strong side expect fireworks once more. France may have lost the series but there will be more than a few scores to settle this weekend, consequently we expect to see them down but not out. There will be some excellent back row battles on Saturday, and we are especially pleased to see Kelian Galletier in the thick of things as we thought he was a standout performer for France last weekend. New Zealand put a newcomer up against him in the shape of Shannon Frizell. Ardie Savea gets a spot starting at number 7 as opposed to being on the bench and the contest between him and France’s Mathieu Babillot should be highly entertaining, especially as the French newcomer acquitted himself well last weekend. Kevin Gourdon at eight for France was outstanding last weekend and expect plenty of leadership from him in the absence of Basteraud.

Damian Mackenzie gets a rare start at fly half for New Zealand but then he is simply dangerous from wherever he is on the park. Morgan Parra who is the Captain for France this week played a smart game last weekend drawing on his extensive Test experience, and his fly half partner Anthony Belleau continues to show why he has a big future ahead of him.

We’ve heard lots of great things about Jack Goodhue of the Crusaders getting his start for the All Blacks in the centre with the long-awaited return of Sonny Bill Williams. Meanwhile Wesley Fofana returns for France in the centre alongside Remi Lamerat. We liked the look of that French set of backs last weekend and it would appear to pack even more power this weekend.

In short, despite the series being wrapped up we are looking forward to this one, especially if last weekend was anything to go by. France still have a long way to go, but overall after the setbacks of the last few years, there definitely seems to be some progress being made and a new fire in the belly just in time for the World Cup. We still find it hard to see anything other than a New Zealand win, but this could end up being the best match of the series. New Zealand to complete their own learning curve and take a solid contest from the French by 12 points!

Australia vs Ireland
Saturday, June 23rd
Sydney

We always firmly believed that this series would come down to this. Despite Ireland’s considerable successes this year, we just couldn’t see them getting a series whitewash against Australia. Australia have impressed make no mistake, but it would appear that Ireland got the measure of them last weekend, even if it took a full strength Irish side to do so. For this final Test of the series, despite what is at stake, Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has once more chosen an experimental route and despite the gamble it is a move we applaud. While there is no question that a series win is very much at the forefront of the players’ ambitions on Saturday, Ireland have also managed to use this tour to give a broad range of players some solid game time under pressure.

Australia have looked good this series and will take some beating on Saturday even without star fly half Will Genia who is absent due to injury. Although we consider his replacement Nick Phipps to be somewhat of a liability in a Wallaby jersey, this is still a formidable Wallaby outfit, with some of the most gifted backs in Test rugby. Ireland should once more control the game through their forwards and half backs, but if Australia get the space they excel in then it could be a very long afternoon for the Men in Green, especially if Kurtley Beale, Marika Koroibete and Israel Folau get a genuine say in proceedings amongst others.

Front Rows

Whichever way you cut it that is a fearsome Irish front row. We are delighted to see Sean Cronin get a start at Hooker, especially as some press reports have perhaps falsely speculated that he has fallen out of favor with Coach Schmidt. Cronin brings some genuine go forward ability to the front row and whenever he is within reach of the try line expect him to be making the headlines. Prop Tadgh Furlong has cemented his truly legendary status on this tour, and once this number 3 builds up a head of steam there are few if any who can stop him. Australia’s front row remains unchanged and in their defence this trio has been the bedrock of the Wallaby’s resurgence this year. Expect them to be highly competitive against Ireland, but we just feel that Ireland are packing the most lethal combination of the two sides.

Second Rows

After a very uncomfortable knock to the face last weekend we are very happy to see Australian lock Adam Coleman back in the starting lineup this Saturday. Without a doubt one of the very best of Australia’s new generation, he brings a real edge to Australia’s forward effort and presence in the lineout. His teammate Izack Rodda has also impressed this series and this pair definitely looks the combination of choice going forward for the Wallabies. Ireland field the irrepressible James Ryan who would easily make any World XV right now. Ireland choose to stick with the tried and trusted experience of Devin Toner alongside Ryan, and with the outstanding Tadhg Beirne on the bench, we are given cause to think that Ireland are just going to edge a very tight contest on this part of the park.

Back Rows

After being bossed around by the Australian back row in the first Test, Ireland clearly got the measure of the Wallaby trio last weekend, and we have a feeling they are likely to do so again this Saturday, even without Dan Leavy. Ireland continue to experiment with CJ Stander moving to blindside flanker and Jack Conan coming in at eight. Peter O’Mahony who we felt had an exceptional game last weekend also shifts position to openside flanker. Meanwhile for Australia, Lukhan Lealaiauloto-Tui gets his first cap and David Pocock returns to his more customary position of number eight. This is likely to be an almighty scrap but we can’t help feeling that as long as they work in concert with their half backs Ireland should have the upper hand here.

Half Backs

As most readers of our musings over the years know, sadly we have little if any faith in Australia’s Nick Phipps at scrum half. Impetuous and often lacking the composure and maturity needed at this level, we find him to be a potential Achilles Heel for Australia. There is no denying that he has flashes of brilliance but he just doesn’t have the skill set and vision of Will Genia who has been so impressive for Australia in this series. Bernard Foley definitely seems to have found his groove again, and expect another good outing from a player we have always felt is one of Australia most reliable assets, despite his dip in form last year. However, when you’re up against Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray, as was seen last weekend you are taking on two of the world’s very best, especially when it comes to tactics. There are potentially huge cameos here for their replacements, scrum half Keiran Marmion and new cap and fly half Ross Byrne who has so impressed for Leinster. We feelAustralia are unlikely to match up in this part of the park, especially if Ireland’s starting duo stay on well into the final quarter.

Centres

This is where we expect Australia to utterly dominate proceedings. We are just not convinced at the moment by the Aki/Henshaw pairing for Ireland. Both are good players make no mistake, but compared to the Australian offering we just feel that they lack the same degree of all-out creativity their Wallaby counterparts possess, especially Kurtley Beale. A real counterweight to the Australian genius in this part of the park last weekend was Gary Ringrose for Ireland, but without him we feel that Australia are likely to have much more to say than Ireland here on Saturday.

Back Threes

Ireland’s try scoring machine, Jacob Stockdale returns after sitting out the second Test. While some have criticised his defensive abilities, we still hold that he poses such a threat out wide it’s worth the risk. Furthermore, we feel that the criticisms regarding his defence are starting to become a thing of the past. Add in Ireland’s Keith Earls on the opposite wing and there is no doubt that this is a strike threat likely to have kept the Wallaby think tank up at night this week. Rob Kearney continues his stellar form at fullback, and while he may not be able to match Australia’s Israel Folau’s abilities in the air, he has consistently made significant metres for Ireland in both Tests this month and is a keen and reliable competitor. Australia however, do look quite frightening in this part of the park with the electric Marika Koroibete and Dane Haylett-Petty out wide on the wings, and aerial magician Folau bringing up the rear. The all round skill set of the Australian trio cause us to give them the slightest of nods once more in this part of the park.

Verdict

In short – what a contest! Australia look perhaps the more settled of the two sides, and on home soil in front of a sell out crowd in Sydney it is hard to see past a narrow Australian win to clinch the series. However, despite these obvious advantages and the fact that Australia are playing some brilliant rugby, we have a hunch that the brains trust of Schmidt, Sexton and Murray have a plan for this one. Consequently, it will be tight and down to the wire and hopefully an enthralling contest. Nevertheless, we have a hunch that Ireland are going to continue writing their own recent history and clinch their first ever series win on Australian soil by two points!

South Africa vs England
Saturday, June 23rd
Cape Town

With a strong possibility of rain and the absence of the altitude factor, England should feel much more at home in Cape Town on Saturday than they have on the high veld for the last two weeks. South Africa on the other hand, are likely to rise to the occasion in the “Mother City” much as they did against the All Blacks last year in one of their finest moments of an otherwise dismal season.

We are not convinced by the South African front row of Frans Malherbe and Chiliboy Ralepele, even though the legendary Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira is packing down alongside them. Although they haven’t had the best of tours, England’s Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler should be able to hold their own, while the battle of discipline goes on between Joe Marler and Frans Malherbe.

Joe Launchbury was the standout player for England last weekend and can hold his head high and will continue to lend some much-needed stability and work ethic to England’s forward effort this Saturday. Maro Itoje really needs to get his discipline in check and show once more why he was so much on everyone’s radar eighteen months ago. There were glimpses of it last weekend but still not enough. South Africa on the other hand pack a superb second row with RG Snyman and Franco Mostert, with the former really being a prospect for the Rugby Championship later this year.

We just can’t see England’s back row of Chris Robshaw, Nathan Hughes and Tom Curry making much headway with South Africa’s Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit. Having said that, we feel that beleaguered English Coach Eddie Jones can take some comfort from his faith in the youngster Tom Curry. We have been very impressed with what we have seen so far from the young man and he is clearly a huge talent in the making for England, and a first step towards resolving their back row dilemmas.

We were very surprised to see South African Coach Rassie Erasmus choose to roll the dice in the half back offerings, by electing to start Elton Jantjies, even if he is starting alongside his former Super Rugby partner scrum half Faf de Klerk. Two seasons ago this pairing was electric with the Lions, but since then Jantjies has failed to really find his rhythm and it remains to be seen if being reunited with de Klerk brings back the old magic and also translates it into Test level success. England too have chosen to take the adventurous route and Danny Cipriani finally gets a long-awaited Test call up. From the impact he made in the final ten minutes of last weekend’s match you have to wonder how different the series could have been had he been the starting fly half from the get go. Definitely some lessons to be learnt here for England on Saturday.

With the series won, South Africa choose to experiment in the backs once more with the exciting Andre Esterhuizen pairing with Jesse Kriel at centre and Warrick Gelant getting a starting berth at fullback. England however, choose to stay the course with the lineup they have had since the start of the Test series. In essence there is nothing to fault here as all five Englishmen have put in big performances when they have got quality ball. However, Captain and centre Owen Farrell needs to really lead from the front this weekend. There is no denying that the pressure clearly got to him last Saturday and he failed to provide the leadership his team needed, and sadly came across as petulant and negative – hardly the qualities you need to lead your troops out from the quagmire they seem to have found themselves in these days. While we could understand his frustration at times last weekend, unfortunately as Captain he really needs to rise above it and set an example to his teammates, even if on occasion he feels they are getting the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the calls being made.

In short, the series may be done and dusted in South Africa’s favor but there is still everything to play for. However, even with the injection of pace and skill Cipriani brings, we are not sure it will be enough to reverse England’s fortunes on this tour given the fact that morale in the English camp would appear to be at an all time low. South Africa despite the experimentation going on in this Test, still pack an awesome bench that is set to come on to rescue the final quarter should things have come unstuck. With names like le Roux, Kitshoff and Pollard, South Africa have plenty of game breaking weapons that a tired and disillusioned England may simply find too much to deal with at the end of 220 minutes of gruelling Test rugby which has been played out over the last 3 weeks. Consequently, South Africa to take the series 3-0 and the match by 4 points!

Argentina vs Scotland
Saturday, June 23rd
Resistencia

After a disastrous two match series with Wales, the axe has fallen for Argentinian Coach Daniel Hourcade, and this marks his last match in charge of the Pumas. Argentina have looked a shadow of the Super Rugby franchise, the Jaguares, that has taken the Super Rugby world by storm in the latter part of the season. Scotland meanwhile, have used this June tour to the Americas as a process of development and while it has been one of mixed fortunes, there have been some valuable lessons learnt in terms of depth. This final test may be a bridge too far against a Pumas side likely to snap out of their malaise, especially with the prospect of a new Coach taking the reins for the Rugby Championship later this year, and a return to their Jaguares exploits next weekend.

While we have struggled to find much to get excited about in the Pumas performances of late, one name that has really stood out, especially in last weekend’s second Test against Wales is right wing Bautista Delguy. He was simply everywhere last Saturday and, had he had the rest of his team with him, could have really made a difference to the outcome of last match against the Welsh.

We think this should be an interesting contest and are expecting a significantly improved performance from the Pumas, despite the Coaching uncertainties surrounding the team post this match. Let’s not forget that Hourcade did take Argentina to the semi finals of the last World Cup, and as a result despite some of the tensions that have arisen since then, they are still likely to want to give him a fitting send off. Therefore we expect the Pumas to get their groove back and play with the style and efficiency that has served them so well as the Jaguares, and take the match by four points!

Canada vs USA
Saturday, June 23rd
Halifax

Unless you pay a monthly subscription to the US site the Rugby Channel, this match would be passing you by this weekend, as has much of Canada’s June Test window. Sadly, in the process we haven’t missed much, as Canada continues in its free fall down the world rankings. There seems little or no direction in selection policy or creating a team for the future. Canada looks poorly coached and disciplined and it is hard to see them gaining much traction on a US team that seems to go from one success to another.

The US as mentioned above is, in contrast to Canada, clearly on an accelerating upward trajectory. It’s a talented side brimming with confidence. Canada will play for pride, but sadly without the execution and discipline needed at this level, we doubt that it will count for much against the skill set and clinical efficiency of the Americans.

We just can’t see a positive result for Canada on Saturday, despite the heart and commitment with which you know the team will play, especially in front of a home crowd and against their arch rivals. The Americans though are better organised and coached, and have a clear understanding of the game they want to play. Consequently, despite Canada putting up a “Braveheart” challenge it won’t be enough to stop a very determined and capable Eagles outfit from claiming the win by 23 points!

Hopefully, by now you’ve regained your breath after last weekend’s thrilling opening encounters in Australia and South Africa. It was vintage Test rugby, and the South Africa/England match, in particular, was an epic that will last in our collective memories for a long time. New Zealand’s opening match gave us plenty of entertainment, but as it was provided for the most part by just one team it didn’t quite capture the imagination in the same way the dustups in Brisbane and Johannesburg did. Wales also put in a solid shift against Argentina, which should set up an intriguing contest this weekend. Canada, as seems to be par for the course these days, put in a valiant effort against Scotland but sadly were taught a rather harsh lesson on the scoreboard in the process.

New Zealand and France got the proceedings underway last Saturday, and although the All Blacks looked decidedly rusty in the first half, they seemed to effortlessly find their ruthless rhythm once more and put a bewildered looking French team to the sword. As seems the norm these days, whenever the All Blacks are involved, the match was not without its controversy, but the sight of French winger Remy Grosso leaving the field with a fractured skull put a definite damper on the proceedings. As they always do on these end of year tours, France looked tired and disorganised in the second half as New Zealand simply headed off into the stratosphere. France will no doubt be more focused this weekend, as well as motivated to put on a good show for the injured Grosso, but it will still be a very tall order to remain in touch with a seemingly untouchable All Black team.

Australia and Ireland then went at it, and as we predicted this proved to be a hugely physical encounter, and one in which Australia’s menacing back line and centre partnership ended up giving Ireland a very stern examination. The Wallaby back row of Pocock and Hooper put Ireland under all kinds of pressure at the breakdown, to the point where the Men in Green were unable to exert their traditional stranglehold on possession. There was no question that Australia were the dominant force as Ireland struggled to keep them in check. It was a game of enormous pressure from both sides, that provided plenty of big hits with Australia putting in tackles across the park that had us reeling back from our TV screens. It was a fantastic Test match that, despite the relatively low scoreline, had us on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes.

We always had the sneaking suspicion that the opening match of a three Test series between South Africa and England was an epic in the making and we were certainly not disappointed. It had everything – drama, excitement, comebacks and sheer all out spectacle. It may be hard to repeat that wow factor in the remaining two Tests, but last weekend’s try fest has certainly set up an enthralling series. There was that horrible feeling of deja vu in the opening quarter as South Africa suddenly found themselves 24 points down on the scoreboard. However, their comeback over the next forty was simply breathtaking and showed that Springbok rugby is far from going the way of the dodo. Much has been said of England’s loss, much of which we feel is unjustified. Despite the fact that they blew a 24 point lead and had one of their most purple periods in a match for a long time, people seem to forget that in such a humdinger of a match they only ended up losing by three points, and for the last ten minutes were pushing South Africa very hard. We very much doubt they will be such a walkover this Saturday, and it remains to be seen how much more the Springboks can raise their game.

Wales, after a scrappy win in Washington against the Springboks the week before, can feel well pleased with their efforts in Argentina last Saturday. Some of the younger players really stood up and were counted, and a certain flanker by the name of James Davies had everyone talking. As an exercise in depth development for Wales, they came away with full marks. Argentina on the other hand are clearly struggling to find their way with national Coach Daniel Hourcade, after the same group of players blossomed over the last six weeks in Super Rugby with their Coach and former Puma Mario Ledesma. Despite their disappointing showing in San Juan last weekend and the concerns around their chemistry with Hourcade, this is still a very talented group of players, who are likely to make life very difficult for Wales this Saturday as they have everything to play for.

Scotland showed that they also have some remarkable depth, as they trounced a spirited but ultimately error strewn Canadian side sadly lacking in the skills and execution needed at this level, barring one or two key players. Canada are sadly a long way from where they need to be and a further slip down the World Rankings once this June series is over seems inevitable. Canada is not without players of promise, make no mistake, but it is painfully obvious that the entire structure of rugby management in Canada needs a complete shakedown before they can realistically aspire to be a top Tier 2 nation capable of the odd big scalp once more. Perhaps the most telling example of what is wrong with the Canadian rugby is that we have struggled to find any coverage whatsoever in the press here of Canada’s Test against Russia this weekend. Matters are made worse by the fact that it would appear there is likely to be absolutely no television or Internet coverage of the match in Canada. Consequently, as much as we would like to, we are not offering any comment on the match as we simply know NOTHING about it, and will have to settle for offering the Canadian team that runs out on the pitch in Ottawa our heartfelt support.

A gripping weekend awaits, with the matchups in Australia and South Africa being the most eagerly anticipated contests of a fascinating Saturday. A series decider is on the line for both Australia and South Africa, while Ireland and England seek to set up a thrilling winner takes all third Test. Who knows maybe even France will end up surprising us as they seek to carry the torch for fallen teammate Remy Grosso and settle a few scores with the All Blacks in the process. So without any further ado, let’s get into the head to heads.

New Zealand vs France
Saturday, June 16th
Wellington

France will be looking for redemption this Saturday in Wellington, especially as they are more than likely feeling slightly aggrieved that some of the calls didn’t quite go their way last weekend. To add insult to injury, the loss of such a key player as winger Remy Grosso in a brutal double tackle that ended his tour and left him with a fractured skull will have left a sour taste in the mouths of the Men in Blue. They’ll be out for revenge and to prove that Grosso’s unfortunate injury was not in vain. However, despite the motivation and the fact that some key players have joined the squad after the Top 14 final, there is still no denying that they are going to have their work cut out for them on Saturday.

New Zealand on the other hand look the part. There is no question that it took them forty minutes last weekend to blow the cobwebs off since the last time they were together, but once they did it was business as usual for the number one team in the world. Admittedly France lost the plot in the second half, but New Zealand looked frighteningly good, and for their opposition it is downright disturbing how quickly they gel as a unit. With an unchanged side from last weekend expect more of the same in Wellington this Saturday.

Front Rows

It’s no surprise that New Zealand aren’t tinkering with something that clearly worked last weekend, as props Owen Franks and Joe Moody retain their spots as does Hooker Codie Taylor. We were surprised however to see France stick with the same front three. In their defence we felt Hooker Camille Chat and Prop Danny Priso held up well, and we were impressed with Priso’s efforts in particular. However, we stand by what we said last weekend, prop Uini Atonio brings little to the table for France especially up against the likes of New Zealand’s Joe Moody. However, we are interested to see Atonio’s replacement Cedate Gomes Sa in action as we feel he has a bright future in the blue jersey, having caught our eye with Racing 92 in the recent European Champions Cup final. However, this New Zealand front row is so capable and established we fully expect to see the All Blacks ruling the roost here.

Second Rows

Once again New Zealand see no change from Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett who dominated proceedings in this part of the park last Saturday, but France’s selections once more leave us scratching our heads. We though Paul Gabrillagues was very competitive last weekend especially in the lineouts and consequently are surprised to see him on the bench, and the South African import Bernard le Roux in his place. We’re also still not convinced that Yoann Maestri is the best option for France and in general thought he had a poor game last weekend. Once again with Vaea Fifita on the bench for New Zealand, the All Blacks should comfortably have the upper hand in this part of the park all afternoon.

Back Rows

We don’t know enough about flanker Mathieu Babillot for France, but are heartened to see Kelian Galletier and Kevin Gourdon in the back row for les Bleus. Number eight Kevin Gourdon is one of France’s finest and although he looked tired towards the end of the match, expect him to be at his best for this encounter. Flanker Galletier has impressed all season for France and Montpellier. New Zealand still pack the more accomplished trio, in the shape of flankers Sam Cane and Liam Squire, who both dominated proceedings last Saturday along with a promising start from Luke Whitelock. With New Zealand wonder weapon waiting on the bench in the shape of flanker Ardie Savea, France will have to find something rather special to keep in the hunt on this part of the park on Saturday.

Half Backs

New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith were the master class last weekend and France’s Anthony Belleau and Morgan Parra were the apprentices, despite the enormous Test experience of Parra. The All Black pair may have looked a little rusty at the beginning but they soon hit their strides as the Frenchmen struggled to be competitive. We still like the look of the French bench here in the shape of Baptiste Serin and Jules Plisson, but once again feel they will struggle to compete or have much say in proceedings in comparison to New Zealand’s TJ Perenara and Damian McKenzie, even though the latter is likely to come on as a fullback rather than a fly half replacement. Nevertheless from the moment he came on last weekend, McKenzie was cutting the French defences to pieces. New Zealand are so polished here that despite the remarkable experience of French scrum half Morgan Parra, we just can’t see France having too much to say here.

Centres

It’s unchanged for both sides in midfield, but once again New Zealand had all the gas last weekend while France were running on fumes for much of the match in this part of the park, even replacement centre Gael Fickou had little if any impact on the match. New Zealand’s Anton Liennert-Brown and Ryan Crotty on the other hand were electric, and as readers of this blog know, for us this is our preferred combination at centre for New Zealand, especially with an eye to the World Cup, much to the dismay of Sonny-Bill Williams fans. As they showed last weekend, Crotty has the strength and vision, while Liennert-Brown has the speed and exceptional ball handling skills that make this such a lethal and unpredictable combination. France’s Mathieu Basteraud and Geoffrey Doumayrou possess similar talents, they are just not as explosive or polished, and judging by last weekend not nearly as fit. New Zealand’s Ngani Laumape also justified all the hype surrounding him, when he came off the bench last weekend and expect more of the same this weekend. Once again, New Zealand to be masters of France’s undoing here.

Back Lines

While Teddy Thomas proved problematic for New Zealand at times on the wing last weekend, we still doubt that between himself, Benjamin Fall at fullback and Gael Fickou on the other wing, there is enough here to really unravel the All Black defences. Fall comes highly rated but we haven’t seen enough of him to really judge the threat he poses. Thomas’ skills are well documented and we got more than a few glimpses of that last weekend, but for us Fickou is not a Test wing and at best an average centre. New Zealand on the other hand have gas to burn here in the shape of wingers Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith along with fullback Jordie Barrett. With Ioane running in tries from all over the park, Smith’s remarkable all round skills and vision and Barrett’s strength in defence and attack, this is going to be a unit that should be practically impossible for France to break down. As we said above, add the truly remarkable Damian McKenzie into the mix off the bench and it is likely to be fireworks central at the “cake tin” in Wellington on Saturday night. In short, New Zealand to be all over this part of the park like a rash!

Verdict

Will France show up for this one? We think so, and certainly hope so, to the point where we think this is likely to be the best Test of the series. France always manage to put in one big performance on tour in New Zealand and after last weekend, they will be up for this in no uncertain terms, with more than just a point to prove. With France having beaten New Zealand in the ongoing Under 20s Championship currently taking place in France, and securing a spot in the finals, it is clear that while France may be struggling at present at the senior level there is a wealth of up and coming talent. Nevertheless it is still hard to imagine France in their current state really getting to grips with this well oiled All Black machine on Saturday in Wellington, and as a result New Zealand should wrap up the match and the series by 23 points!

Australia vs Ireland
Saturday, June 16th
Melbourne

Plain and simple that was a classic Test match last weekend, but the real takeaway that Australia clearly got the better of Ireland was made even more remarkable by the fact that this Wallaby side had only been together for six days prior to kick off! That’s quite an achievement against the team ranked number 2 in the world. As a result, a showdown of epic proportions awaits in Melbourne on Saturday as Australia seek to clinch the series while Ireland seek to tie it and set the tone for an epic finale in Sydney a week later. This was and is Test rugby at its best and we can’t wait for kick off on Saturday morning.

Don’t get us wrong, Ireland played well last weekend, but Australia were just more effective at turning what few genuine opportunities they had into big match points. Ireland had plenty of possession, as they invariably do, but just couldn’t turn it into enough points on the board. They were hampered by the extraordinary breakdown skills of Wallaby flanker David Pocock who seems to have come back even more dangerous than he was prior to his enforced sabbatical. Australia’s defence was exceptional, and they put in some truly massive hits that left many an Irishman wondering what universe he was in. Australia’s scrum has gone from being the laughing-stock of Test rugby to being a highly reliable platform, and it is clear that the 2018 edition of the Wallabies is already looking in rather robust health at such an early stage in their campaign.

Ireland meanwhile were just not at their best on the day, although in fairness they weren’t far from it. We thought Joey Carberry had a respectable game as starting fly half, and to be honest felt he played better than a slightly bewildered looking Johnny Sexton once he came off the bench. However, key areas where they just didn’t have the same edge as Australia were in the back row and in the backs. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt is clearly aware of what is at stake this weekend, despite the equally pressing need for the development of depth in the Irish squad, and is going with a starting XV that should be able to match the execution and intensity of their Wallaby counterparts. It’s going to be a riveting encounter with everything on the line, so make sure you don’t miss this one!

Front Rows

The big guns are all here for Ireland on Saturday, the only familiar face that is missing is Rory Best at Hooker. However, in our opinion we think that this is one area where Ireland really need to take the plunge and develop some depth at all costs. To that effect we are happy to see Niall Scannell starting, with Rob Herring on the bench. We thought Herring put in a solid shift, especially at lineout time last week, but Scannell, after some solid Six Nations performances, is also capable of stepping up to the plate when Ireland needs him. Scannell had a solid Six Nations in 2017 and we are looking forward to seeing him in action again. With Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy propping up Scannell, and Jack McGrath and Andrew Porter on the bench, Ireland’s work at the coal face should be highly productive and stable enough to hold their own whatever Australia throw at them.

Australia stick with a unit that stood up remarkably well last weekend and there are clearly no major concerns with Wallaby stability or technique in the front row. Furthermore, they seemed to have no problem soaking up the pressure which Ireland is famous for applying come scrum time. It may have been Hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa’s debut, but he seemed completely unphased by the occasion. Meanwhile his partners outside him, Sekope Kepu and Scott Sio, continued to build on the improvements in Wallaby scrumagging prowess that we had begun to see last year.

Despite the Wallabies ability to soak up the pressure, we still hold that the Irish are likely to be more dominant than they were last week, and the front row battles to ultimately just swing in their favor this Saturday.

Second Rows

Once again Australia see no change with Adam Coleman and Izack Rodda, who had a solid outing last weekend, with Coleman in particular continuing to impress. However, it was Ireland’s Jack Ryan who stole the show in this part of the park last weekend, and was arguably Ireland’s best player. As he approaches legendary status at the age of only 21, expect more of the same this weekend. Paired up with the wise head of Devin Toner, and with the much vaunted Tadhg Beirne due to get his start off the bench, Ireland should once more run this part of the park, especially come lineout time.

Back Rows

We just felt that the Irish back row didn’t have the edge it needed last Saturday in Brisbane. Sure CJ Stander had some of his usual barnstorming runs, and courtesy of some stellar Wallaby defence he was unlucky to not score a try, but overall the Irish trio just did not make the headlines the way Michael Hooper and David Pocock did for Australia last weekend. Peter O’Mahony was productive in the lineouts but was, along with Jordi Murphy, clearly having the show stolen from him at the breakdowns by Hooper and Pocock. Consequently, we are delighted to see Dan Leavy get a start in the number 7 jersey, as he was immense in Ireland’s Six Nations campaign this year, as well as Leinster’s European glory. Expect the Irish trio to ramp it up another couple of notches to not only work at keeping Pocock and company in check, but also create some momentum of their own. Leavy versus Pocock is likely to be worth the price of admission in itself. Consequently, in a contest that it is almost impossible to call, we’re banking on a slight degree of controlled Irish fury to just swing the battle in Ireland’s favor.

Half Backs

Although Mr. Sexton may have looked slightly bewildered when he came on for Ireland as a substitute, we doubt that we will see the same facial expressions this Saturday. Alongside his scrum half partner, the irrepressible Conor Murray, as good as Will Genia and Bernard Foley were for Australia last weekend, we expect to see the Irish pair dominate proceedings. With Joey Carberry likely to have less pressure off the bench, the understudy to Sexton is likely to improve on what we thought was a solid performance for the most part under the bright lights last weekend. Australia will play a good game here make no mistake, but Sexton and Murray are likely to provide a degree of control that will be more effective in pressuring Wallaby fly half Bernard Foley and scrum half Will Genia into making mistakes. The Wallaby pair caved under that kind of pressure on several key occasions last year and have yet to be tested to the same degree this year. Furthermore we just can’t see Nick Phipps coming to the rescue, so as a result we’re handing this fair and square to the Irish.

Centres

Australia were nothing short of extraordinary here last weekend. Samu Kerevi clearly has no defensive frailties and was literally smashing Irish players into the ground, while his partner Kurtley Beale was constantly pulling white rabbits out of his hat that were wrongfooting the Irish defences. Beale has literally become the magician in the Wallaby side and his creativity and vision left his Irish counterparts clutching at straws on more than one occasion. Beale is a very gifted player who we thoroughly enjoy watching, and imagine we are not alone in that view no matter who you support. Ireland didn’t have a poor game here last weekend, but the Wallaby defence was so good that despite some good ball carrying by Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw for Ireland, it all looked rather predictable and one-dimensional. As a result, enter Gary Ringrose this weekend for Ireland. While he may not have Beale’s experience and repertoire of magic tricks, Ringrose can singlehandedly shred the best defences on the planet, so expect plenty of sparks here on Saturday. Still, despite the talent on offer from Ireland, we think that defensively and on home ground, it’s going to be Australia dominating the front pages in this part of the park when we’re reading it about in the Sunday papers.

Back Lines

Once again Australia looked red-hot here last weekend and we expect them to be no different this Saturday. We were surprised at the complete omission, even from the bench, by Irish Coach Joe Schmidt of Irish winger Jacob Stockdale in his selection for Saturday’s Test. While we accept that some have accused the young Irish try scoring machine of being suspect in defence, we beg to differ after his try saving tackle last Saturday. Nevertheless, veteran Keith Earls who is probably having one of his best seasons ever returns with another veteran of aerial warfare under the high ball, Rob Kearney at fullback. Kearney had a solid game last weekend, but Israel Folau clearly got the better of him for Australia in the aerial contests and we expect more of the same for Australia this weekend. Andrew Conway gets a start for Ireland, and he is going to have his hands full trying to contain the explosive and hard-hitting Marika Koroibete who was once again sensational for Australia last weekend. This is a good back line for Ireland, make no mistake and with the X-factor of Jordan Larmour on the bench the Men in Green will be clearly competitive. However, we just feel that this will be Australia’s day once again in this part of the park with an alarmingly fast and powerful back three, who are also not shy in defence.

Verdict

Australia on paper and at home look set to clinch the series, but we can’t help feeling that Ireland are simply not going to hand it to them so easily in Melbourne. Once more this should be an epic Test match, which if anything will rely less on the set pieces and physical battles as the turf in Melbourne seems incapable of coping with being churned up under that kind of pressure. As a result, it is likely to be even more of an open game than last week’s spectacle. Despite the seeming superiority of the Australian backs, we feel that Ireland’s game management will be better and more composed on the day, allowing their own backs and loose forwards to seal the deal for Ireland on the scoreboard. It is going to be incredibly close, but Ireland to just squeak the win by two points!

South Africa vs England
Saturday, June 16th
Bloemfontein

Last weekend’s opening dustup in Johannesburg between these two sides was one for the history books, and destined to become a video classic. The ten try epic left us exhausted just watching it. It had everything you could want from a classic Test match, an opening try blitz from England, followed by a super human come back from South Africa and ending with a nail biting final ten minutes where both sides fought tooth and nail for ascendancy. Consequently it is going to be pretty hard to top it as a spectacle when South Africa and England meet in Bloemfontein, with the Springboks looking, like their Wallaby counterparts, to seal the series. England are likely to have none of it, and while the press went ballistic in their dismissal of Coach Eddie Jones and his charges as they suffered another defeat in what is clearly proving to be a difficult year, we felt the criticisms were unduly harsh. Sure England lost, and the fact that they threw away a 24 point lead after 20 minutes is worrying to say the least, but the press made out that South Africa had run away with the game by a massive scoreline. Reality check – at the final whistle there were only three points in it!

Agreed, England looked frail defensively out wide at times and their back row organisation was once again a shambles which South Africa had a field day with. To add insult to injury their halfbacks were completely outclassed by the South African pair with Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk making a mockery of the English game plan. Lastly England’s lock partnership had moments of brilliance but failed to fire, with Maro Itoje lacking discipline and newcomer Nick Isiekwe looking out of his depth defensively. South Africa on the other hand, in the shape of RG Snyman unleashed a nuclear missile assault on the English defences, while he and lock partner Franco Mostert dominated the lineouts. However, while England may have been lucky to finish as close as they did, you still can’t get away from the fact that at the final whistle they hadn’t been blown off the park by SouthAfrica.

This weekend, this new look Springbok side will be full of confidence and an infinitely more settled unit than the one that ran out for the first twenty minutes of last weekend’s opening match. However, with some positive changes so will England. While we have to confess to finding the logic of having the English base camp at sea level in Durban to be hard to fathom when you consider their two critical opening Tests are to be played at altitude, we doubt the English will be as ill prepared as they appeared in that middle forty minutes of last weekend’s match. Wiser and meaner, expect these two sides to literally throw the kitchen sink at each other in eighty minutes, and while it may not quite be the try scoring spectacle of last week we doubt it will lack in entertainment and excitement.

Front Rows

There are very few changes here from both sides. South Africa looked the better side under pressure last weekend, and we expect more of the same, especially with Prop Tendai Mtawarira receiving his 100th cap. The “Beast” may be coming to the end of an illustrious career for the Springboks but in the process is putting in some of his finest appearances to date. England are likely to be much more competitive here, especially as we feel that Frans Malherbe is a bit of a weak link for the Springboks. Despite the presence of “the Beast”, we’re nodding our head in favor of England here, especially as Mako Vunipola had a solid game for England last weekend. However, depending on how much dominance England may get initially they are likely to be up against it, once the respective benches come into play. We like Luke Cowan-Dickie for England as a replacement Hooker, but Joe Marler has liability sadly written all over him, especially in a tense encounter like this. South Africa’s bench have the incomparable “ginger ninja” Steven Kitshoff and the promising Akker van der Merwe, and if they’re not careful England could well blow any kind of edge they may have gained over South Africa in the opening stages.

Second Rows

England will be delighted to see Joe Launchbury return to the second row, after the failed experiment with Nick Isiekwe, but Maro Itoje will need to step up his game much more than the one opportunistic try he scored last weekend. His discipline was poor and he just wasn’t the force we have come to expect from the English second rower. Nevertheless, we still feel that England, especially at altitude are going to struggle to get to grips with RG Snyman and Franco Mostert for the Springboks. Snyman in particular was devastating last weekend, and Mostert’s abilities are extremely well documented for both the Springboks and his Super Rugby side the Lions. The South African duo were head and shoulders above their English counterparts last Saturday, and even with Launchbury fighting the good cause for the Men in White, we still expect to see South Africa dominate this contest.

Back Rows

Have England and Coach Eddie Jones finally got it right in this part of the park, with their selections for Saturday? The proof of the pudding will be in the eating but we certainly think it is a step in the right direction. We really liked what we saw from flanker Tom Curry last weekend and thought he was one of the bright points in England’s performance. Brad Shields looks electric in Super Rugby, and despite his move to England, we expect him to be a real asset to the English cause and consequently can’t wait to see him and Curry attempt to bring some long overdue stability and energy to a long-faltering English back row. On that note, you could argue that the return of Billy Vunipola at number eight should complete the transformation. However, he looked seriously out of puff for most of last weekend’s encounter, something the Durban air is unlikely to help with in Bloemfontein. Consequently, we feel the best is yet to come from this exceptional player, but so soon from his return from injury we doubt we’ll see it this tour. Given the continued experimentation by England here, it will be tough for them to get the better of the powerhouse trio of the Springboks Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit. Although du Toit may be playing out of position, he has proved himself equally versatile in his preferred position of lock and as a flanker, which is where he will play on Saturday. South Africa once again provide a powerful bench with Jean-Luc du Preez and Sikhumbuzo Notshe, and as a result we expect to see South Africa dominate proceedings despite a much tighter looking and potent English offering than we have seen up to now.

Half Backs

With South African scrum half Faf de Klerk being one of THE talking points of last weekend, it is hard to see much being different this weekend, other than England being slightly wiser to his lightning quick reflexes and decision-making. We don’t think it’s going to be enough for England to get the better of him and fly half Handre Pollard. We didn’t really see much from English scrum half Ben Youngs that made us take notice, and although fly half George Ford looked a bit sharper towards the end of last weekend’s opening Test, doubts remain for us that this is really the best England can offer in this department. Either way we can’t see them creating the same kind of chaos that de Klerk offers, and Ford having the measured boot at altitude that Pollard possesses. Provided the South African pair can go the distance and help build a dominant lead for South Africa then this part of the park should be in safe hands for the Springboks. However, if it is an even contest, things could turn out differently once the benches come into play. We still don’t rate replacement fly half Ivan van Zyl for South Africa but feel he is a safer bet than Elton Jantjies at Test level, but Danny Cipriani finally gets his long-awaited chance to show what a potential game changer he could be for England. South Africa will need to hope that when he does get it, it will be too late. A big gamble but one which should favor South Africa.

Centres

Despite the fact that we really liked what we saw from Lukhanyo Am last weekend for the Springboks, our doubts around Damian de Allende as a genuine Test centre have not changed. As a result we hand this contest fair and square to England. Owen Farrell is a proven commodity of the highest calibre and his partner Henry Slade is in our opinion the way forward for England, even if he may be struggling at times to get up to speed in the Test arena. We are not even convinced that Jesse Kriel can do much to help South Africa’s fortunes here off the bench. So this should be England’s contest to control comfortably even if Farrell and Slade were perhaps not at their best last weekend.

Back Lines

It will be close here, and despite the critics we thought Elliot Daly had an excellent game for England last weekend at fullback, and wingers Mike Brown and Johnny May also performed well in the opening and final quarters despite a truly purple patch in the middle. However, South Africa’s trio really caught the eye. Fullback Willie le Roux came bursting back onto the Test stage with a vengeance after a clearly productive spell in England. Meanwhile, the new caps on the wings S’busiso Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi, really made us sit up and take notice. Despite struggling defensively in the opening quarter, they soon seemed to get a handle on this aspect of their game and clearly benefitted from le Roux’s experience. Given the fact that this trio are likely to be much more familiar with each other come this Saturday, this is a genuinely potent strike threat from the Springboks, which at altitude we feel England are still going to struggle to contain. We didn’t see much from the replacements last weekend that really stood out on either side, even though Warrick Gelant at fullback has genuine promise for South Africa. We feel that although South Africa may have less overall experience than England in their starters, with the obvious exception of le Roux, they are likely to be more dangerous with ball in hand. Once more a tight contest, but a bit more X-factor is likely to be available to South Africa to keep the English defences guessing.

Verdict

Another close call here, and one which has caused much debate amongst us, but we think that England may well end up regretting training in Durban this past week. England are highly unlikely to come unstuck for forty minutes like they did last weekend, but we still think they are going to be up against it in Bloemfontein. Consequently in front of a very noisy home crowd and at altitude, South Africa are likely to throw England off guard once more in a lower scoring game which they will win by six points and clinch the series!

Argentina vs Wales
Saturday, June 16th
Santa Fe

Wales must be feeling exceptionally pleased with the results of their end of year travels. They have two wins under their belts in difficult circumstances and in the process have learnt a great deal about their depth. They will head into this final Test brimming with confidence, and are likely to be satisfied even if they end up taking a narrow loss. Argentina are clearly struggling to translate their recent successes in Super Rugby, under Coach Mario Ledesma, into results on the Test stage under beleagured Pumas Coach Daniel Hourcade. While some may be calling for Hourcade’s head, we would consider it sheer folly to make such a wholesale change at this stage in Argentina’s preparations for next year’s World Cup in Japan. Argentina may clearly want to involve Ledesma more closely in the buildup to Japan, but it is still important to remember that it is Hourcade who took Argentina to the semi-finals of the last World Cup. Hourcade may need to adapt but so will the players, and Saturday’s contest should be a genuine recognition of this by both parties and which hopefully translates into the results the Pumas so desperately need. Either way we doubt the Pumas will be as lacklustre as they were last weekend.

Front Rows

Wales shuffle their front row to a mix of personnel that have appeared in the previous two Tests this June. A shuffle it may be, but based on performance, one that should not overly concern Welsh supporters. Wales have looked exceptionally solid at scrum time against both South Africa and Argentina. By contrast Argentina looked decidedly shaky, particularly in terms of discipline last weekend in this part of the park. Nevertheless, we all know the talent this Pumas front row has. Pride is likely to come into play and with the inspirational Agustin Creevy front and centre, we expect Argentina to reassert some traditional dominance here. Consequently, Wales to give as good as they get but a more polished Pumas front row to gradually get the upper hand in this part of the park.

Second Rows

The Welsh second row held their own against a very potent Pumas offering that on paper should have outmuscled them twice over. Consequently, Wales sees no change here with Adam Beard and Cory Hill up against Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti. Nevertheless, in front of a passionate home crowd, and provided Lavanini can keep his discipline, we’re handing this contest to Argentina, especially with Matias Alemanno on the bench.

Back Rows

Wales surprised us all with flanker James Davies last weekend who put in an outstanding shift in the red jersey, while number eight Ross Moriarty was back to his bruising best. Ellis Jenkins returns as blindside flanker after acquitting himself well in Washington against South Africa. On paper though, that Argentinian back row looks utterly devastating. It didn’t quite fire last weekend, but we can’t help feeling that will change this weekend. Wales will be exceptionally competitive here, but we expect the Jaguares firm of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Javier Ortega Desio to really deliver, especially with the added support of Tomas Lezana off the bench. Expect a very physical contest here with the Pumas to make slightly more of getting go forward ball despite a very spirited Welsh challenge.

Half Backs

Pumas Coach Daniel Hourcade has gone with his trusted combination of scrum half Martin Landajo and fly half Nicholas Sanchez. Once again we know the quality of this pairing it just needs to find the rhythm it clearly lacked last weekend, and the composure that under Ledesma and the Jaguares has produced such solid results. Rhys Patchell has been very impressive this tour for Wales at fly half and he should continue to deliver on Saturday as should Aled Davies at scrum half. We also feel the Welsh bench of Gareth Anscombe at fly half and Tomos Williams at scrum half also adds more in the way of surprises than Argentina. So despite Argentina’s experience in their starting pair, Wales are likely to weather the storm and ultimately come out as the more composed platform in this part of the park.

Centres

There is some genuine power here for Wales in Scott Williams and Owen Watkin, and Argentina are going to have to be at their best on Saturday to keep these two in check. Nevertheless, we are handing this one to Argentina in the shape of Matias Orlando and Jeronimo de le Fuente. Although relatively quiet by their standards and lacking in the execution needed last weekend, we expect them to be much better this Saturday and the more creative pairing.

Back Lines

Despite the presence of George North on the wing for Wales, we still feel that the Pumas trio are likely to be the standouts on Saturday. Hallam Amos has consistently impressed on this tour at fullback, but Argentina’s Emiliano Boffelli is genuinely world-class as are his two partners on the wing Bautista Delguy and Ramiro Moyano. Given space these three can carve up huge areas of the park, with Moyano in particular having a real intimacy with the try line. Wales weren’t found wanting here last weekend, but the Pumas trio are likely to step it up a few gears on Saturday and we just have the feeling that they are likely to leave the Welsh youngsters in their dust despite the experience of George North.

Verdict

Sure we got it wrong last weekend, but we just can’t see the Pumas being that out of sorts again. As a result, Wales are likely to run Argentina very close, but we expect to see the Pumas get themselves warmed up for the Rugby Championship in August and eke out a gritty but more composed performance and thus the win by four points!

So the barbecues are getting hauled out and multiple runs to the beer store are being made between now and early Saturday morning, as the June Test window kicks off in earnest this weekend. There is a ton of action, but perhaps the two most eagerly anticipated fixtures of the weekend are Ireland’s opening Test against the Wallabies and England’s series opener with South Africa. Since the last match of the 2017 Six Nations, Ireland have looked unstoppable and will want to cap off a remarkable season with a series win in Australia. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has assembled a formidable force and Australia will surely relish the challenge of going up against the side currently ranked number 2 in the world.

New Zealand take on France, and although French touring sides since 2009 have often been dispirited affairs, there is a sense that there might be something different in this year’s offering. While most, ourselves included, find it hard to imagine New Zealand coming away with anything less than an emphatic series win, there is a genuine belief that somewhere in this series there is likely to be one Test match that shows off the magic that has happened in the past when these sides met.

English Coach Eddie Jones has assembled an impressive squad for England’s three Test series in South Africa, but despite the talent there is no denying that England has simply failed to inspire this year, and desperately needs to do so on this tour. This time last year England were deservedly occupying the number 2 spot in the world, but it has been frustrating for players and fans alike to see how far they have fallen in the space of a mere twelve months. South Africa meanwhile got life under new Coach Rassie Erasmus off to a shaky start in Washington last weekend as they fell at the last hurdle to Wales. This opening Test in Johannesburg has the weight of a nation on it in no uncertain terms, as Springbok supporters hope that it will mark a new dawn in South African rugby which till now has given them little to cheer about.

Scotland take on Canada in Edmonton, and with the Scots fielding a side of impressive new talent, Canada will need to dig deep into its limited resources to field a credible challenge – something they have struggled to do under their third Coach in as many years. Lastly Wales travel to Argentina to take on a rather intimidating looking Puma side fresh from some spectacular Super Rugby exploits which will see them full of confidence.

So strap yourself in and let’s take a look at some fascinating matchups ahead of us this weekend.

New Zealand vs France
Saturday, June 9th
Auckland

While for many, the result may be a foregone conclusion especially on the holy ground of Eden Park, there should still be an interesting Test match here. It’s the All Blacks first outing of the year, and traditionally it takes them a game or two to find the ruthless efficiency that they have become renown for in the last decade. France may be fielding a tired team at the end of a long hard season, but there is no denying there is some impressive talent in the squad that Coach Jacques Brunel has assembled, and if New Zealand take them lightly they could find themselves with just a little more than French flair to deal with.

Front Rows

Sadly for France we think they are going to get destroyed here. Without the inspirational presence and skill set of Guilhem Guirado who misses the tour due to injury, France’s front row are going to struggle to get to grips with an established All Black unit. We have seen little from prop Uini Atonio that has made us sit up and take notice, and while we like Hooker Camille Chat and prop Danny Priso, after their exploits with Racing 92 and La Rochelle this season respectively, we just can’t see them getting the better of an All Black front row comprising the formidable talent and experience of props Owen Franks and Joe Moody alongside Hooker and Dane Coles’ understudy Codie Taylor. France have got some hope on the bench in the shape of prop Rabah Slimani, but we expect New Zealand to comfortably dominate proceedings here.

Second Rows

The battle evens out a bit here, but with the experience of All Black lock and Captain Sam Whitelock alongside impressive newcomer Scott Barrett, New Zealand should still be in charge here especially at lineout time. France pack some genuine talent in the shape of Paul Gabrillagues, but his partner Yoann Maestri is just too hot and cold for us as well as suffering from a lack of discipline. New Zealand should cement the dominance created by their front row here, especially with last year’s sensation Vaea Fifita on the bench.

Back Rows

Despite the formidable talents of France’s Kevin Gourdon at number eight, we once again struggle to see France gaining much parity with New Zealand here. With flankers Liam Squire and Sam Cane looking to dominate the breakdowns and loose play, France will have to be at their best defensively to keep this part of the field in check. Although France’s defence was rock solid for much of the Six Nations, they are without a few key players from that campaign in this part of the park, and as a result we can’t help feeling that it is going to be a long day at the office for France here. Once again it’s that All Black bench which is likely to compound French misery here in the shape of Ardie Savea.

Half Backs

Probably the only team in the world that can hold a candle to New Zealand’s supremacy in this part of the park is Ireland. As a result we are not expecting too much from France here, and plenty of genius from New Zealand scrum half Aaron Smith and fly half Beauden Barrett. France bring some serious experience in the shape of scrum half Morgan Parra and the raw but gifted talent of fly half Anthony Belleau, but we just can’t see them being able to consistently outwit the New Zealand pair. France do have a good bench offering here in the shape of scrum half Baptiste Serin and fly half Jules Plisson, but once again New Zealand’s TJ Perenara and Damien McKenzie possess a set of skills only just short of their starting counterparts Smith and Barrett. France to have some real enterprise here at times, but New Zealand to still run the show.

Centres

It’s here and on the wings where we really expect to see some sparks fly. We think New Zealand have the more cohesive unit in the shape of Ryan Crotty and Anton Liennert-Brown, but France’s offering, especially in the shape of Mathieu Basteraud, is something to fear. The French centre has become a much more creative player than his battering ram persona of the past used to suggest. His partner Geoffrey Doumayrou also has the potential to turn heads, something he does regularly at his club La Rochelle. The experience of the All Black duo, especially Crotty, should ultimately see New Zealand come out on top in this part of the park, but there should be some genuine surprises and close calls created by the French pair. Ngani Laumape is an exceptionally exciting player for New Zealand off the bench, and someone we feel can ultimately offer more than Gael Fickou who often goes missing for France.

Back Three

With Rieko Ioane who was one of the talking points of 2017 for all the right reasons, and the legendary Ben Smith who can both create and score tries from anywhere on the park, it is hard to see France getting much traction on the wings on Saturday. But hold that thought – enter left and right for France Remy Grosso and Teddy Thomas. We think Grosso is superb and Thomas proved to be a try seeking missile during the Six Nations. Barring Ioane’s X-factor and Ben Smith’s sheer all round ability on attack and defence, this would be an even contest. We just give New Zealand the nod here, but like in the contest between the centres, there should be some real sparks and flair on show here on Saturday if France can get some quality go forward ball. New Zealand should ultimately come out on top but expect some entertainment from the Men in Blue here. Maxime Medard has produced some epic displays against New Zealand in the fullback position in the past, but we can’t help feeling that he is perhaps past his sell by date when compared to the up and coming Jordi Barrett for New Zealand. An interesting contest here where a wise French head meets one that is perhaps slightly older than its years and experience might suggest. Most entertaining part of the park on Saturday, but one which ultimately New Zealand should dominate.

Verdict

France are likely to struggle to find their feet on their first outing in New Zealand, especially at the noisy hallowed ground of Auckland’s Eden Park. There should be moments of French brilliance and if they can put up the kind of defensive solidity they showed in the Six Nations, New Zealand may find them a slightly harder nut to crack than they imagine. However, France still haven’t gelled they way they need to and without their inspirational leader Guirado, we can’t see them getting past an already slick-looking All Black outfit. France will seek to put on a show at times, but New Zealand to be the more clinical of the two and ultimately run away with it in the final quarter by 20 points!

Australia vs Ireland
Saturday, June 9th
Brisbane

We’ll wear our heart on our sleeves here and say that of all the June tours this is the one we are looking forward to the most. Australia may be going through tough times in terms of its rugby identity right now, but there is no denying that Coach Michael Cheika has put together a team that if it fires, could be absolutely lethal this month. Ireland meanwhile have catapulted themselves into the number 2 spot in the world rankings in the last 12 months, and unlike in years gone by, they look the part both in terms of organisation and depth. They are going to be hard to beat and are blessed with the ability to finally absorb injuries and still field a daunting match day 23. These two sides are going to go at each other hammer and tongs over the next three weeks, and we can’t wait for it to start.

Front Rows

Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has chosen to start with a less experienced front row than he could have chosen with the exception of Jack McGrath. Hooker Rob Herring and prop John Ryan are not new to the Irish cause, but will no doubt relish the opportunity of a starting berth in a Test of such magnitude. Australia are fielding the more experienced trio with the exception of new cap and Hooker Brendan Paenga-Amosa. Props Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu need no introduction and were a big part of the turnaround in Australia’s scrum fortunes last season. Consequently, we expect to see Australia have the upper hand in proceedings here in the early stages of the match. However, come the last quarter and provided Ireland have been competitive, Australia are likely to come dramatically unstuck as Ireland bring on their super hero bench. Hooker Sean Cronin and props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong are the stuff of forward coaches’ worst nightmares. Cronin seems to have an intimate relationship with the try line, while Healy and Furlong are just as dangerous in the loose as they are at the coal face. Australia’s early comfort in this part of the park is likely to evaporate very quickly once the Irish bench have had their say come the latter stages of the match.

Second Rows

One name stands out here, and it’s Irish – James Ryan. In discussions about what the complete second rower should look like, Ryan’s name has been front and centre for most people all year with the disturbing fact that the green shirted giant is only 21, making his utter dominance of the position so much more remarkable. The man is like a combination of the greatest aspects of New Zealand’s Ian Jones, Australia’s John Eales, England’s Martin Johnson and Ireland’s Paul O’Connell all rolled into one. Although not grabbing the headlines to the same degree of his partner, Ian Henderson has also become an exceptionally solid and reliable performer, meaning that Australia’s Izack Rodda and Adam Coleman are going to have to be at the very top of their game to keep the two Irishmen in check. Having said that we have to confess to being huge fans of Australia’s Adam Coleman and feel that he has a very illustrious career ahead of him in the Wallaby jersey, and his partner Rodda has also impressed. While we think the sheer presence and ability of Ryan may well swing it in Ireland’s favor, there is going to be a battle royale going on here especially at lineout time.

Back Rows

Michael Hooper and David Pocock, two of the games best flankers bring some real pedigree and threat to Australia’s challenge in this part of the park. So much so that we feel this is one area of the field where Australia are likely to have the edge. The only potential weak link in the chain is new cap and number eight Caleb Timu. Ireland’s offering is nothing short of stellar but we feel that CJ Stander at number eight and flanker Peter O’Mahony have not quite hit the heights we are accustomed to seeing them at this season. Jordi Murphy has really stood out at club level with Leinster, but once again we are not sure that his performances in the green jersey alongside O’Mahony are of the calibre of the Australian pair. It’s Ireland’s threat on the bench that perhaps is Australia’s biggest concern, in the shape of replacement number 8 Jack Conan. We feel he is one of Ireland’s most underrated players, and expect the bruising ball carrier to have a great deal to say in the final twenty minutes especially if the scores are close. Nevertheless, it’s the Hooper/Pocock axis which we feel may swing this contest in Australia’s favor for the majority of the match.

Half Backs

While some may see it as a gamble we applaud the decision by Irish Coach Joe Schmidt to give Joey Carberry the start at fly half for such an important game. Ireland know they have a year in which to develop some real depth and experience to support Jonathan Sexton for the World Cup, and this tour and the development of Carberry will be absolutely critical to that process. Furthermore, the youngster has proven himself in key matches such as the historic Irish defeat of the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016. Carberry has talent by the bucketload, he simply needs more game time. With Irish scrum half Conor Murray alongside him Carberry will have plenty of experience and support, with Sexton waiting on the bench to restore order should stage fright get the better of Carberry. Australia’s offerings here are certainly nothing to sniff at, though we can’t help feeling that Bernard Foley at fly half, is potentially one of Australia’s weakest links if his form of last year is anything to go by. However, like Carberry he has the wise head of Will Genia alongside him, although like Foley, Genia seemed to struggle to find consistency last season – brilliant one match and then a disaster the next – it remains to be seen what the 2018 version of Will Genia looks like. Consequently, on paper despite the much-needed risk taking by the Irish coaching staff here, we still feel that Ireland are packing a superior set of skills and game management ability in this part of the park.

Centres

This is one area of the park where Australia really could lay down some markers. Kurtley Beale was fantastic last year for Australia, and Samu Kerevi really grew into the position, especially once he sorted out his defensive shortcomings. Exceptionally creative and unpredictable these two are likely to cause problems all afternoon for Ireland. Irish centres Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw have impressed all year for Ireland, but we just don’t feel they have the speed and quick thinking of the Australian pair. Consequently, it will be close but Australia are more likely to outwit Ireland in this part of the park.

Back Threes

Ireland possess the Six Nations leading try scorer here in winger Jacob Stockdale, but overall we can’t help feeling that once again, especially on home soil, Australia look more dangerous here. Fullback Israel Folau has been absolutely immense in the air in this year’s Super Rugby and should Ireland fall into the trap of peppering high balls deep into the Australian 22, they could end up courtesy of Folau coming horribly unstuck. Dane Haylett-Petty is in our opinion an exceptional winger and his colleague Marika Koroibete was one of last year’s Rugby Championship talking points. Ireland possess two feisty competitors in winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney, but with the exception of Ireland’s Stockdale we feel that Australia possess more of the X-factor in this part of the park. The battle of the fullback replacements will provide another fascinating contest as Australia’s Reece Hodge and Ireland’s Jordan Larmour should bring plenty of excitement to the proceedings, and Hodge brings with him the addition of a rather remarkable boot when it comes to kicking duties. Tough to call but overall Australia look the more dangerous here.

Verdict

On paper and with home advantage we are tempted to swing this Australia’s way. However, there are a couple of key talents in this Irish side allied to a very tactically astute Coach which make us believe that, although it will be close, ultimately Ireland are just going to squeak the opener. Australia may get across the whitewash more, but the steady hand and boot of Sexton and that Irish replacement front row in the final quarter will see the Irish wrestle control back from a free running Wallaby side. Consequently Sexton and the bench to restore order, and much as he did in Paris earlier this year, see the Irish home by three points!

South Africa vs England
Saturday, June 9th
Johannesburg

South Africa may not have got life under new Coach Rassie Erasmus off to the kind of start they wanted last weekend in Washington against Wales, but it wasn’t without promise. Let’s face it while not the prettiest of games at times, a South African side boasting a record number of new caps, still managed to come back in the second half with a vengeance, and with four minutes to go were about to record a win against a side that came second in this year’s Six Nations. Furthermore they lost the match by a mere two points. Sure the Springboks and especially their new caps made a bucketload of mistakes but they certainly were competitive, especially in the second half.

England arrive in South Africa reeling from a lack of confidence after a season that has so far failed to ignite the imagination, as well as have us believe that until only a few months ago this was supposedly the second best side in the world. Something is clearly not right with English rugby, but being short of talent is not one of the problems. The starting XV which will run out at Ellis Park on Saturday boasts an enviable mix of raw young talent and seasoned Test veterans. In short, it’s a good side with some absolutely world-class players like Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly to name but a few. There is absolutely no reason that this shouldn’t be a successful tour for the Men in White, and while there are some issues to resolve, get some confidence and self-belief back into this side and the rest of the world will once more have to be on their guard when England comes calling.

Front Rows

Apart from “the Beast”, Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira, we are not convinced by South Africa’s front row. Although England’s may by comparison be slightly greener, with the exception of prop Mako Vunipola, we feel that their scrummaging technique is likely to be more disciplined than South Africa’s. The English youngsters Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler will really need to make a big impression on this tour, but Hooker George is likely to make the number 2 jersey his own, heading into the countdown to the World Cup. If Sinckler can hold his own against “the Beast” then England should be able to dictate proceedings here. If England are going to run into problems up front they are likely to surface once South Africa’s bench comes into play. Prop Steven Kitshoff is superb and really stood out in Washington and expect him to cause England all kinds of problems. We like the look of replacement Hooker Armand van der Merwe despite his lack of experience, and prop Wilco Louw is likely to only get better with each successive outing in a Springbok jersey.

Second Rows

We simply don’t know enough about England’s Nick Isiekwe and South Africa’s RG Snyman to make much of an informed opinion here. We know the Englishman performed well on the tour to Argentina last year and that Snyman has looked good with the Bulls in Super Rugby. However, their partners need no introduction. England’s Maro Itoje was one of the Players of the Year last year, and despite his form being somewhat up and down this year, we are expecting him to be back to his best on this tour. South Africa’s Franco Mostert is in much the same boat as Itoje, a quality player but whose form has been hot and cold at times in the last twelve months. Tough to call here but we are going with Itoje to find his groove on Saturday and really spur his partner on to the heights needed for England to get the edge here.

Back Rows

England’s back row has been their biggest Achilles Heel this year and they really need to find some answers quickly on this tour. Sadly we are not sure they will on Saturday. While there are lots of question marks surrounding South Africa’s selections, there is no question about their experience and if they come out of the blocks firing this is a fearsome trio. While Captain Siya Kolisi has not quite demonstrated the form in 2018, that made him one of the biggest talking points in South African rugby last year, perhaps the Captain’s role will bring out the motivation needed to get him back to his best. His number 8 Duane Vermeulen is also in much the same boat. We saw little of him this year at Toulon that really fired the imagination, but perhaps being back in South Africa and the Springbok jersey will bring out the best in a player that had made a real contribution to South African rugby prior to his departure to France. However, we feel that flanker Jean Luc du Preez is a real commodity to be reckoned with and provided his back row partners click, it’s South Africa who should have the upper hand here in the cauldron of Ellis Park. We’ve heard nothing but good things about English flanker Tom Curry, and perhaps in conjunction with Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola, this is the back row unit that finally works for England. Robshaw brings experience and Vunipola brings an indestructible ball carrying ability coupled to a wealth of experience. However, Vunipola’s fitness has been an ongoing concern and Ellis Park is not the place you really want to be tested so soon on your return from injury. Consequently, despite the question marks surrounding South Africa’s trio we’re handing the contest to them, especially with the bench offering of Sikhumbuzo Notshe. We’re not convinced by England’s bench of Nathan Hughes, and New Zealander Brad Shields first outing in an England jersey, even though the Kiwi is likely to find the stature during the course of the tour that made him so impressive in Super Rugby this year.

Half Backs

If fly half Handre Pollard and scrum half Faf de Klerk click on Saturday, we feel they will be the combination to beat, especially given home advantage. De Klerk has been electric for Sale Sharks this year, and Pollard is slowly regaining the form that made him one of South Africa’s most promising talents in the last few years. England’s Ben Youngs and George Ford, at 9 and 10, on the other hand have shown little form this year and if anything their problems and lack of confidence on the big stage seem to be getting worse. South Africa’s undoing however could end up being their bench. Elton Jantjies is simply not a Test fly half and both he and Ivan van Zyl at scrum half had a shocker last weekend in Washington. If South Africa’s starting pair are able to hold their own for the full eighty minutes this should be South Africa’s day in this part of the park.

Centres

England should start to feel much more comfortable in this part of the park. Owen Farrell is a master of his trade despite a relatively poor Six Nations by his standards, and his partner Henry Slade is some magic waiting to happen. Despite his form at the Stormers, as most readers of this blog know, we regard Springbok centre Damian de Allende as one of the most overrated players in South African rugby, and sadly do not know enough about his partner Lukhanyo Am. We have heard great things about Am, but not having really seen him in action are not in position to judge what kind of impact he is likely to have on Saturday. De Allende on the other hand concerns us, predictable and ill-disciplined we fear he may be too much of a liability for South Africa, and consequently we are handing the contest here to the English, especially with Farrell’s experience.

Back Threes

This should also be England’s part of the park to rule, even though we are questioning the inclusion of Mike Brown on the wing, instead of his usual position at fullback. For South Africa, with the exception of fullback Willie le Roux, who is also a master of blowing hot and cold, we know so little of the South African wingers that we are not in a position to comment. However, it’s the presence of Elliot Daly in the side and speedster Johnny May on the wing that are causing us to tip our hats England’s way in this area of the field. May has X-factor by the bucketload, and Daly is such a versatile and gifted player that South Africa will really need to produce something special to keep the two Englishmen in check. South Africa have Warrick Gelant on the bench as fullback cover, but despite rave reviews we didn’t see much from him in the Washington match that really made us sit up and take notice.

Verdict

It’s a tough game to call, but we think in front of a fanatical home crowd South Africa will have more to prove and consequently rise better to both the occasion and the infamous altitude. England are likely to be competitive and dominate key areas of the park, but the Springboks are likely to throw the kitchen sink at them and consequently wear them down. Once fatigue sets in England are likely to start unravelling in the thinner Johannesburg air, with the better acclimatised Springboks just pulling away by 2 points! England will play the more attractive rugby but South Africa are likely to be more determined even it may not be as pretty at times.

Argentina vs Wales
Saturday, June 9th
San Juan

Unfortunately we only got the team sheets for this match just as we were going to press, so will have to do a brief overview on what we think might happen.

In short, we have one word for Wales after looking at the Pumas team sheet – Ouch!

A bruising Pumas front row should make short work of a Welsh front row that was clearly getting bossed around by the Springboks in Washington in the second half. With Agustin Creevy in the mix for Argentina at Hooker, you know that the Pumas are going to be exceptionally fired up. We can’t see the Welsh second row getting much traction over the towering Pumas unit of Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini who have looked so impressive on the Jaguares last six outings, with Lavanini finally being able to see colors other than yellow and red.

Perhaps more than anything though it’s that Pumas back row which we feel is going to cause Wales the most heartache. Pablo Matera is a devastating loose forward and his partner Marcos Kremer is having a blinder of a Super Rugby season. Welsh number 8 Ross Moriarty will give as good as he gets and really stood out in Washington, but we feel he will be fighting a losing cause against Argentina’s fast, mobile pile-driving trio of Matera, Kremer and Desio.

It’s a dynamic Welsh pairing of Rhys Patchell and the return of Gareth Davies at scrum half, but Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez and Gonzalo Bertranou have lots of match winning experience together in Super Rugby recently. This should be a relatively seamless transition from the Jaguares to the Pumas for the Argentine pair, and it’s that recency and home advantage that should see them run this part of the park for the Pumas to Wales’ disadvantage.

Lastly, the backs should be able to lay waste to Welsh defences, which looked porous in Washington at times. The Pumas are essentially fielding the back five which has proved to be so lethal for the Jaguares recently in Super Rugby. Once more the familiarity of playing together and their proven strike threat should see the Argentinian quintet just get the better of their Welsh counterparts. Expect some sparks from Hadleigh Parkes and George North for Wales, with Hallam Amos providing some surprises of his own. However, we just feel that the talent present in the Argentinian backs and their recent form should give the Pumas the edge.

In short, a bruising encounter, which is probably going to add to Wales’ already significant injury woes. A very competitive game, which ultimately should favor a confident Pumas side by 4 points!

Canada vs Scotland
Saturday June 9th
Edmonton

As of going to press we still don’t have the team sheet for Canada, so sadly this is too much like crystal ball gazing for us to have any kind of in-depth look at the match.

Like we say without the team sheet for Canada it’s hard to have much of an informed opinion. Furthermore we’ve heard that ticket sales haven’t been great, leaving an already demoralized Canadian team playing in a half empty stadium against a young but very accomplished and well coached Scottish side. Scotland may not be fielding their biggest names, but there is a clear hunger and obvious talent in Coach Gregor Townsend’s charges to really make a mark and build a platform for a worthy challenge to the Pumas at the end of the month.

Canada know they have it all to do, but with a poor track record going into this match, and confidence at an all time low, they will be hard pressed to contain a strong well-organized set of Scottish forwards and fizzy backs. Add rain into the mix, which is on the forecast, and Canada’s already poor handling skills and sloppy defence will mean that it’s likely to be a tough day at the office, despite the presence of Canadian superheroes like the legendary winger DTH van der Merwe.

Canada as always will put up a brave fight and we’ll be cheering in front of our TV screens, but realistically it’s hard to see anything less than an 18 point winning margin for Scotland on Saturday in Edmonton!

Yes it’s Test time again! This month will provide us with a bumper crop of great contests, but this weekend sees just the one match between Wales and South Africa on neutral ground in Washington DC. Both sides are fielding plenty of new caps, and it will be an excellent opportunity for both teams to gauge the quality of depth they have ahead of a challenging assignment for Wales in Argentina and a gruelling three Test series against England for South Africa. Furthermore, it’s South Africa’s first outing with their new Coach Rassie Erasmus, so there will be plenty of motivation to get this new era in Springbok rugby off to a flying start. Wales meanwhile, will want to settle their new charges with some solid experience ahead of a daunting two-week trip to Argentina and having to deal with a rather dangerous looking Pumas side.

So without any further ado let’s get into the matchups emanating from some interesting selections from both Coaches.

South Africa vs Wales
Saturday, June 2nd
Washington, DC

It’s going to be hot and humid in Washington on Saturday, as two experimental sides face up against each other. A strong chance of thunderstorms will mean in addition to the heat and humidity, a greasy ball will be on offer. Both sides will be fielding some experience sprinkled in amongst a group of relative newcomers, which should help to settle the nerves in what should be a challenging and edgy encounter. While both sides will be keen for a win, a solid performance under pressure in which the newer caps are really able to make a statement is likely to be higher on each Coach’s list of priorities this Saturday.

Front Rows

We think Wales are going to struggle here, and that seems to be a general consensus. From PRO 14 and Super Rugby, South Africa’s offerings are all fairly familiar, and we have to confess to being a fan of tighthead prop Wilco Louw, and feel that he has enormous potential. Alongside Louw, is Ox Nche on the loosehead, and with the experience of Chiliboy Ralepelle at Hooker this should prove to be a traditionally workmanlike Springbok front row. Nche has caught the eye on several occasions with the Cheetahs this year, and should be able to provide some much-needed X-factor as he is no stranger to the try line. For Wales it is hard to know what to expect here. The form of the three relatively inexperienced front rowers for Wales at PRO14 level has been noteworthy, but we feel that the cut and thrust of Super Rugby and exposure to the Rugby Championship the South African trio bring, should edge the contest in the Springboks favor. Perhaps more than anything it is the duo of replacement Sharks Hooker Armand van der Merwe and Stormers and Springbok loosehead Prop Steven Kitshoff (the “ginger ninja”), that are likely to really make life difficult for Wales in the final quarter, particularly if South Africa’s front three have already gained some dominance. We’re interested to see how Wales holds up here but think this should be South Africa’s front office all afternoon.

Second Rows

There is no denying there is some significant Test experience in the Welsh second row, but we are just not convinced that it is a combination to really cause South Africa too many problems. Bradley Davies has significant Test experience for Wales, but he has never really stood out for us. His partner Cory Hill, can be an exceptional player but has tended to blow hot and cold in his fifteen appearances for Wales. South Africa on the other hand have the exciting young talent of newcomer Jason Jenkins and the experience and bruising ball carrying skills of Pieter-Steph du Toit, who Captains the side and needs no introduction. The bench replacements for Wales and South Africa are both uncapped, but on the basis of his efforts with Super Rugby’s Lions, we are giving Springbok debutant Marvin Orie the edge here. The Springbok Captain is likely to have a huge impact at the breakdown and in the lineout, and consequently we once more give the nod to the Springboks here.

Back Rows

A certain gentleman by the name of Kwagga Smith gets a long overdue first call up to the Springbok jersey, and for us who will be lucky enough to attend this match in person, his presence on the pitch alone makes this match worth the price of admission. We have been wanting to see Smith in a Springbok jersey for almost two years now and are delighted that Coach Rassie Erasmus has seen the explosive raw talent of the flanker and given him the break he so deserves. If you don’t believe us watch this footage of Kwagga in action for the Barbarians against the All Blacks last year.

Probably South Africa’s most potent weapon on the park at RFK stadium on Saturday, expect plenty of fireworks from this character, and we can’t wait to see him in action. The rest of South Africa’s back row contingent are also impressive, especially the Sharks Daniel du Preez, and we feel that Teboho Mahoje is a player with potential even if he hasn’t quite found his groove yet in a Springbok jersey. Wales will be no slouches here, but will have their work cut out trying to contain Smith, so much so that we doubt they will be able to steal the show. We have to confess to seeing Welsh Coach Warren Gatland’s choice of flanker Ellis Jenkins as Captain, a huge leap of faith with only six caps. A bold choice but there is no denying that he has looked exceptional with Cardiff Blues in both the PRO14 and in Europe, but he really is going to have his hands full with Kwagga Smith. We’ve always been fans of Welsh number eight Ross Moriarty provided he can keep his discipline in check. Once again Wales will be competitive here but we feel that given the Springboks experience and the absolute X-factor of Kwagga Smith, South Africa should be able to dictate the pace of proceedings in this part of the park.

Half Backs

Well we’ve talked about X-factor, but in this part of the park, despite our complete lack of knowledge about Welsh scrum half and debutant Tomos Williams, we are handing the contest to Wales in the shape of Gareth Anscombe. We were exceptionally impressed with his performances in the Six Nations, which got better and better as the tournament progressed. South Africa also field an uncapped scrum half in the shape of Ivan van Zyl, but sadly we feel that Elton Jantjies is the weak link in the chain for South Africa at Test Level, despite a solid track record in Super Rugby with the Lions. Consequently, we expect Wales to be the more clinical at running the game with a few surprises up their sleeves, especially with Rhys Patchell waiting in the wings to come on for Anscombe in the final quarter, along with scrum half Aled Davies.

Centres

George North at centre instead of on the wing for Wales is always a surprising choice, but there is no denying that if he brings his A game to Washington on Saturday, South Africa are going to be in big trouble. Since his return to Wales after a stint in England, North’s form certainly seems to be coming back to him, so expect plenty of sparks here. His partner, Owen Watkin, is a bit of a unkown for us so we can’t really comment too much here. However,on the bench Wales have Hadleigh Parkes, and for us he has the kind of ability that can singlehandedly turn a game on its head. South Africa have the veteran skills of Jesse Kriel, but the Bulls player is renowned for being hot and cold as well as slightly predictable. South Africa are putting in a debutant Andre Esterhuizen alongside him and we just can’t really see the Springboks getting too much of an advantage over Wales, especially with North and Parkes seeking to cause havoc.

Back Threes

South Africa’s starting wingers Travis Ismaeil and Makazole Mapimpi are sadly unknowns to us, having not watched enough of this year’s Super Rugby, and the fact that both players are earning their first caps for the Springboks. Nevertheless we’ve heard that Mapimpi is quite the pocket rocket and are looking forward to seeing him on the Test stage. Fullback Curwin Bosch is set to be a big part of the Springboks buildup to the World Cup, and the Sharks youngster will really need to stamp his authority on this match and the position. Nevertheless, much as with the centres battle, we can’t help feeling that this is Wales contest to win. It’s good to see Hallam Amos get a start at fullback for the Welsh as we feel he is a player with considerable promise but who has suffered from a lack of game time. Meanwhile on the left wing, Steff Evans is just getting better and better, especially as he appears to have fixed his early defensive frailties. South Africa does have one potential game changer though waiting on the sidelines for them in the shape of Warrick Gelant. A powerful runner that can carve up huge parts of the park, Gelant is a player that South Africa are likely to put a lot of emphasis on in the build up to the World Cup. Despite this though we still hand the contest to Wales, given the greater experience of their back three.

Verdict

A tough one to call, but despite the Welsh talent in the backs and their greater experience, we still think that South Africa’s overall physical presence and the X-factor of Kwagga Smith will see them win the day, provided they can cope with the sauna like weather conditions expected. It will be close and should provide a match of contrasting styles and hopefully some good running rugby, but South Africa to ultimately outmuscle a spirited and wily Welsh challenge by four points.

First of all apologies to all for the long silence, but it’s been a very hectic few months since the wrap up of the Six Nations for all of us up here in the slowly thawing frozen North. Furthermore, with our resident scribe in the midst of a job change there hasn’t been much opportunity to put pen to paper regarding the oval ball. However, fortunately there is a well-timed breathing space over the next few weeks, just in time for the June Tours.

After a long hard season, the Six Nations competitors seek to span the globe and wrap up their year with three tough weeks of touring. England, after a disappointing Six Nations campaign, face the daunting prospect of a three-week tour of South Africa and three Tests against a Springbok side keen to prove themselves under a new Coach. A French side reeling from the trials and tribulations of club rugby’s longest and most grueling competition the Top 14, haul themselves onto the long flight to New Zealand to take on the seemingly invincible All Blacks. Ireland, who seem unbeatable so far this year, both at club and International level, travel to Australia for a three Test series against a Wallaby side likely to be far better than what their current Super Rugby form would suggest.

Italy have a brief two-week tour of Japan which should give them a taste of what to expect in terms of atmosphere come the World Cup next year. Scotland have a three-week tour of the Americas which should start with an easy encounter with Canada but get progressively harder as they take on the US and ultimately Argentina. Finally, the Welsh travel first to the US for an intriguing encounter with the Springboks in Washington. They then make the long trek South for two potentially bruising encounters with a Pumas side that will seek to capitalize on the recent stellar performances of their Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares.

It’s definitely going to be an exciting three weeks, and by the end of it we should have a much clearer idea of where the Six Nations competitors stand in the global pecking order. All six teams will have different aspirations and goals for their June Tours and what success over the coming weeks will mean. Consequently, here’s our attempts at crystal ball gazing and what we think they’re looking to get out of their upcoming travel plans.

England

England need some answers this tour and quickly. With just over a year to the World Cup, time is rapidly running out for Coach Eddie Jones to gel a world-beating side. 2018 has been a horrible year for England, with a Six Nations campaign that really failed to fire with humiliating losses to Scotland, France and Ireland. The cracks in England’s armor started to appear with their loss to Ireland in last year’s Six Nations and which brought to an end a long winning streak.

So what’s gone wrong for England and what do they need to fix on this tour? Some of the more tried and trusted veterans have failed to show up for duty at key moments in the last year. Meanwhile some of the youngsters have understandably struggled to keep pace with the demands of a side that until recently seemed destined to be New Zealand’s most troublesome opposition. So the old has to gel with the new and the two really become a seamless unit, with some of the younger players really developing into leadership roles. England’s front row has managed to hold its own for the most part but their last few outings have left a lot to be desired, so really matching up to the physical presence that South Africa traditionally provides will be definitely on Eddie Jones to do list next month. England’s second row combinations have not stamped the type of authority that we have come to expect from them of late. But perhaps England’s biggest problem is their dysfunctional back row. Players out of position, and certain players being asked to do too much seem to be the root cause of England’s problems at the moment. There is some world-class talent available to Eddie Jones, of that there is no doubt, but the continued experimentation here particularly at seven and eight really needs to be resolved this tour.

In the half backs George Ford really needs to find his groove and if he can’t someone other than Owen Farrell has to come to light on this tour. Farrell can play the position with ease and a great deal of skill but he is also just as useful in the centres, meaning that Jones needs to secure a solid backup number 10, especially if George Ford continues to falter on this tour.

In the backs, England is blessed with a wealth of world-class talent but it really is time for England to move away from veteran fullback Mike Brown and really develop some depth for the future. The centre partnership also really needs to go under the microscope on this tour and some long-term combinations, particularly in terms of depth, settled on. Across the backs, England also needs to give some of their younger players a real chance to shine in the pressure cauldron that South Africa provides.

In short, this tour has to be about really solidifying the experience of some of the younger talent and matching it to the skill set and composure of some key older players. If England can do that successfully and emerge with the nucleus of 30 or so players who they can build towards the World Cup, then whatever the result in South Africa it can be considered a success. As for what they are likely to come away with in terms of results? To be honest, despite the misfortunes of South African rugby since the last World Cup, we feel that under their new Coach Rassie Erasmus they will be a harder nut to crack than many are giving them credit for. Consequently we find it hard to imagine a series win for England. They are more than likely to win one Test, most likely the second match in Bloemfontein, having acclimatised to the altitude the week before in Johannesburg. It will be a close series and if England answer their own questions and find the players and combinations they need, then all parties concerned should be pleased with a job well done – even if it means a narrow series loss.

France

Let’s face it despite the inevitable doom and gloom surrounding France’s up coming tour to New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud has produced some epic French miracles in days gone by. While much of this may now look like ancient history to some, France invariably seem to find one big game in them when on tour to New Zealand, and we feel that this tour just might reproduce a bit of history in that regard. France, as they always are at the end of a long hard domestic season, will be putting some used and abused players on the long flight to Auckland, but by week 2 of the tour, we expect to see a real willingness to put some pride back in the French jersey and give the rest of the rugby world a few talking points.

To be honest it hasn’t been that bad of a year for France. Their first Six Nations under new Coach Jacques Brunel, saw them almost rob Ireland of an eventual Grand Slam at the beginning of the tournament, as well as some solid wins over Italy and their old nemesis England. Despite losing to Scotland they still managed to give the men from North of Hadrian’s wall a fright. Finally in a tense match in Cardiff they were unlucky to be the losers by a mere point.

Where France are likely to struggle most on this tour is in the forward battles as many of the standouts in the Six Nations will be absent on this tour. There are still some key names like prop Rabah Slimani, lock Paul Gabrillagues and back rower Kevin Gourdon who will cause New Zealand some problems but overall as a unit, it is likely to be exposed under the most intense pressure. France in the process will learn a great deal about the kind of depth it has up front, and consequently this alone makes the tour an important event for France’s buildup to the World Cup, regardless of the results on the scoreboard.

However, all is not lost as Les Bleus will be fielding some exciting half back partnerships and some serious strike threats in the backs. There is an interesting mix of experience and raw young talent in the half back offerings, and in the backs Teddy Thomas has shown himself to be a try scoring machine. Add to that some superb centres and France has plenty of potential to strike from deep and keep the New Zealand defences on their toes especially out wide. France will be dangerous here make no mistake, and if an upset is on the cards then it will come from this part of the park.

France will see this as an excellent opportunity to take a serious look at some of their up and coming players under intense pressure. While French touring teams have traditionally looked fatigued and rudderless at the tail end of their season, they traditionally seem to find a bit more of a sense of purpose in their final overseas tour before the World Cup. We were always skeptical of Coach Jacques Brunel’s abilities while he was in charge of Italy, but something positive is clearly starting to take place under his tutelage with France, and New Zealand will be the ultimate litmus test of how much progress really has been made. While we are predicting a clean sweep of the series by New Zealand, we also feel that there is going to be one hell of a Test match in there somewhere, and an upset is much less beyond the realm of possibility than it has been in recent years.

Ireland

In selecting his touring party for Ireland’s three Test series in Australia, Coach Joe Schmidt has very clearly laid out his intentions – an emphatic series win. While a three Test whitewash may be too much to ask, given the talent at his disposal and the form of Irish rugby so far this year, it’s hard to see Ireland coming away with anything less. Australia will be no pushover on home soil, but they looked less than stellar on tour during the autumn series last year, and so far Australian Super Rugby sides have failed to impress in this year’s competition. To be honest we would have thought the overriding objective of this end of season tour for the Irish would have been squad development of some of the younger players on a challenging assignment away from home, and thus really solidifying the depth that is clearly emerging in Irish rugby. By doing this you would also rest key senior players like Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, among others, and not jeopardise the runup to the World Cup with unnecessary injuries. Nevertheless, you can understand the desire to finish off a season where Ireland have simply looked unstoppable at both Test and club level, with one more crowning glory.

Given that a series win in Australia is a clear and eminently achievable ambition for Joe Schmidt and his charges, there are a couple of things we hope to see happen on the tour, even if it may seem unorthodox. In short, have your newer players form the bulk of your starting XV for each of the three Tests, with the senior players coming on as impact substitutions in the final quarter if things are starting to unravel.

This will be particularly important to develop some real depth under pressure for the half back positions. At fly half this should be Joey Carberry’s tour with Sexton there in a supporting role, and the same could be said of Keiran Marmion with Conor Murray providing similar backup in the scrum half role. In the forwards, Dan Leavy, James Ryan, Jack Conan, Andrew Porter and Tadhg Beirne should all be getting the maximum amount of game time. Meanwhile, Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour should also feature heavily in Joe Schmidt’s starting selections for the backs.

It’s going to be an interesting tour, and while it could be Ireland’s bridge too far at the end of a remarkable season, we somehow doubt it. As mentioned earlier we doubt it’s going to be a whitewash for the Men in Green, but they should clinch the series by winning two of the Tests, and in the process provide us with perhaps the most closely fought and exciting of all the Northern Hemisphere tours South of the Equator. In short if you only get to follow one of the June series, this is probably the one you’ll want to catch.

Italy

Italy have had moments of brilliance this season, but sadly the wins have been too few and far between. Consequently, it is perhaps with a sigh of relief, that Italian Coach Conor O’Shea finds himself with a two Test series against Japan instead of any of the Southern Hemisphere’s traditional heavyweights. As a result it should be an excellent opportunity to build some confidence in the side as well as get an understanding of what it will be like playing in front of Japanese crowds next year in the World Cup.

Japan have become increasingly competitive since the last World Cup, and it will be a real test of Italy’s abilities to cope a long way from home, with a team and environment that they are not overly familiar with. We feel that this will end up a tied series, and will provide some entertaining rugby from both sides. If Italy can run Japan close in the first Test and pull off a convincing win in the second, then they are likely to feel that they have both learnt a great deal about themselves and restored some long overdue confidence. Thus if they keep their expectations realistic and focus on learning some valuable lessons, this upcoming fortnight in Japan could be the most productive thing Italy end up doing all season.

Scotland

Scotland, can perhaps feel slightly aggrieved that they haven’t quite got the exposure to some of the Southern Hemisphere giants that they should be getting at this stage of their preparations for the World Cup. However, having to take on a Pumas side on their own turf, who are likely to have just caused Wales a multitude of problems, is certainly a daunting task for any team as their final match of the season.

Consequently this tour will be all about development plain and simple. Scotland have named six uncapped players for this tour, with a significant number of the touring party having less than 10 caps to their name. Two confidence boosting wins over Canada and then the US, should set them up nicely for a tricky showdown with Argentina. If Argentina are able to play to the same level of the recent exploits by the Argentinian Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares, Scotland’s young charges will face a superb test of character as their final match of the season. While it may simply be too much for them to manage, it should still provide them with an excellent learning experience on which to build for the World Cup.

In short a useful tour allowing the development of some genuine depth for Scotland, culminating in a daunting challenge from Argentina’s Pumas.

Wales

Wales have their work cut out for them in no uncertain terms on their June travels. They start off in the unfamiliar environment of Washington DC, where it is expected to be 30 degree Celsius on match day, against a familiar but untested opponent this year, South Africa’s Springboks. From there, it’s the long flight down to Argentina where they take on a rather menacing looking Pumas outfit. To make matters worse, the Welsh forward contingent has been plagued with injuries, and two of their most valuable players of the season, flankers Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler have been ruled out of the touring party. There’s some definite spark in the backs, but we fear that the lack of any real Welsh forward power compared to the juggernaut that Argentina will be bringing to this part of the park, will mean that Wales will struggle to give their backs much quality ball.

Consequently, much like Scotland, Wales will be really testing for depth especially in the forwards on this tour. They are likely to run all of their opponents close, but with the exception of a possible win against an uncertain Springbok side, we find it hard to see them getting the better of Argentina in their two encounters with the Pumas. If they do manage to get some traction through their forwards against Argentina, then their most likely shot at glory South of the River Plate will be in the first Test in San Juan. However, for us this tour should not necessarily be seen in terms of results but how much this troop of relatively inexperienced players are really able to hold their own against top quality opposition. If Wales are able to be fully competitive in all three Tests and even win at least one of them, then Coach Warren Gatland should end the season having a sound knowledge of what he has to work with in terms of depth in the all important build up to next year’s World Cup. Given Wales current injury list, that would surely be regarded as a much-needed job well done.

Endnote

We’ll be back to our previews of all the big Tests happening next month, and will be starting with a look at the upcoming match in Washington this Saturday between Wales and South Africa.