Posts Tagged ‘New Zealand’

When we first looked at the pools draw for this World Cup, we felt that possibly the pool stages may have ended up being rather one-sided. In many ways they were, certainly in the case of Pool B. However, as always some of the Tier 2 nations packed some genuine punch. Uruguay were well worth their admission, as were Georgia and Fiji in Pool D and Japan completely turned the form book on its head in Pool A, much to the chagrin of Ireland and Scotland. The tournament in that respect has completely exceeded expectations and Japan have been a genuine revelation – their offloading game against Scotland was truly spectacular and had to be seen to be believed. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the tournament was the fact that despite the advent of a professional league in North America, Canada and the United States were sadly uncompetitive in their respective pools, with Canada having the added injury of being unable to play the only match they had a genuine shot at glory in against Namibia due to Typhoon Hagibis.

All that aside after a month of some glorious rugby, the business end of the tournament really gets underway on Saturday with the quarter finals. We’ll be having a look at all four matches, but as we only have the team sheets for the first round of Quarter Finals on Saturday, we’ll take a look at Wales vs France and Japan vs South Africa tomorrow.

As expected England topped their pool and now face an Australian side that got the job done but often looked less than convincing in their journey to the knockout stages. England really only had Argentina to test their resolve, after their final match with France was called off due to Typhoon Hagibis. Australia provided us with one of the best games of the pool stages in their thrilling second half comeback against a Welsh side who just managed to hang on to the narrowest of wins. By the same token Australia almost got embarrassed by Fiji and found the going tough at times against Georgia. The Wallabies will have the advantage of being slightly fresher out of the blocks than England, as their final game was not subjected to the vagaries of Typhoon Hagibis. 

England have looked dominant in their run up to their quarter finals after having dispatched Tonga, USA and Argentina with relative ease. They probably could have done without the enforced 14 day break between their game against Argentina and Saturday’s clash with Australia, but the flip side of the coin is it has given them time to sort out any niggling injuries picked up in the pool stages as well as allowing the team ample preparation time. While hardly ideal, were England to come short against Australia on Saturday, it would be a rather weak excuse.

Next up is New Zealand against Ireland, in a match that has so many subplots it would be worthy movie or thriller material. New Zealand will be seeking revenge for Ireland messing with their dominance of the global game in the last four years, in addition to the pressure of ensuring a spot in the semi-finals. Ireland, no doubt would have preferred the Springboks as a quarter final opponent, especially as the form that catapulted them to the top of the world rankings last year has all but deserted them of late. Sure they put away Scotland and Samoa convincingly, but their loss to Japan highlighted some glaring gaps in both strategy and execution on Ireland’s part. Their labored win over Russia did little to convince the rest of the world that Ireland are potential title holders. Ireland simply don’t look the part at the moment and it will take a monumental shift in both execution and effort on Saturday to get Ireland’s World Cup campaign back on track. Ireland have beaten New Zealand in two of their three encounters since the last World Cup, but for all intents and purposes that is now ancient and irrelevant history.

New Zealand on the other hand are having no such problems in their campaign. Their only major concern is likely to be the fact that so far in this World Cup they have only been put to the test once and that was four weeks ago, which is a very long time in the scope of a tournament like this. Their opening game of the tournament against South Africa is the only time that New Zealand have really felt any kind of genuine pressure. Their Sunday strolls in the park against Canada and Namibia, were simply that – good-natured training sessions amongst friends, and we say that in no disrespect to these two opponents who certainly threw everything they had into both matches, even if the outcome had been essentially predicted in the last century. As a result it is a fit and well rested New Zealand that takes on Ireland, but without the benefit of some genuinely hard fought clashes behind them to draw on in terms of big match preparation in the tournament so far. Add to the fact that Ireland would seem to have become New Zealand’s new bogey team, a title held until recently by France. As a result it is likely that there have been just a few jitters in the All Blacks camp this week, should the ghosts of 1999 and 2007 come back to haunt them, albeit in green rather than blue jerseys this time.

So without any further ado here’s our five talking points coming out of Saturday’s big bill of two mouth watering encounters!

England vs Australia – Saturday, October 19th – Oita

Since 2000 these two sides have met 25 times, and England have the healthier balance on the outcome sheet by a considerable margin, especially come World Cup time with the exception of that rather topical loss in the Pool stages of the last World Cup. If the statistics of these two teams aren’t enough of an argument in England’s favor come the World Cup since the turn of the century, there is the small matter of Australia’s form these last four years which is about as consistent as the value of airline shares on the stock exchange. One moment absolutely scintillating and capable of turning the All Blacks inside out and the next minute being blown off the park by any of the Tier one sides, the Wallabies are simply too unpredictable. In many ways they have become the Southern Hemisphere’s version of France in years gone by – in other words which Wallaby team will turn up on Saturday?

England meanwhile do not seem to be suffering the same identity crisis and with the exception of New Zealand, in many ways have looked the most self assured of all the competitors at this year’s World Cup. While they had a relatively easy journey to this quarter-final, courtesy of Typhoon Hagibis, there is no denying that they look a very capable side and one which barring one or two concerns certainly seems to know the type of game they want to play and how to execute it. In short, barring a few lingering questions around big match temperament and lapses in concentration, England look very much like a side who has every intention of being in Yokohama on November 2nd, and the skill set to ensure that becomes a reality.

England’s tight five to establish front foot dominance

Australia’s scrum has improved dramatically in the last year, but England’s has been all powerful. With a powerhouse front row, with a lethal second row providing some real stability and aggression in the set pieces, Australia are going to find the going tough here on Saturday. Like we say Australia have got better but not good enough to cope with England’s all out power, aggression and technical proficiency at the coalface. Australia may be a bit more competitive in the lineouts courtesy of Rory Arnold, Isaac Rodda and Adam Coleman, but with a power packed bench England are likely to be simply too much of a handful for Australia. It will be the platform from which England’s technical proficiency will be built on Saturday, leaving Australia with too much to do in terms of simply attempting to gain parity, let alone build a foundation of their own.

Australia will get some parity in the back row but even with Pocock and Hooper in the mix they won’t get the kind of dominance in the loose they tend to thrive on

If this was England’s back row of the first three years since the 2015 World Cup then we’d argue that Pocock and Hooper would be licking their lips. The problem is it isn’t and anything Pocock and Hooper can do, England’s back row for Saturday can do as well and in many cases probably better. As regular readers of this blog know, we simply cannot rate England’s Tom Curry highly enough. He’s England’s best find of the last four years and future Captain material at the tender age of 21. While the Australian duo, and Hooper in particular thrive in the loose, so too do England’s Sam Underhill and Curry. Add in to the mix England’s one man panzer division in the shape of Billy Vunipola and we just can’t see Australia keeping up here despite Pocock and Hooper’s exceptional talents.

It may seem harsh for George Ford, but Coach Eddie Jones has probably made the call he will stick by to the final should England get that far

George Ford has put in some big performances in the past few months in an English jersey, but when it comes down to the wire for the big games, Eddie Jones is likely to stick with Owen Farrell as his pivot to call the shots in the big games. Given what is at stake, it would seem to be the right call as Farrell seems to have a tighter hold on his game management skills from the ten slot than in the centres. For this match Jones probably could have got away with Ford at ten and Farrell at twelve as Australia do not really posess a world class number ten at the moment. However, for the clashes with England’s potential opponents in the next round, Jones needs some consistency in selection. Furthermore, Ben Youngs who has been seen as England’s weakest link of late at scrum half does seem to play better alongside Farrell than Ford. Ford will still have a chance to bring some impact in the final quarter but expect to see him on the bench for the remainder of the tournament as Jones hedges his bets on a combination that has served him well.

Wallabies Coach Cheika rolls the dice, but this could work out well for him as Eddie Jones also appears to throw caution to the wind

We think that it’s a bold decision by Jones to suddenly insert Henry Slade into the centre channels for a match of such importance, given the fact that the English centre has very little game time under his belt heading into this match. An absolutely brilliant player on his day with some outstanding skill sets, Slade has the potential to set the pitch alight. But then so too does Jordan Petaia for the Wallabies, which in many ways is an even bolder gamble by Cheika. The nineteen year old has very limited Super Rugby experience and even less Test experience. In terms of a leap of faith it doesn’t get much bigger than this. He has a huge amount of talent of that there is no doubt, but whether or not he will be able bring it to this kind of stage remains to be seen. If he does and Slade fails to find his groove and gel with Tuilagi, then with the electric Samu Kerevi alongside him Australia could end up with some momentum changing moments in this part of the park.

Hopefully this is the game where Elliot Daly finally has his detractors leave him alone

We’ve struggled with a lot of the criticism directed at Elliot Daly, England’s fullback on Saturday. Agreed he’s made mistakes in the past, but in our opinion he’s been there when England have needed him, has an exceptionally reliable boot and overall puts in the effort as well as creating some special moments of his own. In short we fail to see the problem. Very few if any of the teams in this competition have a water tight fifteen, and Daly is no exception, but in terms of reliability and doing what it says on the tin, then we find it hard to argue against Daly. In short, we’re fans and think Jones is doing the right thing by sticking with Daly and we really hope he has the kind of performance on Saturday that puts such debates to bed once and for all.

Verdict

Although much has been made of England’s bench, in terms of it closing up shop in England’s favor on Saturday, apart from the front row replacements, we’d argue that it is one area where the two sides are on par. However, it still doesn’t detract from the fact that overall we feel England is simply going to do too much damage in the first hour, for a bench to really make that much of an impact on Saturday. Unless Australia have studied France’s exploits of the 1999 and 2007 World Cups and embraced their underdog status and with it a plan to turn the form books upside down, then it’s hard to see anything other than a fairly convincing England victory. Barring any surprises from Australia and the dreaded English “choke” factor under pressure, then the Men in White to keep moving forward to next weekend by 13 points!

New Zealand vs Ireland – Saturday, October 19th – Tokyo

Australia may have taken some notes out of French play books of years gone by, but Ireland are likely to have made them mandatory viewing each night as they desperately seek to come up with something that New Zealand are not expecting. Let’s be honest the Ireland of 2019 has become beyond predictable and as a result it is going to take a bag full of surprises and an Irish side that New Zealand and the rest of the world has never seen before, if they are to reverse history and go beyond the quarter finals for the first time in the Emerald Isle’s spirited but ultimately disappointing World Cup history.

New Zealand will be fully aware of this and the fact that Ireland have been the annoying thorn in their side since the last World Cup. In short as far as the All Blacks are concerned it’s time to bury this cheeky green demon once and for all, and what better stage to do it on than the World Cup. New Zealand have had their ups and downs this year make no mistake, but they haven’t quite hit the lows that Ireland have in their dizzying fall from their successes of 2018. New Zealand when they click, and they still do with alarming regularity, look unstoppable and while the golden years since 2011 may be coming to an end, this group of rather extraordinary sportsmen aren’t quite done yet.

The “Tadhg” is back and Ireland will need every ounce of the raging bull on Saturday

After a rather quiet 2019, in Ireland’s final pool game against Samoa, the Irish tighthead prop exploded back into his groove. Tadhg Furlong’s influence on Ireland’s fortunes was immediate and set the tone for much of the match. He and New Zealand’s Joe Moody are likely to have a great deal to say to each other on Saturday, but if the Wexford tank hits his mark in Tokyo, New Zealand could face a long day at the coalface as well as having a few broken bodies across the park as the Irish prop seems almost impossible to bring down once he’s built up a head of steam.

Ireland like to suffocate the ball and slow the game down, but referee Nigel Owens likes the game to flow – consequently Irish discipline and keeping on the right side of the laws will be paramount

Ireland are blessed with a superb disciplinary record, which of late has, fairly or unfairly depending on your point of view, lost some of its lustre. The dangers of slowing the ball down bring with it all kinds of issues around the fringes of the laws, territory which New Zealand excels at operating in. Ireland will need to keep it tight but also ensure that the game flows while at the same time not leaving themselves exposed especially in the loose. Ireland’s speed at the breakdown, their rush defense and efficiency at the ruck have all been exemplary under Coach Joe Schmidt, but the aggression and physicality New Zealand are likely to bring to the contact areas on Saturday are going to put this under the most extreme pressure. If Ireland are able to match this and not get bullied by New Zealand and consequently avoid costly disciplinary mistakes then they are in with a chance, but it will be a key area of concern for them and should they not master it, New Zealand will quickly run away with the match by dominating its momentum.

It’s Ireland’s back row that is perhaps their biggest concern

Once a thing of pride it seems to have lost its way not helped by injury, but Ireland’s back row efforts just don’t seem to be matching up to the competition of late. The heroics of Peter O’Mahony on that famous day back in Dublin last year against a group of individuals in black jerseys seem to be nothing more than a distant memory, while CJ Stander seems to have gone into hibernation – even if we did see flashes of his old self against Samoa. Even Josh van der Flier has been strangely quiet this year. It’s a good back row make no mistake, but New Zealand’s offering is simply humming with precision and an all out physicality that is hard to match. Ardie Savea is such a live wire he is almost impossible to read and opposition defenses are never quite sure where he is likely to pop out, and once he does good luck trying to catch him. Sam Cane is back to the bruising ball carrier he loves to be and Kieran Read although not quite the force he once was still lends that steady hand of leadership and provides the glue that keeps this unit together.

If you want entertainment then look no further than the respective nine and tens

What a match up – plain and simple!!! New Zealand’s Richie Mo’unga may not have the pedigree and track record of the other three gentlemen he will be sharing this part of the park with on Saturday, but he certainly has the skill set to mix it with the best of them. We have to confess to being surprised at Aaron Smith getting the nod for the starting berth for the All Blacks at scrum half as we still feel that TJ Perenara is the more explosive of the two and thus a greater handful for the Irish defenses. Nevertheless, if the Irish forwards are managing to go toe to toe with their All Black counterparts and holding their discipline, then the playing field suddenly starts to level, especially if Ireland’s Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton hit their traditional high notes in terms of game management.

It’s a great set of Irish backs as a unit, but New Zealand look like they have more individual try scorers

If you look at the backs from both sides, then it’s really only Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour who stand out as dead ringer candidates likely to get familiar with the opposition try line for Ireland. Gary Ringrose also has some genuine dancing feet for Ireland in the center of the park and knows how to use them in space and create opportunities for the rest of his teammates. However for New Zealand, Richie Mo’unga, Sevu Reece, Beauden Barrett, George Bridge and Anton Liennert-Brown all seem to do it with alarming regularity. New Zealand have a set of backs who are more than comfortable operating as free agents, whereas Ireland’s backs thrive off a more orchestrated approach with the exception of Stockdale and Larmour. Consequently if Ireland are going to keep New Zealand at bay, denying any space whatsoever to five key players will be a much more challenging task than New Zealand having to keep only two or three Irish players in check who can really capitalize on broken play at speed.

Verdict

We would dearly love to see Ireland break their long suffering penury at the stocks in World Cup quarter finals, but it is hard to see it happening based on their buildup to Saturday’s match. They just haven’t looked the part so far this year, leading to the inevitable call that they peaked too early for this World Cup. All the evidence would tend to support that claim as other teams have left them in their wake in the last few months. Still to write off what is essentially an exceptionally talented group of world class players would be sheer folly, and New Zealand have clearly recognized this. Ireland may be down, but when it comes to passion and fire there are few teams who can top the Irish, and as a result they are definitely not out yet. They desperately need some new tricks up their sleeve though as they have sadly become far too easy to read. Whether or not they have been saving themselves for this moment and we will see a side full of surprises remains to be seen, but there is that nagging feeling that it all may be too little too late. New Zealand are building towards one last great hurrah for this group of players and it is going to take a very special team to derail them. Ireland may well end up giving them a fight to remember, but it is hard to see anything other than an All Black victory by 12 points!

The World Cup’s fourth Pool Match is almost larger than the tournament itself. Many people with good reason, see South Africa and New Zealand as the two teams leading the charge to lift the Webb Ellis trophy on November 2nd, with England, Wales and Ireland snapping closely at their heels. Nevertheless, there is no question that this is THE match of the Pool stages. If you only watch one Pool game in this year’s tournament then this is it, as it simply doesn’t get any bigger than this!

This is one of rugby’s greatest traditional rivalries at the best of times and throw in the added pressure of a World Cup and the intensity goes through the roof. South Africa have come a long way in the relatively short space of less than two years, and you could argue that their rise has highlighted some emerging cracks in New Zealand’s dominance of the global game since 2011.

With that said though New Zealand still look the most finished product of any team out there, and have a depth of talent that is the envy of the rest of the world. South Africa have become a real thorn in their side, but only just and consistent failures in performance are something you rarely see from the All Blacks. They may stumble at one hurdle, but are likely to take the next one completely in their stride.

New Zealand vs South Africa – Saturday, September 21st – Yokohama

So many matchups – so many questions

As a who’s who of Test rugby heavyweights lining up against each other, the contest breaks down into a question of units vs individuals within those units. Start with the front row. New Zealand pack the better unit, but if Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff show up in excess for the Springboks then New Zealand could well look out of puff before too long. When you move to the second row then South Africa are fielding a more accomplished unit but Sam Whitelock is just such a presence for New Zealand on the field that he alone could potentially negate anything South Africa throws at the All Blacks. It’s a better All Black back row on paper, but if Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen and Pieter Steph du Toit really bring their A game can New Zealand contain them, especially once the benches come into play?

It’s a sharper looking and more settled halfback unit for South Africa, but if Mo’unga really clicks at Test level on the biggest stage you’d argue he has enough X-factor to leave South Africa clutching at straws. It’s only really in the backs that New Zealand start to pull away. The All Blacks center pairing is likely to run rings around the Springbok offering and we think is likely to prove the best in the tournament in the shape of Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown. On the wings you’d also have to give it to New Zealand, but South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe is such a game changer that he could turn the game on its head at a pivotal moment in the Springboks favor. Lastly you’d have to say that New Zealand has the last line of defence sewn up with Beauden Barrett, but he is not as accustomed to the role as South Africa’s Willie le Roux who when on song can be unstoppable.

On the benches you’d have to argue it’s anybody’s day, but both sides pack a few individuals who could end up being the talking points of the tournament. New Zealand give us Sonny Bill Williams and TJ Perenara and South Africa give us Rugby Championship sensation Herschel Jantjies and RG Snyman (with the latter being perhaps one of the most frightening looking players in the tournament akin to the great Sebastien Chabal of France – just looking at these guys you know it’s going to hurt!)

Aaron Smith vs TJ Perenara, and how long will the latter actually spend on the bench

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. New Zealand’s form scrum half for a match of this nature is without a doubt TJ Perenara in our opinion. Thus imagine our surprise to see him on the bench. This guy packs more intensity than a roomful of politicians squabbling over Brexit. Aaron Smith is a solid offering but he just doesn’t pack the speed and turn of pace that Perenara brings, and has also been running the show in some of New Zealand’s more recent slip ups. Coach Steve Hansen still seems to regard Smith as his go to starting scrum half, but we feel he’d be better placed to have Perenara calling the shots. Consequently we feel that you’re going to see Perenara sooner rather than later tomorrow. If things are not quite going New Zealand’s way, expect to see Smith replaced before the first half whistle.

They may have lost a little of their shine lately but we think New Zealand are still the side everyone knows they have to beat in this tournament

At the end of the day, South Africa are in it to win it make no mistake, and have proven themselves more than capable of doing so. However, we still have trouble buying into the argument that New Zealand are a force that is slowly waning. Possibly in the long term yes, but not this tournament. Whether or not they will ultimately win the thing remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised to see them as one of the parties in attendance on November 2nd. Before any team can even contemplate winning the World Cup they know they have to beat New Zealand first, unless someone else does the job for them on the road to the final. For South Africa their chance to lift the Webb Ellis trophy starts tomorrow, but they have the unenviable task of having to potentially face the All Blacks twice should both teams make it to the final. So the ultimate question on everyone’s lips is – is this a dress rehearsal for the final? If only we had a crystal ball. Either way the winner tomorrow will have a gentler route through the quarter-finals so a win is an absolute must for both teams, and one of rugby’s greatest rivalries will live up to the intensity such encounters are famous for.

Verdict

This has caused more debate than any other topic related to the World Cup. It’s the first crunch match even though it isn’t the knockout stages. It will be a big, loud and potentially epic contest that will have all of us glued to our television screens, along with the rest of the world. Whoever comes out on top may not necessarily win the World Cup, but it will tell us a great deal about what the rest of the teams will have to do to get to the final. South Africa have consistently surprised us this past year, and could well do it again. However, as good as they are, we think it’s still too early to say that they have dethroned the All Blacks in the race to the finish line. A tight and at times thrilling encounter that makes no excuses when it comes to physicality, but one which should see New Zealand just come out on top in one for the ages by 2 points!

Yes we know, Scotland also travel to Toulon to get their World Cup preparations underway but we won’t be covering it as we are unable to watch it here in Canada (though we will be able to get the return fixture at Murrayfield next weekend and thus will cover that).

However, there is plenty to look forward to this Saturday, as the matter of the Bledisloe Cup will be settled between New Zealand and Australia, and Argentina travel to South Africa to take on a Springbok side that is positively humming after lifting the Rugby Championship (or TriNations as it was formerly known) silverware for the first time in 10 years last weekend.

Meanwhile in Cardiff, England arrive to really up the ante in their World Cup preparations with Coach Eddie Jones already having named his Rugby World Cup squad of 31 players, 23 of whom will be seeing action on Saturday. Wales have already started to reel from pre-Japan injuries and without the depth at their disposal that England has, will no doubt be taking a cautious approach to this weekend’s proceedings.

So without further ado, here’s what got us pondering this week in relation to Saturday’s showdowns.

New Zealand vs Australia – Saturday, August 17th – Auckland

First up, our heartfelt apologies to the Wallabies after we had essentially written them off last weekend. That was a quality performance that was long overdue for Australia, and one we always felt they had in them, but were struggling to figure out how to execute. The radical turnaround in their fortunes against the number one team in the world, was however not what we were expecting. So as we say egg all over our faces and congratulations to the team and their supporters.

New Zealand were not their usual sprightly selves and one could argue they haven’t been for quite some time now, and there is no doubt that being reduced to fourteen men for the last half of the match didn’t help their cause much either. However, New Zealand foibles aside, Australia put in the best performance we’ve seen from a Wallaby side in at least two years. They were clinical, efficient and downright enterprising at times, as well as making sure they capitalized on the All Blacks’ mistakes of which there were many. It was a sparkling Australian performance and one which give them plenty of confidence in the buildup to their World Cup – the trick now is to maintain that standard.

New Zealand are clearly a conundrum at the moment. Whether or not it is a case of Coach Steve Hansen trying to lull the opposition into a state of complacency is debatable. However, there is no getting away from the fact that even if he is reluctant to show his hand this far out from Japan, New Zealand are looking a long way from being the self assured side that for the last five years has comfortably kept the opposition at arms length, barring the odd hiccough. Nevertheless, we still don’t buy the argument that they are all of a sudden a World Cup pushover. In the last twelve months they have only lost three times. Admittedly they have also been pushed incredibly close at times in the last year, but their win ratio is still pretty impeccable and the envy of most teams.

It is after all Eden Park we are talking about on Saturday, as well as the fact that lightning rarely strikes men dressed in black twice

If ever there was a hallowed ground for a team then Auckland’s Eden Park surely ticks all the boxes. As the All Blacks spiritual fortress the ground has been kind to them like no other team on earth. New Zealand have not lost a rugby match here since July 3, 1994 (in an epic match against France which I can remember to this day). So yes it is over 25 years and 42 matches later, that anyone has had the gall to upset New Zealand’s finest on this cherished turf. As good as Australia were last weekend against New Zealand, they are going to have to be even better by at least another gear or two to pull off the same unthinkable feat in Auckland. Throw into that equation the fact that the All Blacks simply do not suffer back to back losses very often – 2011 to be precise and by two different teams. So Australia may fancy their chances, but unless New Zealand play worse than they did in Perth (which on home ground is rather unlikely) then Australia will need quite a bit more than just a few lucky rabbit feet and one hell of a game plan this Saturday.

Our biggest surprise last week – the Wallaby scrum

It was competitive – plain and simple – and provided Australia a solid platform and Tolu Latu’s dart throwing skills at lineout time were for the most part pretty accurate. New Zealand have decided to change things up a bit here on Saturday with Owen Franks not even making the bench in place of Nepo Lualala. Even Dane Coles was fairly ineffectual as a backup winger, a role he usually causes all kinds of havoc in. In short Australia seemed to have the measure of New Zealand at the coalface and how to contain the nuisance factor of Dane Coles in loose play. It will be interesting to see this weekend if that was simply a temporary reprieve for the Wallabies.

That Australian second row means business

We stuck our necks out last weekend by saying we felt that Australia’s stocks in the second row were in exceptionally rude health. We were certainly not disappointed. Izack Rodda and Rory Arnold played a huge part in the Wallabies success in Perth and the long awaited return of Adam Coleman from injury when he came off the bench also did not disappoint. This week Rodda keeps his place, while Coleman gets a starting berth. Arnold gets given a much needed break to be replaced by Rob Simmons on the bench which may be one of the few weak links in the Wallabies armour in this part of the park.

New Zealand’s back row needs to step up

With the exception of Ardie Savea, who despite being out of position continued to play like a man possessed, New Zealand looked well off the boil here last Saturday, with the Australians grabbing all the headlines in this part of the park. We doubt they will have it that easy again this weekend, but New Zealand really need to assert some authority once more here.

Given the events of last weekend we were once again surprised at the halfback combinations for New Zealand as well as those in the backs

We’ve said it before and last weekend seemed to bear us out – Aaron Smith is not New Zealand’s first choice scrum half anymore and in reality hasn’t been for quite some time. Consequently, given the events of last weekend we were more than a little surprised to see him get the starting berth for Saturday’s match. TJ Perenara is a much more difficult proposition for opposition sides, and while he makes the bench again in this match, expect to see him sooner rather than later if things are not going well for New Zealand from the outset. Furthermore, the Richie Mo’unga/Beauden Barrett 10-15 axis is not really working, and Mo’unga seems to be struggling to bring his Super Rugby game to the Test arena. For a match with Bledisloe silverware on the line we would have thought Hansen would have reverted to the tried and trusted formula of Barrett at 10 and Ben Smith at fullback instead of the wing as he was last weekend.

Talking of the rest of the backs the omission of Ben Smith really caught us off guard. While we didn’t quite get to see him at his best last weekend on the wing, his experience at fullback is pretty hard to replicate. Furthermore much like the Mo’unga experiment we’re not sure George Bridge or Sevu Reece will translate their Super Rugby form to the Test arena. Add in the fact Sonny Bill Williams’ one dimensional play is unlikely to be able to counteract the high stepping antics of the Wallabies James O’Connor and Samu Kerevi, and New Zealand’s selection policy for a match where one of their most prized pieces of silverware is on the line, is slightly baffling.

Verdict

All these variables aside, it is still hard for most of us to get our head around the fact that New Zealand would a) lose at Eden Park, b) lose two back to back matches to the same opponent and in the process c) give up the Bledisloe Cup. If this Wallaby team plays anything like they did in Perth, then they will be good but we still find it hard to believe they are THAT good to pull off the unthinkable scenario above. If they can play to that level, and we think they are more than capable of doing so, then one thing is for certain – we are in for one hell of a Test match! However, as close as it may be at times, this is one occasion where it is simply impossible for us to buck the form and history books and thus we give it to New Zealand by six!

Wales vs England – Saturday, August 17th – Cardiff

Wales World Cup anxiety is now in full swing after last weekend’s tussle with England at Twickenham. All the teams are now playing Russian Roulette with the injury wheel in these warmup games and Wales have been the first to list a fatality. Last weekend’s match saw fly half Gareth Anscombe who played such a large role in Wales’ Six Nations Grand Slam campaign, succumb to a World Cup ending injury. Wales now have to dig deep into their depth stocks in a race against time to find a reliable second choice fly half to support Dan Biggar.

England have no such problems, and in an almost cavalier attitude, Coach Eddie Jones became the first to name his 31 man World Cup squad, 23 of whom see action on Saturday. Last weekend he got a chance to have one last look at a few players on his shopping list and it would appear they ticked all the right boxes in the Coach’s estimation. Consequently it is a strong England side that runs out onto the Cardiff pitch on Saturday, and one which knows it has two tough matches in which to really refine structures and combinations, without the need to compete for places. Some may say it was bold and brash to name your squad so early, but it certainly has its merits if you ask us, whether you’re a fan of Jones or not.

England’s front five will be hard to beat and Wales clearly struggled to get any traction here last Saturday

England were dominant here last weekend, and even with the noise of the Cardiff faithful as encouragement for the Men in Red, we don’t see much change here on Saturday. England’s substitutes really didn’t get much of a look in here last weekend except for George Kruis, but except the England bench to provide plenty of niggle and frustration for an embattled Welsh tight five on Saturday.

Where you might see a change in Welsh fortunes is later in the game off the bench in the back row

Wales were competitive here last weekend make no mistake, even if at times they were shaded by an all star English contingent of Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry and a suprisingly robust performance from Lewis Ludlum. In the half hour he was in the match Tom Curry showed what genuine world class pedigree he already offers England despite his youth, and seeing him leave the field with injury must have caused consternation in the English camp. However, it would appear it is only a temporary setback and he was more than ably replaced by Courtney Lawes who had a barnstormer of a game. This weekend, sees Wales have Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler on the bench and in our opinion these two are superb individually, but together they are something special for Wales and an attack threat that England will really need to contain.

How much of a loss will Gareth Anscombe be to Wales – while England’s new half back pairing shone

The loss of Welsh flyhalf Gareth Anscombe last weekend was a bitter blow for Wales, especially as he will miss the World Cup. England on the other hand can feel absolutely delighted with the partnership of debutant scrum half Willi Heinz and established fly half George North. Once again we feel we perhaps owe the Leicester Tigers playmaker and fly half an apology after last Saturday. Ford put in a superbly controlled and measured performance, while scrum half Willi Heinz ensured fast and crisp delivery off the base of the scrum and at the rucks. England looked sharp here and with Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs on the bench this weekend, this is a powerhouse quartet for the Men in White. Wales look good as well with Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies but should they suffer any further injuries here it could be a very long afternoon for the Welsh with nothing in the tank to provide the kind of quality cover they need to match England’s offerings.

The English backs were outstanding last weekend and another powerhouse display looks to be in the making

England really topped the charts last weekend in back field play, and that was without the likes of winger Jonny May. We thought the return of centre Jonathan Joseph and winger Anthony Watson was something England have been missing, with neither player seeming to miss a step. Joe Cokanasiga showed that he is not just a new Jonah Lomu in the making, as he also proved pretty handy in the forward battles close to the try line. Elliot Daly took a cheeky drop goal and continued to reinforce our belief that despite the odd “off” day he is one of England’s most valuable assets in both defence and attack. This weekend sees one more Test debut for England in the shape of winger Ruaridh McConnochie, but given his supporting cast we doubt he’ll disappoint. Wales were competitive here make no mistake with Jonathan Davies and George North in particular catching the eye on numerous occasions, but there is no denying that England ran the show for the most part in this part of the park.

The English bench should seal the deal on Saturday

As mentioned above, for us the only Welsh bench offering that should really set alarm bells ringing for England is the back row partnership of Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler. Otherwise that is a rather daunting English bench facing up to a capable but still relatively green Welsh bench.

Verdict

Wales are always tough to beat in Cardiff, but there is no denying they looked rusty and a little creaky against England last weekend. The loss of playmaker Gareth Anscombe is a further setback, and despite a vociferous home crowd rising to the occasion that encounters between these two traditional rivals always generate, form would seem to favour England for this one. England look well drilled, disciplined and very sure of what they want to achieve. Wales on the other hand know what they want to be, but perhaps lack the same degree of clarity as to how to go about getting it. They have had a good year leading up to this point make no mistake, but after last weekend there is the inevitable question being asked as whether or not they peaked too early in a World Cup year. As always expect this to be a ferocious contest with no quarter given and much tighter than last week, but a more settled and focused English side to take it by five points!

South Africa vs Argentina – Saturday, August 17th – Pretoria

Argentina’s preparations for the World Cup do not appear to be going according to plan. Despite holding the All Blacks close in their Rugby Championship opener, they have looked a shadow of the team that set the last Rugby World Cup alight. A humiliating defeat to Australia and then a comprehensive schooling by South Africa in the final match of the tournament, has left this Pumas side with little confidence as they prepare to face South Africa in this World Cup warm up match. This is their last game before their World Cup opener against France, and consequently even though there may be no silverware on offer the Pumas really need a strong showing here. The last time these two met in a World Cup year, Argentina not only claimed their first ever victory over the Springboks, they did it on South African soil to boot. They will be hoping that some of that same inspiration that served the 2015 squad so well will be with them in Pretoria this weekend.

South Africa on the other hand are riding high. Deserved winners of the Rugby Championship, they swept past both Australia and Argentina, and held the All Blacks to a draw in New Zealand. Coach Rassie Erasmus seems to know how to get the most out of his charges, despite a constantly changing team sheet. He can feel pleased with the depth he has available, while at the same time not having to lose too much sleep over his selection decisions for any given match. The players are clearly enjoying themselves and the pride in the famous jersey, which had seemed absent in recent years, is back with a vengeance. In short the Boks are back and are a team to be feared once more.

With some silverware in the cupboard it’s clearly time for one last bit of experimentation for South Africa

South Africa are not exactly throwing caution to the wind on this one, especially given what happened in 2015, but as a “friendly” and the Rugby Championship not on the line, the focus of this match is one last look at the depth tank. That is the only reason we can think of when we look at the front row selections for South Africa. We would imagine that Coach Rassie Erasmus has his front row World Cup squad already picked with perhaps just one floater left to fill. Of the selections for Saturday’s match we’d argue that the spot likely has Vincent Koch’s name on it, but no harm in having one last look at what else you’ve got in case of injury between now and the World Cup. Therefore for the other five front rowers turning out in a Springbok jersey on Saturday the pressure is on for a BIG game.

Talking of scrums – where has Argentina’s gone?

Argentina are in the emergency ward in this department – plain and simple. Once a key foundation of their game, the scrum is now for the most part an enormous liability for the Pumas. This is made all the more ironic when you consider that Coach Mario Ledesma in his playing days was one of the cornerstones of that foundation. We really haven’t seen much evidence that Argentina is making much progress in getting its house in order here. If this doesn’t happen soon then Argentina may find themselves on the plane home after the pool stages in Japan. We are not quite sure why this is the case as there are some quality players in Argentina’s front row offerings, but somehow as a whole the unit just isn’t working. South Africa’s piecemeal scrum offering on Saturday should provide the Pumas a perfect opportunity to start getting back on track here and restoring some much needed confidence to a clearly beleaguered unit.

Argentina need to play to their strengths and not let an inexperienced halfback duo waste good possession gained by a powerful back row.

Argentina’s second and back rows can compete with the best on any given day, and in Saturday’s offerings we’d argue they have the kind of edge they had back on that famous day in Durban back in 2015. However, the Pumas young halfback partnership tends to squander an awful lot of good possession by either reckless passing off the back of the scrum and rucks, or aimless kicking by the fly half. Given that Argentina will be looking to scrum halves Felipe Ezcurra, Gonzalo Bertranou and fly half Joaquin Diaz Bonilla to provide backup to incumbents Tomas Cubelli and Nicolas Sanchez during the World Cup – Saturday’s match is crucial in terms of World Cup preparation. They will be up against one of South Africa’s finest returning sons Cobus Reinach, so will have to be on top of their game, with Faf de Klerk frothing at the mouth on the bench to get involved if Reinach fails to rise to the occasion. Springbok fly half Elton Jantjies seems to have gotten over his own penchant for aimlessly kicking the ball away so the Pumas will have to be at their best here.

If you fancy a flutter on the horses then we’d put your money on the Pumas

This is one area of the park where we think Argentina could really lay down a marker for that type of free flowing game they seem to really excel at come the World Cup. Ramiro Moyano is a well known commodity to the racing fraternity out wide, but for us it is Sebastian Cancelliere who is also likely to be generating a lot of excitement come the World Cup. For the Argentina XV side in the Americas Rugby Championship and more recently with the Jaguares, the twenty five year old has consistently impressed and we are surprised that it has taken him this long to secure a regular Pumas starting jersey. South Africa pack some punch here make no mistake, but our money is on the Pumas out wide on Saturday.

Verdict

How you call this one will depend very much on what Pumas team shows up on Saturday. If we get the kind of Pumas team we see so often at the end of the Rugby Championship, then for all intents and purposes you can write them off and hand it to the Springboks with no further discussion. It will also depend on what kind of Springboks team will show up as this has a much more piecemeal and experimental look to it than what we saw during the Rugby Championship. Argentina need to find their groove in their final match before the World Cup, so we’re hoping they will be like one of those French surprise teams that steals the show with some champagne rugby when you’re least expecting it. However, reality at the moment would tend to dictate otherwise and given the Pumas problems at scrum time, it’s fairly easy to argue that Argentina is the side with everything to prove and the Springboks the team with nothing to lose. As a result we hand it to the Springboks by eight, in a match that may not be quite the spectacle needed to cap off what should otherwise be a very interesting weekend of Test Rugby!

We’re continuing with looking at this weekend’s action and with the teamsheets still to be announced for the England/Wales game, we’ll be covering the first of the Rugby Championship matches this weekend between Australia and New Zealand along with the first of the European World Cup warmups between Ireland and Italy. We’ll put out our thoughts on the England/Wales clash at Twickenham on Sunday once the teams are announced.

New Zealand travel to Australia, hoping that Argentina will do them a favour later in the day if they still hope to lift the silverware for the Rugby Championship. Failing that though, two important agendas are still on the table for both teams. Saturday’s match sees the first of two annual Bledisloe Cup matches between Australia and New Zealand – a trophy almost as hotly contested and meaningful as the World Cup itself. Just as important will be the settling of World Cup squads and one of the last chances the selectors will have to pick their 31 ticket holders for Japan. New Zealand perhaps have far less to prove in this department than Australia, but they also know there is significant room for improvement. Australia on the other hand need to find some answers and quickly. Despite their recent win over Argentina, it was less than convincing and their demolition at the hands of South Africa means that the Wallabies, unlike New Zealand, find themselves scrambling to define who goes to Japan and what type of game they want to play once they get there.

Italy travel to Dublin, looking to experiment, whereas Ireland will simply be looking to consolidate depth and hopefully avoid pointless injuries in the process. With no silverware on offer we have to confess that this series of warmup matches for the Six Nations competitors right before the World Cup are always a nerve wracking affair, for Coaches, players and supporters and we are all likely to breathe a huge sigh of relief once they are over and hopefully our respective teams have emerged unscathed.

So here’s what got us talking about these two matches.

Australia vs New Zealand – Saturday, August 10th – Perth

Australia really need some good news at the moment but may be hard pressed to find it in Western Australia on Saturday, despite Perth being a relatively happy hunting ground for the Wallabies. Sure they beat Argentina a fortnight ago, but it was a dire game of rugby which showed off very little skill from either side, with Australia winning by simply making slightly fewer mistakes than the Pumas. An inspirational performance it was not.

New Zealand on the other hand have now been pushed hard twice. They managed to eke out a tough win against a determined and highly capable Pumas side in Buenos Aires, but a week later could only manage a draw with a Springbok side that simply refused to quit. While both matches are hardly indications of the All Blacks suddenly becoming vulnerable, there is no doubt that there isn’t quite the polish that we have come to expect from the World Champions as they seek to experiment with some injury enforced combinations.

If Australia could actually hang on to the ball then they really could cause some grief

This single point has been our overriding impression of the Wallabies at the moment. In both their game against the Springboks and the match with the Pumas, we lost track of how many times they dropped or coughed up the ball. Promising breaks were squandered through endless knock ons and fumbles made worse by poor and erratic passing. Tactically there didn’t seem to be too much situational awareness either, and their execution looked promising but ultimately sloppy. We simply think that Australia should be far better than the sum of their parts would seem to indicate. Once they do get it right then, they could well be a force to be reckoned with. However, in their current condition and with the sands of time rapidly running out before the World Cup it would appear that Australia have the odds stacked against them.

One of the world’s best front rows is likely to cause Australia all kinds of heartache

Whichever way you cut it that is an outstanding All Black front row. Sure South Africa seemed to get the measure of it, but there are very few sides who can and Australia in their present shape are unlikely to be one of them. Add Dane Coles lurking menacingly on the wings whenever he’s not packed down in the scrum and Australia are likely to feel frustrated and rather ineffective for the full eighty minutes.

In the second row Australia continue to get ten points for effort

This is one aspect of the Wallabies game where their supporters could feel that there is something to cheer about. With Adam Coleman hopefully being fit for the World Cup, you could argue that Australia’s stocks here are strong. We felt that Rory Arnold and Izack Rodda have been reliably consistent in the second row, and often given the Wallabies something to work with, even if the rest of their teammates then proceed to drop the ball.

He’s back just when New Zealand need him most

There is no denying that the All Blacks really missed Ardie Savea against South Africa. The powerhouse utility forward is a complete force of nature and almost impossible to read and we wish Australia’s Michael Hooper and his back row colleagues the best of luck in trying to contain him. It’s an accomplished and capable New Zealand back row but with Savea in the mix it becomes a defensive nightmare for any opposition. Savea has more than earned his place as an All Black starter and we expect to see him as such in every one of New Zealand’s key matches in the coming months.

Nic White returns and for a match of this stature we think it’s the right call but also feel that an opportunity to create some depth is being missed

While Will Genia may be Coach Michael Cheika’s go to scrum half, we feel that Nic White brings a lot to the table despite being on the losing side against South Africa at the start of the competition. While Will Genia was one of the better Wallaby players against Argentina, we felt that Nic White actually brought more to the table in terms of quick and efficient delivery from the scrum half berth, and varied the Wallabies pace and style of play in a way that has been long overdue. Although his teammates were rarely able to capitalize on the opportunities he created, he still offers some depth to the position that Australia desperately needs for the World Cup. However as a depth creating exercise we are also surprised to not see any use of Brumbies scrum half Joe Powell on the bench, but given it’s a Bledisloe Cup match we can understand the caution.

Verdict

If they can hang on to the ball and gain some parity with New Zealand in the set pieces then Australia could be in with a shout for this one. However, based simply on the form of the two sides it’s hard to see anything other than predominantly one way traffic for New Zealand. Australia need to up their game significantly if they are to be competitive on Saturday and we haven’t seen much ability from this beleaguered Wallaby side to do so of late. New Zealand may not be overly fussed about this abbreviated edition of the Rugby Championship and its silverware, but they and the rest of their fellow countrymen always care about the Bledisloe Cup. Consequently we see New Zealand taking Saturday’s game by a comfortable margin of 12 points.

Ireland vs Italy – Saturday, August 10th – Dublin

Ireland start their World Cup preparations with a relatively straightforward exercise against an experimental Italian side. For the most part it’s an Irish side we all recognize, and while it may not be Ireland’s first choice team, this is an exceptionally capable side that will give this new look Italy a serious workout. Given the dip in form of many of Ireland’s key players this season we’d actually argue that what we see on Saturday may not always be that different from some of the starting lineups we’re going to see for many of Ireland’s World Cup matches, especially in the Pool stages.

While we understand Italy’s need for experimentation especially after a poor Six Nations, we’re not sure Dublin is the place to do it

It’s interesting to surmise what Conor O’Shea’s logic is for this match. We’d have thought that you would have gone the experimental route for Italy’s two middle warmup games against France and Russia, with more of your key players participating in the opener against Ireland and the final warmup match against England to build some important confidence at the start and end of a challenging set of matches. On the flip side a good performance on Saturday and Italy can use the next four weeks to really build some momentum. However, unfortunately a lot of O’Shea’s rolls of the dice have not gone favourably, but we hope for his sake he’s got this gamble right.

Ireland field a positive halfback combination that smacks of depth and the future

Former Leinster teammates Luke McGrath and Joey Carberry occupy the scrum and fly half berths respectively. Carberry since moving to Munster and getting regular starts has come along in leaps and bounds, while McGrath has really grown into the scrum half role at Leinster this year. This is Ireland’s most probable halfback combination post Japan and in the lead up to the next World Cup, whilst at the same time providing Ireland with excellent depth heading into the tournament next month. However, with Kieran Marmion also a proven commodity on the bench at scrum half and the rapidly rising star of Jack Carty as Carberry’s replacement, Ireland really do look in exceptionally rude health in this part of the park. All this adds to the pedigree that established veterans like Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton already bring to the positions.

Chris Farrel makes a welcome return for Ireland in the centre of the park

Irish supporters will be delighted to see Chris Farrell back in the green after injury ruled him out of this year’s Six Nations. The big centre packs some real punch to Ireland’s efforts up the middle of the park and allied to the vision of Gary Ringrose this could be an outstanding combination on Saturday. They’ll have to deal with Italy’s Marco Zanon who is one of Italy’s rising stars and the rather capable Tommaso Benvenuti, but the latter is out of his preferred position on the wing, so the Irish pair should dictate proceedings.

Talking of highly anticipated returns, Italy will be watching Matteo Minozzi carefully

The Italian fullback was one of the stars of the 2018 Six Nations, but sadly was ruled out of this year’s competition due to injury, and Italy certainly missed him. He starts on the bench this for this match, which is a wise call but he is a player that we are really looking forward to seeing in action again for the Azurri, as he is one of their most exciting talents. If he remains injury free expect this player to feature heavily in any headlines about Italy in Japan.

The last time he played Italy, he stole the show and Ireland will probably expect him to do the same again

Fullback Jordan Larmour missed Ireland’s tepid Six Nations performance against Italy, and Irish supporters probably wished he hadn’t. The last time he played Italy in their exhibition match in Chicago in last year’s November Internationals he ran in three tries against the Azurri. With his defensive abilities dramatically improved though still needing some work, expect the Irish fullback to put in a big shift on Saturday, and really lay down a marker that he is the future of the 15 jersey for Ireland once Rob Kearney hangs up his boots after Japan.

Verdict

With no disrespect to Italy, and despite Ireland’s dip in form this year, this is not exactly a hard game to call. Italy seek to find out a bit more about their depth, but it is doubtful they are expecting much more than that from Saturday’s proceedings. Ireland meanwhile will look to solidify their second choice string while also giving players the chance to rattle the cage for those in Ireland’s regular starting lineup. There is enough talent in this squad to cause Coach Joe Schmidt to hardly blink an eye when it comes to selection for some of Ireland’s big games come the World Cup. He already has most of the answers he needs about the majority of the players that take to the field on Saturday, and instead is focusing on giving them some much needed game time. Italy as always to be brave and perhaps surprise us with some dazzling individual performances, but Ireland to comfortably settle proceedings by 22 points, in what should be a convincing team effort!

Test Rugby is now in full swing and will remain so till the beginning of November and the final whistle of the World Cup. As a result there is plenty of action to be had this weekend. The Rugby Championship and Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa’s unofficial warm up for Japan continues in its abbreviated format this weekend. South Africa travel to Wellington to attempt to repeat their historic win against New Zealand on the same ground a year ago. Meanwhile Argentina travel to Australia to take on the Wallabies in Brisbane and also hope to repeat their famous victory on Australian soil last year. Lastly Canada travel to Denver before heading down to the South Pacific and take on the USA for the second time this year.

Unfortunately due to the pressures of work this week, we’ve been unable to do our usual five talking points for each match, but here’s a quick summary of what we’re looking at for all three games.

New Zealand vs South Africa – Saturday, July 27th – Wellington

Without a doubt given the thrill of last year’s spectacle, this is THE big fixture of the weekend. South Africa are fielding an exceptionally strong squad for this encounter as are New Zealand who will be keen to seek revenge for their defeat on home soil last year by the Springboks. South Africa arrive brimming with confidence after a comprehensive thrashing of Australia last weekend, made all the more impressive without some of their key players. Admittedly Australia are not exactly setting the world on fire at the moment, but it was still an important win that saw a well disciplined and cohesive Springbok performance. New Zealand on the other hand, although not fielding their strongest side, struggled to keep Argentina at bay last weekend, and were lucky to come away with a narrow win.

This weekend sees both sides field their first choice lineups, and given the form of both teams, promises to be an exciting encounter and a mirror image of both sides’ opening match in the World Cup in two months time.

Looking at the lineups, a couple of things stand out for us most notably the appearance of the two main contenders for the All Black 10 jersey on the field together. Beauden Barrett reverts to the fullback position for this match, while Richie Mo’unga takes up his usual spot with the Crusaders and New Zealand at fly half. Barrett ultimately got the job done last weekend but we felt that Argentina often had his measure and it wasn’t his greatest day at the office. In the case of Mo’unga we have yet to see him have a bad day this year, and if he can translate this form to Test level in an intensely physical and demanding Test, then the race for the selectors first choice will be that much tighter between the two fly halves. Barrett has not played fullback at Test level for quite some time, almost six years ago to be precise against Japan, and he has only played three times in the 15 jersey for the Men in Black. There is no doubting his versatility but to shift one of your key play makers to such a relatively unfamiliar position for such a big game, will really be a testimony to Barrett’s abilities if he pulls it off with flying colors. He’ll be up against one of Test Rugby’s best in the shape of Willie le Roux and we’d argue that in the aerial contests the South African may come off better given his familiarity with the position.

TJ Perenara gets the starting scrum half berth this weekend, and deservedly so in our opinion for a match of this stature. We’d argue he is New Zealand’s form number 9 by a country mile at the moment, and his rival Aaron Smith didn’t really do anything last weekend to make us sit up and take notice, and was often outplayed by Argentina’s Tomas Cubelli. Perenara will need to be on his toes as he goes head to head with South Africa’s live wire Faf de Klerk and with try scoring debutant machine Herschel Jantjies on the bench New Zealand will really have to keep their wits about them in this part of the park.

The back row for South Africa sees the highly anticipated return of one of our favorite Springboks Kwagga Smith. For us he is the try scoring equivalent of New Zealand’s Ardie Savea who we are surprised to see sit this one out. Whenever Smith is on the field South Africa’s X-factor goes up another few notches. He may not be the whirlwind wrecking ball that Savea is, but he is one of Test Rugby’s most glorious opportunists. Add to the mix the figure of flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, whose emotions at the end of last year’s match on the same ground so effectively summed up what that victory meant to the Springboks, and South Africa will be hard to beat up front.

Our last big surprise for a game with so much riding on it was the decision by New Zealand to start Sonny Bill Williams. This surely must be the last chance saloon for the All Black centre, as in our opinion, with no disrespect to the great man we feel he is past his sell by date and brings nothing particularly dynamic to an area of the park that will be hotly contested, with South Africa’s Lukhanyo Am being an exciting prospect for the Springboks and Damian de Allende having dramatically upped his game since last year.

Lastly we feel South Africa pack an absolute power house bench. New Zealand’s offering from the sidelines is respectable make no mistake, but we feel if South Africa have the edge by the time the bench becomes a factor it could swing the game in the Springboks favor.

Verdict

Either way a huge match in prospect and one you won’t want to miss. Despite their shock defeat last year, the likelihood of New Zealand losing at home twice in a row and at the same venue to boot seems on paper to be rather remote. We think South Africa is fielding a team more than capable of matching up to the All Blacks, but New Zealand will have a fairly hefty point to prove in front of a home crowd who will make sure they remember why they’re there. Consequently in a hard fought match we’re giving it to New Zealand by five, perhaps more than anything on the premise that lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice!

Australia vs Argentina – Saturday, July 27th – Brisbane

Last year Australia got ultimately shown the door by a better disciplined and structured Pumas side. We’d argue the Pumas are even better organised and focused than they were last year, and despite their loss last weekend will be buoyed by the fact that they made the best team in the world work for a full eighty minutes last Saturday. Australia to be honest, seemed no better than they were last season and if anything a tad worse. Their match against South Africa was riddled with schoolboy mistakes, handling errors and a general lack of cohesion and poor execution. To get past a Pumas side that is really starting to click nicely they are going to have to be a lot better, and home advantage alone is unlikely to address the error count we saw last week.

Argentina seem to have finally addressed their scrum problems, while we have seen little if any evidence that Australia have got their house in order in this department. Argentina still have plenty of work to do, but guiding proceedings at the coalface is the exceptionally capable Julian Montoya. Argentina to make some much needed progress here on Saturday, most likely at Australia’s expense, with the Wallabies misery likely to be compounded in the second row, as Argentina’s Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini show them how it’s done.

Australia’s problems are unlikely to improve in the back row, with the talking point of the week being the eagerly awaited return of Facundo Isa to the Pumas number eight jersey. Throw in the wrecking ball that is Pablo Matera who is likely to make mincemeat of the Wallabies Michael Hooper and we just can’t see Australia making any inroads here. In short, when it comes to the battles up front we have a hunch that Australia may find themselves completely outclassed.

Things get better for Australia in the backs, but even there we’d argue Argentina don’t have too much to worry about, especially given Australia’s lack of ball handling skills last weekend. The one positive we did see for Australia was the welcome return to the scrum half berth of Nic White, and in one of the very few standout Wallaby performances last weekend, White has given Will Genia a lot to think about this Saturday as he makes his bid for the first choice scrum half berth. Australia pack some very big, powerful and mobile units in their set of backs both on the wing and the center channels this weekend, and Kurtley Beale  immediately made his presence known last Saturday when he came off the bench. He has also proven himself handy in the fullback position which is where he starts this week. Argentina though possess some devastating speed merchants and Saturday also sees the long overdue return of European based winger Santiago Cordero who made plenty of headlines for the Pumas at the last World Cup. With the exception of perhaps the physical aspect, it is very much a question of Argentina being able to say to Australia, “anything you can do, we can do better” in back play.

Verdict

Australia may be at home, and on paper have a very good looking spreadsheet from 9-15, but up front we feel they just don’t have parity with Argentina. Add to that the fact that the Pumas are no slouchers from 9-15 themselves, and we’d argue that Argentina look much more like the finished product. With the exception of their two overseas based players this is a very settled and familiar unit, that has already proved that it can rise to the occasion. Australia may have home advantage but we feel that Argentina have a better understanding of what game they want to play. Consequently in what should be an absolutely fascinating contest we’re handing it to the Pumas by 2!

USA vs Canada – Saturday, July 27th – Denver

We’ll be completely honest, after two months of cheering on the Toronto Arrows close to home, we were a little disappointed to see less players from the successful MLR side than we were expecting for such a crunch match, unless Coach Kingsley Jones is saving his best for arguably one of Canada’s most challenging encounters this year – the game with Fiji. Canada is boasting some very big names for this match, most notably the incomparable winger DTH van der Merwe who is truly world-class. However, we felt that Toronto Arrows scrum half Jamie Mackenzie was certainly worth inclusion over the remarkably pedestrian Gordon McRorie.

Furthermore the fact that neither second rower Mike Sheppard or winger Dan Moor even made it to the bench left us puzzled. One thing we were delighted to see though was the return of number eight Tyler Ardron, who always brings such shape and presence to a Canadian side, while newcomer Ben LeSage gets a worthy call up to the centers.

The Americans are also open to experimentation, but having watched the last half of the MLR season with interest, there are a lot of very familiar looking and exceptionally capable American players in this starting XV. Based on what we saw this year, Canada are really going to have to work hard to contain the threat posed by second rower Nick Civetta, flanker John Quill, and number eight Cam Dolan.

After a very successful season with English Premiership side Sale Sharks, Eagles Irish import fly half AJ MacGinty returns to service for the USA, and his game management skills are going to really put Canadian newcomer and fellow Irish import Paul Nelson to the test.

Verdict

Canada need a big performance on Saturday, but their away form has for quite some time now been poor. However, the one saving grace is that they did manage to run the United States close in their last encounter which was also on the road. If the likes of DTH van der Merwe can find the gaps in what would appear to be a fairly solid US defense, then Canada could come out of this on a positive note in their build up to the World Cup. However, we can’t help feeling that it’s still a tall order especially for some of the less experienced players in the squad, as well as those whose continued selection leaves us slightly puzzled. Consequently, in front of a home crowd, and with some serious talent in the mix, the USA should ultimately pull ahead and get the job done by eight points!

 

 

 

 

 

As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

New Zealand – 8/10

It was an interesting year for New Zealand whichever way you cut it. They are clearly still the team to beat in world rugby, but their dominance was challenged in 2018, make no mistake. While they are still a truly remarkable team, we found out this past year, that if they are put under pressure they too can join the ranks of the mortals. Ireland and South Africa put them to the sternest of Tests, and in South Africa’s case pulled off the unthinkable by actually beating the All Blacks in New Zealand – something which New Zealand’s opponents have only managed to pull off a grand total of five times in the last ten years. New Zealand’s losses to South Africa and Ireland, along with their scare from England had many making statements that the All Blacks were vulnerable or that their glory days were on the wane. To be honest from what we saw of them in action we find such statements beyond premature. New Zealand are still a formidable force and without doubt still front-runners to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan this year for the third consecutive time. Yes this year proved that they can be beaten, but it is going to take a very remarkable team to knock them out of the World Cup.

New Zealand’s season got off to an emphatic start, as expected, they put a weary touring French team to the sword, and won all three Tests of their June series. However, some of the controversies surrounding refereeing decisions in the opening match meant there was a slight cloud hanging over an otherwise emphatic victory. The second Test was a much tighter affair, but once again New Zealand were masters of composure under pressure as they sealed a convincing win and the series. In the final Test, the All Blacks put their foot flat to the floor and in the second half simply left an exhausted French team in their dust as they ran in 7 superb tries to France’s 2. It is always hard to gauge how teams stand after having played France, as Les Bleus traditionally field poor touring teams, mainly due to the fact that players are invariably exhausted after one of the longest and most gruelling domestic club seasons in the professional era. However, the second Test did see New Zealand make a host of  uncharacteristic errors, some of which could be attributed to the absence of key players such as lock Brodie Retallick and Captain and number 8 Kieran Read.

Next up it was the annual Rugby Championship, which also saw the return of Retallick and Read. The opening match against Australia, which also was the first of the three annual Bledisloe Cup matches, saw New Zealand eventually blow off the cobwebs and get back to their best. As a result it left few of us in doubt that the tournament would be theirs once more as it has been since the last World Cup. Australia then travelled to Auckland’s Eden Park where they were given a comprehensive schooling by New Zealand fly half Beauden Barrett as the number 10 ran in a remarkable four tries.

From there New Zealand played host to a feisty Pumas side who kept them honest until the 70th minute, at which point they finally managed to unlock the Pumas defences and once more hit their customary stride. A South African side that had been written off were their next visitors in Wellington, and the result was arguably THE Test match of the year. The historic and proud rivalry between these two rugby heavyweights was restored during the course of the match in an epic performance from both teams. South Africa gave as good as they got and put the All Blacks under enormous pressure which forced them into countless mistakes, as New Zealand found themselves in the rare position of having to chase an exceptionally healthy Springbok lead. The All Blacks as they traditionally do, came back with a vengeance in the second half, and for a good ten minutes of the final quarter they were up against a Springbok side down to fourteen men. In an absolutely heroic defensive display, South Africa managed to withstand a continual assault by the All Blacks and emerge the narrowest of winners by 36-34. New Zealand were clearly rattled by the defeat, but you never got the feeling that it would last for long.

Sure enough New Zealand came back firing as they travelled to Argentina and got the better of another feisty performance from the Pumas. However, New Zealand destroyed Argentina’s efforts in the set pieces. With a game to spare they now had the Rugby Championship sewn up, but were clearly keen to settle the score in the final match of the tournament, as they travelled to South Africa to face a Springbok side brimming with confidence. It was another titanic struggle that once more lived up to the pedigree of the rivalry between the two, but this time New Zealand would walk away the victors in a very tight contest at 32-30 in the All Blacks favor.

New Zealand continued their travels as they headed to Japan for a taste of what it would be like to play in the forthcoming World Cup. In the final Bledisloe Cup match they demolished a hapless Wallaby side, in front of an ecstatic Japanese crowd. Next up they took on this year’s World Cup hosts Japan. While it was a third string All Black side as the team’s heavyweights travelled to Europe, it reinforced the staggering depth New Zealand has at its disposal. Japan put up a brave fight at times but the result was never in doubt and the All Blacks ran in an emphatic victory beating their hosts 69-31.

The first match of their end of year European tour was against an English side, that much like South Africa earlier in the year, many had written off. In appalling weather conditions New Zealand once more found themselves under the kosh of a resurgent England. Once again the match was marred by controversy sparked by the officials, but New Zealand did manage to claw themselves back into a match that initially looked beyond them. It was Brodie Retallick’s complete dismantling of the English lineouts that set the All Blacks back on course. However, it had been a serious scare and the match was on a knife-edge for the full eighty minutes, and New Zealand breathed a sigh of relief as the final whistle saw them emerge the winners by the narrowest of margins at 16-15. They were aware that they had been given a serious reality check ahead of one of the most anticipated fixtures of the year, their clash with the second best side in the world Ireland in Dublin the following weekend.

The dustup in Dublin did not disappoint, and was one of the year’s epic Tests. New Zealand threw the kitchen sink at a very disciplined and structured Irish outfit, but the All Blacks simply couldn’t wear them down. Furthermore, New Zealand found themselves on the wrong side of the pressure curve for the full eighty minutes. What pressure New Zealand did manage to exert was absorbed with ease by Ireland, while New Zealand where clearly finding the relentless physicality and probing of their defences by Ireland exhausting – something they simply haven’t been used to in the last four years. Ireland recorded only their second victory over the All Blacks, and New Zealand were left to lick their wounds with the prospect of a dead rubber match against Italy in which to regroup.

As expected an angry All Black side, still smarting from the Dublin defeat, put a helpless Italian side to the sword in Rome, as the hosts appeared to be the sacrificial lambs of tournaments similar to what would have taken place in the Coliseum just down the road a few thousand years ago. The 66-3 thrashing by the All Blacks clearly took some of the sting out of the loss to the Irish, but that and the loss to South Africa on home soil, had clearly given the world’s number one side some much-needed food for thought.

New Zealand are still the force to be reckoned with by everyone else if they want to judge how far they have come since the last World Cup. Watch any All Black performance this year, even their two losses, and you will still see some breathtaking skills on display. Their lofty position at the top of the world rankings for so long now, has provided an enormous incentive for the rest of the world to catch up, which it would appear to be finally doing. Ireland are clearly their biggest threat, but South Africa has also proved that they can derail the All Black juggernaut. Throw England and Wales into the mix and all of a sudden the World Cup doesn’t look so comfortable any more for New Zealand. However, we would argue that 2018 was the best thing that could happen in terms of New Zealand’s preparations for the World Cup. Gone are any illusions of complacency, even if there were any there to start with. The All Blacks have proved time and again that once the rest of the world does eventually catch up with them, they are masters at reinventing themselves all over again. Few sides are better at going back to the drawing board and fixing whatever weaknesses they have discovered about themselves and emerging twice as strong. In short, 2018 was a year in which the All Blacks saw themselves shaken but not stirred. Rugby World Cup 2019 you have been warned!

Player of the year – Brodie Retallick

Although he missed the June series against France, the return of the giant second rower for the Rugby Championship reaffirmed how important he is to New Zealand’s efforts. He made our Team of the Year with ease and quite simply terrified the opposition all year-long. He single-handedly turned around New Zealand’s fortunes at Twickenham in a match which they were struggling to assert their authority. A master of the set pieces and utterly devastating in the loose this is clearly one of Test rugby’s most dangerous commodities, and is likely to leave most opposition defence coaches with endless sleepless nights in 2019.

Player to watch in 2019 – Jack Goodhue

We’d heard great things about the Crusaders youngster, and when he showed what he could do in the third Test against France, it was clear that all the hype surrounding the 23-year-old centre was completely justified. While those who have read our musings over the last few years know, we are of the opinion that Sonny Bill Williams is a tad over rated and slightly one-dimensional. Goodhue possesses the wrecking ball physical ability of Williams, some fancy foot work and is in our opinion a much more complete footballer. Allied to the highly experienced Ryan Crotty, Goodhue formed a lethal partnership at centre this year. Expect to see Goodhue be one of the key talking points of New Zealand’s buildup to this year’s World Cup as well as grabbing some major press attention once the tournament gets underway.

Match of the year – South Africa vs New Zealand – Pretoria – October 6th – South Africa 30/New Zealand 32

This match had just as much intensity as the one between these age-old rivals that saw New Zealand concede a rare defeat on home soil a few weeks earlier. It was another epic struggle which ensured that Tests between these two are likely be some of the most anticipated events of the Test calendar once more. When it comes to Test Rugby as a spectacle it doesn’t get much better than this! Here’s hoping that 2019 will produce similar high-octane encounters between these two.

Next up – South Africa and then into the Six Nations!

 

 

 

Now that we’ve finally had a chance to catch our breath after the thriller in Dublin, we can put pen to paper on a few things that stood out for us after a memorable weekend. There is no question that the showdown in Dublin between Ireland and New Zealand provided the most talking points, as two fantastic sides did not disappoint in a Test match that lived up to and exceeded the expectations around it. Ireland put in a truly massive performance and in doing so proved that even without some of their key players they can go head to head with the world’s best and come out on top. There is still a lot of rugby to be played between now and the World Cup, and as delighted as we were to see Ireland turn history and form upside down this past weekend, we aren’t going to get carried away just yet and start tipping them as favorites. The players and their remarkable Coach Joe Schmidt are wisely taking it as one game at a time in terms of their focus and preparation. That in itself will put them in a very strong position for Japan next year. Ireland have been talked up before and you almost sense that the players and Coaches are reluctant to get too carried away – enjoy the moment sure, but focus on what is immediately in front of you first and foremost.

Away from the main event in Dublin, we were also treated to an enthralling game between South Africa and Scotland, and a match which saw France get a much-needed win over their pool opponents in next year’s World Cup – Argentina. South Africa once more showed remarkable composure to get the job done under pressure against an exceptionally feisty and competitive Scotland. The first half as predicted was highly frenetic with tries aplenty, while the second was a solid effort from the Springboks on defensive duty as they withstood a constant onslaught from Scotland. In Lille, France looked the more composed of the two sides in their encounter with Argentina. The South Americans had plenty of sparkle, but as the match wore on they looked increasingly tired, and the complete lack of an effective scrum was their ultimate undoing, as discipline and handling errors continued to mount. France meanwhile managed to find their rhythm and sustain it for the full eighty minutes. France will have made a statement to Argentina that come next year in Japan when the two meet in the pool stages, les Bleus have the edge, especially if Argentina are unable to fix their scrum issues by then.

Lastly from a Canadian point of view, Canada managed to draw ever closer to securing the last spot up for grabs at next year’s World Cup with a fine win over Germany. They have one game left to play against Hong Kong, but barring any major slip ups, they should be able to start looking at travel arrangements to Japan next year.

So here’s what got us talking on Sunday, with a clear focus on the events in Dublin.

Ireland finally head to a World Cup with a squad that boasts a formidable degree of depth

We genuinely believed that without the likes of scrum half Conor Murray, centre Robbie Henshaw and flankers Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien, Ireland would find it hard to go toe to toe with the world’s number 1 team for a full eighty minutes. As a result, Ireland’s emphatic win over, what for all intents and purposes was a full strength New Zealand side on Saturday night in Dublin, was a remarkable achievement. What’s more important is that it means Ireland can travel to Japan next year, knowing that they can compete with the world’s best in a tournament in which attrition will be a significant factor. They have a player base that they can rotate effectively to ensure that they can remain competitive all the way to the end. Keiran Marmion and Luke McGrath are not Ireland’s first choice scrum halves but both stepped up to the plate and put in admirable performances. Flanker Josh van der Flier also put in a massive shift and showcased the talent and skill he brings to the position. Meanwhile the first choice regulars simply outdid themselves in a performance that was one for the ages. It was a complete team effort and a credit to players and coaching staff alike. In short, in terms of a classic Test match it doesn’t get much better than that.

It was hard to single out one player, but this surely was one of the most inspirational performances we’ve seen on a rugby pitch in a long time.

As we’ve already said, it was a monumental team effort from Ireland on Saturday night, but O’Mahony’s performance perhaps best encapsulated the sheer determination that Ireland put on display in Dublin. The standing ovation he so justly deserved from the packed Aviva Stadium when he left the field on the 63rd minute summed up the impact he had on the match. The man was simply everywhere, and at times while clearly battling through the pain barrier, he still managed to be where Ireland needed him to be, effecting turnover after turnover. It was an inspirational display that clearly had a huge impact in terms of galvanizing his colleagues to even greater heights, and it captivated the imagination of 51,000 enthralled spectators in the Aviva and the countless millions watching on TV screens around the world.

You don’t often see New Zealand being held tryless and that is the biggest testimony to how effective this Irish defence has become

Admittedly the British and Irish Lions managed to do it last year in Wellington, but it is an exceptionally rare occasion. This isn’t to say that New Zealand didn’t come close to a five pointer – they did on numerous occasions. However, Ireland’s defence was truly remarkable as it never really looked like cracking. They were exceptionally well organised, and on the odd occassion when they weren’t the amount of pressure that they had managed to maintain on New Zealand for the full eighty minutes often forced the All Blacks into mistakes. That pressure was the most remarkable aspect of Ireland’s game on Saturday night. It was utterly relentless and even as a spectator you felt drained at the end of eighty minutes. New Zealand may still be the best team in the world, but put them under nonstop pressure and they suddenly become mortal. Couple that with perhaps the best disciplinary record in Test Rugby right now, and Ireland were going to be more than a handful for the world’s best. Ireland were able to exert all that pressure while still managing to keep on the right side of referee Wayne Barnes’ whistle. On top of that they were absolutely clinical in everything they did, and their execution backed them up. Throw in a crowd who utterly got behind their boys, and New Zealand were up against it from the closing bars of “Ireland’s Call”. Jacob Stockdale’s remarkable try was simply icing on the cake of a truly phenomenal performance!

South Africa once more show the resolve needed to win big matches away from home

There is no doubt that South Africa were put under the pump by Scotland on Saturday. Their performance to keep a rampant Scottish side tryless in the second half required a calmness and focus we are not used to seeing from them until this year, especially on the road. Handre Pollard had another masterclass at fly half, and once more effortlessly slotted into the centre channels once Elton Jantjiies replaced him late in the second half. Jantjies also seems to perform much better in the role if Pollard is kept on the field, and this has been a key factor in both the France and Scotland games. South Africa can also take great heart in Embrose Papier’s first real examination under pressure at scrum half. We felt he offered quick and efficient delivery and stood up well on his first major outing at Test level. There is no question that this is now an accomplished Springbok unit that is starting to hit all the right notes, and one that is blessed with a forward pack that provides them with such a solid platform. For us the only question really remains around the centre channels, but even that is starting to provide more answers than questions these days. In short, South Africa are back with a bang and should they get one over the Welsh this weekend, they will be able to look back on 2018 as a genuine success that has once more made them a real contender for World Cup glory next year!

France continue to build quietly, and may well end up surprising us all next year

No it wasn’t exactly the match of the weekend in Lille, but there were moments that were genuinely entertaining from both France and Argentina. In this match Argentina started to show the signs of a long season of playing together and a scrum that simply doesn’t work. They started very brightly, but by the end were slowly but surely going backwards and that initial spark was long gone. France on the other hand looked the part. They were for the most part efficient and worked well together as a unit. As expected they pushed Argentina around at scrum time, and their set pieces worked that much better than the Pumas. The opportunities they did create were well taken, and in the second half they capitalised on a Pumas outfit starting to run out of puff and ideas. Furthermore they managed for large periods of the match to keep Argentina’s key playmaker, fly half Nicolas Sanchez, in check. They didn’t negate his presence on the field, but they did make it difficult for him to operate with the kind of freedom he needs. Pumas winger Moyano did give the French huge problems, as evidenced by his fine try, but once he was sadly relegated to the sidelines with injury in the 63rd minute, Argentina no longer looked as much of a threat out wide. It may not have been spectacular by les Bleus but it was an assured performance, with enough sparkle at times to give them a much-needed confidence boost ahead of next year’s Six Nations and their critical World Cup opener against Argentina on September 21st.

Endnote

As you can imagine New Zealand’s Steve and Ireland’s Gareth from the 1014 on YouTube had a lot to say on the proceedings between their two countries. Enjoy yet another superb breakdown of the action by the two greatest rugby sages on the Internet, and make sure you subscribe to help them push such remarkable content to greater heights! We’d also recommend you watch the match again with their second screen playing alongside as it offers some fascinating insights as the game unfolds.