Posts Tagged ‘November Internationals’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 10th
Twickenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owen Farrell is unlikely to be a match for Beauden Barrett

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Wales vs Australia
Saturday, November 10th
Cardiff

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Davies vs Kurtley Beale – a contest for the ages

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Ireland vs Argentina
Saturday, November 10th
Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great Irish scrum half debate

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

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

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

Verdict

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

France vs South Africa
Saturday, November 10th
Paris

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

Malcolm Marx – where were you last week?

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

And for France – Paul Gabrillagues where are you?

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

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

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

South Africa’s centre conundrum

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

Teddy Thomas vs Aphiwe Dyantyi – a contest to savor

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

Verdict

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

Endnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wales vs Scotland
Saturday, November 3rd
Cardiff

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

One of the best half back contests of the weekend

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

Where is Josh Navidi for Wales?

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

X-factor meets tactical genius

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

England vs South Africa
Saturday, November 3rd
Twickenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest game of Ben Youngs career?

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

England’s centre choices

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

Verdict

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

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

Ireland vs Italy
Saturday, November 3rd
Chicago

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

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

Is this Italy?

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

Luke McGrath finally gets a start for Ireland at scrum half

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

Joey Carberry really needs to showcase his superb skill set

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

The Irish back row – a genuine wealth of talent

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Endnote

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

It’s been a fascinating month of Test Rugby which has been highly informative in terms of what it has told us about depth, especially in terms of the Northern Hemisphere teams, with perhaps Scotland being the biggest surprise package of the month. We’ll be doing our Annual Report Cards on all the big teams starting next week and leading up to Christmas, but for now there is one more final order of business in the November Test Calendar to deal with, this Saturday’s match between Wales and South Africa in Cardiff.

Both sides need a win here in no uncertain terms. South Africa have laboured through 2017 much as they did in 2016, with Coach Alastair Coetzee’s head seeming to be on the chopping block whatever the outcome of Saturday’s match. Despite the euphoria of the clean sweep against a fractured and disinterested French side in June, the Springboks had a woeful Rugby Championship with the record losses to the All Blacks and Ireland this year being the low points of yet another season to forget. There were brief moments of respite as witnessed in the second Test against the All Blacks in Cape Town, but to be honest that’s been about the only performance to cheer about this year from a Springbok perspective. This end of year tour has highlighted a tired and disillusioned team out of touch with their Coaching staff.  Their two victories against France and Italy on this tour were joyless affairs which saw them simply batter weak opposition sides into submission. Just like this time last year the Springboks clearly want this season to end, and return home and hope that some direction will be given to South African rugby between now and when Super Rugby gets underway again in February.

Wales too have had a mixed bag of results in 2017, but none which have really left us with the impression that this is a team on the way to bigger and better things. A Six Nations campaign which should have delivered so much more, despite impressive wins against Ireland and running England close, left us with more questions than answers in terms of the kind of direction Wales was trying to take. While some Welsh players, particularly Jonathan Davies, really stood out on this year’s Lions Tour to New Zealand, it’s been an indifferent November Test series with Wales coming short when it really mattered. A poor performance against Australia highlighted how much the new talent that Wales have put through their paces this month still need to learn at Test level. This was followed by perhaps one of the most dismal Tests of the year to date, as Wales laboured past a very physical and determined Georgian side in a performance that looked woefully unconvincing. Their Test last weekend against New Zealand was clearly a step up, and there were many positives that Wales could take out of the game, but the defensive frailties of the youngsters in the squad was there for all to see. Wales clearly have some talent to work with at the moment, but much like in the Six Nations it is simply not working as a cohesive unit with any degree of consistency. However, the same could be said of South Africa, making this weekend’s contest very difficult to call.

So without any further ado here’s our preview of the matchups on the pitch this Saturday in Cardiff.

Wales vs South Africa
Saturday, December 2nd
Cardiff

It’s hard to say who needs the win here more, South Africa or Wales. For South Africa it has been such a dismal year with another set of management changes on the cards seemingly inevitable. As a result their motivation and unity may be questionable after another turbulent twelve months. As a result one could argue that Wales are the more motivated side needing to lay down a marker in front of a home crowd as they head into the Six Nations after a season of mixed fortunes.

In the front rows, despite the presence of prop Rob Evans for Wales, we think that South Africa should still have the edge here. Wales may learn much about depth through the performance of hooker Kristian Dacey and prop Scott Andrews, but for us the far more dangerous unit is South Africa. Malcolm Marx at Hooker has still for us been one of the players of the year and when he plays from the heart as seen in the second Test against the All Blacks, he is capable of a legendary performance. Stephen Kitshoff is an exceptionally dangerous prop and is no stranger to the try line, while Wilco Louw  could be the answer to South Africa’s problems at tighthead in the absence of Coenie Oosthuizen.

In the second rows, we also feel that the sheer brute force South Africa possess in the shape of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager should also prove too much for Wales, much as it did for France and Italy, despite the presence of Welsh talisman Alun-Wyn Jones. Expect the South Africans to simply wear down Wales in this part of the park.

In the back rows, we feel the contest suddenly evens out. One of the standout players of last weekend’s Test between Wales and New Zealand, was Welsh flanker Josh Navidi who had a barnstormer of a game. He put in an exemplary 80 minute performance and caused the New Zealand defences continuous problems until the final whistle. We also liked the look of his partner Aaron Shingler and Welsh number eight Taulupe Faletau once more proved his intrinsic value to this Welsh side. This is likely to be the most intense battle on the park as the Welsh three go up against an equally accomplished Springbok trio in the shape of Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, and the promising Daniel Du Preez. However, the fact that Kolisi is fresh off the plane after returning home briefly for the birth of his child and Du Preez’s lack of Test experience could make for slightly less cohesion in the South African unit, leading us to give the edge to Wales in a tight contest.

In the half backs matchup, we feel that on paper South Africa should be better placed to run proceedings on Saturday. After a long absence from the Springbok fold, fly half Handre Pollard seems to be coming back into his own and there is no question that he has talent to burn. While he may not exactly be setting pitches alight this year, scrum half Ross Cronje has been a reliable figure for the Springboks and consequently we feel that the South African unit is likely to be less susceptible to mistakes than the untried Welsh offering of Test veteran Dan Biggar at fly half and newcomer Aled Davies at scrum half. Provided South Africa don’t resort to aimlessly kicking away possession, which they seem to do under pressure, they should have the upper hand here on Saturday.

In the backs, though we feel provided the Welsh Coaching staff have attended to the defensive frailties seen in the Welsh young bloods so far this month, Wales have more of the X-factor in this part of the park going into Saturday’s Test. One of the most interesting contests this weekend will be between Welsh winger Hallam Amos and his Springbok opposite number Warrick Gelant who, after turning heads in this year’s Currie Cup, finally gets a long overdue callup to the Sprinbok starting XV.  Despite some defensive mistakes, winger Hallam Amos has consistently made us sit up and take notice this month and there is no question he is an exciting prospect for Wales’ Six Nations and World Cup ambitions. On the opposite wing Steff Evans has lived up to the hype surrounding his inclusion in the Welsh squad but, particularly from a defensive standpoint, he has shown that it is a very big step up from the PRO 14 arena to the Test level circuit, and one he clearly still needs to grow into. Dillyn Leyds despite a bright start this year has gone strangely quiet in recent outings and it remains to be seen what kind of performance South Africa get out of him on Saturday. In the centres Francois Venter has impressed this month, while Jesse Kriel has failed to gain the headlines in any shape or form this year. He hasn’t exactly been a bad player, but by the same token is not one you would notice should his name not be on the team sheet. The same could be said of the Welsh offering, as we have liked what we’ve seen from Scott Williams but newcomer Hadleigh Parkes is very much an untried commodity at this level. Lastly, the wise head of Leigh Halfpenny at fullback for Wales meets the youthful exuberance of Andries Coetzee for the Springboks. Halfpenny seems to have come back into his own since his return to Wales, and he seems to be having a much greater impact on the Welsh attack. Coetzee has been a player who has consistently given his all to the Springbok cause this year, even if the team seems unsure of how to make the most of his work rate. Given the speed of the Welsh youngsters on attack and with the wisdom of Halfpenny behind them, we hand the contest in this part of the park to a Welsh side keen to lay down some markers for the future.

This should be an intensely physical contest and hopefully a fitting end to the 2017 Test calendar, especially if both sides look to run the ball and really test each other’s defences out wide. If South Africa resort to the kind of slugfest we saw against France and Italy this could end up diminishing the quality of what should be a good contest as they simply attempt to batter Wales into submission. However we feel that Wales in front of a home crowd, have enough speed and pace in the backs coupled to a hungry back row that they should just squeak a much-needed win to close out a troubled season with a positive statement of intent for 2018. As a result we give this to Wales by four points!

Endnote

As always we end with some very solid content from the 1014’s review of last weekend’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentlemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. These two reviews give some valuable insights into where South Africa and Wales are at in terms of heading into this weekend’s Test, as well as some excellent feedback on the other teams and how they performed. For some in-depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!

The November Test window effectively draws to a close this weekend, even though there is one match in the first weekend of December when Wales hosts South Africa. However, for all intents and purposes, once the final whistle blows this Saturday in Dublin we’ll have a got a pretty good idea of the level of depth that has been developed by all the top-tier teams during the course of November. Depth has clearly been the order of the day for all the teams, and some have made greater strides than others, with perhaps England, New Zealand and Ireland leading the pack here. However, France and Wales have also made some positive strides in this department, and Italy is clearly developing the nucleus of a team for 2019 and beyond. Scotland has perhaps been the surprise package in terms of depth this month, making their matchup with Australia this Saturday a mouth-watering prospect indeed. It is perhaps South Africa, Argentina and Australia who have the least to show for their efforts in this regard. Argentina along with South Africa continue to appear to be at sixes and sevens, while Australia, although boasting an exceptional matchday 23, still appear alarmingly thin on depth once any of this group of highly talented individuals become unavailable.

Italy get us started this weekend against South Africa. They will be looking to repeat their epic win last year against the Springboks and really lay down a marker for next year’s Six Nations and beyond. Italian Coach Conor O’Shea is clearly making progress with Italy and they look a much more promising outfit since he has taken charge. South Africa have struggled as they have for the last few years on their end of year tour to Europe, and while capable of some epic performances they seem rather few and far between. After their humiliation against Ireland in the November opener they were able to eke out a scrappy win against France, but it left few of us convinced that their woes especially on the road are behind them. The crisis in confidence in this team shows no signs of letting up and a second consecutive loss to Italy would do untold damage to a team that has clearly lost its way. Italy will know this and will clearly have this game in their sights.

The game we are really looking forward to this weekend and at the top of our viewing list is Scotland against Australia. We were absolutely blown away by Scotland’s performance against New Zealand last weekend and were rarely able to sit down for the full eighty minutes. It was a thrilling Test match that showed that attacking rugby with plenty of gas is very much alive and well north of Hadrian’s Wall. As a result we can’t wait to watch Scotland in action in next years’ Six Nations. Australia can also boast some exceptional attacking prowess in the shape of a very powerful and dangerous back line, and although they came out on the wrong side of the scoreline by quite some margin against England last weekend, the intent was there for all to see and had the weather conditions been slightly more cooperative Australia would be going into this match having run England close. The Wallabies were put to the test last weekend and England based on their performance can comfortably claim their place as the second best team in World Rugby right now, but Australia are not far behind them and are only going to get better. Australia’s biggest problem would appear to be that they just don’t have the same amount of depth as England, something which Scotland much to our surprise were able to demonstrate against New Zealand.

Next up Wales take on New Zealand, with plenty of new players getting a real test against the best in the world. Wales had a fairly torrid time against Georgia last weekend and will really need to up their game against a New Zealand side also experimenting with depth but one that will also want to make an emphatic statement in their last match of the year. Before the team sheets came out, we were fearing a completely one-sided contest in favor of New Zealand, but since the squad announcements were made we are feeling much more optimistic about Wales being competitive, although perhaps not the victors. New Zealand are still likely to get a clean sweep of their November tour but will have had their charges put under considerable pressure in all three contests, something that clearly was at the top of Coach Steve Hansen’s agenda for the month.

Lastly Ireland seek to exact revenge on Argentina, as the two sides have their first meeting since that fateful day in Cardiff two years ago when Argentina comprehensively shattered Ireland’s World Cup dreams. This is clearly an Argentinian team in some disarray despite a conclusive win against Italy last Saturday. Even though Ireland’s match day 23 smacks of continued experimentation in terms of finding depth by Coach Joe Schmidt, it is still a daunting side facing a Pumas team that has struggled to fire all year. Furthermore there are enough of Ireland’s big names running out on the pitch at the Aviva on Saturday to ensure that Argentina will need to put in the kind of performance they showed in New Zealand against the All Blacks back in September. Let’s be honest we’ve seen nothing from Argentina that has led us to believe they can replicate that, especially on the road and for a full eighty minutes.

Canada also take on Fiji in France this Saturday, but after having watched Fiji almost upset the Irish apple cart last weekend in a rather spectacular fashion. While Canada struggled to get the win against Spain at times, we can’t help feeling that Canada are going to have real difficulty in containing Fiji’s turbocharged outfit. From what we could see of the Spanish game if it wasn’t for exceptional winger DTH Van Der Merwe Canada might not have been competitive last weekend in Madrid.

So as usual here’s our take on the matchups this weekend.

Italy vs South Africa
Saturday, November 25th
Padova

South African rugby may be in a state of disarray at the moment, but it is not lacking in talent. However, motivation is clearly in question as the Springboks appear to be labouring through their fixture list this month with little if any clear enthusiasm for the task at hand. Nevertheless a second consecutive loss to Italy must be considered unthinkable and as such Italy will be hard pressed to repeat their heroics of this time last year.

In the front rows, we expect to see a competitive Italian effort with props Andrea Lovotti and Simone Pietro Ferrari looking impressive at times this year. However, the presence of Tendai Mtawarira, who has been a consistent savior of the front row for South Africa this year, should see South Africa have the edge. With the exceptional Steven Kitshoff waiting to come off the bench for South Africa their dominance here should be assured.

In the second rows, South Africa should have the advantage in the sheer brute power of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager. While de Jager has not always impressed this year, there is still enough Test experience between him and Etzebeth that they should have the edge over Italians’ Marco Fuser and Dean Budd, especially given the fact that they will have a point to prove, with Franco Mostert also wanting to put his stamp of authority on proceedings from the bench.

In the back rows, South Africa should also be able to rely on brute power to overcome a feisty Italian counter-offer in the shape of South African born Braam Steyn and newcomer Giovanni Licata. Francois Louw has been around the Test circuit enough to know what will be expected of him on Saturday, especially given what is at stake in terms of South Africa’s place in Test rugby. Pieter-Steph du Toit has also been one of the few Springbok players who has consistently sought to right a floundering ship this year and we expect more of the same from this versatile and powerful forward. Lastly Duane Vermeulen at number eight for South Africa goes up against Captain extraordinaire Sergio Parisse for Italy. While Vermeulen is a class player, there is no question that his form is just not there at the moment and the French match was clear evidence if anyone needed convincing. If Parisse gets his back row trio firing on all cylinders South Africa could be in for a torrid time here. However, we feel that South Africa should win what should be the most closely contested area of the park here.

In the half backs, on paper the contest should go to South Africa, but if the Italian pair can keep their heads they could actually be the surprise of the day. South Africa’s Ross Cronje did not quite set the world alight last Saturday in Paris and fly half Handre Pollard, despite his illustrious reputation, completely failed to manage or control the game to South Africa’s advantage while practically missing every shot at goal. Italy’s Carlo Canna is developing into a reliable and courageous fly half, and his ability to get results at the kicking tee is something Italy will be banking on especially if South Africa’s discipline goes the way of the dodo on Saturday, and Pollard once more struggles to find the barn door. So perhaps to the surprise of some, Italy to run the show here on Saturday.

In the backs, based on their experience at Super Rugby level, South Africa should have this tied up, but we have yet to see it really pay dividends this year. The centre pairing of Francois Venter and Jesse Kriel did manage to get some traction at times against the French last weekend in Paris but it was less than convincing. Italy’s offering of the two Tommasos, Castello and Boni is proving to be one of the surprise packages of the month with Castello in particular making us sit up and take notice. Dillyn Leyds and Courtnall Skosan look weak defensively at times on the wing, especially Skosan and particularly under the high ball. The two Italian wingers Angelo Esposito and Mattia Bellini are likely to be better coached and as a result we give them the edge. However, for us Andries Coetzee at fullback has been one of South Africa’s few beacons this year. Rarely supported and often expected to act as a lone wolf, he nevertheless manages to put in a 110% effort every match and for this reason alone we give him the nod over Italy’s still untested Jayden Hayward. Coetzee may be naive at times but you can’t fault him for an astonishing work rate and as he continues to mature we expect bigger and better things from him.

This should be a tight contest at times, with Italy potentially having the sharper game management of the two sides. However, just like in the French match we expect to see South Africa bludgeon the Italians into submission physically. It’s unlikely to be an attractive game to watch, but one which South Africa should batter out a narrow victory by five points!

Scotland vs Australia
Saturday, November 25th
Murrayfield

Without any shadow of a doubt THE game to watch this weekend. The weather this Saturday in Murrayfield looks to be on the side of two teams who like to try to play some of the most free-flowing and high-speed attacking rugby seen at the moment on the Test circuit. As we mentioned above we were enthralled by Scotland’s performance last weekend against New Zealand and spent much of the eighty minutes constantly leaping out of our seats and screaming at the television. Definitely one of the most exciting games of rugby we’ve seen in a while and hoping for more of the same. Australia struggled against an English team that, despite some lucky bounces of the ball and calls by the referee, were still clearly the better side especially given the challenging weather conditions. Australia in many ways played more of the rugby but in doing so often overdid it and as a result were unable to pull off the execution required. England were better at taking their chances and played a much more controlled game. The Wallabies will need to be mindful of this as they seek to challenge a team that appears to want to play the fastest brand of attacking rugby after the Fijian Sevens team.

In the front rows, we were very impressed with how well Scotland’s relatively inexperienced trio stood up to New Zealand last weekend. If things have gone well on the training pitch this week we see no reason as to why they should not be able to do the same again. Australia pack an experienced outfit in the shape of Test veteran and Hooker Stephen Moore who plays his last Test in the gold jersey. His front row partners Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu are finally clicking as a unit and it will be hard for Scotland to gain some traction here. Given the momentum for Australia and the significance of Moore’s last hurrah, we feel that Australia will have the edge here initially but once the bench make their appearance we actually fancy Scotland’s chances especially if the starting three hold their own for the first sixty minutes.

In the second rows, we also hand the contest to Scotland. Without Adam Coleman we just don’t feel that Australia are as competitive here as they need to be. Scotland’s Jonny Gray is outstanding and Grant Gilchrist was part of the depth experiment last weekend that we felt really paid off for Scotland. On home ground we just feel that once the crowd get behind them Scotland should clearly get the better of the contest here.

In the back rows, the contest suddenly levels out dramatically and should be fascinating. Flanker John Barclay appears to be relishing the Captain’s role for Scotland as is Michael Hooper for Australia. Both possess extraordinary work rates and the ability to lead their troops from the front. We are huge fans of Scotland’s Hamish Watson and find him very destructive in the loose and a real handful for opposition defences, and the contest between him and Hooper should be one of the highlights of the weekend. Ryan Wilson at number eight for Scotland is another player who can also be problematic, but Australia’s Sean McMahon is in our opinion the better of the two. Consequently, despite the presence of Watson and Barclay for Scotland, we feel that because of the power of McMahon and the destructive unpredictability of Hooper, Australia should get the edge here on Saturday.

When it comes to the half back contest though we think that Scotland in front of the Murrayfield faithful should have the advantage. Scotland’s Finn Russell is simply electric at fly half and Ali Price at scrum half is rapidly proving to be his star sidekick. Australia’s Will Genia we felt didn’t have the best game under pressure against England, and Bernard Foley is simply not firing this year. Consequently expect the element of surprise to be with the Scottish pair on Saturday and as a result Scotland to be more effective at dictating proceedings.

It’s the contest between some very fleet-footed backs that should be the highlight of the match. Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg was remarkable last weekend, and if he can find it in him to put in another performance like that this Saturday then alarm bells will be ringing all over the Wallabies defensive structures. Add to the mix the exceptional centre pairing of Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, and Tommy Seymour’s pace and ball skills out wide on the wings and Australia will have to have their wits about them on defence. Having said that though the Scots will have to make sure there are no defensive slip ups as seen in their November opener against Samoa, otherwise this is an Australian back line that will make them pay dearly. There is speed and power up the middle in the shape of Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi, while out wide Reece Hodge and the brilliant Marika Koroibete offer plenty of the same package. The only possible weak link we see for Australia is Kurtley Beale at fullback. We don’t say this because we feel Beale is not a quality player, quite the opposite, it’s just that his remarkable talents seem far suited to him playing at centre, and look at the game against England if you want further evidence of this. Scotland’s Stuart Hogg however, was clearly born for the position so as a result we feel that Scotland are likely to be the better drilled of the two sides in back play on Saturday and thus have the slimmest of advantages especially in front of a home crowd likely to be heard from miles around every time a blue jersey gets a clean break.

A riveting and hopefully intensely exciting contest awaits, but our money is on home advantage seeing a better drilled Scottish side squeaking past a powerful and fast paced Australian challenge by two points!

Wales vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 25th
Cardiff

New Zealand will want to finish their year in style and sadly Wales look to be the sacrificial lambs for such a cause. However, to dismiss a Welsh challenge at home in front of a raucous Cardiff crowd would be foolish and we actually feel that this is a pretty decent if inexperienced Welsh side running out against the All Blacks on Saturday. New Zealand continue to tinker but despite the experimentation enforced primarily by injuries, it is still a rather daunting outfit and if Wales can hold their own against them, then valuable lessons will be learnt. While a result would delight Welsh fans, most are likely to want to see a solid challenge that bodes well for the future.

In the front rows, we can’t really see Wales getting the edge over New Zealand’s Kane Hames, Codie Taylor and Nepo Laulala. This trio has ticked all the boxes this year and we just can’t see their Welsh counterparts gaining much traction on it, especially given the strength of New Zealand’s bench here. Wales will be competitive make no mistake but skill wise we just think the All Blacks have the more consistent and effective combination.

In the second rows, home advantage and the talismanic presence of Alun Wyn-Jones should just see Wales through until the benches are called in, despite the influence of probably the best in the world, New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock. We have mixed feelings about Whitelock’s partner Patrick Tuipulotu, but we feel once New Zealand call Scott Barret off the bench the balance will swing back in New Zealand’s favor.

In the back rows, we feel that once more it is all about New Zealand. We thought Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler had a good game against Australia for Wales, but it is the sheer class of Liam Squire and Sam Cane that makes these two front-runners to dominate proceedings here. The only real edge we see for Wales here is at number eight in the shape of Taulupe Faletau, but then we felt he had an uncharacteristically error strewn match against Australia and will need to be better on Saturday, even if he is facing up against relative newcomer Luke Whitelock for New Zealand. The one smoking gun Wales have in this department is the appearance of Justin Tipuric off the bench. Always a game changer the tireless flanker could be the key that unlocks New Zealand’s apparent dominance in this part of the park.

In the half backs, Wales’ Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb need no introduction and to a point should be able to hold their own against New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith, but the X-factor of the Kiwi pair far exceeds that of the Welshmen. As a result this contest is New Zealand’s to win, with the All Black replacements also being of far higher calibre than Wales in the shape of TJ Perenara and Lima Sopoaga.

In the backs, Wales pack some very exciting new talent against some exceptional and proven talent from New Zealand. Sadly it is this lack of experience on the part of Wales which is likely to be their undoing on Saturday. While winger Rieko Ioane and fullback Damian McKenzie have themselves only really burst onto the Test stage for New Zealand this year, they have already made these positions theirs, whilst the Welsh are very much competing for future places. Consequently with the centre pairing of Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty really coming into its own, Ioane’s strength and pace out wide and McKenzie’s elusive catlike abilities at fullback, Wales will be hard pressed to make any real inroads on the New Zealand defences with their young and inexperienced charges. Sadly this is one area of the park we expect to see New Zealand run riot in.

New Zealand pack the better bench, have greater familiarity amongst their starting fifteen and as a result we feel that this will ultimately be the complete performance New Zealand have been looking for all year. Consequently, Wales to be a worthy and exciting opponent at times, but New Zealand to ultimately run away with it by 25 points, even though we predicted a similar margin against Scotland and were delighted to be proved so dramatically inaccurate!

Ireland vs Argentina,
Saturday, November 25th
Dublin

While to say it is a forgone conclusion that this last big test of the year is clearly Ireland’s to lose is a stretch, we still find it hard to see anything other than a fairly solid Irish win at the Aviva on Saturday. Given that the vast majority of the squad that so comprehensively dismantled South Africa a fortnight ago make their return for Ireland we feel that our bias toward an Irish win is not without some grounding. Argentina meanwhile have struggled this year to really resemble the side that derailed Ireland at the World Cup two years ago and as a result it is hard to see them causing an upset on Saturday. Nevertheless, there is enough individual talent in this Pumas outfit that any opposition would write them off at their peril.

In the front rows, it’s a powerhouse Irish trio of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong with the two props playing some remarkable rugby at the moment. Hooker and Captain Agustin Creevy will provide inspiration for Argentina but this Pumas front row is just not up to the task at the moment so expect Ireland to dominate when it comes to scrum time.

In the second rows, we’re excited to see James Ryan get a start for Ireland. Although many are comparing him to Paul O’Connell we hope the youngster is allowed to prove his worth without the shadow of the great lock. Ian Henderson also needs no introduction and has really come back into his own in the green jersey. Matias Alemanno and Tomas Lavanini are both giant figures who could potentially rule the lineout but, despite Lavanini’s vastly improved discipline, we still feel that the Irish are going to win this contest.

In the back rows, despite some really strong Argentinian talent, it seems incapable of firing as a unit, something the Irish offering seems to have no problem with. Pablo Matera has consistently been Argentina’s go to man this year, and Marcos Kremer is a very promising highlight for the World Cup along with Tomas Lezana at eight. However, Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien are world-class from start to finish and work well off each other. At number eight CJ Stander needs to be more outspoken in his influence on match proceedings than he has been so far this year for Ireland in the Six Nations and on the Lions tour, but is still world class. Argentina will be fiercely competitive here but Ireland’s pedigree should win them the day.

At half back, there is simply no comparison as Ireland boast one of the best units in Test rugby in the shape of Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray. Argentina’s Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez are more than capable of flashes of brilliance but consistency and patience in terms of execution have rarely been their modus operandi this year. Ireland pack a much better bench offering here than Argentina in the shape of Luke McGrath who is turning heads at Leinster while Ian Keatley managed to keep his cool when Ireland were on the rack against Fiji last weekend.

In the backs, once again there is talent aplenty for Argentina but it seems based on individual brilliance rather than any kind of structured game plan. Ireland’s newcomers on the other hand looked very much the finished product against South Africa a fortnight ago. Adam Byrne is Ireland’s major experimentation as the youngster gets his first start in a green jersey on the wing, but we have really enjoyed watching him so far this year at Leinster. The centre pairing also sees a relative lack of experience in Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell but, the sheer potential of these two and Schmidt’s coaching should see them get the job done against a strong Argentinian challenge in the shape of Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias and Matias Moroni. Emiliano Boffelli will pose an enormous threat for Argentina out on the wing and Adam Byrne as a result will get a superb examination of how ready he is for Test rugby. However on the opposite wing Jacob Stockdale in the match against South Africa justified his place in an Irish starting XV and then some, and we expect more of the same on Saturday. The only area where we really see Argentina gaining some traction over Ireland here is at fullback. Joaquin Tuculet has been a consistent performer for Argentina this year, whereas the jury is still out on Rob Kearney for Ireland, despite the fact he had a respectable game against South Africa. So despite Ireland’s relative lack of experience expect them to have the more productive showing here on Saturday.

Argentina certainly have looked like they just want to put this year down to experience and move on to really trying to make 2018 a year they want to remember. Consequently as their last hurrah of the year, and away from home to boot they tend to run out of gas which should make it a relatively straightforward exercise for Ireland to get a decent win provided they keep their focus and their youngsters rise to the occasion. As a result we have trouble seeing anything other than an Irish win by 16 points!

Endnote

As always we include the 1014’s preview of this weekend’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentlemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. For some in-depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!

 

We had mixed feelings about the November Internationals when they were announced as we would have liked to have seen the two leading Northern Hemisphere rivals England and Ireland have a crack at more than just one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three, despite them both getting a chance to play Argentina. Instead it would seem that Wales, Scotland and France will get that privilege and in the process really find out how much depth there is in their talent banks and where the glaring gaps are, with the Welsh being tested the most. Nevertheless the opening weekend still served up some tasty fixtures and left us with much food for thought as we look ahead to the four matches we will be focusing on this weekend.

Italy get us started against Argentina, who despite a sloppy performance against England last weekend, still managed to end the match within a respectable distance of the scoreline. Italy ground out a confidence building win against Fiji and the progress that Coach Conor O’Shea is making with his side was there for all to see. Italy will want to make a big statement about their future this weekend, and if they do so, could even contemplate another historic win against a Springbok side reeling from one crisis to another. Argentina themselves are a shadow of the side that lit up the 2015 World Cup, and seem to have more questions than answers at the moment. However they are still not a side to be taken lightly and should they click then could prove to be the surprise of the month, setting up a mouth-watering showdown with Ireland in a week’s time.

England have their BIG game of the November series against an Australian side that is literally humming with intent and danger. For us this is THE match of the weekend and will tell us a great deal about Australia’s resurgence and how sound England’s position in the World Rankings at number two really is. Let’s be honest England’s display against Argentina last weekend did not exactly leave us awestruck, and they know they will have to notch their performance up quite a few gears this weekend if they are to justify their lofty status at number two in the World rankings. There is no doubt they are likely to rise to the occasion, but this Australian side is not the one they ran rings around last summer in Australia or at Twickenham last November. Settled and having had a long period of time together over the last three months, this is a formidable looking Wallaby outfit that is lean, mean and fast. A worthy Test of England’s character and progress to date awaits this Saturday at Twickenham.

Scotland then take on New Zealand, and while their defences were a matter of serious concern against a brave and plucky Samoa last weekend, their attacking prowess was breathtaking at times. As some have said, Scotland’s seemingly self-processed aim of playing some of the fastest attacking rugby on the planet appears to have left the defensive aspect of their game somewhat lacking. However, given the solidity of their attack and given the challenge facing them this weekend, it is likely that Coach Gregor Townsend and his charges have worked relentlessly at the defensive structures in their gameplay this week. New Zealand’s back line is more than capable of shredding any team on the planet and if Scotland don’t have a healthy understanding of how to use and understand what they see unfolding in their rear view mirrors on Saturday it could turn into a long and painful afternoon for the Scots, especially if their white line fever is not tempered with some solid and well thought out defensive patterns. New Zealand ultimately pulled off a comfortable win against France last weekend, but clearly took their foot off the gas in the second half, and were exposed badly at times by an exuberant French team.

Lastly, a grudge match of epic proportions awaits in Paris as the two finalists to host the 2023 World Cup go head to head in the Stade de France. With France much to the surprise of many, ourselves included, being awarded the World Cup in six years time, South Africa will feel more than just a bit resentful. It remains to be seen if this is yet one more humiliation they will have to suffer this year, or it will inspire them to put in a performance to well and truly spoil France’s party on home soil. To be honest after the truly awful display by the Springboks against a clinical and ruthless Ireland last weekend, we can’t help feeling that such aspirations on the part of South Africa are sadly nothing more than flights of fancy. France on the other hand were a revelation last weekend against New Zealand. Once Coach Guy Noves’ team started to click in the second half, we all put down our pints and watched in fascination as one of the most exciting debutant half back partnerships we’ve seen in a while went to work in blue jerseys. To be honest we had kind of written off France, but were delighted to see that there was finally some truth to the rumor that France is once more a sleeping giant in Test Rugby!

Just before we go into our usual head to heads for this weekend, we feel we need to give a big shout out to Canada’s opponents last weekend Georgia and Scotland’s foes Samoa. Georgia dispatched a Canadian side that still seems like South Africa to be completely rudderless, and did it in spectacular style making their fixture with Wales this weekend one we are more than likely to tune into. This try by fullback Soso Matiashvili surely has to be contender for try of the year, even though the nominations are now closed. If Canada had only half this kind of commitment then their current woes could start to be a thing of the past.

As mentioned above we also give Samoa, who faced a crisis of epic proportions within their own union last weekend, full credit as they were able to rise to the challenge so heroically against Scotland. It was inspirational stuff to a man and once more displayed the character and passion which is such an integral part of our glorious sport – Canada take note!  Samoa we salute you!

Italy vs Argentina
Saturday, November 18th
Florence

Italy need to win this and win it well, to both set themselves up for their encounter with South Africa in a week’s time as well as prove that the work that Coach Conor O’Shea is doing with this side is paying dividends in making Italy a genuinely competitive side. Despite Argentina’s lacklustre performance against England last weekend, this is a quality Pumas side that simply needs to click and if it does then Italy are going to be put to the test in no uncertain terms. A fascinating contest awaits especially if Argentina really turn up.

In the front rows, Argentina need to come to the party given the experience they have while Italy’s youngsters need to face up to the challenge. Given the fact that Argentina have the vastly experienced Agustin Creevy packing down we give the Pumas the edge here, despite the fact that they can no longer count on the scrum being one of their dominant platforms. Nevertheless, expect Italy to be competitive in this part of the park.

In the second rows, we also hand the contest to Argentina, especially as we were pleasantly surprised by Tomas Lavanini last weekend. He clearly seemed to have learnt the errors of his ways in terms of discipline and put in a remarkably composed performance against England who must have had him as a clear target in any attempts to get under the Pumas skin. Matias Alemanno was also solid and these two are a daunting unit. Italy’s offerings in Marco Fuser and newcomer Dean Budd are no slouches and will give as good as they get, but we just feel if the Pumas fire, the Argentinian duo are likely to be the more destructive pairing, especially with Guido Petti on the bench.

In the back rows, we also hand it to Argentina. Despite the fact that the Pumas number eight Juan Manuel Leguizamon is getting to close to the end of his tenure, there is no denying his pedigree and influence on this team especially if he can keep his discipline. As a result the contest between him and Italian talisman Sergio Parisse will be one of the highlights of this match, although the sheer inspiration that Parisse provides to his teammates should see the Italian come out on top. However, it’s at 6 and 7 where we feel that Argentina are going to be exceptionally dangerous. Pablo Matera is one of the best in the world and is often regarded as Argentina’s miracle man when the chips are down. His colleague, the towering Marcos Kremer, has also been a player who individually has impressed all season for Argentina. Their Italian counterparts Francesco Minto and Braam Steyn need no introduction, but the mere presence of Matera alone for Argentina, along with the rest of his all-star back row cast, makes us believe that despite Sergio Parisse Argentina may just have the edge here on Saturday.

Italy boasts a solid and promising half back partnership in the shape of fly half Carlo Canna and scrum half Marcello Violi. Canna’s kicking continues to improve and he has shown himself to be more than willing to take ball in hand and throw himself into the fray when needed. A player who we feel gets better with each outing and is a genuinely bright prospect for Italy. Argentina’s pairing of Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez really needs to click in this match. They often seem impatient and out of sync with each other which sees Argentina lose possession after one or two phases. However, with Sanchez scoring Argentina’s only try after an impressive 20 phases against England last weekend, it is clear that if they work together and stop trying to pull off moves that their skill sets can’t match, the Pumas pair provide the ability to run a tight game. Italy are still learning here, and Argentina just aren’t firing so as result on home soil we are just nudging it in favor of Italy, especially if it comes to a kicking contest between the sticks, as Canna’s success rate seems better than Sanchez’s of late.

In the backs, there is definitely some speed and pace here for Italy with winger Leonardo Sarto looking very good against Fiji and we also like the look of Mattia Bellini, so much so that we think Italy has the edge here, despite the presence of the Pumas new superstar winger Emiliano Boffelli. Boffelli’s colleague Sebastian Cancelliere made us sit up and take notice in the Americas Rugby Championship this year, but the Pumas pair were simply too quiet for us against England whereas the Italians really shone against Fiji at times. In the centres the balance swings back in Argentina’s favor with Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias and Matias Orlando, even if we really didn’t see anything of them in the England game up against a relatively new Italian pairing of the two Tommassos, Boni and Castello. Italy finally seem to have a decent fullback in Jayden Hayward but Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet is a special talent and as a result should have the edge here.

It is likely to be close with both sides wanting to make a statement, but despite home advantage for Italy we just feel that Argentina’s pedigree is simply that much better, despite them really not firing as a unit this year. Consequently a gritty battle with occasional flashes of brilliance from both sides, should see Argentina clinch it by two points!

England vs Australia
Saturday, November 18th
Twickenham

This is probably the most anticipated fixture of the November Internationals. England’s epic run of back to back victories came to a screeching halt this March in Dublin as Ireland finally managed to derail the English juggernaut. Since then a successful tour to Argentina which gave many up and coming English players their first real taste of the heat of battle at Test Level, and a good performance by English players on the Lions Tour, has meant there are plenty of grounds for optimism. However, between now and the World Cup the pressure is only going to increase and the opposition be more challenging. England looked rather pedestrian at times against Argentina, and distinctly average for large periods of the game. It is unlikely that Coach Eddie Jones will tolerate a similar performance against a Wallaby side that are a mere shadow of the shambolic outfit England went up against in 2016. England will be tested to the full on Saturday by an Australian team that is gaining momentum at an alarming rate. Unlike South Africa, Australia have emerged from the nightmare of 2016 looking in increasingly fine mettle and worthy challengers to England’s position of number two in the World rankings. A battle royale between two quality sides awaits us all at Twickenham this Saturday.

In the front rows, it is going to be tight but England should have the advantage. Australia are only just emerging from the wilderness in terms of scrum prowess. Although their progress here in the last six months has been nothing short of remarkable, it is still not as settled as that of England’s front row trio of Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole and Dylan Hartley, with Vunipola being one of the few standout English performers in the match against the Pumas last Saturday. Australia to be competitive and troublesome but England to win the contest here.

In the second rows, England should also have the edge in the shape of the tried and trusted platform of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury. While we think that Australia’s Adam Coleman is someone we will all be talking about come the World Cup, his partner Rob Simmons simply doesn’t match up at the same level, especially given the English offering, and the fact that Maro Itoje will be waiting on the bench for England. England to clearly dominate here, but Coleman to cause them all kinds of problems especially at lineout time.

In the back rows, the contest suddenly levels out and the advantage swings in favor of Australia. We thought Sam Underhill was outstanding, albeit naive at times, for England last weekend and clearly a force to be reckoned with for the future. Nathan Hughes also impressed at number eight along with the ever reliable Chris Robshaw at flanker. However, Australia’s Michael Hooper and number eight Sean McMahon are just that much more dynamic and unpredictable in our opinion. The only weak link here for us is the Wallabies’ Ned Hanigan, but even he is starting to silence some of his doubters. Nevertheless despite a very solid English offering here, we hand the contest to Australia given the X-factor and sheer nuisance value of Hooper and brute force of McMahon.

In the half backs, despite the presence of the exceptional Will Genia at scrum half for Australia it should be all about England. The pairing of scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford is once more starting to settle nicely, with some real intelligence on display here.  As a unit we just think the English pair is firing better, especially in the kicking department. Furthermore despite some epic performances this year for Australia, on the odd occasion Genia has gone missing for Australia and there will be plenty of pressure on both him and fly half Bernard Foley on Saturday, something which Foley in particular seems to be struggling with of late as good a player as he is. Therefore England to run the show here on Saturday.

In the backs, it’s a hard one to call but with Owen Farrell in the mix for England at centre alongside Jonathan Joseph, England may just have the slimmest of margins in terms of which side will get the upper hand. The Wallaby offering of Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi packs plenty of power and pace, but we just can’t help feeling that the English pair have the better tactical mindset especially when allied to their half back partnership of Ford and Youngs. On the wings though we feel Australia has the edge in the shape of the remarkable Reece Hodge and Australia’s find of the year Marika Koroibete. Elliot Daly and Jonny May provide plenty of potential to light up the pitch but we just feel that Hodge and Koroibete have some useful familiarity at the moment with the latter proving to be a nightmare for opposition defences to cope with. Lastly at fullback Australia’s Kurtley Beale has shown us some real magic in the last six months and we just feel he possesses a bit more X-factor than England’s Anthony Watson, albeit not by much. The contest between the Wallaby and English back lines is going to be fascinating and often equal. If Owen Farrell doesn’t quite shine as England need him to then Australia are likely to win the margins. However, with Farrell on form and the rest of his backs stepping up we hand this to England by the slimmest of margins.

It’s England’s bench with the exception of Joe Marler, who we still regard as a disciplinary liability for England, that should seal the deal in England’s favor on Saturday, albeit not by much. As much as Marler is a liability for England, the same could be said of Nick Phipps for Australia. But overall it is a very strong bench for England with some of their brightest up and coming talent packing the ranks, whereas the Wallaby bench is much more of a mixed bag particularly in terms of form. It is going to be incredibly close at times and hopefully a spectacle of Test rugby that we will all be talking about for many weeks to come. However, at home we can’t help feeling that this is England’s match by 2 points!

Scotland vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 18th
Murrayfield

We all know that Scotland are one of the most exciting attacking teams on the planet, but they are going to have to be that and one of the best teams defensively as well on Saturday if they are to give New Zealand a genuine run from their money. As impressed as we were by Scotland at times last Saturday against Samoa, there were simply too many alarm bells going off in the defensive quarters for us to feel confident about Scotland causing an upset this Saturday. They are likely to have spent the week working on their weaknesses in this department, but given the speed and ruthlessness of New Zealand we sadly doubt it will be enough of a turnaround in the space of a mere seven days. New Zealand will be looking no doubt to put in two “complete” performances to end their year, and it would seem that Scotland and Wales could well end up being the sacrificial lambs to that cause.

In the front rows, even without the presence of Dane Coles for New Zealand, the All Blacks should still have the clear edge. Coles’ understudy at Hooker, Codie Taylor needs no introduction and is a fearsome weapon in his own right. His partners Nepo Laulala and Kane Hames have also impressed throughout 2017. Scotland will be brave here make no mistake and we are huge fans of Scottish prop Zander Ferguson and like the promise of Hooker Stuart McInally, but they will be up against it as they seek to try to keep the New Zealand trio at bay.

In the second rows, Scotland’s offering of the exceptional Jonny Gray and Ben Toolis are likely to once more put up a brave fight, but the fact that the New Zealand second row boasts Sam Whitelock says it all. Whitelock is probably the best in the world at his position and Scotland are going to be working overtime just to keep his influence on proceedings to a minimum, let alone his partner Luke Romano.

In the back rows, it’s also hard to see Scotland getting the better of New Zealand, especially if Vaea Fifita has the kind of game he had against Argentina in the recent Rugby Championship. The contest here however is slightly less one-sided as we rate the two Scottish flankers John Barclay and Hamish Watson very highly. Both possess extraordinary work rates and seem to be virtually indestructible with Watson able to cause havoc at times. However, the pedigree of Sam Cane and Kieran Read should ensure that as the match wears on New Zealand start to dominate in this part of the field, especially once the bench starts making an impact in the shape of Matt Todd and Liam Squire.

In the half backs, it will be hard for Scotland to better New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett. England, Ireland and New Zealand have without a doubt the best half back pairings in Test rugby right now, and it will be a tall order for Scotland’s Finn Russel and Ali Price to unseat Smith and Barrett’s complete control of proceedings. Having said that though we must confess to finding Scotland’s Finn Russell to be a very exciting player with scrum half Ali Price bringing some real fizz to the position that has been lacking in Scottish rugby in days gone by. There will be plenty of sparks here on Saturday, but with TJ Perenara waiting on the bench for New Zealand, it is going to be hard to for Scotland to really exert the kind of control and continuity needed here. Expect New Zealand to dictate proceedings with occasional flashes of brilliance from Scotland.

In the backs, there should be plenty of excitement from both sides. Scotland’s 12-15 axis has danger written all over it in the shape of the electric centre pairing of Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, winger Tommy Seymour and speed merchant Stuart Hogg at fullback. However, for us New Zealand just look that much more accomplished and settled in their 11-15. The centre partnership of Sonny Bill Williams and the exceptional Ryan Crotty seems to have developed an effective formula, while Rieko Ioane has proved almost unstoppable out wide. Waisake Naholo packs plenty of pace and power on the opposite wing, and Damian McKenzie’s catlike elusiveness and sense of where the gaps are coupled to some exceptional passing skills and turn of pace, mean that New Zealand have the complete package here. Once again Scotland are likely to be exceptionally competitive in this area especially for the first hour, but New Zealand look the more tried and tested unit with a solid track record since August.

Despite the fact we feel a Scottish win is sadly not on the cards, we still think it should be an exceptionally exciting match at times with some spectacular running rugby from both sides. However, New Zealand look the more accomplished and familiar side and as a result we see them taking it by 21 points in a runaway finish in the last quarter!

France vs South Africa
Saturday, November 18th
Paris

Let’s be brutally honest it has been a harsh week for South African rugby. It starts with the schooling the Springboks got in Dublin intensifying the calls for the head of Coach Alastair Coetzee. Then mid-week South Africa learns that after seemingly having the 2023 World Cup bid in the bag, they are pipped at the post by France. Now to add insult to injury a demoralised South African team has to take on France on the ground that will see the final of the 2023 global showdown. It is going to be hard for players and supporters to drag themselves out of the funk surrounding the sport in South Africa on Saturday, but that is precisely what they need to do to vindicate their standing in the World Rugby order, and show that despite the disappointment they are still one of the sport’s great competitors. It will be a tough ask against a French team likely to be bubbling over with a degree of joie de vivre, as well as confidence from a respectable showing against the mighty All Blacks last weekend.

In the front rows, all is not lost for South Africa and despite the fact that the entire front row went missing in Dublin last weekend there is some serious firepower here. Hooker Malcolm Marx if he produces the kind of game he pulled off in the second Test against New Zealand in Cape Town in October, could singlehandedly demolish the entire French forward effort. However, we also highly rate France’s front row offering especially of Hooker Guilhem Guirado and Rabah Slimani. South Africa possess the legendary Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira in support of Marx, and despite the loss of Coenie Oosthuizen to injury, we like his replacement Wilco Louw. These three really need to click for South Africa on Saturday, and with Stephen Kitshoff on the bench we just feel that provided they turn up South Africa have the edge here.

In the second rows, South Africa should also have the clear edge in the shape of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, provided that unlike last week they actually show up.  However Sebastien Vahaamahina and Paul Gabrillagues had a solid game against New Zealand with Vahaamahina catching the eye on more than one occasion. Franco Mostert could provide some salvation for South Africa off the bench, but this contest is hard to call. Based on form alone from last weekend, we are perhaps controversially handing this one to the French.

In the back rows, there is also plenty of firepower for South Africa but it too really needs to find some character and polish that was so woefully lacking last Saturday in Dublin. Francois Louw returns to the flank alongside Siya Kolisi who was remarkably quiet and even inept at times, especially given the kinds of performances he has put in so far this year. At number eight Duane Vermeulen makes a return to the Springbok jersey, but doubts remain about his fitness especially as he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire for Toulon this season. France bring two players we rate very highly in the shape of talisman Louis Picamoles at number eight and Kevin Gourdon at flanker. We thought Gourdon in particular had an excellent game against New Zealand last Saturday. In short, despite the talent they have South Africa are going to be hard pressed to match France in this part of the park especially on home soil for les Bleus.

In the half back contest, we have to confess to having been blown away by the two French youngsters, scrum half Antoine Dupont and Anthony Belleau, last weekend against New Zealand. Despite the fact that South Africa are finally starting Handre Pollard once more at fly half, it’s been a while since he has worn the number 10 jersey for the Springboks. The French half back pairing was outstanding against New Zealand, especially given their lack of experience, something that so far we can’t say about the South African unit. We know Pollard has the talent but we haven’t really seen it for a while now, and he was remarkably quiet off the bench last weekend in Dublin even though he was not playing at fly half. On X-factor alone we’re giving this one to France.

In the backs, we also feel that it is once more all about France. Teddy Thomas scored a fine try last weekend, and Nans Ducuing was a revelation at fullback. The centre pairing of Geoffrey Doumayrou and Mathieu Bastareaud also got some serious go forward traction on New Zealand, and Bastareaud’s aggressive physicality is likely to prove problematic for South Africa’s Francois Venter and Jesse Kriel. At least South Africa are not starting Damian de Allende at centre though we scratched our head over his inclusion on the bench, but even Jesse Kriel has made increasingly little impact on the Springbok cause of late while Francois Venter has little Test experience. On the wings and under the high ball Courntall Skosan and Dillyn Leyds looked exceptionally vulnerable last weekend and expect France to target both this weekend. The only Springbok player in the backs who we thought tried to make a go of it against Ireland last weekend was fullback Andries Coetzee, but as a lone wolf with no support from his teammates up against a water tight Irish defence he was able to achieve very little. We know France can be exciting here and they proved that last weekend, whereas South Africa’s backs have for the most part been a constant Achilles heel for them, and we just can’t see that changing on Saturday meaning that France should have the clear edge in the running game.

The South African bench with the exception of Franco Mostert and Stephen Kitshoff is unlikely to give France much cause for concern, especially if they have managed to gain any sort of dominance by the final quarter. South Africa simply can’t be as woeful as they were last weekend, but it is still a big ask and one which will really determine what kind of character this side and its coaches are made of. However, given the events of the last week and South Africa’s continuing dismal record away from home we think this is France’s match for the taking. Consequently we expect to see France take it by six points in front of a delirious home crowd drunk on the fever of the World Cup bid!

Endnote

As always we include the 1014’s preview of this weekend’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentlemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. For some in-depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!

The November Test window opens in earnest this weekend, with some interesting fixtures in prospect, though for most the highlight of the weekend is likely to be the clash between Ireland and a resurgent South Africa. England take on Argentina and seek to give some new caps their first taste of the International stage. Meanwhile a depleted Wales look to take on their nemesis Australia who seem to be on a solidly upward trajectory, and France desperately seek to find a squad from the casualty wards that can take on an All Black team that still has some questions to answer. For Wales and France it will be all about trying find depth rather than results, whereas for Ireland and England a performance based result will clearly be the order of the day from the coaching staff.

Ireland will need to put a disappointing Six Nations behind them, and demonstrate that they have both the depth and skill set to be the competitors everyone knows they can be in the buildup to the World Cup. Ireland will need to show the consistency they so often lack over the coming months. They are without doubt the most potent threat in the Northern Hemisphere after England, but have so far struggled to string two solid wins together on the trot. South Africa will be desperate to prove that despite a truly heroic effort against the All Blacks last month which in our opinion was the THE Test of 2017 so far, they can perform to the same level away from home. Ireland as a first attempt at proving this is a truly daunting task, and as a result this should be a Test match to remember and the highlight of the weekend.

England in the process of blooding several new caps, should learn a great deal about their depth as well as securing a comfortable win against an Argentinian team that has simply failed to fire for more than fifty minutes in any given match this year. Make no mistake Argentina will be solid and gritty competition and if England let their guard down for a minute this could end up being their banana skin of 2017, but based on the Pumas current form we think it unlikely.

Wales face a team they simply seem unable to beat in the shape of the Wallabies, and with their squad riddled with injuries and as a result missing several key players, it is unlikely the status quo between these two sides is likely to change on Saturday. Australia will be keen to show that the renaissance we witnessed during the recent Rugby Championship, is no flash in the pan despite the chaos surrounding rugby at club level in Australia.

France will learn much about the depth they have available over the coming months as the insatiable demands of their club structure have meant that Coach Guy Noves is left with little choice other than selecting a squad we hardly recognise. While this may mean that France will struggle to put in much of a performance during November, it may also be beneficial in the long run as they uncover a raft of new talent at the beginning of their preparations for the next World Cup. New Zealand may be vulnerable at the moment, but we doubt that a relatively unknown French squad will unhinge the All Black juggernaut to any great degree. However it is France, and the history between these two sides is full of memorable surprises, and as a result always a contest worth watching, with the 2015 World Cup quarter-final perhaps being the only exception.

Anyway enough of the preamble and on to our usual look at the head to head matchups of the four key Tests this weekend.

England vs Argentina
Saturday, November 11th
Twickenham

We look at this match as the warm up game for England’s big match of November which in our opinion is their game against Australia next weekend. This is not to diminish Argentina as a threat but there is no question that this Pumas side is faltering at present and as a result will give England a workout but are unlikely to trouble an all-star England team. England will want to lay down the marker that they are the best team in the Northern Hemisphere and have made the most progress in building for the World Cup in Japan in 2019, whereas Argentina will simply be looking to put in a good performance and build the confidence of some their newer players.

In the battle of the front rows, England should easily have this wrapped up. Argentina’s Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy is absolutely outstanding but England’s unit of Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Mako Vunipola packs experience and power that simply puts their Argentinian opponents in the shade. A tight battle but one that England should dominate is likely to be the order of the day. Add to the mix Jamie George off the bench as Hooker replacement for Hartley and the deal is sealed for England.

In the contest between the second rows, once again England should have the match sewn up in the shape of Courtney Lawes and George Kruis. We are really surprised to see Argentina’s biggest discipline liability, Tomas Lavanini in the starting lineup, and as much as we like Matias Alemanno we just can’t see this Argentine unit getting any traction on their English counterparts.

In the back row, the contest is a little edgier between the two teams, as we have to confess to really liking the Argentine trio of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Tomas Lezana. Lezana and Kremer have been new additions to the Pumas lineup this year and have consistently impressed. We have to admit that as a result of not having watched any of the English premiership English flanker Sam Underhill is a bit of a novelty to us so can’t really comment. However, Nathan Hughes and Chris Robshaw need no introduction and our money is on them to contain a very energetic and powerful Argentinian challenge in this part of the park.

In the half backs, Argentina just haven’t fired for us this year either with Nicolas Sanchez or the veteran Juan Martin Hernandez. Martin Landajo is a quality and gifted scrum half, but given the fact that as a unit the Argentinian half back partnership has not really clicked this year, it is difficult for us to see the two Pumas gaining any kind of authority over England’s tried and trusted pairing of scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford. So no surprises here but England to run the show on Saturday.

In the backs, despite some genuine talent in Argentina’s offerings, England just look far too dangerous. The two Pumas wingers Emiliano Boffelli and Ramiro Moyano are big fast men but England’s Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson just boast too much pedigree and experience for it to be anything other than England dictating the play here. Add to that a genuinely exciting English centre partnership of the outstanding Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph and once more England would seem to have the clear advantage.  It is perhaps only at fullback where we’d argue that Argentina have an edge in Joaquin Tuculet over England’s Mike Brown. In our opinion the Puma packs more of an X-factor than the Englishman, and as a result is likely to be the more dangerous of the two. However, overall this English set of backs just look the more complete unit and as a result we expect it to be all about England here on Saturday.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of England’s game on Saturday will be the impact of the bench from prop Harry Williams, flanker Sam Simmonds and fly half Alex Lozowski. Lozowski and Williams both made us sit up and take notice on England’s tour to Argentina this June, and Williams has been immense for the most exciting team in the English premiership Exeter Chiefs. Despite their lack of experience when matched up against an Argentinian bench boasting more caps we still predict England to have the edge here.

It should be a tight battle at times, especially in the loose, but we can’t help feeling that England are ultimately going to run away with this one by 18 points!

Wales vs Australia
Saturday, November 11th
Cardiff

As we have said already Welsh supporters need to look at this match with an eye to developing some depth in their squad at this stage of the World Cup cycle. Their first outing against a rampant Australian side, is likely going to be a very tall order and as a result getting a solid performance by some of the newer players will be more important in many ways than an actual win. Australia on the other hand will want to show that they have now moved up a few gears in their preparation for the next World Cup and the recent win against New Zealand was clear evidence of this.

In the front rows, it should be Australia’s day, as after having been one of Test Rugby’s bad jokes, the Wallaby front row now looks solid and able to mix it with the best in the shape of Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Scott Sio. The Welsh offering boasts some solid prowess in the shape of Ken Owens, Rob Evans and Tom Francis but we just feel that the Australians have really stood out this year and with the familiarity of playing together now for the last 3 months they should have the edge over the Welsh.

In the second rows, we are really looking forward to the battle between Australia’s Adam Coleman and Welsh talisman and Captain Alun-Wyn Jones. We have been one of Coleman’s biggest fans since he first pulled on a Wallaby jersey and we expect a ferocious battle between the youngster and the veteran here on Saturday. We’d argue otherwise it’s an even match between the other two second rowers Rob Simmonds for Australia and Jake Ball for Wales, with the Welshman perhaps having the edge. Consequently we think Wales just might get the better of the contest here, especially if Ken Owens is solid with the throw-ins come lineout time.

In the back rows, we’re looking forward to seeing how the two new Welshman perform in the shape of flankers Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi. Having said that though we expect to see the class and experience of Australia’s Michael Hooper at flanker and the outstanding Sean McMahon at number eight rule the day. Taulupe Faletau for Wales will add plenty of spark but may be so busy caretaking his two rookie partners at Test level that his impact may be slightly diminished. Australia should win the contest but as we said, it’s going to be fascinating to see the two new Welshman in action and what this tells us about Welsh depth in this part of the park with an eye to Japan in 2019.

In the half backs, Will Genia has been on fire for Australia since the Rugby Championship, and although Bernard Foley may have struggled at times especially with the kicking duties, there is no doubting the value he adds to this Wallaby side and his willingness to throw himself into the fray. Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies need no introduction for Wales and if these two fire they can provide plenty of sparks of their own. However, based on performance, especially Genia’s we’re handing the contest to Australia here.

In the backs, we should once more get an idea of what kind of depth Wales are developing as both winger Steff Evans and centre Owen Williams get their first call to arms at Test level against a major rugby superpower. The rest of the Welsh back line backs some serious experience and punch in the shape of winger Liam Williams who is electric, and in our opinion the most exciting player in a Welsh jersey centre Jonathan Davies, with the veteran Leigh Halfpenny shoring up the fullback spot. However, in our opinion Halfpenny is not the player he once was. As good as this Welsh five are, along with the excitement of the new talent it’s Australia’s turbocharged offering which lit  up pitches this Rugby Championship that we feel is going to carve massive holes in an inexperienced Welsh defence. Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete was one of the revelations of the recent Rugby Championship and his partner Reece Hodge is an exceptionally versatile back line player and brings with him a massive point scoring boot. Our only surprise is seeing Kurtley Beale at fullback given his stellar performances so far this year at centre. However, with Israel Folau on sabbatical it is perhaps no bad thing to give the versatile Beale some exposure at fullback, a position he has played before. Tevita Kuridrani effectively steamrolled his way through opposition defences this year for Australia and his partner Samu Kerevi, despite some defensive frailties, is electric with ball in hand. There is just too much raw talent in the Wallaby back five for it to be anything other than Australia’s day here on Saturday, but if the Welsh offering especially the youngsters can really stand up and be counted, Welsh supporters will still have a lot to cheer about.

The benches are, especially in the case of Wales, all about blooding new talent, so again lots to learn here. However, overall especially given Wales’ woeful record against Australia, we can’t see it being anything other than an emphatic Australian win by 15 points!

Ireland vs South Africa
Saturday, November 11th
Dublin

Without any shadow of a doubt THE big fixture of the weekend, and one which we will be glued to our screens for. The South African performance against New Zealand in their final match of the Rugby Championship in Cape Town was for us the game of 2017 so far, and we expect this match to be of an equal calibre. Two sides with plenty to prove, and given their respective strengths and weaknesses being essentially equal competitors. In short this could go either way and should be an absolute belter of a Test.

In the front rows, despite the presence of the exceptional Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy for Ireland, we hand the contest to South Africa, simply on the presence of Malcom Marx alone. If you’re wondering why we are so emphatic in our rating of the South African hooker then just watch this:

Add to Marx the incomparable Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen packing down alongside him and this is a truly terrifying unit. Ireland especially in the shape of Healy and Furlong will be exceptionally competitive make no mistake, but we just can’t help feeling that Rory Best is just not the match of Marx, especially at lineout time, given the fact that South Africa will be packing three second rowers in their lineout. It will be a brave struggle by Ireland here, but one which South Africa should win comfortably. Throw in Steven “the ginger Ninja” Kitshoff off the bench along with the impressive Wilco Louw and South Africa’s dominance is assured.

In the second rows, we also hand the contest to South Africa fair and square. Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth are so familiar with each other and such gigantic figures in the lineout that Ireland’s Devin Toner and the exceptional Ian Henderson are going to struggle to keep these two powerful figures in check. Add to that the incomparable Franco Mostert waiting on the bench and it is going to be hard for Ireland to contain South Africa here let alone acheive any kind of dominance, especially if Rory Best’s lineout throwing is not up to scratch.

It’s in the back rows, where things start to even up between the two sides. With CJ Stander at number eight and Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien on the flanks this is a fast and dangerous Irish loose trio. However, they will be equally matched by South Africa’s outstanding Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit, despite the latter usually playing as a second rower. Despite playing out of position, Du Toit excelled in the flanker role in the second Test against New Zealand and expect more of the same on Saturday. We just can’t pick a side that has a clear advantage here and as a result expect this to be one of the most exciting contests on the field on Saturday.

In the half backs, though the ascendancy starts to swing firmly in favor of Ireland. The Irish half back partnership of scrum half Conor Murray and fly half Jonathan Sexton is simply one of International Test Rugby’s finest and should easily completely dictate the passage of play on Saturday in Ireland’s favor. It’s also worth noting that Murray’s replacement on the bench Kieran Marmion had an outstanding game under pressure against England in the Six Nations this year and is likely to provide ample support in continuing whatever dominance the Irish are able to achieve here. Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies are a solid pairing for South Africa but they simply don’t have the X-factor and tactical skill sets of the Irish pair. Like many we are interested to see if Handre Pollard comes off the Springbok bench as number 10 or a centre and feel South Africa will learn much about who should be playing these positions by the end of this November Test series.

In the backs, we can’t help feeling that it is going to be a run away contest in favor of Ireland. This is one area of South Africa’s game which so far this year hasn’t really made anyone sit up and take notice. It’s not that they haven’t got good players, but more a question of not really knowing how to use or support them. Furthermore, we cannot for the life of us understand the inclusion of Damian de Allende in the starting fifteen at centre when there are so many more talented centres in South Africa. We just can’t see De Allende working all that well alongside Jesse Kriel who is an impressive ball carrier but like De Allende is also rather one-dimensional and fairly easy to read defensively. Ireland boast a lethal centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and newcomer Bundee Aki who gets his first start for Ireland after having lit up the Pr012/14 at Connacht for the last few years and is Henshaw’s former partner at club level. We’re very excited to see two new starts for Ireland on the wing in the shape of Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale with the latter being the talk of Irish rugby this season for all the right reasons. South African wingers Dillyn Leyds and Courtnall Skosan are exciting players in their own right but given that the Irish pair are going to have the likes of Sexton and company looking to put them into space, we just can’t help seeing Ireland running rings around South Africa here on Saturday. Lastly at fullback although we question the selection of Rob Kearney at fullback as opposed to newcomer Tiernan O’Halloran, especially as there are question marks around Kearney making it to Japan, there is no doubt that there are still some big games left in the veteran fullback. We questioned his inclusion in the Irish starting fifteen against New Zealand in Chicago last year only to have him put in a vintage performance. Nevertheless we would have at least liked to see O’Halloran on the bench, perhaps we’ll see him for the match against Argentina. South Africa’s Andries Coetzee is a fine player but if Kearney produces one of his vintage performances it will be hard for the South African fullback to really get the better of his much more experienced Irish counterpart.

This will very much be a game where if South Africa establish forward dominance and suffocate Irish go forward ball the contest will be a dead heat till the final whistle. However, if the Irish back row gets the better of the South Africans then Ireland’s more accomplished and dangerous set of players from 9-15, plus home advantage should see them home. South Africa are still desperately trying to shake the demon of performing badly away from home off their back, something we think they are likely to do this tour, but not against the second best side in the Northern Hemisphere as an opening Test. Consequently we are handing this to Ireland by five!

France vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 11th
Paris

Despite the seemingly inevitable outcome of this match there is still plenty of interest to be had. Let’s face it at this stage we know pretty well everything about this star-studded New Zealand squad but virtually nothing about this French squad, which to be fair has been cobbled together at the last-minute due to many of French Coach Guy Noves’ first choice selections littering the casualty wards of hospitals across France at the moment. Once more much like Wales, what French supporters should take from this November series is how much depth they are developing for the World Cup in Japan in just under two years as opposed to actual success in terms of results on the pitch.

In the front rows, there is some familiarity for those of us who have been watching France in the last few seasons, in the shape of Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, alongside props Rabah Slimani and Jefferson Poirot. We are big fans of both Guirado and Slimani but there is no question that they are going to be up against it when going head to head with New Zealand’s new look partnership of  Nepo Laulala, Dane Coles and Kane Hames. This is by no means New Zealand’s second string front row as was evidenced in the Rugby Championship and can easily fill in for regulars Owen Franks and Joe Moody. Solid, reliable and with the X-factor of Coles, New Zealand are going to be very hard if not impossible to beat here, with New Zealand’s bench looking to complete the destruction.

In the second rows, with the presence of perhaps the best in the world in the shape of Sam Whitelock, New Zealand will have the clear edge here and his partner Luke Romano provides plenty of firepower as well.  We know a fair bit about France’s Sebastien Vahaamahina but next to nothing about newcomer  Paul Gabrillagues having watched none of the TOP 14 this season. However, whatever talents the French pair have we just can’t see them getting the better of the New Zealand duo, especially with Whitelock in the mix. With Scott Barrett waiting on the bench for New Zealand the pain here is only likely to intensify for France.

In the back rows, it’s once again all about New Zealand though expect France to be more competitive here. Flanker Vaea Fifita was sensational in the Rugby Championship prompting many to draw similarities between him and the great Jonah Lomu. While still relatively inexperienced at Test level this remarkable player is only going to get better and more dangerous in the buildup to the next World Cup. Packing down alongside him are Sam Cane and Captain Kieran Read and France are going to have to be rather extraordinary to gain any kind of traction here. However, in the shape of Louis Picamoles at eight who is always inspirational and Kevin Gourdon who is someone we have consistently enjoyed watching, France should manage to at least be competitive here even if New Zealand are likely to dominate proceedings.

In the half backs, having not watched any of the TOP 14 we have to confess to knowing nothing about France’s two newcomers fly half Anthony Belleau and scrum half Antoine Dupont. However, New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith are arguably the best in the world at their trade to the point we just can’t see France being even remotely competitive here. We do know a great deal about Baptiste Serin who occupies the French bench as a scrum half replacement and must confess surprise to not seeing him start, as he genuinely brings some excitement and X-factor to the position for France. With New Zealand’s TJ Perenara and Lima Sopoaga waiting on the bench in the half back berth’s France’s demise in this part of the park would seem assured.

Lastly in the backs it should once more be all about New Zealand plain and simple. The names Damian McKenzie, Waisake Naholo, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane for Zealand ring like a roll call of honor in back line play in International Test Rugby right now. While names like French winger Yoann Huget and his partner Teddy Thomas may be familiar to us, they have hardly been occupying the bright lights of the Test stage in the last year like the New Zealanders have. The choice of Mathieu Bastareaud at centre for France to us smacks of sheer desperation in an attempt to contain the physicality and ball carrying skills of Sonny Bill Williams. As for the rest of France’s back line offering we simply know nothing of them and as a result simply can’t imagine them having much say in proceedings when up against the ridiculous skill sets of their New Zealand opponents.

As we said above, like Wales French supporters will need to see this match through the lens of what it shows them in terms of depth going forward in their World Cup preparations. Despite the proud history of epic matches full of surprises, between these two sides, we are hard pressed to see too many surprises in the making come Saturday. New Zealand should walk away with this without too much difficulty by 22 points, though having said that we have to confess to hoping that France may just turn the form book upside down – doubtful but fun to hope for!

Endnote

As always we include the 1014’s preview of November’s action, and continue to thoroughly enjoy the vast body of work, especially in terms of detailed analysis that these two fine gentelemen, Steve and Gareth, are putting out. For some in depth understanding of who’s who in the pot when it comes to Test Rugby and the buildup to the World Cup you can’t go wrong having a look at some of their excellent work. Enjoy, give them a big thumbs up and make sure you subscribe to keep this excellent content coming!

 

 

 

 

England look set to make history this weekend, which is all the more remarkable when you consider the post-mortem that was going on this time last year after the World Cup, as they seek to finish a perfect season in their final Test against Australia. Meanwhile we look back at some of the action from last weekend in an attempt to gauge how much the fabled gap between Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby is looking a year after the World Cup.

England vs Australia
Saturday, December 3rd
Twickenham

The final Test of 2016 provides us with a fitting finale to the year as two sides with everything to prove seek to finish on a high note. For England the task is to put the finishing touches on a remarkable transformation from the disaster of the World Cup and secure an unprecedented 13 wins in a row, which should see them sit comfortably in the number two spot in the world rankings. When you consider where England were this time last year this is a truly impressive turnaround.  For Australia, it is an attempt to silence their critics after a roller coaster of a year in terms of results and also gain revenge for their 3-0 series whitewash by England earlier this year.  Australia have improved dramatically in the space of six months, but as witnessed against Ireland last weekend this progress will dissipate quickly should they end up unraveling against England on Saturday.

Both sides go into this match missing some key players. Most notably for England it is the loss of number eight Billy Vunipola, who to add insult to injury will now also miss England’s Six Nations campaign. Meanwhile Australia are without scrum half Will Genia who due to contractual obligations has had to return to club duty in France. The impact these two players have had on their teams this month, and in Vunipola’s case all year, has been enormous and their absence is likely to be keenly felt on Saturday. With Genia and fly half Bernard Foley working together Australia looks electric on attack and centres Tevita Kuridrani, Reece Hodge and winger Dane Haylett-Petty have been devastating. Although England will be without the services of Billy Vunipola it is a superb opportunity for new number eight Nathan Hughes to really step up to the Test level arena after an outstanding season so far with Wasps. England will miss the services of winger Elliot Daly after his unfortunate red card last weekend in the match against Argentina, however, Jonny May on the opposite wing has been nothing short of extraordinary this month and his contest with in form Wallaby winger Haylett-Petty will be one of the most eagerly anticipated contests of this year’s autumn Tests.

Up front, discipline is going to be the key word, something which both sides have struggled with at times this year, however, in Australia’s case they have tended to dominate the headlines more here. England Captain Dylan Hartley seems more effective in keeping his charges more keenly focused on reducing the penalty count than his Wallaby counterpart Stephen Moore. Australia’s discipline against Ireland was poor to say the least last weekend and against England earlier this year it was at crisis levels. There is little doubt that work will have been done to rectify this, but England still look the more structured unit here.  In the front rows this is likely to be a key concern.  England’s front row should have the edge especially as Dan Cole seeks to rediscover the form that caused Australia so much grief in June. In the second rows, we were very surprised to not see Rory Arnold in the starting lineup for Australia or even make the bench.  As a result given Australia’s offering here we feel this should be an area, particularly at lineout time that England should dominate in the shape of the exceptional George Kruis and Courtney Lawes. It’s in the back rows where England will receive a stern test as Michael Hooper and David Pocock look to rattle the English pair of Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood.  However, as destructive and unpredictable as the Wallaby duo are we can’t help feel that Robshaw’s composure under pressure, which has been exemplary all year, should see England contain the threat as well as can be expected. Furthermore,his partner Tom Wood has been putting in some stellar workrates at the coal face this month. At number eight we are looking forward to seeing the contest of the two new boys, England’s Nathan Hughes and Australia’s Lopeti Timani. However, overall in the loose and at the breakdowns if Australia can keep their focus and discipline we are just handing them the edge here in the shape of the X-Men Pocock and Hooper.

In the half backs we feel that England has the clear advantage especially on home ground.  Australia’s Bernard Foley has been dominant for Australia this month, but he is up against England’s formidable George Ford who in turn is allied to the powerhouse pair of scrum half Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell. Australia’s Nick Phipps at scrum half, although unpredictable and at times dangerous, simply lacks the decision-making and composure under pressure of his English rivals. Add to that some serious lapses in concentration and discipline and we can’t help feeling that despite Foley’s best efforts it’s going to be the English pair who are pulling the strings all afternoon.

In the battle lines being drawn from 11-15 there is plenty of excitement being offered by both sides. In the centres England’s skill and creativity in the shape of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph meets Australia’s strength and long-range speed in the shape of Tevita Kuridrani and Reece Hodge. Kuridrani has scored some spectacular tries in all four tour matches so far and will be keen to make it five from five in this respect against England. Reece Hodge is an exceptionally strong player and can attack from deep both with the boot and with ball in hand.  Farrell and Joseph will need to be at their best to contain these two, but in terms of creativity and reading the ebb and flow of the game we hand the English pair the advantage. On the wings as mentioned above we can’t wait for the contest between England’s Jonny May and Australia’s Dane Haylett-Petty. Two exceptional players in their prime go head to head in a contest that should provide plenty of fireworks. Australia’s Sefa Naivalu on the other wing has looked impressive on this tour and England’s Marland Yarde will need to be at his defensive best to keep him in check. In this area of the park we feel it is a completely even contest between the two sides. At fullback, Australia’s Israel Folau needs no introduction but then neither does England’s Mike Brown. Although we think Folau is the more talented of the two, there is no denying that Brown’s work rate, ferocity and tenacity have been exceptional all year and it is these qualities which should see him get the better of Folau who has not been as sharp in attack this year as most feel he should be.

In short, as England ride the crest of a wave that is surely leaving them brimming with confidence, it should be England’s day on Saturday by 12 points! Although England have been under fire for their discipline and lapses in defence at times this month, they still look like a far more structured side with a clearer idea of the game they want to play than Australia. Australia will be up for this in no uncertain terms and if they play with the kind of ferocity they showed in the second half against Ireland last weekend for the full eighty minutes it could end up being much too close for comfort for England.  However we can’t feel that at the end of a roller coaster season for Australia, this is likely to be a bridge too far. Consequently a spirited but weary side are likely to cave towards the end, and as the penalty count starts swinging firmly in favor of England, Australia will be left with too much to do. Either way though we doubt the term boring is likely to be used in any of the write-ups after the final whistle – so strap yourselves in for International Test Rugby’s last hurrah of 2016!

Last weekend’s action

As we head into getting ready for Christmas, we haven’t had as much time as we would have liked to chew over the events of last weekend which provided drama of the highest order, especially the game between Ireland and Australia.  As a result here is our Coles notes version of what stood out for us in the big matchups from last weekend, including Canada’s own efforts against Samoa.

Samoa vs Canada
Final Score – Samoa 25/Canada 23
Grenoble

Once again Canada end the year short on results. Sure they have entertained, but let’s be honest take away DTH van der Merwe and would Canada really have had much to shout about in November? We still liked the look of what we saw from Connor Braid at half back and feel that he has answered a problematic question for Canada in this department. Consequently, we hope to see more of him in this role next year. In the forwards however, we seem to have gone slightly backwards despite impressive showings from the back row partnership of Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie, with these two clearly the way forward for Canada. Phil Mack continues to add some real fizz and spark to Canada’s attack as opposed to the more pedestrian approach of Gordon McRorie but it is the reliability of the latter’s boot which seems to give him more time in Canada’s starting lineup.  However, as we’ve said all along, especially as the big points become more crucial to closing out games like this there needs to be more emphasis on the kind of skill set Mack brings to the game.

As we say, this is a game that Canada should and could have won, but then that seems to be the standard mantra of every write-up of a Canadian game in the last two years especially against the lesser ranked nations. Consequently we are saying nothing new here. It’s discipline and a lack of concentration/focus in the last twenty minutes which consistently kills off any kind of Canadian challenge at Test level.  Until that is fixed – then sadly nothing new to report here folks.  They know what they need to do and after his first full season with his charges let’s hope it’s onwards and upwards for new Canadian Coach Mark Anscombe and his charges in 2017.

England vs Argentina
Final Score – England 27/Argentina 14
Twickenham

Hats off to England for a remarkable display by 14 men for 75 minutes.  Argentina may have been tired but certainly for a good 40 minutes in the middle of this match they seriously tested England’s character and mettle. England emerged from that test with flying colors and as a result must surely be feeling confident about their final match up of the year with Australia.

We agree there were disciplinary issues on both sides, but of the two red cards we felt that the Argentine offence was the more blatant and malicious of the two.  Elliot Daly’s offence sadly justified the red card he received but unlike the ugly stamping incident by Argentina’s Enrique Pieretto, we felt there was no malice involved.  You could argue that the yellow card that England’s Joe Marler received probably triggered the incident and as a result he continues to be a disciplinary liability for England, but at this level Pieretto’s response was unprofessional and has no place in the modern game. Rugby is an intensely emotional and physical game and as professionals the players have to rise above the inevitable niggles and frustrations that will come into play. That sadly is one aspect of Argentina’s game that they continue to struggle with and opposition teams know it and will use it to their advantage.

Once England recovered from Elliot Daly’s sending off they rallied well as a fourteen man unit and 14 English players heroically held off an aggressive Pumas assault throughout the middle forty minutes of the game. There were defensive lapses by England during that period but let’s face it, they were up against it with just fourteen men, and the way the bench, as we predicted it would, took charge in the last quarter enabled England to pull away comfortably as Argentina simply ran out of ideas and inspiration. For Argentina this sadly has been the benchmark of their season. The Pumas discipline and ability to last a full eighty minutes at the intensity which we know they are capable of continues to be their Achilles Heel.

For England it was a positive result under very difficult circumstances and one in which they learnt a great deal about themselves as a team. For Argentina they need to reflect on probably their most challenging and at times rewarding year yet in International Rugby as they look back on the learning curve of a Super Rugby campaign, and a disappointing but highly competitive Rugby Championship. England will use this match to really understand how to dig deep under pressure in their final assignment of the year against a Wallaby side with a bone to pick on Saturday.

Wales vs South Africa
Final Score – Wales 27/South Africa 13
Cardiff

With the exception of Welsh flanker Justin Tipuric, we didn’t find much to get excited about in this Welsh win in a contest that would appear to have sounded the death knell for Springbok rugby as we have known it. We sadly have witnessed the demise of Springbok rugby that has been building all year and as a result to a certain degree takes some of the shine of an otherwise emphatic Welsh victory. South Africa have been beaten by Italy this month, a side who then lost to Tonga last weekend, which gives us a sense of perspective of the lows to which Springbok rugby has fallen. It was an exceptionally poor performance by South Africa and if anything highlighted a year which both supporters and players alike simply wanted to end.

In their defence Wales took full advantage of a disorganised and demoralised Springbok unit, but despite this rarely looked like a side with a clear sense of what they were trying to do or any overall sense of cohesion. There is no denying that players like flanker Sam Warburton and the extraordinary lock Alun-Wyn Jones add a presence and solidity to this Welsh side that would be the envy of most teams, with Jones himself being a complete force of nature in attack and defence. Justin Tipuric continues to be a revelation and for us should be in Wales’ starting lineup for every match. It’s in the backs and at half back where Wales has talent but seems to lack confidence and the ability to execute play as a unit as opposed to isolated brilliance by individual players on a one-off basis. If Wales can’t tighten this up by the Six Nations, February and March could be two very long months with them duking it out for the wooden spoon with Italy, as France, England, Ireland and Scotland all looks streets ahead in this aspect of their game management.

For South Africa, it is simply a question of making the long trek home and reflecting on probably the most painful year in the history of Springbok rugby. Politics and a farcical coaching structure have destroyed the legacy of a once proud rugby nation this year.  The warning signs have been there for all to see in the last two years but sadly this year has seen it all come to a messy head. There is no question that South Africa still boasts talent in abundance, but without a clear sense of where the game is trying to go and how to get there it is unlikely that things are going to get better soon. Politics need to be kept out of sport at the best of times and South Africa is a glaring example. There are likely to be endless indabas and meaningless strategy sessions over the next few months that are likely to do less to fix the problems the sport is facing and more to pamper the egos and sense of entitlement of politicians and administrators. In the meantime, the continued exodus of South African talent to Europe and elsewhere will continue apace leaving South Africa with more questions than answers.

Ireland vs Australia
Final Score – Ireland 27/Australia 24
Dublin

One word comes to mind when reviewing this match, and it’s depth.  Ireland leading up to and during the course of the match faced an injury crisis of epic proportions but somehow managed to put in a performance that showed just how much grit and character this side now possesses. In the last quarter of the match, players were covering all manner of positions they were not used to and yet still managed to hold their nerve and eke out an impressive win. There is no doubt that Australia’s discipline cost them dearly in this match, coupled with a failure to adequately contain Ireland’s rampaging attacks in the first half. However, the Wallaby outfit that came storming out of the blocks in the second half was a very different beast and look set to put Ireland in their place in no uncertain terms. As wave after wave of gold shirts assaulted the Irish lines, and the medical staff starting collecting overtime pay, an all too familiar scenario in Irish rugby looked set to repeat itself. However, it didn’t and to Ireland’s credit they not only held firm as players adapted to playing out of position, they then went on to score the match winning try and then hold firm in defence for the final minutes to snatch a remarkable win.

Ireland’s crop of new young players have been outstanding this month and the future looks bright for Ireland’s build up to the World Cup in 2019 and next year’s Six Nations, especially as it was the first Test season for many of these players.

For Australia, they showed enormous skill and pace in the second half, but their shambolic first half and disciplinary breakdowns throughout the match ultimately tipped the balance against them.  Discipline has been a recurring nightmare for them this year, as has execution at times especially in the set pieces, and under the kind of pressure Ireland were able to exert these problems continued apace. However, on a positive note the attacking prowess that Australia displayed at times last weekend in Dublin was breathtaking, and unlike earlier in the year this aspect of their game is really starting to show some much-needed finesse. Australia received a setback last weekend in Dublin but the overall improvement is clearly there for all to see. The Wallabies will be more than up to the task of making an emphatic statement against England this Saturday, it just remains to be seen after a long hard and often traumatic year, how much gas is still left in the Wallaby tank against a determined and confident England.

France vs New Zealand
Final Score – France 19/New Zealand 24
Paris

We have to be honest and say we were not expecting this result at all. We thought France would be competitive, but were not prepared for the return of French flair that was on display at times in Paris on Saturday night. The All Blacks are still the best team in the world, especially at weathering unexpected storms and adapting accordingly, but make no mistake the French are back on the world stage in no uncertain terms. With England and Ireland looking strong, and Scotland an increasingly potent dark horse, the 2017 edition of the Six Nations looks to be a cracker of tournament compared to the rather soulless 2016 edition.

As this match wore on, this was a French side of old and the term French flair is once more not just something that misty-eyed old men playing boules in the South of France refer to. Although France displayed a slightly suicidal tendency to offload at any costs, the end result being the match winning intercept try by Beauden Barrett, we were thrilled by the intent and willingness of France to attack and keep the ball moving. It was a fitting end to a glorious weekend of attacking rugby and France are clearly benefitting from Coach Guy Noves work at rebranding French rugby and behind the scenes work with the often factitious domestic structure. For us Baptiste Serin at scrum half was extraordinary and flankers Kevin Gourdon Charles Ollivon provided some extraordinary forward firepower especially in the loose and defensively. Meanwhile centre Wesley Fofana and winger Virimi Vakatawa continue the form that is really starting to light up pitches for France.

There is no question that New Zealand looked tired at times in this match and not at their best.  However, therein lies the problem for everyone else, even when not at their best they just have enough to clinch tough matches like this one. And then there’s that man fly half Beauden Barrett who also appears to be pretty handy at fullback.  While some have criticised his goalkicking, we personally have found it pretty accurate most times, does that really matter when you have such a complete package as Barrett provides? For us he is such an X-factor that we feel fairly confident that in a year or two even the great Dan Carter may be living in his shadow. New Zealand have shown us this year that despite adversity they can still put it all together when it matters most and do it week in week out. They may slip up occasionally as in Chicago, and there is no doubt that the gap between them the and the rest of the world is starting to close rapidly, but they still are the benchmark and likely to remain so until the next World Cup.

Endnote

If you missed last weekend’s fun and games here’s a solid wrap up of the thrills and spills provided by The Tight Five from YouTube including some excellent action from some of the women’s’ games played last week.

There was plenty of drama last weekend and this Saturday’s proceedings look set to provide more of the same, especially as the stakes for England and Australia are now mounting rapidly as they approach their own showdown next weekend.  England look set to end the year on an unprecedented 13 game winning streak and the kind of perfect season that in recent years has only been achieved by New Zealand in 2013 as they go up against an unpredictable and very physical Pumas side. Australia meanwhile have risen spectacularly from the ashes of their series defeat to England earlier this year and despite struggling against traditional rivals New Zealand, showed significant promise of better things to come in the Rugby Championship. This end of year tour by Australia takes in the Northern Hemisphere’s big five, and while the results have been close with the exception of the match against Wales, Australia are once more a side to be reckoned with. Ireland as expected came short a second time around against New Zealand last weekend, but will be keen to prove that they are likely to be the team duking it out with England for Six Nations honors next February as a crop of young talent really starts to hit their paces.

In Cardiff it will be an intriguing match between two sides in crisis.  Wales are clearly not short on talent but seem to lack a sense of identity as to what sort of game they want to play.  South Africa meanwhile finds itself in a state of free fall this year, and the match against Wales is a last-ditch effort to try to restore some credibility to the Springbok jersey that has lost much if not all of its aura in the last twelve months. In Paris, New Zealand look to prove that their one upset this year against Ireland in Chicago was simply that – a one-off departure from a run of incredible form.  France meanwhile showed plenty of signs of French teams of old last weekend against Australia and while it is still early days there is clearly a new dawn taking place in French rugby under Coach Guy Noves.

England vs Argentina
Saturday, November 26th
Twickenham

Argentina may be feeling the effects of a gruelling year of travel as this current squad is essentially Argentina’s Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares, as well as the side that played the Rugby Championship, but as their last hurrah of 2016 expect nothing less than 100% commitment from a powerful and highly motivated Pumas side keen to make a statement. As a result they will provide England with plenty of quality opposition as the Men in White seek to close out a perfect season this year. Despite this though we just can’t see the Pumas getting past an English side that has been one of the talking points of 2016 for all the right reasons in front of a highly vocal Twickenham crowd.

Argentina are renowned for a highly physical presence up front and Saturday’s lineup will be no exception, but then so will England’s offering. England’s forward dominance this year has been well documented and Saturday’s match sees the welcome return of one of the key signposts of this dominance for the future in the shape of lock George Kruis. The front rows should provide an epic tussle, as Argentina’s front three of Captain Agustin Creevy, Ramiro Hererra and Lucas Noguera are quality opposition from start to finish.  However, they have struggled to assert Argentina’s traditional dominance in this area, especially on this tour.  England’s front three of Dan Cole, Captain Dylan Hartley and Mako Vunipola however have looked the more structured and disciplined unit this year and as a result should negate any influence the Pumas may be able to exert here. In the second rows, once again it should all swing England’s way in the shape of the vastly experienced Courtney Lawes who was immense against South Africa and the exceptional newcomer George Kruis, who alongside Maro Itoje has been a revelation for England this year. Argentina boasts some real talent here especially in the shape of Guido Petti, but it lacks the experience and sheer firepower of the English duo. The back rows are slightly more equal in terms of experience and capability, however once again we feel the English offering is just that much more settled.  Furthermore once you add in the force of nature that is English number eight Billy Vunipola, England should win the day here once more.  However, having said that provided he can keep his discipline Argentinian number eight Leonardo Senatore is renowned for his unpredictability and ability to read the game. Meanwhile, flanker Pablo Matera is an exceptionally hard man to stop.  Nevertheless the experienced English duo of Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood should still be able to negate the Pumas strike threat here.

It’s however the halfback partnership of England’s Ben Youngs and George Ford which should prove so devastating in terms of really developing and orchestrating England’s attack on Saturday.  Youngs and Ford allied to Owen Farrell at centre have been the strike axis that so much of England’s success has been built on this year. If Argentina fail to contain or outhink this unit then they are in for a long afternoon at the coal face. Argentina have chosen to start Juan Martin Hernandez at fly half as opposed to his usual centre berth, but the “Magician” is equally at home in both positions and has an uncanny ability to read the ebb and flow of games to his teams advantage.  Tomas Cubelli gets the nod as starting scrum half as opposed to Martin Landajo and it will be interesting to see what unfolds as a result of his partnership with Hernandez.  Nevertheless it is England’s tried and trusted unit that should comfortably win the day here.

It’s in the backs where England should really start to rack up the big points needed to make the required statement needed heading into next weekend’s season finale with Australia. Argentina’s offerings here are quality through and through but have somehow failed to really produce the excitement that was so evident at times in last year’s World Cup and during the Rugby Championship.  England meanwhile are on fire in this department. Jonny May has made a spectacular return to the England jersey on the wing and expect more of the same on Saturday. The centre pairing of the exceptional Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph needs little if any introduction, with Joseph showing some real sparkle against Fiji last weekend. We really like what we have seen from winger Elliot Daly this month and are looking forward to his contest with the powerful Pumas winger Matias Orlando. We feel that overall England has the much more composed units at centre and on the wings, it’s only at fullback where the contest levels out a bit more.  English fullback Mike Brown is a complete handful and impressed all year but under the high balls we’d actually hand the advantage to Argentina’s Joaquín Tuculet, with the Puma being much harder to read and dangerous in open play.

The Pumas may be tired but this should still be a fascinating contest, and both sides are packing useful benches though once again we give England the advantage here as the experience they have waiting on the sidelines should give them the clear edge. Argentina should be in this match for a full sixty minutes, but as we have seen all year, the last twenty will just prove too much allowing England to run away with it comfortably by 21 points!

Ireland vs Australia
Saturday, November 26th
Dublin

After a hard-fought match last week in which Ireland attempted the unthinkable, back to back wins over the All Blacks, they look to end their season on a high by claiming a third Southern Hemisphere scalp in the shape of Australia. Australia meanwhile are on a roll as they head into game four of a Northern Hemisphere hat trick so far, and they will be keen to prove that the horror show of the beginning of their season is well and truly behind them. They will look to build on the foundations necessary to take them all the way to Grand Slam glory next weekend against England and as a result expect this contest to be just as intense as the fireworks last weekend in Dublin.

Much has been written about the match last weekend, though we were saddened to see it degenerate into some rather unsavoury swipes at New Zealand and accusations of “dirty play”. In short as far as we were concerned it was an intensely physical and hard-fought game between two quality sides. As a result there were always going to be some marginal calls in the heat of battle.  In fairness New Zealand’s Malakai Fekitoa got his just deserts, but Ireland were lucky that Johnny Sexton didn’t see yellow on his tackle on Beauden Barrett which in our opinion negated the unfortunate incident between Sam Cane and Robbie Henshaw. At the end of the day, both teams played out of their skins but New Zealand were simply more effective at turning their scoring opportunities into points on the board than Ireland were and as a result were the better team on the day.  As the Irish players themselves have stated in no uncertain terms once the dust had settled after the match, enough said and time to move on and use this weekend to make a clear statement as to where Irish rugby is really headed.

Expect no less intensity in terms of the physical battles up front this weekend and Ireland are once more packing an exceptional front row in terms of the trio of  Tadhg Furlong, Captain Rory Best and Jack McGrath.  McGrath and Furlong have been outstanding for Ireland this month and we give them the clear edge over the Australian offering of Sekope Kepu, Captain Stephen Moore and Scott Sio. The Irish unit just appears tighter and more disciplined than their Australian counterparts, even though the Australian front row has improved dramatically this year. Consequently we expect to see Ireland establish greater dominance in the scrums. In the second rows, once again it should be Ireland’s day.  Irish lock Devin Toner has played some of his best rugby this year and his tackle count has been off the charts, while Ian Henderson makes a long overdue return to an Irish jersey. Australia has struggled at lineout time this year, and things only really started to improve as newcomer Adam Coleman gained his feet.  With Coleman out to injury, Australia still continue to experiment with Rob Simmons and Rory Arnold in the second row, though we like the look of the latter we still hand Ireland the edge here. In the back rows it is going to be a battle royale between Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander and Australia’s Dean Mumm and Michael Hooper.  For us the jury is still out on Australia’s Dean Mumm especially as he normally plays as a second row and as a result we hand Ireland the keys here, especially as we just cannot understand the exclusion by Australia of Scott Fardy who put in such a big performance against France. Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip and David Pocock should be another epic contest at number eight. As good as Pocock is, as we have said all along Heaslip becomes a different player whenever he pulls on an Irish jersey and has played a huge part in Ireland’s key moments this month. Containing Pocock who was so destructive against France last weekend will be a major challenge but the Irishman is such a talisman for the rest of his team especially on home soil that we give Ireland the nod here by the slimmest of margins.

In the halfbacks it’s going to be all about scrum half Conor Murray who has been outstanding for Ireland and fly half Paddy Jackson really finding some of the form he showed on the South African tour. However, we can’t help feeling that Australia has the edge here in the shape of Bernard Foley and Will Genia.  Foley has been the real deal for Australia all year, even when playing out of position at centre earlier in the year. Will Genia at scrum half has shown all the gloss and finesse of his glory days in a Wallaby jersey this year. As a result this is an enormous strike threat for Australia and Ireland’s Conor Murray is going to have to put in the biggest performance of his season so far to compensate for any lack of experience by his half back partner Jackson to keep the Australian unit in check. Given it’s such a tall order and especially if Ireland lose Murray to injury in the course of the match we’re handing this one to Australia.

In the backs we find it hard to call.  Australia for us really only has one weak link, and even that’s marginal, in the shape of winger Henry Speight. However, we think that weakness is balanced out by Ireland’s selection of temperamental winger Keith Earls who on his day can be brilliant but just as easily become a liability in terms of discipline. However, Ireland’s Andrew Trimble has been superb on defence on the wings and we are looking forward to seeing the centre partnership of Jared Payne and exceptional newcomer Gary Ringrose in action. Having said that though we think that Australia’s centre unit of Reece Hodge and Tevita Kuridrani has danger written all over it and is likely to get the better of the experimental Irish duo, just look at that try by Kuridrani against France last weekend if you have any doubts. Australian winger Dane Haylett-Petty has also been a revelation for Australia and is going to test Ireland’s Keith Earls to the fullest. We have been heartened to see Rob Kearney return to some stellar form this month, and expect an even battle between him and Australia’s Israel Folau as these two masters of the high ball go head to head.  Overall though we can’t help feeling that in the battle of the backs the more proven Australian unit may just have the edge tomorrow.

When it comes to the benches if the scores are close on the hour and Ireland has really established some dominance up front, it is here that we expect to see Ireland just nudge ahead of Australia at the death. The Irish bench just has too much talent when you start listing names like Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and exceptional newcomers Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier and Joey Carbery and the ever-present X-factor of Simon Zebo. Australia in our view just doesn’t have the same kind of proven firepower waiting in the wings.  Nick Phipps and Quade Cooper can be exceptional on their day but can also be nightmares when it comes to decision-making and discipline when put under pressure which the last quarter is likely to provide plenty of.

In short this game is going to be won or lost in the last fifteen minutes and given that we expect Ireland to establish a solid forward dominance early on, provided they have contained Australia’s back line and prevented them making the big points up to the last quarter, then the battle of the benches should just hand Ireland a close fought victory by four points!

Wales vs South Africa
Saturday, November 26th
Cardiff

Two sides with points aplenty to prove go head to head in Cardiff on Saturday. Wales seem to be lacking the confidence to develop a game plan that suits the abundant talent they have in their ranks.  Meanwhile South Africa lurches from one catastrophe to another as sides are cobbled together with little structure and a complete lack of any sort of game plan that utilises key players who have shone at Super Rugby level but failed to make the transition to Test Rugby.  You can’t help feeling that in front of a home crowd Wales despite their problems will have the clear advantage over a confused and demoralised South African team.

Simply put we just don’t know what to expect from
Wales, and even though we could say the same about South Africa there are still some givens which we should be able to bank on. The front row battle should still favour South Africa as the combination of  Lourens Adriaanse‚ Captain Adriaan Strauss and Tendai Mtawarira is still a proven unit and should get the better of the Welsh offering which has struggled all month. However, there the South African advantage starts to diminish rapidly. In the second rows Wales’ Alun-Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris should in front of a vocal home crowd dominate South Africa’s Lood de Jaeger and Pieter-Steph du Toit who seem to be seriously short on confidence despite their obvious talents. In the back row the experimental South African combination of Uzair Cassiem and Nizaam Carr is unlikely to be any sort of match for Wales vastly experienced and seemingly indestructible Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate. At number eight South Africa’s Warren Whiteley is always worth watching but Welshman Ross Moriarty’s immense power and physicality should see Wales win the battles in the loose.

The Welsh half back partnership of Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies should get the better of South Africa’s Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies. The South African duo have struggled to replicate the form at Test level that made them such a devastatingly effective unit in Super Rugby. Although Biggar and Davies have lacked some of the sparkle they displayed during last year’s World Cup they are still more of a proven and reliable unit at this level than South Africa’s pair.

In the backs, despite possessing some world-class talent South Africa have just failed to light up pitches this year. With the exception of fullback Johan Goosen and winger Ruan Combrinck, the South African offering is completely experimental. The centre partnership of Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Francois Venter holds much promise but is woefully short on experience at this level compared to the Welsh duo of Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies especially if the Welshmen get quality ball. We are really looking forward to seeing van Rensburg finally get his Springbok debut as his omission from the Springboks this year up to now has been something that has caused us to tear our hair out along with most Springbok supporters we know.  The Springbok debutant is exceptionally creative and almost impossible to bring down once he has built up a head of steam. On the wings we have little if any idea of what to expect from South Africa except for Ruan Combrinck and once again it should be all about Wales in the shape of George North and Liam Williams with the latter being one of the few players who has really stood out for Wales this month. The only area where we possibly feel that South Africa might have the edge is at fullback. Wales Leigh Halfpenny has not been at his best, and despite some basic errors at times Johan Goosen has had a good month in the Springbok jersey.  Close call between these two but unless Halfpenny really finds some form in this match we fancy South Africa having the slightly better day here.

Both teams pack some talent on the bench but the Welsh presence of Taulupe Faletau means that Wales is packing the bigger threat. In short in front of a home crowd the pressure will be even greater on Wales than a South African team which would seem to just want to get one of the worst years in their history over and done with and move on. South Africa will play with heart at times and seek to try to avoid a complete humiliation but Wales are just too fired up for this one and need to make a statement in order to make sense of a year that has raised more questions than answers. Consequently we are giving this to Wales by 6 points in a match that hopefully doesn’t degenerate into a tedious slugfest if the need for a win by both sides means that caution becomes the order of the day!

France vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 26th
Paris

There is always an element of anticipation in matches between these two sides even if the question of what kind of French side we’ll get on the day tends to have been answered with negatives in the last four years. However, as we saw last weekend against Australia there were more than just a few glimmers of French teams of old. Life under new French Coach Guy Noves seems to have started positively so far. New Zealand meanwhile seem to have bounced back in no uncertain terms from their upset to Ireland in Chicago at the beginning of the month, and despite France having a history of being a problem side for New Zealand they should be feeling confident about finishing their year on a high after a gruelling but ultimately successful rematch with Ireland the week before.

It’s the sheer overall experience of the New Zealand forward pack that should dictate that possession remains firmly in favor of New Zealand for the full eighty minutes. Consequently France will really need to capitalise on what few opportunities they get with ball in hand. The return to the second row of All Black locks Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick showed just how valuable these two are and how greatly their absence was felt in Chicago.  France’s front row is looking better than it has in the past but the All Black trio is just about the best in the business especially when you add the extraordinary talents of Hooker Dane Coles. In the back rows there should be a few more sparks but once again Kieran Reid and Jerome Kaino just have too much experience to allow France to really get the better of them, even though French number eight Louis Picamoles is going to be a constant headache for the All Blacks.

France has some promising options in the halfbacks and we liked what we saw from scrum half Maxime Machenaud last weekend.  However, the All Black pairing of Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara is almost without equal.  Barrett provides so much pace and unpredictability on attack he is going to be too much for France to handle allied to Perenara’s speed off the ball in the breakdowns.

France’s centre Wesley Fofana and winger Virimi Vakatawa were electric last weekend against Australia and expect fireworks aplenty from these two tomorrow.  However, the All Black back line and centre setup of Israel Dagg, Waisake Naholo, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty and Julian Savea is just such a powerhouse that despite the resurgence of French flair in attack we saw last weekend, France will simply have so much of their attention focused on containing these five Men in Black we doubt they will get much opportunity of their own to shine.

With the All Black wrecking ball of Ardie Savea waiting on the bench, we just can’t see it going any other way than hands down to New Zealand.  We still hope for an epic contest from these two great rivals of the running game, but New Zealand to carry the day by 15 points!

Endnote

Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of last weekend’s action, including the Wales/Japan, England/Fiji, Italy/South Africa, Scotland/Argentina, Ireland/New Zealand and France/Australia Tests as well as some clips from the Harlequins/Maori All Blacks and USA/Tonga. Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!

There is no question that all eyes will be on Dublin this Saturday as no matter who they support, rugby fans around the world will be tuning into what promises to be the clash of the year as New Zealand attempt to redress the upset of their defeat to Ireland in Chicago.  Ireland buoyed by their historic victory and in front of an expectant home crowd will look to make it two for two as they seek to prove that the historic victory two weeks ago was not just a one-off. Meanwhile South Africa will desperately try to halt their descent in rugby oblivion as they take on an Italian side that despite being thrashed by the All Blacks last weekend must surely fancy their chances against a Springbok side in crisis. For us the weekend’s second most anticipated encounter will take place in Murrayfield as two of the most exciting teams in Test Rugby right now, Argentina and Scotland, do battle with everything to prove.  Lastly Australia will be keen to continue their winning ways as they take on a rapidly evolving France in Paris. In short – what a weekend!

Italy vs South Africa
Saturday, November 19th
Florence

The weekend’s action gets underway in Italy as the Azurri and Springboks go head to head with both sides desperate for a positive result.  The Springboks’ woes of late have been well documented and need little introduction.  After a disastrous Rugby Championship which saw them narrowly avoid the wooden spoon, their efforts against England last weekend hardly made them look a world-beating side.  Lacking any clear direction in terms of the game they are trying to play and crippled with inconsistent and baffling selection decisions South Africa is struggling to say the least. Meanwhile Italy are desperate to prove that under new Coach Conor O’Shea, Italy’s days of being camped firmly on the bottom rung of the Six Nations ladder are coming to an end.

We have to confess to not know as much about Italy’s squad in this tournament as we do South Africa’s.  Apart from Italy’s Lorenzo Cittadini as the loosehead prop, Italy’s front row is a relatively unknown commodity and is likely to struggle up against the experienced Springbok front three of Vincent Koch, Adriaan Strauss and Tendai Mtawarira.  If Italy can be remotely competitive here then Coach Conor O’Shea will feel a sense of achievement, but it should be all about South Africa in this department. Although not an even contest by any stretch of the imagination the playing field should level out a bit in the second rows, as Italy is fielding some solid talent.  Marco Fuser has looked good for the Azurri and South African import Dries van Schalkwyk is an exciting prospect.  However, they are up against the formidable duo of Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit, and with du Toit returned to his normal position expect the South African duo to shore up a solid Springbok scrum and dominate the lineouts at Italy’s expense. In the back rows though we tip our hats in favor of Italy.  Francesco Minto and Simone Favaro are two of Italy’s best players and expect plenty of grit and fireworks from these two and they should get the better of South Africa’s Willem Alberts and Nizaam Carr at the breakdowns and in the loose. Lastly at number eight a fascinating contest awaits between Italy’s most famous warhorse in the shape of the incomparable Sergio Parisse and South Africa’s Warren Whiteley. Both are inspirational players for their teams but we are just giving the nod to Whiteley as he has been one of the few Springbok players who has consistently stood out this year for South Africa when their backs have been against the wall.

In the half backs South Africa should have the edge, especially once Faf de Klerk comes off the bench for starting scrum half Rudy Paige. While Paige is distinctly average in our opinion, de Klerk lends some real intensity to the Springbok platform, and alongside his Lions teammate fly half Elton Jantjies who is also on the bench, these two will be seeking to make a clear statement that they are the way forward in terms of a future Springbok half back partnership.  Pat Lambie should be much more assured than he was against England, and as result there is simply too much experience and proven ability here for Italy to really be able to provide much of a challenge. Italy does have two promising fly halves in the shape of Carlo Canna and Tommaso Allan, but it is probably going to be too much of an ask for them to really stamp the kind of authority on the game that Italy will need here.

In the backs, Italy does boast the outstanding winger Giovanbattista Venditti who was one of the few players who lit up the pitch for Italy in an otherwise dismal Six Nations. However, up against South Africa’s Bryan Habana, Willie le Roux, Ruan Combrinck and the exciting youngster Francois Venter, Italy are going to have to produce some outstanding defence.  For us the only weak link in the South African backs is centre Damian de Allende, whose continuing selection by Coach Alastair Coetzee defies all logic.  Defensively weak and completely predictable in attack he offers nothing to the Springbok cause, and if Italy are to make inroads into the South African half they will do well to target de Allende to full effect, but this aspect of play should be all about South Africa.

Italy does have some promising reserves to call on from the bench, but once more South Africa is boasting a much more threatening set of replacements.  Overall, we feel that South Africa will continue to make mistakes and put in yet another unpolished but ultimately effective performance.  It should be a good physical battle but once the Springboks have figured out the Italian defences, expect their backs to make the difference in terms of dominance on the scoreboard.  Italy will fancy their chances and will seek to rattle an already nervous Springbok side but ultimately this match should finally give South African supporters something to smile about by 12 points!

Scotland vs Argentina
Saturday, November 19th
Edinburgh

Next up it is a match which we are looking forward to a great deal. Scotland and Argentina are playing some exceptionally exciting rugby at the moment and possess some of the most exciting attacking players in the global game.  Scotland centre Huw Jones was a complete revelation against Australia and was one of the talking points of the weekend,so expect more of the same from the youngster on Saturday. However, Argentina’s backs need little if any introduction and it will require Scotland to be at their defensive best to keep them in check even if they were relatively quiet against Wales last weekend. Surprisingly, Scotland have chosen to field a relatively young and inexperienced side against a more settled Pumas pack and the South Americans as a result will have an advantage here on Saturday. Nevertheless whichever way you cut it we expect a fast paced and fascinating encounter between these two.

Argentina’s front row is vastly experienced and a proven commodity. With talismanic Captain Hooker Agustin Creevy at the helm, they should get the better of their less experienced but no less feisty Scottish counterparts at scrum time.  Still Scotland’s trio look an exciting prospect for the future and will give as good as they get. Meanwhile in the second rows Scotland will be up against Argentina’s Guido Petti and Matias Alemanno who have been outstanding for Argentina this year, especially Petti.  However, Scotland’s Jonny Gray has been equally impressive so expect a tight contest here, but one that should just go the Pumas way if the Argentinian duo really fire. In the back rows it should once again be Argentina’s day as the trio of Pablo Matera, Javier Ortega Desio and the exceptional Facundo Isa are world-class. Once more with the exception of John Barclay at number eight Scotland has chosen to blood some new talent, but we feel that Argentina simply has too much firepower here.  In short, the forward battles should be all about Argentina albeit closely fought.

In the half backs though it is a level playing field and then some.  Scotland’s wise head of Greig Laidlaw combines with the youth and excitement of Finn Russell at fly half.  This is an excellent combination which can take on the world’s best. However, as we saw last week, under pressure Laidlaw’s boot is not as accurate as that of Argentina’s fly half Nicolas Sanchez when it comes to getting match winning points on the board. The Pumas scrum half Martin Landajo is a much more dynamic player than Laidlaw but his sense of adventurism at times can cause the Pumas attack to unravel compared to the more cautious but equally feisty Laidlaw. This contest could really go either way and is almost impossible to call, as both units are highly creative and unpredictable.  After the lessons of last week, and on home ground though we feel Scotland might just have the edge here by the very narrowest of margins.

However, once it comes to the back lines overall we feel Argentina has the advantage despite the phenomenal talents of Scottish centre Huw Jones and fullback Stuart Hogg. Let’s not forget winger Tommy Seymour who played such a big part in Scotland’s World Cup campaign last year and the impressive centre Alex Dunbar.  In short there are no slouches in Scotland’s offering here and we are looking forward to an exciting afternoon of running rugby.  Argentina though as a unit look the slightly more settled of the two in terms of time together and boast some real quality and experience in the shape of the “Magician” Juan Martin Hernandez at centre. Add to the mix the strike threat of winger Santiago Cordero, despite a relatively quiet year for the Pumas speedster, and the bruising form and pace of Matias Moroni on the opposite wing and Scotland will have to be at their defensive best on the fringes. Centre Matias Orlando looked good in the Rugby Championship and fullback Joaquin Tuculet is outstanding in defence and under the high ball.  In short, a tough nut for Scotland to crack here.  Given the time the Pumas backs have spent together this year we are giving them the nod over an equally talented set of Scottish players. However having said that we are hopefully going to be treated to an epic contest of running rugby.

With Argentina packing a bench boasting names like veterans Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Leonardo Senatore, we just feel that the game will ultimately swing in favor of Argentina at the death by five points but hopefully a high scoring fast flowing contest will be the end result from both sides!

Ireland vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 19th
Dublin

The game that is being billed as the game of the year, looks set to top the remarkable spectacle that took place in Chicago between these two teams a fortnight ago. If you want drama, tension and, barring the World Cup, the highest stakes imaginable then this is your ticket this weekend. We were fortunate to witness in person Ireland’s heroics in Chicago and have seriously contemplated getting a second mortgage to travel to Dublin for the rematch this Saturday – that is if we could even get a ticket. As a sold out Aviva stadium in Dublin awaits their heroes – the big question is can they do it twice in a row, which against the All Blacks is unprecedented in recent times by a Northern Hemisphere side. New Zealand arrive in Dublin less concerned with revenge and more about restoring the balance of power in World Rugby as they seek to establish once more in no uncertain terms why they are simply the world’s best team. It doesn’t get any bigger than this so strap yourselves in!

There is no question that New Zealand are putting together a much more complete team than the one that appeared in Chicago with the big talking point being the return to the second row of the powerhouse duo of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. The front rows though see little change and there is going to be an even contest here.  Irish prop Jack McGrath was immense in Chicago and we expect more of the same along with Tadhg Furlong providing some further exceptional stability to the Irish scrum.  However, it is the sheer X-factor of All Black hooker Dane Coles that we feel may well tip the balance in favor of New Zealand, even though under pressure his lineout throws have had a tendency to go awry this year but then so have Irish hooker Rory Best’s. A very tight contest awaits here with New Zealand probably having something extra in the tank. In the second rows Ireland’s Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan are simply not going to have the freedom and dominance they had in Chicago as All Black stalwarts Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick return for New Zealand.  The Kiwi duo are quite simply the best in the business and despite a spirited Irish challenge should rule the day. However, in the back row we are giving the contest to Ireland albeit by the narrowest of margins.  CJ Stander was a force of nature for Ireland in Chicago and we expect Saturday to be no different.  His back row partner Sean O’Brien looked superb against Canada and if back to his best, despite his lack of game time over the last year, he can be unstoppable.  If O’Brien brings his A game on Saturday then New Zealand could be in for a torrid time of it.  Lastly as inspirational a Captain and number eight as New Zealand’s Kieran Reid is we can’t help feeling that in front of a home crowd, Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip will be the player having the greater impact. As readers of this blog know, we are big fans of Heaslip whenever he pulls on the green jersey as a complete transformation comes over the man.  He turns from a solid but average player at Leinster into some sort of super hero in green. His quiet but inspirational influence on his teammates was there for all to see in Chicago and at home in Dublin it is likely to be off the charts.  New Zealand should win the forward battles with the exception of the back three and if Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has some master plan up his sleeve which is likely, the miracle that Ireland need could well come from the trio of Heaslip, O’Brien and Stander. However, it’s a big ask and until we see the game unfold for now we feel New Zealand hold the balance of power up front.

The half back contest looks set to be the stuff of legends as two of the best units in the world go head to head. New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett is peerless with the exception of his goalkicking which just hasn’t got the finesse of his Irish counterpart Irish fly half Johnny Sexton. Two of the world’s most gifted players in their positions should provide us with an enthralling contest, but it is Barrett’s remarkable X-factor especially with ball in hand that could well swing it for New Zealand. However, Sexton’s tactical brain and place kicking is second to none and if he and Coach Joe Schmidt have picked the New Zealand game apart in enough detail over the last two weeks, who knows how this will go. In the scrum half department though we think Ireland have the upper hand. New Zealand’s Aaron Smith is a truly remarkable player, but he was found lacking against Ireland’s Conor Murray in Chicago as was his replacement TJ Perenara. These three will be seeing a lot more of each other as Murray is being tipped for the scrum half position on the Lions tour of New Zealand next year. The big question mark here is that in terms of covering these positions New Zealand has the more rounded bench, with Ireland’s Kieran Marmion looking sharp but lacking this kind of Test experience. If the scores are close going into the final ten minutes and Sexton and Murray go off for Ireland we just can’t see the Irish replacements getting the better of their All Black counterparts.

The backs see some change for New Zealand while Ireland’s remain a carbon copy of that which ran out onto Soldier Field. Again an exceptionally close call here as there is little to choose between the sides. However, for us once more it is the sheer quality and chemistry between All Black fullback Ben Smith and winger Israel Dagg that could tip the scales in New Zealand’s favor. Otherwise in the centres we prefer the Irish offering of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw who clinched Ireland’s place in history a fortnight ago. On the wings Simon Zebo can provide some real magic as he did in Chicago for Ireland and Andrew Trimble proved effective in marginalizing the threat of New Zealand’s Julian Savea. However, it’s just that strike threat of Ben Smith and Israel Dagg that is likely to tip the scales in New Zealand’s favor as if these two fire the centre partnership of Malakai Fekitoa and Anton Lienert-Brown are more likely to come into their own. Once again it will come down to what Irish Coach Schmidt has dreamed up in terms of how to defend against the All Black threat while at the same time breaking the gain line, and as shown in Chicago he does have the tools to do it. However, until proven otherwise we think New Zealand is just going to edge this aspect of the game second time around.

Both teams are packing quality benches which should mean that if the game hangs in the balance going into the final ten minutes it should still end up being a photo finish. However, despite this we feel that New Zealand have some slightly more proven talent in the shape of Aaron Cruden and TJ Perenara as opposed to Ireland’s Paddy Jackson and Kieran Marmion. Consequently if Ireland haven’t pulled away with a significant lead with ten minutes to go, this is likely to be New Zealand’s day once more and the heartbreak of 2013 will be repeated. Despite wanting to see the Guinness run dry in Dublin on Saturday night because of Ireland cementing their place in the history books, sadly we feel that Ireland are not yet at the stage where they can defeat the best team in the world twice in a row. A truly epic contest awaits but one which New Zealand should just edge out by seven points!

France vs Australia
Saturday, November 19th
Paris

We can’t help feeling that Australia have seriously underestimated the challenge the French will pose them in Paris on Saturday.  This is a French side emerging quite nicely from the Philippe Saint-Andre wastelands under new Coach Guy Noves. Whether Australia are more focused on the four Home Union matches for the supposed “Grand Slam” is hard to say, but we get the feeling that this is going to be a banana skin for Australia. France has a solid forward pack and some blistering backs, something which despite eking out a narrow win against Scotland last weekend, Australia clearly still looked nervous about at times. Add to this the fact that the stellar Bernard Foley is being replaced at fly half by one of Australia’s biggest liabilities in the shape of Quade Cooper, and we have to confess to being just more than slightly confused about what Coach Michael Cheika is up to. France looked outstanding against Samoa last weekend, but Australia will be a much tougher proposition and this will be their first real test of where they are at as a team, since a Six Nations and brief tour to Argentina which left us with few clues.

We must confess to not having watched much French club rugby this year so our knowledge of what France is offering up on Saturday is a bit limited.  By the same token much of what Australia is putting forward is also of an experimental nature so it’s hard to tell how the two sides are going to match up. Up front we can’t help feeling that Australia could swing it in the shape of their back row and number eight combination.  We remain big fans of Australian flanker Scott Fardy and it is good to see him back in the Wallaby fold.  Linked to the impressive Sean McMahon at number eight and David Pocock alongside him Fardy and company should have the edge over their French counterparts in terms of swinging the forward battles Australia’s way.  Having said that we still expect to see some feisty challenges from France here and with the likes of number eight Louis Picamoles in the fray there are always going to be fireworks. Inspirational hooker and Captain Guilhelm Guirado is always worth his weight in gold and what little we’ve seen of flankers Kévin Gourdon and Charles Ollivon make them look like a very polished unit in the making.  However, as long as Australia can keep their discipline here they should win the day.

It’s in the half backs where France should start to get their nose out in front. We stick by our guns that Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper is just too much of a liability both in terms of discipline and decision-making, and in an encounter where Coach Michael Cheika is dealing with a lot of unknowns in what kind of side France will be bringing to the park on Saturday, we feel now is not the time to gamble with Cooper and would have gone with the much more reliable and capable Bernard Foley instead. At least Cooper will be supported by Will Genia at scrum half who is playing some of his best rugby in a long time.  We know little about French fly half Marc Doussain but plenty about scrum half Maxime Machenaud who we feel can add some real sparkle and intensity to France’s game play. With fly half Camille Lopez waiting on the bench we hand this contest to France.

With the exception of Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight, we must confess to knowing nothing about Australia’s offerings in the backs.  Centre Kuridrani has been outstanding on this tour but we have felt that winger Henry Speight has been distinctly average for Australia this month. However for France we know plenty about these two gentlemen; centre Wesley Fofana and winger Virimi Vakatawa.  These two spell danger in block capitals and Australia are going to have to be at their best in regards to keeping the ball out of the hands of these two French strike weapons. Perhaps the only question for France here centres around Vakatawa’s defensive abilities which are said to be suspect, but with ball in hand and at speed he is almost impossible to bring down. French fullback Scott Spedding possesses a gigantic boot as well as being difficult to bring down once he too has built up a head of steam.  Centre Rémi Lamerat looks an exciting prospect for France while winger Noa Nakaitaci has a turn of speed that can be impressive but often lacks the execution necessary to make the big plays as well as there being question marks around his abilities in defence.

It’s the benches that will make the difference in this match, with Australia reverting to the tried and trusted formats that have served them so well so far this month.  France however are also packing a quality bench that possesses plenty of power and pace, so once again an even contest awaits here.  If France click and unhinge this experimental Wallaby starting fifteen we feel that they will leave the experienced Australian bench with too much to do. Add to the mix the disciplinary liabilities presented by Will Skelton and Nick Phipps for Australia in the last quarter of the game, and we feel that France are going to surprise us all and upset the Wallaby apple cart by four points!

Last weekend saw plenty of excitement as a crop of thrilling encounters took place which gave us some insight into how the New World Order of rugby is starting to emerge now the dust is well and truly settled 12 months on from last year’s World Cup. New Zealand still look the complete package in terms of depth and sheer all round ability despite their upset to Ireland in Chicago at the beginning of the month. Australia finally seem to be showing the promise that has been talked about during a turbulent year of rebuilding. South Africa sadly seem to be slipping into oblivion as a result of a coaching and management crisis of epic proportions and Argentina continue to show lots of promise but still lack the killer instinct to close out big games.

Meanwhile in the Northern Hemisphere England’s complete transformation from World Cup disaster to one of the best in the world continues apace.  Ireland seem to be chasing hard at their heels as they appear to be developing some real depth, coached and nurtured by the exemplary Joe Schmidt. Scotland continue to dazzle but fall agonizingly short of the mark when it matters most and Wales remain solid and tough opposition but seem to lack the overall cohesiveness to make them world beaters.  Italy meanwhile languish in rugby’s no man’s land.  We didn’t get to see France play this weekend so will reserve our judgement on where they stand until we have seen them up against Australia this coming weekend.

So here are a few key observations we made once the final whistles had been blown on this weekend’s action.

Italy vs New Zealand
Final Score – Italy 10/New Zealand 68
Rome

The result here was never in doubt, we just hoped that in front of a capacity crowd of 70,000 Italy would put up a bit more of a fight in their first outing under new Coach Conor O’Shea and if nothing else there would be some positives to take forward as a new chapter in Italian rugby got underway.  Sadly it wasn’t to be. New Zealand were always going to be an exceptionally tough opening challenge especially after being derailed by Ireland a week earlier.  New Zealand clearly took the opportunity to give players who didn’t get a say in proceedings in Chicago a chance to strut their stuff and they didn’t disappoint, leaving Coach Steve Hansen with a formidable set of choices in how to assemble a “super” squad to face Ireland this weekend in Dublin.

Italy showed us very little of what they were capable of in this match.  There was little spark in attack, with Italy spending hardly any time whatsoever in the New Zealand half, coupled with a meaningless, unstructured and poorly executed kicking game.  Add to that a defence that was nonexistent and the scoreline which showed one-way New Zealand traffic was a fair reflection of proceedings and in terms of a rugby contest was for all intents and purposes a non-event.

For New Zealand the continuing development of a raft of talented players continued apace. Scrum half Tawera Kerr-Barlow looked impressive as did centre Anton Lienert-Brown, flanker Elliot Dixon, lock Scott Barrett, number eight Steven Luatua and winger Rieko Ioane.  The only newcomer we didn’t really see shine as he appears to struggle to adapt to life in an All Black jersey is fullback Damian McKenzie despite his superb Super Rugby season. Nevertheless there is no getting away from the fact that given the resources at their disposal New Zealand are still boasting the most depth and range of skills of any major Test Rugby side. They will be able to field an exceptional team for the encounter with Ireland in Dublin on Saturday and as a result can still claim the title of the most complete and capable team in World Rugby right now – no argument!

England vs South Africa
Final Score – England 37/South Africa 21
Twickenham

There is no question that England’s transformation in the space of eleven months under new Coach Eddie Jones has been nothing short of remarkable. However at the risk of offending English supporters around the world we still feel that a sense of perspective in how far England have really come in the last year is still lacking.  On the other hand the painful slide into chaos the Springboks have experienced since the World Cup is clearly there for all to see.

Don’t get us wrong we share the common consensus that England are an outstanding team and on their day could beat anyone.  However, one also needs to look at what their results of the last year have been built on in terms of the quality of the opposition they have faced.  Yes they won a Six Nations Grand Slam in a convincing fashion.  However, Coach Eddie Jones clearly stated there was a mountain of work still to get through, coupled with the fact that overall the Six Nations this year was a poor tournament as the Northern Hemisphere sides struggled with injuries and form after an exceptionally long season post the World Cup.  As a tournament it rarely impressed or caught the imagination.

Next up England won a convincing 3 Test series in Australia against a Wallaby side that was also struggling with injuries and clearly in the throes of its own initial rebuilding process. As a new look Australia’s first outing since the World Cup they looked distinctly poor and lacked a great deal in discipline, cohesion and execution.  It was still a remarkable achievement for England, themselves at the end of one of the longest seasons of competitive rugby the Northern Hemisphere sides have ever seen, and it would be disrespectful to take anything away from their efforts and three masterful performances. However, they were not up against the Wallaby side we have seen this month so far which is clearly a different animal and dramatically improved.

Lastly, their win over the Springboks this weekend was yet another clinical display of professionalism, however it has to be measured in its context.  The Springboks at the moment are truly dire, and it wouldn’t necessarily have taken the world’s best team to beat them – even Italy are being given decent odds against the Springboks next weekend. If anything England should have beaten the Boks by a bigger scoreline and in the post match interviews, their hard as nails taskmaster Coach Eddie Jones said as much.  For us the real test of where England are will come in their final Test this year against a dramatically improved Australia.  However, questions about how fit Australia will be at the end of a tough year which sees them play, for all intents and purposes a Six Nations campaign played over the mind-numbing space of five weeks as opposed to two months, are likely to cast doubt over the quality of any England victory.

Like we say we don’t mean to rain on England’s parade by any stretch of the imagination. They have been fantastic and thoroughly deserve the accolades they are getting.  In this match once they began to click after a shaky initial twenty minutes they started to look invincible.  The half back pairing of George Ford and Ben Youngs is back to its best. Number Eight Billy Vunipola continues to be a one man panzer division, while the England forward pack particularly the second row partnership of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes often made South Africa look irrelevant.  In the backs it is fantastic to see winger Johnny May back to his barnstorming best and Elliot Daly at centre alongside the outstanding Owen Farrell is a world-class partnership in the making.

However, England were as good as they were in large part because South Africa let them be.  South Africa chose to play lots of big men, but especially in the lineouts seemed unable to use them.  South Africa’s presence in the lineouts was a joke, especially in defensive set pieces.  Playing the exceptional lock Pieter-Steph du Toit out of position at flanker caused South Africa massive problems in defence.  It was for the most part a depressing afternoon for the Springboks despite a bright start in the opening twenty minutes.  They once more appeared bereft of ideas and a game plan and as usual opted to kick the ball away far too often to little if any effect.  They did manage two solid consolation tries and scrum half Faf de Klerk certainly seemed to inject some much-needed pace into the Springbok attack once he replaced the distinctly average and pedestrian Rudy Paige.  For us there were only three real players for the Springboks who stood up and were counted – number eight Warren Whiteley, Johan Goosen once he came on as fly half Pat Lambie’s replacement and Faf de Klerk.  Fullback Willie le Roux had moments of brilliance and for the most part gets full marks for effort but at times still looked vulnerable on defence as well as displaying a worrying tendency to kick poorly at crucial moments in the game, something which his English counterpart Mike Brown was all too eager to capitalise on.

So for England a great result but one which it would seem has left their taskmaster Coach Eddie Jones less than satisfied and with plenty of questions still unanswered. Meanwhile South Africa lick their wounds and seek to make some kind of statement out of desperation more than anything else against Italy next weekend.

Scotland vs Australia
Final Score – Scotland 22/Australia 23
Edinburgh

The cliffhanger that was the World Cup quarter-final between these two sides continued last weekend unabated as Australia did enough to close the door once more on a spirited Scottish side, in what we thought was the most exciting game of the weekend’s action.  There is no question that we find Scotland one of the most entertaining sides to watch in World Rugby right now and they play a brand of expansive, fast paced rugby equivalent to that of the Pumas – making next weekend’s encounter between the two sides a mouth-watering prospect.  However, like the Pumas despite all the fireworks, they seem to lack that killer instinct and skill set to close out close contests like this.  Although Australia and Scotland were evenly matched last Saturday, Australia were marginally more efficient and had the composure to see the job through to the end.  Despite yet another heartbreaking loss for Scotland there is still plenty to get excited about.  Meanwhile Australia showed a continued improvement in execution and discipline, as well as the development of a clear and potent attacking threat which had been conspicuously absent for much of the England series in June and during the Rugby Championship.  It’s still early days for Australia but the experimentation seems to be over and the results finally seem to be coming again.

For Scotland, one name dominated the headlines after Saturday.  Centre Huw Jones, who remarkably was playing his first Test for Scotland, put in a performance that made him look like a seasoned veteran.  Jones was outstanding from start to finish and adds even more fizz to an already pacy set of Scottish backs.  His two tries were superb and along with fullback Stuart Hogg, there is no question that the Scottish attack has a significant amount of X-factor.  However, in fairness to the rest of Jones’ teammates his two efforts were the work of some very solid overall execution by Scotland which once again highlighted how far this team has come in the last two years.  Able to mix it with the best in attack and on defense, Scotland is a daunting prospect for any opposition, especially at home.  Once again though in the heat of the moment there seems to be a slip in concentration for Scotland as emotions tend to take precedent over the clinical focus that is needed in the dying minutes of such tight matches as this one.  Others that really stood up for us in this match were fly half Finn Russell who has an excellent future ahead of him with Scotland, the lock partnership of the Gray brothers and flanker John Barclay.

Once again though Scotland are agonizingly close to being world beaters, but still lack that ability to close out big games such as this one.  Until this is fixed they will continue to entertain but languish in the lower ranks of the world’s top ten.  With a surprising change in coaching staff coming at the end of this season, we have to wonder if Scotland will be able to keep the momentum and positive work done by current Coach Vern Cotter going once his replacement Gregor Townsend takes over.  For Scotland’s sake and this talented group of players you have to hope that Townsend and his team will build on the solid foundations Cotter has built up in the last two years.

For Australia it was a tense 80 minutes but they were slightly more effective in keeping their focus and composure to close out a very tough match.  Australia’s discipline has improved dramatically in the last six months, with the exception of Will Skelton’s stupidity and resulting yellow card towards the end of the match.  The Wallabies scrums and lineouts have also shown a similar improvement in their accuracy and precision, though the loss of second rower Adam Coleman for the rest of the season is a huge blow. Meanwhile Australia’s attacking platform in the shape of half backs Bernard Foley and Will Genia coupled to the backs contingent of winger Dane Haylett-Petty, centre Reece Hodge and fullback Israel Folau has really come into its own, and is one of the best in Test Rugby at the moment.  To be honest we really didn’t think we’d be saying that about Australia six months ago, so all credit has to be given to Coach Michael Cheika for sticking to his guns.

Australia are really starting to show the results of their rebuilding process since the World Cup and we have to admit we are becoming increasingly impressed with the results.  There are still liabilities as far as we are concerned, particularly in terms of discipline and decision-making and yes we’re looking at you Will Skelton, Quade Cooper and Nick Phipps but overall this is starting to look a very promising and dangerous Wallaby side.  The loss of Adam Coleman to injury though is a huge blow.  His lock partnership with Rory Arnold was really starting to look promising and the two seemed to be developing a highly effective working relationship.  As Australia is forced to chop and change again in this department it will be interesting to see how well this aspect of their game holds up particularly in terms of scrum and lineout stability and accuracy. We can’t help feeling it’s going to take a bit of a step backwards as for us Coleman has been one of the finds of the year for Australia. Nevertheless, Australia look to be in a much healthier state than they were at the end of the series with England this summer, and if they can pull off five wins on this tour then expect many of their critics this year, us included, to be eating as much humble pie as we can get our hands on.

Wales vs Argentina
Final Score – Wales 24/Argentina 20
Cardiff

We have to be honest that as much as we were looking forward to this match we were left feeling disappointed.  It was an exciting match at times, but it never really quite sparked into life the way we thought it was going to.  Instead we were treated to a highly physical and at times brutal contest where Wales clearly had the edge, and the expansive open game we had hoped for never really materialised.  Yes there were some brilliant moments of attacking play by both sides, but ultimately there were far too many mistakes from both teams for it to be the spectacle it should have been.

Wales were the better team, but despite this they would constantly let Argentina back into the match which made for moments of tension as the game often hung in the balance.  However, Argentina never really looked like they were going to take charge of the game, instead tending to benefit from errors by Wales more than any clear attacking threat of their own.  The Welsh defence was much more effective than it had been against Australia and winger Liam Williams was a real revelation on attack.  However, that’s where the praised ended for Wales especially if hadn’t been for Williams Wales would have had very little if any attacking play.  As usual lock Alun-Wyn Jones and flanker Sam Warburton were immense in defence and centurion prop and Captain Gethin Jenkins ensured that the fabled Pumas scrum was kept in its place.

Argentina apart from the try by scrum half Martin Landajo, which was vintage Pumas, were never really allowed to open up and under immense pressure from Wales were forced into too many mistakes coupled to some poor decision-making.  Their much vaunted forward pack was kept at bay and one of this year’s players of the year, number eight Facundo Isa, had an exceptionally quiet game by his standards.  Argentina are going to have to notch it up a few gears if they want to remain competitive this weekend against a Scottish side still smarting from their one point loss to Australia. Scotland showed some outstanding defence and possess a group of attacking players that can rival any of the Pumas speedsters.

Wales got a much-needed win to bolster their spirits after the ramshackle effort put up against Australia, but they still look far from convincing as a unit.  With their two toughest tests of the month now out-of-the-way they really need to consolidate the positives from this match and find a complete performance from a match day 23 as they prepare to take on a crippled Springbok side as their last hurrah of the month.  Wales should be able to beat a Springbok side that is suffering from an even greater lack of cohesion and ideas than they are.  However, like South Africa, Wales still seem very unsure of exactly the type of game they want to play and as a result the Springbok match could go horribly sideways on them.  Wales should be so much better than they actually are, but how they get there still seems to be one of the great mysteries of International Rugby at the moment, even if the will and committment is there by the bucketload – watch any replay featuring Sam Warburton or Alun-Wyn Jones and you won’t doubt that for a second.  However, all the heroics and committment in the world don’t often win you the big games.  Ask Ireland that and until Chicago they’ll tell that if you don’t have a solid game plan in place to deal with every opponent then all the heart in the world rarely swings the balance on the day.

Ireland vs Canada
Final Score – Ireland 52/Canada 21
Dublin

We have to salute the Canadian boys for their never say die attitude in what was always going to be a tough encounter with only one result.  Canada played some exceptionally good rugby at times for the first sixty minutes and remained very much in the game until that point.  However, once again as we have seen consistently for the last four years, Canada lost their way dramatically in the last quarter as a rampant Ireland bristling with hungry new caps ran in an unanswered 31 points.  No matter how good Canada were in the first hour, and they were good, that kind of lapse of concentration and focus serves to highlight the glaring discrepancy between Canada as a Tier Two nation and a Tier One country like Ireland. As solid a performance as it was by Canada in the first sixty minutes, it is still hard to walk away from a game feeling optimistic about the future when they were essentially walked all over in the last quarter.

Despite this though Canada were worthy competitors and gave Ireland’s crop of new caps a stern test.  Irish Coach Joe Schmidt will have learnt a lot about his young charges and surely must be feeling more than a little excited about the depth of Irish rugby that was on display in Dublin on Saturday.  Furthermore, some of the veterans like flankers Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Hooker Sean Cronin and prop Cian Healy made a welcome return to form ahead of Ireland’s forthcoming clash with New Zealand next weekend.  Of the new players, as expected centre Gary Ringrose was outstanding and proved once more the depth of talent Ireland is developing at centre, while fullback Tiernan O’Halloran’s try highlighted just what a future star for Ireland this player is, especially in a position that Ireland has had limited options up till now.  Fly half Paddy Jackson made a welcome return to the form that he showed on the South African tour and Joey Carbery’s cameo appearance at fly half in the last quarter of the match proved that Ireland has one world-class fly half in Johnny Sexton and two more in the making in these two. Furthermore Ireland’s riches in the second row look set to continue as Ultan Dillane was Man of the Match and debutant Billy Holland had an outstanding first outing in the green shirt. Once the squad really started to gel and iron out the wrinkles in the second half, it became a complete and convincing Irish performance bristling with young talent.  Ireland can easily field a 35 man squad that can compete with the world’s best and the World Cup is still three years away.  With Coach Joe Schmidt at the reins till the end of the World Cup in Japan in 2019, Ireland looks in remarkably good health already, especially if they pull off the unthinkable next weekend and beat the All Blacks twice in a row.

For Canada, there were lots of positives in the first sixty minutes.  Winger DTH van der Merwe was once again the world-class player he is rightly recognised as.  His superb intercept try showed how dangerous he is along with his ability to pop up in strike positions all over the park.  We thought that Conor Braid had a superb game for Canada at fly half and is clearly the way forward in this position, an area the Canadians have been struggling with for a long time now. Flankers Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie continued to impress us, especially as this is their first year in the national team. For the rest of the team however, although they were rugged and gritty competitors no one really stood out for us. The backs apart from DTH were solid but rarely spectacular.  Scrum half Gordon McRorie had a good game and provided some reliable kicking options for Canada but we still felt he lacked the intensity and pace needed in this position especially when playing someone like Ireland who are becoming renown for their speed and intensity at the breakdowns. Canada’s scrums and lineouts were also distinctly average and we thought the usually impressive prop Djustice Sears-Druru was not quite up to his usual “bull in a China shop” standards, while lock Evan Olmstead is simply too much of a disciplinary liability for our liking.  We don’t want to detract from a brave and courageous performance by Canada in a very tough match.  As mentioned earlier there are lots of positives, especially in the shape of the flankers, DTH and Conor Braid, but there is also a lot of work for new Coach Mark Anscombe to get through before Canada take on a problem side for Canada like Romania next weekend.  If Canada can get two solid wins out of their next two games this month and really take the lessons learnt in a feisty performance against Ireland, there are plenty of reasons for Canada to feel optimistic about the future.

Endnote

Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of the weekend’s action, including the Wales/Argentina, England/South Africa, Italy/New Zealand, Scotland/Australia and Ireland/Canada Tests as well as some clips from France/Samoa, Munster/Maori All Blacks and Barbarians/Fiji. Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!