Posts Tagged ‘Scotland’

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

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

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

Scotland vs Argentina – Saturday, November 24th – Murrayfield

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

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

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

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

Argentina’s scrum is a mess – plain and simple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

England vs Australia – Saturday, November 24th – Twickenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheika’s selections once more have us scratching our head

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

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Justin Tipuric the new Sam Warburton?

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

Wales depth continues at half back

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

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnote

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

There is no doubt that this weekend’s fixture in Dublin is one of the most anticipated Tests of the year, and one which will tell us a lot about how close the number two side Ireland is to the world’s best New Zealand. Ireland know that should they lose, there can be no excuses and that they must continue to raise the bar in terms of both their depth and skill if they are genuine about their aspirations to lift the Webb Ellis trophy next year in Japan. If New Zealand come away the losers, they know that their position at the top of Rugby’s world order is still secure for the moment, but England, Ireland and South Africa will be snapping hard at their heels come the World Cup next year, by which time the gap between these four rugby superpowers is likely to be minimal at best. New Zealand will know that in order to hang onto their dominance of the global game, they will have to, as they have so often, reinvent how the game is played.

Before we get underway in Dublin on Saturday, South Africa travel to Edinburgh to take on a Scottish side that obliterated a spirited Fijian challenge last weekend. Scotland seemed to have managed the unthinkable and seem able to play a faster game than Fiji, who have been the traditional speed kings of Test Rugby up till now. Scotland also don’t seem short on the brawn factor either and should be able to match up to the fearsome physical challenge that South Africa will bring. The Springboks showed a resolve in the final five minutes against France last weekend that we have rarely seen from them on the road, and snatched the win. In Wellington earlier this year they hung on to a famous victory like men possessed, but in Paris last Saturday they knew what they had to do and calmly and efficiently set about doing it without panicking, despite the seconds clicking down on the clock.

After the dustup in Dublin, we end the day in Northern France, as Argentina travel to Lille to take on a French side reeling from the loss to South Africa at the death in Paris last weekend. Nevertheless, there were still plenty of things for France to feel positive about, but if they are to avoid the type of schooling Argentina provided Ireland with at times last weekend, then they will need to improve on that performance. Argentina may have lost to Ireland, but they made them work for it in no uncertain terms. It was only a continually creaking scrum that really let them down. It is likely to be a bruising encounter and one in which Argentina after their exploits in Dublin will fancy their chances, and if that back three from the Pumas get a sniff of space it could be a long afternoon for the French. As the last crack at a Southern Hemisphere side before the World Cup, France will know they need to make a statement on Saturday in Lille, especially as these two sides will be fighting it out in the same pool for a ticket to the knockout stages in next year’s global showdown.

In other November action, Italy taken on an Australian side reeling from one crisis to another, Wales do battle with Tonga and England get to regroup with Japan. Much like last week, while we recognise the importance of these matches, due to limited resources we sadly won’t be covering them, as well as Canada’s key World Cup Repechage tournament fixture with Germany this weekend in France.

So, here’s what got us talking about each of the three key fixtures this weekend.

Scotland vs South Africa  – Saturday, November 17th – Murrayfield

South Africa travel to Edinburgh knowing that their performance against England was just short of the mark to get the win, and while they got the job done in Paris, they left it till far too late to seal the deal. Scotland will give them no easy breaks, and given the blistering tempo at which Scotland likes to play the game these days South Africa know they are going to have their hands full, especially defensively. The only way for them to keep out of danger is to simply suffocate the ball and give Scotland’s speed merchants no room in which to operate. However, Scotland as evidenced last week can pack some physical punch of their own, and Saturday’s contest should provide plenty of entertainment across the park.

If Scotland’s forward pack can mix it with South Africa, then the keys to the match may have been found

Everyone knows what Scotland’s backs can do, but the question remains as to how effective their forward pack really is. Against arguably the most punishing set of forwards in the world, Scotland will have the ultimate litmus Test with South Africa. Scotland ultimately got pushed around by Wales up front in their November opener, and Fiji are not renown for their forward prowess. As a result, Saturday’s Test will reveal a great deal about Scotland’s stocks in this department.

Another chance for Scotland’s Sam Skinner to really shine

Skinner was one of the talking points of Scotland’s demolition of Fiji last weekend. The debutant was a lethal weapon for the Scots against the Fijians and if he can build on that performance up against a seemingly immoveable Springbok back row, then Scotland will feel well pleased. However, the 23-year-old will have to hold his own against the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen.

Pollard vs Russell – versatility meets unpredictability

After the England match, Pollard clearly got his groove back for South Africa in Paris and as the game progressed, he became increasingly confident, so much so that he slotted effortlessly into the centre channel in the last quarter of the match once Elton Jantjies took over at fly half. Finn Russell on the other hand, very rarely does the same thing twice on a rugby field making it impossible at times to read Scotland defensively. Russell’s risk taking is at times legendary, however, if the execution isn’t there then it makes Scotland highly vulnerable. Pollard is the more cautious but reliable of the two, and is less likely to try something he knows his colleagues have only a 50/50 chance of pulling off. A fascinating contest in store here between these two.

Embrose Papier’s big day for the Springboks

South Africa are once more denied the services of the exceptional Faf de Klerk at scrum half, and instead have to rely on the relatively untested merits of Embrose Papier. There is no question he packs a bit more fizz in his delivery than the slightly more pedestrian Ivan van Zyl. However, he has precious little game time at this level under his belt. South Africa know they need to develop depth in a position that will be crucial to their chances at next year’s World Cup. Papier’s slightly quicker reflexes and pace of delivery is likely to suit what should be a much faster flowing game than what South Africa experienced against England. If he performs well, then Coach Rassie Erasmus can put a big check mark against depth at scrum half on his to do list.

Another huge defensive test awaits South Africa out wide

The debate continues around whether or not South Africa still has a credible defense out wide. There will be no better test than Saturday as they attempt to contain Huw Jones up the middle, and Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour out wide, with Seymour having scored a hat trick against Fiji. There is also a gentleman by the name of Stuart Hogg at fullback for Scotland who makes a habit of shredding defences from all over the park. Much like Argentina’s back three, this group of Scotsmen are going to be coming at South Africa from all angles all afternoon, if South Africa’s forwards don’t manage to stifle Scotland’s creativity. Pass this test and Erasmus will know he’s made some genuine progress on defence.

Verdict

This is for us the hardest contest to call this weekend. If South Africa are able to continually frustrate Scotland by denying them quick ball, as well as letting their own two wingers go to work, then it should be South Africa’s day. However, Scotland play at such breakneck speed and with such panache at times, they could manage to cause enough confusion to prevent South Africa getting any kind of cohesion in their defensive structures. We saw what Scotland did to Australia last year, and South Africa are still only just emerging from the kind of wilderness that the Wallabies now find themselves utterly lost in. We can’t help but get the feeling that Scotland, in front of the Murrayfield faithful, are just that much more up for this one, despite the highly physical and daunting threat that a rapidly improving South Africa offers. If Faf de Klerk was in the lineup for South Africa we would be giving them the edge, but without him South Africa are faced with a few more unknowns than Scotland on Saturday. Just like in Paris a close and hard-fought match awaits, but one in which Scotland should just rule the day by two points!

Ireland vs New Zealand – Saturday, November 17th – Dublin

Yes, it’s finally here. While taking nothing away from the titanic struggle between England and New Zealand last weekend, this match is still the big ticket for the November Internationals this year. It’s the best of the North meeting the best of the South and as a result is without a doubt the Test of the Year. Whoever, wins or loses will not result in New Zealand falling from their lofty position at the top of the world rankings just yet, but it will tell us a great deal about whether or not New Zealand still remain in a league of their own.

While England managed to keep within one point of New Zealand last weekend, and consequently put the All Blacks under the sort of pressure they are only just becoming used to of late, it ultimately wasn’t enough to prevent New Zealand from calmly wrestling back control of the game and emerging shaken but confident victors. It’s that quality of being able to come from behind without ever really looking panicked, that has become so synonymous with their success. They’ve only looked genuinely rattled twice in the last 3 years – once in Chicago two years ago against Ireland and most recently in Wellington against the Springboks. They arrive in Dublin with a lethal looking side that will require Ireland to be at their very best.

Ireland meanwhile come into the match, at the height of an unparalleled wave of success. However, they meet New Zealand without two players who were key to that famous victory in Chicago two years ago – scrum half Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw. More to the point, Ireland know that they cannot use this as an excuse if they play poorly on Saturday and suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of New Zealand. If you want to compete with the very best in the world, especially in the endurance marathon that is the World Cup, you simply have to be able to weather the inevitable attrition of some of your key players. As many people who are familiar with our musings know, we regard the lack of game time for Ireland’s half back understudies to Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton as their one potential Achilles Heel in the buildup to next year’s World Cup. If Keiran Marmion, Luke McGrath and Joey Carberry acquit themselves well this Saturday against the World’s best, then Coach Joe Schmidt can feel he has found the last missing link in the development of an Irish World Cup squad.

Rory Best has to be his best

As we mentioned in our post action musings from last weekend, we felt that Rory Best was slightly off the mark last weekend. The veteran hooker continued to lead from the front, but his accuracy at lineout time continued to leave us with concerns. Furthermore, he just looked off the pace for much of the match. We all know what the great man can do, but Ireland need him to bring his A game on Saturday and then some. We also felt that in the final quarter, Peter O’Mahony lent a certain edge to the Captaincy that Ireland needed to get over a troublesome opponent in the shape of Argentina. New Zealand are likely to be just as unsettling and Best really needs to rise to the occasion both in terms of execution and leadership. Without a doubt the biggest game he will play between now and the World Cup.

The second row contest – one of the biggest on the park

Saturday will take us back to prehistoric times as giants will once more roam the land in the lineouts. Ireland’s James Ryan wasn’t in Chicago for that famous victory but he has become such an integral part of Ireland’s success in the blink of an eye that it is hard to believe he wasn’t. Meanwhile, Devin Toner will add another towering dimension to Ireland’s second row. Ireland will need it as they go up against the best second row pair on the planet in the shape of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Retallick singlehandedly turned the game to New Zealand’s advantage by taking complete control of the lineouts away from England last weekend. The communication between Rory Best and his jumpers has to be perfect on Saturday, if Ireland are to avoid what happened to England last weekend.

Dan Leavy could have made the number 7 jersey his once and for all – but now it is Josh van der Flier’s turn to steal the limelight

When we published this last night this was a burning question. However, on waking up this morning we learnt that Leavy is out at the last minute and in steps Josh van der Flier. Consequently this comment and its response below are irrelevant in the context of tomorrow’s match. Having said that though, if Van der Flier can also step up in place of both Leavy and O’Brien, then it will raise even more questions for Joe Schmidt as to which of these three is his regular starter for the number 7 berth between now and the World Cup. Given the quality of all three players, this is a dilemma that most Coaches would dearly love to have.

One of the sad sights of Ireland’s encounter last weekend with Argentina was Sean O’Brien once more leaving the field with injury. Still for Dan Leavy it was opportunity knocks. As gutted as we all are for O’Brien, there is no question that Leavy is far more than just an able replacement. He was a force of nature from the moment he came on against the Pumas, and seems to relish an intense physical contest while at the same time seeming impervious to fatigue. As we said earlier this week, the man appears to have no off switch, much like his second row colleague James Ryan. If Leavy puts in a massive shift against New Zealand on Saturday, then irrespective of O’Brien’s recovery time, Coach Joe Schmidt will find it increasingly difficult to not see him as a starter in his World Cup plans over the next twelve months.

Depth at nine – now’s the time!

Ireland may be without the services of talismanic scrum half Conor Murray on Saturday, but they couldn’t have a better opportunity to really see the calibre of their stocks in this position. Murray has been such an integral part of Ireland’s success since the last World Cup that Ireland find themselves unsure of how well they can cope without him. Consequently, despite the fact that Murray’s two understudies Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath now have to step out of the frying pan and into the fire, Ireland couldn’t ask for a better examination of how much they need to do to develop the needed depth in this part of the park between now and Japan next year. Marmion has proven himself under pressure in an Irish jersey, but Luke McGrath has simply never had to face this kind of test. If they pass with flying colors then much of Ireland will sleep better on Saturday night.

Ireland’s back three will face their biggest Test and we’re not talking about Jacob Stockdale’s try scoring ability

If we see one area that Ireland may really struggle with on Saturday – it’s here. Sure, we all want to see the maestro of the try line for Ireland, winger Jacob Stockdale, grab at least one five pointer. However, if Ireland are to survive on Saturday, they really need to keep New Zealand’s back three in check defensively. While Ireland are masters of possession, they have proven vulnerable to the counter attack, and in Rieko Ioane, but particularly Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie, New Zealand possess Test Rugby’s ultimate weapons. Ireland’s Rob Kearney may be one of the undisputed champions of the high ball, but will he, Stockdale and Earls be able to contain McKenzie’s bursts from deep? The diminutive All Black fullback has defenders clawing helplessly at thin air as he does his own rendition of “Riverdance” across the park. A huge Test awaits the Irish trio and if they manage to get through it, Ireland will breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Verdict

Ireland know they are up against it on Saturday, and that it is going to take a very special team effort to pull off what would still be considered an upset if they were to beat New Zealand. Even without Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw, it is a very good Irish team that is coached by one of the best, if not THE best, tactical brains in Test Rugby in the shape of Joe Schmidt. However, New Zealand haven’t been the number one team in the world for the last nine years by accident. There is no team more clinical or ruthless in its approach to the modern game. They may have had their odd wobble this year, but in our humble opinion, we’ve never felt they’ve looked all that vulnerable – occasionally rattled yes but not vulnerable. Ireland may have a game plan to put them under pressure and get them to make mistakes, but there is no team that makes better use of the twenty minutes at half time in the sheds. For their opponents the final forty minutes is a nerve-racking affair of hanging on for dear life as New Zealand figure out how to play them at their own game and turn it to their advantage. Consequently, for us, it may be down to the wire, but Ireland have more questions to answer than New Zealand does on Saturday. Therefore, despite a titanic struggle at times, the All Blacks should seal this by eight points in a final ten minutes in which Ireland learn a great deal about themselves and what they need to do before Japan! However, in order to create yet another piece of sporting history between these two great sides we hope Ireland prove us wrong.

France vs Argentina – Saturday, November 17th – Lille

In days gone by, France would have been seen as the side with all the flair and panache and Argentina the side to grind out a punishing and physical contest. How times have changed as the roles are now completely reversed. Argentina still possess a formidable pack of forwards, but their skill lies more in disruption and ball carrying than it does in bludgeoning an opposition into submission. Argentina’s backs are like French backs of old and fizz with excitement and creativity. France have become a big punishing side, with sufficient pace in some of their backs to make opposition sides pay for their mistakes. But if you’re looking for French flair on Saturday, there’s likely to be more on offer in the tango.

France will be licking their wounds after being robbed at the death by South Africa. Argentina meanwhile arrive in France, full of confidence knowing that they gave Ireland a serious workout last weekend in Dublin. Argentina really only have one documented weakness at the moment, their scrum, while this is a French team that is not nearly as coherent and familiar with each other as the Pumas. However, both teams find themselves in similar positions – teams that can and should be having more success than the results they have to show for their efforts this year. If both teams turn up full of intent and get the basics right, this should be a very worthwhile match from a spectator point of view.

We didn’t see much in the way of hope for Argentina’s scrum last weekend

We are really struggling to understand why this traditional strength for Argentina is proving so problematic of late. Sadly, we didn’t see much last weekend to convince us that a turnaround in Argentina’s scrum fortunes is on the cards any time soon. Hooker Agustin Creevy is world class, but his support seems to be creaking around him. Although France struggled at times here against South Africa, we still felt they were competitive, which sadly is not something we can say about Argentina at the moment. We hope that November provides Argentina with the insight they need to fix it, but for now it’s looking like multiple visits to the drawing board.

France are likely to battle in the second row

Although we felt he had a better game than we expected him to have, Yoann Maestri and Sebastien Vahaamahina often looked panicked and overwhelmed against South Africa. By comparison Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini and Matias Alemanno looked almost composed last weekend against Ireland, which is definitely not a quality we are used to associating with Lavanini. Lavanini’s discipline and maturity have improved leaps and bounds this year and along with Alemanno, Argentina have a devastatingly effective and mobile second row unit. France needed to be better here last weekend and this Saturday will demand more of the same.

France need three Arthur Iturrias

Don’t get us wrong, Louis Picamoles and Wenceslas Lauret had good games last weekend but Iturria kept grabbing the headlines. Every time France did something positive the flanker’s name seemed to pop up. He will be up against a genuine powerhouse Pumas back row, but expect this 24-year-old to cause Argentina plenty of headaches on Saturday.

Moyano vs Thomas – one of the best contests of the weekend

That both these individuals have plenty of pace and an ability to turn on a dime is an understatement of the highest order. The weather conditions in Lille on Saturday look to favor a running game, and these two wingers are extraordinary proponents of such a contest. Argentina’s Ramiro Moyano has been for us one of the most exciting players to watch this year in open play and some of his running lines have been truly breathtaking. France’s Teddy Thomas is of the same calibre, though we feel that Moyano is better defensively. Watching these two in action will be a thrilling prospect on Saturday, and the more dominant of the two will most likely be on the winning side. To add to France’s headaches, there is also an Argentinian who goes by the name of Bautista Delguy who has probably featured in a few of Frenchman Yoann Huget’s nightmares this week.

In with the old and in with the new – the battle at 15

The New World in the shape of Argentina’s Emiliano Boffelli meets the Old World on Saturday in the form of France’s Maxime Medard. The French veteran is playing some of the best rugby of an illustrious career while Boffelli is the rookie everyone keeps talking about. Both are huge threats in their own right, are but players with very different styles, particularly on the counterattack. However, we feel that the Argentinian is more likely to grab the headlines as he features as part of a back three that have now been playing together continuously at both club and Test level since February. Unless fatigue gets the better of them this is ultimately a highly seasoned Argentinian unit, even if France may be packing more in the experience department.

Verdict

France should win and will want to win. While the latter part of that statement is clearly stating the obvious, after the disappointment of last week it will be high on the list of their priorities. However, Argentina will also want to make a statement on this tour that they mean business at next year’s World Cup in one of their last major international outings before an abbreviated Rugby Championship next year. Two equally matched sides with plenty to prove should make for an even and entertaining match. However, because we were so impressed with how well Argentina coped with the second best side in the world last week, even if Ireland were misfiring, we think the Pumas might have the edge this weekend. Familiarity and a Coach who knows how to get results, make us lean toward Argentina as slight favourites in Lille on Saturday by four 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 look at the kinds of tactical discussions that might be going on in the Irish and New Zealand think tanks this week.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where was Malcolm Marx?

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

England seem to have found their back row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wales vs Scotland
Saturday, November 3rd
Cardiff

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

One of the best half back contests of the weekend

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

Where is Josh Navidi for Wales?

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

X-factor meets tactical genius

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

England vs South Africa
Saturday, November 3rd
Twickenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest game of Ben Youngs career?

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

England’s centre choices

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

Verdict

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

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

Ireland vs Italy
Saturday, November 3rd
Chicago

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

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

Is this Italy?

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

Luke McGrath finally gets a start for Ireland at scrum half

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

Joey Carberry really needs to showcase his superb skill set

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

The Irish back row – a genuine wealth of talent

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Endnote

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

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 3 where we take a look at how Scotland fared.

Scotland – 7/10

Scotland have consistently gone from strength to strength in the last eighteen months. The departure of former Coach Vern Cotter at the end of the 2017 Six Nations, had many wondering if the renaissance he’d brought to Scottish rugby could continue under his successor Gregor Townsend. The short answer to that would appear to be that such concerns were completely unfounded! Townsend saw his side finish strongly in this year’s Six Nations, after a very successful November series of home Internationals, and end the year with a satisfying tour of the Americas which saw plenty of development in terms of depth. Scotland are a contender make no mistake, and they are more than capable of making it to a semi-final berth in Japan next year.

Scotland’s season got off to an encouraging start in November with a high scoring win against Samoa, but despite the victory it was a confusing and at times unsettling performance for Scotland and their fans. Scotland were leading 32-10 at the fifty minute mark. Somehow though in the next 15 minutes they would let Samoa right back into it as the Pacific Islanders would score two tries. The final quarter of the match was a frenetic affair with both sides seemingly scoring at will and Samoa in it right till the death. Given that 11 tries were scored and Scotland bagged six of them, it was worrying that Scotland found it so hard to put Samoa out of the game until literally the final whistle. Defensively at times they looked naive, a trait which has caught them napping more than once this year.

Scotland clearly spent a lot of time looking at the video footage of the match and the effort they put in against New Zealand the following weekend was vastly improved. For us in many ways it was Scotland’s most memorable performance of the year, despite the narrow loss. It was a thrilling match that had everyone on the edge of their seats till the final whistle. Scotland were brave in attack, but truly epic in defence. If Stuart Hogg’s desperate last-ditch pass had gone to Scottish hands in the final minute after a fantastic breakout, then Scotland would have made history. Sadly though it wasn’t to be and Scotland could only imagine what might have been. Nevertheless, it had been a thrilling performance which saw Scotland dominate the All Blacks for large chunks of the match.

Scotland’s final encounter of the November fixture list was an absolute blinder as they recorded a staggering 53-24 win over the Wallabies, who themselves were looking much improved having just beaten New Zealand a few weeks previously. Scotland completely outclassed Australia and ran in an astonishing eight tries, some of which were sublime to watch. What was even more heartening for Scottish supporters was that this was all without talismanic fullback Stuart Hogg.

The start of Scotland’s Six Nations campaign, however brought them back down to earth with a resounding thump, as Wales comfortably cruised past a Scottish side that once again looked at sixes and sevens defensively. The following week, in front of an ecstatic Murrayfield crowd, Scotland regained their groove despite being sorely tested at times by a French side clearly going through their own renaissance. Although the Scots were made to work hard, they still ended up being the better side and walked away with a hard-earned 32-26 victory. Greig Laidlaw’s boot also ensured that France would pay dearly for their growing lack of discipline in the second half. The momentum continued a fortnight later as Scotland played host to Six Nations champions England. It was the Scots first Six Nations victory over England in 10 years. Scotland opened proceedings with an emphatic first half performance that ultimately left England with too much to do.

Scotland would head out on the road for their final two encounters of the Six Nations, and despite some brave efforts the wheels started to come off the bus. They are clearly a side to be reckoned with at home, but as a travelling side they still need to convince. They were thrashed comprehensively by Ireland in Dublin, by an Irish side that was rapidly building momentum for their ultimate Grand Slam Six Nations campaign. For Scotland’s final effort in Rome, they struggled to contain a feisty Italian side desperately attempting to salvage some pride from an otherwise disappointing campaign. Scotland squeaked the win and ultimately 3rd place in the Championship, but it wasn’t pretty and once again defensive frailties and over ambitious playmaking by fly half Finn Russell almost cost them dearly.

Scotland would end the year with a tour to the Americas which saw them take a development squad to Canada, the USA and Argentina. While there were very few surprises at them walking over a hapless Canadian side, eyebrows were raised as the USA gave them a real run for their money and emerged the winners by one point. Scotland would bounce back though as they went on to demolish a rudderless Pumas side 44-15. Although they will have been unhappy with the loss to the USA, the tour unearthed plenty of new and exciting talent ahead of their final year of preparation for next year’s World Cup in Japan.

There is no question that Scotland is in a good place heading into the 2018/19 season. A strong showing in November will give their rivals plenty of food for thought. If they are able to continue that form into another positive Six Nations performance which sees continued development of some of their newer players, then Scotland should be in an excellent position to provide a real challenge in Japan.

However, doubts remain about the consistency of their defence, as well as their ability to pull off big wins away from the hallowed ground of Murrayfield. Furthermore, as talented as he is, Scottish fly half Finn Russell may not have as much of a role in Scotland’s efforts this year as he will be playing his club rugby in France. Scotland, have consistently been brilliant one week and then rather average the next. They will really need to address this in 2018/19 as well as find some depth at fly half should Russell not be able to play the kind of role they would like. This may in itself not be such bad news as we have felt that although he is a remarkable player, Russell has a tendency to be overly ambitious at times and lacks the execution needed to pull off some rather adventurous plays. Therefore if Scotland can use this coming season to find a reliable back up for Russell as well as strengthen their defensive abilities then it should be another excellent year for them. We certainly hope so, as we hold to our view that they are without a doubt one of the most exciting attacking teams in International Rugby at the moment.

Match of the year – Scotland vs Australia – Murrayfield – November 25th – Scotland 53/Australia 24

In a truly emphatic win over the Wallabies, the “new” Scotland was on display at its best. The eight try epic by the Men in Blue was enthralling to watch and the fact that they achieved it without arguably their best player, fullback Stuart Hogg, on the field says a lot about where this Scottish side is headed.

Player of the year – Stuart Hogg

We really struggled with this one as there were so many impressive performances from Scottish players across the park this season. Nevertheless, the turbocharged fullback continues to light up pitches around the globe with his extraordinary line breaks and counter attacks. Hogg guarantees excitement and unpredictability and is clearly one of Scotland’s most daunting strike threats and a perpetual headache for opposition defences.

Player to watch in 2019 – George Turner

The Hooker who really stood out on the tour to the Americas this year, made us sit up and take notice from the minute he came off the bench against Canada. He backed that up with two solid performances against the USA and Argentina. Fast, powerful and able to cover vast amounts of the park, in the best tradition of New Zealand Hooker/utility back Dane Coles, we feel there is a very bright future ahead of this young man in a Scottish jersey and hope to see more of him this season.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Scotland’s best match of the year against Australia, in which they showed us that they can mix it up with the Southern Hemisphere and rack up some big points in the process. Scotland mean business and with the depth they are starting to develop are only going to get better. It still may be early days, and there are still some outstanding issues as mentioned above, but Scotland will be a force to be reckoned with this season and ultimately in Japan just over a year away.

To be continued – up next England!