Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

Yes that magical moment that only comes around once every four years is finally upon us. The World Cup final! It’s been a tournament full of twists and surprises. Japan’s meteoric rise to superstar status, England’s demolition of New Zealand – the list goes on. Meanwhile France and Ireland held true to form and squandered their chances at glory in the quarter finals. France blew it through their mercurial form and a blatant act of stupidity. Ireland meanwhile peaked far too early and by the time the tournament kicked off were out of ideas and essentially a spent force needing to go back to the drawing board. Wales it has to be said found themselves lucky to make the semis courtesy of France, but much like Ireland seemed to run out of steam as the tournament progressed. Australia’s dismal form of the last few years continued and much like Ireland their quarter final exit was clearly on the cards before the tournament even began.

So six weeks later here we are and it’s England versus South Africa. England in many ways have been a revelation and if a team has had the perfect trajectory to the final then it is Eddie Jones’ Men in White. They have simply got better and better with every match of 2019, and without a doubt look the most complete unit in this World Cup. A bruising yet highly mobile and skilled set of forwards, a slick half back pairing to manage proceedings and a set of backs that pack grace, power and speed. Whichever way you cut it they fully deserve their shot at glory on Saturday, and it is going to take a monumental effort from South Africa to derail the English World Cup Express.

South Africa may have lost to New Zealand in their opening match, and the history books seem to indicate that that is as good as the kiss of death in a World Cup final. South Africa’s road to the final may not have been pretty, but brutally efficient it has been. They may not have been the most imaginative team in the tournament, but defensively they pose an enormous challenge. In short, this is a team it is very difficult to wear down, and the physical costs of doing so are enormous. England may be the more creative side, but South Africa have the potential to put up probably the most resolute defense the English have faced all year. South Africa have their own X-factor in the shape of winger Cheslin Kolbe, so that although they may not have the overall pace and imagination of England out wide, they can still be a threat. Couple that to a forward pack that England will be able to go toe to toe with, but the question remains at what cost physically? In short, nothing is guaranteed on Saturday even if on paper the odds would tend to favor England.

England definitely can and we think should get to lift the Webb Ellis trophy on Saturday for the second time in the tournament’s history, but South Africa will have a lot to say about it and clearly fancy their chances of lifting it themselves for a third time. It should be an epic contest and one worthy of a final, so here’s what got us talking.

England vs South Africa – Saturday, November 2nd – Yokohama

Two big bruising sides meet at Rugby’s ultimate crossroads on Saturday. South Africa are better known for being a side that will simply obliterate an opposition through sheer physical prowess, while England have shown both creativity and a pace and power that can be a match for anyone. England look the most complete side, but whether or not it can break down the kind of Berlin Wall that South Africa represents remains to be seen.

England have gone from strength to strength in 2019, but South Africa have also undergone a dramatic transformation under Coach Rassie Erasmus in the last eighteen months. His job will be done come the final whistle on Saturday, but there is no doubt that he has provided his charges with a sense of belief that November 2nd could be their day. It remains to be seen however, if a relatively one dimensional game plan, albeit built around a daunting physical presence on the pitch, will be enough to overcome an English outfit that has managed to combine brawn with pace and creativity.

Expect the front rows from both sides to stand firm, but England’s offering to create more opportunity once the ball is loose

South Africa have a very good scrum, and with the likes of  Tendai”Beast” Mtawarira in the mix it’s unlikely to budge much under English pressure. However, once the ball comes loose we just feel the English trio of Sinckler, George and Vunipola are likely to do more with it than the South Africans. If England can really put South Africa under the pump here for the first hour, then they may well have done enough to negate the impact of South Africa’s bench replacements in the front row. Vincent Koch, Steven Kitshoff and Malcolm Marx in particular are well known for their ability to create absolute havoc and we’d argue are a much more dangerous offering than England have on the bench. How much South Africa have been made to go backwards here in the first hour will determine how much of an impact a dangerous Springbok bench are likely to have. If the scores are close then England could be in trouble here come the three quarters mark.

The most fascinating and telling contest of the afternoon – the second and back row battles

Let’s be honest, perhaps apart from seeing what Cheslin Kolbe can do, this is the contest we are all most looking forward to on Saturday. South Africa have an outstanding back row, and Captain Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen are back to their very best, while as regular readers know, we rate Pieter-Steph du Toit as one of the best in the world. By the same token however, there is no getting away from the fact that the English back row of youngsters Sam Underhill and Tom Curry or the “Kamikaze kids” as they have become known as, are rapidly becoming the new global benchmark on what you want your back row to look and operate like. Add into the mix the bruising power of Billy Vunipola and there is no question that that English back row is going to take some beating on Saturday. It’s powerful, fast and highly mobile and as  good as South Africa are, we feel they are going to have trouble matching up to such a well drilled and highly skilled English unit. Much like the front row though, keep the scorelines tight and England may find themselves in hot water come the sixty minute mark as that South African bench comes into play. This is perhaps even more prevalent when talking of the second rows. Maro Itoje has been in a class of his own for England this tournament, and in our opinion can easily negate the physicality and in your face niggles of South Africa particularly at the lineout. However, both Franco Mostert and the rather terrifying prospect of South Africa’s own “caveman” RG Snyman on the bench is something we doubt England are looking forward to having to contend with. Once again if the scores are tight here as we get to the final twenty expect some bother for England.

England’s game management should prove superior

Although Handre Pollard had a superb outing for the Springboks at fly half in their semi-final win over Wales, we were not as impressed with the South African half back pairing as a unit. England look sharper here in George Ford and Ben Youngs allied to Owen Farrell’s ability to pull strings from the center and shift back to number ten when needed. In our opinion, Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk’s box kicking last weekend was almost a liability for South Africa. South Africa kicked away far too much valuable possession last weekend, without really providing a platform for their backs to work off. A lot of it seemed pointless and had Wales been a bit more adventurous last Sunday it could have all gone rather sideways for South Africa. Given England’s abilities under the high ball, this could prove a very costly tactic for the Springboks on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see if de Klerk has been instructed to keep the kicking to a minimum. The English triumvirate just look like they have a better sense of what they are trying to achieve and a back line more than capable of using the platforms they create to their full advantage. South Africa just don’t look creative enough here to really bother England in our opinion. Pollard may excel at punishing England with the boot, if the contact aspect of the game leads to lapses in English discipline, but whether or not he will be able to pull the strings in the same way the Farrell/Ford axis can, remains to be seen.

South Africa need to go wide and have plenty of gas to do so

South Africa bring two very exciting wingers to Saturday’s contest. South African supporters will be delighted to see the return of Cheslin Kolbe, as will every neutral on Saturday. Makazole Mapimpi is a flyer of note and has really grown into the tournament, but Kolbe is South Africa’s biggest X-factor. While he may provide plenty of excitement in open space, he has also shown that he can defend and tackle well beyond his own weight. Just watch him bringing down New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick at speed if you don’t believe us. To match them England boast perhaps the fastest man in rugby’s 100 metre sprint through Jonny May, and Anthony Watson has been outstanding in both attack and defense for the Men in White. The English pair have been given much more work to do this tournament by their half backs than their South African counterparts, and there is no doubt they go into this match as the more well rounded and finely tuned unit. At fullback South Africa have looked distinctly vulnerable, and last weekend Willie le Roux struggled to hang onto the ball throughout the match. With Elliot Daly having a power boot to get England out of trouble as well as being consistently reliable in the air, expect to see Francois Steyn on the pitch sooner rather than later to provide South Africa with some parity here, unless le Roux ends up having one of those blinders he occasionally pulls out his hat. Despite the presence of Kolbe here for South Africa, we think overall England are packing a set of backs and centers who are much more comfortable operating as a unit. South Africa seem to operate more as a group of individuals in the backs and this could ultimately be their undoing on Saturday, as they don’t quite have the seamless transition between the physical prowess of their forwards and the speed of their backs, a linkage that England seems to have mastered.

It’s all in the benches

This is where, as we’ve said throughout this piece, the match could well be won or lost. While England perhaps offer the more cohesive starting fifteen, South Africa have the bench to unravel what good work it may have done, should the scores be close come the sixty minute mark. Also with the injury to replacement scrum half for England Willi Heinz, England Coach Eddie Jones has been forced to draft in Ben Spencer who has not played in this tournament so far, and it’s a big ask for him to come to the fore in such a high stakes match. South Africa’s scrum half replacement Herschel Jantjies, while only having a few Test caps under his belt has not seemed to suffer from stage fright whatsoever for the big occasions, and along with Kolbe is another part of South Africa’s X-factor component. England themselves pack a star studded bench, and anyone would want the likes of Dan Cole, Jonathan Joseph, Mark Wilson and George Kruis backing up their efforts, but we just feel overall South Africa are packing the more tried and trusted bigger guns on their bench.

Verdict

Form and the history books would seem to hand this one to England, and we have a hard time disagreeing with that assertion. England’s performance against New Zealand was something to behold, and combined the attractiveness of Japan’s offloading game with a physical presence that suffocated the All Blacks. It was an inventive and highly mobile performance from England that highlighted a superb all round skill set and the power and pace to keep the opposition at bay. Overall England have looked the most complete and well rounded team of the tournament, and they will be very hard to beat. South Africa’s motivation will be off the charts and expect them to give England an exceptionally tough physical challenge, but whether or not they will be able to match’s England’s imagination and creativity is up for debate. South Africa will have to do much more than simply bludgeon England into submission, and to date we haven’t really seen them demonstrate an ability to adapt their game plan to do otherwise. Nevertheless, Saturday’s final sees two of rugby’s finest brains in terms of the Coaching box in Eddie Jones and Rassie Erasmus, so who knows how this week’s training sessions have gone. In short, these are two teams who will spare no punches and will throw everything at tomorrow’s proceedings. It should be a tense and at times tight affair, but pick a winner we must and for now our gut is saying a more clinical and well structured English team to get their hands on the Webb Ellis trophy by four points!

While it may be hard to top events on Saturday, these two quarter-finals will provide plenty of drama, and certainly in the case of Japan an expectant host nation will watch to see if their heroes can make this tournament one where dreams really do come true. The form books may be even less kind to the two underdogs, Japan and France than it will be to Saturday’s wild cards Ireland and Australia, but in many ways that makes these contests all the more fascinating. Japan have shown the world that this is a special team that still may have some surprises up their sleeves and who are not short on belief. Meanwhile France have shown flashes of brilliance that still lead us to believe that we haven’t yet seen their traditional big game in a World Cup yet, 2015 being the only notable exception to that trend where there weren’t any.

The favorites for Sunday’s encounters Wales and South Africa, do enter this stage of the competition with a certain degree of confident swagger that is well justified. Wales have looked the part from day one, and despite being clearly rattled at times by Fiji they still managed to produce arguably one of the best games of the pool stages in their thriller against Australia. Wales look the part and a have a quiet air of assurance about them that France will struggle to deal with. Wales have got the basics right and it is a tight and well drilled unit that is fully conversant with their roles as a group and as individuals within it.

South Africa may have come short against New Zealand in their opening match, but they put up one hell of a fight in the process, and the All Blacks were left in no doubt that they had just experienced a “genuine Test match” of the highest order. South Africa then went on to dispatch the rest of their Pool B opponents with relative ease, though like New Zealand were not overly challenged in the process, something that Japan will have an edge over them in as they have had to fight tooth and nail for all four of their Pool wins. Then there’s the small matter of the “Brighton ghosts”. South Africa will be out for revenge and the 2019 edition of the the Springboks is dramatically different to that which Japan encountered four years ago. Better coached and with a raft of players who can match the raw energy and excitement levels that Japan offers, South Africa are a different beast in 2019 and justifiably have their eyes set on the main prize.

So here’s what got us talking in relation to Sunday’s proceedings.

Wales vs France – Sunday, October 20th – Oita

These two sides have an interesting history in that the result is never a given between them, no matter what the form book says. France invariably give Wales a game to think about, and in recent years have posed the Men in Red with some serious questions come half time. Wales however do seem to be better at reinventing themselves against France in the final forty minutes, while France struggle to understand that what was working for the first forty has clearly been found out and undone by the Welsh. Herein lies France’s biggest problem of the last four years – they simply aren’t an eighty minute team. Wales on the other hand are and if anything tend to play their best rugby in the final forty minutes.

Wales have looked composed even under adversity such as against Australia and Fiji this tournament, and that Welsh defense just gets better and better as the clock winds up to the final whistle. One thing it seems you can’t do against the Welsh is wear them down, as if anything they become more resolute and impervious to the effects of fatigue as the the full time whistle approaches. If you’re going to catch Wales napping, you’ve essentially got to do it in the first twenty minutes and then spend the rest of your game keeping them at bay and not allowing them to return the compliment.

France on the other hand have, much like Australia, got the job done but not looked overly flash in the process. Sure their opening game against Argentina showed off some outstanding attacking skills, particularly through center Damian Penaud, but they got an almighty fright in the second half and in all honesty were lucky to win that match. While they comfortably dispatched a plucky USA side, they almost came horribly unstuck against Tonga, and were spared the potential embarrassment of having to face England courtesy of Typhoon Hagibis. In short, most people have written France off in this tournament, but to use the well worn cliche that is when they are at their most dangerous.

Welsh resolve is at its most convincing in Alun-Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric – something France simply don’t have

If you ever wanted an analogy between Rugby and Marvel Super Hero comics then look no further than Wales. Welsh Captain Alun-Wyn Jones and flanker Justin Tipuric could easily move to Hollywood after this World Cup and take roles as Thor and Ironman in the next Marvel blockbuster. These two characters are completely indestructible and can be depended on to pull their team from the brink of disaster consistently for eighty minutes. In short, you can’t and will not break them. In France’s offerings we see none of the same qualities, despite Captain Guilhem Guirado’s inspirational leadership and complete disregard for his own safety. Not only are Jones and Tipuric extraordinarily skilled players in their own right, their on field heroics are such a key part of providing motivation to the rest of this Welsh squad, that in our opinion they are Wales’ two most important players.

We have trouble seeing France gain much in the way of parity in any of the forward battles

France have some quality players in their forward pack make no mistake. Hooker and Captain Guilhem Guirado and number eight Louis Picamoles are world class through and through and there is some genuinely promising talent in the likes of second rower Bernard le Roux and back rowers Gregory Alldritt, Wenceslas Lauret and Charles Ollivon. However, as a unit we struggle to see them matching up to a capable Welsh second row and back row that has been rock solid and highly dynamic so far in this tournament. The essential difference in the two sides is this Welsh pack plays as a finely tuned unit whereas France play as an eclectic collection of brilliant individuals. Without any kind of cohesive forward dominance France will struggle to unleash the mercurial talents of world class backs like Gael Fickou, Damian Penaud and Virimi Vakatawa.

While he’s often had his critics there is no doubt that Dan Biggar has got better and better this year and has ultimately negated the loss of Gareth Anscombe, while Rhys Patchell has been a noteworthy understudy

The loss of Gareth Anscombe prior to the tournament caused a genuine stir amongst Welsh supporters and we felt some rather unjustified criticisms leveled at Dan Biggar his replacement. We’ve always held Biggar in high regard and when he is on song, which he has been this tournament, there are few who can better him in terms of reliability. Furthermore, Rhys Patchell has really risen to the occasion as Biggar and Anscombe’s understudy. In short, despite the cries of alarm prior to the World Cup, we’d argue that Wales are in exceptionally rude health at fly half.

The most entertaining contest on the park on Sunday – the battle of the scrum halves

Both France and Wales arrive in Oita with a full deck in the scrum half department. Gareth Davies for Wales and Antoine Dupont for France are excitement machines through and through, and the kind of players who in the blink of an eye can change the momentum of the game in their side’s favor. Davies excels at being the intercept king while Dupont’s eye for opportunity and some searing breaks that suddenly open up an entire pitch are becoming the stuff of legends. Expect both sides to monitor their opposition nines with the utmost of vigilance. There are also some very handy replacements for both sides on the bench, though we’d argue that France’s Baptiste Serin has yet to really hit his stride in the tournament and had an absolute shocker against Tonga.

Remember this guy?

No not number 7, the great Olivier Magne, but number 14 Philippe Bernat-Salles and the try that rang around the world in the 1999 Rugby World Cup, as France who had essentially been written off, knocked the highly vaunted All Blacks out of the tournament in the semi-finals. Well we think his successor in the number 14 jersey for Sunday, Damian Penaud has all the same qualities if not more. For us he is the embodiment of those exciting French backs of yesteryear, and if Wales give him just a sniff of space then you could well end up seeing a repeat of 1999. On the big stage it will be the biggest Test his opposite Welsh number, youngster Josh Adams, has had to date in what is turning out to be an equally promising career.

Verdict

Despite rumors circulating in the press that dissension within the French camp is rife, one shouldn’t read to much into it, as France being France there is always some sort of sideshow going on. Despite all of this France somehow always manage to come to the party for the big moments at World Cup time, even if 2015 was an exception to the rule. There is still enough raw talent in this French squad to upset the best laid plans of the top sides. Wales though simply look too polished to really allow the form books to be tossed out the window. There still seems to be the fundamental disconnect between the French coaching staff and the players and that is what undid them in 2015 and history certainly looks set to repeat itself this year. It still should be an interesting and entertaining match spiced with the “what if France shows up” perennial question. For us though Wales look like the finished product and are still the contenders and dark horse to lift the trophy they were when they headed into the tournament. As a result we’re handing this to Wales by sixteen points!

Japan vs South Africa – Sunday, October 20th – Tokyo

As much as we love the underdog here at the Lineout, we have to admit we really didn’t see this coming. Japan’s success in this tournament has been a glorious advertisement for the game globally and we have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Brave Blossoms extraordinary journey to this point. And brave they certainly have been, in slaying the Irish tiger and the Scottish lion. What’s next for this extraordinary band of rugby players buoyed on by 126 million ecstatic Japanese? To say that they have exceeded their country’s expectations and got every neutral rugby fan across the globe onto their bandwagon for the ride is an understatement, making Sunday’s match up with South Africa’s Springboks one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures in the tournament’s history.

South Africa, apart from their initial do or die tussle with New Zealand at the start of the tournament have had a much easier ride to Sunday’s quarter final than the hosts. One thing they may well be wary of though is the fact that the last match they played against a brave Canadian side was almost two weeks ago. Having to sit around and watch the country you’re in go ballistic for the team you are to face in the quarter finals, without any game time under your belt in the process must have been slightly disquieting no matter how professional your setup is. How much will nerves ultimately play a part in Sunday’s proceedings as the Springboks will have had to watch all the momentum favor their opponents heading into the match. The flip side of that coin is that with all the attention on Japan, the Springboks have been allowed to go about their business quietly out of the spotlight, and in terms of pressure then that is all on Japan.

Can Japan really out muscle a Springbok tight five that takes physicality to a level that they just haven’t encountered yet?

Ireland were off the boil physically against Japan, so although they had the edge on paper they failed to make it count. Scotland were simply at sixes and sevens for too much of the match as a superbly drilled Japanese unit from a technical point of view got the better of them. We don’t feel that will be the case on Sunday, as South Africa pack a formidable front row with an equally capable unit on the bench. Although Japanese Hooker Shota Horie has been outstanding he will meet his match in Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx. Meanwhile Eben Etzebeth in particular will bring an edge and physicality to the engine room in the second row and the lineout that Japan will struggle to contend with, and expect to see their discipline suffer as a result. And when you’ve got the destructive forces of Franco Mostert and RG Snyman (with the latter simply being able to terrify opposition defenses on the basis of looks alone) waiting on the bench to add further fuel to the fire, we can’t help feeling Japan could well unravel here on Sunday.

In the back row Japan have looked strong but South Africa is one of the best in the business

That Japanese back row of Michael Leitch, South African import Lappies Labuschagne and Kazuki Himeno has been one of the revelations of the tournament, but we struggle to see it competing for a full eighty minutes with an intensely physical South African unit. As regular readers know we consider South Africa’s Pieter-Steph du Toit to be one of the best loose forwards in the world, and he just gets better and better with every outing. Japan will be intensely competitive here make no mistake and with Leitch probably dominating the motivational speeches and selflessly putting his body on the line for the jersey, South Africa will get a challenge here make no mistake but we doubt it will be strong enough to negate the South African threat for a full eighty minutes.

There’s nothing like experience at the highest level and at the pivot points South Africa clearly has the edge

Japan’s halfback pairing has impressed make no mistake this tournament, but we feel it will be hard pressed to match South Africa’s big match temperament in the shape of Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard. Pollard has been good with the boot and a reliable kicker and de Klerk is the devastating live wire he excels at being. The one thing the Japanese pair do have going for them is speed and precision, qualities that they have consistently delivered on this tournament, especially scrum half Yutaka Nagare. Despite some of the cricket score results in the tournament so far by the bigger sides, Japanese fly half Yu Tamara finds himself heading into this match as the competition’s leading points scorer, meaning that if nothing else he will keep South Africa honest with the boot if their physicality becomes overly exuberant in the eyes of referee Wayne Barnes. Nevertheless, South Africa have so much proven talent in these key positions, especially with new sensation Herschel Jantjies on the bench, that ultimately South Africa should find themselves running proceedings with ease. However, as a caveat this Japanese side went up against one of the best half back pairings in the world in the shape of Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray and clearly got the better of them – so anything could happen on the day!

Japan can do this but South Africa can also do this!

You have to admit that is some pretty compelling viewing from both sides! That Japanese try against Scotland shows some offloading skills that simply defy belief, and we here at the Lineout would dearly love to see this become the new norm in Test rugby, as it certainly is easy on the eyes. Then again so is pint-sized South African winger Cheslin Kolbe’s running game. Expect Kolbe to be one of THE players of the tournament once it is done and dusted and to receive the same kind of accolades and respect from teams that the late great Jonah Lomu of New Zealand received. What is perhaps even more impressive about Kolbe is his ability to bring down giant second rowers – in short if you want commitment from a player then look no further than this mini version of Jonah Lomu. Along with Justin Tipuric and Alun-Wyn Jones from Wales there is clearly a role for the South African in the next Marvel Action Heroes film.

Much talk of the Brighton ghosts has been made leading up to this match, but in reality the two scenarios couldn’t be more different

There is no doubt that South Africa will have this at the back of their mind. Sure they played a warm up match against Japan in Kumagaya a week before the tournament started, and thrashed the hosts comprehensively. However, that is all it was – a warm up game and the Japan we have seen in this tournament has grown into a very different beast. By the same token though South Africa are almost unrecognizable from the shambolic outfit that ended the 2017 season (one of the worst in their proud history), and unlike the last World Cup there has been a much more consistent approach to and preparation for the global showdown. South Africa have done their homework and look the part, whereas the 2015 World Cup Springbok side did not, and instead looked a disjointed mess for much of the tournament. Japan also did not have the weight of expectation on their shoulders in Brighton that they will have in Tokyo on Sunday. This will be the biggest game of Japan’s rugby history and as good as this side may be, we fear that with little collective experience of these kinds of occasions it may all prove too much for them. They have been marvelous hosts and their team has done their country proud and been a credit to the sport as a whole, but it has had an almost fairy tale like tinge to it. Whether or not the carriage will turn into a pumpkin on Sunday at midnight remains to be seen, but there is no denying they and the rest of the world have thoroughly enjoyed the ride!

Verdict

We don’t for a minute think that this will be the one-sided blowout in favor of South Africa that many are predicting. We do believe, albeit with a genuine sense of regret, that the party has to end some time for Japan, and this will likely be their last waltz at the tournament. However, we think that the spirit that has characterized this exceptional side will come to the fore, and allied to some world class skills, Japan will be a difficult nut for South Africa to crack. But crack it will under the sheer physical force of a Springbok onslaught for eighty minutes. Japan does have the talent to spring one more shock of the century, and as a result another entry in the history books is not completely beyond the realms of possibility. Sadly though a big bruising Springbok juggernaut, blessed with some dancing feet of their own, is the side more likely to be standing upright at the final whistle. A powerful Springbok performance is thus likely to end Japan’s epic World Cup journey by eleven points!

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

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

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

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

So many matchups – so many questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our biggest surprise last week – the Wallaby scrum

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

That Australian second row means business

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

New Zealand’s back row needs to step up

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Wales vs England – Saturday, August 17th – Cardiff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The English bench should seal the deal on Saturday

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking of scrums – where has Argentina’s gone?

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Yes we know there are three other big games this weekend, but as we only have team sheets for the Canada/Tonga and Argentina/South Africa matches, our usual previews of Australia/New Zealand and the European World Cup warmups will have to wait till tomorrow.

Canada finish up a difficult Pacific Nations Cup this weekend, and if they don’t get an elusive win against Tonga tomorrow night then you’d have to wonder what they’ve actually learnt if anything over the last three weeks in terms of their World Cup preparations.

Meanwhile South Africa travel to Argentina, to try and seal their first Southern Hemisphere title since 2009. There is no denying that the Springboks are looking sharp this year and after dispatching Australia with ease and holding New Zealand to a draw, they find themselves at the top of the Rugby Championship table as they head into this weekend’s final round of games. Argentina will be no pushover though, and themselves put New Zealand under enormous pressure in the tournament opener. What exactly happened to them a week later in Australia is anyone’s guess, as we watched a dismal spectacle riddled with errors from both sides – quite frankly one of the worst games of rugby we’ve watched in this last World Cup cycle. Argentina are better than that – much better- and on home ground expect them to once more become the smoking gun that everyone is inevitably talking about as the World Cup draws closer.

Like we say we’ll cover the European warmups tomorrow along with Australia vs New Zealand in Bledisloe 1, but in the interim here’s what got us talking about these two matches.

Tonga vs Canada – Friday, August 9th (August 8th for Canadian TV viewers) – Fiji

Poor against the USA and a completely inept second half against Fiji, means that Canada have never really looked the part in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup which for all intents and purposes has been a warmup for the World Cup more than anything. Sadly Canada would appear to have learnt little about their strengths but a great deal about their weaknesses. Whether or not there is sufficient time between now and their World Cup opener against Italy to address these issues is a million dollar question. As a result, Canada know that tomorrow’s game will require a huge performance in order to restore some confidence to a team that has not enjoyed a winning culture for a very long time now.

With no disrespect to Tonga, who sadly we know very little about, Canada should at least be competitive and hopefully decidedly more polished than they were against Fiji and the USA. The game against Fiji was simply painful to watch. Canada spent the first half aimlessly box kicking to a team that is renowned for their ability to run the ball and who possess some of the most mesmerizing ball handling skills in open play in the modern game. Canada then spent the second half continuously trying to use rolling mauls which the Fijians brought to ground with almost joyful abandon. Canada seemed completely without a plan B, and simply stuck doggedly to two tactics that got them no traction whatsoever for the full eighty minutes. What was going on in the coaching box was beyond us.

This week, we are not exactly holding our breath after looking at the team sheet.

Michael Sheppard take a bow

We were really surprised to not see the Toronto Arrows tank in the starting lineup for last week’s match, and although we were devastated for Justin Blanchet who had to leave the field after only 2 minutes due to injury, the opportunity that it provided Sheppard was golden. In a match where Canadian standout performances were hard to find, the big second rower was one of the few who stood up and were counted. As a result we are delighted to see him get a starting berth for this match, and expect him to make life difficult for Tonga as well as provide some much needed inspiration and go forward ability for the rest of his colleagues.

Also in the forwards Tyler Ardron makes a welcome return

Like Sheppard against Fiji, Ardron was one of the few players who stood out in the game against the USA. With himself and Sheppard on the field tomorrow Canada should not be short in the inspiration department.

Tonga’s forward pack have plenty of Top14 experience in France so Canada will really need to be at their best here, but overall Canada are fielding perhaps their best forward pack of the competition. Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie shore up a solid back row.

The halfback combinations are not working and we don’t see much room for improvement tomorrow either

This week sees Gordon McRorie moved from scrum half to fly half, and when he moved to the role in the second half last week Canada did seem to gain a bit more fizz in their attack. Sadly we feel that McRorie brings absolutely nothing to the scrum half position and if his service was any slower off the base of the scrum and rucks then it would be more akin to lawn bowling than rugby. He allows the opposition so much time to set their defensive structures that Canada is going nowhere on attack. Phil Mack brings much more energy to the position, but his performance in the USA game was riddled with errors. We would really prefer to see Jamie Mackenzie get a starting berth at 9 in preparation for the World Cup and once more are dismayed to see him start on the bench. He did add some value in the last quarter against Fiji, and him at scrum half and McRorie at fly half does seem a better combination unless Mack has one of those games we all know he is capable of.

Canada will be looking to DTH to once more save the day

He is undoubtedly Canada’s only genuine world class player, but all too often he is expected to perform miracles by the rest of his teammates. Furthermore, to be honest the outstanding winger has been ominously quiet in Canada’s most recent outings. We really hope that won’t be the case tomorrow.

Verdict

Canada has a hard road to hoe tomorrow, but surely their luck has to turn at some point, even if doing it in the heat of the South Pacific is a tall order. Tonga have a better winning record than Canada at the moment, and have managed to beat Fiji last year. However, much like Canada they seem to be a very hit and miss outfit. Playing in Fiji will be much more like home turf for them than Canada, as well as being more used to playing in the humidity. It’s a close call but based on form we’d have to hand it to Tonga. Nevertheless, Canada should be able to run them a lot closer than perhaps they expect. However, we’re still giving it to the Pacific Islanders by three while still hoping for a big performance from Canada!

Argentina vs South Africa – Saturday, August 10th – Salta

Like we say we are really not sure what happened to Argentina in Australia, but hopefully by now they have figured it out. South Africa on the other hand while still having some work to do, are no doubt feeling rather pleased with their World Cup preparations which seem to be on a very positive trajectory.

Argentina are not in the hunt for any silverware but that is clearly not much of an agenda item for them, as they seek to use the tournament to gel overseas based players back into the squad, and Saturday’s match is no exception.

Argentina’s scrum has struggled and Saturday’s Test will see just how much progress Coach Ledesma has made in fixing it

South Africa bring two powerhouse front rows to Argentina on Saturday, with tight head prop Frans Malherbe being the only possible weak link. We’re not overly convinced that the Pumas outfit will be able to go the distance. The only real consistency and competitiveness we see here for the Pumas is at hooker with Agustin Creevy and Julian Montoya. The rest of it we fear will just be going backwards on Saturday.

Talking of hookers is Mbonambi bringing the accuracy the Springboks are missing at lineout time?

Don’t get us wrong we are HUGE fans of Malcolm Marx, but there is no denying his lineout throwing has been poor to say the least, and to make up for it we haven’t quite seen the kind of barnstorming heroics that made him such a household name in Test rugby eighteen months ago, to make up for his discrepancies at lineout time. Consequently, up steps Mbonambi who for the most part appears to be a pretty accurate dart thrower. He’s no slouch at the coalface either and Coach Rassie Erasmus clearly sees him as Mr. Dependable heading into the World Cup, with Marx coming in to shake things up when the opposition could really do without it.

Argentina’s Europeans didn’t quite make the cut in Australia but history is unlikely to repeat itself this weekend

We really felt that Argentina looked poor against the Wallabies, and we certainly weren’t expecting it. We are putting it down to the overseas based players’ unfamiliarity with a unit that essentially has operated as one for the last six months in the shape of the Jaguares. There was no denying that Facundo Isa and Santiago Cordero looked slightly out of sorts and unsure of how to function in a unit that had a genuine track record of success under their belts. We very much doubt that will be the case this Saturday, and despite a wobble against Australia Nicolas Sanchez should also be back to his best, especially after putting in such a strong performance against New Zealand last month straight off the plane from France.

Is this the kind of game where Kwagga Smith finally lights up the pitch?

As regular readers of this blog know, we are big fans of the Springbok utility forward who is an expert at putting his sevens experience to good use. Unfortunately he hasn’t quite had the opportunity to do so in his last few outings in a Springbok jersey but this could be his chance to shine. Given the slightly frenetic pace of any match against the Pumas, Smith could well find himself with the kind of open space he excels at exploiting. Talking of open space for the Springboks, we also feel that Pieter-Steph du Toit deserves honourable mention here as well, after his chip kick exploits against New Zealand a fortnight ago, with the big utility forward clearly becoming one of the Springboks most valuable players. Much like Smith we’ve rated him from day one in a Springbok jersey.

The rise of the small men

Springbok winger Cheslin Kolbe has become something of a legend here at the Lineout, and we don’t think we are the only ones who hold him in such high regard. He may be one of the smallest men on the pitch, but you would never think it. The sight of him hauling New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick to the ground needed to be seen to be believed. The man simply has no fear, and his tackling game is something to behold. Add to that his vision and pace and there is no doubt that the diminutive winger has developed into one of the finest all round players in the modern game. Debutant scrum half Herschel Jantjies has also become one of the finds of the year. Having scored a try in each of his two matches to date in a Springbok jersey, he is also a player playing well above his weight and experience grade. We can’t remember when we saw such a natural transition to Test level rugby. In a team renowned for giant bone crushing leviathans, the Springboks have finally found a place for 5 foot tall 75 kg titans!

Verdict

Beating Argentina’s Jaguares on home soil has become next to impossible, however beating the Pumas for some reason on home soil doesn’t quite hold the same challenge. However, despite their present form, South Africa have struggled with this task more than their other Southern Hemisphere rivals. Argentina has not been a happy hunting ground at times for the Springboks and Saturday should provide more of the same in terms of a challenge. Nevertheless South Africa seem to be going from strength the strength while the Pumas are still finding their feet after a disappointing season last year. With the added bonus of some silverware on offer and the confidence booster this provides ahead of a World Cup, expect the Springboks to be well and truly up for this one. Argentina will give them a very good run for their money in the process, but we expect South Africa to take the game by five!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Australia vs Argentina – Saturday, July 27th – Brisbane

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

USA vs Canada – Saturday, July 27th – Denver

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

South Africa – 8/10

Some of you may be wondering why we’ve chosen to give South Africa such a high rating when they lost 7 of the 14 Tests they played in 2018, and thus had a winning ratio of only 50%. However, look a bit closer and the picture looks a lot more rosy. First of all it was a clear turnaround from the disastrous years under former Coach Allister Coetzee after the last World Cup. Secondly of those 7 wins 3 were on the road, something the Springboks have struggled to do in recent years. Lastly of those 7 defeats, 3 of them were by less than 3 points. In short, the renaissance that South African rugby experienced in 2018 and the pride that was restored to the jersey, made it fairly easy for us to give them such a high scoring on sheer effort alone. There was an undercurrent of consistency in both team selection and performance that we hadn’t seen for a long time, and as a result we feel they thoroughly deserved the praise we heaped on them last year, along with the recognition they got on the international stage as a force to be reckoned with once more.

South Africa got their 2018 campaign off to an interesting start in an exhibition match in Washington DC, in June against Wales. Although the attendance could have been better, we still counted ourselves fortunate to be part of the enthusiastic crowd that showed up for the match. The first half was a rather dire affair from both sides to say the least, and both teams lacked the necessary precision at times for a match of this calibre. However, by the end of the match it had turned into an exciting contest. A poorly executed kick from behind South Africa’s goal line at the end saw Wales take full advantage and crash over for a simple try to rob South Africa of the lead they had fought so hard to gain in the second half.

South Africa returned home to host England in June for a three Test series. Many key players who regularly ply their trade overseas returned home as well to lend their support to the cause. The result was a Springbok side that positively hummed at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. It was a thrilling Test match, but its opening twenty minutes saw England run in three tries, and the new-found optimism that Coach Rassie Erasmus had given Springbok supporters appeared to evaporate quickly, as fans had a horrible sense of deja vu. However, the next 20 minutes produced some truly stunning rugby from South Africa as they hit back with four tries of their own and headed into halftime with a narrow 29-27 lead. The second half was a tense affair of give and take, but South Africa found their big match temperament and held on for an historic 42-39 victory. The next match in Bloemfontein was a gritty affair, but once again the Springbok pack ground England into submission and allowed South Africa to claim the series. The final Test in Cape Town, saw England find their groove at sea level and in poor conditions they were clearly the better side. However, South Africa had won the series on the back of two solid performances that gave grounds for plenty of optimism heading into the Rugby Championship.

South Africa’s opening fixture in the Rugby Championship against Argentina, built on the success of the England series as they came away with a convincing win over a Pumas outfit that was just coming to terms with life under new Coach Mario Ledesma. In the return fixture in Argentina a week later, that transition process was clearly complete, and the Pumas got the better of a rather disjointed Springbok performance and one which seemed to confirm fears that South Africa may be a side to fear on home soil, but on the road they were continuing to struggle.

South Africa headed to Australia, knowing they needed to shake off the mantra that they were a team that still battled to look convincing away from home. They looked much sharper than they did against Argentina, but still failed to capitalise on some key opportunities and let the lead slip away from their grasp once more. Australia simply took what little chances were on offer more effectively and in a tight tussle the Wallabies got the better of South Africa by 23-18.

Consequently, by the time they reached New Zealand, many had already written them off, especially as the last time they were in New Zealand they experienced their worst ever defeat to the All Blacks by 57-0. Instead what happened was a piece of Springbok history but this time clearly in their favor. As mentioned before in previous posts it was a Test match for the ages and one that brought out all the best qualities of one of International Rugby’s greatest and fiercest rivalries. There were tries galore from both teams and some truly heroic defence from South Africa in the final 15 minutes. They emerged the deserved winners and finally managed to shake off the curse of being unable to win big games on the road. The pride in the jersey on all the players’ faces at the final whistle was perhaps most emphatic in flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit’s tears.

South Africa would then return home and get revenge for their loss to Australia, as some heroic defence once more saw them home, despite a constant Wallaby assault on the South African 22 in the final quarter. Their final match of the Championship saw them take on a New Zealand side clearly out for revenge after the upset in Wellington the previous month. It was another truly epic Test match that hung in the balance for the full eighty minutes. South Africa had once more built up an impressive lead by the final quarter, but New Zealand came charging back into the match and this time showed those devastating finishing skills that they have become synonymous with. South Africa gave as good as they got, but the All Blacks simply went through their paces with just a shade more finesse. It was a thrilling Test match that saw New Zealand sneak it at the death and win by 32-30.

South Africa finished the Rugby Championship with a strong second place, and then headed out on the road for the end of year tour to Europe with a well-founded sense of optimism. First up were England who were clearly out to avenge their series loss in June. Sadly it was a match once more marred by controversy from the officials. South Africa were dominating most aspects of the game but their execution at key moments let them down, even though South Africa would be the only side to score a try, with all of England’s points coming from the boot. A slightly controversial call from referee Angus Gardner on a clumsy tackle from England’s Owen Farrell, meant South Africa were denied a penalty kick that could have swung the match back in their favor. In the end they had to settle for a heartbreaking 1 point loss to England. Nevertheless, despite their dominance of possession for much of the game their issues with execution at times did much more to scupper their chances of a win than one simple 50/50 referee call.

South Africa’s next two outings were much more positive affairs. First up they held their nerve to snatch victory at the death from France. South Africa showed some real composure in the dying minutes of the match, and to a man looked convinced that the win was theirs for the taking which it was, through a well worked team effort resulting in a crucial try at the final whistle. From there it was off to Murrayfield to take on a Scottish side that looked extremely dangerous. Once again it was another dogged and assured performance from the Springboks as they clawed out a second vital win, through some superb attacking rugby, game management from fly half Handre Pollard and some stoic defence. Scotland threw the kitchen sink at them but they held firm.

South Africa’s last match of the year however, did see the inevitable cracks start to appear in a side that had had a long and tumultuous season that had its fair share of highs and lows. Against Wales, South Africa started to look a shadow of the team that had produced that famous victory in Wellington only two months earlier. With some clearly tired bodies on display, the Springboks ultimately bowed out of 2018 quietly but keen to regroup for 2019 and build on the results of a remarkable year. Wales got the better of them and South Africa, although showing the odd spark, never really looked like they would trouble their Welsh hosts to any great degree. While it may have been an anti-climax to what had otherwise been a fantastic year, there were still more than enough positives for South Africa to take away from 2018 as referee Luke Pearce blew the final whistle on the Springboks season.

In short, a season that has had far more highs than lows, especially when compared to the rather dismal state of affairs the Springboks found themselves in heading into 2018. Life under new Coach Rassie Erasmus has produced a renaissance in Springbok rugby and at the same time unearthed some genuine world-class talent. There is still plenty of work to do, but there are few, ourselves included, who would doubt the legitimacy of South Africa’s challenge for Webb Ellis glory come September. South Africa are back, make no mistake and mean business. They have an enviable balance of youth and experience, a devastating but increasingly mobile forward pack, a half back combination that finally works and a truly gifted set of backs. If any of their opponents in Japan fail to take them seriously they will end up paying a heavy price. If South Africa can build on the momentum gained in 2018 there is no reason why it couldn’t be them instead of either New Zealand or Ireland who are hoisting aloft the Webb Ellis trophy on November 2nd.

Player of the year – Faf de Klerk

The pint-sized scrum half was a revelation in the Springbok jersey in 2018. As regular readers know, we are huge fans of the South African number nine and his time playing for English Premiership side Sale Sharks has paid huge dividends. South Africa’s version of a rugby playing Jack Russell is completely fearless, and his ability to keep opposition defences guessing along with a lightning quick delivery was a joy to watch this year. The ability to tackle players more than twice his size and actually to bring them to the ground single-handed is the mark of a very special player, and someone able to punch way above their weight. His obvious enthusiasm for his role is infectious and clearly rubs off on his teammates. In short, expect him to be just as much a part of the South African success story in 2019 as he was in 2018.

Player to watch in 2019 – Aphiwe Dyantyi

South Africa’s try seeking missile had us mesmerised at times in 2018. An exceptionally gifted footballer with some sublime hands and feet skills, Dyantyi featured regularly in press releases about Springbok exploits in 2018 and expect more of the same this year. With his defensive abilities improving with every outing and complimenting his lethal attacking skills in space, this is a player you won’t want to miss both in the Rugby Championship and South Africa’s World Cup campaign in Japan this year.

Match of the year – New Zealand vs South Africa – Wellington – September 15th – New Zealand 34/South Africa 36

We have run out of superlatives, for what we consider to have been THE Test match of 2018. South Africa’s skill and heroics for the full eighty minutes were something to behold. As one of Test Rugby’s greatest rivalries was reborn with a vengeance, this match and South Africa’s performance in it, will be in our video libraries for many years to come.

Endnote

Well that’s it for 2018. Our focus now shifts wholeheartedly to the Six Nations for the next two months. We’ll have our thoughts on this weekend’s opening round of the classic tournament out by this Thursday night. Stay tuned and once again thanks for all the great support last year!