Posts Tagged ‘Wales’

It’s not often that four Test matches over a November weekend live up to their billing. However, this weekend produced two titanic struggles and two matches, which although not the prettiest to watch at times, still provided some extraordinary moments.

Our two highlights of the weekend were without a doubt the Twickenham and Paris thrillers. England have really stepped up to the plate this November, and their win over first South Africa and then a loss to the All Blacks by a mere point must surely mark a dramatic reversal in their fortunes this year. While they get a relatively easier challenge this weekend against Japan, their final match of the month sees them with the opportunity to make it two Southern Hemisphere scalps out of three, as they take on a Wallaby side in crisis. France meanwhile will be gutted with their narrow loss at the death to South Africa, but can take heart in the fact that their first outing this November produced such quality against an impressive Springbok unit.

In Cardiff and Dublin there were some great moments as Wales finally ended their losing streak against Australia, and Ireland were put under some enormous pressure by a ferocious Pumas side. We never really felt that Wales or Ireland were going to lose, but Wales will be disappointed that despite dominating Australia they were unable to really get serious points on the scoreboard. Meanwhile Ireland were made to work exceptionally hard for their win over a rampant Pumas side. The game in Cardiff was not attractive by any stretch of the imagination as two sides played highly cautious rugby, leaving little to spark the imagination. Wales may have been more effective and got a critical win, but they will be frustrated that they couldn’t turn their attacks into points.

Ireland meanwhile, although being well off their usual pace, will still regard their epic tussle with Argentina as the perfect preparation for “THE BIG ONE” this weekend with New Zealand. Ireland will need to up their game considerably if they are to take on an All Black side recently rattled by England. In fairness to Argentina, apart from their scrum they came to Dublin hell-bent on causing havoc – a task in which they succeeded admirably. The Pumas had Ireland on the rack for a good hour, and it was only in the final quarter where Ireland managed to get the measure of Argentina and start playing the kind of rugby they needed to get the win.

Even Canada managed to get a solid win over Kenya in the first of three matches in France to determine who gets the last spot up for grabs at next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Just like last weekend, there was drama and controversy aplenty but here’s what got us talking on Sunday morning.

England are back but need better decision-making as New Zealand showed them how to close the deal once more

Just as in their performance against South Africa, England had a solid effort, put under the microscope once more by a 50/50 call. Last week it went in their favor but this time it wasn’t to be. It was a borderline call that put Courtney Lawes offside and thus denied England the try that would have sealed a classic Test match. The authorities have since deemed the officials had the correct interpretation of the rules, and from what we’ve seen it is marginal, but it would appear that a miniscule portion of Lawes’ right toe is in the offside position. Tough one but there it is. Just like South Africa squandering their chances against England the week before, England were guilty of doing the same. In appalling weather, they constantly decided to kick for touch rather than take the much easier points on offer between the sticks. This seemed even more prevalent once Owen Farrell took over the Captaincy from Dylan Hartley. A slippery ball and a swampy surface are always going to make the effectiveness of your driving maul from a 5 metre lineout questionable – the ball can pop out anywhere and your forwards are struggling with traction. England, like South Africa the week before left at least 6 points out on the park, which meant they would still have comfortably won even without the disallowed try.

On the positive side of things, England are clearly back in business. To hold the world’s best team at bay for as long as they did in appalling conditions, and ultimately lose by a point is something they can feel exceptionally good about. There is finally a back row that works and a back three that looks dangerous. Ben Youngs is regaining the form that made him so valuable to England’s efforts in the scrum half department, and Danny Care is an able replacement. The second row, and Maro Itoje in particular, also seem back to their best even if they struggled to contain the super human feats of Brodie Retallick in the lineouts. England’s decision-making needs some work, and we’re not convinced about their front row, centre pairings or fly half selections, but overall the change in England’s performance compared to six months ago is night and day.

New Zealand meanwhile may have been put under the kosh by England but they still showed the class and resilience they have to get the job done, even if their supporters’ hearts were in their mouths for the final five minutes. For us it was the class and skill shown in Damian McKenzie’s try, Brodie Retallick’s remarkable efforts at nullifying England’s lineouts and Barrett’s game management and decision-making in when and how to take the points that ultimately revealed the difference between the two sides in terms of big match temperament.

Wales continue to improve while Australia slide deeper into the abyss

There were some moments in that game that had us on our feet from a Welsh perspective – essentially any time centre Jonathan Davies or flanker Justin Tipuric were in charge of events. Tipuric in particular was immense for Wales and seemed a catalyst for many of Wales’ brightest moments in the game. The same can be said for Jonathan Davies. As a collective Wales put in a solid if uninspiring performance, which ultimately saw them come out on top in a contest that clearly meant so much to them. They were cautious and at times seemed overwhelmed by the occasion, as evidenced by Leigh Halfpenny fluffing a kick at goal right in front of the posts. There was little risk taking and given Australia’s ineptitude for much of the match it made for dire viewing at times. Wales are a more exciting team than that, but the win at whatever cost was clearly putting a lid on some of their more creative attributes. They got the job done, and Tipuric and Davies sought to inspire, but for the most part it was a pedestrian match that will not be remembered for much other than the low score and a much-needed Welsh victory.

Australia on the other hand were dire – plain and simple. First of all we struggled to try to figure out what kind of game Australia were trying to play. It looked overly complicated, especially in the set pieces, and players clearly had no understanding whatsoever of how to execute whatever it was they were supposed to be doing. We thought lock Adam Coleman put in a solid effort and seemed to be the only player who had an inkling of what was expected of him. Australia’s back row, despite David Pocock, looks increasingly unbalanced and Michael Hooper’s decision-making skills in such a low scoring match beggared belief at times. Increasingly of late, we’ve really noticed the lack of a Scott Fardy type figure in Australia’s back row – ask any Leinster supporter how much the ex-Wallaby has brought to the Irish club’s efforts in the European Champions Cup. Coach Michael Cheika despite being a YouTube sensation, increasingly looks out of touch, while at the same time constantly spouting on about the learning Australia is supposedly doing – even if his players are clearly struggling to figure out what language the playbook is written in as the first step in their learning process. Australia may have a potentially soft fixture with Italy this weekend, but even that is no guarantee. Italy’s tails are clearly up after their much-needed win over Georgia last weekend, and they will sense there is an opportunity for an upset here. In short, Australia look a mess from 1-15, despite some clear and obvious talent, and it is going to take a huge step up for them to avoid a banana skin in Italy and humiliation from a hungry and revitalized England.

Ireland get off to a scrappy start and need to make some hard decisions

There were some thrilling moments in this match from both sides, and there is no question that Ireland received a schooling at times from Argentina. We always thought this was going to be a tough encounter, especially as the Pumas have a history of raining on Ireland’s parade. However, as preparation for next weekend’s assignment with New Zealand, Ireland and Coach Joe Schmidt could not have asked for better. It was big, tough, fast and physical for the full eighty minutes. Sadly it took its toll on Ireland as flanker Sean O’Brien was once more taken from the field with an injury that will see him out of action till at least the New Year. The Irish back rower has really struggled of late with injury and one has to wonder how much more he can take, especially with the World Cup less than a year away. Still O’Brien’s loss is Dan Leavy’s gain, and he made sure that he stamped a solid claim on the number 7 jersey this weekend. In our opinion given O’Brien’s ongoing misfortune with injury and resulting time away from the game, it is increasingly difficult for Coach Joe Schmidt and the Irish selectors to deny Leavy a regular starting berth at 7. When he came on for the injured O’Brien against the Pumas his impact was felt immediately and he never let up for the rest of the match. Much like second rower James Ryan, Leavy seems to have no off button.

Ireland won’t be pleased with their struggles at lineout time, something which seemed to improve dramatically once second rower Devin Toner came on for Ian Henderson. However, Rory Best’s lineout throws also left a lot to be desired, and for a while now we’ve felt that Sean Cronin actually has better accuracy in such vital set pieces. Furthermore, we also couldn’t help but get the impression that in the final quarter once Peter O’Mahony was given the Captain’s armband, Ireland’s shape changed and they seemed to hit another gear, as well as become much more clinical. None of this is meant in any way to be disdainful of Rory Best and his leadership or ability. Best is an outstanding servant of Irish rugby and a big part of their success of the last few years. However, when he does have an off day Ireland clearly suffers. Even the incomparable Johnny Sexton had a very poor game by his standards until the final quarter. Jordan Larmour as we suspected, had a tough go of it at fullback and Argentina tested him to the full defensively, so much so that he was found wanting on occasion and as a result he was given little opportunity to show off the attacking skills that had everyone talking after the match with Italy the weekend before.

It wasn’t pretty from Ireland, but they got the job done, and by the final quarter seemed to have found their rhythm once more. In addition, both scrum halves who will have to do duty next weekend, as a result of the continued absence of Conor Murray, put in solid performances and each managed to bag a fine try. Ireland know they will need to take it up another couple of gears next weekend if they are to survive a day out with New Zealand in what is rightly being billed as the biggest Test of the year. Ireland still have plenty of work to do between now and next Saturday, but it still should be one hell of a contest!

South Africa leave it till the last minute, but show a resolve we have rarely seen from them, especially on the road

France will be bitterly disappointed with their loss at the death to South Africa. It was a great Test match and France acquitted themselves very well indeed, however, in a match running so closely on the margins France committed some key errors that ultimately decided the game. South Africa were made to work for every scrap, and it is clear that France are starting to click just in time to make them a genuine nuisance come the World Cup. However, the Springboks execution was for the most part just that much better, and their focus in the dying minutes showed a calmness and confidence that wasn’t all that different to that shown by a group of men in green jerseys who visited the French capital back in February this year.

France we felt had a lot to be pleased about. Their front row may have taken a bit of a beating at times, but their second row and their back row in particular stood up superbly to a very powerful challenge from South Africa. Their halfback pairing, especially Baptiste Serin at scrum half looked the part as did the bench pairing of Anthony Belleau and Antoine Dupont. France’s backs also impressed, especially veteran fullback Maxime Medard. In short, France are clearly finding their way again and could well end up as a smoking gun in next year’s World Cup. There is still a certain naiveté about them at times, but with the European Champions Cup and next year’s Six Nations in store for many of these players, France should be in fine form come the World Cup.

South Africa managed to put last week’s disappointment behind them, and with the return of key players like scrum half Faf de Klerk, fullback Willie le Roux and second rower Franco Mostert, South Africa played with an assurance that was lacking at key moments last weekend against England. Fly half Handre Pollard’s kicking game was rock solid and he switched effortlessly to centre once Elton Jantjies replaced him at ten in the final quarter. Malcolm Marx was a shadow of the player that raised so many eyebrows last weekend in terms of missed opportunities. He hit his targets in the lineouts, made life a misery for France in the scrums and the loose, and generally got back to the kind of form we are accustomed to seeing from this remarkable player. South Africa may have been slow to get out of the blocks in the first half, but by the hour mark they were starting to fizz. Furthermore with five minutes to go they just didn’t look like panicking. They knew what they had to do and set about doing it calmly and efficiently. There is no question that replacement Hooker Bongi Mbonambi’s radar like accuracy at lineout time helped enormously and his game breaking try at the death was just reward for his efforts.

It may be premature to say – but this is best evidence we’ve seen that the gap is closing between North and South, just in time for what should be one of the most closely contested World Cups ever!

That one point difference between England and New Zealand says a lot about how quickly some of the Northern Hemisphere sides are starting to catch up to the World’s number one side, the All Blacks. There is still a long way to go, but the fact that France almost beat South Africa while England held New Zealand to the death and lost by only a point, says a lot about what we could expect from next year’s World Cup. If Ireland are able to pull off the unthinkable without Conor Murray and beat New Zealand this weekend, then it would seem to indicate that the omens for a very closely contested and open World Cup next year are looking very good indeed. Argentina seem to be peaking at just the right time, Wales are looking like they are blessed with depth and know how to win, even if last weekend’s match wasn’t the best advertisement for the latter quality. England are back and everyone knows that Ireland are good – next weekend will simply tell us how good. South Africa are starting to hum, France are rising from the ashes and Scotland continue to look dangerous. The only real question mark is Australia, and we still argue that only a fool would write them off, even if your tea leaves are telling you to do so.

In short, on what is for all intents and purposes neutral ground for Rugby’s traditional superpowers, next year’s World Cup in Japan should be one of the most open and competitive in the tournament’s history. We will know a lot more once the next two weeks are over, but have to admit we are already getting more than just a little excited!

Endnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England vs New Zealand
Saturday, November 10th
Twickenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owen Farrell is unlikely to be a match for Beauden Barrett

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Wales vs Australia
Saturday, November 10th
Cardiff

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Davies vs Kurtley Beale – a contest for the ages

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Ireland vs Argentina
Saturday, November 10th
Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great Irish scrum half debate

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

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

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

Verdict

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

France vs South Africa
Saturday, November 10th
Paris

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

Malcolm Marx – where were you last week?

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

And for France – Paul Gabrillagues where are you?

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

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

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

South Africa’s centre conundrum

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

Teddy Thomas vs Aphiwe Dyantyi – a contest to savor

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

Verdict

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

Endnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where was Malcolm Marx?

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

England seem to have found their back row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wales vs Scotland
Saturday, November 3rd
Cardiff

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

One of the best half back contests of the weekend

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

Where is Josh Navidi for Wales?

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

X-factor meets tactical genius

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

England vs South Africa
Saturday, November 3rd
Twickenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest game of Ben Youngs career?

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

England’s centre choices

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

Verdict

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

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

Ireland vs Italy
Saturday, November 3rd
Chicago

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

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

Is this Italy?

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

Luke McGrath finally gets a start for Ireland at scrum half

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

Joey Carberry really needs to showcase his superb skill set

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

The Irish back row – a genuine wealth of talent

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Endnote

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

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

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 5 where we take a look at how Wales fared.

Wales – 7/10

It’s been a good year for Wales make no mistake, and with them sitting at third place in the World Rankings – why have we only given them a 7/10 you may ask? Yes it has been an outstanding season for Wales, but their place on the world rankings table is likely to change fairly quickly once the Rugby Championship gets underway next weekend, as Australia and South Africa are likely to climb quickly on the global pecking order. There have been some outstanding performances by Wales this season, but look at the maths and then you may understand how we have had to temper Wales place on the world rankings with a dose of reality. Yes they only lost four Tests this past season, but of the eight they won, four of those matches were by less than seven points. The win against Georgia, at the beginning of the season was also far from convincing. Lastly their summer tour was against two sides deep in the process of transition – not that that takes away from three excellent Welsh wins, made more impressive by the fact that they were delivered by what was essentially a developmental squad. In short, it has been a year in which Wales have learnt a great deal about the depth they have at their disposal. While the results may not have been as convincing at times as some may have liked, Wales have used this season to lay some excellent ground work for the World Cup in Japan next year. On that basis we feel that Wales have had a very good year and should feel exceptionally confident going into 2019.

Wales got their season off to a blistering start in the November Internationals against Australia. While they may have lost the game, they played some outstanding attacking rugby but at times they looked fragile defensively. It was a fast and very physical game, with the Welsh forward pack, particularly the loose forwards Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi putting in a huge shift. However, the pace at which Wales played meant that at times they were left wrongfooted in defence. Australia were clinical at spotting the gaps and making Wales pay for them. Furthermore, in the exuberance Wales fluffed a few key chances, while their goalkicking also left them bereft of some key points. Still it was an impressive display that hinted at some great performances to come from Wales as the season unfolded.

Although they won their next match against Georgia, much of the optimism surrounding their performance against Australia quickly evaporated. It was a scrappy and at times cynical effort from Wales, and they were lucky to win a match that was from a spectator point of view instantly forgettable. Georgia matched them physically and pushed them to the limit and were unlucky to lose. They then went on to face New Zealand, and despite having the lion’s share of possession and territory they were able to do a lot less with it than the All Blacks. New Zealand were simply better at turning what little opportunity they had into points on the board. Although Wales played some brilliant rugby in the second half and scored some outstanding tries, their finishing still left much to be desired. As a result, despite a solid effort they still found themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard at the final whistle by 15 points.

Wales would finish the November Test window by putting on another superb display of high-speed attacking rugby in the first half against South Africa. However, alarm bells would start ringing again as they failed to maintain the momentum, allowing the Springboks right back into the match towards the end of the first half and ultimately for the rest of the match. Welsh fans breathed a sigh of relief as Leigh Halfpenny stroked a penalty over the posts with ten minutes to go, and put Wales back into a two point lead which they would maintain till the final whistle. Once again an impressive start was let down by a less than convincing finish despite the win.

Wales started their Six Nations campaign against Scotland by laying down a marker that they would be a force to be reckoned with. Once again they got off to a remarkably fast start which clearly unhinged a Scottish side renown for playing an equally quick brand of rugby. Wales ran out resounding winners in what was their best all round performance of the year, and one which they were able to maintain for the full eighty minutes. Wales then travelled to Twickenham where they took on England in a match they were desperately unlucky to lose, made worse by not being awarded a try which could have clearly swung the match in their favor. England were distinctly average for much of the match, though once again Wales failed to capitalise on some golden opportunities that went begging. Perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of the Welsh performance was a bizarre obsession with a kicking game in the opening stages of the game that was clearly not working for them. The minute they stopped kicking the ball away, England started to look vulnerable. How different the result might have been had they stuck with this approach from the outset.

Wales then made the journey to Dublin to take on an Irish side that was building some impressive momentum that would take them all the way to a Grand Slam. What we were privileged to witness was one of the best games of the tournament as both sides went at each other hammer and tongs. Fast and physical for the full eighty minutes, Wales were ultimately unable to contain Ireland who managed to exert increasing control over the match as it wore on. Wales got themselves back into the match with the final quarter to go, but once again Ireland were able to put a stranglehold on proceedings despite sustained Welsh pressure and it was Ireland who stole the show at the end with a brilliant intercept try.

Wales returned home, to thump Italy and then in a scrappy and difficult encounter, struggled to get past a resilient France, winning the match by one point. The French dominated possession in the second half, but a resolute Welsh defence held firm. Luckily for Wales, France didn’t bring their kicking boots with them and as a result Wales would squeak the match by the slimmest of margins.

Wales would end their season taking a developmental squad full of new caps on a three Test tour of the Americas. They got proceedings underway in an exhibition match in Washington, DC against South Africa. It was South Africa’s first game under new Coach Rassie Erasmus, ahead of a three Test series at home to England. Both sides were highly experimental but Wales can feel well pleased with the way Coach Warren Gatland’s new charges stood up to the challenge. It was a dire match at first, but from the 20 minute mark, the game picked up its tempo and Wales got into their high-speed attack mode scoring two quick tries. However, as we saw all year, at times they struggle to keep that momentum for the full eighty minutes. South Africa came storming back into the match in the second half and the contest went to the wire, with Wales making a superb charge down on a South African kick deep in the Springbok 22 and scoring a try to seal the match in their favor 24-22.

Wales then headed to Argentina for a two Test series and Gatland’s young charges excelled themselves. Admittedly Argentina were poor and lacked focus, but there is no denying that Wales completely outplayed the South Americans in a master class display from an impressive crop of less experienced Welsh players. Wales boarded the plane for the long flight home knowing that they head into the coming season and preparations for Japan with some serious depth. Depth that is likely to get better with increased exposure in the year ahead.

Our only concern with Wales is consistency, particularly in terms of lasting a full eighty minutes. They are playing a vastly expanded game compared to years gone by and it seems to suit them, even if defensively they have been found wanting at times. Fast and powerful with some outstanding loose forwards, Wales look exceptionally dangerous providing they can finish off the opportunities they are creating. In Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler, Wales have one of the best and most dangerous back row partnerships in International Rugby right now. Fix the consistency, improve the defence and cut down on the errors and Wales are more than capable of getting to the final four in Japan next year. Whatever happens they are an exciting side and we look forward to watching them build on the momentum of a season which reflects a job well done by the players and coaching staff.

Match of the year – Wales vs Scotland – Cardiff – February 3rd – Wales 34/Scotland 7

Wales completely outplayed a highly vaunted Scottish side in their Six Nations opener. Unfortunately they were unable to maintain this level of intensity and efficiency for the remainder of the tournament, but it showcased the skill set that Wales now have, especially with this looser and more open style of game they seem to have adopted. When they get it right the rest of the world will be more than just a little anxious about facing them.

Player of the year – Josh Navidi

Tough call here, as Navidi’s back row partner Aaron Shingler also stood out all season. However, it was Navidi’s powerful runs throughout the year that really caught our eye starting with Wales’ opening Test against Australia. Perhaps more than any other player Navidi epitomised the speed and power which this new look Welsh side seem to now thrive on. It was Navidi’s work rate in the loose and his explosive breaks that set up so many of Wales’ attacks through their backs this season.

Player to watch in 2019 – James Davies

While not exactly a youngster, at the age of 27, the flanker really stood out on Wales’ summer tour of the Americas, proving that Wales have some genuine depth in the back row. Expect to see more of the energetic blindside causing havoc in the midfield in 2019.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Wales’ best match of the year in our opinion. Their Six Nations opener against Scotland laid down a real marker of Welsh intent, as well as a showing a more polished and expansive style of play perfected from the November Internationals. Although they may have struggled to maintain it throughout the tournament, they still managed to finish second on the table, and on tour in the Americas in June it was very much on display with a crop of new talent. If Wales can make this their modus operandi throughout 2019, they will be a force to be reckoned with and well prepared for the global showdown in Japan.

Up next – we conclude the series with Ireland!