The Fourth Game
So for most nation’s rugby fans, the Autumn Internationals finished last weekend, but fans of Wales and South Africa – or people like me desperate for a rugby fix – were treated to one solitary match in a fourth week of Autumn International action. But should this game have taken place?
This fourth Test was played outside World Rugby’s international window, so Wales’ selections were seriously hampered not just by existing injuries, but also by players based outside Wales being unavailable due to club commitments. Taulupe Faletau was the only Premiership player to feature for Wales this weekend as I believe he has a release written into his contract with Bath, but his club are now understandably in trouble with Premiership Rugby for going against their rules.
The extra game must also have an effect on Wales’ position in the World Rankings as they are generally the only one of the home nations to play all 3 of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa every autumn, which considering they don’t have great records against these teams must surely be harming their ranking and possibly contributing to harder pools at the World Cups.
Considering the quality of crowds they get at the Principality Stadium, I can understand why the WRU choose to play an extra match as it brings in extra money while also getting a chance to blood less experienced players on the international stage when the Premiership-based players are unavailable. I have no problem with Wales continuing to play an extra match but think they could benefit from tweaking the scheduling of the games. At the moment, Wales are basically only putting out their ideal squads for 2 out of 4 games, as one of their 3 games during the window will be against a Tier 2/3 team (this year was Georgia) and they will put out a less experienced squad for this and also have a weakened squad forced on them by the loss of Premiership players in the final Test. I think it would benefit Wales to try and arrange for the Tests against the 3 big nations to be in the international window, while then playing the lower tier nation in the other Test match. This way, Wales are not taking a hit in the rankings by playing a weakened team against a rival, fans get to see the stars play in up to 3 matches and the national team still gets to develop less experienced players against an emerging nation.
Going South in the rankings
This was not a great autumn for South Africa. When the Springboks whitewashed France 3-0 over the summer, there were thoughts that they had finally turned a corner under Allister Coetzee, however finishing third in the Rugby Championship following a record defeat to New Zealand suggested things weren’t as rosy as they seemed and they went 2-2 this Autumn with wins against France and Italy but losses to Wales and France. This indifferent form has seen them fall out of the top 5 in the World Rankings, leapfrogged by a Scotland side that was missing a number of stars.
While the 24-22 score against Wales looks commendable at first glance, it must be remembered that this was a Wales team missing a number of top players that completely outplayed the Boks in the opening 40. Against Ireland, they did not appear able to cope with the home team’s kicking game, and their performance against Wales suggested that very little had been done to improve on this throughout November as Wales frequently took advantage of this. Dillyn Leyds and Warrick Gelant both showed flashes of quality in attack but very little to make a fan feel comfortable when their team are defending. Are they really the best options for South Africa right now? You could ask that question about a number of the team.
South Africa brought in a 30-cap minimum for players outside of the country, but they still appear to be behind home-based players in the pecking order. Granted Francois Hougaard and Pat Lambie have only just returned from injury, but surely Francois Louw, Bryan Habana, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Duane Vermeulen (all experienced internationals) would improve this team, while Kwagga Smith – an important cog in the Lions’ run to the 2017 Super Rugby final and a star of autumns match between the All Blacks and Barbarians – would have also given the Boks another option tactically.
Elton Jantjies is not a reliable enough fly half at Test level and the decision to take off Handre Pollard – one of their better performers on Saturday – for him may have actually cost them the game. There are some quality players in this squad – Malcom Marx and Siya Kolisi have had great seasons and the squad should be built around them and a core of reliable players – but I feel they need to find someone to replace the man at the top. South Africa have struggled the last 2 seasons under Coetzee (which says a lot about how the French are struggling at the moment!) and I think they need to move on quickly if they don’t want a repeat of the embarrassment they felt when they lost to Japan in RWC2015. At least at that point they were able to recover and make it to the semi-final, as of now I wouldn’t trust the current crop to be able to do this.
Taking a chance
A number of players made their debuts or added to their limited caps in November due to limited availability of some international regulars. Some may struggle to make many more appearances for their country barring an injury crisis, but there were some who have surely put themselves on the coaches’ radar.
I wrote about Josh Navidi’s long wait for a home debut a few weeks back and I am happy to say that he impressed me throughout the Autumn Internationals. This was a Wales squad in transition as they try to change their playing style, but Navidi shone despite this. Considering the quality of his rivals – Warburton, Faletau, Moriarty and Tipuric all went on the Lions Tour – Navidi will need to stay at the top of his game, but I would not be surprised to see him on the bench come the 6 Nations and perhaps even pushing for a start if Moriarty’s injury issues persist.
Saturday’s game against South Africa also saw the international debut of Hadleigh Parkes. The 30-year-old kiwi has just qualified for Wales on residency and was thrown straight into the starting lineup against the Boks. A good friend of mine is a Scarlets fan and has been hyping him up to me ever since the squad for the Autumn Internationals was announced. Having watched him on Saturday, I can understand why! His playing style seems to fit what Wales are looking for at 12 with their new style of play – a more open gameplan with playmakers at 10 & 12 – and at the moment it looks like he will be competing for the starting spot with Owen Williams. Williams looked decent in attack but I think that Parkes looked more solid in defence, which has in my mind put him in pole position for the 6 Nations. With Scott Williams off to Ospreys in the summer, it looks like Parkes and Jonathan Davies (once back from injury) will be the de facto centre partnership at Scarlets, so I think this chemistry will also be beneficial to the national team moving forwards.
Sticking with Scarlets, Steff Evans had a mixed autumn for Wales. He had some flashes of quality in attack but not as many as fans would have hoped or expected, however his defence was questionable and a number of tackles showed poor technique similar to that of Leigh Halfpenny, which proved costly in a couple of cases. Personally, I think that Evans should be given more of a chance as there were very few moments where the Welsh back line looked confident playing the attacking style that will benefit him, while the chopping and changing of players in the midfield and the loss of Jon Davies put a lot more pressure on him in defence. Injuries to George North and Liam Williams also added to the chances for Hallam Amos this autumn and I feel that he took his chances well with a couple of good tries. Depending on how much rugby North between his return from injury and the start of the 6 Nations, I would be tempted to start Amos instead of North in the next match. Leigh Halfpenny has also not been as impressive as fans would have hoped in recent Wales performances and is arguably not the form 15 in the Wales squad, despite Gatland’s insistence on putting Williams on the wing. If I was picking the starting back 3 for the 6 Nations on current form, I would give Evans and Amos the chances on the wing with Williams moving to 15.