Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

The pool stages of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup came to an end in Dublin as Ireland hosted Georgia. The Irish have been having an up and down tournament but got off to a good start as a series of phases in the Georgian 22 ended with Billy Burns gliding through a gap to score a try on his first Test start. Burns added the conversion and a penalty shortly after, but the Georgians hit back as Giorgi Kveseladze found a gap in the Irish midfield and exploited it, using Vasil Lobzhanidze as a distraction to beat Jacob Stockdale and stepping around Burns’ tackle to score under the posts, leaving Tedo Abzhandadze with an easy conversion to bring the score back within 3. Burns soon added another penalty to double the lead, and the Irish thought they had a second try around the half-hour mark after Rob Herring was driven over following a lineout, but replays showed that Beka Gorgadze had managed to get under the ball and hold it up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as Ireland went through the phases off the resultant scrum and created the space out wide for Hugo Keenan to score, with Burns converting. It looked like the Irish had another try as half time approached when Jacob Stockdale set Stuart McCloskey free down the left wing, however a review from the TMO showed that the pass from Stockdale had gone forwards, while one final attempt to score before the break was also adjudged to have been held up over the line.

The Lelos were looking much more competitive in this match and got the opening points of the second half with a penalty from Abzhandadze, but Ross Byrne – on early in the half for the injured Burns – replied with a penalty of his own. Substitutions, a couple of head knocks and a serious injury to Gorgadze stopped either team from building any real momentum in the second half, but the Irish finished the game on the attack and after earning an attacking lineout 5m from the Georgian try line, they faked the maul and instead sent CJ sStander on a charge for the line, however the Lelos succeeded in holding him up and holding onto a tied second half and a 23-10 final score. The result means that Ireland will face the Scots in the 3ʳᵈ-Place Final, while Georgia will face Fiji for 7ᵗʰ, assuming the islanders are able to play.

Taking their chance

Andy Farrell is going to have some big calls to make against Scotland. He needs to be looking to the future and figuring out the players who will be a key part of his RWC2023 campaign, but a 4ᵗʰ-placed finish would also be a very disappointing result, especially given the manner of their defeat to England.

For this game, Ireland put out a strong squad, but still managed to test their depth at some positions, with starts for players like Burns, Bealham and McCloskey and a debut for Shane Daly off the bench. I would expect that next week, they will go with their strongest available team, so who put their hands up for selection in this game?

Billy Burns had a strong first half, looking comfortable in his first start and getting the back line moving well for the second week running, while it was noticeable that the attacking quality dropped off in the second half after he came off. As someone who can also hold his own in defence, I would argue that the focus should be on Burns as the starting 10 moving forwards, with a view to having him as a leader within the squad by the time the World Cup comes around.

Hugo Keenan has had a great tournament and once again looked both dangerous with ball in hand and solid under the high ball. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be a nailed on starter come the Six Nations.

Chris Farrell has been unlucky over the years that he has had to compete against Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, but he is taking his chance well and consistently helped the Irish get on the front foot in attack while remaining pretty solid in defence and has been one of their more consistent players in the tournament.

Tadhg Beirne is in such an interesting position, as he never really seems to have a bad match, but seems to struggle to hold down a place in the squad. An incredibly mobile player who is super dangerous at the breakdown, Beirne showed both of these skills in the first half, appearing a 6 in this game, but equally adept at lock. He feels like a slightly bigger version of Peter O’Mahony, but I feel he would be a great option as a 4, providing mobility and an extra breakdown threat to complement what appears to be the most balanced Irish back row of CJ Stander, Caelan Doris and Will Connors.

Building to success

It feels harsh to say, but the Lelos were poor in the first 2 weeks. This week however, they looked legitimately competitive against a 23 that was maybe not full strength, but still plenty strong enough to leave me expecting a very one-sided affair. That proved far from the case though, as the Lelos competed for the full 80 and were fully deserving of the draw in the second half, often pushing back the Irish with their solid defence.

To me, this is showing that part of the Georgian problem in the opening weeks was he lack of preparation, with them not getting to spend much time together ahead of the tournament and players spread throughout the French leagues, Georgian teams and a few in Russia or England. With such little time together – and much of that spent having to travel to Tier 1 nations who are too worried about themselves to travel to Georgia.

The Lelos need to start getting fair treatment, in the same was as people discuss the importance of Tier 1 Nations travelling to the Pacific Islands, they also need to be travelling to Tbilisi so that the Lelos can face top teams in front of a home crowd on a ground they know well. If they start getting that, it’s just a matter of time before they start getting results against Tier 1 nations.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

With England’s place in the Autumn Nations Cup final confirmed, eyes turned to Paris to see who they would be facing as France took on Italy. Having defeated Scotland last weekend, Les Bleus knew that a win over Italy would see them top the pool, but Top 14 player usage rules meant that they were playing with a largely inexperienced 23, which would increase Italy’s hopes of a first win against a Tier 1 nation since 2016.

France got off to a good start with Matthieu Jalibert kicking a penalty just 3 minutes into the game, but this was followed by a 20-minute period of tight rugby with plenty of kicks for territory. The Italians found the breakthrough, as Marco Zanon charged through the line and fed Paolo Garbisi, who offloaded to Carlo Canna to cross for the opening try, though Garbisi missed the conversion. It looked like the Azzurri may hold the lead into halftime, but a late 5m lineout for the French gave them a platform and centre Jonathan Danty crashed over from short range, with Jalibert converting for a 10-5 halftime lead.

Things went downhill for the Italians after the break, with Jacopo Trulla sent to the bin for a deliberate knock on. The French used the man advantage to kill the game off, with tries from Gabin Villière, Baptiste Serin and Teddy Thomas, with Jalibert adding 2 conversions. The Italians kept fightingfor some pride in the final quarter but could not find the breakthrough and France added one more try at the death through Sekou Macalou, with replacement Louis Carbonel kicking the conversion for a final score of 36-5.

Staking a claim

Due to an agreement with the Top 14, players were limited in the number of matches they could play in during this tournament, which led to an almost completely different 23 playing this week, comprised mainly of highly inexperienced players and a handful of former internationals like Uini Atonio and Brice Dulin. While the lack of chemistry certainly caused some issues in this match, there were a number of players who stood out an will hope that their performances may bring them closer to the first choice squad.

Matthieu Jalibert already seems to be the go-to replacement for Romain Ntamack and though it is clear that he needs more experience at this level, he controlled the game well and will benefit from more playing time with the regulars.

Jonathan Danty had a great match in midfield, utilising his physicality in both attack and defence, and capping it off with a try. While Gaël Fickou provides a great ball-playing option at 12, Danty provides a more physical option that could provide a different dimension to the back line.

Brice Dulin was a great talent when he first came on the scene for Les Bleus and looked very much back to his best with his silky running and reliable boot in the kicking game, including a high bomb that could again add an extra dimension to the back line.

Finally, in the pack, Sekou Macalou put in a fine defensive performance, soaking up ball carriers and winning the turnovers, while his late try was a just reward for his efforts on the day. His one issue is that he finds himself competing with captain Charles Ollivon for the 7 shirt, but he would be a dangerous addition off the bench.

Finding the breakthrough

Italy find themselves in an interesting position. Paolo Garbisi looks better with every cap, and while Carlo Canna provides a second playmaking option at 12, he is often utilised as a crash ball instead, doing it with gusto but to little effect. In this match, Marco Zanon really showed his quality with a number of line breaks, including 3 in the build-up to Canna’s try. It looks like he is close to cementing his place as one of the starting centres, but is Canna the right option beside him?

I think it is time that Canna is moved to the bench to allow Garbisi to run the backline, with Matteo Minozzi providing a secondary playmaker option at 15. This would then allow a second specialist centre to pair with Zanon, either the experienced Luca Morisi or the young but impressive Federico Mori, to create a dangerous centre pairing that will force defences to narrow up in midfield and provide more space out wide for the wings to exploit.

Will it work? There’s no guarantee. But with talismanic back row carrier Jake Polledri out for some time, the Azzurri need to find a breakthrough somewhere.

 

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v England

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v England

The final round of the Autumn Nations Cup pool stage kicked off this afternoon with England’s trip to Llanelli to face Wales. With 2 wins from 2, England arrived at Parc y Scarlets the heavy favourites, but it was the home side who took the lead as Dan Biggar blocked at attempted grubber from Henry Slade, the ball was hacked on into the English dead ball area and centre Johnny Williams – who had previously scored for England in a uncapped match against the Barbarians – beat off all opposition to dot the ball down, with Leigh Halfpenny nailing the conversion. England had been the stronger team before the try and remained so, and when Dan Biggar knocked on after being tackled in the air by Sam Underhill – a clear penalty that referee Romain Poite inexplicably deemed legal despite the TMO’s protestation – England went through the phases and eventually drew in the Welsh defence enough to put Henry Slade over for the try out wide, Farrell missing the conversion – his 2ⁿᵈ miss following an early penalty – to allow Wales to keep the lead. Halfpenny missed a penalty that would have extended the lead, and Owen Farrell found his range with the boot to kick 2 penalties and give England a 7-11 lead at the break.

Wales made a number of changes early in the second half, but it didn’t bring any immediate success as they were tackled over their own line following a 5m lineout. England went through the phases off the scrum and with the ball just inches from the line, Mako Vunipola managed to pick from the base and pirouette through contact to score, Farrell adding the 2 points. Wales kept themselves in the fight with 2 penalties from Dan Biggar, but the game was effectively killed off with 13 minutes remaining, as Ben Youngs took advantage of a loose ball on the floor following a deliberate knock on from Wales 40m out, going though a gap and spreading the ball to Anthony Watson, who was stopped 5m short of the line. However Poite, who had completely missed the knock on decided that a gain of 35 metres was not sufficient to call the advantage over and Farrell duly added the 3 points off the tee to take the lead beyond 7 points. As the clock ticked down, Farrell added another 3 points off the tee but missed a final attempt, and England came away with the 13-24 victory to top the pool.

Eat sleep, kick, repeat

England’s defence was once again fantastic. Their set piece largely dominant. Their attack… Boring? Repetitive? Lacking? Unimaginative? There are certainly very few positive words I can think of to describe it.

Let’s not forget that had Romain Poite been doing a better job, 8 of England’s points wouldn’t have counted and some of the scrum penalties against Wales were very dubious – and this is coming from an Englishman! England have a world class winger in Jonny May and plenty of talented attacking players, however Eddie Jones instead chooses to go for Ben Youngs and George Ford to kick all their ball back to Wales. Yes a lot of them were meant to be contestable kicks, but they were poor, and at best those kicks are usually a 50/50 to retain. Meanwhile Wales are left with what appears to be a decent defence because it was hardly ever tested in the game.

Yes, a solid set piece, reliable goal kicker and stingy defence will only get you so far and you need to have an attack of your own – just look at how dangerous France are at the moment with an incredible attack and defence!

Just one look at a weekend of Premiership action will show you that the attacking talent is available to Eddie Jones, there just needs to be a change of mindset from the coaches to take this team to the next level.

Time running out?

It wasn’t just the England attack that was lacking in this game, as the Welsh attack produced… well, nothing! The one time they truly looked dangerous was Williams’ try, which was just chasing down a blocked kick.

The pack were clearly missing the talents of players like Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi and struggled to make any ground to put the team on the front foot, and this meant that the backs were unable to create any space, with Louis Rees-Zammit’s best chance coming when he had 5m of space when getting the ball – however this was against Anthony Watson, who had only just come on and had the pace and angle to cover him – and Josh Adams never even got that!

While the appointment of Wayne Pivac seemed a great move following his success with the Scarlets and the perfect cure to years of Warrenball, it feels like he is struggling to get this team performing at anything close to an acceptable level, and with Scott Robertson looking so impressive with the Crusaders, I can’t help feel that the WRU should reach out to see if he would be interested in stepping up to international rugby and making the move to bring him in before the All Blacks move on from Ian Foster.

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Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

A rollercoaster Rugby Championship reached its end for New Zealand as they faced off against Argentina in Newcastle. The All Blacks were coming into the match off the back of losses to Australia and the Pumas, but quickly established themselves as the stronger team in this game, though Jordie Barrett missed an early kick from range and older brother Beauden knocked on at the line after Anton Lienert-Brown stopped the Pumas winning a Richie Mo’unga high ball in their 22. They soon found the breakthrough, though, as they managed to get a touch on Nicolás Sánchez’s attempted clearance to keep the ball in play, and after a series of phases, Mo’unga floated a pass out to Dane Coles to go over in the corner. Mo’unga added the conversion and a penalty, before making a thrilling break and spreading the ball wide to Caleb Clarke, however the wing was not quite able to stay in play as he tried to score in the corner. Mo’unga had one more chance to add o the score before halftime, but the ball came out off the posts and the Pumas were able to clear their lines for a 0-10 halftime deficit.

The second half opened with both sides looking dangerous in attack, but after New Zealand quickly worked their way into the Pumas 22, it took until the 50ᵗʰ minute for them to dot down, though this was denied for a knock-on by Caleb Clarke. The All Blacks won a penalty from the resulting scrum and kicked to the corner, and a clever lineout move by the forwards saw Ardie Savea crash over from close range, Mo’unga adding the extras. The game continued to be a close affair as the substitutions stared en masse, but 2 of the replacements proved key as Santiago Carreras, on at 15 in place of Sánchez, struggled attacking flat to the line and gifted the ball to Will Jordan to run in from halfway twice in 2 minutes to secure a bonus point victory, with Mo’unga adding both conversions. New Zealand thought they had added the cherry to the top of the cake as the lock ticked into the red with Reiko Ioane crossing, but a TMO review instead awarded a penalty to the Pumas and saw Tyrel Lomax sent to the sin bin for a clearout to the head. The Pumas had the chance to kick the ball out and end the game, but instead chose to kick to touch and launch one more attack, however the All Blacks won the ball back and put Patrick Tuipulotu through a gap to add an undeserved shine on the result, Mo’unga adding the 2 points to secure a 0-38 victory that all-but guarantees the All Blacks will win the Tri Nations.

Testing the depth

The Pumas certainly drew the short straw with the fixture scheduling after South Africa pulled out, as they are the only one of the 3 teams involved this year who has to play on 4 consecutive weeks. As such, it was no giant surprise to see a number of changes to the 23, but unfortunately I feel that it proved costly in his match.

In place of the highly experienced prop pairing of Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro and Francisco Gómez Kodela, Santiago Medrano (24 years old) and Mayco Vivas (22) were given the start, but they found the All Blacks scrum too much for them to deal with. Obviously the only way they can learn to scrummage at the top level is by putting them into matches like this, but unfortunately it proved costly in this match as their scrum was in almost constant retreat and giving away penalties at an alarming rate, which was gifting New Zealand possession and territory far too often.

As if that wasn’t enough, the number of scrums skyrocketed as a heavily changed back line struggled to create any cohesion, with too many attempts to put a player through a gap resulting in the ball going to floor. This only got worse as Santiago Carreras – who usually plays in the back 3for Argentina – was brought on at fly half, as he clearly wasn’t comfortable in the position and gifted Will Jordan 2 tries when he tried to play flat to the line and bring the back line into play.

Obviously it was disappointing on the day, but the players will have learned a lot from this match and will benefit from this in the long term. And I’m sur there will be a lot more focus in the coming week on building the chemistry.

Inefficient

A 0-38 victory certainly looks good on paper, but I can’t help feel that anyone who actually watched the match will feel that this didn’t really do much to help Ian Foster’s job security.

When you think of the All Blacks, you think of a team that pounces on your mistakes and exploits them by making the right decisions to score the try. Instead, this game was just another example of blown opportunities from New Zealand.

Beauden Barrett is meant to be one of the best players in the world but couldn’t even hold onto the ball as he crossed the line under pressure from Felipe Ezcurra, while Reiko Ioane may also be thankful that Tyrel Lomax’s indiscretion meant his potential try was not looked at further. Mo’unga created a brilliant chance with his break and wide pass to Clarke (who had already wasted one chance with a knock on 5m from the line), but the winger was then selfish by trying to round the defender himself, rather than holding his line to draw the defence as they rushed across and then feeding the man who was in the process of looping behind him. And then finally in the early minutes of the second half, Anton Lienert-Brown wasted an overlap 5m from the line by playing the ball back inside.

This is not the clinical team that we are used to, this is a bunch of players who have lost direction and were lucky Carreras gifted them 2 tries to make it to the bonus point. New Zealand need to replace Foster with someone who can refresh the team, pick the players on form and get the best out of them. That man is currently at the Crusaders: Scott Robertson. But they will need to move quick as there’s always the chance he could move abroad to take on an international role elsewhere.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Scotland v France

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Scotland v France

Sunday saw round 2 of the Autumn Nations Cup come to an end at Murrayfield as Scotland hosted France. The French were finally kicking off their campaign following the cancellation of their match with Fiji and they got off to the quicker start as Thomas Ramos landed an early penalty. Les Bleus thought for a moment that they had the opening try after 9 minutes as Virimi Vakatawa and Blair Kinghorn both dived on a kick through, but replays showed that the centre did not have control of the ball and France had to settle for another Ramos penalty. The Scots finally built into the game and 2 penalties from Duncan Weir drew things level, but Matthieu Jalibert hit back with a drop goal. As the tussle for supremacy continued, Ramos added another penalty and Weir added one of his own, before a gargantuan scrum earned the French a penalty at the end of the half. Instead of going for the 3 pints, they went to the corner, and after going through the phases, Vakatawa crossed the line but was held up, keeping the halftime score level at 0-0.

Following the break it as another scrum that saw the breakthrough, but this time it was the movement of the backs off first phase, as Gaël Fickou’s inside pass set Vincent Rattez free and the winger fed Vakatawa to cross for the opening try, which Ramos converted. Scotland hit back with another penalty soon after, but could find no breakthrough, and Ramos added another penalty on the hour to make it a 7-point game. Ramos had the chance to seal the win with another late penalty but missed the target, leaving Scotland with the chance to snatch a draw. They got a chance as Wayne Barnes awarded them a penalty in midfield with the clock in the red, and the Scots looked to the big boot f Stuart Hogg to put them as close to the corner as possible. Unfortunately the captain put a little too much on the kick and the ball sailed into the dead ball area, allowing France to clear and celebrate a 15-22 win that will leave them as favourites to top the pool.

Formidable front row

As if the talent in the French back line wasn’t scary enough, this match really highlighted the quality of the pack, and especially the front row. In Jean-Baptiste Gros, Camille Chat and Demba Bamba, Les Bleus were putting out what would be considered their second-choice front row (judging by recent matches), and yet they were still dominant, highlighted by a monster scrum just before halftime that saw them demolish the Scottish pack and earn a penalty. Then when the usual starters came on in Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand and Mohamed Haouas came on, it was just more of the same.

In Marchand and Chat, France have 2 hookers who would waltz into most national teams and could conceivably both be considered in the top 5 in the world, with their strong carrying and their expert jackaling just adding to their reliability at the set piece. And in the 4 props you have expert scrummagers and some dynamic carriers.

And the scariest thing of all: the oldest of them is Baille at 27 years old! Most of these players are only just about coming into their prime or have still not reached it, and as such they are only likely to get better as the team builds towards a home World Cup.

Be very afraid…

Target acquired

Under Shaun Edwards, the French defence has become a nightmare to deal with. With such a physical unit and players so dangerous at the breakdown, Scotland knew that going head-to-head with them would end disastrously, so looked to a more territorial game.

However when you watch the kicks they were putting in, they were still looking for a way to fight the French with the kicks, often putting the high balls towards Thomas Ramos and Vincent Rattez, who are smaller and less able to compete in the air. You can also see that they were looking to target these players with their own selections in the back 3, with a 6’4 monster in Duhan van der Merwe and 2 fullbacks in Hogg and Blair Kinghorn, while Sean Maitland off the bench also covers both wing and 15.

By being able to pepper the smaller members of the French back 3 with high balls and have a high ball specialist or a bigger player competing against them in the air, Scotland were giving themselves a good chance of winning the ball further up the field and getting in behind the French line. Assuming England and France face off at the end of the tournament, it will be interesting to see if England do similar, utilising Jonny May and Anthony Watson.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Georgia

With England winning against Ireland to take the lead in their Autumn Nations Cup pool, the pool’s losing teams from Week 1 faced off at Parc-y-Scarlets. After a nervy start, Callum Sheedy opened the scoring with a penalty, but the real breakthrough did not come until the 26ᵗʰ minute, when Nick Tompkins ran a crash ball off the scrum and offloaded to catch the Georgian defence unprepared, allowing Sheedy to throw a miss pass to Louis Rees-Zammit to score his first Test try in the corner on his first Test start, Sheedy kicking the conversion to put Wales into double figures. The rest of the half passed with little of note, with the Lelos’ only real chance of points a 42m penalty from Tedo Abzhandadze, which sailed wide left to end the half.

The second half began very similar to the end of the first, with Sheedy also pulling a penalty wide left from almost the exact same spot, however he made amends with his next kick on 52 minutes. As the hour approached, Rees-Zammit made probably the break of the game, beating multiple tacklers down the left wing before feeding Justin Tipuric, however the Wales captain caught a swinging arm as he was tackled, leading to him leaving the pitch with a head injury while the offender, Beka Saginadze, being sent to the sin bin. Wales failed to capitalise on the numerical advantage as hordes of replacements left the game disjointed, but as the clock ticked down they were able to finish on a high as they attacked down the blind side at a ruck, with Sheedy setting Rees-Zammit free and the Gloucester flier feeding replacement scrum half Rhys Webb on the inside to score the second try of the game and secure an 18-0 victory.

Looking ahead

With both Ireland and Wales on 1 win and 1 draw, and the Irish facing Georgia next weekend, Wales need a big result against England if they want to have any chance of finishing in the top half of the pool. After a less-than-impressive display against the Irish, don’t be surprised to see changes for this next match. But who put their hands up in this game?

In the pack, Samson Lee and Wyn Jones’ dominance over the Georgian scrum should put them in the driving seat against the might of the England pack. Aaron Wainwright had a better game against the Lelos and impressed with his carrying, which may earn him a return to the starting back row, while James Davies had a great cameo off the bench with a number of turnovers and may take the 7 shirt if Tipuric is unavailable.

In the back line the most obvious change would be at 12, where I feel that Johnny Williams impressed with his straight lines and hard running, potentially adding more dynamism than Owen Watkin to go with his physicality, while Louis Rees-Zammit may just earn a spot on the bench to take advantage of a tiring defence.

Worrying times

It’s not been a great couple of weeks for Georgian rugby. The Lelos have been held scoreless in both of their matches so far in this campaign, wit Abzhandadze’s missed penalty from 42 metres out one of the only times they have looked like they would score. The linebreaks have been severely limited in attack and it has now become familiar to see them kicking the ball away after going nowhere for a few phases.

In defence, they have been stout, not giving up too much in the way of full breaks – potentially helped by the conditions the last 2 weeks – but they have then let themselves down by giving away too many penalties at the breakdown.

But perhaps even more worrying was the way the much-vaunted scrum was dominated by the Welsh pack, being repeatedly pushed back and drawing a number of penalties.

After a number of years where it looked like they were on the up, This is a bad time for it to all fall apart for the Lelos, especially when you remember that they are only in the Autumn Nations Cup due to Japan pulling out. The Georgian Union needs to sort themselves and work on 2 things fast: First of all, they need to find a permanent head coach to replace Milton Haig, who did a wonderful job after 8 years with the Lelos but left after the World Cup – a whole year ago! Secondly, they need to be doing everything they can to get a franchise into the PRO14 as soon as possible to ensure that their players are up against top quality opposition as much as possible.

If these things aren’t worked out soon, I worry that the talents they have will be wasted.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Ireland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Ireland

The second weekend of the Autumn Nations Cup kicked off in a wonderful fashion with England hosting Ireland at Twickenham. The English came in off a dominant win over Georgia and their impressive defence continued from the off.

After a tight opening 15 minutes, it was England who broke the deadlock as Owen Farrell made use of a penalty advantage in the Irish 22 and kicked a high ball out to the right wing, where Jonny May managed to rise above Hugo Keenan to win the ball and cross the line under heavy pressure from James Lowe. The Irish thought they had a chance to hit back minutes later with a lineout 5m from the England line, but their lineout issues returned as Ronan Kelleher overthrew his jumper and England won possession back, spreading the ball to Jonny May on the far wing who slipped through the defence before chasing down his own kick downfield for a stunning second try, which Owen Farrell converted. The Irish managed to regain some degree of parity but could not find an answer for the English defence. With just a few minutes left of the half, a risky Irish move off a lineout in their own 22 looked to have backfired spectacularly as Sam Underhill dotted the ball down over the line, but a referral to the TMO showed that he had completed the tackle on Jamison Gibson-Park and played the ball on the floor on the Irish side of the breakdown, meaning Underhill’s wait for a first Test try would continue as his team went into the break 12-0 up.

Ireland’s inability to severely test the England defence continued in the second half, and Owen Farrell punished their indiscipline with 6 points off the tee. However as the half went on, the English discipline began to slip and the Irish began to spend more time in the English 22. A clever kick from Ross Byrne caught the England defence out and Chris Farrell collected, only for Henry Slade to tackle him and roll him over the line to hold the ball up. As the clock ticked down, England’s win became all-but assured, but the Irish managed to earn some consolation as replacement Billy Burns chipped in behind the English line and Jacob Stockdale collected to go under the posts, with Burns adding the extras for a final score of 18-7.

The white wall

Ireland didn’t necessarily play a bad match here – besides the lineout – but they just had no answer for the England defence. While there is certainly reason to question Eddie Jones’ reticence to bring in some of the best attacking talents in the Premiership, the players that he put on the pitch are working so well as a formidable defensive unit.

They keep organised, they come up in your face and tackle you en masse to push you back from the gain line, while also taking their chances to slow down the ball and create turnovers. It hardly looks like they tire, but then as you tire, you see another player come on and do the same to you.

Argentina showed last weekend against the All Blacks how a great defence and doing the basics right can win you the game, well England’s defence puts them in that position and with special talent like Jonny May in the side, there is always that threat when they have the ball. Certainly I feel that there are players in the Premiership who could improve this team, but they are in a strong position already.

Tactical blunder?

It’s not often you can say this with your team down 18-0 at the time that you’re replaced, but Ross Byrne didn’t have a bad game. The Leinster fly half was given the start in the absence of Johnny Sexton, and would have wished for a much easier challenge so soon in his international career. However he played a solid, if unspectacular game, leading what was clearly an attempt to put England under pressure by peppering Elliot Daly with high balls – always a good plan – and kicking for the corners to take advantage of any territory. Unfortunately for him, England were able to deal with much of this and pay it back with interest, and it just didn’t seem like the Irish had and answer, though Chris Farrell had a degree of success attacking at 13. Probably the best moment of the game from Byrne was his last-second switch to a grubber that almost led to a try, but other than this it was a pretty basic gameplan from Ireland that barely troubled the home defence.

Billy Burns entered the fray in the final 8 minutes and, though there was little chance to show what he could do, the Irish attack already looked more dangerous. Burns was always a great attacking 10 at Gloucester and has continued as such with Ulster, being able to vary the attack with a series of passes and kicks. This was perfectly highlighted by the try at the end, recognising that the high pressure from the England defence would leave a gap in behind and putting in an inch-perfect chip for Stockdale to run onto.

And so with this improvement in the attack, a question should be asked of why Andy Farrell did not choose to bring on Burns earlier. It’s by no means a knock at Byrne, but the gameplan he was set up clearly wasn’t working, whereas a more varied attack may have got more success out of Farrell, Keenan and Lowe.

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Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v Australia

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v Australia

The 2020 Tri Nations edition of the Rugby Championship continued this weekend with Argentina taking on Australia in Newcastle. Both the Wallabies and the Pumas were coming into the match off the back of wins over New Zealand (how often can you say that?!) and it soon became clear that this would be a tight affair.

Fly halves Nicolás Sánchez and Reece Hodge traded penalties early on, before the Wallabies thought they had scored a try as Jordan Petaia dotted down a Hunter Paisami grubber, only for replays to show his toe had touched the dead ball line as he tried to score. The fly halves again traded penalties, and then right at the end of the half Marika Koroibete crossed for a try, which was again disallowed on review as the final pass from Tom Banks went forward. However, they had the penalty advantage and Reece Hodge kicked the 3 points to give them a 6-9 halftime lead.

Argentina’s ill-discipline at the end of the first half had left them on a warning and it soon proved costly as Julián Montoya was shown a yellow card for failing to clearly release the tackled player before going in on the ball. The Wallabies duly kicked the resultant penalty and added another just as the sin bin period came to an end to build a 9-point lead. However the Pumas hit back and as the Wallabies discipline disappeared, Sánchez kicked 3 penalties to draw things level with 10 minutes left. It looked like the Wallabies would get a late winner as Matías Orlando was pinged for playing the ball off his feet with just minutes left, but Reece Hodge picked the wrong moment to lose his 100% kicking record in the match and pushed the kick wide. There was time for just 1 more attack from Australia, but when the Pumas stole the ball at a breakdown, Pablo Matera kicked downfield and Santiago Cordero was first to the bouncing ball, reaching it just before it went into touch. A decent hack on would allow the former Exeter star to fall on the ball over the line for the win, but his soccer skills eluded hi at just the wrong moment and Jake Gordon was able to fall on the loose ball and flop himself into touch just short of the try line to end the game in a 15-15 stalemate that saw both teams go level with New Zealand on 6 points, with points difference leaving the Pumas in 2ⁿᵈ and Australia 3ʳᵈ.

A familiar issue

Australia put up a strong fight against the Pumas. They had the possession and the territory, they even held their own in the scrum for much of the match and caused the Argentinian pack some issues there. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a costly issue that will be very familiar for those who watched Super Rugby AU: the lineout.

Despite playing arguably the best lock pairing in the squad for lineouts, the Wallabies saw a number of chances ended before they had even really began as Brandon Paenga-Amosa – a great hooker in the loose – struggled with his throw. The Wallabies were twice denied a great attacking platform at 5m lineouts, with one being rightly deemed not straight and another stolen by Guido Petti, and they should consider themselves lucky that their last throw of the first half – which set the up for the go-ahead penalty –  wasn’t deemed not straight as it was no different to the earlier call. Sadly they weren’t the only instances, just the ones 5m out from the line, with another lineout on the edge of the 22 stolen and another in a similar area pinged for being not straight.

This isn’t going to be a simple fix by replacing Paenga-Amosa at hooker, as none of the hookers really impressed during the recent domestic tournament. Instead, this unit needs to continue working together and former England lineout specialist Geoff Parling needs to earn his salary working with the pack to fix these issues, otherwise they will always struggle to finish off other Tier 1 nations with an inconsistent set piece.

On target

As picked out by the commentators during the match, Argentina had certainly been doing their homework in regards to how the Wallabies set up to receive kickoffs and devised a good strategy off the restart. Time after time, Nicolás Sánchez targeted Hunter Paisami with their restarts, finding the inside centre and putting pressure on him with the chase.

The logic behind this was clear. Paisami is a strong runner, so having him at the bottom of a ruck takes away one option if the Wallabies want to hit the ball up for a phase to give their kickers a better angle from which to clear the ball. Secondly, as someone more commonly known for his physicality than his kicking game, plonking the ball on his head and forcing him to kick under pressure would likely lead to a decent attacking position, while captain Pablo Matera even managed to charge him down on one occasion to win the Pumas possession in a great position.

Finally, the Wallabies’ set up meant that if Paisami was tackled quickly after catching the kick there would be a great chance of a turnover or Argentinian penalty, as Paisami was largely isolated in his position, with only the diminutive Nic White in a position to support and secure the breakdown – not what you really want with behemoths like the Pumas back row in such fine form.

After such clear targeting, it will be interesting to see if the Wallabies change their formation or positions ahead of the reverse fixture in 2 weeks time.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Georgia

England’s Autumn Nations Cup opener against Georgia is not one that will live long in the memory for many people, but let’s get through this.

Eddie Jones put out a side full of experience but also with a few debutants, and though they quickly found themselves camped on the Georgian line, it took them quarter of an hour to finally break the deadlock as Wasps flanker Jack Willis forced himself over on debut, converted by Owen Farrell. The physical contest continued, but the Lelos struggled to get any territory of note and conceded 2 tries in quick succession as England utilised the driving maul for Jamie George to earn a first half brace, the first of which was converted by Farrell. England finally remembered they had a back line just before half time and Jonathan Joseph came off his wing to create an overlap that allowed Elliot Daly to go over in the corner to secure the bonus point, while Farrell converted for a 26-0 halftime score.

Any hopes of a more exciting second half were quickly doused by deteriorating weather conditions, but Jamie George found reason to celebrate just before the hour mark as another driving maul saw him complete his hat trick, with Farrell adding the 2 points. Georgia kept competing however and earned some possession in the England 22, but the England defence coped with them and worked their way back downfield, allowing replacement Dan Robson to snipe over from close range for his first Test try, which Farrell converted for a final score of 40-0.

Mauled

For a team so revered for their scrummaging ability, the Georgians really have an issue with the maul. The Lelos don’t appear to have any way to stop a Tier 1 team when they get the driving maul set, with Scotland scoring 3 times and setting up another try using the driving maul just a couple of weeks ago, to add to Jamie George’s hat trick today.

Every time a team gets the maul set against Georgia, it either seems to end in a penalty due to the Lelos bringing it down illegally, or else with the referee blowing his whistle for a try. Meanwhile when the Lelos get the chance to put together a driving maul of their own, England found it all to easy to break the pack apart and get through on the ball.

Georgia need to be playing against Tier 1 teams regularly in order to improve these facets of the game. Until they do so, teams will be kicking their penalties to touch in the knowledge that all they need to do is set up the maul and drive the Lelos out of the match.

Wasted opportunity

While it was great to see Ollie Lawrence and Jack Willis making well-deserved debuts, this was still a wasted opportunity from Eddie Jones to test the depth of his squad and give some of his younger players experience. What does anyone learn from a halfback pairing of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell in this game, or regulars Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Jamie George and Jonny May. Similarly, Jonathan Joseph is as much an international wing as Elliot Daly is an international fullback – not at all.

Instead, the form players form the Premiership could have been rewarded, with a back row of Ben Earl, Jack Willis and European Player of the Year Sam Simmonds, who didn’t even make the wider squad. Ollie Thorley could have been given his debut on one wing, with players like George Furbank, Ruaridh McConnochie, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Joe Cokanasiga looked at for the other spots in the back 3 – yet only Furbank and Thorley made the wider squad and neither made the 23! Ben Spencer and Robson should be fighting for the 9 shirt, but Spencer was forced to watch from home while Robson made a 20 minute cameo. And then we come to fly half, where Owen Farrell plays the full 80 minutes while Jacob Umaga fails to make the 23 and Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds – who just led Exeter to the league and European double – don’t even make the wider squad.

Hopefully a day doesn’t come when England regret not blooding more talent in matches like this.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Italy v Scotland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Italy v Scotland

The first week of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup continued on Saturday with Scotland’s trip to Florence to face Italy.

The Italians continued to put faith in youth and it paid off early on as they started the stronger team, taking a 6-0 lead in the opening quarter through the boot of Paolo Garbisi. Scotland grew into the game and got a spell of possession in the Italian 22, which Duhan van der Merwe ended by crashing through the defence with a beautiful out to in line for the opening try of the game, converted by Duncan Weir. The Italians hit straight back, however, and when Garbisi set Marco Zanon clear down the left wing, the backs kept the ball moving and put Matteo Minozzi over in the corner for an 11-7 lead at halftime.

The second half started like the first, with Garbisi kicking a penalty, before a good passing move put Duncan Weir over in the corner, only for the try to be ruled out for a forward pass. The Scots soon had another try though, as Hamish Watson’s offload 5m from the line was tipped by an offside Jake Polledri into the hands of Zander Fagerson, who took advantage of everyone else on the pitch stopping (expecting a penalty) to lollop over the line, with Weir kicking the conversion to tie up the score. The Azzurri made some changes in the back line which upped the tempo, and put the pressure on the Scots, earning a penalty that Garbisi kicked to put them back ahead. However the Scots had a couple of decisions go their way from the restart, which left them in the Italian 22, and with Jake Polledri down inured, Scott Cummings managed to force his way over for a try converted by Weir. This try and the injury really seemed to sap the Italian spirit and Scotland took advantage, driving over a maul from close range to earn a bonus point 4ᵗʰ try through replacement hooker George Turner, which Weir converted to put the icing on a 17-28 victory that flattered the Scots.

Building again

For so long, Italy’s success came off the back of a dominant pack, that was somewhat let down by sub-par backs. In more recent years, the backs have improved, but those irreplaceable gladiators in the pack – Lo Cicero, Bortolami, Castrogiovanni, Parisse, Zanni, Bergamasco et al – were past their prime an retiring, with their replacements not ready to take their place. But in this game, we g a hint that the current crop are ready to compete at the top level and make those who came before them proud.

I wrote about the team’s desire against England and that was evident again this week, but it was joined by an incredible physicality. Led by Jake Polledri, Seb Negri, Niccolò Cannone and Danilo Fischetti – who was a menace on the day in the scrums and breakdowns – the whole pack rallied to ensure that if the first man failed to bring the Scot down, the second man definitely did. And that just encouraged the backs, with Marco Zanon and replacement centre Federico Mori making a positive and noticeable impact on the game.

The Scots were unable to get into a rhythm and the physicality was causing them to step beyond the bounds of legality more than usual to cope with them. Unfortunately, at a key point of the game after about an hour, with Italy growing in momentum, a couple of Scottish infringements deep in Italian territory were missed by the officials, leading to them getting possession in the Italy 22, and as George Turner powered off a maul, Jake Polledri hyperextended his knee making the challenge, leaving the Azzuri’s defensive line a man down, helping Cummings score as the Gloucester back row was stretchered off. It was clear that this negatively impacted the team as it took the life out of them, but make no mistake – if this Italian team can continue to put in the effort like this and build off the performance, that win is coming very soon.

Back in the fold

Scotland’s Super Saturday win over Wales came at a cost, with both Finn Russell and Adam Hastings being lost to injury. This led to a return to the squad for Duncan Weir, who has been in the form of his life since his move to Worcester.

4 years on from his last Test start, the fly half put in a great performance, getting the backline going and varying the play despite the Italian’s best efforts to keep the Scots on the back foot, while making sure they played in the right areas of the pitch to cause Italy problems and take advantage of any slip-ups. Oh, and 8 points with the boot certainly helped too. And much of this was done despite him suffering an eye injury in the second half that must have been hampering his vision!

If Weir can keep up these performances, he will have certainly earned the chance to remain a part of the Scotland squad once Hastings and Russell return.

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