Hello and welcome to my look at the second week of the Autumn Tests. Sadly a lack of available broadcasts meant that I couldn’t cover Week 1 at all, but with this week having a limited schedule as it was outside World Rugby’s Test Window, this still gave us a chance to ease into the action.
The action started up in Edinburgh as Scotland took on a Tongan side who had only been together for a handful of days and were still missing a number of their players. While the Tongans certainly tried to make a game of it and caused some issues early on with their strong running, the Scottish players’ familiarity with each other—despite missing their Premiership players and Finn Russell, the chemistry was still there from everyone being based at just Edinburgh and Glasgow—was clear to see and they ran away with a 60-14 victory, with Rufus McLean scoring a brace on debut and fellow wing Kyle Steyn bagging 4 tries.
The action then continued at the Principality Stadium, where Wales were taking on the All Blacks. With New Zealand fielding an almost first choice XV, it was always going to be a tough task for a Welsh team missing its Premiership players and also a number of other regulars through injury, and things got even worse as Beauden Barrett kicked off his 100ᵗʰ Test cap by intercepting Gareth Anscombe and running in for the simplest of tries. Wales kept themselves in the fight for 60 minutes despite losing Alun Wyn Jones (on his record-breaking 148ᵗʰ Wales cap) and Ross Moriarty to injury in the first half, but fell off a cliff after the hour mark and shipped 4 tries without reply for a final score of 16-54, with Jordie Barrett’s missed conversion at the death just denying the All Blacks a record points haul against Wales.
With Finn Russell and Adam Hastings both unavailable, Gregor Townsend made a big call for this match by selecting Blair Kinghorn at flyhalf. It’s been a long time since Scotland had such strength in depth at 10, with Russell and Hastings the clear regulars, but Duncan Weir and Jaco van der Walt also in the running and now young Ross Thompson making his debut off the bench, but I think that getting Kinghorn Test experience at fly half is a clever move.
When you go to a World Cup, spaces are limited, and while you could get away with 2 specialist fly halves, a third fly half would seem a waste, unless they could also fill in at other positions. While I’m sure some of them could probably fill in as emergency centres or fullbacks, they are not really multi-positional players, whereas Kinghorn can already cover the entire back 3 and being an option at 10 just adds another string to his bow come selection time as his versatility will make him indispensable, despite the strength in depth available in the Scottish back 3.
Not only that, but by gaining the experience at 10, it also gives the team much more tactical flexibility, as he can move into the first receiver position if the fly half is stuck in the breakdown, down injured or carded. He has the skillset to excel at the position, especially when you consider that if he was to play the position much in a World Cup, it would likely be against the lower-ranked teams. What he needs now is a chance to play there with a bit more regularity, both for Edinburgh and the national team, as he will face much better defences than a Tongan team missing a number of stars, who have only had 4 days training together and then had to reorganise on the fly with 2 injuries in the back line and a 6-2 split (including a scrum half) on the bench.
You really have to feel for Tonga. They need to accept every game they can against Tier 1 opposition just to get matches, but so often they end up in situation like this or against New Zealand in the summer: facing off against teams outside World Rugby’s Test Window. What this means is they end up playing teams who are already stronger and better resourced, but then have the added difficulty of playing without many of their top players, who will not be released from the Premiership/Top 14 outside the Test windows. With such inexperienced squads and minimal prep time, it’s hardly even close to a fair contest.
Of course, it can lead to the discovery of some great players, like 32-year-old prop and former professional boxer Loni Uhila, who made his debut at Murrayfield. The “Tongan Bear” plays for in Fédérale 1 (the 3ʳᵈ tier of French rugby, and highest level of amateur rugby) and while he struggled a little at the scrum, he more than held his own in the loose, with some strong carrying and passes that a back would be proud of, all while playing in the most heavy-duty pair of rugby boots that I have ever seen!
Hopefully with the arrival of 2 Pacific Island franchises in Super Rugby Pacific, things will start to get a little easier for the Pacific Island teams, as they can try to bring talent to these franchises. But with just 2 teams for the whole Pacific Islands, there will still be plenty of players in the Premiership and Top 14. World Rugby needs to step in and help to a larger degree, even if it is only to outlaw the Tests outside set windows to ensure that the nations have everyone available for the matches.
While there was a lot to be disappointed about for Welsh fans, something that can’t be focussed on enough was the performances of the back row. With so many players unavailable through injury or playing in the Premiership, there was a real worry about the back row coming into the game. And yet they more then held their own.
Taine Basham looked like he had been playing Test rugby for years, popping up to steal the ball at breakdowns and making a couple of great breaks, while Aaron Wainwright put in a performance reminiscent of his rise to prominence towards the end of the Warren Gatland era, perhaps even better!
On the strength of those performances, the pair deserve to keep their places for the upcoming matches and have the quality to become regulars in the back row moving forward. Basham will only improve as he plays more at this level, while Wainwright will also benefit from consistently playing at this level. Add in a experienced cleaner like Justin Tipuric or Josh Navidi when they’re fit, and this is an incredibly dangerous unit going forwards toward the World Cup.
How great is Ardie Savea?! The Hurricanes back row has been a part of the squad for years, but has really come in to his own with the retirement of Kieran Read.
This game was another classic example of why he is so good. He has the power to just keep going in the tackle. If you go high on him to get on the ball, he will just carry you along as his leg drive gains him more metres. And yet if you go low and stop him from making more ground, he will simply offload the ball to a man in support. To properly stop him, it’s going to take at least 1 man going low and another going for the ball, which is then just going to create space elsewhere for the All Blacks to exploit with quick ball.
But that’s not it, as he also has solid pace and an impressive acceleration to make him a threat in more open play as well as the tight. You just need to look at Sevu Reece’s try, where he exchanged quick passes with Reece and Rieko Ioane down the left wing, you could easily have mistaken him for his older brother Julian. And to make him even better: he has that versatility, being able to play anywhere in the back row, allowing the coaches to adapt the back row to either the opposition or the way they are looking to play, putting him at 8 if they want to play fetchers like Dalton Papalii or Sam Cane, or on the flank with a quality number 8 like Hoskins Sotutu.
He probably doesn’t always get the recognition he should, as he puts in these performances weekly, but don’t be shocked to see him remain a key cog in the All Blacks XV for the coming years.