Argentina v Scotland

Argentina v Scotland

Scotland’s South American adventure continued this week with a trip to Salta to face Argentina in the second Test of the tour. Scotland had a chance to make it a clean sweep on the day for the Home Nations if they could get the win here, but after Blair Kinghorn and Emiliano Boffelli traded early penalties, it was the Pumas who had the first chance of note as fly half Santiago Carreras accelerated through a gap, but as the Pumas looked to continue the break, Jerónimo de la Fuente was not quite able to ship the ball off first time to Santiago Cordero, who would have had an easy run into the corner. Scotland were having the greater share of possession and territory with little to show for it, until Darcy Graham managed to win a high ball from Ben White and spark an attack, which ended in several tacklers just bundling Duhan van der Merwe over the touchline 5 metres from the line. As the game reached the half hour mark, a spell of concerted pressure from Argentina allowed Boffelli to put them ahead with another penalty, but the Scots were straight back on the attack and after kicking a penalty to the corner, Hamish Watson managed to go over for the opening try of the match on the occasion of his 50ᵗʰ cap, and though Kinghorn missed the conversion, they found themselves going in at the break with a 6-8 lead.

The third quarter proved crucial for Scotland’s most successful spell of the game last week and it started in similar fashion this week, with the forwards putting in some great carries that allowed Mark Bennett to hit a gap from depth at pace to scythe over for try number 2 just minutes after the restart. The Pumas were soon on the attack themselves through, and when Juan Imhoff broke down the left wing, the ball was then spread out to the right for lock Guido Petti to score, though it was ruled out after a TMO review found that there had been a forward pass to help set up the break. With 30 minutes remaining, ROss Thompson was brought on for the injured Kyle Row (taking over at 10, with Kinghorn moving to 15), and the Scots were immediately pressuring the Pumas’ try line, resulting in Emiliano Boffelli being sent to the bin as the defenders gave away too many penalties, and Scotland quickly took advantage of the extra man to crash Matt Fagerson over for the try, Thompson taking over the kicking duties and nailing the simple conversion. Argentina thought that they had a much-needed try just before the hour as Carreras squeezed through a number of defenders, but Rory Darge just managed to force the ball loose as he crossed the line, though the Pumas could be rightfully unhappy with the pathetically short penalty advantage given in the opposition 22 by Mathieu Raynal. The Scots were able to clear their line, and a couple of penalties saw them move down the field to the Argentina line, where Sam Johnson crashed over to all-but guarantee the win with 15 minutes remaining. The Pumas looked to hit back immediately, but the sniping Gonzalo Bertranou was held up over the line. With the victory beyond them, Boffelli went over with 5 minutes remaining, but saw the ball stripped away by Mark Bennett as he went to ground, and Matías Orlando knocked on as he tried to react at the last moment, and the Scots saw out the final moments to secure a 6-29 victory.

Heart, now head

Michael Cheika has the Pumas playing with heart again, which in itself is a huge improvement from the malaise at the end of Ledesma’s reign. Now he desperately needs to bring some accuracy to their play.

In attack, they have such quality out wide, but rarely manage to get the ball to them in any space, but the real worry is in defence, where they are just giving away far too many penalties. Marcos Kremer appears to have cut out the stupid hits, but the team as a whole is still gifting their opposition with too much simple possession and territory by not staying onside and by not being accurate enough at the breakdown.

The Pumas are in an interesting position. They have a team with plenty of quality and potential, and it doesn’t feel like they are far off unlocking that, which will see them start to score more. But o win, they also need to keep the opposition score down, and to do so they need to be more accurate and perhaps even a little more conservative, taking a extra half a step back to ensure they don’t jump offside. If they continue like this, it will be a long Rugby Championship campaign but a few small but crucial improvements could see them being really competitive.

Building

This was a much better attacking performance from Scotland. They varied the attack by playing both through the forwards, with width and also with van der Merwe coming inside. The forwards carried with conviction and both centres made certain that they were not being stopped by defenders by picking their lines from depth and hitting the ball at pace. After the disappointment of last week, this was a sorely needed performance that needs to become the base level expected.

There will still be questions though. Is Blair Kinghorn the answer at 10? I haven’t seen enough from him to suggest so, and would suggest that Ross Thompson be given the starting spot next week. Will this be enough to push for the RWC2023 semifinals? I don’t think that even the return of their missing stars will be enough for that.

With the World Cup just over a year away, it feels like the only step forward the Scots have taken over the last 2 games is the form of Mark Bennett. As great as that is, this is nowhere near enough.

South Africa v Wales

South Africa v Wales

After filling Loftus Versfeld last week, the action moved to Bloemfontein for the second Test between South Africa and Wales. The Springboks were fielding a squad very different to their last-gasp win a week ago—not that it in any way devalued the match, take note Wales Online and Sir Gareth Edwards—but they were behind within seconds to a Dan Biggar penalty, though opposite number Handré Pollard soon answered with an early penalty of his own. The rest of the opening half was a tight affair, with both fly halves missing their next kick at goal, as on multiple occasions the Springboks found themselves turned over in and around the Welsh 22 by Tommy Reffell and as the teams went in at the break it was still just 3-3.

The second half started much better for the Boks with a couple of Pollard penalties, while Biggar—who appeared to be struggling with a shoulder issue and was soon replaced by Gareth Anscombe—missed a kick of his own. Wales’ discipline was again struggling as they were forced to consistently defend, and with 15 minutes gone in the half, South Africa made a break down the right and while they were brought down, Alun Wyn Jones was adjudged (wrongly) by referee Angus Gardner to have cynically played the ball in the ruck and the replacement captain was sent to the bin and Pollard soon added another 3 points from the tee. The Welsh desperately needed something, and Gareth Anscombe’s penalty just after the hour cut the deficit to 6 points as Jones returned from the bin, but his next kick drifted wide as the game entered the final 10 minutes. It was not going to be a comfortable end to the game for the Boks though, as Handré Pollard hobbled of with 6 minutes left, and with Wales earning a penalty at the scrum, they kicked to the corner and went through the phases before spreading wide left to send Josh Adams over for the only try of the game with 2 minutes left. Anscombe added the extras to give them a 12-13 lead and the defence held out for the final minute of the game to secure Wales’ first ever victory over the Springboks in South Africa.

Growing pains

Ahead of the match, here was plenty of talk as to how the South African selection—changing 14 men in the XV and more on the bench—disrespected Wales and devalued the match. And while Wales may have come away with the victory, I hope the people who made those comments now feel suitably stupid after their first choice Wales team created just one attacking chance of note against this supposed B team.

More than anything, this just showed the strength in depth of South African rugby, as many of the stars moved abroad which left space for the younger generation to grow early. And as for devaluing a game, There are only a finite amount of Test matches per year, and even less that are not part of a competition like the Rugby Championship. So to be in one of those non-competition matches 1 year out from a Rugby World Cup, of course you need to be testing the depth of your squad when your first choice team is looking so solid, giving the younger players much-needed Test experience and a chance to break into the World Cup squad, while also giving the current fringe players a chance to prove that they should retain their spot in the squad.

Arguably on the day, it was the South African team selection that proved the Springboks’ downfall, but I would argue that it was the sheer number of players who weren’t used to playing together at this level—or used to playing at this level at all, and this clearly led to a disjointed attack that as a result only showed flashes of quality. But this is a necessary part of rugby.

Wales have not become world-beaters overnight. Likewise South Africa have not stopped being a force in Test rugby with this 1 loss.

Earning his stripes

Is there something in the water in Leicester at the moment? After Jack van Poortvliet joined Freddie Steward in looking like a Test veteran in his first start against Australia, Tommy Reffell was having an absolute stormer of a match here, having also impressed on his debt last week.

In attack, he was carrying well when asked to and securing ball for his side, while in defence (which was most of the match) he was shining, being a constant threat at the breakdown and bringing an end to a number of South Africa’s most promising attacks and deservedly earning the Player of the Match award.

Wales have incredible depth on the flanks, so Reffell needs to take his chance while he can. In recent years under Pivac, we have seen players put in a string of great performances and then completely disappear from the 23 the moment they have a quiet game. By being so impressive in his early appearances against such quality opposition, hopefully he’s earning some credit in the bank.

Australia v England

Australia v England

After their first win over England since RWC2015, Australia were looking to make it 2 from 2 so far this summer as they faced England in Brisbane. The Wallabies were disrupted last week by injuries just before and during the first half, and this match started in similar fashion with Jordan Petaia—on his first Test start at 15—got his head on the wrong side of a tackle and was replaced by Izaia Perese, and the Wallabies barely had time to reorganise before England were ahead, with Billy Vunipola being driven over from a 5m lineout. Farrell kicked the conversion and 2 penalties, and when Marcus Smith threw a wide pass towards Tommy Freeman in the Australian 22, Izaia Perese just failed to catch it one-handed and was duly sent to the bin for what was considered a deliberate knock-on, with referee Andrew Brace and TMO Joy Neville apparently seeing the same phantom covering defender that popped up in Dunedin just hours earlier and adjudging just a penalty (which Farrell kicked) rather than a penalty try. Farrell added another penalty as Perese’s card was coming to an end, but then the Wallabies celebrated a return to 15 men with their first foray into the English 22, and Taniela Tupou topped it off by crashing over for the try, Noah Lolesio adding the extras for a 7-19 scoreline. England were dealt a further blow just before the break as Maro Itoje failed to get low enough when trying to tackle Hunter Paisami and instead found his head making heavy contact with the centre’s shoulder to bring his tour to an early end.

The second half started much like the first for Australia: with an injury. Samu Kerevi ried a soft chip out to the wing for Perese, but as the young Waratahs back came back to ground he appeared to injure his knee, requiring him to leave the pitch on a stretcher. Farrell opened the scoring in the half with another penalty, but Australia were soon on the attack and after Taniela Tupou was stopped just short of the line, Samu Kerevi was sent over out wide, Lolesio adding the extras to narrow the deficit to 8. Australia continued to be beset by injuries as Scott Sio’s game came to an end just seconds after coming on, but they were fighting on and soo found themselves with the numerical advantage as Marcus Smith was pinged for a deliberate knock-on, Lolesio kicking the resulting penalty. Cadeyrn Neville was the next Wallabies player to leave the pitch injured to hand Nick Frost his Test debut. As the game entered the final hour, Farrell found Jack Nowell in space with a kick-pass to bring England into the 22, and though they were eventually held up over the line, they had won another penalty which the Saracens fly half duly kicked for 3 more points. As the final substitutions were made while the clock ticked down, the game fell into a degree of disarray, and while Farrell lost his perfect kicking percentage with a late attempt, Australia could not create any final chances and fell to a 17-25 defeat.

The best laid plans…

You can’t help but feel for Australia in this series. Test rugby at the top level is hard enough at the best of times, but it becomes so much harder when players are going down injured left, right and centre.

Last week, Taniela Tupou was unavailable ahead of selection, and was joined by intended starting fly half Quade Cooper in the pre-match warm-up, while Tom Banks and Allan Ala’alatoa were also lost to injury in that match. This week, Tupou was back to take Ala’alatoa’s place, but the game saw Petaia, Sio, Neville and Perese all lost to injury.

As Robert Burns said in his poem To a Mouse: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley,” To suffer so many injuries in a match is always going to make it hard to get momentum and consistency, especially when you are forced into reshuffles as Australia were by the loss of Jordan Petaia with no recognised fullback on the bench, while Angus Bell clearly struggled as the game wound down due to playing 89 minutes with just a 1-minute break for the moment Sio was on the pitch.

I hate to see injuries play such a key part in a match, so I will continue to argue that though teams should still have a limited number of substitutions per match, they should be able to have the rest of the 30-man squad available on the bench rather than just 8 replacements, as this will reduce the disruption to teams from circumstances outside of their control, while also reducing the chances of running out of trained front rowers like we saw when Hame Faiva was red carded against Ireland.

New kid on the block

I’ve been arguing for some time now that Ben Youngs is no longer playing at the level required to be in the England Test team. Well he may be watching his spot in the Test squad disappear right now courtesy of his Leicester teammate Jack van Poortvliet.

The 21-year-old Tiger, played an absolute blinder on his first Test start. He provided quick ball for the backs, marshalled his pack to take advantage of their dominance and kept the Australian defence on their toes when he looked to take the ball on himself.

But what really stood out was his box kicking. This is often why Youngs is talked about as still being in the team, but van Poortvliet just did the job miles better, with every kick either able to be contested in the air or setting up the chaser to make the hit as soon as the Australian player landed.

It’s clear that van Poortvliet has paid attention learning alongside Youngs and Richard Wigglesworth. And much like his fellow Tiger Freddie Steward, he ha come into Test rugby and immediately looked like a veteran—and a damn good quality one at that! If he can continue to put in performances like this, it will be impossible to drop him.

New Zealand v Ireland

New Zealand v Ireland

Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand reached its mid-point with the second Test against the All Blacks. The tourists had the stronger start last week and it was more of the same in Dunedin this week, with an early break from Tadhg Beirne bringing them into the New Zealand 22, and after a minute of concerted pressure Andrew Porter managed to bash his way over for the opening try within 3 minutes. Johnny Sexton kicked the conversion and a penalty ten minutes later, and the All Blacks soon found themselves put in more of a hole when Leicester Fainga’anuku was sent to the bin for a late hit on Mack Hansen, though the 14 men successfully dealt with the resulting driving maul after Ireland kicked to the corner. Things were about to get even worse for the home side though, as a hurried kick from Beauden Barrett was countered by Sexton and as he was brought down, his support man Garry Ringrose was tackled early by Ofa Tu’ungafasi, who joined Fainga’anuku in the bin—though how a penalty try wasn’t given is beyond me as referee Jaco Peyper and TMO Tom Foley were clearly seeing a covering defender that didn’t exist. Ireland’s attack however suddenly lost all cohesion an accuracy, which allowed the All Blacks to hold out and clear their lines before welcoming back Fainga’anuku, but they found themselves almost immediately back down to 13 as Angus Ta’avao (on to cover Tu’ungafasi’s absence at the scrums) went high on Garry Ringrose, resulting in a head-on-head collision. With a penalty in the All Blacks 22, Ireland chose to go for the scrum to force the All Blacks into pulling 2 backs into the pack (due to the scrums going uncontested until Tu’ungafasi’s return, both teams must field a full 8-man scrum) but once again the Irish attack lacked accuracy and a knock-on from James Lowe allowed the defenders to once again clear their lines and get back to 14 men, though some confusion as to who could come back on as player had to be sacrificed for replacement props had led to Ardie Savea being unintentionally replaced for the rest of the game. However after weathering a storm, the All Blacks found themselves finishing the half in the Irish 22, and after James Ryan was sent to the bin for failing to retreat at a penalty, Beauden Barrett (perhaps inadvertently) kicked the ball as it squirted out of a ruck before darting through the defence to drop on the loose ball over the line for the most fortuitous of tries, with brother Jordie kicking a simple conversion to cut the Irish lead to 7-10 at the break.

It was the Irish on the attack again in the early stages of the second half, and when another strong carry from Beirne got them up to the All Blacks’ try line, it was Andrew Porter again who dotted down for his 2ⁿᵈ try of the night and 4ᵗʰ Test try. As a close half continued, Sexton kicked 2 penalties to put Ireland 16 points ahead with 13 minutes remaining. With 6 minutes remaining, the All Blacks found themselves at the Irish try line but were held up 3 times in quick succession. They kept fighting and Will Jordan was sent over out wide for the try, but with Jordie Barrett missing the touchline conversion, scoring 11 more points in 2 minutes proved an impossible task and the Irish hung on for an historic 12-23 victory, their first ever win over the All Blacks in New Zealand.

Releasing the pressure

While Ireland can arguably feel aggrieved that Leicester Fainga’anuku only received a yellow for his hit on Mack Hansen and that no penalty try was given for Ofa Tu’ungafasi’s early tackle on Garry Ringrose, they only had themselves to blame for not being further ahead at halftime.

As accurate as they were around the pitch, when they made it up to the All Blacks 22, things started to fall apart for them. Even before they found themselves with the numerical advantage, a great opportunity came to a disappointing end as Robbie Henshaw failed to collect the ball as he came steaming onto it in an attempt to crash through the defensive line off a scrum. Then twice against 13 men, all cohesion seemed to disappear and the ball was being flung anywhere and everywhere, giving the All Blacks defence a chance to recover an get in on the steal one time, while a second resulted in a Lowe knock-on. Then in the second half, James Lowe ended one chance by sailing a long pass into touch on the edge of the 22 when putting the ball through the hands may have been sufficient.

It’s almost as if the Irish were panicking when they got close to the line, trying to force the try too soon. Porter’s tries showed how patience and concerted pressure in the 22 will break down the All Blacks soon enough, the Irish just need to trust themselves more, take a deep breath and work through the phases to earn the try.

Argentina v Scotland

Argentina v Scotland

Fresh off a comprehensive win for a strong Scottish “A” side over Chile, i was time for a stronger test for the Scots as they faced Argentina. The Pumas were playing their first home game since August 2019, and it took just 4 minutes for them to open the scoring via a Nicolás Sánchez penalty. After a couple of poor years under Mario Ledesma, a big performance for Argentina in their first match under Michael Cheika was a must, and they were certainly the dominant team early on, but the Scots held firm and their fist extended spell of possession ended with a Blair Kinghorn penalty to level the scores after 15 minutes. Sánchez soon put the Pumas back ahead with another penalty, but his match was ended early with an injury after 20 minutes and he was replaced by Santiago Carreras. The fly half’s loss was soon felt as Emiliano Boffelli missed his first kick at goal, while Kinghorn was more accurate with his own attempt moments later. However the Pumas were looking dangerous with ball in hand and as they stretched the Scottish defence missing its lynchpin Chris Harris (one of a number of key players given the summer off), Jerónimo de la Fuente managed to force his way over for the first try after 30 minutes. And just minutes later, a break from Juan Cruz Mallia saw Santiago Cordero brought down just short of the line, but Carreras was there in support to dive over in the corner. Matías Orlando nearly made it 3 just moments later as a Scottish attack broke down and the ball went to ground before being hacked on by the transitioning Pumas, but Duhan van der Merwe just got back to kick the ball dead, with Matt Fagerson winning a crucial turnover penalty as Argentina attacked off the resulting scrum, with the half ending 18-6.

The Scots may have been without some big names after choosing to rest Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris, but they got the first chance of the second half with a 5m lineout, and though Petti got up to steal the ball, it was not taken cleanly off the top and Duhan van der Merwe just failed to cleanly ground the ball as he and Carreras both dived for the loose ball. But they kept the pressure on and Mark Bennett managed to beat Cordero to the outside to go over in the corner for a crucial try in his first Test start for 6 years. The Scottish dominance continued, aided by Argentinian indiscipline, and the Scots were soon over for another try, Kinghorn arcing a run to the corner flag and playing a switch to Rory Hutchinson, who crashed over the line, with Kinghorn kicking the extras to level the scores. This seemed to spark the Pumas into life, and after Boffelli won the restart and Orlando got the ball up to the try line, Gonzalo Bertranou—originally intended to spend the summer with the development squad in Europe, then later called into the senior squad and intended to be on the bench until a late injury to Tomás Cubelli promoted him to the starting spot—sniped over for an immediate response. As the game entered the final quarter, Sam Johnson thought that he had scored out wide, only for Nic Berry to adjudge Kinghorn’s fizzed pass to him to have gone forward. With 10 minutes remaining, Boffelli kicked a penalty to make it a 2-score game and the defence held firm as the clock ticked down to secure a 26-18 victory.

Belief is back

It’s always amazing just how quickly a side can turn around. In the final days of Mario Ledesma, this was a side that didn’t look like they wanted to be playing. They were aimless and lacking discipline. Now they look like they first did under him: attacking through their exciting back line and bringing in the forwards to keep that expansive play. Oh and Marcos Kremer didn’t do anything stupid.

While a change in coach has probably helped freshen things up, I also wouldn’t be surprised if part of it is something as simple as getting to play in front of a home crowd. The home fans will never be accused of not being passionate, and that level of support is always going to help propel a team on. But more than that, to play away from loved ones for so long in continuous COVID bubbles would sap the will of any human.

They still have some work to do on things like defence and discipline, and they desperately need to find a more reliable goal kicker than Boffelli for when Sánchez is off the pitch, but after a couple of disappointing seasons, this is a timely and necessary improvement.

Kicking themselves

I can’t help feel that Scotland got their tactics very wrong in this game. In and around the Argentina 22, they clearly showed that they were dangerous in attack and able to break the Pumas defence down. However, they did not seem to want to play attacking rugby between the halfway line and the Pumas 22, choosing instead to just kick away all possession.

Admittedly not all kicking is bad kicking, but in this case, I think it was, as they relied on the altitude to kick long and enter a territory game with the Pumas (which saw them kicked back into their own redzone), rather than putting up contestable box kicks and bombs. These attacking kicks would have put a lot more pressure on a Pumas back 3 who had an easy day, and would have also put more uncertainty into the defensive line as to what Scotland were going to do, which would have then allowed them to bring players like the anonymous van der Merwe into the game much more.

As much as Argentina looked better than recent Tests windows, they still looked very beatable, despite the quality of players missing for the Scots. Scotland just need to play much smarter rugby next week.

South Africa v Wales

South Africa v Wales

Last summer, South Africa ran out 2-1 series winners against the British & Irish Lions in empty stadiums. Now, some of the Lions were back as Wales arrived in Pretoria for the first match in their 3-Test series. And a sold out Loftus Versfeld was soon silenced after a turnover at the lineout allowed Wales to spread the ball to Louis Rees-Zammit who outran everyone for the opening try. Wales had certainly caught the Springboks out early on, and as Kieran Hardy’s box kicks set up a good territorial game, Dan Biggar soon added to the lead with a drop goal from around 45 metres out. The Boks started growing into the game though and won a penalty, but Elton Jantjies first attempt at goal hit both posts before landing back in play. The South African fly half had more luck with his next kick, which was soon cancelled out by Biggar, but he was clearly not having the best day off the boot as he missed another kickable penalty, before overhitting a penalty to the corner. These misses suddenly looked even more costly as the ball went loose following a lineout over the top by Wales, and it was Rees-Zammit who was first onto the loose ball, going over for his and Wales’ second. As the half was going into the final 5 minutes, South Africa finally found a moment of attacking fluidity with a break down their left wing that left Dan Biggar forced to make a crucial tackle on Faf de Klerk to save a try, though the Welsh captain was sent to the bin for illegally slowing down the ball at the resulting breakdown. With the extra man, South Africa went for the lineout, but the maul was dealt with by the men in red, who secured the ball off their own scrum and kicked the ball out to end the half with a 3-18 lead.

The World Champions started the second half stronger against 14 men, and finally found the breakthrough on 46 minutes with a solid 5m lineout maul sending Bongi Mbonambi over, the first time that they had really physically dominated Wales in the match, with Willemse adding the extras following Jantjies removal a half time. Wales were back to 15 men, but South Africa now had the momentum and Willemse was playing much more accurately at 10 than Jantjies had done, and things soon got even worse for Wales as Tomas Francis, who had only just come on, got his head on the wrong side of the tackle and took Steven Kitshoff’s knee straight to the side of his head, ending his game before it had even really began. The loss of Francis was made even more noticeable by the arrival of the Bomb Squad, and when the game restarted with a South African penalty, they kicked to the corner and drove Malcolm Marx over for a try. Biggar added a pair of penalties to stretch the lead, but as the game started to open up, the World Champions started looking more dangerous, and a clever grubber to the corner from Damian de Allende was finished in the corner by Cheslin Kolbe, while Alun Wyn Jones was also sent to the bin for an offence in the build-up. That man advantage proved too much for Wales in the final moments of the sin -bin period, as the World Champions broke through Kolbe before going through the phases, and when Willie le Roux was found in space, Rees-Zammit just managed to haul him down short, but was then yellow carded for not releasing at the breakdown, and the World Champions used that 2-man advantage to maul for the line and earn a penalty try, with Rhys Carré being sent to the bin for collapsing the maul. With Jones returning to the pitch, Wales were 2 men and 6 points down, but kicked a penalty to the corner and miraculously managed to drive Dewi Lake over for the try with 3 and a half minutes left to level the scores, but Biggar’s touchline conversion drifted just right of the posts. With just half a minute left, Wales had possession about 30 metres from their line, but replacement scrum half kicked the ball away and invited the South African counterattack, which made it back to that 30 metre mark before Dan Biggar was adjudged of a deliberate knock-on. with the clock in the red, Damian Willemse stepped up and kicked the resulting penalty to break Welsh hearts and secure a 32-29 victory.

Place in doubt

Elton Jantjies is a player whose consistency has always been an issue, but has usually been able to show flashes of real quality. Well sadly for him, today those flashes were sorely missing. The man considered South Africa’s attacking 10 could get nothing going at all in the first half and had a nightmare with his kicking—both off the tee and out of hand. Even his decision making was questionable, most noticeable when he chose to put up a high cross kick into the Welsh in-goal that put Cheslin Kolbe up against Josh Adams without there being any penalty advantage, leading to neither claiming the ball cleanly and the covering Liam Williams dotting down the loose ball.

Of course Handré Pollard the clear standout number 10 and at least one of Damian Willemse, Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe (all of whom can cover the 10 shirt) likely to be in the 23, South Africa can get away with using one of these more versatile players as one of their backs in 1 6-2 bench split. However none of them regularly play fly half and to win a World Cup, you would likely still want a second specialist 10, even if just to play the “weaker” teams in the pool or to be there if Pollard gets injured in the tournament. Is Jantjies that man? Performances like this will certainly not go in his favour.

Time may be running out, but if one of the young specialist 10s coming through in the URC can have a solid year, showing that they can reliably kick and run a back line, they have every chance of finding their way into the 2023 World Cup Squad at the expense of the Japan-based Jantjies. Or perhaps Willemse’s performance in relief of Jantjies has already ended his shot of appearing in France.

Signs of improvement

I will put my hands up and admit that when the squads were announced, I only saw this match going one way: badly for Wales. However, the Welsh put in a performance that could probably be considered one of their best under Pivac. What has really been missing of late for Wales has been the physicality, but today they went toe to toe with the most physical team in World Rugby and came out with their head held high.

Granted it wasn’t he most attacking of performances, but we are used to that from years under Warren Gatland. And this was a solid base to build off, as very few teams will attack with the physical ferocity that South Africa brought in that second half. But not just that, their late try for Dewi Lake was an incredible moment as they drove the maul some ten metres and splintered the South African maul defence, something that you don’t see many teams doing.

This should be massive for Welsh belief. The key now is to repeat the intensity in the second Test next week and make this level of performance the norm.

Australia v England

Australia v England

With their embarrassment at the hands of the Barbarians a couple of weeks behind them, England looked to kick off their Summer Test series against Australia with a win in Perth. The Wallabies suffered a late injury to starting fly half Quade Cooper, which saw Noah Lolesio elevated to the starting team during the warm-up, and it was the young fly half whose holding on penalty allowed Owen Farrell to kick England into a 0-3 lead after 6 minutes. As the half went on, both teams failed to really get any rhythm through a number of handling errors and penalties—bar one chance for England that was stopped by a wonderful cover tackle on Joe Marchant—but Farrell doubled England’s lead after 20 minutes with another penalty when David Porecki failed to support his own weight a the ruck. There was soon even more disruption for the Wallabies as Tom Banks suffered a serious injury to his arm following an awkward landing when competing for a high ball, which led to Jordan Petaia coming on at wing and Andrew Kellaway moving to 15, however the pack took it on themselves and won a penalty from the scrum restart, which Lolesio kicked over. Farrell just failed to restore the 6-point lead after the injured Allan Ala’alatoa failed to roll away at the breakdown, with James Slipper coming on to replace the Brumbies tighthead. Things soon got even worse for the Wallabies as they finally got some possession in the English 22; Jonny Hill was sent to the bin for deliberately pulling on Darcy Swain’s hair—not the first time he had gone too far in his battle with Swain during the match, but the first time he was penalised—but replays showed that Swain then reacted and attempted a headbutt, which resulted in him receiving a red card. Despite everything though, the Wallabies ended the half positively and Noah Lolesio managed to level the scores at 6-6 with the final kick of the half after a strong carry from Rob Leota.

As Hill’s sin bin period came to an end in the opening moments of the second half, Lolesio put the Wallabies ahead with a third penalty. Looking to utilise their man advantage, England put their next penalty to the corner and mauled Ellis Genge over for the opening try of the game, though Farrell’s kick from the right-hand 5m channel just pulled across the face of the goal. England found themselves with another chance in the same corner with the hour approaching, but the Australian maul defence—bolstered by the arrival of Matt Philip for Rob Leota—held firm and after a couple of phases, Matthew Hooper timed his arrival at the breakdown to win a huge penalty that allowed the Wallabies to clear their lines. Farrell kicked a penalty on the hour to extend the lead to 5, but Jack Nowell’s failure to claim the restart put them under immediate pressure, which resulted in Petaia crashing over on the wing to level the scores and Lolesio kicking the conversion to put the home team ahead, while things got even worse for England just minutes later as Billy Vunipola was binned for a high tackle on Michael Hooper, with the Wallabies taking advantage of the parity in numbers as Folau Fainga’a peeled off the back of a 5m maul to get over the line, Lolesio adding the extras. As the clock ticked into the final five minutes, an unlikely Wallabies win was looking more certain, and when Pete Samu stepped around Lewis Ludlam and carried through the tackle of Will Stuart, he managed to reach the line and secure the victory, and though Henry Arundell scored with his first touch of the ball and Jack van Poortvliet scored at the death with Lolesio in the bin, it just put an undeserved gloss on the match for them as they lost 30-28.

Simple but effective

Rugby is a simple game: you pass backwards, run forwards and try to outscore your opponents. Australia must have felt the gods were against them with Quade Cooper’s injury in warm-up being exacerbated by injuries to Banks and Ala’alatoa (made worse by Taniela Tupou already being out injured) and Swain’s red card.

And yet they often looked the more dangerous team, despite Lolesio often looking out of his depth for much of the match. And this was because they kept things simple.

In players like Leota, Bell, Samu and Valentini they had willing carriers in the forwards, who would work alongside inside centre Samu Kerevi and wing Marika Koroibete—who is frequently used coming in off his wing—to get the Wallabies on the front foot with repeated carries over the gain line. With consistent quick ball that is breaching the gain line, the game becomes easy for an attacking team, as the defense is constantly in retreat and has no chance to get settled and organised, so it is then just a matter of being patient and exploiting the mismatch (the classic prop stuck in the centre channel) or the overlap, which Australia’s backs have the quality to finish.

Time for change

I’ve given England a bit of slack with their failed attempts to play “formationless” attacking rugby as they have been playing with just 1 playmaker in their back line. However, today they played both Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell and still struggled to make any impact on the game, despite playing against 14 men for over half the game, which would have automatically created more space for them to exploit.

Something is drastically wrong with this England attack, and it needs changing immediately. Lawes cannot be taking up the space of a potential ball carrier at 6 and should be moved back into the second row, and England need to start looking at players and a shape that will allow them to get 3 to 4 consecutive phases of quick ball over the gain line in midfield, as this will then create the space for the wings to exploit. Just look at Australia’s success today!

In Smith and Farrell, England have 2 world class talents, but they look overwhelmed trying to run this attack and need something more conventional to get this back line going. Yes it may be missing Manu Tuilagi, but that is the case more often than not with England in this cycle, so it can no longer be used as an excuse. And if the head coach can’t—or won’t—fix this, then it’s time to move on.

New Zealand v Ireland

New Zealand v Ireland

Having lost to the Maori All Blacks in midweek, Ireland’s next stop on their tour of New Zealand was a trip to Eden Park for the first of 3 Tests against the All Blacks. Ireland had never beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, but got the first chance with some sustained pressure in the 22 that eventually saw Keith Earls go over for the opening try after 6 minutes. The All Blacks had seen their preparations interrupted by COVID cases and were looking very ordinary against a strong Irish defence, but finally managed to work some space for debutant Leicester Fainga’anuku on 20 minutes, and when the Crusaders wing was stopped just short of the try line, Jordie Barrett came onto the ball from the ruck at pace to crash over, before kicking the conversion to put them ahead. The Irish continued to look the more dangerous side, but when James Lowe slipped as Garry Ringrose tried to offload the ball to him, Sevu Reece was first to the loose ball and outpaced everyone in the race from his 22 to the Irish try line, while things got even worse for the Irish as the same phase of play saw them lose Johnny Sexton to a failed HIA. The momentum shifted with that and the All Blacks were suddenly looking the more dangerous, and they had their third try with 5 minutes left in the half as Beauden Barrett’s grubber into the Irish 22 was collected by Quinn Tupaea. And it was soon 4 as Aaron Smith sniped through the middle of a ruck and chipped Hugo Keenan, and though he failed to regather under pressure, Ardie Savea was following up to dive on the loose ball over the line, with Jordie Barrett kicking all the conversions for a 28-5 lead at the break.

The Irish got the start they needed in the second half though, as a series of phases just short of the New Zealand line eventually saw Garry Ringrose go over in the corner. However the All Blacks soon had the pressure back on the Irish, and when Ardie Savea got on the outside of Ringrose, who slipped off the tackle, he had the pace to make it over for his second try of the night. Ireland continued to fight though and again managed to spend some time in the New Zealand 22, which eventually resulted in Josh van der Flier crashing over from short range, only for replays to show that the ball had been dislodged as he went over by Rieko Ioane, just moments after he had also denied Joey Carbery with what appeared to be a high tackle. and the Irish were made to pay with just 10 minutes left as Pita Gus Sowakula went over off a 5m scrum to score on his debut. The Irish looked to end on a high, and after Andrew Porter was held up, replacement centre Bundee Aki managed to crash over from close range on the next attack to score. Karl Tu’inukuafe was sin binned late on for not rolling,but the All Blacks defence held out and Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier were both held up over the line and one final driving maul halted to secure a 42-19 victory for the hosts.

Extra ordinary

Obviously having COVID cases affecting the build-up (and a separate illness for Richie Mo’unga) is not going to help the All Black be at their best, but boy did they look ordinary. In defence, they were struggling to deal with all the pressure coming from the Irish, with minimal impact at the breakdown (unless you count the penalties they conceded), while in attack there was very little being created.

While some great work was done to release Fainga’anuku down the wing after 20 minutes, Tupaea’s try was a result of poor Irish covering behind the defensive line, and the other 2 in the half were purely opportunistic. Despite being 28-5 up, the All Blacks were arguably second best for most of the half and large portions of the second.

For so long, the All Blacks had such an air of invincibility that the game was almost won before it even kicked off. These days however, despite still having some absolute superstars in their ranks, the All Blacks are just another team—and that makes them beatable!

22 and a half men

I’ve quite frequently been of the opinion of late that continually playing Johnny Sexton is going to be the downfall of the Irish. And here we’re seeing it again. While he is a great player and leader for the Irish, he has played so many minutes that nobody else is getting even close to enough minutes of Test rugby to be able to slot in when Sexton is not available. The game completely turned when he went off in this game a heads dropped and such a large source of leadership and organisation.

As Ronan O’Gara stated before the match, Test rugby is about the 23 men. Sexton’s body rarely lets him play the full 80 minutes consistently at this level. They need a second fly half who—even if they are not at the same level as Sexton—can come in and still run this team to a high level. However with Sexton taking almost all the minutes when he is available, nobody has been able to get a real shot at the 10 shirt behind him, which means whoever is picked as Sexton’s understudy goes in underprepared.

Granted when you’re touring New Zealand you want to try and prove a point, but Andy Farrell and the coaches need to prepare for the eventuality that Sexton is not available at a key point in the World Cup and the best way to do that is to keep Sexton out for a run of games and focus on the players behind him. I would argue that the Autumn Tests should be about finding the next 2 fly halves on the depth chart and then using the 2023 Six Nations to give them as much Test experience as possible, while Sexton’s body gets a much-deserved rest to help him through to the end of the World Cup. Heck, with Sexton now being stood down for 12 days as part of the new concussion protocols, they may as well start the Autumn process now.