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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Rugby Championship 2020: New Zealand v Argentina

Rugby Championship 2020: New Zealand v Argentina

As we entered the third week of the Tri Nations edition of the Rugby Championship, Argentina entered the fray in Sydney, facing off against New Zealand.

The All Blacks were putting out what they considered their strongest possible team following last week’s loss to Australia, but after a confrontational opening 15, they found themselves level at 3-3 courtesy of penalties from Richie Mo’unga and Nicolás Sánchez. As the half progressed though, it was the Pumas who found the breakthrough, and when New Zealand failed to cover Sánchez’s chip into their 22, the fly half eventually recovered the ball and crossed under the posts for the opening try, which he converted before adding another penalty to extend the lead. The South Americans’ defence continued to frustrate the All Blacks, and when Tomás Cubelli slipped away at a ruck and fed Juan Imhoff, it took a fantastic last ditch tackle from Aaron Smith to halt the winger and as the phases progressed, Richie Mo’unga managed to hold up the ball as Pablo Matera crossed the try line. The Pumas won a penalty from the resulting scrum however, and Sánchez kicked it through the posts for a 3-16 lead at the break – their highest halftime differential against New Zealand.

The second half began much like the first, with the Argentinian defence holding strong and Sánchez punishing any New Zealand indiscipline with 3 points. However, a strong driving maul from the All Black won them a penalty which they kicked to the corner, and a quick ball to the front caught the Pumas out and allowed Sam Cane to be driven over for a try, converted by Mo’unga. Any hopes of a kiwi comeback were diminished, though, as Sánchez added another penalty while the Pumas defence continued to hold firm, and when Sánchez kicked a 6ᵗʰ penalty with just minutes left, a historic win was confirmed. There was still time for one last hurrah from New Zealand, which earned Caleb Clarke his first Test try, but it was just a consolation and as the Argentine contingent in the crowd made themselves heard, the Pumas were able to celebrate a 15-25 victory – their first ever win over New Zealand.

Back to basics

So many times we have seen the Pumas come out looking to take teams on offensively and falling to a gallant defeat. This was a very different performance however. While their attacking play was limited, their defence was incredible.

Led by flankers Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer, and with debutant Santiago Chocobares at 12, the defence was near-perfect, with barely a tackle missed all game and a strong team effort meaning that though the All Blacks may make metres and occasionally get through the first line, they very rarely looked a threat.

And everywhere else on the pitch, they just did the basics right, playing a good territorial game and being reliable at their own set piece while causing issues for New Zealand on opposition ball. And more than anything, they showed desire, fighting for everything and standing up for their teammates – epitomised by captain Matera from first minute to last.

You could see how much this meant to the Pumas at the end, and by simply doing the basics, they were fully deserving of the win.

Change or be changed?

While doing the basics right was key to this win for the Pumas, for so long that was just a prerequisite to having a chance to beat the All Blacks. This team looks a shadow of their former selves under Ian Foster and with his opening 5 games now resulting in just 2 wins, a draw and 2 losses, things don’t look good. This is the first time the All Blacks have lost consecutive games since 2011, and considering they have come against an inexperienced, rebuilding Australia and an Argentina team whose players have barely played since the outbreak of COVID-19, you can’t help think that their final match in the tournament against Argentina could decide if Foster keeps his job.

And for that reason, Foster needs to throw caution to the wind and pick on form rather than the tried and tested he has gone for in his so-called “strongest XI” of late. Hoskins Sotutu needs to be given the start and fellow Blues back rowers Dalton Papali’i and Akira Ioane should be joining him and Sam Cane in the 23. Beauden Barrett needs dropping  from the XV so that Jordie Barrett can play 15 and Mo’unga needs to be allowed to play his natural game like we see at the Crusaders. Ngani Laumape needs to be given the 12 shirt as he is a game-changing talent, while Reiko Ioane at 13 will create a match-up nightmare, while Caleb Clarke and Jordie Barrett should be joined in the back 3 by Will Jordan, who was one of the form players in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Will this be enough to save Ian Foster’s job? Only time will tell.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Wales

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Wales

The newest tournament on the international rugby calendar got underway this evening in Dublin as Ireland and Wales kicked off the Autumn Nations Cup in Dublin.

After a confrontational opening quarter in which Johnny Sexton and Leigh Halfpenny each scored a penalty, Ireland found themselves on the Welsh try line and Quinn Roux – a late call-up to the starting line-up following Iain Henderson’s illness – managed to power himself the last few inches for the opening try, which was converted by Sexton. Sexton added another penalty but this was one of Sexton’s last impacts on the game as he was removed with a hamstring injury, and a change in the tides at the scrum soon saw Wales get back within a try through the boot of Leigh Halfpenny. The Irish dominance in open play continued however, and replacement fly half Billy burns soon opened his account on his debut with a penalty to bring the score to 16-6, with Andrew Porter just failing to dot down the ball over the line right before the break after issues at the Welsh lineout.

The Welsh had been very much the second team in the first half but they started slightly more positively after the break, with a Leigh Halfpenny penalty from halfway dropping just short, before another bisected the posts. That was as good as things got for Wales as Gareth Davies found his box kick charged down by Caelan Doris, who kept the ball in play for Cian Healy, who was held up over the line by Taulupe Faletau, but the Irish domination continued and with Wales creating very little, Billy Burns pulled the Irish away with another penalty and Conor Murray added 2 of his own after Burns was forced off the pitch. With the game secured and the clock ticking down, a strong Irish scrum in the 22 allowed Caelan Doris to pick off the base and offload to James Lowe, who had the strength to cross the line to cap off his international debut with a try, coverted by Murray for a final score of 32-9.

Lowe risk, high reward

James Lowe is a player who I have had my eye on for years, dating back to his time with the Chiefs in New Zealand. With his scoring record and blend of pace and power, I’ve always rated him and now that he has completed his residency period in Ireland, he has been able to show just what he can do on the international scene.

While his defence and covering of kicks could be improved, what he brings is good pace, but incredible power. If you give him half a gap he will punch through it and if you don’t get him down, he will continue to power himself on as long as he can, which he did to great effect in this game, needing multiple tacklers to bring him down and still only after making positive metres. He was arguably one of the most dangerous men on the pitch in this game and it was only right that he finished the game with a try, taking the ball from Caelan Doris as he came off the scrum and forcing his way over the line to embarrass the Welsh defence on first phase ball.

I suggested recently that the trio of Lowe, Conway and Keenan could prove effective for Ireland, with Keenan and Conway being elusive runners and more technical players, and Lowe providing the extra physical edge. With their success in this game despite a late call-up for Conway, the trio should be given the time to build a relationship together as a unit and kept the same through the coming weeks.

(Loose)Head-scratcher

I can’t help feel for Rhys Carré in this game. The Cardiff Blues loosehead suffered a torrid time in the opening quarter, being dominated at the scrum by Andrew Porter. Credit to the youngster though, he did not let his head drop despite a number of early penalties and in fact managed to fight back at the scrum despite the bad early look he gave referee Mathieu Reynal, and in fact managed to earn party and even a couple of penalties. And then suddenly he was yanked from the pitch just seconds before the end of the half to be replaced by the “better scrummager” Wyn Jones.

Now I could have understood this replacement in the opening 20 minutes as Carré’s early struggles in the scrum will paint a negative impression in the officials’ minds, but when the coaches chose to keep him on and he fought back in the scrum, he earned the chance to play the full starting role and there was absolutely no need to take him off with a scrum 5m from the try line with just seconds left in the half.

And did it really improve the game? Wyn Jones may have had some success, but the real improvement in the Welsh scrum didn’t come until Samson Lee came on at tighthead, while Wyn Jones ended up conceding the same amount of penalties as Carré.

At just 22 years old, Carré is still some years off of his prime. Hopefully getting the early shepherd’s crook here doesn’t negatively affect his development.

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Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 4)

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 4)

The Bledisloe Cup may already have been decided last week, but the Rugby Championship (or Tri Nations, as it is being called this year with South Africa absent) was still on the line as New Zealand faced Australia at Suncorp Stadium.

Both teams made a number of changes, but it was the Wallabies who got the better start as they collected Reece Hodge’s chip into the All Black 22 to set up Tom Wright for a try just 3 minutes into his Test debut. The All Blacks soon hit back, going through the phases to create space for Reiko Ioane to cross out wide. Reece Hodge kicked a penalty to put Australia ahead, and when Ofa Tu’ungafasi was shown a red card for a high tackle on Tom Wright, it looked like the game was swinging in their favour. However, New Zealand were next to score through a Jordie Barrett penalty, before Lachlan Swinton’s debut came to a premature end 35 minutes in with a red card for a high shot of his own. Marika Koroibete followed Swinton off the pitch in the final minute of the first half (though just for 10 minutes), but the Wallabies managed to hold n for a halftime score of 8-8.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, the Wallabies opened up the scoring in the second half with another Hodge penalty, and Koroibete returned to the field just in time to deny Sevu Reece in the corner, though it came at the expense of a 5m lineout, which the All Blacks drove over for Codie Taylor to score, Barrett hitting the conversion. Hodge kept the scores close with another penalty, before New Zealand saw Scott Barrett sent to the bin for cynically playing the ball on the floor. The Wallabies took advantage of the extra man, kicking the penalty for 3 points before Taniela Tupou crashed over from close range with just 5 minutes left, Hodge kicking the conversion for a 24-15 lead. With the game back to 14v14 for the final minutes, Tupou Vaa’i crashed over and Jordie Barrett added the conversion to bring it back within 2 points, but some dogged defence from Marika Koroibete forced a knock-on after the restart and the Wallabies were able to see out the final minute for a 24-22 victory.

On the up

With a new head coach in Dave Rennie, the Wallabies squad is clearly at the start of a post-World Cup rebuild, with a number of young inexperienced players being brought in and given the chance in these early matches. While the results haven’t always been there over these first 4 games, there have been positive performances on the whole. This was probably the most impressive performance to date, given that they were missing 3 key players in James O’Connor, Matt To’omua and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.

Playing Reece Hodge at fly half gave much more control and composure, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move out to centre to provide some experienced support for Lolesio at 10 against Argentina. Hunter Paisami is quickly becoming the reliable rock in midfield, while Wright’s impressive debut shows that the Wallabies have at least 3 great options on the wing with him, Koroibete and Filipo Daugunu.

Meanwhile in the pack, Matt Philip looks like he has been playing international rugby for years, Harry Wilson continues to impress and Lachlan Swinton was doing a great job as an enforcer until his red card. And then let’s not forget in the front row, where Allan Ala’alatoa and Taniela Tupou are one of the best 1-2-punches at tighthead in international rugby!

If Australia can continue to build on these early performances, they will be a dangerous opponent in the next couple of years.

Their own worst enemy

As great as Australia were in this game, the All Blacks were their own worst enemy and need to take a long hard look at their discipline during the week. New Zealand conceded 12 penalties in this game and spent almost 75% of the game without a full complement on the pitch.

Now, Tu’ungafasi’s red card was a little unfortunate as it clearly wasn’t a deliberate attempt to cause injury, however it was just another example of players not getting low enough and then driving their body up for the big hit, and with the contact coming directly to the head/neck area, Nic Berry had no choice but to give the red card.

If Tu’ungafasi’s was unfortunate, Scott Barrett’s yellow was nothing short of moronic, as he was clearly on the floor having been part of the breakdown and somehow inexplicably thought he could get away with slapping the ball out of Nic White’s hand. You could maybe get away with it in amateur rugby, but a professional, international tournament with cameras everywhere? Not a chance! Sevu Reece also gave away some stupid, costly penalties as well and in my opinion had a poor game with his place on the line.

Poor discipline is often down to poor coaching, and with Ian Foster’s first 4 matches all coming against a rebuilding Australia but including a draw at home and a loss, he needs to get things sorted out fast, or the success of Scott Robertson with the Crusaders will keep him on a very short leash.

Debut disappointment

As an All Black, you never want to make your Test debut in a (usually rare) loss, but for 2 players, today’s debuts were even more disappointing.

Akira Ioane is a highly talented back row – so much so that I picked him in my Uncapped XV back in early 2018. Though he went through a patch of bad form, he has got back to his best and earned this start, performing well until he was pulled to make way for Tyrel Lomax following Tu’ungafasi’s red card.

Meanwhile, Will Jordan was forced to wait until the 65ᵗʰ minute of this match to finally make his debut, despite being one of the best players in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Unfortunately, he found himself leaving the field just 5 minutes later wit an injury, before he even got to touch the ball!

Hopefully Jordan’s injury is nothing serious and he can look to start against Argentina next week, as I feel that the All Blacks will look to use their wider squad a little more. Hopefully these upcoming Tests against the Pumas will see players like Jordan, Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu and Asafo Aumua given the chance to earn their spot on the international stage.

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Six Nations 2020: France v Ireland

Six Nations 2020: France v Ireland

The longest Six Nations finally reached its conclusion in Paris on Saturday evening as France hosted Ireland in the Championship decider. Following England’s bonus point win in Italy, both teams knew that they had the chance of winning the tournament, but that England could also still win the tournament depending on the result.

It was France who got the better start, as Gaël Fickou’s fancy footwork saw him break down the left touchline and feed the supporting Antoine Dupont for the opening try, converted by Romain Ntamack. The Irish began attacking and Hugo Keenan almost scored in the corner, but was illegally denied by Anthony Bouthier, who received a yellow card. The French defence frustrated Ireland for much of the 10 minutes though, until Cian Healy crashed over from short range on his 100ᵗʰ cap. Seton added a penalty, and the it was time for Ireland to lose a man to the bin as Calean Doris conceded a penalty try by tripping François Cros as he chased a kick into the in-goal. The fly halves traded penalties and the French witheld one last Irish attack on the stroke of halftime to hold a 17-13 lead at the break.

As in the first half, it was the French who struck first after the restart, with Dupont collecting Fickou’s ship down the wing and playing the ball inside to Ntamack, who went on to add 2 penalties. Robbie Henshaw gave the Irish hope with a solo effort to score in the corner, which Sexton converted, but with 10 minutes left, Ntamack collected his own chip over the defence and fed Virimi Vakatawa to secure the victory, though Jacob Stockdale scored a consolation try at the death for a final score of 35-27.

Defeat consigned the Irish to 3ʳᵈ, while France’s margin of victory was not enough to leapfrog England and they had to settle for the runner-up spot.

At risk

Jacob Stockdale’s place in the Irish XV is seriously under risk. The Ulster wing burst onto the scene but has struggled of late, and looks highly unlikely to win the 11 shirt back any time soon, such has been the form of Hugo Keenan.

Stockdale’s attacking threat was minimal in this game, but he also showed that his hands aren’t reliable enough, getting lucky with one knock on in his 22 that was missed by the officials but then quickly gifting the French an opportunity with another fumble, which resulted in the penalty try.

The Irish have a highly talented wing not even in the squad at the moment in the form of James Lowe, and if he were brought into the XV then Andrew Conway could move to fullback to create a dangerous back 3.

I don’t expect Andy Farrell to make changes straight away, as the continued selection of Murray and Sexton has already shown that he is faithful to the players he has worked with in recent years, but Stockdale needs to repay that faith quickly.

Thrown away

When Ireland look back at this game, they will rue their performance at the lineout. A potent weapon back in the days of Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell, the set piece faltered at some key moments in this match, especially when they got into good positions. And then on some occasions when the lineout was OK, they could not get the maul going after and found themselves getting turned over deep in the French 22.

The Irish pack is full of quality, but is going through a reset at hooker and still settling on its second row pairing. They need to get this settled soon in order to have time to build the trust and cohesion that all the best teams have.

Until then, Ireland will have to find other ways to defeat their rivals.

Room to improve

It’s a good job for France that Ireland’s lineout play wasn’t up to par because they gifted the Irish too many opportunities with poor discipline.

In total, the French gave away 14 penalties during the match and were lucky that Anthony Bouthier’s yellow card was (correctly, in my opinion) adjudged as just a penalty rather than a penalty try.

A number of the penalties were coming at the breakdown and you can be sure that Shaun Edwards will be working hard to improve their discipline here, as the poor discipline was undoing all their great defensive work.

Right now, the French look formidable. If they can sort out their discipline, they will look near-unbeatable.

Guinness Six Nations