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.

Maori All Blacks v Ireland

Maori All Blacks v Ireland

Ireland’s Summer Tour to New Zealand got underway on Wednesday morning (Irish time) with their first of 2 matches against the Maori All Blacks. Following a tribute for the late Maori All Blacks wing Sean Wainui and a thrilling haka, it was time for the action to get underway in Hamilton.

The Maori All Blacks are never to be sniffed at, and with this squad including capped All Blacks Brad Weber, Josh Ioane, TJ Perenara, Cullen Grace, Tyrel Lomax and former Wallaby Jermaine Ainsley, the Irish knew they would be in for a real test. But it was the men in green who took an early lead as Cian Healy—on early following a head injury to Jeremy Loughman—won a scrum penalty against Tyrel Lomax, which Ciarán Frawley converted. The Maoris were soon level through the boot of Josh Ioane and looking a threat each time they got ball in hand, and when a monster 50/22 from Zarn Sullivan gave them possession jut 6m out from the Irish try line, they worked the phases for the Blues fullback to go over for the opening try. The Irish almost had an immediate reply as Connor Garden-Bachop was beaten by a bouncing ball in the corner, but the ball bounced just a little too high for Jordan Larmour to gather. However the Irish were soon ahead as Gavin Coombes drew 2 tacklers off a lineout before putting Bundee Aki through with a short pass right before contact, allowing the captain to go under the posts to give Frawley an easy conversion. A Ioane penalty soon put the home team back ahead, before a strong carry from Zarn Sullivan put the Irish defence on the back foot, allowing Ioane to break away and feed Shaun Stevenson for the try in the corner, and with Ioane kicking the touchline conversion, the Irish suddenly found themselves 8 points behind after half an hour. The Irish indiscipline was costing them and after they gave away a free kick just outside their 22 for closing the gap at the lineout, it took just a few phases of hard carrying before Brad Weber sniped through a gap to score the Maori All Blacks’ third. And as the half came to an end, they broke with numbers, for Cullen Grace to score on his Maori All Black debut, Ioane kicking for a 32-10 halftime lead.

The Irish needed a strong start to the half, but after Cian Healy was adjudged to have been held up over the line, they bungled the penalty advantage they had by knocking on the tapped restart, and when Ioane failed to clear the 22 with his clearance kick, the Irish came again but found themselves held up again, this time through debutant Cian Prendergast. The Irish were straight back on the attack after a strong carry off the drop-out from Combes, but as they reached the line, Nick Timoney proved that third time isn’t always lucky as he was also held up over the line. Things soon got even worse for Ireland as promising young centre James Hume was helped off injured and the Maori All Blacks, now being led by debutant TJ Perenara, got their first chance of any possession in the half and quickly set about taking the momentum away from the men in green. With 14 minutes remaining, the Irish made it back down to the other end of the pitch but again found themselves held up (Coombes this time) but they had a penalty advantage and this time didn’t waste it, taking the tap and eventually driving Coombes over for a try that his efforts in the game deserved, Frawley adding the extras. Happiness soon turned to worry though as Cian Healy had to leave the pitch on a buggy after what looked to be an awful knee injury that will likely end his tour, and though both teams looked to finish on a high, the score remained 32-17 to the final whistle.

Heading for trouble

Just over a week ago, World Rugby announced that starting from the beginning of June, return to play protocols following concussion symptoms would be increased from 7 days to 12 days, in an effort to help improve the safety of the game. Unfortunately, any hard work being done to improve safety was undone in one 12-minute span at the start of this game.

With just 1 minute on the clock, Irish loosehead Jeremy Loughman carried low into contact and came out worse for wear. Television footage clearly showed him struggle to get back to his feet, and as he went off for a HIA, he was clearly being steadied by a medic. Now already there we have the first issue, as a player who shows severe concussion symptoms (such as balance issues) should just be off for the remainder of the game, not going off for a HIA. And to make things worse, Loughman somehow supposedly passed his HIA as he was back on the pitch within 12 minutes, with the Kiwi commentators (who frequently show a flagrant disregard for player wellbeing and safety in their commentary) saying how wonderful it was to see him back on the pitch. Well clearly he wasn’t in the best of states, as he was permanently removed at halftime.

This was almost a carbon copy of the Tomas Francis incident that was widely condemned during the Six Nations. The irish medics and any neutral medics who were involved in letting Loughman back on the pitch should be instantly out of a job and hoping that Loughman never has any health issues in the future, or else there may be a hefty lawsuit rightfully coming their way.

Work smarter not harder

The Irish were their own worst enemies in this match, especially the first half, as they just couldn’t stop giving away penalties. The vast majority of these were coming either at the breakdown or for offsides.

Granted the Maori All Blacks were having success when they could spread the ball wide—with Shaun Stevenson especially having the beating of Keith Earls all day—so it made sense for the Irish to want to blitz up and slow down the ball as much as they could at the breakdown, but they were too keen to do this, and this led to them continually being pinged for not releasing or not rolling away, while the defensive line jumped offside far too often.

This lack of discipline just made it too easy for the Maori All Blacks to camp themselves in the Irish territory for much of the first half, and with that consistent possession and territory, they slowly but surely found gaps to exploit in the Irish defence to exploit for tries.

With Ireland likely to use a similar tactic against the All Blacks given the quality they will have to choose from on the wings (Clarke, Jordan, Ioane, Reece and Fainga’anuku), they will need to make sure that hey do so in a much more disciplined manner, or they will be gifting the game to the All Blacks.

Stars of the future

Watching this game, there were 2 players—1 on each side—who really stood out to me. The first half may as well have been called the Zarn Sullivan show, such was the impact that the Blues fullback was having. He dominated the air to deal with any high balls sent his way, helped control the territory and possession game with his monster boot (including a stunning 50/22 that gave the Maori All Blacks a lineout 6m from the Irish try line to set up his own try) and frequently found himself dominating the contact in attack even if he wasn’t breaking the first tackle or 2. At just 21, it looks like he has a bright future ahead of him, and I can’t help feel that him at 15 and Stephen Perofeta at 10 may be a more consistent combination for the Blues than the current ones featuring Beauden Barrett. While the 2023 World Cup will probably be too soon for him, don’t be shocked to see him become a regular in the 23 during the next cycle.

Meanwhile in the Irish team, number 8 Gavin Coombes was a shining star on a disappointing day for them. The 24-year-old Munster back row was one of the most dominant carriers for the Irish, breaking tackles and making the big carries to put the Irish on the front foot. This quality of carrying was also cleverly used for Bundee Aki’s try, as Coombes appeared to be carrying into contact after being fed the ball off a lineout, only to feed Aki with a short pass right before contact after he had drawn in the 2 tacklers and created the gap for Aki to scythe through. While 4 of Ireland’s back row slots for the World Cup seem to be filled with Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan and Caelan Doris, Coombes has a chance to push for a World Cup space, where he will likely play against Romania and the Asia/Pacific 1 Qualifier (likely Tonga, but potentially South Korea/Hong Kong), before becoming a key part of the irish back row in the next cycle.

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

As both Super Rugby Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere club rugby season come to an end, it’s time to switch our attention from club rugby to the international game as a number of the Northern Hemisphere nations go on tour:

  • England to Australia
  • Ireland to New Zealand (facing both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks)
  • France to Japan
  • Wales to South Africa
  • Scotland to Argentina (while a Scotland “A” side will also face Chile in an uncapped match)
  • Italy to Portugal, Romania and Georgia

Now regular readers will have guessed what’s coming here, as I look at the majority of the teams above (in this case all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams) and pick a player from each team to watch out for during this tour. Often they will be someone relatively new to Test rugby, sometimes someone with a point to prove as they face the pressure of depth at their position, and sometimes a player who may have already made a name for themselves, but finds themselves now switching to a different position.

Of course these are just my picks, and there were certainly some other options that I could have gone with, so feel free to chuck who you would have selected in the comments!

Argentina

Starting off this list with someone who firmly falls into the third category I mentioned with Santiago Carreras. You may have noticed that I have began a series of my picks for the top 5 players in the world at each position and (SPOILERS) the Gloucester back will be appearing in one of those articles down the line. But it will not be the one about fly half, and that is where he has found himself playing in recent Tests. He certainly has the skillset to excel there, but he lacks the experience, having never started a professional club match at the position and not likely to anytime soon at Gloucester. With Michael Cheika having taken over leadership of the Pumas, will he stick with the Carreras experiment to take advantage of the depth Argentina have in the back 3, or will he look to play his best players in their best positions?

Australia

With 16 caps to his name already at the age of just 22, Angus Bell looks to be around for the long haul. A dynamic loosehead, he is becoming a much more solid scrummager and will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on the English tighthead crop with Kyle Sinckler missing. If he can cause some damage at the set piece, England could be in trouble.

England

There were so many ways to go with this pick and I was very tempted by returning players like Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga or the inexperienced Joe Heyes, but instead I have gone for Care’s Harlequins teammate Joe Marchant. The centre has always had great attacking quality but had added a super reliable defence to his game, while he also has the ability to move out to the wing. He may have a fight to make the starting XV when everyone is available, but with both Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade missing this tour, Marchant has a chance to push for that starting spot. His familiarity with Marcus Smith will certainly help things in attack, while he will play a big role in helping shut down an exciting Australian back line.

France

As if France weren’t dangerous enough, they may have found another future star just in time for the World Cup in the form of Yoan Tanga. The 25-year-old Racing 92 back row really stood out to me with his consistent carrying in the tight for the Barbarians in their humiliation of England last weekend, which repeatedly drew in multiple tacklers to finally get him down. The French backline is dangerous when given space, and Tanga’s carrying will just give them even more to work with.

Ireland

Sticking with the pack here, I’m going for Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan. It feels like in an ideal world with everyone available, the Irish hookers in the matchday 23 will be Sheehan and Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher, with the big question just being who starts. However with Kelleher out injured, Sheehan will surely be the clear first choice ahead of Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan and with the World Cup just a year away, he has a legitimate chance to secure the number 2 shirt.

Italy

I was initially going with Six Nations hero Ange Capuozzo here but a second glance at the scrum half position made me change my mind. With Stephen Varney left out after a poor Six Nations that ended with injury and limited minutes for Gloucester, Callum Braley’s retirement from international rugby leaves the Azzurri short of experience at scrum half this summer. Step forward Alessandro Garbisi! Paolo’s younger brother has shone with the U20s and has been racking up the minutes for Benetton in the URC. He may not be the finished product yet, but a summer facing 3 of the top 4 teams from the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship will be a great way for him to gain experience in the senior team.

New Zealand

What a difference a season makes. Last year, the All Blacks were seriously lacking centres, whereas now they seem almost spoiled for choice. And while part of this is down to the return of Josh Goodhue from injury and another year of experience for last year’s crop, they are also helped by the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from rugby league. The centre played 20 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code alongside almost 200 appearances in the NRL, and has grown into the 12 position in his first season with the Blues. With a great range of skills, clever footwork and good strength, Tuivasa-Sheck has the chance to be the new Sonny Bill Williams.

South Africa

Evan Roos was going to get my pick here until I realised that André Esterhuizen only had 8 caps! The Quins centre is arguably one of the best inside centres in the world, but has the challenge of being in the sae national team squad as Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, while South Africa’s recent favouring of a 6-2 split on the bench has led to them usually going for a more versatile player on the bench rather than a specialist centre. However his form has been incredible over recent seasons and he is fully deserving of a return to the national team and will be looking to put in some big performances against Wales to solidify his spot in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Scotland

Another in a similar spot to Santi Carreras, Blair Kinghorn may not be as entrenched in the Scottish XI, but he was clearly in the reckoning for a spot in the back 3. However his skillset has recently been used more at fly half, and with Finn Russell given a summer off and Adam Hastings forced to pull out of the touring squad through injury, Kinghorn looks likely to wear the 10 shirt against the Pumas. With Scotland underperforming of late and resting some key players this summer, and facing an Argentina team looking to climb back up the rankings under a new head coach, the pressure will be on Kinghorn.

Wales

Finishing off this list with a potential debutant in Tommy Reffell. Many would argue that the Leicester flanker should have been capped well before this, but he now goes into the South Africa tour off the back of a strong performance in the Premiership final. Back row is an area where Wales have plenty of quality but don’t seem to give anyone a long enough chance to secure a spot. But with Reffell’s all-round ability in the loose and real danger at the breakdown, can he prove himself worthy of an extended run in Wayne Pivac’s 23?

England v Barbarians

England v Barbarians

With Freddie Burns kicking Leicester to a late victory over Saracens, the Premiership Rugby season came to an end and the eyes of English fans turned to the Summer Tests as England kicked off the action at Twickenham with a match against the Barbarians, which saw the invitational team win 52-21 despite playing the entire second half a man down following a red card to WIll Skelton.

Of course the Baabaas are always going to be tough to judge as the are full of quality individuals but have little time together as a team, and similarly this was an England team missing its Leicester and Saracens players, so we can expect a very different team when England kick off their tour, but what can England learn from this match?

England: 21

Tries: Joe Cokanasiga (36′), Jonny May (51′), Marcus Smith (60′)

Penalties: Marcus Smith (16′, 35′) 

Barbarians: 52

Tries: Penalty (18′), Charles Ollivon (24′), Damian Penaud (38′,55′) Baptiste Couilloud (46′), Louis Carbonel (67′), Max Spring (74′), Antoine Hastoy (79′)

Conversions: Antoine Hastoy (25′, 68′), George Kruis (47′, 75′, 80′)

Toothless

It’s not easy being an England fan these days.

There are some bad teams in rugby, but very few look as toothless or lost in attack as England. Eddie Jones has made a big thing of this “formationless rugby” that he wants to play, but too often when they have played this year, they have just looked lost.

Today was another such occasion. England made a couple of midfield breaks through the forwards in the early minutes, but there was no cohesion in the play, and it’s notable that their sole try in the first half came from countering a kick rather than going through the phases. It wasn’t really until the introduction of Danny Care early in the second half (by which point Will Skelton’s red card had left England with a 1-man advantage) that England started to find some shape and cohesion, scoring a couple of tries. But even then, many attacks came to dull endings or saw England letting men get isolated and turned over.

Granted it is probably an attacking style that benefits from a group of players who are used to playing together (which would of course hamper this cobbled together team) but with the World Cup just over a year away and a lot of questions still regarding the England line-up, are they running out of time. Can Owen Farrell’s experience get this attack working, either alongside Marcus Smith or in pace of him? Or is it time for Eddie Jones to consider this another failed experiment and go back to a more conventional attack.

Awful day for Atkinson

With Manu Tuilagi’s inability to stay match fit, something that England have continually lacked under Eddie Jones has been an answer for when he is not available. While Eddie Jones has usually chosen to go for a more lightweight and playmaking midfield in his star’s absence, one player whose club performances over he same timeframe should have earned him more chances was Mark Atkinson.

Well the Gloucester centre got his chance today, but it couldn’t have really gone much worse for him. England’s complete lack of structure and fluidity limited his effectiveness, which was then made even worse playing against a centre pairing of heavyweights Levani Botia and Virimi Vakatawa and a defence coached by Shaun Edwards. Meanwhile in defence, the normally solid defender fund himself falling off a few tackles and being outpaced to the outside by Damian Penaud for a break midway through the first half. Watching him today, it was sadly obvious that he hadn’t played any competitive rugby for a couple of months. And then to make it even worse, a 50/50 pass in his 22 failed to loft over Penaud and allowed the French wing to go over for a try right a England started to get back in the match.

He certainly started showing his quality more in the second half, with a couple of involvements in the build-up to Jonny May’s try, but given that’s against 14 men following Will Skelton’s red card, you can guarantee that it won’t get the recognition that it deserves.

While Atkinson’s form over recent years and his status as the only crash ball 12 available to England right now (with Tuilagi, Worcester’s Ollie Lawrence and Leicester’s Dan Kelly all out injured) should be enough to put him on the plane to Australia, it wouldn’t surprise me if this match is the excuse Eddie Jones will use to leave him out.

Welcome returns

Well there was little to be happy about for England today, fans should be pleased with the returns of Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga. Cokanasiga was playing for England for the first time in just over a year, while Care had become one of the many whose face didn’t fit in Jones’ England, having not played since November 2018, despite having been arguably one of the best 9s in the world in recent years.

And while England lost badly, there were certainly positives to take from their performances. Cokanasiga looked to be troubled a little by an ankle injury sustained midway through the first half, but made a couple of good breaks and finished off Tommy Freeman’s stunning kick counter with a strong carry to the line with a tackler hanging off of him. With his size and power, he provides a different option out wide that could be especially useful with Manu Tuilagi missing the tour, if they can get him coming in off his wing and find some holes to punch him through in midfield.

And as for Care, well his experience and quality certainly helped England bring some shape to their attack. Will he be given the chance to show his quality Down Under? Or was he just brought in as Eddie wanted an experienced 9 in camp while Ben Youngs was still with Leicester. If care isn’t on the plane to Australia, it may be time for a riot.