The RWC2019 Debrief: Argentina

The RWC2019 Debrief: Argentina

Welcome to a new series of articles, the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Argentina.

RWC2019 Qualification

The Pumas qualified for the tournament automatically by finishing in the top 3 of their pool in 2015, in fact they went all the way to the semi-finals, eventually finishing 4th overall.

2019 Form

It hadn’t been a good year for the Pumas. They came bottom of the shortened Rugby Championship, losing all 3 games including a 13-46 humbling at home to South Africa. Their losing streak continued in their final warm-up game against South Africa in Pretoria.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (3rd in Pool C)
    • France 23-21 Argentina
    • Argentina 28-12 Tonga
    • England 39-10 Argentina
    • Argentina 47-17 USA

The poor form continued into the opening match against France as Les Bleus ran out to an early lead. Though the team fought their way back into the match they fell just short, with a late long range penalty from Emiliano Boffelli just missing. They started strongly against Tonga, scoring 28 points in the opening 28 minutes, but allowed Tonga to get back into the game and can consider themselves lucky that a penalty try was not awarded right before halftime when Tomás Lavanini stopped a try with what appeared to be a clear no-arms tackle. Lavanini was however rightly penalised for a high shot on Owen Farrell early on against England, earning a red card that quickly ended the match as a contest. With the quarterfinals already mathematically beyond their reach, the Pumas made some changes for their final match against the USA and it looked like they played with more freedom. In a performance more akin to what we have come to expect from the Jaguares in Super Rugby, the team put the Americans to the sword to end a disappointing tournament on a positive.

Before the tournament, there was a lot of talk about the exclusion of Santiago Cordero, Juan Imhoff and Facundo Isa as they were based in Europe. It certainly felt like they were missed through this tournament as the pack often struggled to get on the front foot, while the backs often appeared to lack any spark, something that Cordero would have given them. Selection questions continued for me as Bautista Delguy was barely used in the early matches despite having been one of their star players before his injury, while Jerónimo de la Fuente and Matías Orlando looked solid but unspectacular. Nicolás Sánchez looked far from his best until the match against the USA, while Benjamín Urdapilleta struggled heavily against England behind an outnumbered pack.

Even coming into the tournament, I had a feeling that the team was tired. With the majority of the players being part of the Jaguares team that went all the way to the Super Rugby final, there has been very little break for them in 2019 as they went from Super Rugby to the Rugby Championship, then the warm-up game in Pretoria and straight into the World Cup. Travelling frequently between Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and finally Japan will be extremely fatiguing and I think it led to a largely worn out team playing in the key matches.

Looking Ahead

While the tournament will not be one the team looks back on fondly, the final match against the USA was a timely reminder that there are good signs for the future. This squad has a core of stars coming through who are 27 or under, many of whom already have a significant number of caps to their name, while other stars for the future like Mayco Vivas, Delguy and Santiago Carreras have been exposed to the World Cup stage. 2 of their most notable individual performances came from Juan Cruz Mallia (23) and Julián Montoya (25 during the tournament), while captain Pablo Matera is just 26 and star lock Guido Petti is only 24. This is a team that should be building around the young talent over the next few years. The key now is finding a young fly half to build around. Both Sánchez and Urdapilleta are in their 30s and unlikely to still be around come the next tournament, so 23-year-old Domingo Miotti of the Jaguares appears to be the next man up and he needs to become a regular fixture soon in order to cement his place in the squad.

Playing home and away against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia is going to give their place in the rankings a hit, but to regularly play against some of the best will help the team improve. The important thing for them now is to widen the fields for selection. If they continue to select predominantly from in Argentina, they are currently limited to picking form just 1 top tier team: the Jaguares. This will continue to lead to issues of players being overworked and coming into the World Cup fatigued, while also creating a limited pathway for younger players coming through. The team needs to widen their scope to select European-based players if their form deserves it, or find a way to get another Argentinian franchise into Super Rugby, which considering the tournament is about to cut another team seems unlikely any time soon.

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool C

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool C

We are mere days away from the start of the Rugby World Cup and we now know the players who will be on show. With the 31-man squads finalised, it’s time to start taking a look at the squads and looking at who will stand out during this tournament. In 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder made his all Blacks debut in August, before going on to be a star of the tournament and make the tournament dream team, along with Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who definitely wasn’t known to the masses before the tournament.

With so many people who aren’t die-hard rugby fans set to watch the tournament, or many whose knowledge is maybe limited to their own nation’s players, I decided to do something similar to my Players to Watch in the Six Nations article, and expand that to each team of the World Cup. While I try to watch as much rugby as I can around the world, you’ll see that even I have blank spots as I select some players that may be bigger names in their teams, but they still may be lesser-known names to the wider public.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


Today, we’re moving onto Pool C

England

As someone who can’t go a day without talking English/Premiership rugby, it wasn’t easy for me to figure out who would be the lesser-known players in the England squad. I eventually settled on Joe Cokanasiga, who at 21 years old and with just 2 seasons of Premiership Rugby under his belt is still relatively unknown. While many of the England back 3 are fast, agile but not overly physical players, Cokanasiga relishes in the physical game while also having the speed to trouble defences. Assuming the defenders manage to successfully tackle him, they then have to hope he doesn’t get the offload away. With tries against Japan and Australia in the 2018 November Tests, expect to see him adding to that list during the tournament.

France

While Antoine Dupont deserves a mention, I’ve picked Damian Penaud here for Les Bleus. Capable of playing centre but often used on the wing for the national team, Penaud has 2 tries from 11 Test matches, including 2 in this year’s Six Nations. He really appeared to come into his own down the stretch for Clermont however, and I expect him to be even better now with more experience under his belt… assuming the rest of the team perform.

Argentina

Argentina are spoiled for choice in the outside backs, but one player who looked to have all-but secured his spot in the XV before injury was winger Bautista Delguy. At just 22 years old, the winger already has 5 tries from 11 caps, including 3 from 5 Rugby Championship appearances. Argentina will create chances but don’t always have the composure to finish them. Delguy on the wing gives them that.

USA

Having won the Pro12 with Connacht and spent 3 seasons with Sale, AJ MacGinty still goes relatively under the radar, but my pick here instead goes to Joe Taufete’e. The Worcester hooker has found himself stuck behind Jack Singleton in recent seasons, but has shown his quality for the Eagles with 20 tries from 22 appearances, making him the tight 5 player with the most international tries. With experience of his English opponents and a strong runner with ball in hand, Taufete’e is one of the players leading USA rugby into a new era.

Tonga

At 31 years old, Sione Kalamafoni is a well-established player, but despite plenty of years in the Premiership with Gloucester and Leicester, is someone who goes relatively under the radar. Kalamafoni has vital experience to help Tonga in a tough pool, while he will tackle all… day… long. On top of that, he also has a good turn of pace in the loose that will catch the opposition out if they leave him too much space.

Who are you looking out for during the tournament?


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Will you be picking any of these players in your squad?

Eyes On: South Africa v Argentina – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: South Africa v Argentina – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After winning the Rugby Championship in Salta last weekend, South Africa returned to Pretoria to take on Argentina in a World Cup warm-up match against Argentina. Last week, the Pumas were annihilated at home, but as both teams fielded heavily changed lineups this week, we had a much closer affair. S’busiso Nkosi put the Springboks ahead, only for an intercept try by Guido Petti to give the Pumas an 8-10 halftime lead. Nkosi and Matera traded second half tries to keep things close. With just a few minutes left and South Africa just 3 points ahead, Argentina scored through Lucas Mensa, only for the try to be disallowed for an obstruction early in the attack. Elton Jantjies kicked the resultant penalty to secure the win by a scoreline of 24-18.

South Africa

Having missed the Rugby Championship through injury, this match mas notable as the return to international rugby of Springboks captain Siya Kolisi. In a 53-minute appearance, the openside put in a timely reminder of just how important he is to the team, before we even account for his leadership skills. Off of just 3 carries, Kolisi made 14 metres and put the Springboks on the front foot, while defensively he made 6 tackles, with none missed and was unfortunate to be penalised for taking out the 9 at one breakdown where replays suggested that Felipe Ezcurra had already picked up the ball.

Most importantly though, he did not look at all out of place or off the pace despite having not played a match since May and he looks certain to reclaim the South African 6 jersey come the World Cup.

Argentina

The Pumas came so close to winning this match, but eventually were denied by a penalty that wrote off what would have been the winning try. While it was a disappointing way to end the competition (I think it was the right call, but I have also seen more deliberate and blatant obstructions allowed), it was a perfect way to sum up the game for Argentina.

ESPN’s stats page says that the Pumas conceded 11 penalties through the game and while they don’t break it down between the halves, I am comfortable in saying that the vast majority of those penalties – not to mention a couple of free kicks at scrum time – came in the first half. Giving away so many penalties in the first half stopped them from impacting the game as they were constantly finding themselves forced to defend back in their own half; once they cut down on the penalties in the second half it became more of a contest.

While Argentina are in a bad run of form and find themselves in a tough pool, their main rivals, England and France, both have a tendency to give away more penalties than a Tier 1 team should be, very similar to Argentina. If the Pumas can improve their discipline, it could potentially be the key to making it through to the quarterfinals.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

As well as the returning Kolisi, I think captain for the day Schalk Brits put in a strong performance with a couple of good runs and completing 17/18 tackles, while he was also very accurate at the lineout. I doubt that he will move ahead of Malcolm Marx or Bongi Mbonambi on the depth chart, but it was a timely reminder of his qualities and his playing style may get him on the plane as an extra option to allow the regular starter some time off. S’busiso Nkosi has often disappeared from games over the last months, only to suddenly appear with one impressive run for a try. This happened twice in this game with 2 very well taken tries, while he finished with 67 metres made and 5 defenders beaten from 5 runs. For the Pumas, debutant Lucas Mensa did not appear overawed at all on his first debut, putting in a solid performance and almost scoring the winning try, while Castres stand-off Benjamín Urdapilleta appeared to bring more to the Argentine attack after his introduction.

While Urdapilleta took his chance well, starting fly half Joaquín Díaz Bonilla once again failed to get anything going in attack and also struggled to organise the team structure before he was replaced. Bautista Delguy has not made it back into the Argentina squad since his season was derailed by injury despite a number of tries in the Currie Cup for the Jaguares XV. With Sebastián Cancelliere starting and Santiago Carreras coming off the bench for his debut, it’s looking like Delguy could find himself on the wrong side of the cut when the 31-man World Cup squad is named. For the Boks, Thomas du Toit has fallen down the pecking order over the last 10 months and I don’t think there was much in this case to help his case, as he failed to replicate the scrum dominance that South Africa boasted last week, while a failed HIA for Marcell Coetzee harmed his chances of making it into a strong back row.


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Eyes On: Argentina v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Argentina v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

This season’s shorter Rugby Championship came to an end in Salta as Argentina hosted South Africa. Last week’s draw in New Zealand, combined with the All Blacks’ loss to Australia earlier in the day, left South Africa knowing that victory would see them win the tournament for the first time since the 2009 Tri Nations. Things didn’t start well for them, as Santiago Cordero dotted down within 2 minutes, but the Springboks turned things round to lead 13-22 at the break before holding the Pumas scoreless on the way to a 13-46 victory and the Rugby Championship crown.

Argentina

On 6ᵗʰ July, the Jaguares were playing in the Super Rugby final. Just over a month later, the vast majority of those players are looking back at a Rugby Championship campaign that has finished winless. In Super Rugby they looked so dangerous but in recent weeks, they have struggled to get much going on a regular basis. I think that this comes down to one main thing: fatigue. Due to Argentina’s policy of only selecting home-based players when possible, that has limited the national team to picking the majority of their players from just 1 top flight team. This means that the majority of these players are coming off the back of a long Super Rugby season where they are having to regularly travel vast distances to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, while their replacements are in the exact same situation. Sadly, with the World Cup just around the corner, I think that the Pumas will need to keep picking strong squads in their warm-up matches to try building some momentum, which will lead to all of their top players going into the pool stages tired and likely to under-perform.

How can this be changed? Like Italy in the Pro 14, Argentina needs a second franchise in a top tier league. That way they can double the player base they can pick from, which will allow them to pick fresher players and increase the competition in the squad. The issues here? Well first of all, Super Rugby does not look to be in any position to take on a new franchise given they are in the process of cutting the Sunwolves, the Pro 14 may accommodate them but the travel would be ridiculous and the MLR is not anywhere near the level of the top-tier leagues at the moment, so an MLR franchise would more likely be a feeder for the Jaguares. If we imagine for a moment that Super Rugby did add a second Argentine franchise, we would then need to expect a decline in Argentina’s success in Super Rugby for a few seasons as a number of Jaguares players would likely move to the second franchise for more regular starts, so both teams would need to build up their depth.

It doesn’t look like there’s any easy fix, but as things stand it may be that the Pumas have reached their peak.

South Africa

Last week I discussed how South Africa put in a solid but unspectacular performance to tie against New Zealand. While they had some moments to break out in this game, it was much more of the same from the Springboks, and I think they are better for it. The centre pairing of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am is shutting down some of the best attacking teams in World Rugby, the pack is looking dominant despite missing captain Siya Kolisi, and in Handré Pollard they have the perfect 10 for this style of play.

Pollard is a physical player who can hold his own in defence and attack, but more than that he is a player who will do the right thing on the ball. With players like Faf de Klerk in the team, he does not have the full weight of controlling the game on his shoulders and he is revelling in the chance to show his quality. Though he has his off days with the boot, he has a good range and finished this game with a haul of 31 points (2 tries, 3 conversions, 5 penalties). Jantjies gives a good option off the bench (with Pollard able to move to 12 if they want another playmaker) but Rassie Erasmus has to stick with the hot hand right now, and that is Handré Pollard.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Despite playing outside Argentina, Santiago Cordero has been given the start in the last 2 matches and his try will have really helped him earn a seat on the plane to Japan. I recently suggested that Marcos Kremer could make the squad as cover at lock, and being given the start in the second row this weekend suggested that Ledesma is looking to do so. For the Springboks, Makazole Mapimpi will have appreciated the extra freedom to attack in this match and finished with a try, while Trevor Nyakane put in a strong performance in the scrums and completed all 15 of his tackles in defence.

With Bongi Mbonambi putting in a strong performance, Schalk Brits will likely be left hoping Rassie Erasmus chooses to take 3 hookers to Japan. As arguably one of the best 9s in the world, Faf de Klerk‘s poor performance won’t have cost him a place in the squad, but it may have put him under pressure from the in-form Herschel Jantjies. Given the strength in depth for the Pumas in the back 3, Ramiro Moyano will be hoping a quiet tournament doesn’t see him get overlooked if Bautista Delguy is fit, while Joaquín Díaz Bonilla may be a little nervous that Benjamín Urdapilleta was preferred for this game and managed to get some counterattacks going.


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RWC2019: Predicting the Argentina Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Argentina Squad

With club rugby over for another season, the thoughts of many fans have been turning towards the upcoming World Cup and the squads that their teams will be selecting. However, for the teams of the Rugby Championship, their focus has had to be initially on a shortened version of their annual tournament.

The Jaguares only formed 4 years ago, but this season was by far their most successful to date as they went all the way to the Super Rugby final, where they lost to a strong Crusaders side. This team is the home of the vast majority of the Argentina squad as in recent years coaches have tried to only pick players playing within Argentina, but they have relaxed the rule of late and coach Mario Ledesma has said that he will pick overseas-based players if he does not feel that he has sufficient cover from within Argentina.

As I have done with a number of other nations, I will be continuing my “Journey to RWC2019” series with predictions of each 31-man squad for the Rugby Championship teams, starting with the Pumas. With the Rugby Championship being so close to the World Cup, I am using the squads they have picked for this tournament as the basis for my squads, taking into account the players selected and performances from the first 2 rounds of competition, while also looking at some notable names who are not included but could come into consideration. To remind you, this is not the squad that I would pick, but instead the squad that I think Ledesma will pick, which is why you may see a couple of notable overseas players miss out.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I predict that Ledesma’s 31-man World Cup squad will be:

Hooker

Argentina have only taken 2 hookers in their last 2 World Cup squads, so I can’t see that changing here. Santiago Socino has become eligible after moving back to Argentina and made his debut off the bench against Australia, but I think it will be too late for him to beat out the pairing of Agustin Creevy and Julián Montoya.

Prop

Such has been the quality of Juan Figallo for club and country, I am confident that he will be considered despite playing overseas. Santiago Medrano is the incumbent home-based player at tighthead, so I see him being comfortably in the squad too. On the loosehead side, Argentina have recently relied on Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro as their starter, while Mayco Vivas appears to have edged ahead of Santiago Garcia Botta. The Jaguares scrum has not always been the most reliable this year and Figallo appeared to struggle against Argentina, so I think Ramiro Herrera will also travel to bring greater experience and options to the position.

Second Row

The Pumas have generally taken 4 locks to recent World Cups, but from the squad they have picked for the Rugby Championship, I can imagine them making do with 3 specialists and then having some cover from the back row. If this is the case, then Lucas Paulos is the unfortunate player who misses out in favour of the more experienced trio of Guido PettiTomás Lavanini and Matías Alemanno, who have been the ones involved through the first 2 rounds of the Rugby Championship.

Back Row

The last 2 World Cups have seen Argentina take 6 back rowers, but I think that this year the number will be 7 as Marcos Kremer travels as cover for both the back row and second row positions. Pablo Matera is a clear pick as he has developed into one of the best flankers in world rugby and starred in the Super Rugby final, while Juan Manuel LeguizamónJavier Ortega DesioTomás Lezana and Rodrigo Bruni bring a good balance of recent success with the Jaguares and international experience. This leaves one spot, which I feel will be taken by Facundo Isa, whose international career stalled following a move to France but he looked at home on his return to international rugby and can join Matera to create the basis of a devastating back row.

Scrum Half

The Pumas have only taken 2 players at this position to the last 2 World Cups, which will lead to a difficult decision for Ledesma. Tomás Cubelli looks nailed on for the squad having played the vast majority of minutes over the first 2 rounds of the Rugby Championship. Martín Landajo’s move to Harlequins this summer probably hinders his chances of travelling to Japan. I initially had Gonzalo Bertranou taking the second spot given his greater international experience, but it looks like Felipe Ezcurra has skipped ahead of him in the pecking order and despite limited minutes in the first 2 rounds of the Rugby Championship, he set a good tempo against Australia and also won a penalty with a strong jackal.

Fly Half

Despite having moved to France, Nicolás Sánchez is easily the best option at fly half and I imagine that he will continue to lead the backs through this tournament. Hem may not have had the best of matches in the Super Rugby final, but Joaquín Díaz Bonilla has done a fine job of helping the Jaguares to their best ever finish so looks to be Sánchez’s backup at the position. Though recent World Cup squads have only included 2 fly halves, I don’t think either of the above players have excelled so far in the Rugby Championship, so I think he may take another experienced option here in the form of Benjamín Urdapilleta.

Centre

Jerónimo De La Fuente and Matías Orlando have been a starring midfield for the Jaguares and regular partners for the Pumas too, so they are the clear picks here. Beyond that, I have gone for Matías Moroni, who has split his recent international career between wing and outside centre, and Juan Cruz Mallía, who can also provide cover at 15 if needed.

Back 3

This leaves space for 5 players in the back 3, which makes things more difficult for the European-based Santiago Cordero and Juan Imhoff, such is the strength available at the position. Bautista Delguy (currently playing for Jaguares XV in the Currie Cup after recently recovering from a season-ending injury), Emiliano Boffelli and Ramiro Moyano made a fine trio over the last year, while Joaquín Tuculet has the class and experience to potentially demote one of them to the bench. The final position was initially going to the versatile Sebastián Cancelliere, but he misses out after not featuring in the first 2 rounds of the Rugby Championship. His place instead goes to Santiago Cordero, who was given the full 80 minutes against Argentina and also has the benefit of excelling at wing or fullback, which could prove useful as the games come thick and fast.

Who do you think will make it to Japan?


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Eyes On: Australia v Argentina – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Australia v Argentina – Rugby Championship 2019

Saturday saw us enter the second half of this season’s Rugby Championship with Argentina’s trip to Brisbane. Both teams were looking to get some momentum following losses in the opening round, but it was the Wallabies who took an early lead at the Suncorp Stadium through the boot of Christian Leali’ifano and a Reece Hodge try from a set move gave then a 10-3 halftime lead. The Pumas got a try back through Facundo Isa, but were unable to find another try in the final 5 minutes, falling to a 16-10 loss.

Australia

While last week they were depressingly poor, there were better signs from the Wallabies in this match. Argentina’s pack are not as strong as South Africa’s and it really showed in this match, as Australia quickly painted the picture that they were dominant at the scrums, while Izack Rodda (33m), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (13m), Scott Sio (20m), Michael Hooper (30m) and Isi Naisarani (64m) all hit double figures for metres made, which along with 52m for Samu Kerevi did a great job of keeping the team on the front foot. Marika Koroibete also made good metres and did a great job of keeping Santiago Cordero quiet, while Leali’ifano looked at home on his return to international rugby following his comeback from leukaemia.

What will worry them, though is the sheer number of times Argentina managed to get in behind them defensively. If it wasn’t for some questionable decisions in contact, this result could have been very different. They may also be a little worried by the performance of Kurtley Beale, who was far less influential in attack compared to last week’s cameo off the bench and was lucky to get away with an awful kick that sat up nicely for the Argentina backs to counter.

Their upcoming Bledisloe Cup match will see the quality of opposition rise, if Australia aren’t careful, it could be a long 80 minutes for them.

Argentina

Last week I was disappointed with the amount of ball Argentina kicked away and wished that they would keep the ball in hand more. They certainly did that against the Wallabies, but I was still left disappointed with the style of play.

The backs are highly dangerous and they have great ball carriers in the pack, but too often they tried to offload the ball from contact when it wasn’t on, leading to many great chances ending prematurely. I can completely understand wanting to offload the ball as it stops the Australian defence from getting set and keeps them on the back foot, but so often it was leading to players getting isolated or handling errors that resulted in Australia either turning the ball over or regrouping. Even one time that they made it close to the try line, the ball was knocked on by a prop who couldn’t keep his eyes on the ball.

I think this team would really benefit from looking at the way Exeter play (Cordero could give them some tips), as Exeter get a great balance of quick, devastating attacks with offloads and also playing a more patient game, taking the tackle and setting up the breakdown, while when they reach to the line going through phases of pick-and-go drives to draw in the defence before spreading it wide to the open backs.

If Argentina can get the balance of play right in time for the World Cup, they will b extremely dangerous.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Christian Leali’ifano looked comfortably at home in the 10 jersey and has looked the best alternative to Bernard Foley (potentially even enough to compete for the starting role), which would be a great continuation of a wonderful story. Likewise, Facundo Isa managed to fit in on his return to the squad after a change in eligibility criteria allowed him to feature despite playing in France. For the Aussies, James Slipper did a great job of dominating (or at least making it look to the referee like he was dominating) his opposite number at the scrum and that, combined with his experience, is going to be pushing him towards a seat on the plane to Japan. Felipe Ezcurra was once again only given a handful of minutes at the end of the game, but earned a penalty at the breakdown with his jackaling and also seemed to up the tempo, which will certainly help his case for selection in a strong scrum half corps.

While Leali’ifano had a strong game, his replacement at 10 Matt To’omua struggled to have any impact on the game and get the back line firing in the same way. With the positions he covers (fly half and centre) being well covered by other more versatile players, he needs to put in a big performance to guarantee a spot in the squad. Joaquín Tuculet has found his 15 shirt under pressure from Emiliano Boffelli, while winger/fullback Santiago Cordero could be deemed surplus to requirements due to playing his club rugby in Europe. With such depth in the back 3, both needed big games but were kept relatively quiet by the Australians. James O’Connor may also be feeling nervous about his chances of going to Japan, as his return to the Australian team was limited to just 10 minutes at the end in a back line that was no longer firing.


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Eyes On: Argentina v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Argentina v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

New Zealand and Argentina got underway in 2019’s shorter-format Rugby Championship on Saturday in Buenos Aires. The Pumas chose to stick largely to the Jaguares players that just went all the way to a Super Rugby final, while the New Zealand squad was a blend of experience and experimental.

A try from Ngani Laumape and a Brodie Retallick interception just before halftime helped to give the All Blacks a 9-20 lead at the break. After the break, the Pumas held them scoreless, but could not fully make up the deficit, with Emiliano Boffelli’s try bringing the final score to 16-20.

Argentina

This was an odd match for the Pumas. Both as the Jaguares and the national team, they have shown over recent seasons that they are at their best when they are playing an open game and getting their outside backs into the game. While they looked dangerous when given the chance, their impact was limited in the first hour as Tomás Cubelli and Nicolás Sánchez played a territory-heavy game. While this kicking game did cause the All Blacks some problems – Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett surprisingly struggled under the high ball – and led to Boffelli’s try, it certainly felt like Argentina hared their chances by not keeping hold of the ball more.

When they started playing their usual game more in the second half, they started creating chances and came very close to getting the winner, only for a foot in touch to see the have a late try disallowed. With a 59% tackle completion percentage in this game, it could be suggested that playing a more possession-heavy game would have actually benefited them and quite possibly seen them come away with victory.

New Zealand

Ever since Richie McCaw’s retirement, the battle for the number 7 shirt has been a close one between Sam Cane and Ardie Savea. This match saw the battle temporarily put on hold though, as Cane was given the 7 shirt and Ardie Savea settled in at 8. Obviously, captain Kieran Read will still be the starter at the position until after the World Cup, but such was Savea’s performance, it could have seen him earn a starting spot in the 6 shirt. While he will cause issues at the breakdown, he comes into his own as a ball carrier and he did a good job of helping put the All Blacks on the front foot in the first half.

Vaea Fifita struggled to have an impact on the match in a 6 shirt that nobody has managed to claim as their own since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand. This close to the World Cup and with Matt Todd emerging as another potential option at 7, a switch across the scrum for Savea could allow the All Blacks to get their best players on the pitch at the same time.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Arguably the biggest winner from this game was Ngani Laumape, who was a star of this season’s Super Rugby and carried that form into this match with 72 metres (the most of anyone on the pitch) and a try. Sevu Reece didn’t get many chances to have the ball in space but looked good when he did and was also willing to go looking for the ball. For Argentina, Matías Moroni has been cementing his position on the right wing in the absence of Bautista Delguy and has surely guaranteed himself a spot on the plane.

While Laumape had a strong game, Anton Lienert-Brown was very quiet and once again seemed to suggest that he is better coming off the bench in a Test match compared to starting. Likewise, Vaea Fifita struggled to impact the game in attack while also giving away a couple of silly penalties, which will not help him in his battle for the 6 shirt. For the Pumas, nobody really played themselves out of contention, but getting only 10 minutes at the end will not have helped Felipe Ezcurra work his way up the pecking order in a deep scrum half depth chart.


As we get close to RWC2019, I will be running a fantasy rugby league on the rugby magazine website, and you are all invited to join! Simply follow this link and use the Unique Token: b6c1e40d48e6

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 4

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 4

The Autumn Tests came to a close for most teams this week, but there was still much on the line. England and Australia both knew that a victory would go a long way to making a poor 2018 look better, but the Wallabies looked second-best throughout the match. The USA’s run of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018 eventually came to an end against the Irish, but they made it a contest and have reached their highest ever position in the World Rankings as a result. The result of the weekend though belonged to Fiji, whose win over the French on Saturday night saw them leapfrog France and Argentina into 8ᵗʰ place.

The Week 4 results were:

  • France 14-21 Fiji
  • Ireland 57-14 USA
  • Wales 20-11 South Africa
  • England 37-18 Australia
  • Scotland 14-9 Argentina
  • Japan 32-27 Russia
  • Italy 3-66 New Zealand
  • Spain 10-28 Samoa
  • Georgia 20-9 Tonga
  • Romania 20-27 Uruguay

England

England have generally had an advantage over the Wallabies in the pack, but with Australia having improved in threat department and England missing so many starters (and replacements in some cases!) it would have been understandable if Australia had the edge there this week. They didn’t. Ben Moon has well and truly taken his chance this autumn and may have put himself in contention for a trip to Japan next year as he looks to have replace the now-retired Joe Marler as England’s best scrummager at loose-head. Meanwhile Kyle Sinckler put in a stunning performance and has surely guaranteed himself the number 3 shirt for the 6 Nations. Mark Wilson continued to put in strong performances and I think he could conceivably find himself starting at 6 next time England play. 2018 was not a good year for England on the whole, but the performances that some of the players have put in when given the chance this November has suddenly given fans some hope that things may be getting back on the right track for a strong World Cup campaign.

Australia

Having been unable to watch Australia face Italy last week, I was interested to see how a midfield with Matt Toomua at 10 and Bernard Foley at 12 would function. To say that Foley was anonymous for most of the match is an understatement as his 2 main impacts on the game were missing a despairing tackle on Elliot Daly as he went past for a try and his grubber kick to put Israel Folau over in the corner at the end of the match. While I am beginning to think Cheika has the right idea with Folau at 15 and Haylett-Petty on the wing (Folau appears to cut more effective lines entering the line late than Haylett-Petty), he still seems to be struggling to organise the rest of the back line, which is leading to an incoherent mess. If Australia want to have any chance of reaching another World Cup final next year, they need to sort something out quick!


Wales

Wales’ gameplan appeared to change the moment Dan Biggar stepped on to the pitch. After a game where they had been spreading the ball well and causing the Springboks across the park, suddenly the game devolved into kicking the ball back to South Africa and surviving another onslaught with their staunch defence. While Biggar and his back 3 – especially George North – caused the Boks problems as they tried to collect the high ball, it put so much pressure on the Welsh defence and against a team playing better that could have proved fatal. Dan Biggar is undoubtedly a talented player and a clutch goal kicker, but I do not think his style of play matches the style that Wales are trying to play. For me, Gareth Anscombe has nailed down the 10 shirt – even if he did miss a few kicks to touch – and it is now up to Warren Gatland to decide if he wants Rhys Patchell or Dan Biggar on the bench, though Patchell’s ability to play 15 will likely see both of them on the plane to Japan.

South Africa

I’ve often heard the phrase “earning the right to go wide” but I can’t remember a match where the need to do that was more obvious than in this one. Too often South Africa were looking to spread the ball wide early in their possession without the forwards having dragged in defenders or any backs running effective dummy lines. In fact, they were often throwing a miss pass to the winger, which allowed the defence to drift across. They are a team clearly building back to their best, but they need to learn to control the game better regardless of the personnel on the pitch if they are to become more consistent.


Scotland

Laidlaw, Hastings, Kinghorn, Russell, Jones, Maitland, Hogg

Scottish rugby has been so exciting in recent years, but when I saw this back line announced to face an attacking team like the Pumas I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the weather gods were not on our side and rain early in the first half denied us the expansive game we were hoping for. Personally, I like the look of a back 3 including both Hogg and Kinghorn as they are both such impressive players and with them both being fullbacks, it gives Scotland solidity under the high ball while also a great option to attack the high ball and try to win it back. Russell, Hastings and Hogg are all such great playmakers and controllers of the game with a range of passes and kicks and the legs to run it themselves, so having all three of them on the pitch at the same time could make it so hard for opposition teams to defend against them. I’m not sure if Russell and Jones is the best centre partnership defensively, especially in matches where the pack is not the most phyical, but I would love to see it used again in the 6 Nations to see how it can workout, with Alex Dunbar on the bench in case they need to improve their defensive solidity.

Argentina

I’ve got to admit, I’ve been really disappointed by the Argentinian’s attacking tactics during this tour. During the Rugby Championship, their attacking play through their backs was ripping through teams, however over recent weeks, the back 3 stars of Boffelli, Delguy and Moyano have had limited opportunities to attack and in this game, Nicolás Sánchez continually put boot to ball and forced the Scots to show their composure under the high ball with mixed results. I think that this is a team currently set to compete against more attack-minded teams like the rest of the Rugby Championship, while against Tier 1 teams who focus on a solid defence, as you find with most 6 Nations teams, they do not yet have the quality in their overall game to threaten the line as well.


Ireland

The Irish are developing such depth in their squad! It’s fair to say that as things stand, only Garry Ringrose, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne would be in contention for a place in the first choice starting XV, yet all the players who featured suggested that they would be more than capable of coming into that team and doing a good job. The pack may have had some issues against the American lineout in the first half, but they were too strong for the Eagles at the scrum and the entire team pounded away mercilessly for 80 minutes both in attack and defence, eventually grinding the tiring Eagles down enough for the back line to cut them apart as the game wore on. The incredible defensive efforts and ball-control tactics, combined with the depth they have developed in their squad is why Ireland are currently my favourites for the World Cup.

USA

I never thought that the USA had a chance of winning this game, such is the strength of Ireland, but they came out the blocks so well and did better than the 24-14 halftime score suggests. The move at the lineout that saw them initially set up a maul but then get the ball back to Joe Taufete’e who had remained on the touchline to rampage into the 22 was really good to see and he reacted well to the poor tackling technique to go over for a try. Perhaps even more beautiful, but in a slightly different way, was the driving maul that resulted in a penalty try. In Taufete’e, Manoa and (currently injured) AJ MacGinty, the Eagles have some great talent to build the team around and the success that they have had this season will surely help get more Americans into the sport.


Japan

After what I feel should have been a Man of the Match performance against England, Michael Leitch saved Japan at Kingsholm on Saturday. The Japanese had played so well against England but struggled to reach the same heights against Russia. Leitch’s tries came at crucial times, with his first coming after a strong Russian start had the Brave Blossoms 3-16 down, while his second try with just 8 minutes left proved to be the match-winner. Japan need to make sure their talismanic captain stays fit if they want to have some degree of success when they host the World Cup.

Russia

Yuri Kushnarev is one of the stars of this Russian team, so to see him go off during the first half could have been a huge loss for the Bears. However Ramil Gaisin did a great job off the bench and gave his team every chance to win. He ran the back line well and did a great job of pegging Japan back with some of his kicks, while his cross-kick to hooker Stanislav Sel’skiy for his try was inch-perfect. Now I’ll be completely honest and say that I don’t know much about Russian rugby, so I have had to rely on Wikipedia a bit here and I noticed that Gaisin is listed as a fullback on the national team’s page. Vasily Artemyev is a great player but he did not look comfortable at fullback, especially when forced to kick, so I think it would benefit Russia to promote Gaisin to 15 and move Artemyev back to the wing while Kushnarev stays at 10. With 7s star Vladimir Ostroushko playing well at 13, the Bears have the making of a good back line that could cause opponents unseen problems at the World Cup.


France

This was not a good match for Les Bleus. The pack did well on their own scrum and in the lineouts, while captain Guilhem Guirado was the scorer of both tries on the night. However, the back line struggled to have a positive impact on the game. The back three were limited in attack and the centre pairing of Gaël Fickou and Mathieu Bastareaud were almost anonymous in this game. The French back line has to play so much better if they are to be competitive against other Tier 1 nations and the first thing is stability. With Camille Lopez and Matthieu Jalibert having both missed considerable time this year (Jalibert’s injury in his 6 Nations debut ended last season and he suffered another injury in preseason with Bordeaux) and that has seen the national team run though a number of options at 10, while the 9 jersey has also been a competition between Morgan Parra (due to start this match until he was injured), Baptiste Serin, Antoine Dupont and Sébastien Bézy. Less than a year out from the world Cup, finding consistency in your halfbacks is key and that is what France need to do going into 2019 is narrow down their selections and stick to the same players when possible. In my eyes, Lopez, Serin and Parra should be nailed onto the World Cup squad, as should Jalibert if he can get himself fit and perform as he did before his injuries. I would also take Dupont as a third scrum half option to keep things fresh in a dangerous pool, as Parra could (if needed) move to 10 as he has in the past – it may not be a natural it, but he has played there before at international level and has the skills to control the game.

Fiji

Last week I was saying how Fiji need to play against a competitor who will force them to play a more structured game. France were that team and so it was great to see how a more structured Fijian approach would look. What stood out to me was the lack of a kicking game from the halfbacks. Neither Frank Lomani nor Ben Volavola were looking to play a tactical kicking game, and while it did not cost them in this game, against better defences they will struggle if they are always trying to play the ball out of their own half. Equally costly could be their discipline. The Fijians had 2 tries cancelled out on the night and while Semi Radradra’s picking up of the ball from an offside position was an easy mistake to make, Tevita Cavubati’s late hit on Yoann Huget was just stupid and unnecessary. With Australia, Wales, Georgia and Uruguay as their opponents in Pool D of the World Cup, Fiji could come anywhere in the top 4 of this pool (sorry Uruguay) and improving their tactical kicking and discipline could be just what they need to make it into the top 2.


 

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 3

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 3

Week 3 is in the book and if we’re being honest, there’s only one result everyone is talking about. Ireland shocked the world when they beat New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 and they did it again at the weekend in front of a raucous Irish crowd at the Aviva Stadium. Away from this match, a number of Tier 1 nations gave the fringe players a run-out this weekend as they played nations a little lower in the rankings, with mixed results.

The Week 3 results were:

  • France 28-13 Argentina
  • Ireland 16-9 New Zealand
  • Chile 0-73 Maori All Blacks
  • Scotland 20-26 South Africa
  • England 35-15 Japan
  • Wales 74-24 Tonga
  • Italy 7-26 Australia
  • Georgia 27-19 Samoa
  • Uruguay 7-68 Fiji

Before we get into my thoughts, a quick thank you to my colleague and fellow rugby not Phil, who abandoned me for a trip to Twickenham this weekend but made up for it by sending me the photos you will see today and a few others that you will see in later posts.


England

With less than a year until the World Cup, a number of (largely fringe) players were given a chance against Japan to improve their odds of selection. Come full time, new cap Joe Cokanasiga was the only player from the starting XV to come away with a heightened reputation. Danny Care is so often a danger off the bench but once again he struggled to have the same positive impact from the start, as did Alec Hepburn and Harry Williams. Elliot Daly continues to struggle under the high ball in this series, Alex Lozowski made a crucial tackle to stop Michael Leitch but also missed a number of crucial tackles and did not bring anything to the attack. Once again George Ford showed that he is unable to effectively lead an international back line without Owen Farrell outside him to take the pressure off him. Meanwhile, Zach Mercer was treated awfully by being pulled for Dylan Hartley during Jamie George’s sin bin and then getting subbed early in the 2nd half.

I expect the line-up against Australia will be very similar to what we saw against South Africa and New Zealand. So the question then becomes “what should be done in the 6 Nations?” Personally I think that if Eddie Jones plans to take Farrell and just one other out-and-out 10 to Japan, then George Ford has proved he is not the man and Danny Cipriani needs to be given a realistic chance to earn a spot in the squad. I would love to see Chris Ashton or Jack Nowell given the chance at 15 against Australia as the Wallabies are bound to target us with high balls for Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty to chase.

rugEJ
With less than a year until the World Cup, Eddie Jones still has a number of big decisions to make

Obviously England are missing a number of top players and don’t want to peak too far ahead of the World Cup, but right now I struggle to see how this team will be competitive in the latter stages of the tournament… if they get that far.

Japan

I understand why Man of the Match is almost always given to a player from the winning team, but it was a travesty that Michael Leitch did not win the award for this match. The Japan captain was everywhere on the pitch and led his team from the front. He was involved in many of their best moments and scored a try where he broke a number of (admittedly poor) English tackles before stepping inside Elliot Daly. Japanese rugby may not have stepped on as much as some would have hoped since the last World Cup, but with players like Leitch there to inspire them, things will hopefully improve in the coming years.


Ireland

Not many teams can say they have a defence coach who has beaten the All Blacks. Ireland however can boast a defence coach in Andy Farrell who has beat them 4 times (with England in 2012, with Ireland this weekend and in 2016 and the 2nd Lions Tests in 2017) and drawn once (2017 Lions Tour 3rd Test). Andy Farrell has done a wonderful job of teaching his teams to front up at the breakdown and keep their discipline in defence. For Chris Robshaw in 2012, see Peter O’Mahony in 2018, the Munster skipper is a perfect representation of what Farrell is looking for from his back row. Meanwhile Johnny Sexton and Kieran Marmion (who arguably had his best match in an Irish shirt on Saturday night) did a wonderful job of controlling the game and the defence refused to give an inch and worked as a pack, forcing New Zealand to have the ball where they don’t want it. If you want to see how to beat the All Blacks, take a look at Farrell’s work.

New Zealand

I’ve been saying for a while now that New Zealand have looked beatable and boy did they look it on Saturday night! Under heavy pressure from the Irish defence, players were making uncharacteristic errors. Beauden Barrett has not had the best of seasons in my view and in this match his threat was almost completely nullified, while even Damian McKenzie struggled to positively impact the game. Ardie Savea is a talented player but it is clear that this team are missing Sam Cane at the breakdown. The All Blacks can arguably consider themselves fortunate to not find themselves with a man in the bin as they gave a number of penalties away in and around their 22, but Wayne Barnes was lenient towards both teams’ indiscretions in this match. With just one match against Italy remaining, I will be shocked if Richie Mo’unga is not given a starting spot as it is becoming clear that they need to look at their options beyond Barrett ahead of the World Cup. They have chopped and changed a number of players in 2018 – their strength in depth is incredible – but I feel that entering 2019, Steve Hansen needs to start narrowing down and looking at the players he will take to Japan and working on the combinations. They may look beatable right now, but actually doing so is still a challenge and it won’t take much for them to peak in time for another tournament.


Uruguay

As much as Uruguay struggled to be competitive in this game, there were some good moments from them and a suggestion that, given the right chances, they could become more competitive. As such, I was thrilled to hear during the commentary that almost half of their squad are set to compete in the upcoming season of the MLR. While obviously some way off the level of the top leagues, this is still a great way for Uruguay to benefit as the players will be facing a higher standard of competition weekly. Potentially they could look to enter their own expansion team in the future, similar to how Canada have the Toronto Arrows as of this season and make the MLR develop into a truly American league.

Fiji

No offence to Uruguay, but I don’t really see what Fiji really gained from this choice of opposition. With 8 places between the teams in World Rugby’s ranking system, there was a clear gulf in quality despite Fiji resting a number of players and giving players from the NRC team Fijian Drua a run-out on the international stage. We know how good Fiji are in an open game and unfortunately the Uruguayans could not give them enough opposition to make them work on a more cohesive performance. I feel that Fiji should be looking to arrange matches with teams that will force them to play a more structure style as this is going to be key to the national team moving up the rankings. Just take a look at the nations ranked higher than them following this weekend:

  1. New Zealand
  2. Ireland
  3. Wales
  4. England
  5. South Africa
  6. Australia
  7. Scotland
  8. France
  9. Argentina

Fiji are putting together a group of players that can equal these teams and arguably play better rugby than some of them (looking your way Eddie Jones!) but the one thing they lack right now is the ingrained structure that they can build a match around to ensure they are playing in the right areas of the pitch. To quote Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious: “It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning”. Fiji now need an opponent that will teach them the importance of keeping the scoreboard ticking over force them to take their structured game to the next level.


Wales

Like England, Wales made wholesale changes to their starting line-up this week for the visit of Tonga. Unlike England, most of the players given a chance in this match showed they deserved to be playing on the international stage. One intercepted pass aside, Tomos Williams looked good at scrum half and Aled Davies also impressed off the bench, including finishing off one of the tries of the month. Even if Rhys Webb comes back to Wales, he’s going to have some competition for his place in the national squad. Dan Biggar had a solid game but for me still kicked too much (thought they were more attacking cross-kicks, which is an improvement), but Rhys Patchell also did a great job of bringing the back line into the game. Jonah Holmes was solid at 15 on his debut (but I imagine Liam Williams will take the 15 shirt in Leigh Halfpenny’s absence this weekend), Steff Evans was at his best in a free-flowing attacking game and the centre pairing of Owen Watkin and Tyler Morgan showed that there is some depth developing in the midfield and Wales may not have to rely so heavily on Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies. In the forwards, Jake Ball put in a timely performance to remind everyone of his credentials, while Aaron Wainwright and Seb Davies were wonderful throughout and Ellis Jenkins continued to cement himself as my latest man-crush while showing himself as a more than international captain. I don’t expect many of these players will feature against South Africa this weekend, but as the World Cup draws near they have done a good job of pushing themselves into contention for a seat on the plane.

Tonga

After a poor start not helped by a harsh yellow card mere minutes into the game, Tonga did a stellar job to get back into the match in the 2nd quarter and draw the scores level soon after halftime. However, their higher average age showed in the second half as Wales’ fresher youngsters ran away with things, leaving a scoreline that did not do the islanders justice. Tonga’s issue right now is that too many of their top players are reaching their twilight years and not enough of the new generation are playing in the top leagues. Sione Vailanu looked great but he will not be a regular in the Saracens back row, while many of the players in the Southern Hemisphere will play in the Mitre 10 Cup or the NRC but not the Premiership. Tonga need to get more players into top level competition if they want to remain competitive in the foreseeable future. How can they do that? I have some ideas, which would benefit not just them but all the Pacific Island teams and I will look to write about that in the coming weeks.


Scotland

Watching Scotland in recent years, I have loved the way that they have been willing to try something slightly different to catch teams out in a game. In last year’s 6 Nations, they left the Irish pack looking stupid after putting Alex Dunbar in the lineout and throwing straight to him to run over from 5 metres out. Their latest lineout try was a little more conventional (it was actually scored by a forward this time) but no less clever. The movement forward of front man Gordon Reid and the lift of Ben Toolis by the front pod left a wonderful gap for Hamish Watson (standing in the conventional scrum half position) to run into to receive the throw and go over for a try. Add to that the incredible decision to set up a maul in the middle of the field during open phase play – a ploy which saw the Scots push the Springboks back. A team cannot rely on gimmicks to win games, but Scotland under Vern Cotter and now Gregor Townsend have done a wonderful job of playing smart rugby while also making it attractive and adding in the occasional clever ploy to catch the defence off guard. I can’t wait to see what they have in store when we reach the World Cup!

South Africa

The more I watch South Africa this season, the more I think they need Pat Lambie. Elton Jantjies has an incredible skill-set but I do not see him as a reliable 10 at international level and wonder if he would benefit from a move to 12 similar to Kurtley Beale. Meanwhile Handré Pollard is a more reliable option in general play but his kicking off the tee can be questionable. Meanwhile, it is likely too close to the World Cup for Damian Willemse to earn the 10 jersey, unless one of the more experienced fly halves would play outside him. It’s going to be very hard to reach the top without a consistent and reliable 10. If Rassie Erasmus can sort this, then I think this team is very close tot he finished article.


France

Argentina managed to get more ball to their electric back 3 this week compared to against Ireland last week. However they still struggled to have the impact they would want on the game as France were so disciplined at keeping their defensive line spread wide to ensure Ramiro Moyano, Bautista Delguy and Emiliano Boffelli had minimal space to work their magic in. The French have an annoying knack of peaking just in time for the World Cup, it looks like they’re building towards it again.

Argentina

The Pumas can be great to watch, but they can also be infuriating. One moment that stuck in my mind from this game was an Argentinian scrum in their own 22. The Pumas have struggled somewhat with the scrum this year, but in this scrum they got the push on against the French. Then they ruined everything by not listening to the referee’s instructions to use the ball, resulting in the scrum being reset with turnover ball. It is criminal to give away the ball at a set piece in your own 22 and it was only a great tackle by Nicolás Sánchez that allowed Argentina to get the ball back and clear their lines. They surprised the world when they reached the semi-finals of RWC2015 at Ireland’s expense, but they need to cut out stupid mistakes like this if they are to reach the semis again.


 

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

After last weekend’s early start for a number of teams, the Autumn Internationals kicked off in full force this weekend. The match between England and New Zealand that people wanted years ago finally took place and, despite England’s struggles in 2018, the match went right down to the final minutes. Wales finally ended years of hurt with a low-scoring win over Australia, while the USA got their first win over Samoa to continue their record of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018, though that will likely come to an end soon as they face Ireland in a few weeks.

The Week 2 results were:

  • Brazil 3-35 Maori All Blacks
  • France 26-29 South Africa
  • Ireland 28-17 Argentina
  • USA 30-29 Samoa
  • Wales 9-6 Australia
  • England 15-16 New Zealand
  • French Barbarians 38-49 Tonga
  • Scotland 54-17 Fiji
  • Italy 28-17 Georgia

England

The first 35 minutes against New Zealand was probably the best I have seen England play all season. Players were tackling as if their lives depended on it and if someone missed a tackle, there was someone else there to put the carrier down. The rucks were being hit with a desire to get the ball back on the English side and the backs were pinning the All Blacks back with their tactical kicking. And that maul for Dylan Hartley’s try was like porn for a former prop like me!

Unfortunately, the team could not keep it up for the full 80 minutes and they struggled to have the same impact in the second half. While it could be said that England were handed the match against South Africa by Malcolm Marx’s throwing, this time it was England throwing he game away in the second half as Jamie George managed to connect on only 5 of his 10 throws, with a number of them being pilfered by Brodie Retallick. While the throws were by no means perfect as they did not seem to be hitting the golden “double top” (top of the throw, top of the jump), I do not want to put the blame fully on George as the lineouts were continually called to Maro Itoje (I got the feeling he was the one calling the lineout but am not certain) despite Retallick covering him at the set piece.

If England are to win the tight games, they need to make sure their set piece is flawless on their own ball.

New Zealand

Damian McKenzie was wonderful on Saturday. While I don’t rate him as an international fly half, he is a fantastic attacking fullback. Despite his small stature, he popped straight back up after numerous big hits from Sam Underhill and the rest of the England back row, while his footwork, vision, pace and ability to pick an attacking line played such a big part in New Zealand’s resurgence. He may not be the best yet under the high ball, but this is an area of his game that he can develop. If he’s given the number 15 shirt on a regular basis over the next year, he could be one of the best at his position in the World Cup.


Wales

Alan Wyn Jones was a lucky man on Saturday, as he probably should have seen a red card for leading with a forearm into Bernard Foley. While the incident didn’t look much, leading with the forearm is considered a red card offence. Alafoti Fa’osiliva received a red card for when playing for Worcester against Gloucester a few years ago and just the night before this match, USA’s Megan Rom was shown red for the same offence, which I would argue was even softer as she appeared to initially attempt to hand the player off in the shoulder – something Jones didn’t. Meanwhile in the Pro14, both Uzair Cassiem and Kieron Fonotia have both been banned this season for similar offences. All we ask for in the rugby community is consistency, and going by previous examples, the Ospreys lock should have been taking an early bath, but not even a penalty was given.

Australia

Jones wasn’t the only player who probably got lucky not to be penalised in this game, as Samu Kerevi also escaped punishment for a collision with Leigh Halfpenny that saw the fullback ft with concussion. This to me is a really difficult one and even after a couple of days thinking about it and discussing with a few friends, I still can’t decide what the outcome should have been.

Kerevi does leave the ground in an attempt to charge down the kick, which is the only reason I can imagine Ben O’Keeffe was willing to call it a “rugby incident” and play on – similar to Andrew Conway’s attempted charge down of Gareth Steenson’s conversion in the Champions Cup. However, it did not look like a wholly committed attempt to block the kick and he did end up leading into Halfpenny with his shoulder as opposed to an arm. Later that night, Faf de Klerk had a penalty given against him for a late hit on Camille Lopez that looked like a much more committed attempt to block the kick and a considerably less nasty looking contact with the kicker. What makes this incident even worse is that Kerevi’s shoulder appears to make contact with Halfpenny’s head, which is backed up by his concussion as his head does not bash against the floor as he drops. In this current climate, it is a shock that there was not even a penalty given for something that was at best reckless and at worst dangerous. Like with the Jones incident, all we ask for is consistency, there does not appear to have been much this weekend.


USA

They still have some way to go to take on the Tier 1 nations, but this USA team is one that’s on the up. Despite missing 2 of their stars in AJ MacGinty and Samu Manoa, and having captain Blaine Scully leave the field early, the Eagles impressed with some wonderful play from back rows Cam Dolan and Hanco Germishuys and powerful running form Joe Taufete’e and Paul Lasike. These two guys kept the Eagles on the front foot throughout the game and the Worcester hooker even continued his scoring run form the Summer Tests. Lasike, though really impressed me. The former NFL fullback, now playing in the Premiership for Harlequins consistently made ground when given the ball, but was not a one-trick pony (or shire horse given his size) and also worked the Samoa defence well by drawing them in expecting the crash ball but then playing the ball off to the men now in space outside him. If they continue to grow as a team over the coming years and more players like Psalm Wooching choose rugby over a career in the NFL, then the sky could be the limit for them.

Samoa

I really don’t understand the tactical decisions made in this game. Despite an experienced 10 in Tusi Pisi and players outside like Ahsee Tuala, JJ Taulagi, Alapati Leiua and Ray Lee-Lo, the Samoan strategy seems to have been to kick first. While it is great to see them playing a more structured style (something that has not always been seen with the Pacific Island teams), I really don’t think it played to their strengths. I have no problem with a tactical kicking game, but this should have been more interspersed with crash balls and spreading the ball wide to keep the defence on their toes. For so long, Samoa appeared to be the best and most well-rounded of the Pacific Islands, but now they are slipping down the World Rankings, which is a massive shame to see. They need to sort out their tactics soon if they want to start winning again on a regular basis.


Italy

Italy are a team on the up once again. Conor O’Shea has been improving Italian rugby as a whole and it is starting to show. They have some experienced internationals in captain Sergio Parisse (rested for this match), Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni (who has converted from flanker to lock), but they also now have a generation of quality young players coming through. Michele Campagnaro has been on the scene for an number of years but is only 25, while Jake Polledri and Seb Negri have taken the back row to a new level and consistently give the team front-foot ball. Add in the currently injured Matteo Minozzi, who was a star in the 6 Nations, and the signs are positive for the national team. The important thing is to give O’Shea the time as this is not a short-term plan, but instead a long-term reboot of Italian rugby to keep them competitive.

Georgia

Talk for a number of years has focused on whether Georgia should replace Italy in the 6 Nations. While I do agree that they are at a stage where they are too good for their current competition, this game showed that they still have a way to go to compete in the 6 Nations. After this match, I had a look at both the Georgian and Italian squads for the Autumn Internationals to see how they compared in their top flight experience. The entire Italian squad play in top 3 European leagues, with Parisse and Ghiraldini in the Top 14, Campagnaro and Polledri in the Premiership and the remainder of the squad playing for Benetton or Zebre in the Pro14. In contrast, the Lelos have 1 player in Super Rugby, 1 in the Premiership and 9 in the Top 14. Beyond that, the team has 1 player in the Championship (English second tier), 2 in the Professional Rugby League (Russian top flight), 7 in Rugby Pro D2 (French second tier) and the remainder of the players (all backs) are playing in the Georgian top tier. To make the next step, the Lelos need to be able to pick a squad full of players who are in the top European leagues and therefore playing weekly against other internationals. Now I’m not suggesting an exodus from Georgia, but instead a Georgian franchise in the Pro14. They may not have immediate success, but if they can start to bring through the next generation then they could begin to reach the next level much as Italy are currently improving again.


Scotland

The Scots may have ran away with the match in the end, but the match remained tight for the best part of an hour. Part of that was due to Scotland missing chances. Fraser Brown may have scored towards the end of the first quarter following a series of pick-and-go drives from the pack, but the try should have been scored a number of phases earlier when Peter Horne drew the last defender and had a chance to put Tommy Seymour over in the corner but instead chose to dummy the pass and appeared lucky to avoid a knock-on decision as he was tackled just short. Later in the game, Horne made a break through the middle and again held onto the ball rather than play it back inside to Greig Laidlaw who had a chance to keep the move going. Horne is a good player, but as someone in as a second distributor, he missed the chance to distribute the ball too many times and will need to improve to hold his spot in a competitive midfield.

Fiji

It will come as no surprise when I say that Fiji play some beautiful rugby. Add to that a improving structure to their play and they are really beginning to turn heads in international rugby. Unfortunately they still have a way to go to regularly compete against the Tier 1 teams and a big part of that comes down to discipline. The Fijians conceded 12 penalties in this match, which is too many against a Tier 1 nation, and lost both Tevita Cavubati and Leone Nakarawa sin binned, with the 10 minute periods overlapping to leave the team with only 13 men for about 5 minutes. Against a team as dangerous in attack as Scotland, it is hard enough to defend with 15 men on the pitch; it becomes pretty much impossible when 2 men down. Even worse, it will make it harder for the other players to keep going for the full match as they need to work harder during the sin bin periods to cover the extra space. The have a talented team but will not win regularly if they can’t keep the penalty count down.


France

35 minutes in with the score at 9-9, Teddy Thomas broke out from his own 22 down the right wing. Getting up towards the South African 22, he had only Willie le Roux to stop him but numerous teammates in support to put over for the try. Instead, the winger chose to keep the ball and was well tackled by the South African 15. Luckily for France, they scored a few minutes later after the Springboks failed to clear their lines, but it is criminal to not finish that chance by being selfish.

After finishing the first half on a high with Guirado’s try, France continued to build the momentum with a try for Matthieu Bastareaud just 95 seconds into the second half. However they then shot themselves in the foot at the restart and lost all momentum as Sébastien Vahaamahina attempted to catch the restart over his shoulder while moving towards his own line, but fumbled, allowing S’busiso Nkosi to go over for possibly the easiest try he will ever score. This was a stupid mistake from a player who should have known better. One of the first things I remember being taught about catching a high ball is that if you are moving towards your own line and have a teammate coming forwards able to take it, they should leave it for the player coming onto the ball, yet this was not done by Vahaamahina despite Camille Lopez being in position to take the ball. As well as letting the Springboks back into the game on the scoreboard, this also shifted the momentum firmly in the direction of the away team.

Despite all this, with just 1 minute remaining on the clock, the French found themselves with the lead and a scrum inside the South African 22. There was no way they could lose from there… but they did. With half a minute remaining, they gave away a penalty at the breakdown and when the Springboks put a bit too much length on the kick, Damian Penaud caught the ball in play, but then stepped into touch just before the 80 minutes was up, giving the Boks one last chance in the French half. From here, a series of French penalties gave South Africa the chance to win the game by driving over a lineout from close range.

Typical France. This is a game they should have won but they managed to throw it away with stupid mistakes.

South Africa

This was not a good match for the South African backs. Faf de Klerk’s kicking game was nowhere near the level of his recent appearances, while conversely the back line struggled to adapt to France’s kicking game as they heavily varied their kicks from chips to cross-kicks (Penaud was mere inches from collecting one for an early try) to high bombs like the one that led to Bastareaud’s try. In attack, the back line seemed nowhere near as effective as against England, while on one of the few times they did beat the French defence, Cheslin Kolbe did not protect the ball well enough as he went over the try line, leading to a try being disallowed – which should have cost them the game if not for the French errors. There has been a clear improvement in the Springboks since Rassie Erasmus took over, but they still have some way to go to be more consistent.


Ireland

Ireland did not look at their usual level against the Pumas. Jordan Larmour surely knows that he will be put under some pressure with the high ball, but at this point there is a clear difference in how well Ireland deal with the opponent’s kicking game when he is at 15 compared to Rob Kearney, who is arguably one of the best in the world under the high ball. But it wasn’t just Larmour who struggled, as Jacob Stockdale also fumbled a number of high balls and the team also failed to deal with a couple of restarts. Heading into the coming match against the All Blacks, Ireland will have to do much better in this area if they are to beat the World Champions.

Argentina

In recent seasons, the best part of the Argentinian team has been their back 3. Bautista Delguy has been fantastic since coming on the scene and in my opinion should have been nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year 2018 and along with Ramiro Moyano and Emiliano Boffelli they have formed one of the most exciting and dangerous back 3s in World Rugby, yet they didn’t get much ball in this game other than when they were collecting Irish kicks and I think this limited the Pumas’ effectiveness during this game. I can’t help but wonder if the reticence to spread the ball was a worry as to Ireland’s effectiveness at the breakdown, so it will be interesting to see if their tactics will be any different this weekend against France, especially considering how good Bastareaud can be at the breakdown.