South Africa v Wales: Team of the Series

South Africa v Wales: Team of the Series

We are one week on from the end of Wales’ summer tour to South Africa. A series that saw sporting stadia in South Africa return to capacity, while Wales also made history with their first victory over the Springboks in South Africa, while the World Champions emerged with a 2-1 series victory.

And so, as we spend this period after the Summer Tours patiently waiting for the beginning of the Rugby Championship, it’s time to look back over the tour to create my combined XV.

Who do you think should have made the XV? Let me know in the comments below.



My combined XV from Wales’ 3-Test series against South Africa is:

1) Steven Kitshoff: Ended the club season winning the inaugural URC final and followed it up with some solid performances off the bench as part of the Bomb Squad. May not have been as noticeable in the loose with Wales spending much of the time he was on the pitch defending but caused the opponent tightheads issues in the scrum.

2) Malcolm Marx: Sticking with the Bomb Squad, Marx continued to impress all over the pitch with his appearances off the bench, and scored a crucial ty as the South African fightback began during the opener in Pretoria.

3) Sam Wainwright: Probably a shock to everyone with my selection here. At 24 years old and with just 6 appearances in the Premiership for Saracens (all off the bench, totalling less than 50 minutes), it was understandable that many were asking who this third choice tighthead on the tour was, but he held his own at the scrum against some of the best in the world and will surely be adding many more caps to his name over the coming years.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Will Rowlands: The South African behemoth was the only one to start all 3 Tests for the Springboks as he brought up his century of caps and payed a key role in South Africa setting their dominance. As for Rowlands, with Beard’s performances having secured one of the Welsh lock spots, the pressure was on him to step up and reach his potential as Alun Wyn Jones reaches the twilight of his career, and that’s exactly what he did with some strong carrying and defence, while he even had some success disrupting the South African lineout.

6) Dan Lydiate: Much like Peter O’Mahony, Lydiate was given the 6 shirt and rolled back the years with a series of brilliant performances. His reliable and tireless tackling played a key role in a Welsh defensive display that did itself proud against the Boks.

7) Tommy Reffell: Fans have been clamouring for his call-up for a couple of years now, and when he was finally selected, the Leicester Tigers openside certainly produced the goods. Looked a natural at Test level, tackling well and turning ball over to end South African attacks with regularity. Fully deserved his try in the decider.

8) Taulupe Faletau: Jasper Wiese had a solid game in Pretoria but could not back that up in the finale, while Evan Roos was not able to impose himself in a team that lacked chemistry and Kwagga Smith found his minutes limited and split between 8 and flanker. Faletau therefore gets the nod as he continues to just quietly go about his business in all areas of the game.

9) Kieran Hardy: Wales have some strong options at scrum half, but Hardy certainly feels the right choice at the moment. Controlled the game well alongside Dan Biggar, while his box kicks were right on the money.

10) Dan Biggar: Another quality series from the Northampton stand-off, who was the most consistently impressive of the 3 starting 10s we saw during the series. Kicked well, controlled the back line well when they actually attacked and made some crucial interventions in defence. Was unfortunate to be the one who Willie le Roux coaxed into a deliberate knock-on for the deciding penalty at Loftus Versfeld.

11) Josh Adams: It was a surprisingly quiet series for Makazole Mapimpi, while Alex Cuthbert’s involvement was cut cruelly short by injury, and so the slot goes to Josh Adams. Not that he didn’t earn it, playing with a leg heavily strapped and yet still chased kicks so well, not to mention scoring the late try in the second Test that tied the game and gave Gareth Anscombe the chance to win the match.

12) Damian de Allende: Nick Tompkins is looking more and more comfortable as he gains experience at this level, but de Allende was a difference maker here. Solid in defence and running hard in attack, he als showed his more technical side with a lovely grubber for Cheslin Kolbe’s try in the corner.

13) Lukhanyo Am: George North was a solid defender but anonymous in attack until the decider, whereas Lukhanyo Am continued to show the world just how good he is with 2 more fantastic performances at 13, while he looked equally impressive after injuries forced hi out onto the wing.

14) Louis Rees-Zammit: Rees Lightning’s pace proved a real threat to the South African defence and caused them some real problems, while he was also unlucky to et a yellow card after a try-saving tackle and great jackal, though I can understand how the referee was not in an ideal position as he was unable to keep up!

15) Damian Willemse: The new utility back in the Springboks squad and the reason they can feel comfortable putting only 2 backs on the bench. Willemse had a solid series despite injuries and a first half horror show from Elton Jantjies forcing him to play a range of positions over the 3 Tests.

2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

Between the British & Irish Lions Tour and the Rugby Championship, we’ve been chock full of international rugby in recent months. But we’re far from over as the Southern Hemisphere teams come North for their end of season tours. And with the Rugby World Cup just 2 years away, it is now a crucial time for players to start proving themselves to secure a spot in their nation’s line-up and make themselves indispensable.

With that in mind, as I do for most of the major tournaments, I have looked at the majority of teams who you may find yourself watching over the next month and picked 1 player from each team who I think you should be keeping an eye on. Some will be youngsters trying to carry their club form onto a bigger stage, some will be fringe players trying to prove themselves, and some are players who you may not have heard much of unless you watch them frequently, but should really be paying attention to while they are on the pitch.

So let’s get started!

Argentina: Santiago Carreras

Carreras is one of the hot young outside backs on the scene for Argentina, an area where they have really been spoiled for choice in recent seasons. Capable of excelling at either wing or fullback, he’s reliable in the air and while he may not have the top-level speed of some of his fellow Gloucester wings (let’s be honest, few do!), he has the footwork to make up for it! He looked on the cusp of being one of the next stars at the position, if only Argentina could improve things further infield. However, things have got even more interesting following a Rugby Championship campaign that saw him start at fly half for the final couple of matches, despite never starting at the position in a top flight club match. Will he continue at the position or will he be moved back to the outside positions where I feel he is at his best? Only time will tell.

Australia: Hunter Paisami

What a couple of seasons for Paisami. The young Reds centre’s physicality and impressive defence saw him called up to the Wallabies squad as part of their rebuild and was looking pretty secure until he missed the majority of the Rugby Championship for the arrival of his first child, which coincided with the return of Samu Kerevi from the international exile. Well with Kerevi missing, Paisami is back in against July and while Kerevi’s presence may hinder his first team chances (with the quality available, I can’t imagine that Dave Rennie will frequently start with 2 physical centres) he still has the chance this Autumn to secure his spot in the wider squad.

England: Alex Dombrandt

I could have so easily gone for British & Irish Lions Sam Simmonds or Marcus Smith here as they finally find themselves getting picked by Eddie Jones, but I have instead gone for Dombrandt. While Simmonds is a quality 8, Eddie Jones has shown a preference for larger men at 8, so the young Harlequin could find himself at the head of the queue with Billy Vunipola finally left out. Despite being a big boy, Dombrandt has a turn of pace that will prove dangerous when put through a gap, but is more than just a carrier, as he also contributes more than a few turnovers at club level.

Fiji: Levani Botia

So now we come to a player who is firmly established in his nation’s XV, but due to the sheer quality of players around him at Test level he arguably doesn’t get the wider recognition he deserves. At 32, the La Rochelle centre is a veteran of the game and a physical specimen, happy to carry hard but even happier to tackle even harder. But what makes Botia very interesting is his versatility. While usually a 12, he is equally at home at 7 for both club and country, and has the ability to turn the ball over as good as any international 7. With the Fijian squad for these Tests only selecting from the Northern Hemisphere and missing injured players like Semi Radradra, expect Botia to come to the fore and lead by example.

France: Jonathan Danty

It’s crazy to believe that the Stade Français centre only has 8 caps to his name, but that just goes to show the quality available to France, while there was also a move towards youth following the last World Cup that saw him overlooked. However, he took his chance on his 2 appearances in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup that saw France test their depth and earned another 2 caps in their summer Tests against Australia as part of a weakened French team. While he may not be part of the first choice XV, he provides a physical carrying option at 12 and seems to impress whenever given a chance. If he can continue to put in similar consistent performances, he may just be able to secure himself a spot in the home World Cup.

Georgia: Giorgi Kveseladze

Georgia may be better known for their forwards but they are developing an impressive young backline and Kveseladze is a key part of that. You may remember him from his impressive solo try against Ireland in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup, but what has been really impressive is his defensive quality at 13, which will have only been helped by moving to Gloucester and training alongside Chris Harris. While his appearances at Kingsholm have been limited so far, most of the Lelos back line still play in Georgia, with Kveseladze one of only 5 backs at a top flight club (the other 4 all being based in France, while there is also 1 player in the Pro D2) and that constant experience in an elite professional setup will be vital for the team.

Ireland: Simon Zebo

He’s back! After returning from France, Simon Zebo is back in the Ireland squad a the first opportunity following his return to Munster. Capable of playing wing or fullback, Zebo still has a great turn of pace despite being 31 now, but has the experience to go with it, and has started the season strongly at Thomond Park. Ireland are chock full of talent in the back 3, but I can’t help feel that Zebo still has that special something to secure a spot in the starting XV by the start of the 2022 Six Nations.

Italy: Marco Riccioni

I remember as I was getting into rugby, Italy’s strength was it’s pack, including a front row that could dominate the scrum. Well Italy have quality throughout the squad now but need to start getting that fearsome pack back, and Riccioni could be a key part of that. The tighthead has been a part of the national team for a few years now and at 23 should be ready to take a step forward in his career and start becoming a veteran. But he is certainly going about it in the right way, having left a Benetton team that has never been this successful to join Saracens on their return to the Premiership. This is exactly the kind of move that Italy needs with just 2 top-flight club teams, and will hopefully lead to success both for Riccione and the Azzurri.

Japan: Tevita Tatafu

While I still feel that Kazuki Himeno doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, I have instead looked at his fellow back row Tatafu. Back row has been a position of strength for the Brave Blossoms for a while now, but Tatafu broke onto the scene in style with barnstorming performances against both the British & Irish Lions and Ireland over the summer, earning just his 4ᵗʰ and 5ᵗʰ caps 5 years after he earned his first 3 in the Asia Rugby Championship. Japan can sometimes look a little too lightweight in attack, but Tatafu’s carrying will be crucial in helping create a strong attacking platform against even the best international defences.

New Zealand: Akira Ioane

As great as the All Blacks are, they’ve struggled to find a true successor to Jerome Kaino in the 6 shirt. However they may finally have done to with the rise of Akira Ioane. It may have taken him a little longer that his younger brother Reiko to secure a spot in the All Blacks 23, but he has all the traits to excel in the team, with enough pace to hold his own on the 7s circuit and the power to be a true enforcer in the pack. Keep an eye out for him in wide positions on attack, where he will create matchup nightmares, being able to break away if given space or dominate contact against smaller wingers, while using his great handling skills to keep the attack going.

Scotland: Matt Scott

So if we’re all being honest, Chris Harris has become one of the best 13s in the world and has that spot secured. However the situation at 12 is much more open, and that gives Matt Scott a chance. Injuries have hampered his career, but he has always impressed when able to put a run of games together. Currently part of a Leicester Tigers team that has turned things around after a dismal spell, Scott is a great all-round talent, but what really stands out watching him play is the clever lines that he runs to burst through a hole and catch a defence flat-footed. If he can stay fit, he can really put his hand up for the 12 shirt.

South Africa: Damian Willemse

With Morné Steyn calling an end to his international career, the Springboks have decided to stick with just 2 specialist fly halves in their squad. The reason? Damian Willemse. Willemse is becoming something of the new utility back of world rugby, with a set of skills that allows him to play throughout the back line. Truly, this may be holding Willemse back, as he has struggled to excel at any position. However, if he can be given a run in a position, he could really start to excel, especially with the way that the Springboks use their fullback as a second playmaker. After a heavy fixture list this summer, don’t be shocked if the Boks start varying their back line a bit more in these Tests, and let’s see where Willemse fits in the plan.

Tonga: Hosea Saumaki

Probably a new name to most of you, and I must admit that even I know very little about Saumaki, but what I know has me excited. The wing recently moved to Leicester Tigers but has spent most of his career in Japan, where he has known how to make it over the try line, scoring 10 tries in 13 appearances for Canon Eagles in his debut season in the Top League. With the international retirement of Siale Piutau, there is very little experience (especially at an elite level) outside of fly half, so despite only having 3 caps to his name, Saumaki will need to step up and become a leader, while if he and fullback Telusa Veainu can both find space, they could be dangerous out wide!

Uruguay: Santiago Arata

One of the players who truly stood out to me during Uruguay’s RWC2019 campaign was young scrum half Santiago Arata. Arata looked a really exciting talent back then, and has since started to earn professional experience, first with the Huston Sabercats in the MLR and now in the Top 14 with Castres. If he can learn from a player of Rory Kockott’s quality, that will be huge for Los Teros, who still have most of their players playing in Uruguay for Peñarol Rugby in the Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR), South America’s answer to the MLR.

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

In the build-up to RWC2019, Gareth Anscombe looked to have secured the number 10 jersey ahead of Dan Biggar, only for a knee injury to completely derail his career as it was reaching new heights. Well the new season also brought a return to rugby for the Ospreys outside half, and he has picked up where he left off at club level. With the English-based players unavailable for the match against the All Blacks as it falls outside the Test window, will Anscombe be straight back into the Test arena? And will a good performance keep him in the 23, as Callum Sheedy has not had a promising start to the season with Bristol. Anscombe feels a better fit for Wane Pivac’s more expansive Wales team, so Anscombe’s return to Test rugby and the fight for the 10 shirt is worth keeping both eyes on.

Springbok Showdown

Springbok Showdown

The World Champions upped their preparation ahead of the Rugby Championship and their first match since winning the Rugby World Cup with the Springbok Showdown. 50 home-based players were split into 2 squads of 25 and faced off in a “Green v Gold” (though going by the kits, Green v White would be more accurate) match at Newlands, where they had been due to face Scotland in their first post-World Cup international.

In a sleep-inducing first half, Damian Willemse and Elton Jantjies traded penalties, but those of us who didn’t fall asleep saw Willemse miss 3 out of 4 kicks, leading to Gold trailing 6-3 at the break. The second half started with more positive rugby, but it was bad news for Gold as Willemse was rightly adjudged to have prevented a probable try by pulling back Yaw Penxe out wide, leading to a penalty try for Green and a 10-minute spell on the naughty step for the fly half. Though they gave away more penalties than Gold, Green built some dominance in the set piece and on 56 minutes, they drove a maul up to the try line from close range, allowing captain Siya Kolisi to break off and cross for the try. As time passed with little success for Gold, Green secured the win with a 3ʳᵈ try, positioning a number of forwards out wide for a cross-kick following a 2-man lineout, and a fortuitous bounce off the head of JD Schickerling and a scramble on the floor resulted in replacement back row Juarno Augustusdotting the ball down over the line. As the clock ticked down, a break from Lukhanyo Am set up Gold for a commiseration try, but Jason Jenkins was held up over the line and the Green defence held strong following the resultant scrum, with Thomas du Toit winning the penalty that allowed Gold to kick the ball to touch to finish the game as 25-9 victors.

Defence first

South Africa won the Rugby World Cup off the back of strong defensive displays and powerful set pieces allowing them to score a try or 2 to best their opponent. Judging by this match, there is no immediate change in tactics planned under new head coach Jacques Nienaber.

In the first half especially, the game very rarely went past a handful of phases before the ball was kicked downfield. Territory was at the forefront of players’ minds tactically, and though the attacking play increased after the break, it was still very limited.

It was very hard for the players in the back 3 to show their quality in attack and I felt especially sorry for Rosko Specman, who worked tirelessly in a support role and chasing kicks up and down his wing for very little reward.

Don’t expect the Springboks to be throwing the ball around in the coming years. A physical, defensive, territory-focused game may not be the most attractive rugby to watch, but South Africa do it so damn well.

Rusty

While a defensive performance isn’t the most attractive of things at the best of times, it becomes a hundred times worse when the players are as rusty as the 50 on show in this match. Super Rugby was suspended in mid-March, but unlike New Zealand and Australia, South Africa has not had any top-flight rugby since then and the only players who have were not included as they are based abroad.

While the teams often looked to play the territory game, there were times that they actually tried to played the ball, only for things to come to a swift close due to someone knocking the ball on or throwing a loose pass. Meanwhile a number of lineouts ended with scrappy ball off the top, putting the attacking team under immediate pressure. Even a large portion of the kicking game was questionable, with some deep kicks being fielded too easily and a number of more attacking kicks not paying off.

The Springboks still have time before the Rugby Championship begins, but they don’t have the competitive matches under their belt that the majority of the Australian and New Zealand squad do, and that could harm them in their opening matches.

Missed opportunity

With Handré Pollard currently missing through injury, this was the perfect opportunity for Damian Willemse to stake his claim for the Springboks 10 jersey and potentially even win the starting job ahead of Elton Jantjies. Unfortunately, things didn’t really work out for him.

His kicking off the tee left a lot to be desired, only managing to bisect the posts on 1 of 4 attempts, but that was far from the end of it. He certainly tried to get things going in attack and get the team firing, but too often this came to a quick end as players did not seem to be on his wavelength – though there was a lovely grubber in behind early on that required a wonderful covering tackle from far-side winger Penxe to stop Specman when a try looked likely. And then unfortunately, Willemse found himself spending 10 minutes in the bin having given away a penalty try by pulling back Penxe when he was chasing a kick into the in-goal, and by the time he returned to the pitch, he was moved to 15 as Curwin Bosch had entered the fray.

Granted Jantjies didn’t blow the proverbial roof off with his performance, but he did what was required to get the team the win and did not seem as involved in any errors or negative moments.

However, this may not be Willemse’s chances of a starting spot gone, as he put in a good performance after returning to the pitch at fullback, including controlling the air when coming forward to take high balls. Very few players got a chance to stand out in the back lines, while having a playmaker at 15 would give the Boks extra tactical options, so don’t be too surprised if the 22-year old gets the nod there to open the Rugby Championship.

Replacing the Beast

This is a new era for the World Champions, as they look to go on without Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, who retired from international rugby following the World Cup. Luckily, they been spoiled for years by already having one of the (in my opinion) top 5 looseheads in the world sharing time with him: Steven Kitshoff.

The Stormers prop did not have the best of starts to this game, struggling in some of the early scrums, but soon sorted things out and started winning penalties at the set piece with some degree of regularity. Meanwhile, he continued to excel around the park, with his handling skills highlighted by a great pickup from a terrible pass by Scarra Ntubeni deep in their own half. But more than anything, he has an engine, lasting longer than most of the front rowers while getting himself around the pitch, such as when he went from a scrum on the Green 22 to winning a turnover penalty – there are few props who win turnovers as often as him –  on the Gold 22 on the other side of the pitch following a Green break!

Kitshoff has the number 1 shirt secured for the forseeable future, the Boks just need to find the right man to come off the bench.