2021 Autumn Tests: Week 5

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 5

We’re here! 5 weeks of rugby came down to this final week of Test matches, and some absolute crackers.

November 9ᵗʰ 2002 was the last time that Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all lost Tests on the same day. Well flash forward to 20ᵗʰ November 2021, which saw 14-man Australia lose 29-28 to Wales courtesy of a last minute Rhys Priestland penalty, New Zealand fall to 2 losses on the bounce following a 40-25 loss to France and South Africa lose to a last gasp Marcus Smith penalty that gave England a 27-26 victory.

Elsewhere that day, Scotland saw Stuart Hogg break their record for Test tries with his 25ᵗʰ as they finished off their Autumn with a 29-20 win against Japan, Italy earned their first win since RWC2019 with a 17-10 victory over Uruguay and Georgia and Fiji drew 15-15 in Spain, while the weekend came to an end with Ireland following up their win over New Zealand with a record 53-7 victory over Argentina.


Scotland

While Scotland have shown some good stuff this Autumn, this match continued a trend that has me worried for their Six Nations hopes. While they have incredibly talented players and and are developing some real depth in many positions, their discipline at the breakdown is shocking.

In attack, they look to play good rugby, but end up not supporting effectively enough and getting pinged for sealing off or holding on, while in defence they continued to hurt themselves with penalties for not rolling away quickly or correctly with maddening frequency.

Sometimes you have to slow things down any way you can, but too many of these penalties they are giving away are just dumb. With England, Ireland and France all looking like they could have dangerous attacks come the Six Nations, the Scots have to avoid making it easy for their opposition by gifting them easy territory and chances for 3 points.

Japan

Japan are struggling in attack right now. Too much of their rugby is going from wing to wing without really going forwards, and defences are reading it, with Scotland frequently jamming up out wide in this game to cause issues. And the reason for this is that they are not getting those big carries over the gain line that they need.

Kazuki Himeno is a top player, but he is not an unknown anymore. Teams are accounting for him and focusing on him. He needs help. And the way to do this is to bring Tevita Tatafu into the starting back row. Tatafu “the Hitman” always seems to bring an extra something to the Japanese game when he is brought on, and will usually require more than 1 tackler to get him down, which then takes some of the attention away from Himeno and other carriers, allowing the team to start getting on the front foot and creating the space out wide for Kotaro Matsushima.

He may have been a leader and superstar for them for many years, but Michael Leitch is past his prime now and if Japan want to continue pushing forward, they need to move on from him as part of the starting XV and make Tatafu a regular in the starting XV.

Italy

Italy are putting together a decent squad even with star player Jake Polledri out injured long-term, but they are making a crucial error in attack that is making them far too easy to defend against. Much like Japan at the moment, the Azzurri are trying to go wide too quickly, without earning the right to do so by hitting it up in the middle of the pitch and around the fringes of the breakdown.

It’s strange why they aren’t doing so, as they certainly have the quality. Plenty of the pack frequently show themselves to be good carriers of the ball, while there even were occasional moments when Italy did play around the breakdown or hit it up through the middle and actually found themselves having some degree of success. But then far too often we would quickly see a return to the side-to-side rugby that was far too easy for the Uruguayan drift defence to deal with.

Players like Monty Ioane, Matteo Minozzi and debutant Pierre Bruno are already looking dangerous as a potential back 3. If space could be created for them out wide by hitting up players like Luca Morisi, Seb Negri, Danilo Fischetti and Ivan Nemer off 9, 10 and 12, while also utilising the threat of Stephen Varney around the breakdown, this Italian team will quickly jump to another level.

Uruguay

Keep an eye on Los Teros!

In this match, they showed that they have an organised defence, and a number of players who are certainly able to make a nuisance of themselves at the breakdown. In attack, they caused plenty of problems when they kept things tight, with the pack working well as a unit, while there is some real flexibility in the back line. Meanwhile in the set piece, they may be a little lightweight in the pack when it comes to the scrum, but with the 6′ 8″ Manuel Leindekar in the team, they’ll always be looking to disrupt the opposition lineout.

They pushed the Italians hard in this game and there is certainly an argument that they should have had a penalty try as Danilo Fischetti tackled Facundo Gattas before he caught the ball 5m out from the line; a decision which would have levelled the scores and given them a man advantage for the last 5 minutes… and that was without 2 of their stars: scrum half Santiago Arata and fly half Felipe Berchesi!

The Uruguayans have recently qualified as Americas 1 for the first time in their history, beating the USA and are targeting automatic qualification for RWC2027, which considering their pool will probably require victories over Italy and the Africa 1 qualifier. While it won’t be easy, I wouldn’t rule it out.

Georgia

What a performance from the Lelos! While this was far from Fiji at their best, the Georgian players did a great job of defending as a team. They limited the Pacific Islanders to just 2 tries, which is already more than can be said for many Tier 1 nations, but what makes this even more impressive is that one of these was not down to poor defence, but instead an interception that immediately put the Fijians in behind the Lelos as they had been looking to strike.

While they may not have created much of note in attack, much like los Teros against Italy, they fought hard through their pack and in the midfield, earning a number of penalties, with Tedo Abzhandadze having a solid game off the tee.

It’s no mean feat to front up against the Fijians for 80 minutes, the Georgians should be proud of their performance.

Fiji

As resilient as the Lelos were, this performance from Fiji was a big step down from last week’s against Wales. Despite keeping 15 men on the pitch, they failed to create much of note in a surprisingly error-strewn display, with their opening try even coming from an opportunistic interception 10 metres from their own line just moments after having an attack break down inside the Georgian 22.

In the second half, the performance improved slightly and it started leading to more chances, with Aminiasi Tuimaba unlucky to put a foot in touch as he attempted to go over for a second try, before some much more typical Fijian handling skills sent Viliame Mata over in the other corner.

It’s rare to see the Fijians play so bad, I can’t help but wonder if they played down to their opposition. If that is the case, they need to cut this out quickly. Days after arguably losing tot he worse team in their RWC2019 opener to Australia, they put in a poor performance against Uruguay and lost, which almost cost them automatic qualification for the 2023 tournament. Every team has the odd bad day, but with the quality of teams like Georgia and Uruguay improving, and the arrival of Moana Pasifika in Super Rugby Pacific hopefully beginning a regrowth of the other Pacific Island Teams, Fiji can ill afford to play down to their opposition too often.

England

The Marcus Smith era for England has begun. Owen Farrell’s injury firmly handed the reins over to him, and with the England captain only just set to be returning as the Six Nations begins, Smith took his chance to show that he doesn’t need the Saracen as a second playmaker at 12. Farrell has been a wonderful servant to England, but his role in the squad should now be one of the closer off the bench, or an experienced leader in a second string team.

Everyone was looking forward to seeing how a midfield of Smith, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade would do against the Springboks, and it looked incredible… for 6 minutes until Tuilagi went off injured. But even with Joe Marchant moving into the midfield, things ran smoothly and we saw some of the best attacking play England have produced in years, with Smith excelling, Freddie Steward continuing to secure the 15 shirt and Henry Slade (who is that second playmaker at 13) having one of his best games in an England shirt.

The ideal back line outside Smith is coming together now. May and Slade provide the experience at 11 and 13, while Steward’s ascension to the starting fullback role now means that Anthony Watson can fill the second wing spot once back from injury in the knowledge that there is someone capable covering the backfield. The only position that now needs sorting is 12. Manu Tuilagi is clearly the superstar option, but his injury history makes it difficult to trust him. While the Marchant and Slade pairing actually had a great impact on this game, I think that a more physical “crash ball” style centre would be better for the team.

To me, this leaves 2 options. Ollie Lawrence provides the long-term option aged just 22, and has looked decent when given a legitimate chance on the Test stage. The other option would be Mark Atkinson, who has finally received some recognition with recent call-ups after becoming one of the best 12s in the Premiership. While he would likely only be around to get the team through the World Cup and lacks the international experience, he has an incredible range of skills, being solid in defence while in attack, he was always able to crash through the line and find an unlikely offload, but in recent years has developed a passing and kicking game to make him an all-round threat.

Obviously as a Gloucester fan, I admit there may be some bias, but the thought of Marcus Smith and Henry Slade combining with Atkinson in midfield, and having players like Ellis Genge, Alex Dombrandt and Tom Curry taking his offloads as he gets through the contact is absolutely mouth-watering, and I think that he should be the one to fill the 12 shirt for the Six Nations.

South Africa

This game perfectly highlighted the issue with South Africa’s recent gameplan. If they come up against a team who can just about match them for physicality, things become difficult for them.

If they can’t completely overwhelm a team physically and get guarantee a try from their 5m lineouts, they find themselves in a position where they aren’t scoring many tries and are just relying on their kicks at goal. And while a team like England under Eddie Jones have the lack of discipline to allow South Africa to win that way, a team with the right firepower and a willingness to attack can also find ways to beat the South African defence and put a couple of tries on the board.

It can take time to build up a score just off the tee, but that can be wiped away in an instant by a try beneath the posts. South Africa need to add a more expansive side to their game, or teams will find a way to get around the defence and pull out wins, like David did against Goliath.

Wales

Looking back over the last 2 weeks, Wales have every right to be worried. Over the last 2 matches, Wales have spent 110 minutes out of a possible 160 with at least a 1-man advantage, and 30 of those minutes they actually had a 2 man advantage. At no point in the two games have they been at a numerical disadvantage. And yet it took a couple of later tries to rescue a victory—and put an undeserved gloss on it—against Fiji, and a last gasp Rhys Priestland penalty to defeat the Wallabies.

When you consider just how often recently the Welsh have found themselves on the right side of a red card, it is a real worry just how much the Welsh are struggling to take advantage of the extra space on the pitch.

Granted they have had some key players out injured, but you cannot rely on the same starting XV to play and win every match, while the players who have come in have generally done a good job. It is the overall style of play that appears to be the issue. Too often at the top of the game, teams play to not lose rather than play to win. Unless they look to improve their play to take advantage of the extra men—drawing in the defence to create space outside for the speedsters—they’ll soon find themselves facing the embarrassment of outnumbering their opponents but still coming away with nothing.

Australia

Deluded Dave Rennie may disagree, but Australia’s discipline was woeful in this game, an any capable Tier 1 nation would have annihilated them on the scoreboard. The Wallabies gave away 13 penalties in this game, which is already close to double the amount you really want to give away, but more than that was the impact of these penalties.

Of these 13 penalties, 5 were kicked for 15 points, while another was kicked to the corner for Ryan Elias’ converted try. 22 points conceded directly from Australian penalties. And yet even that isn’t the full story. Rob Valentini’s red card was a classic case of a big guy trying to make an impact on the game with a dominant hit, but not making the effort to get low enough, and while his shoulders may have hit low enough, the upright tackle and head-to-head clash made it a clear red that would leave the team without one of it’s enforcers and most destructive carriers for over an hour.

If the Wallabies are going to keep playing so naïvely, then that spell of success they had with Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi’s return will be exactly that, a bright spell in an otherwise dismal era.

France

This was a huge win for Les Bleus!

Ever since they sorted out their coaching team and started the rebuild with their very first match of the new World Cup cycle, they have been my favourites to win RWC2023 in front of home crowds. And while the team’s results have been largely impressive, and the young core of the team has become an experienced unit, they were still lacking something a victory that would make everyone sit up straight and take notice. Well now they have that.

This was a statement victory for the French. Romain Ntamack has been quiet at 12, but a move back to fly half unlocked him and he had one of the best games of his international career, while the site of him evading the All Blacks kick chase and running the ball out of his own in-goal to set up what was almost a 2-phase coast-to-coast try will live long in the memory. What makes this even more impressive is that fullback and goal kicker Melvyn Jaminet was uncapped this time last year, while key players like Virimi Vakatawa and captain Charles Ollivon were unavailable.

Granted this isn’t the New Zealand of old, but when an unfortunate officiating error from Wayne Barnes and Luke Pearce gifted them a 50:22 that began a spell of about 15 minutes of All Black dominance and a fight back on the scoreboard, the French still found an answer—with Ntamack’s break from his in-goal shifting the momentum and Damian Penaud’s interception try securing victory—when in the past they may have let the result getaway from them.

With France having 3 home games in the 2022 Six Nations, including Ireland and England, they have a chance of backing up this victory with a Grand Slam, which will help develop an air of invincibility at just the right time.

New Zealand

What now for New Zealand? After 2015 and 2016 saw the All Blacks go on an 18-Test winning streak 2021 has seen them lose 3 matches (20% of their Tests for the season). So what next?

Well with the Rugby World Cup just under 2 years away, the NZR have a big decision to make. Moving on from Ian Foster now will be admitting that they made a mistake in appointing him over Scott Robertson 2 years ago, but with Super Rugby Pacific just months away, would the Crusaders head coach abandon his team at such late notice and accept the role which he was previously refused?

But what if they stick with Foster?

Well first of all, he will need to stop chopping and changing his 23 so severely every match. Changes are understandable as you want to ensure that there is a depth to the squad both in quality and experience, but right now it is harming the team chemistry. Similarly, Rieko Ioane needs a settled position. It is one thing to cover another position in the case of injury, but he cannot be rotating between 11 and 13 every week as he has been.

Similarly, a decision needs to be made on the starting 10 and centres, as this is a unit that desperately needs to develop an understanding together if they want to compete against the best teams.

Have the All Blacks got time to turn things around? Yes. Do they have the quality? Of course! Will they? Only time will tell…

Ireland

It took Ireland a while to get going in this game, with the Pumas nabbing an early try, and a number of errors from the men in green early on. To be honest though, I think this can be explained away with the inclusion of Joey Carbery instead of Jonathan Sexton, the return of Robbie Henshaw from injury, a rare appearance for Robert Baloucoune and a couple of late changes on the pack, which saw Jack Conan and Iain Henderson both pull out in the build-up and James Ryan going off injured in the first half.

However, as the game went on, the chemistry built and by the end, the team was running rampant. This is a good sign for Ireland, who I feel should play the Six Nations without Sexton to get used to playing big games without him in case of injury during the World Cup, while Tadhg Beirne did a fantastic job of stepping up at the last moment and in the game to pick up the leadership roles of Henderson and Ryan.

While it would have been nice to see a less experienced player come into the back row following Conan’s injury, I can understand the decision to play Peter O’Mahony given the experience that had already been ruled out.

Now Ireland must build on their success this Autumn as they move into the Six Nations and towards the World Cup.

Argentina

This is a big moment for the Pumas. head coach Mario Ledesma’s contract is coming to an end and a decision must be made on whether he deserves a new one. So what is the case for and against?

First of all, let’s look at the against. Ledesma has just 7 wins from 30 Tests, 4 of which were Romania, Tonga, the USA and a Welsh team that was missing all of its Lions. While the results have rarely been there, even the performances have dropped off a cliff this year, with the wide array of exciting players in the back 3 feeding off scraps, while Santiago Carreras is being wasted as starting fly half considering he has no top-flight club experience at the position. Meanwhile, Tomás Lavanini continues to get picked despite being a red/yellow card in waiting, and other serial offenders like Guido Petti and Marcos Kremer also remain key players. But perhaps most damning of all have been the off-field problems, with a number of players—including former captain Pablo Matera—facing disciplinary action for breaching lockdowns. It all comes back to the leadership, and that appears to be lacking from Ledesma, and this embarrassment at the hands of Ireland should be the final score.

However, has he just been dealt a bad hand? Los Pumas have not played on home soil since before the 2019 World Cup and have been forced to enter a series of bubbles due to the coronavirus pandemic, under those situations, any team would struggle. Similarly, they found themselves out in the cold as COVID brought an end to the old format of Super Rugby, and while Super Rugby Pacific has welcomed 2 Pacific Island teams, there was no place for Los Jaguares, leaving Argentina without a franchise in a top-tier league.

To me though, selection is one of the big worries and for that reason, I think it’s time for someone else to come in and show what they could do.

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

Hello and welcome to my look at the third week of the Autumn Tests. With us now in World Rugby’s Test window, this weekend was jam packed with action. Jonathan Sexton celebrated his 100ᵗʰ Ireland cap by scoring one of Ireland’s 9 tries in their 60-5 demolition of Japan, New Zealand’s trip to Rome saw them win 9-47 against a passionate Italian team, England ran riot in a 69-3 win over a Tongan team who spent over 30 minutes of the game with just 13 men on the pitch, a late Malcolm Marx try earned South Africa an 18-23 victory over an injury-hit Welsh team, France held on to defeat a resurgent Argentina 29-20, while Ewan Ashman’s Scotland debut began with an earlier-than-expected arrival off the bench and ended with him scoring a crucial try in a 15-13 win over Australia.


Ireland

This performance was a huge statement from Ireland. Every single player on the pitch from 1-23 showed that they were comfortable with the ball in hand. The grunts in the pack expected to make the hard yards were also comfortable with space in front of them, and the rest of the team excel in space, with many also happy to take on a bit of contact. But more than just being happy to take the ball and run, every single one of them was comfortable enough to play the ball around with exceptional handling skills.

Granted they will face tougher tests than this Japan team, but it is clear that the skills are there from the players. And that means that they will be super dangerous in broken play, as if anyone makes a break, they have the skills to exploit it and not just keep the attack going, but get it to the players who can best take advantage. Not only this, but just the threat of every player being able to carry or pass if they get the ball means that the defence must stay alert to any possibility, as if a defender leaves his man to make a dominant double tackle, the ball carrier can ship it off to the now-undefended teammate, while a defender who tries to drift onto the next man too quickly will leave a gap for the ball carrier to run through.

The key now for Ireland is to make this a part of their regular gameplan, and not just a party trick they bring out when facing weaker opposition.

Japan

Japan are a very good team, but they looked very poor at the weekend. While part of this was likely due to a lack of time playing Test rugby since the World Cup, they also really struggled for a lack of physicality.

They are a very accurate and technical team, but they lack the physicality to stand up to the elite teams. While they try to play expansive rugby, too much of their intricate play is done behind the gain line, which puts them in trouble if the defence works as an organised unit. But even more worrying is their inability to cope with the driving maul, getting routinely pushed back 20+ metres during this match, which was also their undoing in the World Cup against the Springboks. Until they find a way to front up to the opposition and compete legally at the maul, they will always struggle to consistently compete against the top teams, who will just take ever penalty opportunity and kick to touch in the knowledge that they will then gain another 20 metres with the driving maul.

Italy

Forget the score, as it does not do this performance from the Azzurri any justice. They caused the All Blacks some serious problems, with New Zealand taking 28 minutes to even get on the scoreboard. The defence was aggressive, shutting down space and putting pressure on an inexperienced midfield who were not used to playing together, while players were causing the Kiwis an absolute nightmare at the breakdown and winning a number of turnovers and penalties. Granted they have some areas they need to improve—notably around the way they deal with the driving maul while effectively covering the fringes for a player peeling off—but if they can defend with this organisation regularly then their days of being on the wrong end of massive scorelines may be ending.

But it wasn’t just the defence that looked improved, as the attack looked far more capable too. Steven Varney has added an impressive kicking game to his dangerous running, Monty Ioane excelled and Matteo Minozzi continued to prove himself as one of the stars of the team. But not just that, they adapted their game to the opposition, by frequently testing the New Zealand back 3 under the high ball, with chasers either getting up to compete—which should have left to an opening try for the Azzurri if Karl Dickson had paid attention to the game and played advantage rather than immediately blowing for a penalty— or positioning themselves exactly where the Kiwi catcher would need to jump, putting them under real pressure.

It may still be early days under Kieran Crowley, but it feels like the team has built on the infrastructure that Conor O’Shea introduced and the youth that Franco Smith capped to take things to a new level—and this is all being done with Jake Polledri still out injured! I hope that things may finally be on the up for Italy.

New Zealand

This was a very scrappy performance from the All Blacks. Starting centres Braydon Ennor and Quinn Tupaea had a grand total of 10 caps between them (including the 2 being earned in this match) and with the pack being given a hard time at the breakdown and the Italian defence coming up hard in midfield, it significantly added to the pressure that the pair were under.

Of course, they improved as the game went on and the Italians tired, but this really highlighted an issue that the All Blacks currently have at centre. A team who once had Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Sonny Bill Williams fighting for 2 spots in the XV is now seriously lacking. Ngani Laumape has left the country and now wants to play for Tonga after being continually overlooked, Anton Lienert-Brown brings experience but never seems to have the same impact when starting as he does off the bench and Jack Goodhue has been out since April with an ACL injury, so you can never guarantee how quickly he will get back to his best.

While they clearly still have options beyond that, they are severely lacking experience. Rieko Ioane my be closing on 50 caps but the majority have been earned on the wing, where he is still being used far too often by Ian Foster. 22-year-old Tupaea has 6 caps and just a few years of Super Rugby under his belt. David Havili may have experience, but has only recently transitioned to centre from the back 3, while 4-cap Ennor also originally came on the Super Rugby scene as a winger a few seasons back.

With the World Cup less than 2 weeks away, Ian Foster has a lot of questions in his midfield, and a limited number of games to find an answer.

England

England will certainly face much sterner tests, but on the performances in this match, a number of the youngsters should be starting the next match against Australia to gain some experience against Tier 1 international opposition. While George Furbank looked good at 10 against Tonga, the Australia game should be time for Marcus Smith to take over the reins of this team, while Freddie Steward looked much more secure at 15 than Elliot Daly ever did, with his height, ability in the air and all-round skillset reminding me of Jordie Barrett. Meanwhile on the wing, Adam Radwan has the kind of pace that will scare anyone, but needs to play against a team that will Test him defensively before he can truly be judged at this level, while Alex Mitchell deserves a chance to show what he can do as the starting 9 or England will have no experience at the position if Ben Youngs suddenly isn’t available right before the World Cup. Meanwhile in the pack, it’s time for Eddie Jones to stop pretending that Courtney Lawes is the best 6 in English rugby and move him back to lock, before moving Tom Curry to the flank where he belongs and playing an actual 8 in Alex Dombrandt, who put in a solid (and perhaps too unselfish) performance off the bench.

I understand the need to win every match in the Six Nations, but these Autumn Tests are a chance to experiment with the squad and give some youth/fringe players a chance. The ball is in Eddie Jones’ court, how many of these kids will get the chance they deserve?

Tonga

With how little time Tonga get to spend together as a team, they are already going to be struggling enough to defend, as it takes time to develop a trust and understanding with the players around them, allowing them to defend as a unit rather than a bunch of individuals. But they then go and make their job impossible when they spend so much of the match a man down. Between the yellow cards for Walter Fifita and Solomone Kata and the red card for Viliami Fine, Tonga spent 32 of the 80 minutes with a numerical disadvantage. When you’re playing that much of the game a man down, you’re never going to be able to defend properly. The discipline needs to be better!

While Fifita’s yellow may have been unfortunate, as he clearly tipped the ball up to try and recollect, going for a one-handed intercept these days will end badly nine times out of ten, while Kata can have no arguments as he struggled to get off the ground and took Jonny May out in the air. But Fine’s actions were moronic. The high tackle was bad enough but excusable as mistakes happen, but to then go in on Marcus Smith on the floor—even if he clearly made contact rather than with his elbow, as described by the ever-unreliable Ben Whitehouse—is disgusting and has no place in the sport.

It often feels like the Pacific Island teams get a bad rep for indiscipline, but its sadly incidents like this from Fine that cause this perception to remain, and it just does the team more harm as officials are then leaning towards expecting them to be doing something illegal if there is a chance. Tonga need to clean up their game fast to give themselves a better chance of competing in games.

Wales

3 years ago, the promising career of Ellis Jenkins looked like it could be reaching a premature end as he suffered an horrific knee injury in the final seconds of Wales match against the Springboks. At the weekend, he finally made his return to Test rugby against none other than South Africa, and in my mind was unfortunate not to come away with the Player of the Match award.

The Cardiff Rugby flanker has always been an impressively talented jackal, but looked at his best against the Boks once again. Jenkins was a key part of the Welsh defensive effort in a desperate rearguard that reminded me of their RWC2015 match against Australia. In his own 22 alone, he managed a turnover at a breakdown, an interception and a strip. Alongside these crucial interventions, he completed all 7 of his tackles, completed 10 passes and carried 4 times for 19 metres.

But even more than that, he even took over the captaincy of the team in the latter stages and dealt with referee Paul Williams so impressively. At 28 years old, he is in his prime and is at the point where he can and should be a key part of this squad.

If I was Wayne Pivac going forward and everyone was available for selection, I would be looking at this match’s back row (Jenkins, Wainwright and Basham) along with Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric as my core back row options. Taulupe Faletau’s impending return to Wales could see him get back to his best, which would also bring him into the unit, while Ross Moriarty would also provide another more experienced option in case of injuries, as could James Davies or Cardiff-bound Thomas Young or younger future stars like Leicester’s Tommy Reffell.

South Africa

South Africa may not have been able to slow things down as much as they would have liked at the weekend, but they still showed that they are a real threat regardless. This pack dominated the Welsh, destroying them in what few scrums there were, while the lineout drives also had great success, leading to a number of penalties and Malcolm Marx’s late try.

But the most incredible thing is the strength they have in depth. If the Springboks were to take all their players (for this hypothetical, let’s say that everyone is fit at the same time) and create 3 packs purely just starting players, no replacements) using their depth chart, I firmly believe that the “B” pack would be able to give most Tier 1 nations—and the “A” pack—and while the “C” pack may have only limited Test experience, it would likely still have the quality to compete with and beat many Tier 2 nations.

France

France tried something different and truly exciting to imagine at the weekend, by moving Romain Ntamack from 10 to 12 with Matthieu Jalibert at fly half. Sadly, such an exciting idea did not work as well in execution. The reason? Having a midfield of Jalibert, Ntamack and defensive lynchpin Gaël Fickou left the back line with very little in the way of physicality. Meanwhile outside them, Damian Penaud runs hard but is not a true crash ball runner, while Gabin Villière and Melvyn Jaminet are definitely not being picked for their physicality.

Without a more physical centre (Danty, Vincent or Vakatawa) or a wing who will also come into midfield, Les Bleus lack the strike runner to draw in defenders and create the space for the other players to exploit. Granted magicians like Dupont and Jalibert will still manage to find and create chances, but a more physical presence will make this easier.

Argentina

I love Santiago Cordero, but this experiment of using him at 10 for the Pumas needs to end. Unlike George Furbank, who was given the 10 shirt against Tonga late in the week, Cordero has never started a top flight domestic match at 10 but now finds himself playing there against Tier 1 opposition. I don’t doubt his talent, but he does not have the experience of playing the position at such a high level, and it is no surprise that his best moments generally seem to come in moments of broken play when he is acting more like an outside back.

It was no surprise to me that when Nicolás Sánchez entered the match Argentina suddenly looked much more structured in attack, while even his kicking game was more dangerous and pulled the team up the field, as well as directly leading to Mateo Carreras’ late try.

Carreras will get very few minutes at 10 at Gloucester. Adam Hastings has been brought in to lead the back line at that position and while Lloyd Evans is questionable as a second choice, there is a bright young English fly half just behind him in local lad George Barton, who has just turned 21, while Billy Twelvetrees is also an option covering the position in emergencies. If Carreras wants to play fly half, then he will need to leave Kingsholm, but it is unlikely that he will find many clubs where he would be able to step in as the starting 10 that Argentina needs. Rather, he should be moved back to the back 3 where he shines for the Pumas and a specialist fly half brought in to gain international experience.

Scotland

This win was a huge statement for the Scottish front row. While Scotland defended well across the pitch, the front row had a key job to do at scrum time by trying to stop the Wallabies gaining a platform at the scrum to launch their attacks off. Against the front row options Australia had in this match, that is no mean feat, even if Taniela Tupou’s impact on anything other that Scott Johnson’s head was minimal. But the Scots did it, causing nightmares at the scrum, while debutant Ewan Ashman, on much earlier than expected following an early injury to George Turner looked completely at home on the international stage, including a finish in the corner that wings would be proud of!

The scrum is vital in international rugby, both as a chance to win penalties and also as a platform to launch attacks from. If the Scottish front row can continue to play like this, it will put them in a great position to challenge for their first Six Nations tournament victory.

Australia

The Wallabies are missing some vital names in their back line for this Test series. Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi’s decisions to not come on tour and instead return to preseason with their club teams in Japan have robbed Australia of the men who appeared to turn the team’s fortunes around during the Rugby Championship.

While I feel that the return of James O’Connor will cover for Cooper’s absence, Kerevi is an entirely different matter. The centre was playing at a level that was surely bringing him into contention for World Rugby Player of the Year, but more than that, I don’t think that they have a direct replacement. While I have previously talked about Hunter Paisami as the clear replacement for Kerevi at 12, he is not a like-for-like replacement, with his physicality much more focused towards defence, while Kerevi was more offensively focused with defence coming as he gained experience. What makes this loss of Kerevi even more pronounced is the absence of Marika Koroibete from the touring party, as he chose to remain in Australia following the birth of his child, which leaves the back line with limited physical options.

Can Paisami adapt his game to bring a more offensive side? Or will the Wallabies need to adapt their selections in the pack to include a couple more dynamic carriers in the starting XV, such as Tupou (once he recovers from concussion) and Pete Samu?

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2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v Argentina

With the 100ᵗʰ Test match between South Africa and New Zealand out of the way, it was time for the hosts Australia to take on an Argentina team that had been left out of a midweek photo session for the tournament. After such a close match in the opener of this double-header, it was always going to be a tough affair to live up to, and sadly for all but the home fans, this was not going to be anywhere near as close a match.

The Pumas have struggled throughout the tournament but had the chance to take an early lead, only for Emiliano Boffelli to curl an eminently kickable penalty wide. The Pumas were quickly made to rue this missed chance, as a break from Samu Kerevi brought the hosts up into the Argentina 22, and as the ball was spread wide, Reece Hodge slipped out of Lucio Cinti’s tackle to go over for the opening try. Australia were quickly taking control of this game, and when Len Ikitau was stopped just short of the try line after winning the race to a Quade Cooper grubber, Kerevi was able to pick and go off the base of the ruck and force his way over beneath the posts. The Pumas finally got on the board with a Boffelli penalty as Rob Valentini was caught obstructing the chase at the restart, but the Wallabies were still clearly in control and thought they had a third try on the half hour as Nic White sniped off the back of a ruck and dive for the line, only to ground the ball against the base of the post short of the line (something that was previously a try but no longer) and lose control forwards, however the Wallabies had a penalty advantage and Cooper kicked the 3 points for a 17-3 halftime lead.

The Pumas came out firing after the break, and after a penalty allowed them to kick to the corner, the pack drove captain Julián Montoya over for a crucial try, however Boffelli missed the conversion from out wide and a penalty that followed son after. The strong start to the half was soon hurt by indiscipline though, and what should have been a penalty for the Pumas was reversed as Marcos Kremer tripped Reece Hodge during advantage, resulting in the flanker being sent to the bin. With the man advantage, Australia made their way downfield to the Argentina line, but were forced to settle for a James O’Connor penalty after Pablo Matera killed the ball. However, Australia secured the win with just over ten minutes left as James O’Connor received the ball 5m out, took a step to his right before popping the ball back inside to his left for Andrew Kellaway to go over, and though the final pass looked forwards, none of the officials felt that there was any need to check, allowing the replacement fly half to kick the Wallabies into a 27-8 lead that they would hold until the final whistle.

At 24 years old and comfortable at both lock or flanker, Marcos Kremer is a fantastic player on his day; a great enforcer who will carry, tackle and cause problems at the breakdown all day long. However, on a bad day, he is more than a little reminiscent of his fellow lock Tomás Lavanini, with a lack of discipline that too often proved costly.

In the second half of this match, the Pumas were beginning to get stronger. They had a try and were within 9 points of the Wallabies, despite Boffelli having left 8 points on the field with missed kicks, and were putting pressure on the hosts to win penalties. Unfortunately, twice in the space of 5 minutes, a penalty in the Australian half was reversed due to an offence by Kremer, the first as he shoulder charged Marika Koroibete after the whistle, the second his trip on Reece Hodge that saw him sent to the bin. Now with the second incident, I think there are certainly questions about why Matthew Carley took so long to blow the whistle when it was clear that no advantage was coming, but the point is that Kremer so frequently lacks the discipline to avoid these unnecessary incidents, which ends up costing his team.

The Pumas are in a bad place right now. They’re defensively weak, and struggling to create many chances in attack, with their superstar wingers barely getting a chance to show their quality. When they get penalties, they need to make the most of them, not have them overturned, which then allows their opponents to not only clear their lines but also set up their own attacks. If Kremer can continue to play the enforcer but cut out these stupid penalties, it will go a long way to helping the Pumas be more competitive.

The battle for number 10

Go back a couple of months and it looked like Noah Lolesio was at a point where he would be taking over the Australian number 10 jersey on a long-term basis. Suddenly, it looks like he has dropped out of the 22, with Quade Cooper coming out of the cold and James O’Connor returning from injury.

Both Cooper and O’Connor are incredibly talented players who have had rollercoaster careers. Yet now that they are in their 30s, they have both matured as players and also developed into true leaders at the fly half position, and I would argue that they give the Wallabies the best chance of winning right now—just as long as Lolesio is kept in the squad to learn off them.

But what we also saw on Saturday was a great way for the pair to be used. As the specialist 10, Cooper makes sense as the starter, especially while Nic White is being entrusted with the starting spot at 9. But then you have the chance to replace the pair with O’Connor and Tate McDermott with 20-30 minutes left, and the pair can use their chemistry from playing together for the Reds and McDermott’s threat around the fringes of the breakdown to terrorise a tiring defence.

Not only that, but O’Connor’s versatility is perfect for the Australian bench, as he is also able to come on to cover fullback should the starter get hurt or provide injury cover or a different tactical option at centre alongside Cooper.

With the World Cup just a couple of years away, could these two be the ones to lead Australia to victory, before finally passing over the torch to the next generation.

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v South Africa

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v South Africa

After last week’s double header, the Rugby Championship saw just one match take place this weekend. In a normal year, this match would have taken place in Argentina, but the continued impacts of COVID meant that the match was played at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, which hosted last week’s bonus point win for the Springboks.

While the venue may have stayed the same, both teams were heavily changed, and despite a positive opening couple of minutes from the Pumas, their indiscipline soon began to cost them and Handré Pollard duly kicked 3 penalties in the opening quarter. However a Jasper Wiese penalty from the restart gave Argentina a penalty deep in the South African half and Domingo Miotti put his team on the board off the tee. Pollard soon extended the lead back to 9 with another penalty, and just minutes later added another as Rodrigo Bruni was sent to the bin for his team’s persistent offending. Despite being a man down though, it was the Pumas who ended the half with the chance to score as Miotti lined up a penalty from close to halfway, but he was unable to hit the target and the Pumas went into the break down 3-15.

Much like in the first half, it was the Pumas who started better after the break, and they had the chance to open the half’s scoring with a Miotti penalty after Pollard took out Juan Cruz Mallía in the air, only for the young fly half to pull it to the left. However the Boks soon found themselves putting together phases in the Argentina 22, and when Willie le Roux came on a late loop from the blind side, he successfully created an overlap to send Makazole Mapimpi over in the corner. The Springboks were over for another try just minutes later as they secured their own ball at a lineout 5m from the Argentina line and ripped apart the Pumas’ maul defence for Malcolm Marx to go over. With substitutes now coming on, the game began to open up as the Boks looked to secure the bonus point, and the Pumas began to get more possession and space in which to use it, and when the Pumas drove a maul up to the Springbok try line just after the hour it looked like they would finally score, only for a handling error as the maul went to ground. As the clock ticked into the red, the Pumas had another chance to score as replacement back row Juan Martín González was released down the left wing, but his pass back inside was slightly behind Santiago Carreras, who was unable to collect cleanly and the loose ball fell into the hands of Lukhanyo Am, who cleaned things up, and lock Tomás Lavanini added yet another yellow card to his Test record or a late shot on Pollard. With the clock in the red, the Boks could have kicked the ball out to end the match but chose to go in search of the bonus point one last time, only for Pollard to miss touch, allowing the Pumas to work the way back down the field, and when they found themselves on the try line, Pablo Matera came crashing in on an inside line, and when he found contact on the line, he successfully managed to spin his body round to get to ground and score his team’s first try of this year’s tournament, with Nicolás Sánchez kicking the conversion to end the game as a 10-29 victory for the World Champions.

Paying the penalty

With the amount of penalties the Pumas were giving away, there was no chance for them to even get in the game for much of the match, let alone compete for the win! while the odd penalty is acceptable, the Pumas were playing on the edge far too frequently and were duly punished, with Handré Pollard’s kicks alone enough to win the match. But the real issue was their discipline at the lineout, where they tried every possible tactic—both legal and illegal—to disrupt the maul, with the outcome either being the maul trundling on or a penalty to the Boks. And of course the World Champions took every advantage of this, regularly kicking their penalties to touch and working their way down the field in a matter of phases as the Pumas illegally halted their mauls.

If you are struggling to defend the lineout and driving maul, then you need to limit the number of times the opposition get to utilise that set piece, and that means remaining disciplined.

Mishandled

Despite all-but playing themselves out of the game, the crazy thing is that the Pumas still had the chance to somehow come away with an undeserving victory. Argentina made a number of chances, only to shoot themselves in the foot at the wrong moment.

In an alternate universe, Gloucester wing Santiago Carreras could have come away with a brace of tries today, with the first one coming in the opening half as he ran a clinical line off the drifting Santiago Chocobares, only for the centre to delay his pass too long and throw it forward. Then with the clock in the red at the end of the game, it looked like he was certain to score as Juan Martín González played the ball inside to him just short of the line, but the pass was a little behind him and he was unable to take it cleanly, leading to it being knocked on. If the first chance was a possible try, then this was a guaranteed try.

Similarly, the Pumas would surely have scored just after the hour had they been more patient when their maul went to ground just short of the line, but rather than the first man in securing the ball, they tried to take it themselves and fumbled the ball forward, wasting what to that point had been the best chance of the game.

And sadly for the Pumas, there was yet another wasted chance in the latter stages of the second half. As the game opened up, Argentina brought their attack to the left and Chocobares fed Lucio Cinti, who looked like he may have the pace to beat the covering defence to the corner flag, only for play to be called back as Chocobares’ pass again drifted forward.

To me, these errors came largely as a result of 2 things. First of all, their lack of control in the game meant that they were almost panicking and trying to score as quickly as possible. But probably more costly was the constant chopping and changing of the team, which limits the chance for players to learn their exact timings to play off each other.

Despite the indiscipline, this was a much better performance from the Pumas than last week, expect to see further improvement as the tournament goes on.

Stunted

In theory, the Springbok backline had a good balance to it, with 2 highly physical centres in Am and Damian de Allende, 2 elite wings and 2 playmakers in Handré Pollard and Willie le Roux. Yet despite this, there was only one time that the Boks really had success going wide: when le Roux’s late loop set up Mapimpi’s try. Other than this, the South African attack looked very poor, generally just going sideways without committing defenders, and allowing the Pumas’ defence to drift with them and cut down the space outside.

First things first, congratulations to the Boks for actually trying to play rugby a couple of times, but the attempts were poor. De Allende and a forward or 2 running dummy lines would immediately force the Pumas defence to hold their positions and create the space for the wings to exploit. Hopefully like with the Pumas, we will see the Springboks continue to try and play more expansive attacking rugby with more success as the tournament goes on.

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Six Nations 2021: Wales v England

Six Nations 2021: Wales v England

With Sunday’s match between Scotland and France postponed, Round 3 of the 2021 Six Nations came to a premature end in Cardiff as Wales hosted England. The Welsh had a number of key players returning from injury and they took an early lead through the boot of Dan Biggar, but almost immediately threw it away as Maro Itoje charged down Kieran Hardy’s box kick from the restart, only for Liam Williams to just beat him to the ball as it bounced in-goal. England were soon on the board through an Owen Farrell penalty, but hey were having their own disciplinary problems that would soon prove costly. With quarter of an hour gone, Farrell was penalised for not rolling inside his own 22, and referee Pascal Gaüzère put the team on a warning and told the England captain to talk to his team. The French referee gave the team time to have a talk, but the moment they came out of their huddle blew for time on and the ever-alert Dan Biggar took advantage of the defence all being clumped under the posts and kicked the penalty out to the left wing for Josh Adams to catch and score. Farrell soon cut the deficit with a penalty, but Wales scored again on the half-hour mark, once again in controversial fashion. Josh Adams slotted a grubber in behind the England defence and Louis Rees-Zammit beat everyone to the ball. However the speedster was unable to collect cleanly, knocking the bouncing ball forward, only for it to hit his leg before it hit the floor, which gave the ball some degree of backwards movement as it bounced fortuitously into the hands of Liam Williams who dotted down over the line. To anyone who has seen a game of rugby (and Rees-Zammit himself), it was a clear knock on, but Gaüzère, his AR and TMO Alexandre Ruiz all unbelievably agreed that there was no knock on and allowed the try to stand. Biggar added his second conversion of the match, but England still had time to respond before halftime, with Anthony Watson forcing himself over in the corner and Farrell kicking a penalty with the final play of the half to cut the Welsh lead to 17-14.

Farrell had a chance to level the scores early in the second half, but his attempt siled wide, and this soon proved costly as Jonny Hill gave away a penalty on the edge of his 22 for entering a breakdown from the side. Kieran Hardy was alert to the chance and took a quick tap, scything through the retreating English defenders to go over for Wales’ third try, which Callum Sheedy converted. England continued to fight and keep the game close with another Farrell penalty, and when England finally put together a couple of phases of quality attacking play to make a break down the left wing, Ben Youngs managed to snipe over for a try, which Farrell converted. That was as close as things got for England though, as their discipline fell apart in the final quarter. Callum Sheedy broke through the English line and grubbered to the corner, but Anthony Watson just beat Kieran Hardy to the ball, but a raft of England penalties allowed the Welsh to add 9 points from the tee. England went on one last attack, but Dan Robson’s pass was intercepted by Sheedy, who booted the ball downfield. Louis Rees-Zammit gave chase but the ball would not sit up nicely for him despite a couple of kicks on, allowing the England defence to get back and cover, though they knocked on in the process. From the resulting scrum Wales went through a couple of phases and Cory Hill crossed beneath the posts for the bonus point try, which Sheedy converted for a 40-24 victory that secured the Triple Crown for Wales – something most Welsh fans could only dream about going into the tournament.

Wales

Who would have thought that Wales would be unbeaten after 3 games? Granted, they have been given a hand by 2 red cards and a couple of questionable calls, but the performances have clearly been improving and the injuries they have had to deal with are creating options for them. The rise of Kieran Hardy has just created even more depth at 9, while Callum Sheedy is solidifying his place in the 23 and providing a great alternative to Dan Biggar, with 1 playing a more territorial, defensive game and the other opening the game up in attack. The experiment of moving George North to 13 is working better than I expected, and while Jonathan Davies is still an obvious pick when fit, Ulisi Halaholo, Johnny Williams and Nick Tompkins all look at home on the international stage and bring something different to the game. In the pack, Elliot Dee put in a great performance replacing Ken Owens after an hour, while Taulupe Faletau’s return to form is a massive boon for the back row as they try to find the right balance.

Anything other than a bonus point victory over Italy in 2 weeks would be a shock, and then it is just the French standing between them and the unlikeliest of Grand Slams. Personally, I don’t feel that the Welsh are ready to defeat Les Bleus yet, but if their squad is still being affected by COVID in 3 weeks, that final match of Super Saturday could get very interesting.

England

Don’t be shocked if those in the England camp try to focus on the shoddy officiating. Don’t let them off if they do though, as it was their own indiscipline that cost them the game.

Whether it is due to players thinking they know better than the officials (in the case of the French officials they probably do, but you still have to play to the man with the whistle) or players off the pace from not playing rugby this season, England’s discipline has gone down the drain. Maro Itoje, the darling of England fans and pundits, always plays as close to the line as he can and often crosses it, but he was not getting away with it in this game, giving away a whopping 5 penalties on his own. What was even more worrying is that he gave away an early penalty for jumping across the lineout, and instead of cutting that from their game, the team went on to give away 2 more penalties for this in the final quarter as they lost all control of the match.

Do England have a right to gripe about the first try? Yes, Gaüzère was pathetic, but it must also be highlighted that England were already at the stage of being put on a team warning for the number of penalties after just 15 minutes, and it could arguably have come sooner!

England have 2 weeks to sort out their mindset. However, just like Eddie will keep ignoring players on form, I doubt that there will be any difference when England host France in 2 weeks, and that could lead to another devastating result.

Lions Watch

Taulupe Faletau‘s return to form has come at the perfect time to force his way back into Lions contention, and with CJ Stander able to also cover 6, he could even force his way into the starting XV, while Callum Sheedy will also be drawing Warren Gatland’s attention with some great attacking play without looking weak in defence. For England, Anthony Watson continued to make some key plays at either end of the pitch, while Ben Youngs had one of his better showings at a time when most of the Home Nations’ regular scrum halves are being forced to fight for their place.

After another week of dreadful handling skills and inexcusable defence (including turning his back when the penalty was given against Jonny Hill for the Hardy try), Elliot Daly should be hoping that he gets a chance to add to yesterday’s 50ᵗʰ cap. Meanwhile, George Ford‘s inclusion as England’s supposedly best attacking fly half was summed up by an aimless kick that drifted into the Wales 22 for an easy mark – with players like Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds excelling in the Premiership, he should be nowhere near the England squad, let alone the Lions!

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

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

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

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

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

On the up

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

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

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

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

Their own worst enemy

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

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

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

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

Debut disappointment

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

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

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

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

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Six Nations 2020: France v Ireland

Six Nations 2020: France v Ireland

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

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

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

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

At risk

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

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

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

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

Thrown away

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

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

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

Room to improve

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

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

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

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

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2020 Bledisloe Cup #1: New Zealand v Australia

2020 Bledisloe Cup #1: New Zealand v Australia

Tier 1 international rugby returned this weekend with the Bledisloe Cup. This was the first of 4 Bledisloe Cup fixtures we will see over the coming months, with another match next week and then 2 more fixtures during the Rugby Championship.

Match 1 took place in wet and windy Wellington but any thoughts that the home team would have an early advantage were soon quashed as Australia came out the gates strongly. However, the quality of the All Blacks soon shone through and after Damian McKenzie countered a kick, they took just a few phases to put Jordie Barrett over in the corner for the first try of Ian Foster’s tenure as head coach – though they were lucky that assistant referee Angus Gardner missed an obvious foot in touch from Reiko Ioane in the build-up. Barrett and James O’Connor struggled off the tee in heavy winds but each successfully added 3 points as the half went on. Australia had one more chance to attack in the half off a lineout, but Folau Fainga’a gave away possession at the back of the lineout and the All Blacks broke en masse. The ball came to Ioane who crossed the line, but replays showed that he had been too casual grounding the ball and had knocked on in the process and the score remained 8-3 going into the break.

New Zealand struck first after the break, playing pretty much the same move off the lineout that Australia had tried at the end of the first half and pulling it off to put Aaron Smith over in the corner – though it appeared that all the officials missed Joe Moody holding James Slipper in the maul as he tried to roll out and make a tackle. At 13-3, it felt like Australia had to score next o have any chance of winning in their first match under Dave Rennie, and that is exactly what they did with a great first phase play that saw O’Connor put Marika Koribete over in the corner. Then just after the hour mark, Damian McKenzie managed to get his hands in to turn over the ball on the flood as Matt Philip was brought down, but the ball was not secured and Nic White reacted quickest to put Filipo Daugunu over in the corner on his debut. With just 6 minutes left, a breakdown penalty allowed O’Connor to kick the Wallabies ahead for the first time in the match, but a pair of penalties allowed the All Blacks to reach the Australian 22 and then Rob Simmonds conceded a penalty at the maul, which Jordie Barrett kicked to level the scores.

And then in the 79ᵗʰ minute, the game went crazy. Australia won a penalty about 5 metres inside their own half (though the angle probably added a couple more metres to the post) and they called upon the big boot of replacement centre Reece Hodge. With the wind at his back, distance was no issue, but the accuracy was just off and the ball came crashing back off the post, only to be claimed by Australia in the New Zealand 22. However, after a number of phases looking for the try – and a clear penalty at the breakdown by Tupou Vaa’i missed by all officials – the kiwis turned over the ball and made their own way down to the Australia 22, only for a series of turnovers before O’Connor finally saw sense and kicked the ball out after 89 minutes to secure a 16-16 draw.

Shut down

Ian Foster may not recognise the quality of Richie Mo’unga judging by how little he had him controlling the game, but Australia certainly did. So many times, the Crusaders first five-eighth would find himself under heavy pressure with a defender or 2 blitzing up in his face to give him limited time to get the ball away. Not only that but there were a number of times where he got smashed after the pass, though the hits were always soon enough after the pass that they could be considered legal.

If Mo’unga is allowed to get into a rhythm and dictate the game, he will rip a team apart and there were a few hints to this in the game, but the Wallabies did a great job of hurrying him, while also winning a number of collisions and slowing down the ball whenever possible to give their defence every possible chance to not just recover, but to go out and compete against a dangerous All Blacks lineup.

Between this and England’s victory in the World Cup, the way to beat the All Blacks is becoming clear.

Isolated

This Australia team looked immediately better than many we saw in the latter days of Michael Cheika’s tenure. There was a very balanced look tot he team, with Hunter Paisami and the wingers bringing a physical edge to complement James O’Connor and Matt To’omua in the back line, while players like Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Matt Philip and Taniela Tupou were constantly willing to take the ball on and make the hard yards. Even Nic White appeared to attack the fringes more than we would usually see him doing in the Premiership with Exeter!

While this was great to see, there were some clear hints that the team is still getting used to playing together, and the big one was the number of times that players would get isolated. A couple of times White found himself snagged after taking on the ball himself rather than making the pass, while a large proportion of Australia’s 14 penalties conceded came from their own attacking play, with the team either being penalised for holding on at the ruck or illegal entry to the breakdown. Had they been a bit better in this area, they could have ran away with the match, as they found themselves turned over on the All Blacks try line on a couple of occasions.

This isn’t a big surprise though. This is the first competitive game for this Wallabies side, which is heavily changed both in personnel and playing style. Give it a few games together and this is an area that should improve. I thought that the Wallabies may struggle in the Rugby Championship, but if this performance is anything to go by, they could be a dark horse for the competition.

Take a risk

Unlike the Wallabies, Ian Foster’s first All Blacks XV had a very familiar look to it. For a team as successful as New Zealand, the tried and tested players aren’t necessarily the wrong choice, but I think that Foster seriously missed a chance here.

Jordie Barrett, Hoskins Sotutu and Will Jordan were arguably 3 of the star players during Super Rugby Aotearoa, yet this match saw them wasted out of position, on the bench and not even in the 23 respectively. Caleb Clarke had limited time on the pitch but really seemed to bring something to the attack after his introduction, as did Sotutu.

With next weekend’s second Bledisloe Cup match the All Blacks’ last game before the Rugby Championship, I think that this is the perfect chance for Ian Foster to look at some of his options by starting some of the form players from the Rugby Championship. Bringing Sotutu in for Shannon Frizell (and moving Ardie Savea to 6) could add more variety to the back row, and while I would recommend keeping the Mo’unga, Goodhue, Ioane midfield, I would look at playing Jordie Barrett at 15 with Will Jordan and Caleb Clarke on the wings, which I feel would lead to a more balanced (if inexperienced) back 3 than what we saw in this game. Similarly, I would also look to take more of the control of the game from Aaron Smith and let Mo’unga play more of his natural game that we see with the Crusaders. Eve if this becomes a “Plan B”, it would still be a message to the other nations that if you find a way to stop one gameplan, the All Blacks will find another way to win.

Wasted opportunity

Did ether team really want to win this game? You wouldn’t think so from the way the game played out after Reece Hodge struck the posts. Both Australia and New Zealand had multiple phases inside the opponent’s 22, and yet the 9 minutes of extra rugby passed with not a single phase where a team put a kicker in the pocket to go for the drop goal.

It was absolutely crazy, with plenty of breakdowns relatively in line with the posts to minimise the risk (even with the wind), while the Wallabies had 3 recognised kickers on the pitch in O’Connor, To’omua and Hodge, and the All Blacks had 2 in Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett. Any one of these players could have been the hero who won the Bledisloe, but nobody stepped up (or back, as the case may be) in the moment.

I understand that a team would much rather win with a last gasp try at the death as it’s much more exciting, but as Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto tells Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner in The Fast and the Furious, “It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile; winning’s winning!” You’re not going to turn up your nose at a drop goal if that’s the Rugby World Cup final, so you better get your practice in now.

Honestly, both teams should look back at this match and consider it a loss due to the way they threw away this chance to win!

Super Rugby AU Final: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU Final: Brumbies v Reds

12 weeks of Super Rugby AU action came to an end in Canberra today with the final, between the table-topping Brumbies and the Queensland Reds, who finished 2ⁿᵈ in the round-robin standings before defeating the Rebels in last weekend’s Qualifying Final.

After Noah Lolesio and James O’Connor traded early penalties, the Brumbies drew first blood as their ever-dangerous lineout drive managed to get Folau Fainga’a over the line for the opening try, with Lolesio kicking the extras. The Brumbies continued to pile on the pressure, and when Lolesio managed to draw the attention of 4 defenders in the 26ᵗʰ minute, his offload to Andy Muirhead gave the winger a clear gap to go through and he was able to ride the challenges of Taniela Tupou and Filipo Daugunu to make it across the line. It looked like the Brumbies were going to dominate the game, but Jordan Petaia found a gap in broken play just after the half hour mark and exploited it to full effect, going clear through before offloading to supporting number 8 Harry Wilson to cross for the try. O’Connor kicked the conversion and a penalty at the end of the half to make the score at the break 15-13.

The Brumbies struck first after the break, after a quick tap penalty from Muirhead put the Reds defence on the back foot, allowing Tom Banks to cross as the ball was spread wide, with Lolesio adding the extras, before adding a drop goal with the very next attack. Things went from bad to worse for the Reds, who had lost Petaia and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto to injury in the opening minutes of the half, as Filipo Daugunu was sent to the bin from the restart for a tip tackle on Lachlan McCaffrey, and Lolesio used this time to get the Brumbies in the Reds half and score another 3 pints off the tee. With the Reds back to a full complement, O’Connor kicked a penalty to bring the deficit back to within 2 converted tries, before Tate McDermott slipped his way inside the Brumbies 22. The scrum half was dragged down just short of the line and lost control of the ball, but TMO reviews showed that it went backwards, before being kicked over the line by a defender tackling Liam Wright and eventually dotted down by Angus Blyth for the try. O’Connor nailed the conversion, but any further attempts by the Reds to score were thwarted and the Brumbies held on to secure the 28-23 win and become the first Super Rugby AU Champions.

Indisciplined

When the Reds lost to the Brumbies earlier in the competition, it was their awful discipline that proved costly. In their win in the reverse fixture 2 weeks ago, the Reds kept their discipline and controlled the game. The Reds came into the final the least-penalised team in the competition, but quickly found themselves getting on the wrong side of Angus Gardner.

While it didn’t directly cost them in quite the same way as that previous loss, the ill discipline was still costly today, as it made it so hard for the team to create any pressure on the Brumbies as they could not get any consistent time inside the Brumbies half until they improved their discipline in the final quarter, while the penalties simply allowed the Brumbies to kick into the Reds 22 and put the pressure on.

What made this even more disappointing for the Reds is just how avoidable many of these penalties were. Tip tackles, high tackles and taking the man in the air were all stupid penalties, while Hamish Stewart also gave away a penalty for being lazy and not retreating to the hind foot as the Brumbies driving maul surged forwards.

It’s not as if the Brumbies were too disciplined themselves either, especially at the scrum, and if the Reds had been just a little more disciplined, the game was there to be won.

 Welcome return

The big talking point ahead of the match was the Brumbies’ decision to start Noah Lolesio at fly half in his first action since 18ᵗʰ July, where he picked an injury. Looking back on the match, it’s fair to say the risk paid off.

While Bayley Kuenzle has done a good job of stepping into the void following Lolesio’s injury, he plays more like a 12 than a 10, so getting Lolesio back in really helped the structure of the attack. It is no surprise that Tevita Kuridrani looked much more dangerous today with Lolesio pulling the strings, while his range of passes and kicks really opened the game up for the Brumbies.

Having been named as 1 of 4 fly halves in Dave Rennie’s Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship, how much will the youngster play? I envision that he’s currently ahead of Will Harrison, but it will depend on how much focus Rennie puts on development over results during this tournament. Personally, I can see James O’Connor and Matt To’omua getting the majority of the minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lolesio get some decent time against Argentina.

Injured again

Jordan Petaia is a fantastic talent and I’ve absolutely loved watching him in Super Rugby AU. There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one: the poor lad just can’t seem to stay fit. This latest injury came as he scythed through the Brumbies defence at the half hour mark. He was clean through and it looked like he would make it to the line, but appeared to feel a twinge in his groin and took the safe option of offloading to Harry Wilson, who crossed for the try. While Petaia played on, he did not return to the pitch following the halftime break.

Petaia has an incredible set of ball skills to go with great pace, power and elusiveness. I just can’t help but worry right now that he is set to join the list of players like James Simpson-Daniel – incredible talents who consistently find themselves missing time through injury, stopping them reaching the heights they should.

Personally, I feel that Petaia would benefit from being rested during the Rugby Championship even if he is fit, to ensure that he is 100% back to full fitness rather than just match-fit. The last thing we want is for such a great young talent to be lost from the game too soon.

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Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Western Force

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Western Force

Super Saturday in the Southern Hemisphere kicked off in Newcastle as the Melbourne Rebels took on the Western Force at McDonald Jones Stadium in the opening match of Super Rugby AU’s 10ᵗʰ round.

With Round 10 being the final round of the round-robin format, this was the Force’s last chance to avoid an 0-8 whitewash in their return to Super Rugby, while the Rebels knew that a win by at least 4 points (or a bonus point win) was required to enter next weekend’s Qualifying Final at the expense of the Waratahs.

After Ian Prior opened the scoring off the tee, the Rebels got the opening try through Tom Pincus, only for Henry Taefu to put the Force back ahead just minutes later. A pair of penalties from Matt To’omua put the Rebels back ahead, before Trevor Hosea charged down an attempted box kick from Prior, which prop Cameron Orr collected and spread with a lovely wide pass to Reece Hodge to score in the corner. With a danger of the game getting away from the Force, Andrew Ready managed to cross at the back of a driving maul on the stroke of half time, to make the score 20-13.

The second half started like the first ended, with Ready crashing over for a try off the back of a driving maul, with Prior kicking the conversion and a penalty 11 minutes later to regain the lead, while the Rebels were left to rue Isi Naisarani pouncing off the back of a driving maul a bit too early and being stopped short of the line. With Pincus sent to the bin for a deliberate knock-on, Brynard Stander powered over the line and Prior converted to give the Force a 10-point lead. Things were beginning to look bad for the Rebels, but a moment of great interplay from Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge and Marika Koroibete down the right wing saw the fullback score on his return from injury. With the Rebels now only 3 points down, it felt like momentum was once again turning in their favour as Byron Ralston was sent to the sin bin as he took out the jumper in the air at the restart. And so began the siege of the Force’s try line as the Rebels looked to take control and score the converted try that would see them continue in the competition. Marika Koroibete thought he had scored, only for the try to be disallowed for a forward pass. With both Pincus and Ralston back on, the pressure intensified and Fergus Lee-Warner was sent to the bin with 6 minutes remaining.

What followed must have taken years off the lives of Rebels and Waratahs fans alike. Cabous Eloff thought he had scored the winning try, but was disallowed by the TMO – their 3ʳᵈ disallowed try of the game. Matt Philip became disallowed try number 4 and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one at this point thinking that the Force were about to hold on for the unlikeliest of wins. With just 90 seconds remaining, a call went up from the Rebels that replacement hooker Efitusi Ma’afu had dotted down over the line and it was up the the TMO again, who ruled that the ball had been grounded short. However, as Angus Gardner had not immediately blown the whistle, he allowed the footage to continue and with no clear knock-on or illegal act from the Rebels, the ball came to Cabous Eloff, who dotted down over the line while most players had already stopped thinking Ma’afu had scored. With the try awarded just to the right of the posts, it was an easy but high-pressure kick for To’omua, but he successfully bisected the posts as time ran out to secure a 34-30 victory and ensure the Rebels’ Super Rugby AU campaign lasts at least anther week.

Costly cards

While it feels harsh to pin the blame for this loss on anyone, I can’t help feel that the yellow cards to Byron Ralston and Fergus Lee-Warner proved costly. With just 20 minutes left, the Force found themselves with a 1-man advantage for the next 6 minutes. Instead, Ralston’s yellow levelled the numbers and gave the Rebels territory just as momentum appeared to be shifting back to them following Dane Haylett-Petty’s try. Granted no points were scored while Ralston was in the bin, but it went a long way to heaping the pressure on the Force that they eventually couldn’t withstand.

By far the more stupid yellow card, though, was that of Fergus Lee-Warner. The flanker was having a great game, but made a stupid decision to cynically – and obviously – play the ball while on the floor at the breakdown. As such a physical player, he was a big loss to the defensive line, who now knew they were at a numerical disadvantage so would probably end up leaving a gap somewhere if the Rebels attacked well. It’s not as if the illegal act was even required there to save a try (i.e. taking one for the team) as the defence was set quicker than the attack at that breakdown, still with a bit of distance to go to the line. There is every chance that the Rebels would have scored in those remaining 6 minutes, but losing Lee-Warner made things much harder for them, while also being a bad way for the player to end an impressive season.

Uncertain Future

Right now, things are very up in the air as to the future of Super Rugby. However one thing is for certain: the Western Force have proved that they deserve a spot in whatever regional competition the Australian sides end up playing in. They were not meant to play n Super Rugby this year and had very little time to put together a side capable of competing, and yet managed to do exactly that.

I expect that a lot of the players on short-term contracts will not remain with the club, but if they can build around young Australian talent like Jack McGregor, Bryron Ralston, Kane Koteca and Fergus Lee-Warner and convince some of these players like Brynard Stander, Henry Taefu and Henry Stowers to stay with the club, then they have a chance of remaining competitive.

The important thing is not to expect immediate results from them. Being cut from Super Rugby will have hared them beyond the 1ˢᵗ XV as the best Academy talent will have gone elsewhere too. It may take a few seasons for them to build a team capable of winning games. It may take longer for them to build a squad capable of finishing in the top half of any standings, but that time must be allowed to them, so that we can truly see a force of rugby in Western Australia again.

Midfield mayhem

The Rebels may have advanced to the Qualifying Final, but they look far from the quality of the Reds and Brumbies. I can’t help feel that part of their issue has been the lack of consistency in midfield (fly half and the centres).

Yes, the Reds have changed things up quite a bit there, but that has generally been due to injuries, so there has still been some degree of consistency from week to week, while the Brumbies have generally stuck to the same handful of players, again with injuries often causing the changes to the starting trio.

In contrast, the Rebels spent the first half of the tournament with Matt To’omua at 10 before trying a tactical change by moving him out to 12 and bringing in Andrew Deegan, before going back to the original plan in this final round after deciding the Deegan experiment hadn’t worked. Specialist centres Bill Meakes and Campbell Magnay have been in and out of the XV, which will have impacted their ability to get any consistency, while you have also seen Andrew Kellaway and Reece Hodge play outside centre, wing and fullback – is it any real wonder why Kellaway looked out of form in this competition with the constant chopping and changing?

While I understand some degree of rotation and tactical selection is necessary, if we are rarely seeing the same trio play together, it’s going to be so hard for them to build any real semblance of chemistry. And when it comes to the tight games, that chemistry makes a big difference as you naturally know where your teammate will be, allowing you to trust your teammates more and focus on your own game.

Right now, I think this lack of consistent selection in the Rebels midfield is going to prove costly against a Reds team that is going from strength to strength.

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