Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v South Africa

After 5 weeks of action, the Autumn Nations Series reached its finale with England hosting South Africa. The World Champions’ selection was hampered a little by the absence of any Irish, English or French-based players, due to the Test being played outside World Rugby’s Test window, and yet their pack’s dominance in the early scrums gave Faf de Klerk an early shot at the posts, but his radar was slightly off, while England captain Owen Farrell missed an even easier opener of his own just minutes later. Farrell finally opened the scoring after 12 minutes after Frans Malherbe was penalised at a scrum. A strong carry in the 22 from Evan Roos allowed de Klerk to pull things level after Alex Coles was pinged for a high tackle, while Farrell again missed from in front of the posts just minutes later. South Africa tried to make the hosts pay for Farrell’s misses with a clever move at the front of a 5m lineout, but the defence jus managed to hold Siya Kolisi up over the line. As the game reached the half hour mark, Damian Willemse kicked a drop goal to give the visitors the lead, and then just minutes later, he countered a long kick and set Willie le Roux away down the right wing to draw the defence and release Kurt-Lee Arendse, who stepped marcus Smith for the opening try. Willemse’s next touch saw him again get a break going as he arced around Maro Itoje and offloaded inside to release Arendse, but the wing’s grubber to the corner was blocked by Freddie Steward as England looked vulnerable. England’s pack were struggling to deal with their opponents in the set piece, and as the half came to an end, de Klerk added another 3 points off the tee for a 3-14 lead at the break.

England rung the changes at the break, with the entire front row being replaced and Jack Nowell on for Tommy Freeman, but a timely counterruck from the Springboks turned the ball over on the edge of the 22 to allow Willemse another simple drop goal. A great take in the air by Freddie Steward put England on the front foot and allowed a further half-break from Smith that earned a penalty, which Farrell landed, but a moment of stupidity from Jonny Hill gave South Africa a penalty that was kicked to the corner, and Tom Curry soon found himself going to the bin for illegally slowing down the ball in the following phases, and it only took a couple of phases with the man advantage before Eben Etzebeth scored the second try of the game, though he appeared to be on the floor when he played the ball. As the hour approached, the Boks won another scrum penalty against the 7-man English pack, and de Klerk bisected the posts from halfway to stretch the lead to 21 points. England were dealt a lifeline just after, though, as Thomas du Toit was sent off just minutes after coming on for a dangerous high challenge, while Jacques Nienaber inexplicably chose the same moment to remove Willie le Roux. Wth the man advantage, England were starting to find some space, but it was not until Ben Youngs took a quick-tap penalty in the South African 22 that they really made use of this, as they used the quick ball to send Henry Slade over for the try, while the Boks also lost de Klerk and Kolisi to injury for the remaining minutes. But the visitors defence held firm and if anything put the hosts under more pressure, to secure a 13-27 victory.

Eddie’s England

How can you tell that a Test-level coach doesn’t have a clue? Watch their team try to take on South Africa at their own game. Despite plenty of prior matches that show the way to trouble South Africa is to play expansive rugby, and that by trying to take them on up front and through the kicking game is almost certainly going to see you lose, Eddie Jones chose the latter and England paid the price.

Selecting Mako Vunipola to take on Frans Malherbe—who treated him as a plaything in the RWC2019 final—always felt like a strange decision and, like in 2019 was proved to be completely wrong as he was dominated at the scrum, while Tommy Freeman was not so much thrown in at the deep end, more thrown into shark-infested water with bloody meat attached to him. And to top it all off, keeping Owen Farrell as kicker when he was struggling with an injury that affected his kicking was idiocy given Marcus Smith was on the pitch. Were it not for Thomas du Toit’s moronic red card, England would have had no way back in this match, and even then, the last 10 minutes were more panicked play than structured attack.

And if you want a final indictment of Eddie Jones and his coaching, you just have to look at the build-up to Etzebeth’s try. England dealt with the restart and eventually won a penalty against Faf de Klerk, only for Jonny Hill to manhandle the scrumhalf after the whistle, resulting in the penalty being reversed. With England under pressure, Curry was forced to illegally intervene and was righty carded as the team were already on a warning for repeated infringements. Then when South Africa were stopped on the England try line, the players around the ruck were too busy appealing to the referee to deal with the ball spurting out of the ruck and Etzebeth recovering and stretching for the line.

Discipline starts with the coach. If they can’t get that right, and then pick completely the wrong tactics, then it’s time for them to move on. The sooner England are away from Eddie Jones, the better.

Dominant

The South African scrum is one of the most feared weapons in Test rugby, and for good reason. Such is the strength in depth of the Springbok front rows, there are genuine debates over whether the starting front row or bench are better. England has one of the strongest scrums in World Rugby, so to see them demolished so effectively just shows the quality of the Boks.

But you still see the Boks get it wrong sometimes, as they get pinged before the ball comes in for putting too much pressure on. In the case of most teams, you could understand wanting to push things to get a slight advantage ahead of the ball coming in, but if any team has the quality and the weight of pack to just hold off a moment, they will probably still be able to dominate the scrum, while if anything, it will likely then highlight the opposition’s own attempts to get an advantage before the ball comes in.

In a closer game, that could be the difference between a win and a loss.


You can find all the details on my announcement.

Visit my JustGiving page for updates or if you would like to donate.

Help me to change the face of men’s health!

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Australia

After defeating the World Champions and testing their depth against Fiji, Ireland’s Autumn Nations Series campaign came to an end with the visit of Australia. The Wallabies were looking to get back on track after following up an impressive display against France with an historic loss to Italy, and they thought that they had got a near-perfect start as Nic White sniped over for a try after just 3 minutes, only for a neck roll in the build-up from Dave Porecki to wipe it out, while Hunter Paisami was lost to injury, Jordan Petaia taking his place. Ireland had lost Jonathan Sexton in the warm-up, leading to a first Test start for Munster’s Jack Crowley, and the young fly half opened the scoring with a penalty after 9 minutes. In a tight affair, Bernard Foley missed with his first chance off the tee as the first quarter came to an end while a good kick to the cormed with 6 minutes left in the half jut saw the lineout stolen by James Ryan. Discipline was frequently costing the the Wallabies in the Irish half, and with 5 minutes left in the half, Folau Fainga’a—on a a HIA replacement for Dave Porecki—was sent to the bin for a neck roll, and the Irish took advantage of the extra man to go to the corner. But when Dan Sheehan was stopped just short of the line as the maul spun towards the touchline, Jamison Gibson-Park was not careful enough with his foot placement and played the ball at the ruck with a foot in touch, bringing the half to a disappointing end and the score at 3-0.

Ireland looked to start the second half positively and take advantage of the extra man, but were unable to find the killer pass to convert the pressure, while what looked like a try for Jamison Gibson-Park as Fainga’a was about to return to the field was ruled out as Mack Hansen just put a foot on the line before offloading to his scrum half as Nic White and Bernard Foley tried to force him into touch. As the game approached the hour mark, Bernard Foley kicked a penalty to draw the teams level, but any celebrations were muted as Taniela Tupou left the pitch on a stretcher following a non-contact leg injury. The crowd was brought into voice with 15 minutes remaining though as a strong carry from Caelan Doris off a lineout in the Australian 22 put the Irish on he front foot, and after Craig Casey’s snipe was stopped by a high tackle, the forwards drew in the defence with a series of pick and go drives, before casey’s flat pass allowed replacement Bundee Aki to crash over for the first try of the game, Crowley adding the extras with a simple conversion. And it was as if the try was a shot of Red Bull to the veins, as Australia immediately went down the field and spread the ball to send Petaia over in the corner, with Foley curling the conversion in. With just under 10 minutes remaining, Ross Byrne was brought on to replace the inexperienced Crowley, an just minutes after his introduction, a scrum penalty allowed him a kick at goal from out wide that he made look simple. With just 2 minutes left, the visitors won a penalty out wide ont he edge of the Irish 22 and made the call to go for the corner, only for them to concede a penalty as the backs came to join the maul and failed to enter from the back, and Ireland held on to secure the 13-10 victory.

Building again

For so long now the Irish centre pairing has been almost as easy to guess as the starting fly half if Jonathan Sexton was fit, with 2 out of Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki starting, and often the other on the bench. Now, after years of impressing for Ulster, Stuart McCloskey is finally getting selected again for the national team, but it’s hampering the team’s fluidity.

And it’s not his fault, but just a matter of chemistry. Those 3 centres were so used to playing in the various combinations that they could help cover for even a sub-par fly half, as they had the chemistry to naturally know where the other would be. Now, wth McCloskey finally getting a shot, he is finding himself having to get used to everything: the Irish system, different fly halves and also different centre partners, which also hasn’t been helped by his early injury against South Africa and Robbie Henshaw’s against Fiji. And to have 3 different starting fly halves over this time won’t have helped things either.

It just highlights the importance of not just building your 23 early in your world cup cycle, but the entire wider squad and beyond. Yes there will always be bolters, but you want to minimise the impact any late bolters or injuries to key players has on the squad chemistry. Mich like I have argued that Sexton has taken too many of the minutes this cycle, has there been too much focus on the main 3 centres, and could this come back to haunt the Irish in France?

Shooting themselves in the foot

This was a perfectly winnable match for Australia. Their defence found ways to cope with Ireland for much of the game, while their few attacks of note did find chinks in the Irish armour. However they continually shot themselves in the foot with poor discipline.

I lost count of just how many attacks were ended by a gold-shirted arm finding its way around an Irish neck, making it all too easy for the officials to call the neck roll, so many so that it not only cost them an early try, but also eventually led to Folau Fainga’a being sent to the bin, while the lineout that led to Aki’s try was courtesy of a penalty to touch, and Rob Valentini was lucky to have a SANZAAR referee in charge to deem his head clash with Dan Sheehan just a penalty rather than the card he deserved.

Is there not enough focus on discipline during the week? Is it an arrogance to think that they can get away without officials seeing? Something must be causing this issue. And it needs sorting fast, or the team will just continue its freefall down the world rankings.


You can find all the details on my announcement.

Visit my JustGiving page for updates or if you would like to donate.

Help me to change the face of men’s health!

Movember_Iconic Mo_Black

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Fiji

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Fiji

Having backed up their Summer Series victory over the All Blacks with a winover World Champions South Africa, it was a very different Test for Ireland this weekend as they welcomed Fiji to the Aviva Stadium. The Irish had made a number of changes from their “first choice” XV and were lucky not to go behind early on as Teti Tela’s early penalty was pulled wide. However it was just a temporary stay of execution, as just moments later the visitors spread the ball wide on halfway and got around the Irish to put Kalaveti Ravouvou over for the try, while things got even worse for the Irish as Robbie Henshaw’s game was brought to an end after just 4 minutes. Nick Timoney escaped punishment minutes later for a no-arms tackle on Levani Botia, and the Ulster back row took advantage of this to go over for Ireland’s first try after 15 minutes, a time that should have still been during his sin bin period. Fiji were struggling to find an answer to Ireland’s driving maul, and after Kieran Treadwell was held up under penalty advantage, Manasa Saulo was sent to the bin for the team’s accumulation of penalties in their own 22, and the Irish took advantage of the extra man in the pack to drive Timoney over for a second try. Tela soon added a penalty after Treadwell was caught offside at a clearance, but the Irish were straight back on the attack and Robert Baloucoune was sent over for the try in the corner, with Mathieu Raynal deciding that a crawl in the build-up from Jimmy O’Brien was legal. A breakdown penalty against Levani Botia as Saulo returned to the pitch allowed Ireland to kick up into the Fijian 22 again, but after a couple of phases opened up space to hit back on the blind side, Mack Hansen knocked on with the line a his mercy. However when some of the Fijian kick chasers started their run before they were played onside, Ireland were given another chance from 5m out and after going through the phases, Jack Conan tried to crash over out wide but couldn’t stop himself being pushed into touch. As Fiji looked to attack in the final minute of the half, Tadhg Beirne’s counter-ruck led to a turnover and as Hansen chipped on, Fiji just about covered it under heavy pressure at the expense of a lineout close to their line, but the defence held firm andBotia won a turnover that allowed them to kick the ball out to end the half with the score at 21-10.

With Fiji struggling for much structure in attack, Ben Volavola was brought on early in the second half, but the Islanders’ chances of victory were dealt a huge blow just 5 and a half minutes into the half as Albert Tuisue was sent off for a no-arms tackle that made contact with the head of Joey Carbery. Things soon got even worse as Api Ratuniyarawa was sin binned 5 minutes later for collapsing a maul, while at the other end of the pitch Cian Prendergast showed them how to legally deal with a maul, coming through the middle to get on the ball carrier and taking him to ground. As the game reached the hour, the 13 men of Fiji successfully turned over an Irish driving maul, but they were then pushed off their own ball on the resulting scrum, which wheeled perfectly for Craig Casey to send Hansen over on the blind side. As Fiji returned to 14 men on the pitch, a fabulous offload from Seta Tuicuvu to the looping Jiuta Wainiqolo allowed the wing to break and feed back inside to replacement scrum half Simione Kuruvoli to go over beneath the posts, to allow Volavola an easy conversion. Ireland continued to attack and look dangerous as debutant fly half Jack Crowley appeared to have opened up the attacking game with his introduction, but a series of individual errors meant that these chances continually ended in disappointment. However as the game entered the final 10 minutes, a strong carry by replacement Max Deegan took the hosts up to the Fijian 5m line, and Cian Healy finally burrowed over for the try, with Crowley kicking the conversion to secure a 35-17 victory.

Developing depth

With the World Cup less than a year away, Andy Farrell was clearly using this match to look at the depth within the squad with a view to filling the final couple of spots in the World Cup squad, but also to start looking ahead to the players who will be replacing the outgoing generation as we enter the next cycle going into 2024. So who really stood out among the fringe players?

Nick Timoney was lucky to avoid being penalised early in the game, but performed well for the rest of the match, with his 2 tries and a Player of the Match award deserved after his big carries, while replacement back row Cian Prendergast also looked a real handful in defence. Kieran Treadwell partnered well with Tadhg Beirne and though he gave away a poor penalty int he first half, he made up for it with some great carrying.

In the backs, Muster duo Craig Casey and debutant Jack Crowley certainly appeared to bring more to the attack than the starters, though it must be noted that they also benefited from the extra space caused by Tuisue and Ratuniyarawa’s cards. Robert Baloucoune will be disappointed with the lack of good ball that came his way, but his Ulster teammate Stuart McCloskey put in a solid all-round display to try and further his claim for a spot in the first team.

Their own worst enemy

We all know that teams like Italy and the Pacific Islands are not often refereed as leniently as the bigger Tier 1 nations, but even so, Fiji’s discipline is atrocious!

While you can understand the odd offside or breakdown penalty as every team gives these away, they were giving away basic penalties like chasing a kick from an offside position or poor tackle technique—just look at Tuisue’s red card, where his tackle on Carbery was always too high, but then made even worse as he led with the shoulder and made no attempt to wrap the arm, or last week where a swinging arm cost them a yellow card.

But what really kills them is their inability to defend the maul legally. It cost them a yellow card last week against Scotland and 2 in this match, and that will usually be enough to kill off any chance of victory, especially against the top teams. And it’s not as if they are unable to do it, as they successfully dealt with an Irish maul on the hour despite having 2 of their more experienced forwards in the bin, so if they can do it in those circumstances, why cant they do so with 15 men on the pitch?

I recognise that this is far from their only issue, and that for those playing in Super Rugby, the atrocious disciplinary standards of SANZAAR will not be helping the matter, but they have the physicality and skill to compete against most of the top teams, and while they clearly need a fly half to control this team and get them directed, simply just improving the discipline will be enough to put the pressure on some of those teams above them and start turning these gutsy losses against Tier 1 into wins.

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Scotland v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Scotland v Australia

The Test window may not start until next weekend, but Scotland chose to kick off their Autumn Nations Series a week early with the visit of Australia. The Wallabies were welcoming back their talismanic openside Michael Hooper to the squad—though James Slipper retained the captaincy—and though the visitors appeared to have the upper hand early on, Scottish jackalling provided some crucial turnovers. However when a scrum penalty allowed the Scots to kick themselves up to just outside the Australian 22, they took advantage of their first real attacking opportunity, with some well-timed passes from Sione Tuipulotu and Blair Kinghorn unleashing fullback Ollie Smith to step 2 defenders to go over for the opening try. A Bernard Foley penalty quickly cut the deficit as he continued his return to Test rugby, but the Scottish defence and some poor control at the breakdown kept the attack in check, and when the Scots found themselves down the other end the should have made it 2tries from 2 attacks, only for Tuipulotu to fumble the wide pass with the corner at his mercy. However, a penalty gave the hosts another bite at the apple and they laid siege on the try line, only for early replacement Glen Young to find himself held up over the line. A trio of penalties in quick succession saw Scotland go from attacking the Australian 22 to defending a lineout 5m from their line, but the defence held strong and another great jackal allowed them to win back the ball and clear their lines. As the clock ticked down at the end of the first half, a failure to roll away from Dave Cherry allowed Foley to en the half with a kick at goal, which he successfully hit to put the Wallabies ahead 5-6 at the break.

The second half could not have started much better for Scotland: Foley saw the ball slip out of his hands as he tried to pass wide in a strike move, and Blair Kinghorn was able to hack it on and win the footrace to score his team’s second try, while also kicking the conversion to make it 12-6. As the visitors struggled with their discipline early in the half, the Scots were going to the corner with their penalties but failing to get the results they wanted as the Wallabies dealt with the driving maul, with Taniela Tupou winning 2 penalties in his first 10 minutes in the pitch to end 2 attacks. after a third 5m lineout maul was immediately stopped in the second half, Scotland chose to call for the tee with the next penalty and Blair Kinghorn added the 3 points to start pulling away on the scoreboard. The home team were taking over the game, and when Duhan van der Merwe beat Andrew Kellaway to Ali Price’s box kick, he broke down the wing and was stopped just short by Bernard Foley and Tate McDermott, who was then the victim of a dangerous clear-out by Glen Young, who was sent to the sin bin, with referee Luke Pearce judging that the contact being made by his bicep reduced the danger compared to contact with the shoulder. With the extra man for 10 minutes, Australia started looking for gaps and found a dangerous grubber into the in-goal well covered by van der Merwe, but the extra man and increased speed of ball with the arrival of Nic White soon made a difference as they forced an overlap to send skipper Slipper over just after the hour. An error from Tom Banks trying to take a Blair Kinghorn kick above his head in the swirling winds of Murrayfield gifted the hosts a lineout in the 22, however after setting a platform, the wide ball to captain Jamie Ritchie was just a little too high for the flanker, who was probably left wishing that he had hugged the touchline rather than coming some distance infield. Meanwhile just minutes later, an awful penalty kick to the corner from Foley was let off as van der Merwe and Smith failed to communicate and allowed the ball to bounce in between them and into touch, while a penalty off the resulting phase allowed Foley to kick the Wallabies into a 15-16 lead with 9 minutes remaining. With just 2 minutes left in the game, Tupou was penalised for not supporting his weight at the breakdown and Blair Kinghorn stepped up to kick the Scots into what should have been a late lead, only for him to pull the ball left of the posts, and with the clock in the red, the Wallabies made sure that their restart bounced into touch to secure a 15-16 victory.

Making it worse

Except for the try when down a man, Scotland’s defence looked like it had answers for the questions that Australia were posing, while the jackals were a constant menace for the Wallabies. However, Scotland were never able to truly pull away on the scoreboard, and eventually paid the price.

While part of this was down to costly handling errors and an insistence on continuing to kick to the corner (when the opposition was dealing with the 5m lineouts) rather than slowly build up a lead 3 points at a time, the manner of Scottish indiscipline is what really killed them.

Not only did Scotland concede more penalties, but the would also give them away in burst of 2 or 3. What this meant is that almost every time they gave away a penalty, they were then compounding the issue with more penalties, allowing the visitors to first clear their lines, then find an attacking position, then either kick for goal or go for the corner to put heavy pressure on the defence. As good as their defence is, if they keep allowing the opposition to get possession and territory, it is just gifting the opposition the game.

What will be even more disappointing is how many penalties were soft or stupid. Multiple times they were penalised for putting too much pressure on the Wallabies lineout, there was a lazy tackle off the ball by Pierre Schoeman, who had earlier been penalised for jumping into a tackle, and while Grant Gilchrist’s knock on meant that Glen Young’s illegal cleanout did not cost a try, it still allowed the Wallabies to clear their lines with no pressure, rather than having to win the scrum and set up a clearing kick, which would have likely given Scotland the ball around the edge of the 22.

Scotland’s defence should just theoretically get better with the return of Chris Harris next week. But until the team sorts out its discipline, much of this defending will be in vain.

The race for number 10

With a World Cup just a year away, the lack of a clear starter at 10 must be a real worry for the Wallabies. Quade Cooper looked in position to take that role, but injury has left him unavailable at a crucial time. In his absence, Noah Lolesio looked to be the obvious choice, but has struggled to keep hold of the shirt in recent years and has recently found himself playing backup to Bernard Foley.

And that in itself is a worry to me. Foley can be a great talent who can win games—just look at the victory over England at RWC2015—but he also has a long list of questionable performances in the gold shirt. Even tonight, he struggled to create anything of note, while a couple of kicks were horribly mis-hit (though he got away with one thanks to a Scottish mistake) and a handling error during a strike play led to Kinghorn’s try.

At 33, it’s likely that the World Cup will see the end of Foley’s career, and it feels like a match against Scotland would have been the right chance to increase Lolesio’sexperience as a Test starter, especially as he has generally performed well in recent outings for the Wallabies. With 4 games still to come on the tour, Dave Rennie has a big call to make. Does he stick with Foley as the starter, which will likely see Lolesio on the bubble for the World Cup squad (if Cooper is fit) and delay his development? Or does he try to give them both roughly equal playing time, which in turn reduces the time that players can gel as a combination. The selection against France next week will be telling…

rugby autumn nations series logo

2022 Rugby Championship Round 6: South Africa v Argentina

2022 Rugby Championship Round 6: South Africa v Argentina

The 2022 Rugby Championship reached it’s finale on Saturday with South Africa taking on Argentina in Durban. Following New Zealand’s victory over Australia at Eden Park, South Africa knew that in order to win the title they would need not just a bonus point victory, but also a winning marking of at least 40 points.

And after a close and physical start, the Boks got the ball down across the line following a 5 metre lineout, Eben Etzebeth getting over, however it was adjudged that Etzebeth had played the ball back to Siya Kolisi before taking the ball back off him from a position in front of him, so the try was disallowed. The Springboks were keeping ball in hand and putting pressure on with attack after attack, and after 15 minutes the pressure told as an accumulation of penalties saw Marcos Kremer sent to the bin, and the Springboks took advantage of the missing forward a few minutes later to drive a 5m scrum over the line, allowing Jasper Wiese to dot down as the first quarter came to an end. The South African pressure continued, as did the Argentinian penalties, and within moments of Kremer returning to the pitch, his fellow back row Juan Martín González was sent to the bin for collapsing a maul, and though the first chance the Boks had saw Willie le Roux held up over the line, the next saw skipper Kolisi peel off a rotating maul to crash over for try number 2, while the Pumas were dealt an extra blow by the loss of Pablo Matera to injury. After 30 minutes of almost constant defence, a strong driving maul from the Pumas allowed them to kick a penalty into the hosts’ 22, but their attack came to nothing as Joel Sclavi—on early after Eduardo Bello struggled in the scrums—ran a blatant blacking line just 5m out from the try line. As the second sin bin perod came to an end, South Africa’s decision to go only for tries came to a confusing end as Frans Steyn kicked a penalty from well inside his own half, and that decision was made to look even more questionable in the grand scheme of things as Gonzalo Bertranou sniped over from close range just before halftime following a clever kick to the corner from Santiago Carreras, which left the teams going in at the break with a 17-7 scoreline.

Having ended the first half on the front foot, the Pumas continued that pressure at the start of the second, with a brave tackle from Canan Moodie stopping Julián Montoya from scoring off a clever move at the front of the lineout, while their next attack was ended by Joel Scavi being penalised for rolling on the floor after contact. However they kept coming and after attacking down the blind side, a lovely step from Juan Martín González saw him wrong foot le Roux and go over in the corner, Boffelli’s conversion cutting the lead to just 3 points. The Boks surely knew that winning the tournament was out of reach by this point and that they should focus on winning the game, and the 54ᵗʰ minute saw a strong driving maul collapsed short of the line for a penalty try, with Jeronimo de la Fuente becoming the 3ʳᵈ Argentina player to receive a yellow card in the match. In deteriorating conditions, Eben Etzebeth was given a yellow card as a push while chasing a kick led to Emiliano Boffelli being contacted in the air. With the game now 14v14, the Pumas used the penalty to kick into the 22, but their driving maul was held up over the line, but another strong driving maul minutes later saw Faf de Klerk sent to the bin for collapsing it, and as de la Fuente returned to the pitch, the Pumas used their 2-man advantage to eventually send Matías Moroni over for the try, Boffelli’s conversion again making it a 3-point game with 11 minutes remaining. With Etzebeth returning, South Africa were back on the attack, and another strong lineout drive saw them earn a second penalty try of the game, with Sclavi making his way to the sin bin for the final minutes. with 5 minutes remaining and de Klerk back on the pitch, the hosts were able to add a sweetener to the victory by putting Kurt-Lee Arendse over with the final play of the game to put an extra shine on the scoreline, but the 38-21 victory was not enough to overturn New Zealand at the top of the table.

Costly Call

Why did South Africa go for goal just before half time? Granted Frans Steyn is an expert at kicking from range, but that is still a risky kick, and in this match the reward just didn’t make sense.

In a one-off match it would be understandable, as it sends a message to the opposition that any penalties around the halfway line could be 3 points, while with the score at 14-0 it made it a 3-score game. But this was not just any game, this was a match where the Boks needed to score 3 tries more than their opponent and win by a 40-point margin, so at 14-0, a penalty kick doesn’t really help much.

But it’s not as if South Africa were even really struggling. They had dominated the vast majority of the half and were winning penalties with most attacks, so even if the driving maul wasn’t working at 100% they should have still felt comfortable about kicking down into the Pumas 22 and putting together one more attack before halftime, which incidentally would have taken away the couple of minutes that the Pumas utilised to score their own try.

It may not seem like much at the one moment, but it highlights the importance of each decision, as what could have been a halftime lead of 21-0 (and maybe even another yellow card for the Pumas) ended up becoming a 17-7 lead. One could argue that this was the decision that lost them the Championship.

Penalised

If you thought Australia’s discipline was poor, the Pumas said “Hold my beer” and put on a masterclass of how not to play defensively, with penalties coming with far too much frequency.

It’s something that we sadly see too often with the Pumas in recent years: if you play one-up rugby against them then their defensive line will dominate you, but if you look for the short passes around or in the contact—as South Africa were doing here, running hard and then offloading in contact—it puts the defence on the back foot and they are too slow to reorganise, leading to a number of cheap offside penalties and then stupid penalties at the breakdown as players try to slow the ball down to give the defence time to recover.

And then there were also the moronic penalties from Joel Sclavi. Brought on to sure up a struggling scrum, his dumb and wholly avoidable penalties ended 2 promising attacks for the Pumas 5m for the South African line, before he ended his game by collapsing a maul for the penalty try that eventually secured the game for South Africa.

Argentina have shown that on their day they can beat anyone. But if they want to start beating other top teams with regularity, which they will need to in order to win a tournament, then Michael Cheika desperately needs to work hard on preparing a defence that can stay organised and retreat with the same effectiveness as they do coming forward.

feat rugby the rugby championship banner

2022 Rugby Championship Round 6: New Zealand v Australia

2022 Rugby Championship Round 6: New Zealand v Australia

Probably the closest Rugby Championship in a long time reached it’s final week, and it all started aut Eden park, with New Zealand facing Australia. Last week’s controversial victory saw New Zealand enter the weekend at the top of the table courtesy of a 13-point advantage over South Africa in overall points differential, while Australia knew that a bonus point that denied the All Blacks any bonus points would see them go top of the table and hoping Argentina pulled off a shock in South Africa.

But Australia’s job became so much harder just 2 minutes in as Jed Holloway’s cleanout of Dalton Papali’i saw him take the flanker beyond the horizontal, leading to an early yellow card. And the All Blacks were immediately taking advantage of the extra man, with Beauden Barrett—starting at fullback—breaking down the left wing and chipping on, with the pressure forcing Marika Koroibete to carry the ball out over his own dead ball line for an All Blacks 5m scrum, but the Wallabies defended manfully so close to their line and eventually won the turnover penalty after 5 minutes of pressure, allowing them to clear their lines and get back to 15 men. As the game remained a tight, error-strewn affair, the All Blacks finally opened the scoring with a Richie Mo’unga penalty, while the Wallabies were dealt a blow, losing Lalakai Foketi to injury, with Jordan Petaia coming on. And things soon got worse for the men in gold as Will Jordan used his pace to find some space with an arcing run to get outside Petaia and go over for the opening try. The All Blacks were suddenly taking over the game, and a break from Rieko Ioane just a minute later led to an 8ᵗʰ penalty in 25 minutes, though despite the Wallabies being on a team warning, skipper James Slipper somehow avoided a yellow card. However the All Blacks got the drive on from the resulting lineout, and when it went to ground, Andrew Brace awarded a penalty try and sent hooker Dave Porecki to the bin. 1 points down and with a man in the bin, the Wallabies needed something, and a clever move at the front of the lineout released Pete Samu (throwing in due to Porecki’s absence) up to the All Blacks try line, and when the ball came back to the blind side, Koroibete dropped over in the corner, only to find that his foot was in touch. But the Wallabies had a penalty advantage and went for the line again, which saw Harry Wilson stopped just short and the ball held up a phase later. The australian pressure continued, but in their quest for tries not penalties they found themselves turning down kicks at goal but unable to get across the whitewash, and the kicking of Mo’unga and the Barrett brothers continued to find space deep in the backfield to push the visitors back and put the under pressure, so the teams reached the break with the All Blacks leading 17-0.

The Wallabies ay have been back to 15 as the second half kicked off, but they were under immediate pressure, and Sam Whitelock forced his way over the line after just 2 and a half minutes, and despite Angus Bell’s best efforts to dislodge the ball on the way to ground, TMO Ben Whitehouse adjudged that Whitelock had managed to keep control and the try was given. Mo’unga kicked the conversion and a penalty just minutes later to open up a 27-0 lead after just 47 minutes, and this lead was stretched further on 53 minutes as a scrum penalty allowed the All Blacks a lineout 5m from the line, and Codie Taylor was given the easy job of dropping over the line after a strong driving maul. The Walabies finally got on the scoresheet as the hour approached, Mo’unga’s kick partially charged down to Pete Samu, who advanced down the wing, and as he tried to find Folau Fainga’a on his inside, his pass was knocked towards the try line by the despairing hand of Will Jordan, allowing the Wallabies hooker to dive on the loose ball and let his momentum take him over the line. However a series of unforced handling errors from the Wallabies put them under pressure deep in their own 22, and when New Zealand won a penalty, they went to the corner and pushed over replacement hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho for their 5ᵗʰ try of the night, while only the efforts of Koroibete covering back denied the All Blacks a 6ᵗʰ just moments later as Akira Ioane chased his own grubber kick down the wing. The result may have been beyond doubt with 10 minutes remaining, but that was no excuse for TMO Ben Whitehouse choosing to ignore what should have been a red card for Sevu Reece for a tackle on Reece Hodge that led to a head clash, and it was said All Blacks wing who forced a turnover on his own line from Australia’s next attack, with the All Blacks then countering and adding a further 3 points from the boot of Mo’unga. Australia had one last chance to grab a consolation try at the death as they kicked a penalty to the corner, and after 6 phases of pressure, Nic White’s flat miss-pass sent Petaia over beneath the posts as the defence jammed in on Pone Fa’amausili, and Reece Hodge added the conversion for a final score of 40-14.

All that was left for the All Blacks was to wait for South Africa’s match later, with the Springboks now needing a bonus point victory by a margin of at least 40 points in order to deny New Zealand the title.

Inside man

While last week was costly for the All Blacks with the loss of both Quinn Tupaea—who will be out long-term—and David Havili, it may have been a blessing in disguise. While some may have thought this would be the chance for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to get a start, Ian Foster instead chose to move fullback Jordie Barrett into the 12 shirt, with brother Beauden coming into the team at fullback.

Beauden Barrett is a fantastic player, but not as good a fly half as Mo’unga, and with Jordie Barrett the incumbent at 15 and covering long-range goal-kicking duties, Beauden’s talents were being left to just late cameos.

However as I have covered multiple times before, Jordie is (in the kindest of ways) a freak of nature, as he has the handling, passing and kicking skills to cover playmaking positions, he also has the size and power to carry hard. Havili has frequently been used in the 12 position outside Mou’unga, where he can use his own playmaking and kicking abilities, so Jordie Barrett provides a similar option at this position, but then also added an extra dynamic in the way that he could just run hard into contact himself, while we know that Beauden is more than capable of excelling at 15, allowing him to work his magic while Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett run the game.

With the Autumn Nations Cup coming up, don’t be shocked to see more of Jordie Barrett in this position as New Zealand look to climb back up the rankings.

Their own worst enemy

Australia are their own worst enemy at the moment. They will defend like dogs and hold out when conventional wisdom would suggest they should break, while in attack they can be so incredibly dangerous—especially with this week’s dynamic back row of Rob Valentini, Pete Samu and Harry Wilson—and yet they then ruin everything by giving away a million penalties a game!

OK, so a million may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s not far off. They gave away 8 penalties before they even reached the half hour mark; a top team should be hoping to only just hit double figures in an entire game. And once again they have spent 20 minutes of the match with players off the pitch in the bin, their 7ᵗʰ and 8ᵗʰ yellow cards of the tournament. When you are playing that much rugby a man down, you’re making it all-but impossible to win, while it also can’t help but be in an official’s mind going into a game that this is a team that frequently offends, meaning they will be looking for those offences.

But its so much more than that. Just take it back to a base level. Penalties stop your attacks (Holloway’s overzealous cleanout of Papali’i ended a promising early attack). It gifts your opponent possession, and leaves you having to work harder defending than you would in attack. And it gifts your opponent territory, allowing them to clear their own lines if in trouble, or kick deep into your half if you are in attack.

When you consider how many players Australia are missing at the moment through injury, the fact that they can be so competitive is impressive. However until the Wallabies can improve their discipline, they will struggle to get results consistently going their way.

feat rugby the rugby championship banner

Seeing Red

Seeing Red

If recent reports are to be believed, World Rugby are considering expanding the 20-minute red card to more competitions. If they do this, it will just show how out of touch the governing body is with the sport and how it is putting the spectacle before player safety.

So let’s take a step back first and look at what the law is. Much like football, if a player is red carded, they are immediately removed from the field of play and their team plays the remainder of the game with a player less. However under the new variation that is currently being trialled in Super Rugby Pacific, while the red carded player’s match is over, the team is allowed to bring on a replacement after 20 minutes.

So what’s happening in Super Rugby. Well I think the only appropriate word would be “mayhem”! It’s not much of an overstatement to say that the majority of games are seeing at least one red card, generally for dangerous play that included contact with the head.

Red cards are surely at an all-time high worldwide, with amendments to the laws in recent years that have been intended to make the game safer by reducing contact with the head. And yet despite the increased sanctions with the risk of a red card—and despite stories in the news of James “Cubby” Davies recently retiring due to a concussion, having not played since November 2020, and former players Steve Thompson and Alix Popham’s revelations that they now suffer from early-onset dementia—players appear to be unwilling or incapable of adapting to the new laws.

The red card is meant to be a deterrent, a punishment to encourage better behaviour, but it has clearly not been enough and the arrival of a 20-minute red card is even less of a punishment, so it is no surprise to see Super Rugby matches turning into a contest of “who can crack a man’s skull open first?” And the reason that this 20-minute red card is being considered: because there is a group of people out there—unfortunately fuelled by a number of so-called “experts” in the media—who complain that red cards ruin the game. Newsflash: they don’t. What ruins the game is players suffering avoidable injuries.

So what should be done?

Well first of all, the 20-minute red card should be scrapped altogether rather than expanding. Current punishments are clearly not a sufficient deterrent, so reducing them will just make things worse, as we are seeing in the Southern Hemisphere.

Secondly, the post-match disciplinary process needs a complete overhaul. As it stands, different offences have different minimum entry points depending on the severity of the offence, while extra weeks may be added for repeat offenders. However, this is all ruined by having weeks taken off for such rubbish as accepting the charge, remorse, attending a “tackle school”, good behaviour in the disciplinary hearing and a previously clean record. You just need to look at the recent case of Axel Müller, whose horror tackle started at a 10-week entry point but ended up being just a 5-week ban once everything was considered! I would argue that any reasons to reduce a ban are removed, while a financial impact also be brought in, with both club and player receiving a fine dependent on the severity of the incident and the disciplinary history that season, with the money being spread among grass-roots rugby and charities focused on head injuries and player welfare. If bans haven’t been enough to encourage better behaviour, perhaps losing money will give players the impetus to improve their technique, or give teams the reason to focus on improving technique.

In line with this, World Rugby needs to enforce more consistency across the board, both from match officials and disciplinary panels. While nobody could argue Hame Faiva’s red card in the Six Nations against Ireland, Ireland’s Ryan Baird escaped even a citing for exactly the same thing later in the match. English referee Karl Dickson is accruing a horribly long list of incidents that he has adjudged to be a yellow card or less, which have then resulted in a citing and the disciplinary panel deciding the incident worth of a red card. Meanwhile, some of the decisions of the judiciary panels SANZAAR have put together have been questionable to say the best, as a number of red cards have been overturned, including a horror shot from Tom Banks on Toni Pulu that rightly ended in a penalty try and red card, but also left the Brumbies fullback requiring facial surgery. You need consistency in order to set a precedent, otherwise players will be able to cite previous incidents where players have escaped punishment for the same offence.

Finally, there is a law that I thin needs changing and that is the one that if a maul becomes unplayable, the ball is turned over. Instead I feel that whichever team was the more dominant right before it became unplayable should get the scrum feed. The reason for this is that the law encourages players to go high for the “man and ball” challenge that holds the player up and creates a maul, leading to a turnover. Look back at England’s match against Ireland and Charlie Ewels’ early red card. England went for a number of high tackles in those opening minutes in an attempt to hold up the ball, and it was a combination of this and Ewels’ inability to adapt to the tackle laws that led to him getting an early shower.

World Rugby has a big decision to make regarding the 20-minute red card. I just hope that they make the right decision.

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?

rugby autumn nations series logo

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.