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 4

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 4

Hello and welcome to my look at the fourth week of the Autumn Tests. And what a week it was! The battle of the Wooden Spoons saw Argentina defeat Italy 16-37 in Treviso as the Azzurri lost prop Marco Riccioni to an ACL injury. Meanwhile in Edinburgh, Stuart Hogg finished off a Try of the Month contender but it was not enough to defeat South Africa as the World Champions won 15-30. In the match of the week, Ireland may have lost Jonathan Sexton for the rest of the month, but they emerged with a 29-20 win over New Zealand. Freddie Steward continued to solidify himself as the new England fullback as England defeated an error-strewn Australia 32-15. In Bordeaux, France proved too strong for Georgia, beating the Lelos 41-15, while fans at the Principality Stadium saw Louis Rees-Zammit’s wonder try help rescue Wales from embarrassment as they defeated 14-man Fiji 38-23.


Italy

Italy are a side developing and going in the right direction. Their is passion in their play, the defence is looking strong (on the whole) and a new generation of young stars, with Marco Riccioni, Danilo Fischetti, Ivan Nemer, captain Michele Lamaro, Paolo Garbisi, Gianmarco Lucchesi, Marco Zanon, Federico Mori and Stephen Varney all 24 or younger!

Unfortunately one area that has been a struggle has been at the lineout. Lucchesi looks a wonderful all-round player, but has struggled with his throwing at Test level so far and needs to improve quickly. The Italians are putting together a dangerous back line, but if their pack cannot give them the platform at the set piece, then they will continue to struggle to impose themselves in attack.

The good news however is that Lucchesi has time to learn. He is only 21, while former captain Luca Bigi still has a number of good years in him at 30, so can likely remain as the starter through to the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup if needed as Lucchesi develops with this pack.

Argentina

It may be an odd thing to say considering Argentina scored 5 tries to Italy’s 1, but the Azzurri arguably tried to play more rugby than the Pumas. Argentina, however, played a very clever game. They trusted their defence to deal with the Italians—granted, this was helped a lot by Italian inaccuracies—and focused on a strength of theirs: the high ball.

While the Italians showed last week that they are good in this area, the Pumas were even better, with Emiliano Boffelli especially dominating the skies in this match. It also helped Santiago Carreras with his transition to fly half, as the high ball and kicking game is an area he already excelled at from his time in the back 3, while the broken play after the kick would be much easier for him than an organised defence.

Is this a sufficient gameplan to beat most Tier 1 nations? No, but expect to see it remain a vital part of their armoury.

Scotland

The Scots played some wonderful rugby in this game and scored a couple of beautiful tries, but they still ended up losing by 15 points. As a team, they gave away 15 penalties, which is almost double what you want to give away against an elite team. And against South Africa, it is even more dangerous, with Frans Steyn able to knock over a penalty for 3 points from 60m with relative ease, while they will also happily kick to the corner and push themselves over your line with the driving maul.

The scrum really struggled to find parity against the Springbok pack, while the attacking play led to a number of times where a player took contact with insufficient support, allowing the jackals like Malcom Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Kwagga Smith to get on the ball and win penalties. Meanwhile in defence, the Scots tried their hardest to make a nuisance of themselves at the breakdown, but did not have the discipline to pick their moments and got pinged for going off their feet or not rolling away quick enough.

The Scots have the quality to beat almost anyone on their day. But they need to cut out the penalties if they want to start defeating the elite teams with any regularity.

South Africa

With the Springbok’s next game against England, Jacques Nienaber and his expert waterboy Rassie Erasmus have a big decision to make at scrum half.

With Faf de Klerk out injured, Herschel Jantjies has been wearing the number 9 shirt with Cobus Reinach warming the bench. However, Jantjies recent performances have not quite been reaching the level of when he first came on the scene. While his style of play is probably a closer match to that of de Klerk than Reinach, he has had some real troubles at the base of the ruck as pressure is put on, while his kicking has not been at it’s best, probably also due to the pressure he is under.

With Reinach’s introduction, the Boks felt more dangerous. The ball was coming away from the breakdown quicker and with more zip, while the ball was also being kept in hand more, allowing the running of Damian de Allende to start creating space out wide. If I was picking the Springbok side for next weekend, he would be filling the 9 shirt.

Ireland

Last week, I challenged Ireland to play the same quality of attacking rugby from 1-23 as they did against Japan. Well they did that, but they went even further than that!

Granted they were again an embarrassment of an All Blacks team, but their defence was largely exemplary, getting in their opponents’ faces and giving them very little time and space to create anything from. Along with this, they made a real nuisance of themselves at the breakdown, seriously limiting the quick and clean ball that TJ Perenara was getting. And then with the arrival of Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne off the bench, the Irish started winning some crucial penalties at the breakdown just as their teammates were tiring and the All Blacks were starting to find a little more space.

On the strength of the last 2 weeks, Ireland are my firm favourites for the 2022 Six Nations. While France remain my favourites for the World Cup for now, Ireland could usurp them if they can continue these performances for the rest of the series and in the Six Nations, while also showing that they can replicate their success without Jonathan Sexton.

New Zealand

Back at the peak of New Zealand’s success over the last decade, New Zealand’s biggest strength wasn’t anything superhuman. They just did the basics very well and were extremely accurate in the way they played, focusing on just doing the basics of draw, pass, catch with complete reliability and then looking to expand the game with some magic.

This current New Zealand team, however, feels like it is always trying for the spectacular without being able to do the basics. And it is hurting them. The lack of a consistent midfield is hurting the team as too much is breaking down there due to a lack of chemistry. The team is being set up to fit Beauden Barrett, a wonderfully skilled player who disappears all too often against an organised and aggressive defence, so when Richie Mo’unga comes in, he is being asked to play in a different way than with the Crusaders.

This isn’t something new, the team was beginning to go stale towards the end of the Steve Hansen era, but the decision to promote Ian Foster rather than bring in the new thinking of Scott Robertson has exacerbated the issue. Foster has said that the back line should be accountable for this loss. In fact, he should be accountable and needs to fall on his sword or be removed from the role if the All Blacks want any chance of getting to the World Cup final 2 years from now.

England

They may have ended up with a comfortable victory, but this was a largely disappointing attacking performance from England. With the exception of a couple of breaks and Freddie Steward’s try, they looked incapable of creating anything of note, despite having the playmaking duo of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell. But I don’t put this down to either of them, or any of the backs for that matter.

The issue here was Eddie Jones’ ridiculous use of Manu Tuilagi, naming him out of place as a wing, but then having him spend all the time in the middle of the pitch. It made the midfield far too crowded and took away any balance to the back line as there was no opportunity for the playmakers to do anything. But it also meant that when England managed to set something up and work some space to the wing, there was nobody there to exploit it.

This was just the latest in a long line of experiments from Eddie Jones that should never be repeated. Thankfully for the balance of the team, Owen Farrell’s injury means that we will likely see Tuilagi return to the 12 shirt against the Springboks, allowing likely either Adam Radwan or Max Malins to come in on the wing. It may put more pressure on Smith, but should also make things easier for him with a backline more akin to what he is used to at Harlequins.

Australia

This match highlighted just how quickly things can go wrong on a tour. Australia have 2 elite tighthead props in Allan Ala’alatoa and Taniela Tupou, but found themselves without both players after the pair showed symptoms of concussion. Now with a limited number of players in a touring party, you’d maybe have one more specialist tighthead, but the man who would have filled this role, Pone Fa’amausili was forced to withdraw from the squad through injury in the middle of October

Now it would be far from ideal but not necessarily a disaster if you were at home, as you would be able to call players into the team from their clubs with relative ease. But Australia are half a world away and—ironically probably helped by the Giteau Law that has kept most players in Australia—they had just one tighthead prop of note playing in top-tier European rugby: Ollie Hoskins of London Irish. So that meant that heir only options against England were him and James Slipper, who is primarily a loosehead.

So now you have the big decision. Hoskins gets less than a full week in camp and has no Test experience, so starting him is a big step up and running a risk to team chemistry due to his lack of time with the squad, however while Slipper may have the experience, loosehead feels very different to tighthead, so there is a risk of issues at the scrum.

The decision was made to go with Slipper, and perhaps they were lucky as Ellis Genge’s positive COVID test meant that he was up against the much less experienced Bevan Rodd. Certainly this made Slipper’s job easier, but he still had some scrums where he really struggled, giving the backs very little platform to attack off. If ever you were unsure why a tighthead prop can earn such a high wage, this week showed just how hard to replace they can be.

France

What an impact Jonathan Danty had on this game! The Stade Français centre came on with just under half an hour remaining but really made a mark on the game. Against a weaker defence, the playmaking duo of Mathieu Jalibert and Romain Ntamack had some success, but still struggled to dominate in the way the coaches would have wanted. However, Danty’s introduction for Melvyn Jaminet (with Jalibert moving to 15) gave Les Bleus a focal point for the early stages of the attack, to help create the space outside.

Granted it wasn’t all perfect, with Jalibert getting his positioning all wrong defensively for Akaki Tabutsadze’s try just after the hour, but such is the form of Jaminet, I think that he would not usually be played there and that it was done more to rest Jaminet with an eye to next weekend.

With 2 wins from 2 but questionable performances, and a beatable All Blacks the next up at the end of the week, Les Bleus have a chance to get a big result here, but they won’t do so with Jalibert and Ntamack at 10 and 12. If they bring in Jonathan Danty, they could be just 80 minutes away from a statement victory.

Georgia

Georgia put in a strong effort, with some impressive attacking play and a couple of well taken tries. However, what really cost them in this game was the sheer number of penalties.

It’s probably no real surprise, with many of the players not even playing in an elite league, so playing against a Tier 1 nation is always going to be a massive step up in quality. But the number of penalties just makes things even harder for the Lelos, as they lose their attacking opportunities, while ending up on the back foot. And then as the penalties build up, the obvious happens with yellow cards, and then the job becomes almost impossible for a Tier 2 nation against a top Tier 1 nation, as the numerical disadvantage makes it all-but impossible for them to cope defensively. In the case of this match, they shipped 14 points while playing with 14 men, scoring just 3 of their own, while Grégory Alldritt was also held up over the line during this period.

It’s not easy, but if Georgia want to start getting victories against Tier 1 opposition, their discipline needs to improve.

Wales

This was a very disappointing performance from a strong Welsh team, who should consider themselves lucky they won. It’s hard to believe considering they are coached by the same man who got the Scarlets winning with such sexy rugby a few years ago, but the team was not playing heads up rugby at all.

With Fiji down to 14 men from the 25ᵗʰ minute, and also twice down to 13 men for 10 minutes, there was frequently space out wide for the team to exploit, especially given the pace of wings Louis Rees-Zammit and Alex Cuthbert. And yet too often the ball was kept tight or kicked away, allowing Fiji a chance to attack—and if anyone can still attack as dangerously when down a man or two, it’s Fiji!

Never was this more obvious than at one point in the second half when Wales were deep in their 22 and on the left touchline. With just 13 men in the Fijian defence at this point, and players having to cover the backfield, the widest defender was in the centre of the pitch. A couple of quick passes or an accurate cross-kick would have released Alex Cuthbert, whose blend of pace and power would have potentially allowed him to go the length, but at the very least made some serious ground to put Wales on the front foot… Instead, they chose to kick the ball away.

Wales need to be very careful not to fall into the trap that England find themselves in, playing god-awful structured rugby and ignoring all the chances that are created as it’s not the set move. If they can play heads up rugby, they will be a real threat with the depth they are creating.

Fiji

While it’s obvious to say that Eroni Sau’s red card and the yellows for Albert Tuisue and Eron Mawi cost Fiji a big victory, what really cost them in this match was the lineout.

As impressive as Sam Matavesi was around the pitch, he struggled to hit his man reliably at the lineout with a number of overthrows, losing 4 lineouts. Alex Cuthbert’s try came directly from one of these lost lineouts, as the ball was quickly spread wide to catch the Fijian backs unprepared.

But it’s not just the Cuthbert try that makes these lost lineouts costly. The Fijians are an incredible attacking side, with the power, pace and ball skills to beat anyone. However they need to have the attacking platforms to get themselves on the front foot. This is something that will improve with players getting to spend more time together, so hopefully with the upcoming arrival of the Fijian Drua in Super Rugby Pacific, we will begin to see a greater degree of chemistry in the national team, which will help the set piece.

2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

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

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

So let’s get started!

Argentina: Santiago Carreras

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

Australia: Hunter Paisami

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

England: Alex Dombrandt

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

Fiji: Levani Botia

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

France: Jonathan Danty

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

Georgia: Giorgi Kveseladze

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

Ireland: Simon Zebo

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

Italy: Marco Riccioni

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

Japan: Tevita Tatafu

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

New Zealand: Akira Ioane

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

Scotland: Matt Scott

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

South Africa: Damian Willemse

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

Tonga: Hosea Saumaki

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

Uruguay: Santiago Arata

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

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

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

Branching Out: Lions on Tour

Branching Out: Lions on Tour

We are now just days away from the first match of the 2021 British and Irish Lions Tour of South Africa. Starting with a Test against Japan at Murrayfield, the Lions will then fly to South Africa, where they will face the 4 South African URC teams (Bulls, Stormers, Lions and Sharks) and South Africa A, along with a 3-Test series against the Springboks.

Taking place every 4 year, the Lions Tours cycle between the 3 nations who made up the old Tri-Nations: New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. But what if they looked to break this cycle and tour somewhere else? Honestly, I can’t see it happening anytime soon, but I thought it would be fun to look at some of the other potential tours.

France

Why travel all the way to the Southern Hemisphere when you have such a strong rugby nation just the other side of the channel. When you look at the usual matches you would find on a tour, France is one of the only other nations that can provide the same itinerary, with an established league full of world class talent.

The earl matches of the tour that would historically be against Super Rugby franchises could instead be against a selection of Top 14 teams, who like their touring counterparts will have just completed their domestic season. And of course France would certainly be able to provide a solid opposition in a 3-Test series. That in itself could be the tour, but it would also be easy enough to bring in Italy or Georgia as a one-off Test as part of the tour, perhaps the opener like this weekend’s match against Japan.

Japan

I mentioned that there was one other nation who currently has an established domestic league full of World Class talent, and that is Japan. While it may not get the level of attention as other competitions over here, the Top League certainly attracts its fair share of internationals and could provide sufficient opposition for midweek matches, with a 3-Test series against the Brave Blossoms. And if you wanted to throw in another slightly easier Test, well Hong Kong are currently ranked 22ⁿᵈ and could fill the spot.

The Americas

Now this is where things get interesting, and this would certainly be a tour, as the Lions look to travel to the Americas.

Argentina would be the opposition in the 3-Test series, but the tour would start in the North, with matches against the USA and Canada, and potentially even an “MLR All Stars” team, before travelling South and facing nations like Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.

From a perspective of growing the game, I can’t help feel that a tour like this has some legitimate merit, which is why it will likely never happen in a sport where money comes first.

Pacific Islands

Finally we come to one that would recognise the oft-ignored nations who have historically given us such great rugby moments, as we send the Lions to the Pacific Islands.

For the Test series, I wouldn’t look to lift any one nation above the others, but instead have 3 Tests against a Pacific Island equivalent, made up of all the best players from the Pacific Islands. These players would also be away from their respective clubs and national teams (if also involved in the tour) in order to give them maximum time to gel together. And as for the midweek matches? Well we are about to see the formation of 2 Pacific Island Super Rugby franchises—Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua—so they would be in, while the other matches would be against Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, just minus the players called up to the combined Pacific Island team.

Would we see some of the most attractive and physical rugby ever on show, with crowds of fans who adore the game? Yes. Will the money-hungry executives let this happen? I doubt it.

rugby british and irish lions badge no background

Do any of these tours sound interesting to you? Are there any other’s you would suggest?

Keep an eye out on here for my thoughts from each of the Lions matches on this year’s tour. I’m not 100% sure yet exactly what format this will be in, while I also can’t guarantee exactly how quickly they will be up due to the myriad other sport on that I will be trying to fit around my job. But it was the last tour that really saw me start writing on here with some regularity and saw the first growth of this site, so I intend to cover the tour as thoroughly as possible.

Oceans Apart

Oceans Apart

Welcome to Sport on the Silver Screen. In this series, I will be looking back over sports movies that I have recently watched/re-watched and giving my thoughts on them. Getting into the Schmoedown and starting to follow a number of the personalities from the show has given me a much greater appreciation of movies and seen me starting to watch more.

Being a fan of both movies and sports, I have taken the chance to start highlighting the sheer volume of sports movies out there. For each movie I will be giving some details about the movie and then a quick review, including a section giving a sports fan’s perspective of the action’s realism.

Now, today I’m doing something a little different, by looking at a recently released documentary that is currently available to watch on Amazon Prime: Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal and Pacific Island Rugby

Ocans Apart Cover

Directed by Callum Drummond & Axel Haudiquet

Released in 2020

Starring: Dan Leo

Synopsis: Former Samoa captain Dan Leo looks at the issues faced by Pacific Islands rugby players to see why these nations that are responsible for so many of the game’s superstars are struggling so much on the world stage.

documentary Oceans Apart

This was a fantastic documentary and a real eye-opener. As a fan of rugby in general, I have been so disappointed to see the way that the Pacific Islands – especially Samoa and Tonga – have struggled over the last couple of decades as rugby has gone professional. So many times, I’ve been disappointed to see players from the Pacific Islands choosing to play for Tier 1 nations where they may earn just a handful of caps, rather than playing 40-odd times for the country of their birth – a notable example being Charles Piutau, who won 17 caps for New Zealand but had not played international rugby since 2015. Watching this though made me really begin to understand why the players choose to play elsewhere as there is limited financial incentive to play for the Pacific Island nations.

As the documentary explains, Dan Leo was the captain of Samoa when the team threatened to boycott a match against England at Twickenham in 2014 due to financial discrepancies within the Samoan Rugby Union, as publicly-funded money was not reaching the team. The game eventually went ahead with the promises that everything would be investigated, but nothing ever came of it bar a few headlines at the time, and Leo found himself omitted from the squad moving forwards. Leo was not the only influential Samoa player to be dropped from the national team following criticism of the union, which is headed by the Prime Minister, and the way that funds are used.

In this 1 documentary, Leo really highlights the impact of the lack of funding – showing a player who has been left to fend for himself in Romania after losing his contract due to a kidney issue while also updating us on what happened to Fijian wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca, who was one of the stars of RWC2003. As we follow his investigations, which also involve interviews with a key members of the rugby community, including James Haskell (who played in the 2014 match against Samoa), Ben Ryan (who coached Fiji to Olympic Rugby 7s Gold), outspoken Samoan centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and a number of Pacific Islanders who play in the Premiership and Pro14, the issues become clear.

As the documentary shows, many of these unions are led by people who could be considered problematic due to their role in the nation’s government, but as the documentary shows, the issues go beyond the national unions and to the way that the nations are treated by World Rugby, who clearly favour the “Tier 1” nations, with Brett Gosper (who was at the time CEO of World Rugby, but will now be stepping down to take up a role within the NFL in the New Year) coming across very poorly in an interview.

I won’t say any more about this, except that this should be a must-watch for all rugby fans, and that hopefully this will lead to pushes for change that will give more support to nations outside of Tier 1.

 

What did you think of the documentary? Let me know in the comments. Until next time!

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Georgia v Fiji

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Georgia v Fiji

The Finals of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup kicked off at Murrayfield, where Georgia were facing off against Fiji for 7ᵗʰ place in the overall standings. The Fijians were competing in their first match of the tournament following COVID-19 issues, but soon made up for lost time with 2 tries in the opening 10 minutes. First, Nemani Nadolo picked up a bouncing ball and powered through 2 tackles to score in the corner on his return from retirement, then just a few minutes later, young flanker Johnny Dyer pushed himself over from a pick-and-go following a neat move off a lineout, Ben Volavola kicking the second try. The Georgians finally got on the board with a penalty from Tedo Abzhandadze, but Fiji hit back again, with a late switch of sides from centre Levani Botia giving Volavola an overlap on the right, which they exploited to put Josua Tuisova over in the corner, with Volavola converting. The Georgians were growing into the game though, and won a series of penalties off the restart, which eventually ended in replacement prop Giorgi Melikidze getting over the line with a pick-and-go, which Abzhandadze converted for a 10-19 halftime score.

Conditions began to improve after the break, and Fiji continued to control the game for the most part, though Peni Ravai was adjudged to have knocked on as he tried to dot the ball down on the line. Any questions that a lack of match fitness would see Fiji tire in the second half were soon answered as they only seemed to get stronger as the weather brightened, and the game was effectively over as a contest as they scored 3 tries (2 of which Volavola converted) in an 8 minute spell around the hour mark. First, Tuisova fended off Sandro Todua and rode 3 tackles before offloading to flanker Mesulame Kunavula to score in the corner, then Volavola fed a grubber to the left corner and the experienced Nadolo reacted quickest, diving down on the ball and sliding the final metres over the line, before finishing his hat trick just minutes later with a crash ball off a lineout to draw level with Vereniki Goneva at the top of the team’s scoring charts and cap off a Man of the Match performance. The Georgians didn’t give up though, and they were able to get some consolation, with flanker Beka Saghinadze crashing through the Fijian defence with 12 minutes left and riding Botia’s tackle to dot down next to the posts, and he popped up again in the final minute with a strong drive off a pick-and-go to get a second try on the day, with Abzhandadze converting both of his tries for a final score of 24-38.

Naive Lelos

With legend Mamuka Gorgodze retired and new star Beka Gorgadze missing through injury, Tornike Jalaghonia was given the start at number 8. While the 21-year-old was certainly doing well with the ball in hand and making some good metres- so much so that he surely nailed on a starting spot somewhere in the pack for their next match – I can’t help feel that his inexperience and naivety proved costly at times.

The Georgian scrum appeared to have the dominance over Fiji, but on a number of occasions, Jalaghonia would break off the back of the scrum and go for a run. While that attacking play would often be praised for improving the spectacle, it was depriving the Lelos of the territory they would have gained had they kept the ball in the scrum and kicked the resultant penalty to touch.

Conditions in Edinburgh were poor for running rugby, and the Fijians were earning some dominance at the breakdown, but some smarter play at the scrum could have seen the Fijians lose a man to the bin for persistent offending as well as giving the Lelos better areas from which to attack or put the pressure on.

What we were missing

One of the big stories of this tournament has been the shambles of Fiji’s chance to play, with a spate of COVID-19 amongst the squad leading to all 3 of their pool matches being cancelled and each match considered a 28-0 win (bonus point win) for the other team, leaving them to fight for 7ᵗʰ.

Thankfully, the trip to Britain wasn’t wholly wasted for the Fijians – who included Mesulame Kunavula, who was unable to attend his own mother’s funeral – as they put on a great show to remind everyone of their quality. With former referee Glen Jackson on Vern Cotter’s staff, the discipline is clearly improving, but not at the expense of their incredible attacking play.

In Lomani and Volavola, they have a 9 and 10 who can control the game, while the back row and the majority of the backline are incredible man-mountains who are strong enough to run right over you, but also fleet enough of foot to sashay around you and slight of hand to offload if you do somehow manage to tackle them. Fiji are a team everyone wants to see more of, and the best way to do that is exactly what Georgia needs too: regular matches against Tier 1 nations, with a fair split between home and away matches. If Fiji can get this, the sky is the limit.

rugby autumn nations cup no background

The RWC2019 Debrief: Fiji

The RWC2019 Debrief: Fiji

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

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

RWC2019 Qualification

The Fijians qualified as Oceania 1, having won all 4 games over the 2016 and 2017 Pacific Nations Cups, finishing top of the aggregated standings over the 2 tournaments.

2019 Form

A loss away to Japan saw the Fijians finish 2nd of 6 teams in the 2019 edition of the Pacific Nations Cup. Their final warm-up game was a 29-19 victory over Pacific rivals Tonga.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (3rd in Pool D)
    • Australia 39-21 Fiji
    • Fiji 27-30 Uruguay
    • Georgia 10-45 Fiji
    • Wales 29-17 Fiji

This was a very disappointing tournament for Fiji. When making my predictions for the tournament, I thought that they had the best chance of pulling off an upset and making it into the knockouts, but instead they had to settle for just 1 win and were on the wrong end of an upset themselves, losing to Uruguay in a quick turnaround following the Australia game.

Though results didn’t go their way, they were by far one of the most exciting teams to watch in the pool stages. The Fijians are famous for their highly attacking, unstructured play, full of power, pace and insane handling abilities, but they have started to add more structure to their play when Ben Volavola is at fly half, putting them in the right parts of the field. Against Uruguay, some of this structure was lost as they played too loose (leading to a high number of handling errors and turnovers) and struggled with their kicking from the tee, which proved costly.

In the other games, however, they caused their opponents some real problems. They were arguably the better team against Australia before Peceli Yato – who until that point was their star player – was taken out, while the first 15 minutes against Wales saw them score 2 tries and have another disallowed. Semi Radradra was one of the stars of the tournament despite an early exit, while a number of other Fijians also showed their quality on the biggest stage.

One of the biggest downsides to Fiji for a while has been their discipline and unfortunately that was the case once again in this tournament. A high penalty count and yellow card to Levani Botia in the second half helped Australia gain the upper hand, while they spent a quarter of the match against Wales down to 14 men due to yellow cards for Tevita Cavubati for a moronic dangerous clear-out and Semi Kunatani.

Looking Ahead

Though they may have only got the one win, their performances against Australia and Wales, combined with a dominant run over recent years in the Pacific Nations Cup, showed just how important it is that Fiji stat playing Tier 1 opposition on a regular basis. They need to be playing at least a couple of Tier 1 Nations during the international windows, but more than that, I feel they need to get the Argentina treatment and be added to the Rugby Championship as soon as possible.

They also need to try and get to the stage where they an pick an entire squad of players who are in top flight competition, as a number of players (especially in the front row) are playing in lower tiers or – as with star scrum half Frank Lomani – back home in Fiji. Backs and back rowers may be the more attractive players when looking at Fijian players to sign, but there is quality at every position. Ideally, a Super Rugby franchise would help the national team get all their players top flight experience while also giving a top flight option for players that doesn’t involve moving abroad and potentially getting poached by another nation, but given the current state of the league, that does not look likely anytime soon.

What is clear is that there is a great squad here that is improving, and with automatic qualification secured for RWC2023 they can focus on preparing for the next tournament, so as long as they can continue to bring through the talent to replace the players reaching the end of their international career, there is no reason they can’t challenge for a place in the knockouts next time around.

Hodge/Yato: What A Mess

Hodge/Yato: What A Mess

As we reach the 3rd round of World Cup matches, we have been blessed with plenty of fantastic rugby, even if the heat and humidity has led to a high number of handling errors. However, all that rugby was overshadowed in the news for the best part of a week, focusing on just a couple of seconds on the pitch.

The second match of the tournament saw Australia take on Fiji in a match that I thought had the potential to be the big upset of the tournament. It certainly looked like it could go that way, as Fiji started strong and had control for much of the first half. With 25 minutes on the clock and the score at 7-11 to Fiji, the islanders released Peceli Yato – who to this point had been the best player on the pitch – down the 5m channel following a lineout. The back row made good ground, before eventually being felled by a combination of Nic White and Reece Hodge. While White’s tackle was fine, Hodge’s didn’t look right on first viewing and it looked even worse as the broadcasters replayed it. There was little (to none) attempt to wrap an arm and there was clearly contact with Yato’s head – so much so that Yato was forced off the field for a HIA, which he failed!

Now let’s take a moment here to remind ourselves of the new high tackle framework that was brought in at the end of last season:

rugby high tackle framework

Apply that to the Hodge tackle. Is there foul play? Yes. Is it a shoulder charge or high tackle? The framework describes a shoulder charge as the tackling arm being behind the body or in a sling position, so while there is no real attempt to wrap – High Tackle. Shoulder/arm? Shoulder. Direct to the head/neck? Yes. Degree of danger? Hodge is attempting a dominant tackle – High. Before looking for mitigating factors, are there any aggravating factors? Hodge has a clear line of sight in open space – Yes. As there are aggravating factors, mitigating factors do not come into consideration. Result: RED CARD

So what happened in the match? Well apparently nothing. Play appeared to continue without referee Ben O’Keeffe referring the challenge to TMO Rowan Kitt – O’Keeffe would have been largely unsighted as he was behind Yato – or Kitt intervening in the game. So Fiji lost one of their stars and Australia, who should have played over half the game a man down, kept 15 men on the field. Even more galling, Hodge went on to contribute 8 points in a 39-21 victory. It was later revealed that the challenge was referred to the TMO, but Kitt felt that it was acceptable. Given that the referral wasn’t clear to TV viewers, it must have been the most cursory look from Kitt and I struggle to see how he could have not felt that this deserved even a penalty according to the framework if he was doing his job properly.

Unsurprisingly, Hodge was cited following the match and ended up with a 3-week ban (cut down from 6 weeks).

feat rugby hodge yato

While this could have been everything and the end of a poor moment from the TMO, the story only continues as reactions came in to the citing and ban. Michael Cheika blasted the Fijian coaches for being nice to his face and going behind his back to report the tackle to the citing commissioners. This is such a pathetic argument as the coaches have no responsibility to tell Cheika they are referring the incident, while it is hard to imagine the citing commissioner would not have chosen to review the incident anyway. Cheika also refused to accept that the challenge was a red card – even when saying they will not appeal the ban. The framework clearly proves that it was a red card, but as Cheika said following a penalty against Samu Kerevi in Australia’s match against Wales “I honestly don’t know the rules anymore.” – Pretty embarrassing for the head coach of a Tier 1 international team.

Things only got worse as the report form the tribunal made note that Hodge was unaware of the high tackle framework. As I said to some of my friends who were keeping up with the tournament, if a fan like me can have a copy of the framework saved to their phone (yes, I need a life) then there is no excuse for a professional playing for a Tier 1 nation to not know the framework. I would have also thought that given the number of players who were given red cards during the World Rugby U20 Championship, teams would have made sure their players were aware of the framework. Poor from the player, poor from the coaches. But even without knowing the framework, a tackle that involves contact with a ball carrier’s head has not been legal for years… there was no excuse to tackle that high.

Sadly, it wasn’t just Michael Cheika questioning the merits of a red card. Commentating on the match, Ben Kay chose to praise Hodge for putting in a hit rather than comment on the illegality of it. Clive Woodward went even further following the ban to tweet that it was a yellow card at most. If even the officials, pundits and commentators can’t stick to World Rugby’s frameworks when looking at an incident, what hope has the general public got of understanding what is legal? With player safety such a big issue, things need to improve.

Sadly in this case, Yato’s failed HIA meant that he was unavailable for Fiji’s loss to Uruguay that has effectively ended their chances of making the quarterfinals. Reece Hodge will miss Australia’s remaining pool games but return for the knockouts. Looking at everyone involved in this affair, it’s hard to argue that anyone comes out a winner.

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool D

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool D

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

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


Journey to RWC2019 series:


Who are you looking out for during the tournament? And so we make it to Pool D:

Australia

Samu Kerevi may have 20+ caps to his name already, but I would argue that he has never really made a name for himself until this season. Though the Reds failed to make the playoffs this season, Kerevi finished in the top 10 for carries (220 – 1st), clean breaks (26 – 5th), defenders beaten (71 – 2nd) and offloads (26 – 2nd). He has carried that form into the Rugby Championship and has surely secured himself a spot in the Wallabies midfield.

Wales

The Wales squad has been relatively settled in recent years, allowing all the players to establish themselves, but for this I have gone for Josh Navidi. Having competed for minutes with Martyn Williams and Sam Warburton, he is a great openside flanker, who is at home anywhere in the back row – giving Warren Gatland more options with Taulupe Faletau out injured. Dangerous at the breakdown, he is also well accomplished at holding a player up to turn the ball over with a maul and his skills with ball in hand are massively underrated.

Georgia

Vasil Lobzhanidze was going to be my pick here, until I got the chance to watch Georgia’s warm-up matches against Scotland. While watching this, fly half Tedo Abzhandadze caught my eye and I was shocked to find that he was already a regular starter for the senior side despite being just 20 years old. Captain of the Georgian U20s team that beat Scotland and Fiji in the most recent World Rugby U20s Championship, the young 10 showed his range of skills at Murrayfield and controlled the game well. Now the question will be how he holds up in a major senior international tournament.

Fiji

I was going to write about rugby league convert Semi Radradra initially, but when push came to shove I couldn’t ignore Viliame Mata. The Edinburgh number 8 was named Players’ Player of the Year at the end of season Pro14 awards. Part of the Fiji 7s squad that won Gold at Rio 2016, he is an incredible danger in the loose with his strong running and ridiculous offloads. The thought of him, Semi Kunatani and Leone Nakarawa in the pack together is mouth-watering!

Uruguay

Probably one of the hardest to pick due to my own unfamiliarity with the Uruguayans. While I was tempted to go for Gastón Mieres, one of the Uruguayans making a name for themselves in Major League Rugby, I found myself instead picking Felipe Berchesi. Playing for Dax, who were just relegated from Pro D2, he is used to a decent level of rugby, while he has over 30 caps for Uruguay including 3 starts at RWC2015 and also featured at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens.


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

RWC2019: Predicting the Fiji Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Fiji Squad

With the Pro14, Top 14 and Premiership all over for another season, thoughts are turning towards the World Cup and who represent their countries in Japan. A few weeks back, Fiji head coach John McKee selected his training squad to prepare for the tournament, starting with the Pacific Nations Cup.

Having had the chance to look at the training squad and some of Fiji’s other recent squads, I chose to make them my next squad prediction. This was without a doubt my hardest so far, as I realised that while I recognised a lot of names in some positions (especially the back line) there were other positions like the front row where I initially recognised just 2 names! To be clear, this is not a matter of picking the 31 I would take, but rather who I think John McKee will take, so I have tried to avoid any biases I have towards any specific players.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I think that Fiji will select…

Prop

Fiji selected 4 props in 2011 (when squads were only 30 men) and 5 in 2015. As they selected 6 props in the most recent Autumn Internationals, I have decided to go for the average number: 5. Campese Ma’afu and Manasa Saulo have recently been the starters in the bigger matches so became my first selections here, with Eroni Mawi and Kalivati Tawake backing them up. My 5ᵗʰ and final prop selected is Peni Ravai, who also gives some additional cover at hooker.

Hooker

Despite the selection of Ravai, I still expect 3 specialist hookers to be selected. Sam Matavesi and Mesulame Dolokoto are the main two here judging by recent matches. Perhaps this is one time that I have picked with heart over head, but I think that Sunia Koto will take the final hooker position and appear at his 4ᵗʰ World Cup.

Second Row

Leone Nakarawa is one of the best locks in the game so will clearly be selected. Tevita Cavubati and Api Ratuniyarawa have also been regulars in the 23 over the last year so will bake the list, with Albert Tuisue taking the 4ᵗʰ and final second row spot.

Back Row

Viliame Mata has had a starring role with Edinburgh and has also been a regular starter in Fiji’s recent big matches so will surely travel, along with other regulars Dominiko Waqaniburotu and Peceli YatoSemi Kunatani ended the season strongly at Harlequins so makes the list and the final back row spot goes to Nemani Nagusa who will make the squad despite Newcastle’s poor season.

Scrum Half

Scrum half is one of the positions where I think John McKee and I think very differently. Personally, I would select Nikola Matawalu as one of 3 scrum halves due to his experience with Glasgow and his ability to also play on the wing. However he has not played for the Flying Fijians since November 2017 and I doubt that will change this close to the tournament. For that reason, I believe McKee will go for just 2 specialist scrum halves, in the form of Frank Lomani and Henri Senioli.

Fly Half

Finn Russell’s backup at Racing 92, Ben Volavala is the clear pick here, while Alivereti Veitokani has been his favoured replacement in recent Test windows in part de to Josh Matavesi’s injuries, so will go as the second fly half.

Centre

Centre was a position I found very interesting to pick due to the options available. Semi Radradra has emerged as one of the stars since converting from league, while Jale Vatubua has also been a regular in recent matches so will keep his space in the squad. Levani Botia is a wrecking ball and makes the squad even without his ability to also cover back row, while I also pick Vereniki Goneva as a 13 who can also cover wing rather than specifically as a winger.

Back 3

This leaves 6 spots on the plane for players in the back 3 and boy was it hard to narrow down, even with the retirement of Nemani Nadolo. Filipo Nakosi is (at time of writing) still uncapped but has been in try-scoring form for Toulon so will surely make the squad, alongside more regular starters Metuisela TalebulaSetareki Tuicuvu and Josua TuisovaKini Murimurivalu brings experience to the back 3 and Eroni Sau takes the final spot for me as he may be lacking caps at this level but has a wealth of experience from his time with Fiji 7s.


So those are my picks for Fiji’s 31-man World Cup squad, who do you think makes the list?