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.

South Africa v Georgia (Test 1)

South Africa v Georgia (Test 1)

Over 600 days after becoming World Champions, South Africa finally made their return to Test rugby with the first of 2 matches against Georgia as their warm-up for facing the British & Irish Lions. The long time without Test rugby certainly showed early on as the team struggled with cohesion and discipline in the first half hour, with Aphelele Fassi’s debut try the one bright spark as Tedo Abzhandadze kicked 3 penalties to put the Lelos ahead. South Africa grew into the game though, and took advantage of Beka Saghinadze’s yellow card to take a 19-9 halftime lead, with tries from Bongi Mbonambi and Cobus Reinach.

As the substitutions began after the break, the strength of the Spingbok pack saw Kwagga Smith go over from 5 metres out after a series of scrum penalties, and after Herschel Jantjies also sniped over from close range, Malcolm Marx completed the scoring with the easiest of finishes as a 5m catch and drive obliterated the Lelos defence and allowed the hooker to simply drop to the floor once over the line, securing a 40-9 victory.

Going for it

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thrilled to see the Springboks constantly turning down the chance for 3 points when they had a penalty and instead going for scrums or kicking for the corner. Often, I can understand going for the 3 to some degree, even if it just to build up a lead and then look to take chances later on, but in this game it always looked as if the Boks would be able to run away with it as they grew into the game, if only due to the face that Georgia were constantly defending, which would tire them out.

This was a warm-up game, and after almost 2 years without a Test match, South Africa needed to take every opportunity to compete in Test match conditions. While the Boks would likely take the 3 points in the Tests, there would be no benefit to waste almost 3 minutes (from the time the penalty is given, including making the decision to go for goal, the time allowed to take the kick—which rarely appears to be policed—and then the time to prepare for the restart) each time a penalty was given in range. Kickers do so much practice, and both Pollard and Jantjies are so experienced, a Test match without going for the 3 points will not harm them, whereas going for the corner and scrums allowed the Springboks to maximise the time they had actually playing rugby and working through any issues.

Don’t be surprised to see more of the same in the second Test, but a much more pragmatic approach once they face the Lions.

Power players

The Georgian scrum is one of the most feared weapons in the game, so to see it given such a torrid time by the Springboks shows the quality they have. While Trevor Nyakane struggled a little in the first half, Ox Nché held up well against the Lelos, but the true damage was done when superstars Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe came on.

While Kitshoff won a series of penalties against his opposite number in the build-up to Kwagga Smith’s try, Malherbe was dominant on his side, often getting a push on to wheel or crumple the Georgian pack. It brought back immediate memories of the Rugby World Cup final, where he put on a clinic at the scrum and was only really dealt with to some degree once Joe Marler came on.

It’s going to be a tough test for whoever wins the 2 loosehead spots in the Test 23—currently between Wyn Jones, Rory Sutherland or Mako Vunipola. If one of these players goes down injured, it will be interesting to see if Gatland goes to Joe Marler (who never received an email to say he was in contention for the squad) given his recent form and his Man of the Match performance in the Premiership final.

Weakness exploited

This may sound very harsh, but until Georgia sort out their lineout defence, they are not going to win a match against a Tier 1 Nation.

The Lelos’ issues defending the maul were apparent during the Autumn Nations Cup and things looked no better in this match, with both Bongi Mbonambi and Malcom Marx scoring from 5m catch and drives—Marx’s try especially looking like a walk in the park for the Springbok pack—and a number of other penalties being given away for collapsing the maul.

But it wasn’t just the maul this time that caused issues for the Lelos, as they gave away as many penalties at the lineout itself. Whether it was a tactic to try and disrupt the South Africans setting up the maul, or an attempt to win the ball back so they didn’t have to defend the maul, the Georgians were putting a man up to compete at most lineouts, but they were then giving away penalties for being too aggressive and taking the man in the air or bringing their jumper too far across the mid-line.

I find it hard to believe that these lineout and maul issues are down to just the players and thin that the Lelos desperately need to get someone in to sort out their lineout defence, or this will be a weakness that every team uses against them.

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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.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

The pool stages of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup came to an end in Dublin as Ireland hosted Georgia. The Irish have been having an up and down tournament but got off to a good start as a series of phases in the Georgian 22 ended with Billy Burns gliding through a gap to score a try on his first Test start. Burns added the conversion and a penalty shortly after, but the Georgians hit back as Giorgi Kveseladze found a gap in the Irish midfield and exploited it, using Vasil Lobzhanidze as a distraction to beat Jacob Stockdale and stepping around Burns’ tackle to score under the posts, leaving Tedo Abzhandadze with an easy conversion to bring the score back within 3. Burns soon added another penalty to double the lead, and the Irish thought they had a second try around the half-hour mark after Rob Herring was driven over following a lineout, but replays showed that Beka Gorgadze had managed to get under the ball and hold it up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as Ireland went through the phases off the resultant scrum and created the space out wide for Hugo Keenan to score, with Burns converting. It looked like the Irish had another try as half time approached when Jacob Stockdale set Stuart McCloskey free down the left wing, however a review from the TMO showed that the pass from Stockdale had gone forwards, while one final attempt to score before the break was also adjudged to have been held up over the line.

The Lelos were looking much more competitive in this match and got the opening points of the second half with a penalty from Abzhandadze, but Ross Byrne – on early in the half for the injured Burns – replied with a penalty of his own. Substitutions, a couple of head knocks and a serious injury to Gorgadze stopped either team from building any real momentum in the second half, but the Irish finished the game on the attack and after earning an attacking lineout 5m from the Georgian try line, they faked the maul and instead sent CJ sStander on a charge for the line, however the Lelos succeeded in holding him up and holding onto a tied second half and a 23-10 final score. The result means that Ireland will face the Scots in the 3ʳᵈ-Place Final, while Georgia will face Fiji for 7ᵗʰ, assuming the islanders are able to play.

Taking their chance

Andy Farrell is going to have some big calls to make against Scotland. He needs to be looking to the future and figuring out the players who will be a key part of his RWC2023 campaign, but a 4ᵗʰ-placed finish would also be a very disappointing result, especially given the manner of their defeat to England.

For this game, Ireland put out a strong squad, but still managed to test their depth at some positions, with starts for players like Burns, Bealham and McCloskey and a debut for Shane Daly off the bench. I would expect that next week, they will go with their strongest available team, so who put their hands up for selection in this game?

Billy Burns had a strong first half, looking comfortable in his first start and getting the back line moving well for the second week running, while it was noticeable that the attacking quality dropped off in the second half after he came off. As someone who can also hold his own in defence, I would argue that the focus should be on Burns as the starting 10 moving forwards, with a view to having him as a leader within the squad by the time the World Cup comes around.

Hugo Keenan has had a great tournament and once again looked both dangerous with ball in hand and solid under the high ball. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be a nailed on starter come the Six Nations.

Chris Farrell has been unlucky over the years that he has had to compete against Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, but he is taking his chance well and consistently helped the Irish get on the front foot in attack while remaining pretty solid in defence and has been one of their more consistent players in the tournament.

Tadhg Beirne is in such an interesting position, as he never really seems to have a bad match, but seems to struggle to hold down a place in the squad. An incredibly mobile player who is super dangerous at the breakdown, Beirne showed both of these skills in the first half, appearing a 6 in this game, but equally adept at lock. He feels like a slightly bigger version of Peter O’Mahony, but I feel he would be a great option as a 4, providing mobility and an extra breakdown threat to complement what appears to be the most balanced Irish back row of CJ Stander, Caelan Doris and Will Connors.

Building to success

It feels harsh to say, but the Lelos were poor in the first 2 weeks. This week however, they looked legitimately competitive against a 23 that was maybe not full strength, but still plenty strong enough to leave me expecting a very one-sided affair. That proved far from the case though, as the Lelos competed for the full 80 and were fully deserving of the draw in the second half, often pushing back the Irish with their solid defence.

To me, this is showing that part of the Georgian problem in the opening weeks was he lack of preparation, with them not getting to spend much time together ahead of the tournament and players spread throughout the French leagues, Georgian teams and a few in Russia or England. With such little time together – and much of that spent having to travel to Tier 1 nations who are too worried about themselves to travel to Georgia.

The Lelos need to start getting fair treatment, in the same was as people discuss the importance of Tier 1 Nations travelling to the Pacific Islands, they also need to be travelling to Tbilisi so that the Lelos can face top teams in front of a home crowd on a ground they know well. If they start getting that, it’s just a matter of time before they start getting results against Tier 1 nations.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Georgia

With England winning against Ireland to take the lead in their Autumn Nations Cup pool, the pool’s losing teams from Week 1 faced off at Parc-y-Scarlets. After a nervy start, Callum Sheedy opened the scoring with a penalty, but the real breakthrough did not come until the 26ᵗʰ minute, when Nick Tompkins ran a crash ball off the scrum and offloaded to catch the Georgian defence unprepared, allowing Sheedy to throw a miss pass to Louis Rees-Zammit to score his first Test try in the corner on his first Test start, Sheedy kicking the conversion to put Wales into double figures. The rest of the half passed with little of note, with the Lelos’ only real chance of points a 42m penalty from Tedo Abzhandadze, which sailed wide left to end the half.

The second half began very similar to the end of the first, with Sheedy also pulling a penalty wide left from almost the exact same spot, however he made amends with his next kick on 52 minutes. As the hour approached, Rees-Zammit made probably the break of the game, beating multiple tacklers down the left wing before feeding Justin Tipuric, however the Wales captain caught a swinging arm as he was tackled, leading to him leaving the pitch with a head injury while the offender, Beka Saginadze, being sent to the sin bin. Wales failed to capitalise on the numerical advantage as hordes of replacements left the game disjointed, but as the clock ticked down they were able to finish on a high as they attacked down the blind side at a ruck, with Sheedy setting Rees-Zammit free and the Gloucester flier feeding replacement scrum half Rhys Webb on the inside to score the second try of the game and secure an 18-0 victory.

Looking ahead

With both Ireland and Wales on 1 win and 1 draw, and the Irish facing Georgia next weekend, Wales need a big result against England if they want to have any chance of finishing in the top half of the pool. After a less-than-impressive display against the Irish, don’t be surprised to see changes for this next match. But who put their hands up in this game?

In the pack, Samson Lee and Wyn Jones’ dominance over the Georgian scrum should put them in the driving seat against the might of the England pack. Aaron Wainwright had a better game against the Lelos and impressed with his carrying, which may earn him a return to the starting back row, while James Davies had a great cameo off the bench with a number of turnovers and may take the 7 shirt if Tipuric is unavailable.

In the back line the most obvious change would be at 12, where I feel that Johnny Williams impressed with his straight lines and hard running, potentially adding more dynamism than Owen Watkin to go with his physicality, while Louis Rees-Zammit may just earn a spot on the bench to take advantage of a tiring defence.

Worrying times

It’s not been a great couple of weeks for Georgian rugby. The Lelos have been held scoreless in both of their matches so far in this campaign, wit Abzhandadze’s missed penalty from 42 metres out one of the only times they have looked like they would score. The linebreaks have been severely limited in attack and it has now become familiar to see them kicking the ball away after going nowhere for a few phases.

In defence, they have been stout, not giving up too much in the way of full breaks – potentially helped by the conditions the last 2 weeks – but they have then let themselves down by giving away too many penalties at the breakdown.

But perhaps even more worrying was the way the much-vaunted scrum was dominated by the Welsh pack, being repeatedly pushed back and drawing a number of penalties.

After a number of years where it looked like they were on the up, This is a bad time for it to all fall apart for the Lelos, especially when you remember that they are only in the Autumn Nations Cup due to Japan pulling out. The Georgian Union needs to sort themselves and work on 2 things fast: First of all, they need to find a permanent head coach to replace Milton Haig, who did a wonderful job after 8 years with the Lelos but left after the World Cup – a whole year ago! Secondly, they need to be doing everything they can to get a franchise into the PRO14 as soon as possible to ensure that their players are up against top quality opposition as much as possible.

If these things aren’t worked out soon, I worry that the talents they have will be wasted.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Georgia

England’s Autumn Nations Cup opener against Georgia is not one that will live long in the memory for many people, but let’s get through this.

Eddie Jones put out a side full of experience but also with a few debutants, and though they quickly found themselves camped on the Georgian line, it took them quarter of an hour to finally break the deadlock as Wasps flanker Jack Willis forced himself over on debut, converted by Owen Farrell. The physical contest continued, but the Lelos struggled to get any territory of note and conceded 2 tries in quick succession as England utilised the driving maul for Jamie George to earn a first half brace, the first of which was converted by Farrell. England finally remembered they had a back line just before half time and Jonathan Joseph came off his wing to create an overlap that allowed Elliot Daly to go over in the corner to secure the bonus point, while Farrell converted for a 26-0 halftime score.

Any hopes of a more exciting second half were quickly doused by deteriorating weather conditions, but Jamie George found reason to celebrate just before the hour mark as another driving maul saw him complete his hat trick, with Farrell adding the 2 points. Georgia kept competing however and earned some possession in the England 22, but the England defence coped with them and worked their way back downfield, allowing replacement Dan Robson to snipe over from close range for his first Test try, which Farrell converted for a final score of 40-0.

Mauled

For a team so revered for their scrummaging ability, the Georgians really have an issue with the maul. The Lelos don’t appear to have any way to stop a Tier 1 team when they get the driving maul set, with Scotland scoring 3 times and setting up another try using the driving maul just a couple of weeks ago, to add to Jamie George’s hat trick today.

Every time a team gets the maul set against Georgia, it either seems to end in a penalty due to the Lelos bringing it down illegally, or else with the referee blowing his whistle for a try. Meanwhile when the Lelos get the chance to put together a driving maul of their own, England found it all to easy to break the pack apart and get through on the ball.

Georgia need to be playing against Tier 1 teams regularly in order to improve these facets of the game. Until they do so, teams will be kicking their penalties to touch in the knowledge that all they need to do is set up the maul and drive the Lelos out of the match.

Wasted opportunity

While it was great to see Ollie Lawrence and Jack Willis making well-deserved debuts, this was still a wasted opportunity from Eddie Jones to test the depth of his squad and give some of his younger players experience. What does anyone learn from a halfback pairing of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell in this game, or regulars Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Jamie George and Jonny May. Similarly, Jonathan Joseph is as much an international wing as Elliot Daly is an international fullback – not at all.

Instead, the form players form the Premiership could have been rewarded, with a back row of Ben Earl, Jack Willis and European Player of the Year Sam Simmonds, who didn’t even make the wider squad. Ollie Thorley could have been given his debut on one wing, with players like George Furbank, Ruaridh McConnochie, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Joe Cokanasiga looked at for the other spots in the back 3 – yet only Furbank and Thorley made the wider squad and neither made the 23! Ben Spencer and Robson should be fighting for the 9 shirt, but Spencer was forced to watch from home while Robson made a 20 minute cameo. And then we come to fly half, where Owen Farrell plays the full 80 minutes while Jacob Umaga fails to make the 23 and Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds – who just led Exeter to the league and European double – don’t even make the wider squad.

Hopefully a day doesn’t come when England regret not blooding more talent in matches like this.

rugby autumn nations cup no background

Scotland v Georgia

Scotland v Georgia

With the resumption of the Six Nations and the new Autumn Nations Cup just around the corner, Scotland looked to get a preparatory Test match under their belt in a deserted BT Murrayfield against Georgia. The conclusion of last season’s Pro14 and beginning of this season’s league meant that the Scots had a fair amount of rugby already under their belt and they were the quicker team out of the blocks as Darcy Graham took a quick-tap penalty and forced his way over for the opening try within 2 minutes. Though the Lelos produced very little in attack, their defence held relatively firm for the next 25 minutes, until a stupid penalty from prop Lekso Kaulashvili allowed Scotland to kick to the corner and drive over from 5m out, with Fraser Brown dotting down in his first match as captain. Scotland were growing into the game and their next try came shortly after, as Hamish Watson was sent over in the corner to make the score 17-0, while replacement back row Cornell du Preez was just held up over the line with the final play of the half.

The Georgians struck first after the break and scored their first ever try at Murrayfield through Akaki Tabutsadze, with fly half Tedo Abzhandadze adding the extras. Any hopes of a Georgian comeback were swiftly denied as Fraser Brown dotted down from another driving maul, while his replacement Stuart McInally scored in similar fashion as the game reached the hour mark. As the Lelos began to tire, the Scots began to run riot with a 10/12 combination of Finn Russell and Adam Hastings, and an inside pass put debutant Duhan van der Merwe through to score under the posts. With Georgia’s replacement scrum half in the bin for the final 10 minutes following a deliberate knock-on, Scotland found themselves with another 5m lineout, but rather than drive this one over, they drew in the Georgian pack to defend the maul before breaking off to the blind side, with McInally and George Horne putting Graham over for his second try. As the clock ticked down, Blair Kinghorn played a hopeful kick forward but his chase looked in vain until Giorgi Kveseladze misread the bouncing ball and saw it go through his legs, leaving Kinghorn with a simple finish, which Hastings converting for a final score of 48-7.

Rusty Lelos

While Scots had the benefit of the Pro14 to get back to match readiness ahead of this match, many of the Lelos were coming in having not played a game… and it really showed! Though their defence did a good job of holding out for the most part in open play, they were not able to cause any real problems for the attacking Scots and they were completely dominated by the Scottish catch and drive. Meanwhile, the Georgian attack only had 2 moments of note: 1 driving maul that earned a penalty and the Tabutsadze try. Aside from that, they struggled for most of the match to make any positive metres in attack – and when they did, they usually ended up getting turned over – and this led to Abzhandadze having to play from a deeper position, which stopped the backs having any real influence on the game.

With the French-based Lelos going back to their clubs next week, then games against England, Wales and Ireland on subsequent weekends (how these Autumn Nations Cup pools can be considered balanced is beyond me!), the Lelos are going to have to work very hard to get anything from their Autumn.

Russell/Hastings axis

While the scots looked OK in attack over the first 55 minutes, they really came to life when Finn Russell came off the bench to replace James Lang, with Adam Hastings moving out to inside centre.

There was an immediate impact to the Scottish attack, as the ball was being spread more often and quicker, while there also appeared to be more variety to the play, such as the inside pass that put van der Merwe through to score. With George Horne coming on to up the tempo at 9 and 2 talented playmakers, the back line really came alive and this is what the team needs with 2 wingers as talented as van der Merwe and Graham. Of course, Stuart Hogg would add a playmaker option from 15 when he is available, but not to the same degree as a Russell/Hastings 10/12 axis.

Scotland will definitely face harder tests than the Georgian defence, but I would definitely be interested to see how this playmaker axis would work against Tier 1 defences.

Faceless villain

Regular readers of my articles will know that I have a soft spot for Tier 2 nations and them being given the chance to compete against and develop into Tier 1 nations. So imagine my disappointment at the way this match has been handled by the media for the British public.

While it was great to see the game on free-to-air television, the ITV4 broadcast saw 2 Scottish pundits (Jim Hamilton and Sir Ian McGeechan) who were only ever going to speak about their own nation. Then when it came to the match, we were left with Simon Ward and former Scotland international Scott Hastings, who were quick to praise the Scots for doing even the most basic thing right and barely made an effort to talk about the Lelos.

Even going onto the BBC Sport website, there were no articles ahead of the game announcing the Georgian squad (just the Scots) and the article titled “What you need to know about the Georgians” included no information about their style of play or star players, instead focusing on a previous national anthem faux pas, a shooting at the union’s offices and the fact that the union is bankrolled by a billionaire. With such pathetic reporting, the casual fan is unable to learn anything about the team and they are left as basically a faceless villain for the British heroes to face, and nobody is then going to champion the cause of getting them regular rugby in Tier 1 competitions – let’s not forget that Georgia are only in the Autumn Nations Cup this season because Japan pulled out!

The Lelos deserve more respect than this from the British media, and I hope that there is more balance during the Autumn Nations Cup.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Georgia

The RWC2019 Debrief: Georgia

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 Georgia.

RWC2019 Qualification

Georgia automatically qualified by finishing 3rd in Pool C during the 2015 tournament, finishing behind semifinalists Argentina and champions New Zealand.

2019 Form

The Lelos won the Rugby European Championship for the 10th time in 13 years. They lost to Scotland both at home and away in the warm-up matches but put in good performances, while also managing a 24-20 victory over the Southern Kings.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (4th in Pool D)
    • Wales 43-14 Georgia
    • Georgia 33-7 Uruguay
    • Georgia 10-45 Fiji
    • Australia 27-8 Georgia

Looking at the strength of Pool D, it was always going to be difficult for Georgia to manage another top 3 finish in their pool. They certainly gave it every go, though. Against Wales, they came out fighting and were deserving of their 14-14 halftime score. Though they couldn’t hold with the depth of the Welsh squad, they never gave up fighting and there were some great individual performances. Against Uruguay, the Lelos took advantage of their powerful pack to dominate the scrums and maul on their way to their first ever 4-try bonus point.

Unfortunately for Georgia, that was the last point they were able to earn in the pool, as they came up against a Fijian squad that were looking to make up for their loss to Uruguay. The Fijians managed to negate the Georgian scrum and though the Lelos again did well to hold with their opponents for as long as they did, they fell away in the second half. In their final match against Australia, they struggled to put together too much in attack but put in a highly impressive defensive performance, with just a pair of late tries tipping the scoreboard heavily in the Wallabies’ favour.

Looking Ahead

Georgia are in a really difficult position right now.

They have a super strong and experienced pack to build a platform off, while they are in the process of developing a set of young backs to take advantage of the forward dominance. In Vasil Lobzhanidze and Gela Aprasidze, they have 2 of the best young scrum halves in international rugby, while Tedo Abzhandadze looks to be the future at fly half and will benefit from playing with Lobzhanidze at Brive. The quality of youngsters coming through will keep the Georgian national team building as their inspirational leaders like Mamuka Gorgodze bow out, providing the right person comes in to replace Milton Haig.

The only worries right now for Georgia should be the opportunities they are getting to develop. The Lelos have clearly outgrown the Rugby European Championship in its current format but are currently blocked off from rising any higher in terms of an annual tournament. Their warm-up match against Scotland was the first time they had ever hosted a Tier 1 nation, which just isn’t good enough. While I don’t feel they should be replacing Italy in the Six Nations, something needs to be done so that Georgia can play the Tier 1 nations regularly and build on their success this decade. Similarly, I really think that the Georgians need to be able to build at a club level. So many top flight clubs will try to get hold of a Georgian front rower, but the options are much more limited for other positions. Personally, I would love to see a Georgian franchise added to the Pro14. We are starting to see some growth for Italy due to Benetton and Zebre competing against the best of Wales, Ireland and Scotland; I think that having a Georgian franchise and then other Georgians interspersed through other top flight clubs would put the Lelos in a very good position.