Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

The entire tournament led to this moment: Wales taking on the Irish at the Principality Stadium with not just the tournament but also the Grand Slam on the line. A home victory would earn Wales the Grand Slam, whereas a victory for the Irish would see England win the title provided they beat Scotland. Unfortunately for Ireland and England fans, Hadleigh Parkes crossed the line in the second minute and Wales didn’t look back from there with 20 points from the boot of Gareth Anscombe seeing them go 25-0 up. Ireland looked set to be nilled but Jordan Lamour’s try on the final play of the game and Jack Carty’s conversion saw them come away with a slightly more respectable 25-7 score.

Shut down

This was an incredible performance from Wales! The nerve to go for a chip deep in the Irish 22 and take advantage of Rob Kearney’s wide positioning showed Anscombe’s confidence at 10 and he reacted well to his early shift to 15 following George North’s injury. Dan Biggar ran the game well following his early introduction and having Anscombe on the pitch as well gave them the extra playmaking ability to keep the Irish defence guessing. Coming into this game, Peter O’Mahony was in contention for my team of the tournament but he was invisible in this game, such was the quality of the Welsh support.

If anything, the defence was even more impressive. Though I would argue that the Irish attack was not at its best (more on that shortly), they were limited to just 2 chances of note, one of which was their try with the result already confirmed. A Johnny Sexton crosskick looked to have sent Jacob Stockdale away down the left wing, but Hadleigh Parkes quickly caught him and brought him down to end the attack. The choke tackle used to be an Irish speciality, but the Welsh made it their own this tournament and used it to great effect once again.

With the coaching staff set to leave following the World Cup, it looks like Wales could be hitting the form they will need to make a serious run in the tournament and send their coaches off on a high.

Over-reliance

During Ireland’s success over the last couple of years, some of the standout players for them have been CJ Stander and halfbacks Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. This year, none of them have been close to the player we know they can be.

Unfortunately, Joe Schmidt seemed very stuck in his ways this tournament and continued to rely on these players despite their drop in form. I was critical a few rounds ago about how long the halfbacks were kept on against Italy given the quality on the bench and this happened once again against Wales, with neither being replaced until the final 10 minutes with the victory already well beyond them. And yet despite this John Cooney and Jack Carty appeared to get the team functioning a little better – granted the Welsh may have taken their foot off the pedal slightly knowing they had won – and controlled the team on their way to the only points of the game. Stander as well also struggled to get Ireland on the front foot, generating just 9 metres from 14 carries over the 80 minutes. In comparison, Jack Conan took over at number 8 following Sean O’Brien’s replacement and made the same number of metres from just 6 carries, looking much more dangerous in attack.

Ireland have not turned into a bad team overnight, but in this match and this year’s tournament in general they have been poor. If Joe Schmidt wants a chance of finishing his Ireland career by winning the World Cup, then he needs to start selecting players on form rather than relying on players who have been stars in the past but are now struggling.

Growing options

Many teams will likely be jealous of Wale’s options at fly half, with both Anscombe and Biggar having impressed throughout the tournament. To have such quality options available, the question has often been which of them should be starting and who should be on the bench.

While Anscombe arguably brings more options to the overall attack, there have been questions over his place kicking, which has tested a lot this tournament with Leigh Halfpenny unavailable. Despite Dan Biggar being generally regarded as the better kicker, Anscombe was allowed to keep kicking duties following Biggar’s early arrival to the field this weekend and proved the faith in him well justified as he kicked a conversion and 6 penalties for a 100% kick success rate in this game.

While this not only suggests that he can hold the 10 shirt ahead of Biggar – who is an amazing player to bring off the bench – it also suggests that there may not need to be such a reliance on Leigh Halfpenny moving forward, which could open up extra options in the back 3 as it would allow the regular back 3 of this tournament (George North and Josh Adams on the wings, Liam Williams at centre) to continue playing together and building their chemistry as a group. If Halfpenny and these 3 players can keep themselves free of injury between now and the end of the season, it will be interesting to see who makes it into the back 3 for Wales’ next game.

Eyes On: Ireland v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Ireland v France – 6 Nations 2019

Ireland finished off the 4th round of Six Nations action with a match at home against France. For the first time this season, the French avoided making changes to the XV that put Scotland to the sword, but the performance would have left you thinking they had changed the entire squad. The French failed to get on the board in the first half, whereas tries from Rory Best, Johnny Sexton (who also contributed 2 conversions) and Jack Conan gave the Irish a 19-0 halftime lead. A Keith Earls try and Sexton conversion increased the lead to 26, before late tries from Yoann Huget and Camille Chat and 2 conversions from Baptiste Serin left the scoreline flattering Les Bleus with a final score of 26-14.

Work to do

Ireland may have come away with the bonus point victory in this game, but I think that this was more courtesy of poor French defence than anything special from the home team. Despite having 65% of the possession and 72% territory in the game, the Irish wasted a number of opportunities with poor handling errors. Potential tries from Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose were chalked off for knock-ons and a number of other great chances came to a premature end though poor handling. Had they been a bit more precise, then they could have had doubled their score.

Granted, there has been some rotation in the pack and centres due to a combination of injuries and resting players – including Rob Kearney’s late removal, leading to Jordan Larmour’s first start in the championship – will have hurt the team’s chemistry, however these players are still all regulars in the squad so you would expect better. I was happy to see Jack Carty and John Cooney get a solid 20+ minutes this week after barely being used against Italy and thought that Carty especially impressed with a couple of pinpoint kicks that kept the French deep in their own half.

The Irish will also be bitterly disappointed with conceding 14 points in the dying minutes as even when all the substitutions started they were in complete control and it was just a couple of defensive errors and penalties that cost them the chance of holding the French scoreless.

Coming into the tournament, many will have considered the Irish as the Northern Hemisphere team most likely to win the World Cup. On their recent performances that is looking less likely, but a big performance and victory in Cardiff at the weekend could change that outlook massively and still potentially win them the Six Nations.

Back to the beginning

Compare this French performance to the one against Scotland 2 weeks ago and you would never think that you were watching the same French team. While last week the French dominated the game, this week they struggled to even make an impact on it!

Despite having a recognised fullback in Thomas Ramos, it took less than a minute for the kick coverage to fail completely, with a kick form Jordan Larmour putting Ireland in position for what became Rory Best’s try. Ramos was also completely out-jumped when competing for a high ball in his own 22, which led to Ringrose’s disallowed try.

In defence, they found themselves manipulated by the Irish attack far too easily – most notably Yoann Huget biting on completely the wrong man, leading to him blocking off Fickou and leaving Sexton all the space in the world to take the ball on the loop and go over for a try – and can honestly consider themselves lucky to have not conceded more tries.

In attack they barely created anything, making just 138 metres in the entire game, a big difference from the 520 made against Scotland 2 weeks earlier! Louis Picamoles has been a big part of the French forward effort to create a platform, but in this game he was limited to just 2 metres from 2 carries – in fact all the forwards in the XV and on the bench combined for just 64 metres, half of which belonged to just 2 players!

While they just have enough points to avoid the Wooden Spoon regardless of the result at Italy, there is a distinct possibility that another performance like this could help Italy earn their first Six Nations victory since they won at Murrayfeld in February 2015. If the French are going to be so inconsistent in their performances, then they need to move on from Jacques Brunel, so that the next generation of players coming through like Antoine Dupont, Demba Bamba and Romain Ntamack can be in a team that actually has chances of success.

Inexperience shows

Last week I was very complimentary of the way Antoine Dupont played, however without the forward platform this week he struggled to perform anywhere near as well.

His running threat was gone – he made a total of 2 metres from 10 carries and was tackled in the in-goal by James Ryan on one occasion – but nowhere was his drop in performance more noticeable than when he was preparing to box kick. The kicking game is a more recent weapon in the 22-year-old’s arsenal and with his pack struggling to put him on the front foot, he was taking far too long at the back of the ruck and was caught out on a couple of occasions, most notably when Cian Healy almost scored a try as Dupont failed to notice that the ball had rolled onto the try-line, meaning that Ireland could come round and play it despite it still being in the ruck.

The kicking game is often one of the later things to develop in a young scrum half due to the experience needed to control the game effectively, so I am not overly worried for Dupont’s future prospects. However it looks like he will need a pack that can gain parity at least currently, so I feel that for now it would be beneficial to start Baptiste Serin in games where the pack may not be as strong, with Dupont there to come off the bench and take advantage of the gaps made as the opposition tires.

Eyes On: Italy v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Sunday saw Ireland bring an end to Round 3 with a trip to Italy. While they made a number of changes in the pack, especially the tight 5, they put out their best available back line and tries from Quinn Roux and Jacob Stockdale in the first quarter suggested things could get out of hand. Italy got back into things though and tries from Edoardo Padovani and Luca Morisi gave them an unlikely 16-12 halftime lead. That was it for Italy though as they did not score a point in the second half, but they still made things hard for Ireland, who scored a further two tries through Keith Earls and Conor Murray to pull out a 16-26 victory.

 

Tried and tested

They may have got the win and the 4-try bonus point, but this was not a great performance from Ireland. The forwards went toe-to-toe with the Italians, but the backs struggled to have any significant impact on the game, with Roux and Earls going over from close range off Conor Murray playing the ball away from the ruck, Murray breaking off a driving maul and Stockdale pouncing on Italian errors at a kickoff.

Murray may have been credited with 2 assists and a try, but this glosses over a performance that was well below the level we expect of him, while Johnny Sexton was arguably even worse outside him. Sexton was also removed from kicking duties in favour of Murray.

After the game, Joe Schmidt appeared to suggest that Sexton had been roughed up a bit following the pass, but this is something that all top fly halves deal with when they take the ball to the line, yet Sexton appears to be the one who is most affected in terms of injuries. And yet despite both of them putting in poor performances, Murray was not replaced by John Cooney until the 71st minute and Jack Carty wasn’t brought on for Sexton until the 78th minute.

If I am either of those replacements, especially Carty, watching the man in front of them put in a poor performance and struggling to get the team going, then I would consider such a small cameo to be an insult. I understand that Murray and Sexton are the tried and tested options and I’m not suggesting that they be dropped moving forward, but if they get injured during the World Cup, then Joe Schmidt is running the risk of having to play someone who has just a handful of minutes’ international experience in 2 positions that are key to controlling the game.

Positives and negatives

Like their previous matches this year, this match suggested that Italy are a team on the up. They came into this game with Jake Polledri still unavailable and now missing Seb Negri and Sergio Parisse. Jimmy Tuivaiti and Maxime Mbanda played well in their absence (Steyn moved to 8 for this game) but the pair were both forced off the field due to injury. Jayden Hayward continues to play well in the absence of Matteo Minozzi and Tomasso Castello looked impressive when he replaced the injured Michele Campagnaro. For a team that has often struggled for depth, it is great to see that the depth in this squad is finally developing and while they didn’t score in the second half, the fact that they held Ireland to just 7 points in the final quarter is a testament to how much they have improved as this is usually when their performance has dropped off in recent years.

They are not perfect though. They still need to start scoring more tries and also make silly mistakes – they messed up 2 kickoff receptions in a row, 1 of which gifted Jacob Stockdale a try. Most importantly, though, they need to find a reliable kicker, as Tommaso Allan and Ian McKinley combined for 33% success off the tee, including a miss with the last play of the game to deny them a losing bonus point – why Conor O’Shea was adamant they attempt a difficult penalty from the touchline rather than kick for the corner is beyond me!

While it may go down as another loss, Italy are clearly taking steps towards claiming a big scalp in the tournament if they can continue to improve.

They deserve better

While I completely appreciate that Italy have been largely disappointing since their inclusion into the 6 Nations, I think the way that they are treated at times is absolutely awful.

Pundits and commentators are quick to throw out the stat of how long it has been since Italy won a match in the tournament and how many times they have been awarded the Wooden Spoon, while also talking about how well Georgia have done in recent years and leading the conversations about whether it is time Georgia replaced Italy in the tournament, without any mention that Italy actually won in Georgia 17-28 the last time they played each other! Georgia have arguably outgrown heir league, and the easy wins will mean that they continue to gain (arguably a small amount of) ranking points during the Rugby Europe Championship, while Italy are up against 5 Tier 1 nations so are always going to be at risk of losing ranking points during the 6 Nations, making the comparison to Georgia in the World Rankings look even worse.

The way they are treated during matches also does not seem in line with the Tier 1 nations in the tournament. Tito Tebaldi was (in my opinion) clearly blocked by Rob Kearney when chasing kick through into the Irish 22 – Tebaldi clearly turned away from Kearney, who continued to run across the scrum half and body-check him. Had this been the other way round, I would be shocked if the referee had not stopped the game to check the infringement with the TMO, yet in this case Glen Jackson chose to play on and had the TMO take a quick check in the background, while the commentary was immediately accusing Tebaldi of running into the defender and made no comment when the replay showed otherwise. I can’t help but feel that had it been a Tier 1 nation involved rather than Italy, the whole incident would have been treated very differently.

While I agree that Italy need to keep improving, all I ask is that they be given an equal footing and the same respect as Tier 1 nations and the teams around them in the world rankings.

Eyes On: Scotland v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Scotland v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Round 2 of the 2019 Six Nations kicked off on Saturday afternoon with Scotland’s second consecutive home match, this time at home to defending champions Ireland. The Scots came into this off the back of a win over Italy and started the better team, but 2 tries in quick succession gave Ireland a lead. Scotland pulled one back through Sam Johnson for a 10-12 halftime score, but the home team could not push on in the second half and Keith Earls finished off a Joey Carbery break to guarantee victory, 13-22 being the final score.

Missed chances

I have real sympathy for Scottish rugby fans as cheering for them is a roller coaster. Scotland created a number of chances against the Irish despite them defending well, but with the exception on Johnson’s try from a Finn Russell interception they were unable to cross the line.

One chance went begging when a Huw Jones pass went behind Tommy Seymour, causing him to check his run and give Jacob Stockdale time to get over and cover just short of the line. I’ve watched the chance a number of times and to me it is a matter of Seymour not holding his depth well enough, which is a poor error for an international winger of his experience.

Perhaps even worse was a decision to take a tap and go penalty 5m out with the Irish defensive line set, only to be turned over pretty much instantly. I understand that the penalty out wide was not necessarily a gimme for Greig Laidlaw and the lineout was clearly not functioning perfectly (it finished 7/10, likely hampered by the constantly changing cast of locks and back rowers due to injuries), but there must have been better options at that penalty than what they did.

While these were chances lost inside the Irish 22, there were also a number of attacks ended far too early by players trying to do too much as they chased the game rather than take the tackle and set up a ruck, while they were also let down at times by handling errors or silly penalties – while incredibly soft, Jonny Gray taking Sean O’Brien beyond the breakdown as Scotland had a chance to break down the right was unnecessary and stupid from a player that is one of the team’s leaders.

Scotland’s attack has come a long way in recent years and is looking good, but they need to start finishing more chances if they want to win regularly.

The understudy

After last weekend’s loss to England and with the Scots pressuring behind the gain line, losing Johnny Sexton after just a quarter of the match is the last thing Ireland will have wanted. The 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year has not looked at his best so far in this tournament and took a couple of hits early on that appeared to leave him struggling, but he did well to set up Jacob Stockdale for his try. Joey Carbery has been his international understudy for a few seasons now and has been playing very well of late for Munster, but he has had limited playing time against Tier 1 international teams.

This lack of experience appeared to show in the first half especially with Sam Johnson’s try, where his attempted pass to Rory Best was far too telegraphed and laid out on a platter for Russell to intercept. However he grew into the game in the second half and showed some of his Munster form for Earls’ try, recovering to take a poor bouncing pass from O’Brien, breaking through the tackles of Allan Dell and Rob Harley (who appeared to knock each other off the player), turn on the gas and run a line to draw in the winger, before throwing a wide pass to the now-available Keith Earls to score the third and final try.

With a week off either side of a trip to Italy, it will be interesting to see who gets given the number 10 shirt for the next match (assuming Sexton is fit). I would usually argue for picking Sexton for consistency and because 3 weeks without a match could see him off the pace against France in Round 4, but I think that with the World Cup just around the corner Carbery needs to have more time playing from the start to get used to controlling the game against fresh opposition at international level rather than coming on against a tired opponent.

Bish, bash, bosh

Last week, England pressured the Irish behind the gain line when defending and kept their defence on the back foot when attacking. Scotland tried to do similar this week but were unable to pull it off. The reason as far as I could see: the personnel.

Kyle Sinckler, the Vunipolas and Manu Tuilagi especially played such a big part in England’s highly physical approach last week, but the Scottish team did not have the players to pull it off. The back line especially does not have a crash ball runner like Tuilagi, instead focusing on a ball-playing centre pairing in Johnson and Jones with Peter Horne on the bench. In the forwards, Josh Strauss and Ryan Wilson are strong runners, but neither of them would be expected to have the impact of a Billy Vunipola (Strauss managed just 44 metres off 17 carries), while Wilson was replaced at halftime for the more defensive Rob Harley.

What impact does this lack of ball carriers have? It makes it harder to attack especially once they reach the opponents 22 as they do not have the players to punch it up down the middle and draw in the defence, making it harder for them to create the space to finish out wide.

Taking his chance

One player who has really impressed me over the first 2 rounds of the tournament has been Jamie Ritchie. Someone who probably wouldn’t have been starting were it not for Hamish Watson’s injury, Ritchie has really taken his chance so far. In this match, his 13 metres from 5 carries was bested by only Josh Strauss on the Scottish stats sheet, while in defence he completed 24/25 tackles and was a constant nuisance at the breakdown.

While the incredible raft of injuries in the back row is certainly hurting Scotland right now, when they get everyone back from injury Gregor Townsend will be spoiled for choice!

Eyes On: Ireland v England – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Ireland v England – 6 Nations 2019

Ireland kicked off their Six Nations campaign at home to England on Saturday, but it’s safe to say things didn’t go as planned for them. England came flying out the blocks and went ahead within 2 minutes through Jonny May, while tries from Cian Healy and Elliot Daly left the halftime score at 10-17. A second half brace from Henry Slade confirmed England’s victory, while Ireland got a late consolation through John Cooney for a final score of 20-32.

 

Welcome returns

It was great seeing Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi back in the starting XV for England this weekend  and for me, it was one of the key reasons for their success. Often in recent matches, England have found themselves lacking the big ball carriers, which has often limited their attacking options. However having these two big names back, along with Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler in the front row, gave the team a number of options when looking for the hard metres and this gave the attack a new edge where they could be attacking the Irish in a number of different ways.

Further than this, the added impetus from a couple of big names returning after so long could draw a big performance from the players around them, as happened in this game. Everyone stepped up in this match and did everything they could to deny the Irish even a foothold in the game. Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose were quickly closed down every time they got the ball and it gave the players outside them very little decent ball to attack with.

Watching this game, I found the performance reminiscent of the win over New Zealand in 2012 under Stuart Lancaster. After a poor 2018, are things once again on an upwards trajectory for England?

Sorely missed

Though I wouldn’t say that his presence would have given Ireland victory, I really think Rob Kearney was missed this weekend. When it was suggested that Robbie Henshaw could start at 15 in the days leading up to Joe Schmidt’s team announcement, I scoffed at the idea considering how long it has been since he frequently played the position. I understood that with Kearney having just 1 appearance for Leinster under his belt since his return from injury meant he was unlikely to play, but I thought that we would see his deputy at Leinster, Jordan Larmour given the 15 shirt given his recent experience in the role.

Henshaw played a decent game, but he was put under heavy pressure which is exactly what you don’t want when playing in a position that you’re not 100% comfortable in. England continually had him running around his 22 trying to get to their kicks, which often found him finally getting the ball in a corner, close to his line, with a wall of white stopping him doing anything.

I can’t help wonder if Kearney’s presence would have helped as he is so good at getting himself in position ahead of time, it may have allowed him to deal with the England kicking game better. I think Kearney’s ability under the high ball would have been utilised too, as Elliot Daly was not tested in this area anywhere near as much as I expected given his performances in the Autumn Tests.

With a trip to Scotland (who will likely be fielding 2 recognised fullbacks in Stuart Hogg and Blair Kinghorn again) next weekend, it will be interesting to see if Henshaw keeps his place in the 15 shirt.

Unused

With just a couple of minutes left, and the game won, Eddie Jones brought on George Ford, Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie from the bench. Now first off, I don’t understand why these changes were made with just a couple of minutes left as I doubt the players they replaced all got inured at the same point, but there was no time for them to have any impact on the match or really gain anything from the experience. And if he was just looking to give the players a cap, then why was Dan Robson left on the bench?

Gregor Townsend did something very similar in bringing on Adam Hastings with just a few minutes left, but besides getting players an extra cap, I don’t see what benefit it has for anyone!

2019 Six Nations: 6 to Watch

2019 Six Nations: 6 to Watch

We are just weeks away from the 6 Nations kicking off for another year. With the World Cup starting in October, the tournament will take on extra significance as not only will players be trying to win the tournament but they will also be trying to prove to their coaches that they should be on the plane to Japan later this year.

With the squads now released for the opening rounds, I’ve taken a look at each team and selected a player to watch. These are generally players who have either only amassed a few caps or not been an obvious name to those who only watch international rugby. How will these players do this tournament and how many of them will we see at the World Cup?

England: Tom Curry

The injury to Sam Underhill has opened the door for Sale flanker Tom Curry to likely take the 7 shirt for the tournament. At 20 years old, Curry has been capped 5 times since making his debut on the 2017 tour to Argentina. England have struggled to find a real “jackal” at flanker for a number of years but Curry is a real danger at the breakdown and if the support men are not close enough then expect him to add another turnover to his tally.

France: Demba Bamba

It’s not very often these days that we see a player in the 6 Nations who is not playing in one of the top 3 domestic European leagues (Premiership, Pro 14, Top 14). That will be the case though if 20-year-old prop Demba Bamba comes off the bench. Currently playing in Pro D2 for Brive, Bamba was one of the stars of the French U20s and made his debut for the senior international team against Fiji in November. It’s often said that a prop doesn’t reach his best days until much later in his career, this 6 Nations will give us the chance to see the early days of what could end up being a great career… assuming the team around him turns up this season.

Ireland: Tadhg Beirne

One of the older players on this list, Beirne is a hell of a player who I have really enjoyed watching for the Scarlets and now Munster over recent seasons. Having moved back to Irelend, Beirne made his international debut in the Autumn Tests. With James Ryan, Devin Toner and Iain Henderson all more experienced in the Irish second row there is no guarantee that Beirne will get massive game time (so I feel even more sorry for Ultan Dillane who is also in the squad) but when he is on the pitch his threat at the breakdown and his ability in the loose will show why I picked him in my Uncapped XV last year.

Italy: Seb Negri

Negri has been in and around the Italian squad for a couple of year now, having earned 12 caps since his debut in June 2016 and was a regular in the Italian XV during last season’s 6 Nations. Part of the Hartpury squad that won promotion to the Championship, the Zimbabwean-born flanker is a strong runner that will help the team got on the front foot. Parisse may be nearing the end of his career, but Negri is one of the new generation of stars coming through for Conor O’Shea and Italy.

Scotland: Adam Hastings

The son of Gavin and nephew of Scott, Hastings has the rugby pedigree. I was not overly impressed with the fly half at Bath but he has flourished since moving to Glasgow. He is likely second to Finn Russell on the depth chart but they did start together in November with Russell moving to 12 and Gregor Townsend may try this again during the tournament. A very exiting player, the 22-year-old’s chemistry with a number of his Glasgow teammates could see him be the breakout star of this year’s tournament.

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

With 20 caps to his name, 27-year-old Gareth Anscombe is probably the most well-known player on this list to the casual fan. Outside of the back row – which has been hit by injuries – I can’t see there being too many inexperienced players in the Wales XV, however Anscombe has only recently started to look like the starter at 10. Anscombe started the final of the 2011 Junior World Championship at fly half for New Zealand, with Beauden Barrett and Lima Sopoaga at 15 and 12 respectively, which shows the quality he has. He has a good enough kicking game to control the match but also has that attacking ability that takes Wales to a new level. Even if Dan Biggar starts at 10, with Leigh Halfpenny still to recover from concussion symptoms after Samu Kerevi’s late hit in the Autumn Tests, there is always a chance that Anscombe could line up at 15.

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 4

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 4

The Autumn Tests came to a close for most teams this week, but there was still much on the line. England and Australia both knew that a victory would go a long way to making a poor 2018 look better, but the Wallabies looked second-best throughout the match. The USA’s run of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018 eventually came to an end against the Irish, but they made it a contest and have reached their highest ever position in the World Rankings as a result. The result of the weekend though belonged to Fiji, whose win over the French on Saturday night saw them leapfrog France and Argentina into 8ᵗʰ place.

The Week 4 results were:

  • France 14-21 Fiji
  • Ireland 57-14 USA
  • Wales 20-11 South Africa
  • England 37-18 Australia
  • Scotland 14-9 Argentina
  • Japan 32-27 Russia
  • Italy 3-66 New Zealand
  • Spain 10-28 Samoa
  • Georgia 20-9 Tonga
  • Romania 20-27 Uruguay

England

England have generally had an advantage over the Wallabies in the pack, but with Australia having improved in threat department and England missing so many starters (and replacements in some cases!) it would have been understandable if Australia had the edge there this week. They didn’t. Ben Moon has well and truly taken his chance this autumn and may have put himself in contention for a trip to Japan next year as he looks to have replace the now-retired Joe Marler as England’s best scrummager at loose-head. Meanwhile Kyle Sinckler put in a stunning performance and has surely guaranteed himself the number 3 shirt for the 6 Nations. Mark Wilson continued to put in strong performances and I think he could conceivably find himself starting at 6 next time England play. 2018 was not a good year for England on the whole, but the performances that some of the players have put in when given the chance this November has suddenly given fans some hope that things may be getting back on the right track for a strong World Cup campaign.

Australia

Having been unable to watch Australia face Italy last week, I was interested to see how a midfield with Matt Toomua at 10 and Bernard Foley at 12 would function. To say that Foley was anonymous for most of the match is an understatement as his 2 main impacts on the game were missing a despairing tackle on Elliot Daly as he went past for a try and his grubber kick to put Israel Folau over in the corner at the end of the match. While I am beginning to think Cheika has the right idea with Folau at 15 and Haylett-Petty on the wing (Folau appears to cut more effective lines entering the line late than Haylett-Petty), he still seems to be struggling to organise the rest of the back line, which is leading to an incoherent mess. If Australia want to have any chance of reaching another World Cup final next year, they need to sort something out quick!


Wales

Wales’ gameplan appeared to change the moment Dan Biggar stepped on to the pitch. After a game where they had been spreading the ball well and causing the Springboks across the park, suddenly the game devolved into kicking the ball back to South Africa and surviving another onslaught with their staunch defence. While Biggar and his back 3 – especially George North – caused the Boks problems as they tried to collect the high ball, it put so much pressure on the Welsh defence and against a team playing better that could have proved fatal. Dan Biggar is undoubtedly a talented player and a clutch goal kicker, but I do not think his style of play matches the style that Wales are trying to play. For me, Gareth Anscombe has nailed down the 10 shirt – even if he did miss a few kicks to touch – and it is now up to Warren Gatland to decide if he wants Rhys Patchell or Dan Biggar on the bench, though Patchell’s ability to play 15 will likely see both of them on the plane to Japan.

South Africa

I’ve often heard the phrase “earning the right to go wide” but I can’t remember a match where the need to do that was more obvious than in this one. Too often South Africa were looking to spread the ball wide early in their possession without the forwards having dragged in defenders or any backs running effective dummy lines. In fact, they were often throwing a miss pass to the winger, which allowed the defence to drift across. They are a team clearly building back to their best, but they need to learn to control the game better regardless of the personnel on the pitch if they are to become more consistent.


Scotland

Laidlaw, Hastings, Kinghorn, Russell, Jones, Maitland, Hogg

Scottish rugby has been so exciting in recent years, but when I saw this back line announced to face an attacking team like the Pumas I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the weather gods were not on our side and rain early in the first half denied us the expansive game we were hoping for. Personally, I like the look of a back 3 including both Hogg and Kinghorn as they are both such impressive players and with them both being fullbacks, it gives Scotland solidity under the high ball while also a great option to attack the high ball and try to win it back. Russell, Hastings and Hogg are all such great playmakers and controllers of the game with a range of passes and kicks and the legs to run it themselves, so having all three of them on the pitch at the same time could make it so hard for opposition teams to defend against them. I’m not sure if Russell and Jones is the best centre partnership defensively, especially in matches where the pack is not the most phyical, but I would love to see it used again in the 6 Nations to see how it can workout, with Alex Dunbar on the bench in case they need to improve their defensive solidity.

Argentina

I’ve got to admit, I’ve been really disappointed by the Argentinian’s attacking tactics during this tour. During the Rugby Championship, their attacking play through their backs was ripping through teams, however over recent weeks, the back 3 stars of Boffelli, Delguy and Moyano have had limited opportunities to attack and in this game, Nicolás Sánchez continually put boot to ball and forced the Scots to show their composure under the high ball with mixed results. I think that this is a team currently set to compete against more attack-minded teams like the rest of the Rugby Championship, while against Tier 1 teams who focus on a solid defence, as you find with most 6 Nations teams, they do not yet have the quality in their overall game to threaten the line as well.


Ireland

The Irish are developing such depth in their squad! It’s fair to say that as things stand, only Garry Ringrose, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne would be in contention for a place in the first choice starting XV, yet all the players who featured suggested that they would be more than capable of coming into that team and doing a good job. The pack may have had some issues against the American lineout in the first half, but they were too strong for the Eagles at the scrum and the entire team pounded away mercilessly for 80 minutes both in attack and defence, eventually grinding the tiring Eagles down enough for the back line to cut them apart as the game wore on. The incredible defensive efforts and ball-control tactics, combined with the depth they have developed in their squad is why Ireland are currently my favourites for the World Cup.

USA

I never thought that the USA had a chance of winning this game, such is the strength of Ireland, but they came out the blocks so well and did better than the 24-14 halftime score suggests. The move at the lineout that saw them initially set up a maul but then get the ball back to Joe Taufete’e who had remained on the touchline to rampage into the 22 was really good to see and he reacted well to the poor tackling technique to go over for a try. Perhaps even more beautiful, but in a slightly different way, was the driving maul that resulted in a penalty try. In Taufete’e, Manoa and (currently injured) AJ MacGinty, the Eagles have some great talent to build the team around and the success that they have had this season will surely help get more Americans into the sport.


Japan

After what I feel should have been a Man of the Match performance against England, Michael Leitch saved Japan at Kingsholm on Saturday. The Japanese had played so well against England but struggled to reach the same heights against Russia. Leitch’s tries came at crucial times, with his first coming after a strong Russian start had the Brave Blossoms 3-16 down, while his second try with just 8 minutes left proved to be the match-winner. Japan need to make sure their talismanic captain stays fit if they want to have some degree of success when they host the World Cup.

Russia

Yuri Kushnarev is one of the stars of this Russian team, so to see him go off during the first half could have been a huge loss for the Bears. However Ramil Gaisin did a great job off the bench and gave his team every chance to win. He ran the back line well and did a great job of pegging Japan back with some of his kicks, while his cross-kick to hooker Stanislav Sel’skiy for his try was inch-perfect. Now I’ll be completely honest and say that I don’t know much about Russian rugby, so I have had to rely on Wikipedia a bit here and I noticed that Gaisin is listed as a fullback on the national team’s page. Vasily Artemyev is a great player but he did not look comfortable at fullback, especially when forced to kick, so I think it would benefit Russia to promote Gaisin to 15 and move Artemyev back to the wing while Kushnarev stays at 10. With 7s star Vladimir Ostroushko playing well at 13, the Bears have the making of a good back line that could cause opponents unseen problems at the World Cup.


France

This was not a good match for Les Bleus. The pack did well on their own scrum and in the lineouts, while captain Guilhem Guirado was the scorer of both tries on the night. However, the back line struggled to have a positive impact on the game. The back three were limited in attack and the centre pairing of Gaël Fickou and Mathieu Bastareaud were almost anonymous in this game. The French back line has to play so much better if they are to be competitive against other Tier 1 nations and the first thing is stability. With Camille Lopez and Matthieu Jalibert having both missed considerable time this year (Jalibert’s injury in his 6 Nations debut ended last season and he suffered another injury in preseason with Bordeaux) and that has seen the national team run though a number of options at 10, while the 9 jersey has also been a competition between Morgan Parra (due to start this match until he was injured), Baptiste Serin, Antoine Dupont and Sébastien Bézy. Less than a year out from the world Cup, finding consistency in your halfbacks is key and that is what France need to do going into 2019 is narrow down their selections and stick to the same players when possible. In my eyes, Lopez, Serin and Parra should be nailed onto the World Cup squad, as should Jalibert if he can get himself fit and perform as he did before his injuries. I would also take Dupont as a third scrum half option to keep things fresh in a dangerous pool, as Parra could (if needed) move to 10 as he has in the past – it may not be a natural it, but he has played there before at international level and has the skills to control the game.

Fiji

Last week I was saying how Fiji need to play against a competitor who will force them to play a more structured game. France were that team and so it was great to see how a more structured Fijian approach would look. What stood out to me was the lack of a kicking game from the halfbacks. Neither Frank Lomani nor Ben Volavola were looking to play a tactical kicking game, and while it did not cost them in this game, against better defences they will struggle if they are always trying to play the ball out of their own half. Equally costly could be their discipline. The Fijians had 2 tries cancelled out on the night and while Semi Radradra’s picking up of the ball from an offside position was an easy mistake to make, Tevita Cavubati’s late hit on Yoann Huget was just stupid and unnecessary. With Australia, Wales, Georgia and Uruguay as their opponents in Pool D of the World Cup, Fiji could come anywhere in the top 4 of this pool (sorry Uruguay) and improving their tactical kicking and discipline could be just what they need to make it into the top 2.