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: Week 3

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

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


Ireland

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

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

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

Japan

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

New Zealand

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

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

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

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

England

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

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

Tonga

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

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

South Africa

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

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

France

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

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

Argentina

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

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

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

Scotland

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

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

Australia

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

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

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

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2021 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.

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Super Saturday’s second match saw England and Ireland completing their 2021 Six Nations campaigns in Dublin. England had been the victors in their recent encounters and soon took a 0-3 lead through the boot of Owen Farrell, though Jonathan Sexton soon cancelled this out. The match was a tight contest but Ireland found the breakthrough going into the second quarter with a lineout move, overthrowing to Jack Conan who peeled off the back of the line and – under pressure from Tm Curry – played the ball back into the gap between him and the line and straight into the hands of Keith Earls, who had timed his run to perfection an rounded Jonny May to go over in the corner. Sexton added the conversion before trading penalties with Farrell, and it looked like the game would see itself out to half time, until Hugo Keenan beat Elliot Daly in the air competing for a Sexton bomb into the 22. This put the Irish on the front foot and after a couple of phases, they managed to bring the ball up to the English 5m line, before Jack Conan picked from the base of the ruck and managed to power and stretch his way to the line for a second try, which Sexton converted for a 20-6 lead at the break.

Ireland looked like they had scored another try 9 minutes into the second half when Earls dotted down a Sexton cross-kick, however the try was chalked off for a knock on from Cian Healy in the build-up and the men in green were forced to settle for a penalty to extend their lead, while Sexton added another penalty on the hour. Things were looking bad for England, who were without a recognised fly half having replaced George Ford and then lost Owen Farrell to a head injury just minutes later – Max Malins having also pulled out the night before – but they were given a lifeline as Bundee Aki was shown a red card for a high tackle on Billy Vunipola. England kicked the resulting penalty to touch and after pulling in the Irish pack to defend the driving maul, Jamie George peeled off to the blind side and fed Ben Youngs to cross in the corner. The English discipline was – unsurprisingly for this tournament – lacking and Sexton added 2 more penalties to secure the game. There was still time for one final hurrah from England, and after Conor Murray was sent to the bin, stand-in fly half Dan Robson threw a wide pass to put Jonny May over with just minutes left, Daly converting for a final score of 32-18, that condemned England to a 5ᵗʰ-place finish.

James Ryan may be one of the darlings of Irish rugby, but I would argue that Saturday’s pairing of Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne is Ireland’s strongest second row.

While both of the pair have the physicality of locks, they play like extra back rows in the way they carry in the loose and act around the contact area, while they both have the energy to play the full 80 minutes at 100%. Even with CJ Stander having just played his last game in an Ireland shirt, the team has so many great options in the back row – Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris and Will Connors to name just a few – that having Beirne and Henderson in the second row allows the team more chance to tailor the back row to fit their opposition, such as playing carriers at 6 and 8 or a more defensive option of Connors and van der Flier on the flanks.

Do I expect the Irish to stick to this pairing once Ryan returns from injury? Not likely, though Beirne may return to 6 to keep the pair in the starting XV, but I feel that this is the second row partnership that will lead to the best Irish performances.

England

After last week’s great performance against France, was it any surprise to see England revert to type against Ireland?

Less that 2 years ago, England were playing in a World Cup final, but if you look deeper, the team was already stagnating under Eddie Jones. The win over New Zealand was the only performance of note in that tournament, with England benefitting from facing France and Argentina – both of whom were woefully lacking form – in the pools, and playing a quarterfinal against an Australian team that was also at a low point.

Following the tournament, England should have done as France had, change coaches and bring in the youth to give them a full 4 years playing together to build ready for RWC2023. Instead, Jones has stayed in place and the team has fallen apart. Too many players are picked on the strength of their name and performances years ago, while the form players who should be the stars of this team are not even getting picked for the squad. This has proved especially disastrous this year with the decision to keep picking Saracens players who had been relegated the the Championship so not played rugby for months, and it has left the team with players lacking match fitness in key positions. Meanwhile, the team has also unquestioningly gone for the new Eddie Jones approach of kicking the ball away at every opportunity and trusting a defence that isn’t actually as good as the think they are, while giving away dozens of ridiculous and completely avoidable penalties that kill off any chance of competing.

This 5ᵗʰ-place finish should be the last straw. Now is the time to move on from Jones before the team stagnates any further. 2 years is still enough time to bed in players like the Simmonds brothers and build this team up ready for the next World Cup.

Come on RFU, make the right decision!

Lions Watch

As well as the lock pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain HendersonKeith Earls put in a timely performance to remind Warren Gatland of his reliability. Jonathan Sexton has also done a great job of guiding the Irish attack as it has grown more expansive during the tournament.

Meanwhile, another anonymous display that included an early removal will surely put the nail in the coffin of George Ford‘s Lions chances, while Mako Vunipola was pulled off at half time after struggling in the scrum.

Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Ireland

After a COVID outbreak caused their Round 3 match against France to be delayed, Scotland got back to playing by hosting Ireland at Murrayfield. It’s safe to say that they didn’t get off to the start they wanted, as Jonathan Sexton kicked a penalty after just 3 minutes to give the Irish the lead. The early phase of the game saw Ireland continue in the ascendency, and when Keith Earls, Chris Harris and Stuart Hogg failed to claim Sexton’s cross-kick into the in-goal, Robbie Henshaw was there to follow up an dot down the loose ball for the opening try, which Sexton failed to convert. This try appeared to wake up the Scots, and after Finn Russell opened his account for the day with a penalty and Hamish Watson won a crucial turnover penalty on his line, Scotland scored a try of their own that could only be described as rugby chaos: Stuart Hogg charged down a Garry Ringrose kick following a turnover and appeared to try kicking the ball up into his hands, only for it to bounce forward off his chin – not a knock on – before Hogg’s next kick sent the ball infield towards Finn Russell, whose own hack on caught out the retreating James Lowe and allowed the Scottish fly half to collect the ball and go over, giving himself an easy conversion to take the lead. That lead didn’t last long as good pressure on the kick chase gave Sexton another penalty, and after Russell missed a kick of his own, a silly offside from Ali Price let Sexton kick a third penalty to end the half with a 10-14 lead.

Ireland struck first in the second half with a lineout 5 metres from the Scottish line. The Scots successfully sacked the maul at source, but Ireland went through the phases with maximum aggression and Tadhg Beirne eventually found his way over the line, with Romain Poite adamant that he had seen a grounding of the ball despite relays suggesting otherwise. Sexton kicked the conversion and added a penalty to expand the lead to 14. As the half went on, the game became so fast and furious all that was missing was a cameo from Vin Diesel, but substitute Huw Jones managed to brush off a grasping tackle from James Lowe and burst between him and Hugo Keenan to score a crucial try for the Scots, which was converted by Stuart Hogg, who was taking over the kicking and fly half responsibilities due to Finn Russell suffering a head injury. An injury to Scott Cummings after Scotland had brought on all their replacement forwards saw replacement scrum half Scott Steele employed as a makeshift blindside flanker, but he didn’t look out of place and got stuck in with the pack as Scotland hammered on the Irish try line following a series of penalties in the Irish 22, and Hamish Watson finally managed to twist and turn his way over the line and get the ball to ground, with Hogg kicking the conversion to draw things level. Unfortunately for the Scots, Ali Price saw his box kick charged down in his 22 – not the first time in this year’s tournament – and though he recovered the loose ball, he was pinged for holding on with Iain Henderson latched in over the top, and Sexton took his time to kick the crucial penalty to hand the Irish a 24-27 victory.

While some poor discipline certainly cost the Scots at crucial times, there was something else that proved even more costly: their lineout. The men in blue won just 2 of their 8 lineouts, while they also gave away a free kick at one before the throw.

Of course the Irish lineout – under the tutelage of Paul O’Connell – will cause any team problems, but a team looking to regularly win against Tier 1 nations needs to be doing better. This far into the tournament, you can’t even use the absence of Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally as an excuse, as George Turner has had plenty of time with the starting XV and with 14 caps to his name can no longer be considered a rookie at international level.

With Italy up next, Scotland need to show a massive improvement in this area if they are to have any chance of being competitive there when they play their rearranged fixture against the French. If not, then then a season that promised so much will see them finish in the bottom half of the standings again.

Ireland

As well as stealing most of the Scottish lineouts, the Irish also managed to somewhat dominate the breakdown. The physicality of the Irish pack is always there with players Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander, and having players like Robbie Henshaw and James Lowe just adds to that and helps put the team on the front foot in the contact, while other players are very technically good in contact too, allowing them to bring down their man maybe not with a dominant tackle, but till in a way that gives the jackal every chance of winning a turnover.

And now let’s talk about those jackals. The Irish don’t rely on just 1 or 2 players for their jackaling, 1-23 will be happy to get in there and latch on the ball, and so many of them are famed for their jackaling ability, especially when you have one or both of Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson in the second row.

With so many jackals on the pitch and players trained to tackle in a way that will give them the best chance to win the turnover, it makes it hard for a side to attack effectively, as they will have to commit numbers to the breakdown, and will eventually run out of support after a number of phases. Usually it would be the defence that would tire quicker during a protracted period of play, but by defending in this way, it allows the Irish to stay organised and limit the effort they are putting out, keeping them fresh to attack with clinical ferocity.

The Irish attack may still be a work in progress under Andy Farrell, but their defence will keep them in contention against most teams.

Lions Watch

While CJ Stander had a quieter match (by his standards), Man of the Match Tadhg Beirne and lock Iain Henderson must be securing their places in the Lions squad with fantastic all-round games, while Robbie Henshaw is arguably a contender for Player of the Tournament. Meanwhile, Hamish Watson once again showed that his talents at the breakdown are just the tip of the iceberg with some ferocious carrying.

Unfortunately, in an area with such depth, both Duhan van der Merwe and James Lowe will be disappointed with their performances in this match considering their lack of Test experience, while Jamison Gibson-Park struggled for consistency with his box kicks and Ali Price may have found himself getting charged down once too often for Warren Gatland’s liking.

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Wales

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Wales

Wales’ unlikeliest of Grand Slam campaigns continued on Saturday with their trip to Rome to face Italy. Wales secured the Triple Crown with a win over England 2 weeks ago and were ahead within minutes as Luca Bigi was pinged for being off his feet at the ruck, allow Dan Biggar to kick an early penalty. Bigi was penalised again just minutes later for not being back 10 before tackling Gareth Davies after the scrumhalf took a quick penalty in the Italian 22, leading to the hooker being sent to the bin. Wales took immediate advantage of the extra man, calling for a scrum and spreading the ball on first phase, with Dan Biggar’s wide pass putting Josh Adams outside his man to go over in the corner, with Biggar adding the extras. Wales were soon scoring again, with Josh Adams taking on 3 defenders to bring the ball up to the Italian try line. With the Azzurri defence caught narrow, Wales spread the ball wide to the other wing, where Louis Rees-Zammit took advantage of the overlap to send Taulupe Faletau over, Biggar just missing the conversion. The Italians were struggling to cope with the Welsh maul from the lineout and it proved costly for the next 2 tries as Ken Owens was driven over for number 3, while the maul set up the platform for Owens to break off and stretch for the line to secure the bonus point, with Biggar going 1 of 2 on these conversions. Wales had one more chance to stretch the lead before the break, but Dan Biggar’s pass to release Louis Rees-Zammit drifted forward and they were forced to settle for a 0-27 lead.

It didn’t take long for Wales to score once the game restarted, with Jonathan Davies running a straight line on first phase off a scrum, getting his arms through the tackle and offloading to George North to race in under the posts, giving Biggar an easy conversion. The game was long over as a contest, but the Italians were desperate not to be nilled, and Monty Ioane got them on the scoreboard by chasing his own chip into the Welsh 22 and holding strong through Liam Williams’ tackle, with Paolo Garbisi converting from the touchline. Wales almost had an immediate answer, but Josh Adams was a little to casual dotting down the ball as he rode a tackle in the corner, and it was adjudged that his foot had entered touch in goal before the ball was grounded. It looked like the Italians took a little hope from this, but any growing momentum was quickly dashed as they again found themselves down to 14, with replacement prop Marco Riccioni being sent to the bin for leading with the forearm. The penalty gave Wales possession and territory and after a series of phases close tot he Italian line, Callum Sheedy popped up on Josh Navidi’s shoulder to slip through for his first Test try, which he converted. As Wales took off their big names early to rest them ahead of next week’s Grand Slam decider with France, Italy started to get more possession in the Welsh half and create half-chances, but they could not find the finish and ended up being their own worst enemies, with Rees-Zammit intercepting Carlo Canna’s looped pass inside his own 22 and racing away to score untouched, Sheedy converting. Italy continued to press in the final minutes, but once again their accuracy failed them as they knocked on short of the line, bringing an end to a 7-48 loss.

Italy

After a somewhat promising start to the tournament, these last 2 matches have been embarrassing for Italy. They haven’t been accurate enough in attack, while their discipline has been absolutely awful, gifting teams possession, territory and points. as if that wasn’t bad enough, both of the last 2 games have seen 2 Italians get sent to the bin. It’s hard enough for them to stay competitive with 15 on the pitch, so spending so much time at a numerical disadvantage is killing them.

Of those 4 yellow cards, 2 were given to Luca Bigi, who as captain has been setting an awful example to his young team. The hooker has been a penalty machine all tournament, giving away territory and possession frequently with cheap infringements that were wholly unnecessary, while his 2 yellow cards have led to 4 tries while he has been getting a breather in the sin bin. As a captain, that just isn’t good enough – you wouldn’t see a player like Alun Wyn Jones getting pinged as cheaply or frequently. He may be one of the oldest and most experienced players in the squad, but that doesn’t necessarily make him captaincy material.

Maybe it is time that Franco Smith looked at other options for the captaincy. Carlo Canna provides similar experience and always leads by example even when being used as a crash ball option rather than a playmaker, while Seb Negri is another who is nailed on for a starting spot and always puts in 100%. Will we see a change in leadership next week? I doubt it, but Bigi will need a big – and clean – game.

Wales

I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve seen Wales change 13 or 14 men for this fixture and struggle for 50-60 minutes before finally pulling away at the end as they bring on all their top players. Well this time, as they finally look to put a run of results together, they made only a couple of changes, picking what could arguably be considered their best available XV.

This definitely ended up being the right move as the chemistry between the players was clear to see, and it helped Wales set a tempo early on that allowed them to dominate and secure the bonus point victory in just half an hour. Not only this, but it allowed players like Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones to get a decent run-out to stay match-ready, but also allowed them to get an early rest in the second half with next Saturday’s trip to Paris looming.

Could it be considered a missed opportunity to hand starts to a couple of different players, like Callum Sheedy and Uilisi Halaholo? Yes, but while these would have been the changes to make most sense, the starting midfield tri has very little gametime together, so the extra experience of playing together in a Test match could prove vital when the take on Les Bleus.

Lions Watch

It’s hard to really draw any thoughts on players whose Lions chances were harmed by this performance, as nobody performed so badly that they stood out in such a clinical performance, not even Josh Adams, who will surely ensure the ball is grounded quicker next time, with plenty of rivals for the wing spots.

One of those rivals for the wing spot will surely be Louis Rees-Zammit. There is nothing scarier in rugby than a player with pace and the Gloucester wing has that in droves, highlighted by his run home after the intercept, during which he may have just left third gear. Meanwhile just inside him, George North‘s transition into an international 13 is going much better than I expected and that versatility may just earn him a spot in the squad as Warren Gatland knows him well.

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

After a week off from the competition, the 2021 Six Nations returned with just 2 of the 3 scheduled matches following an outbreak of COVID-19 in the French squad. First upon Saturday was a trip to the Stadio Olimpico, where Italy were hosting Ireland.

The Azzurri were already missing a number of players coming into the match and lost scrum half Stephen Varney to injury in the warm-up, but took an early lead through the boot of Paolo Garcia. Ireland soon drew level through Jonathan Sexton, before Iain Henderson thought he had scored the opening try of the match, only for referee Mathieu Raynal and TMO Romain Poite to both decide that he had lost control during the grounding. This only delayed the inevitable though, as a series of phases just short of the line drew in the Italian defence, allowing the ball to be spread to Garry Ringrose, who crossed next to the posts, giving Sexton an easy conversion. Sexton added another penalty and then on the half hour match found themselves over for another try, with a break downthe blind side of a maul from Jamison Gibson-Park, Sexton and Keith Earls, and when the ball came left, Garry Ringrose offloaded to Hugo Keenan on a great line to go in unchallenged, leaving Sexton with another easy kick for the extras. Just a few minutes later, some silky hands from Ronan Kelleher, Sexton and Jordan Larmour saw Will Connors put over for a try out wide with Sexton scoring a much more difficult conversion. The game was at risk of getting away from the Azzurri, but a penalty at the end of the half gave them a lineout 5m out, and after bringing the ball infield for a couple of phases, Garbisi attacked the blind side and managed to get his arms through the tackle to offload to Johan Meyer for the try, which the young fly half converted for a 10-27 halftime deficit.

That was pretty much the last time that the Italians looked like scoring in this game, while Italy soon found themselves securing the bonus point as CJ Stander powered over just a couple of minutes after the restart, Sexton again converting. The rest of the third quarter was a dull affair as the replacements stared to break up the game, but all that changed on the hour mark as replacement prop Giosuè Zilocchi was sent to the bin for going off his feet at a ruck. From the resulting penalty, Kelleher took the tap and go, and a couple f phases later CJ Stander had his second try, though this was ruled out when the TMO found a knock on in the build-up. This as just a brief reprieve however, and after captain Luca Bigi was also sent to the bin, the Irish pack used their numerical advantage to control a 5m catch and drive, pushing Will Connors over for his second of the day, with Sexton once again adding the extras. The Irish thought they had another try just minutes later as James Lowe came onto a Craig Casey pass at pace to burst through the Italian line, but a TMO referral eventually decided that the replacement scrum half’s pass had gone forwards. There was time for one more try from the Irish, as one final attack ended with Sexton throwing a flat miss pass to send Keith Earls over in the corner, and the Irish captain kicked the conversion to secure a 10-48 victory.

Italy

This was the most disappointing performance so far in this year’s competition from the Azzurri, but it’s almost understandable. While they have been playing some great rugby at times, they are seriously missing the spark that some of their absent stars create.

While Johan Meyer can be relied on to make a couple of impressive carries per game – usually out on the wings – he and Michele Lamaro have so far failed to replicate the impact that the injured Jake Polledri has on a game, while Danilo Fischetti’s impact was missed in and around the breakdown today. Meanwhile in the back line, injuries have ruined what looked to be a bright future for Michele Campagnaro, while Matteo Minozzi’s 11 tries in 22 Tests have been severely missed as he ruled himself out of the tournament, describing himself as “physically and mentally tired, a bit too much to live another two months in a bubble.” And then to add to this, livewire scrum half Steven Varney was forced to pull out with an injury in the warm-up, leaving Italy with more experienced, but less deadly options.

Sometimes all it takes is one spark of magic to turn something into nothing, and these are the players who would usually be providing it. Paolo Garbisi is certainly trying his best to provide it when playing with ball in hand, but then lets himself down with his kicking game that invites the opposition to counter. Seb Negri can always be relied on to run hard, but Polledri’s absence is allowing defences to put more focus on stopping him, while Montanna Ioane has shown glimpses of the danger he possesses, but has generally been well marked by defences so far.

This spell of playing without so many gamechangers will benefit Italy in the long term, as it will force other players to step up and create those chances, leading to even more dangerous options when the usual stars return, as defences will have more stars to account for and will not be able to double up on them. If Franco Smith could find a way to convince the currently uncapped Paolo Odogwu to switch allegiance to Italy, that would be another player that defences would need to account for in their defensive planning.

Ireland

When it comes to the British and Irish Lions, the second row position is always going to be a tough call, with all 4 countries boasting such talent at the position. One person who is surely securing his place in the 2021 Lions squad (assuming there is one) is that of Tadhg Beirne.

Finally enjoying a spell of consecutive games in the Irish starting XV, Beirne has fully settled into Test rugby and is now showing the level of performances that those who have watched him play regularly for the Scarlets and Munster knew he was capable of. He’s a huge player and can use his physicality well, but is also so fleet of foot in the loose and has such impressive handling skills, while he is also an expert at jackaling over the ball while still supporting his weight. With this wide skillset and an incredible engine, he is one of the few players who is successfully managing to play both lock and back row to such a high quality.

With this Man of the Match performance, it is becoming all but impossible to drop him from the XV, putting him at 6 if you want a bit more ballast in your pack, or moving him into the second row if you want to add a different dynamic into your back row. Against the Springboks’ giant pack, don’t be surprised to see a dual-position player like Beirne earning a spot in the Lions squad, and potentially even pushing for a spot in the XV.

Lions Watch

So I’ve already waxed lyrical about Tadhg Beirne above, but I think that the entire starting back row for Ireland enhanced their chances of making the Lions squad, with CJ Stander continuing to highlight a return to form with another try, while Will Connors showed his reliability in defence as well as scoring 2 tries.

While nobody really stood out as having a bad performance, another solid performance from Jamison Gibson-Park and a great increase in tempo from replacement Craig Casey will surely be making it difficult for Conor Murray to earn his spot back when fit, while the continued form of Hugo Keenan means that Jordan Larmour is becoming somewhat of a forgotten figure, having a largely quiet first half today before being replace by Keith Earls.

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Round 2 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Dublin on Sunday as Ireland hosted France. Ireland were missing 4 experienced players from Round 1 through injury and suspension, but after both Billy Burns and Matthieu Jalibert missed early kicks at goal, Billy Burns broke the deadlock on 20 minutes with a penalty. A few minutes later, France found themselves temporarily down to 14 after Bernard Le Roux was caught tripping Keith Earls as they chased an Irish kick downfield. The Irish kicked the penalty to touch and thought they had taken an immediate advantage of the extra man as the spread the ball wide on first phase to James Lowe, who powered through Brice Dulin’s tackle to score in the corner, only for a TMO referral to find that his toe had brushed the touchline before he touched down. This let off appeared to galvanise the French, who immediately went on the attack and a series of offloads brought them into the Irish 22. With the Irish defence in disarray, the ball was spread wide to Charles Ollivon, who was able to outpace CJ Stander as he tried to get across to cover and score the opening try. Jalibert kicked the conversion and then a penalty with Le Roux back on the pitch to take a halftime lead of 3-10.

Les Bleus started the second half on the front foot and almost had another try straight away as Julien Marchand broke into the 22, only for Antoine Dupont’s attempted wide pass from the base of a ruck to be blocked by the face of dummy runner Paul Willemse. This attack cost Ireland Billy Burns, who went off for a HIA that he failed, while just a minute later, Cian Healy and captain Iain Henderson clashed heads and were required to leave the pitch for their own assessments. With so much leadership off the pitch, the French were able to get themselves into the 22 again, and when Jalibert reversed the play back to the right, his wide pass drew in James Lowe, who was stepped inside by Dulin, with the fullback drawing the final Irish tackler and popping the ball off to the looping Damian Penaud to extend the lead, Jalibert missing the conversion. The Irish desperately needed the next score and got it almost immediately, winning a penalty from the restart and kicking the ball up tot the French 22. Replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher’s first action of the game was to throw into the lineout, and the ball was stolen but not cleanly, bouncing in the 5m channel, and the Irish hooker reacted fastest to collect the ball and scamper in unchallenged. Ross Byrne kicked the conversion and added a penalty with 15 minutes remaining, but the Irish could not make any further breakthrough and after Jalibert struck the post with a late attempt at goal, the game fizzled away to a 13-15 win for Les Bleus.

Ireland

I can imagine that many people were nervous as to how Ireland would perform in this match with Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony all missing. I would argue that the team actually performed better without them on the whole.

With Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns controlling the game, the pace of the Irish attack was so much better, which allowed the Irish pack and midfield to get into the French early on, while Burns’ high bombs were putting Brice Dulin under incredible pressure. Unfortunately, the quality appeared to be missing on the bench, with Craig Casey not even trusted to come on while experienced and talented 9s like Kieran Marmion, John Cooney and Luke McGrath were all ignore. Similarly, Ross Byrne once again looked a passenger (and not in a good way) after replacing Burns and I think that it cost them. We all know what Sexton and Murray can do. Now is the time to leave them out for the rest of the tournament and look at other options, with one of the aforementioned 9s coming in to compete with Gibson-Park for the staring job and Ian Madigan coming in to replace Ross Byrne, as his ability to cover both 10 and 12 would allow him to either replace Burns or come in at centre to give the midfield a different shape late on.

At lock, I understand that James Ryan is the darling of Irish rugby, but he has always seemed to be a good workrate but little more, while this weekend’s pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson brought that and more. Capable of turning out at lock or 6, the pair brought dynamism with their carries, were dangerous at the breakdown and were also tireless workers in the tighter parts of the game, while Henderson certainly led by example from first minute to last.

Finally in the back row, I have always found O’Mahony to be a penalty risk if a referee is doing their job right, and while I’m not sure Rhys Ruddock was the right pick at 6, I would argue that Will Connors had a great impact in defence when he was brought on later in the game, while Caelan Doris will also provide a great carrying option once back.

France

I dare you to find me a better player in World rugby right now than Antoine Dupont. The Toulouse scrum half is a walking highlights reel! Every match, you can almost guarantee that if a player makes a break, he will be there on their shoulder to keep the attack going, while he has the pace and footwork to exploit the tiniest of gaps – and even highlighted in this match that he has a decent fend despite being one of the smaller players on the pitch.

Even when he’s not able to be so attacking, he’s still showing a range of skills, with a cultured boot – and the calmness to not rush under pressure – while his defence is also an underrate part of his game. And the scary thing is that at 24, he may not have even quite reached his peak yet, while he has a legitimate chance of starring at both the 2023 and 2027 Rugby World Cups. In the meantime, let’s just sit back and enjoy the show.

Lions Watch

Only the Irish to focus on here, and captain Iain Henderson put in a great performance all over the park, and was unlucky to not steal an attempted short lineout and long throw by the French on the own 5m line. Meanwhile, Hugo Keenan looked assured once again at the back and appears to be making the Irish 15 shirt his own, but will have to go a long way to beat out Stuart Hogg.

It wasn’t such a good day for James Lowe, who is currently getting limited chances to run at the defence like he would like to, and his disallowed try in a week where a number of wings shone for the Home Nations will hurt.

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Ireland

Round 1 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Cardiff with Wales hosting Ireland at the Principality Stadium. Neither team had a 2020 campaign to be proud of, but it was the Welsh who had the better start, with Leigh Halfpenny kicking an early penalty after Peter O’Mahony was caught entering a ruck from the side. O’Mahony clearly needs to work on his ruck entry, as he was penalised again 10 minutes later for tucking in the arm and making contact with the head of Tomas Francis, leaving Wayne Barnes with no option other than to send him off. The Welsh were buoyed by the man advantage and soon doubled their lead after Jonathan Sexton was penalised for a high tackle on Johnny Williams. They let the Irish claw themselves back into the game however, and Sexton kicked 2 penalties to bring everything level. Then with just a few minutes left in the half, Robbie Henshaw ran a reverse and found a gap in the Welsh defensive line to break into the 22 before offloading to Josh van der Flier. The flanker was stopped just short, but a solid clean-out from the Irish allowed Tadhg Beirne to pick from the base and cross for the opening try, which Sexton converted for a 6-13 halftime lead.

The Welsh came out looking to play a bit more positive rugby after the break, and when they won a loose ball deep in the Irish half, Josh Navidi picked up from the base of the ruck and offloaded to outside centre George North, who used his support me to dummy his way past James Lowe to score in the corner, Halfpenny missing the conversion. 10 minutes later, wales found themselves in a similar position, and some soft hands under pressure from Halfpenny released Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing, who quickly got up to speed and dived in for the go-ahead try under pressure from Tadhg Furlong. Halfpenny added the conversion and a further 3 points just a few minutes later when Tadhg Beirne was harshly adjudged to have entered a ruck from the side. However the Irish hit back and with Jonathan Sexton off the pitch, Billy Burns kicked a penalty to cut the deficit to 5 points. The clock entered the red with Ireland in possession and making their way downfield, eventually winning an 84ᵗʰ minute penalty. Billy Burns went for the corner but overcooked his kick on a tight angle and the ball went out of play over the dead ball line, securing a 21-16 victory for Wales.

Wales

Wales should consider themselves very lucky to have won this game despite having a man advantage for over an hour of the game, because they played this game completely wrong.

With Ireland going down to 14 men so early in the match Wales should have been looking to keep the ball in hand as much as possible, probing along the defensive line to find the gap that will inevitably appear due to the 1-man advantage, whether it is by creating a hole in the middle or catching the defensive line too narrow to create space out wide for Rees-Zammit. In doing this, not only would it have created chances, but it would have also tired the Irish out, creating even more gaps to exploit as the game wore on.

Instead, Wales entered into a kicking duel with the Irish that on the whole they lost, while the Irish would then utilise their own possession and territory to work the Welsh defence as Wales should have been doing to them. It was only a couple of moments in the second half when Wales really played this right – and they finished both of these occasions with tries!

At the end of the day, a win is a win, but for me there are still a lot of questions about the way Wayne Pivac has this team playing.

Ireland

Ireland have such strength in depth throughout this squad, with almost all of the 15 men starting all able to be replaced by someone of similar quality. However, there are 2 key positions where the Irish are struggling to do this: in the half backs.

Though both Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray are in the twilight of their careers and hold the team back against top quality opponents, they are still given all the minutes by Andy Farrell, exactly as was the case under Joe Schmidt. Meanwhile, players in the form of their lives are lucky to make it onto the bench and get just a handful of minutes, usually once the result is secured. If they’re lucky, they may get a start against a team like Italy, but usually in a team so heavily changed that they build no chemistry with the first team players. This lack of chemistry with the first team and lack of minutes in key international matches leads to performances like today, where Billy Burns is brought on with just 10 minutes left and expected to change his natural game to fit into the scheme that has been made to get the best out of Sexton, and leads to extra pressure on their shoulders in situations like today’s final kick to touch, where they know they must be inch-perfect in order to to even stand a chance of being given minutes over the incumbents, and that extra pressure in an unfamiliar situation leads to mistakes.

At some point, Sexton and Murray will be unavailable, either through injuries or retirement. When that moment comes, Andy Farrell may regret having not given the players just below them in the depth chart more time with the first team.

Lions Watch

Tadhg Beirne and Robbie Henshaw were the standout players from this game and were very unlucky that being n the losing side meant they were not considered for Man of the Match, while CJ Stander looked more mobile than last season without losing any of his power. For wales, Alun Wyn Jones put in a true captain’s performance, carrying hard and repeatedly leaving Irish bodies crumpled on the ground following his tackles.

Arguably the biggest loser from this weekend will be Peter O’Mahony, whose red card just highlighted once again that he is not the player he was a few years ago due to the changed interpretations at the breakdown, while larger players like Beirne and Iain Henderson’s ability to cover the back row as well as lock will make them look more attractive against the massive Springbok packs. Similarly, Johnny Williams has a potential to be a bolter for the squad but needs the minutes at international level, so a failed HIA would have been the last thing he wanted, and he will be hoping that he is fit to face Sotland next weekend.