Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 3

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 3

Week 3 is in the book and if we’re being honest, there’s only one result everyone is talking about. Ireland shocked the world when they beat New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 and they did it again at the weekend in front of a raucous Irish crowd at the Aviva Stadium. Away from this match, a number of Tier 1 nations gave the fringe players a run-out this weekend as they played nations a little lower in the rankings, with mixed results.

The Week 3 results were:

  • France 28-13 Argentina
  • Ireland 16-9 New Zealand
  • Chile 0-73 Maori All Blacks
  • Scotland 20-26 South Africa
  • England 35-15 Japan
  • Wales 74-24 Tonga
  • Italy 7-26 Australia
  • Georgia 27-19 Samoa
  • Uruguay 7-68 Fiji

Before we get into my thoughts, a quick thank you to my colleague and fellow rugby not Phil, who abandoned me for a trip to Twickenham this weekend but made up for it by sending me the photos you will see today and a few others that you will see in later posts.


England

With less than a year until the World Cup, a number of (largely fringe) players were given a chance against Japan to improve their odds of selection. Come full time, new cap Joe Cokanasiga was the only player from the starting XV to come away with a heightened reputation. Danny Care is so often a danger off the bench but once again he struggled to have the same positive impact from the start, as did Alec Hepburn and Harry Williams. Elliot Daly continues to struggle under the high ball in this series, Alex Lozowski made a crucial tackle to stop Michael Leitch but also missed a number of crucial tackles and did not bring anything to the attack. Once again George Ford showed that he is unable to effectively lead an international back line without Owen Farrell outside him to take the pressure off him. Meanwhile, Zach Mercer was treated awfully by being pulled for Dylan Hartley during Jamie George’s sin bin and then getting subbed early in the 2nd half.

I expect the line-up against Australia will be very similar to what we saw against South Africa and New Zealand. So the question then becomes “what should be done in the 6 Nations?” Personally I think that if Eddie Jones plans to take Farrell and just one other out-and-out 10 to Japan, then George Ford has proved he is not the man and Danny Cipriani needs to be given a realistic chance to earn a spot in the squad. I would love to see Chris Ashton or Jack Nowell given the chance at 15 against Australia as the Wallabies are bound to target us with high balls for Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty to chase.

rugEJ
With less than a year until the World Cup, Eddie Jones still has a number of big decisions to make

Obviously England are missing a number of top players and don’t want to peak too far ahead of the World Cup, but right now I struggle to see how this team will be competitive in the latter stages of the tournament… if they get that far.

Japan

I understand why Man of the Match is almost always given to a player from the winning team, but it was a travesty that Michael Leitch did not win the award for this match. The Japan captain was everywhere on the pitch and led his team from the front. He was involved in many of their best moments and scored a try where he broke a number of (admittedly poor) English tackles before stepping inside Elliot Daly. Japanese rugby may not have stepped on as much as some would have hoped since the last World Cup, but with players like Leitch there to inspire them, things will hopefully improve in the coming years.


Ireland

Not many teams can say they have a defence coach who has beaten the All Blacks. Ireland however can boast a defence coach in Andy Farrell who has beat them 4 times (with England in 2012, with Ireland this weekend and in 2016 and the 2nd Lions Tests in 2017) and drawn once (2017 Lions Tour 3rd Test). Andy Farrell has done a wonderful job of teaching his teams to front up at the breakdown and keep their discipline in defence. For Chris Robshaw in 2012, see Peter O’Mahony in 2018, the Munster skipper is a perfect representation of what Farrell is looking for from his back row. Meanwhile Johnny Sexton and Kieran Marmion (who arguably had his best match in an Irish shirt on Saturday night) did a wonderful job of controlling the game and the defence refused to give an inch and worked as a pack, forcing New Zealand to have the ball where they don’t want it. If you want to see how to beat the All Blacks, take a look at Farrell’s work.

New Zealand

I’ve been saying for a while now that New Zealand have looked beatable and boy did they look it on Saturday night! Under heavy pressure from the Irish defence, players were making uncharacteristic errors. Beauden Barrett has not had the best of seasons in my view and in this match his threat was almost completely nullified, while even Damian McKenzie struggled to positively impact the game. Ardie Savea is a talented player but it is clear that this team are missing Sam Cane at the breakdown. The All Blacks can arguably consider themselves fortunate to not find themselves with a man in the bin as they gave a number of penalties away in and around their 22, but Wayne Barnes was lenient towards both teams’ indiscretions in this match. With just one match against Italy remaining, I will be shocked if Richie Mo’unga is not given a starting spot as it is becoming clear that they need to look at their options beyond Barrett ahead of the World Cup. They have chopped and changed a number of players in 2018 – their strength in depth is incredible – but I feel that entering 2019, Steve Hansen needs to start narrowing down and looking at the players he will take to Japan and working on the combinations. They may look beatable right now, but actually doing so is still a challenge and it won’t take much for them to peak in time for another tournament.


Uruguay

As much as Uruguay struggled to be competitive in this game, there were some good moments from them and a suggestion that, given the right chances, they could become more competitive. As such, I was thrilled to hear during the commentary that almost half of their squad are set to compete in the upcoming season of the MLR. While obviously some way off the level of the top leagues, this is still a great way for Uruguay to benefit as the players will be facing a higher standard of competition weekly. Potentially they could look to enter their own expansion team in the future, similar to how Canada have the Toronto Arrows as of this season and make the MLR develop into a truly American league.

Fiji

No offence to Uruguay, but I don’t really see what Fiji really gained from this choice of opposition. With 8 places between the teams in World Rugby’s ranking system, there was a clear gulf in quality despite Fiji resting a number of players and giving players from the NRC team Fijian Drua a run-out on the international stage. We know how good Fiji are in an open game and unfortunately the Uruguayans could not give them enough opposition to make them work on a more cohesive performance. I feel that Fiji should be looking to arrange matches with teams that will force them to play a more structure style as this is going to be key to the national team moving up the rankings. Just take a look at the nations ranked higher than them following this weekend:

  1. New Zealand
  2. Ireland
  3. Wales
  4. England
  5. South Africa
  6. Australia
  7. Scotland
  8. France
  9. Argentina

Fiji are putting together a group of players that can equal these teams and arguably play better rugby than some of them (looking your way Eddie Jones!) but the one thing they lack right now is the ingrained structure that they can build a match around to ensure they are playing in the right areas of the pitch. To quote Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious: “It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning”. Fiji now need an opponent that will teach them the importance of keeping the scoreboard ticking over force them to take their structured game to the next level.


Wales

Like England, Wales made wholesale changes to their starting line-up this week for the visit of Tonga. Unlike England, most of the players given a chance in this match showed they deserved to be playing on the international stage. One intercepted pass aside, Tomos Williams looked good at scrum half and Aled Davies also impressed off the bench, including finishing off one of the tries of the month. Even if Rhys Webb comes back to Wales, he’s going to have some competition for his place in the national squad. Dan Biggar had a solid game but for me still kicked too much (thought they were more attacking cross-kicks, which is an improvement), but Rhys Patchell also did a great job of bringing the back line into the game. Jonah Holmes was solid at 15 on his debut (but I imagine Liam Williams will take the 15 shirt in Leigh Halfpenny’s absence this weekend), Steff Evans was at his best in a free-flowing attacking game and the centre pairing of Owen Watkin and Tyler Morgan showed that there is some depth developing in the midfield and Wales may not have to rely so heavily on Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies. In the forwards, Jake Ball put in a timely performance to remind everyone of his credentials, while Aaron Wainwright and Seb Davies were wonderful throughout and Ellis Jenkins continued to cement himself as my latest man-crush while showing himself as a more than international captain. I don’t expect many of these players will feature against South Africa this weekend, but as the World Cup draws near they have done a good job of pushing themselves into contention for a seat on the plane.

Tonga

After a poor start not helped by a harsh yellow card mere minutes into the game, Tonga did a stellar job to get back into the match in the 2nd quarter and draw the scores level soon after halftime. However, their higher average age showed in the second half as Wales’ fresher youngsters ran away with things, leaving a scoreline that did not do the islanders justice. Tonga’s issue right now is that too many of their top players are reaching their twilight years and not enough of the new generation are playing in the top leagues. Sione Vailanu looked great but he will not be a regular in the Saracens back row, while many of the players in the Southern Hemisphere will play in the Mitre 10 Cup or the NRC but not the Premiership. Tonga need to get more players into top level competition if they want to remain competitive in the foreseeable future. How can they do that? I have some ideas, which would benefit not just them but all the Pacific Island teams and I will look to write about that in the coming weeks.


Scotland

Watching Scotland in recent years, I have loved the way that they have been willing to try something slightly different to catch teams out in a game. In last year’s 6 Nations, they left the Irish pack looking stupid after putting Alex Dunbar in the lineout and throwing straight to him to run over from 5 metres out. Their latest lineout try was a little more conventional (it was actually scored by a forward this time) but no less clever. The movement forward of front man Gordon Reid and the lift of Ben Toolis by the front pod left a wonderful gap for Hamish Watson (standing in the conventional scrum half position) to run into to receive the throw and go over for a try. Add to that the incredible decision to set up a maul in the middle of the field during open phase play – a ploy which saw the Scots push the Springboks back. A team cannot rely on gimmicks to win games, but Scotland under Vern Cotter and now Gregor Townsend have done a wonderful job of playing smart rugby while also making it attractive and adding in the occasional clever ploy to catch the defence off guard. I can’t wait to see what they have in store when we reach the World Cup!

South Africa

The more I watch South Africa this season, the more I think they need Pat Lambie. Elton Jantjies has an incredible skill-set but I do not see him as a reliable 10 at international level and wonder if he would benefit from a move to 12 similar to Kurtley Beale. Meanwhile Handré Pollard is a more reliable option in general play but his kicking off the tee can be questionable. Meanwhile, it is likely too close to the World Cup for Damian Willemse to earn the 10 jersey, unless one of the more experienced fly halves would play outside him. It’s going to be very hard to reach the top without a consistent and reliable 10. If Rassie Erasmus can sort this, then I think this team is very close tot he finished article.


France

Argentina managed to get more ball to their electric back 3 this week compared to against Ireland last week. However they still struggled to have the impact they would want on the game as France were so disciplined at keeping their defensive line spread wide to ensure Ramiro Moyano, Bautista Delguy and Emiliano Boffelli had minimal space to work their magic in. The French have an annoying knack of peaking just in time for the World Cup, it looks like they’re building towards it again.

Argentina

The Pumas can be great to watch, but they can also be infuriating. One moment that stuck in my mind from this game was an Argentinian scrum in their own 22. The Pumas have struggled somewhat with the scrum this year, but in this scrum they got the push on against the French. Then they ruined everything by not listening to the referee’s instructions to use the ball, resulting in the scrum being reset with turnover ball. It is criminal to give away the ball at a set piece in your own 22 and it was only a great tackle by Nicolás Sánchez that allowed Argentina to get the ball back and clear their lines. They surprised the world when they reached the semi-finals of RWC2015 at Ireland’s expense, but they need to cut out stupid mistakes like this if they are to reach the semis again.


 

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

After last weekend’s early start for a number of teams, the Autumn Internationals kicked off in full force this weekend. The match between England and New Zealand that people wanted years ago finally took place and, despite England’s struggles in 2018, the match went right down to the final minutes. Wales finally ended years of hurt with a low-scoring win over Australia, while the USA got their first win over Samoa to continue their record of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018, though that will likely come to an end soon as they face Ireland in a few weeks.

The Week 2 results were:

  • Brazil 3-35 Maori All Blacks
  • France 26-29 South Africa
  • Ireland 28-17 Argentina
  • USA 30-29 Samoa
  • Wales 9-6 Australia
  • England 15-16 New Zealand
  • French Barbarians 38-49 Tonga
  • Scotland 54-17 Fiji
  • Italy 28-17 Georgia

England

The first 35 minutes against New Zealand was probably the best I have seen England play all season. Players were tackling as if their lives depended on it and if someone missed a tackle, there was someone else there to put the carrier down. The rucks were being hit with a desire to get the ball back on the English side and the backs were pinning the All Blacks back with their tactical kicking. And that maul for Dylan Hartley’s try was like porn for a former prop like me!

Unfortunately, the team could not keep it up for the full 80 minutes and they struggled to have the same impact in the second half. While it could be said that England were handed the match against South Africa by Malcolm Marx’s throwing, this time it was England throwing he game away in the second half as Jamie George managed to connect on only 5 of his 10 throws, with a number of them being pilfered by Brodie Retallick. While the throws were by no means perfect as they did not seem to be hitting the golden “double top” (top of the throw, top of the jump), I do not want to put the blame fully on George as the lineouts were continually called to Maro Itoje (I got the feeling he was the one calling the lineout but am not certain) despite Retallick covering him at the set piece.

If England are to win the tight games, they need to make sure their set piece is flawless on their own ball.

New Zealand

Damian McKenzie was wonderful on Saturday. While I don’t rate him as an international fly half, he is a fantastic attacking fullback. Despite his small stature, he popped straight back up after numerous big hits from Sam Underhill and the rest of the England back row, while his footwork, vision, pace and ability to pick an attacking line played such a big part in New Zealand’s resurgence. He may not be the best yet under the high ball, but this is an area of his game that he can develop. If he’s given the number 15 shirt on a regular basis over the next year, he could be one of the best at his position in the World Cup.


Wales

Alan Wyn Jones was a lucky man on Saturday, as he probably should have seen a red card for leading with a forearm into Bernard Foley. While the incident didn’t look much, leading with the forearm is considered a red card offence. Alafoti Fa’osiliva received a red card for when playing for Worcester against Gloucester a few years ago and just the night before this match, USA’s Megan Rom was shown red for the same offence, which I would argue was even softer as she appeared to initially attempt to hand the player off in the shoulder – something Jones didn’t. Meanwhile in the Pro14, both Uzair Cassiem and Kieron Fonotia have both been banned this season for similar offences. All we ask for in the rugby community is consistency, and going by previous examples, the Ospreys lock should have been taking an early bath, but not even a penalty was given.

Australia

Jones wasn’t the only player who probably got lucky not to be penalised in this game, as Samu Kerevi also escaped punishment for a collision with Leigh Halfpenny that saw the fullback ft with concussion. This to me is a really difficult one and even after a couple of days thinking about it and discussing with a few friends, I still can’t decide what the outcome should have been.

Kerevi does leave the ground in an attempt to charge down the kick, which is the only reason I can imagine Ben O’Keeffe was willing to call it a “rugby incident” and play on – similar to Andrew Conway’s attempted charge down of Gareth Steenson’s conversion in the Champions Cup. However, it did not look like a wholly committed attempt to block the kick and he did end up leading into Halfpenny with his shoulder as opposed to an arm. Later that night, Faf de Klerk had a penalty given against him for a late hit on Camille Lopez that looked like a much more committed attempt to block the kick and a considerably less nasty looking contact with the kicker. What makes this incident even worse is that Kerevi’s shoulder appears to make contact with Halfpenny’s head, which is backed up by his concussion as his head does not bash against the floor as he drops. In this current climate, it is a shock that there was not even a penalty given for something that was at best reckless and at worst dangerous. Like with the Jones incident, all we ask for is consistency, there does not appear to have been much this weekend.


USA

They still have some way to go to take on the Tier 1 nations, but this USA team is one that’s on the up. Despite missing 2 of their stars in AJ MacGinty and Samu Manoa, and having captain Blaine Scully leave the field early, the Eagles impressed with some wonderful play from back rows Cam Dolan and Hanco Germishuys and powerful running form Joe Taufete’e and Paul Lasike. These two guys kept the Eagles on the front foot throughout the game and the Worcester hooker even continued his scoring run form the Summer Tests. Lasike, though really impressed me. The former NFL fullback, now playing in the Premiership for Harlequins consistently made ground when given the ball, but was not a one-trick pony (or shire horse given his size) and also worked the Samoa defence well by drawing them in expecting the crash ball but then playing the ball off to the men now in space outside him. If they continue to grow as a team over the coming years and more players like Psalm Wooching choose rugby over a career in the NFL, then the sky could be the limit for them.

Samoa

I really don’t understand the tactical decisions made in this game. Despite an experienced 10 in Tusi Pisi and players outside like Ahsee Tuala, JJ Taulagi, Alapati Leiua and Ray Lee-Lo, the Samoan strategy seems to have been to kick first. While it is great to see them playing a more structured style (something that has not always been seen with the Pacific Island teams), I really don’t think it played to their strengths. I have no problem with a tactical kicking game, but this should have been more interspersed with crash balls and spreading the ball wide to keep the defence on their toes. For so long, Samoa appeared to be the best and most well-rounded of the Pacific Islands, but now they are slipping down the World Rankings, which is a massive shame to see. They need to sort out their tactics soon if they want to start winning again on a regular basis.


Italy

Italy are a team on the up once again. Conor O’Shea has been improving Italian rugby as a whole and it is starting to show. They have some experienced internationals in captain Sergio Parisse (rested for this match), Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni (who has converted from flanker to lock), but they also now have a generation of quality young players coming through. Michele Campagnaro has been on the scene for an number of years but is only 25, while Jake Polledri and Seb Negri have taken the back row to a new level and consistently give the team front-foot ball. Add in the currently injured Matteo Minozzi, who was a star in the 6 Nations, and the signs are positive for the national team. The important thing is to give O’Shea the time as this is not a short-term plan, but instead a long-term reboot of Italian rugby to keep them competitive.

Georgia

Talk for a number of years has focused on whether Georgia should replace Italy in the 6 Nations. While I do agree that they are at a stage where they are too good for their current competition, this game showed that they still have a way to go to compete in the 6 Nations. After this match, I had a look at both the Georgian and Italian squads for the Autumn Internationals to see how they compared in their top flight experience. The entire Italian squad play in top 3 European leagues, with Parisse and Ghiraldini in the Top 14, Campagnaro and Polledri in the Premiership and the remainder of the squad playing for Benetton or Zebre in the Pro14. In contrast, the Lelos have 1 player in Super Rugby, 1 in the Premiership and 9 in the Top 14. Beyond that, the team has 1 player in the Championship (English second tier), 2 in the Professional Rugby League (Russian top flight), 7 in Rugby Pro D2 (French second tier) and the remainder of the players (all backs) are playing in the Georgian top tier. To make the next step, the Lelos need to be able to pick a squad full of players who are in the top European leagues and therefore playing weekly against other internationals. Now I’m not suggesting an exodus from Georgia, but instead a Georgian franchise in the Pro14. They may not have immediate success, but if they can start to bring through the next generation then they could begin to reach the next level much as Italy are currently improving again.


Scotland

The Scots may have ran away with the match in the end, but the match remained tight for the best part of an hour. Part of that was due to Scotland missing chances. Fraser Brown may have scored towards the end of the first quarter following a series of pick-and-go drives from the pack, but the try should have been scored a number of phases earlier when Peter Horne drew the last defender and had a chance to put Tommy Seymour over in the corner but instead chose to dummy the pass and appeared lucky to avoid a knock-on decision as he was tackled just short. Later in the game, Horne made a break through the middle and again held onto the ball rather than play it back inside to Greig Laidlaw who had a chance to keep the move going. Horne is a good player, but as someone in as a second distributor, he missed the chance to distribute the ball too many times and will need to improve to hold his spot in a competitive midfield.

Fiji

It will come as no surprise when I say that Fiji play some beautiful rugby. Add to that a improving structure to their play and they are really beginning to turn heads in international rugby. Unfortunately they still have a way to go to regularly compete against the Tier 1 teams and a big part of that comes down to discipline. The Fijians conceded 12 penalties in this match, which is too many against a Tier 1 nation, and lost both Tevita Cavubati and Leone Nakarawa sin binned, with the 10 minute periods overlapping to leave the team with only 13 men for about 5 minutes. Against a team as dangerous in attack as Scotland, it is hard enough to defend with 15 men on the pitch; it becomes pretty much impossible when 2 men down. Even worse, it will make it harder for the other players to keep going for the full match as they need to work harder during the sin bin periods to cover the extra space. The have a talented team but will not win regularly if they can’t keep the penalty count down.


France

35 minutes in with the score at 9-9, Teddy Thomas broke out from his own 22 down the right wing. Getting up towards the South African 22, he had only Willie le Roux to stop him but numerous teammates in support to put over for the try. Instead, the winger chose to keep the ball and was well tackled by the South African 15. Luckily for France, they scored a few minutes later after the Springboks failed to clear their lines, but it is criminal to not finish that chance by being selfish.

After finishing the first half on a high with Guirado’s try, France continued to build the momentum with a try for Matthieu Bastareaud just 95 seconds into the second half. However they then shot themselves in the foot at the restart and lost all momentum as Sébastien Vahaamahina attempted to catch the restart over his shoulder while moving towards his own line, but fumbled, allowing S’busiso Nkosi to go over for possibly the easiest try he will ever score. This was a stupid mistake from a player who should have known better. One of the first things I remember being taught about catching a high ball is that if you are moving towards your own line and have a teammate coming forwards able to take it, they should leave it for the player coming onto the ball, yet this was not done by Vahaamahina despite Camille Lopez being in position to take the ball. As well as letting the Springboks back into the game on the scoreboard, this also shifted the momentum firmly in the direction of the away team.

Despite all this, with just 1 minute remaining on the clock, the French found themselves with the lead and a scrum inside the South African 22. There was no way they could lose from there… but they did. With half a minute remaining, they gave away a penalty at the breakdown and when the Springboks put a bit too much length on the kick, Damian Penaud caught the ball in play, but then stepped into touch just before the 80 minutes was up, giving the Boks one last chance in the French half. From here, a series of French penalties gave South Africa the chance to win the game by driving over a lineout from close range.

Typical France. This is a game they should have won but they managed to throw it away with stupid mistakes.

South Africa

This was not a good match for the South African backs. Faf de Klerk’s kicking game was nowhere near the level of his recent appearances, while conversely the back line struggled to adapt to France’s kicking game as they heavily varied their kicks from chips to cross-kicks (Penaud was mere inches from collecting one for an early try) to high bombs like the one that led to Bastareaud’s try. In attack, the back line seemed nowhere near as effective as against England, while on one of the few times they did beat the French defence, Cheslin Kolbe did not protect the ball well enough as he went over the try line, leading to a try being disallowed – which should have cost them the game if not for the French errors. There has been a clear improvement in the Springboks since Rassie Erasmus took over, but they still have some way to go to be more consistent.


Ireland

Ireland did not look at their usual level against the Pumas. Jordan Larmour surely knows that he will be put under some pressure with the high ball, but at this point there is a clear difference in how well Ireland deal with the opponent’s kicking game when he is at 15 compared to Rob Kearney, who is arguably one of the best in the world under the high ball. But it wasn’t just Larmour who struggled, as Jacob Stockdale also fumbled a number of high balls and the team also failed to deal with a couple of restarts. Heading into the coming match against the All Blacks, Ireland will have to do much better in this area if they are to beat the World Champions.

Argentina

In recent seasons, the best part of the Argentinian team has been their back 3. Bautista Delguy has been fantastic since coming on the scene and in my opinion should have been nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year 2018 and along with Ramiro Moyano and Emiliano Boffelli they have formed one of the most exciting and dangerous back 3s in World Rugby, yet they didn’t get much ball in this game other than when they were collecting Irish kicks and I think this limited the Pumas’ effectiveness during this game. I can’t help but wonder if the reticence to spread the ball was a worry as to Ireland’s effectiveness at the breakdown, so it will be interesting to see if their tactics will be any different this weekend against France, especially considering how good Bastareaud can be at the breakdown.


 

Eyes On: Bledisloe III 2018

Eyes On: Bledisloe III 2018

New Zealand and Australia prepared to kick off their Autumn tours to the Northern Hemisphere this weekend with their third and final meeting of the year in Yokohama. After a tight first half that saw the All Blacks lead by 7 points, the Australian defence was unable to keep up in the second half as New Zealand scored 5 tries in total to win 20-37 and take the Bledisloe Cup in a 3-0 whitewash this year.

Options in the backs

I have a couple of times recently been critical of the Williams/Crotty centre partnership as I do not feel the balance is right in midfield when they are together. While I do still think this, I think that Steve Hansen may have a solution. Ben Smith is in my opinion still the best fullback New Zealand have, but moving him to the wing and playing Damian McKenzie at 15 (where I rate him so much higher than at 10) meant that there was still another playmaking option beyond Beauden Barrett. Personally, I think there are better options than Smith on the wing but he is too good a player to leave out, so I imagine whether he plays at 14 or 15 will often depend on who is selected at centre.

Beyond that, it’s great to see TJ Perenara getting a start as he so often has to play second fiddle to Aaron Smith but would walk into pretty much any other international team, but I still feel that Richie Mo’unga needs to be given more gametime (he did not come on until 12 minutes remained) and especially as the starting 10. I can’t imagine him starting against England and Ireland but I will be shocked if he doesn’t start against Japan and Italy.

The backup

Very similar to Mo’unga, I really think Nick Phipps needs to get the starts at scrum half for Australia this summer. Will Genia is a talented player but did not have a good game in Yokohama. He was too quick to shift away from Kieran Read as he came off a scrum and – combined with Ned Hanigan being slow to break off the scrum – this made it easy for Read to go over for a try, while he also didn’t cover the blind side well enough from another scrum, allowing Reiko Ioane to break away and put Barrett over for another try. There was also another moment when I found myself yelling at the television as Australia took the ball into contact and gave away a penalty at the breakdown because he didn’t clean out and instead waited in position for a ball that was never coming back. It may be time to look at moving on from him.

Regardless of whether his starting place should be under threat or not, Phipps needs to get more game time as a starter in case something happens to Genia during the World Cup. Australia have a great set of players and if they can get their act together then they have the potential to challenge for the victory, but if they then have to turn to a 9 who is used to only playing about 10 minutes at the end of games, they are bound to struggle. The problem for Phipps now will be that recent results have been so poor for Australia, Cheika needs a successful tour, so I expect to see him stick with Genia for the matches against Wales and England.

What’s the plan?

Anyone who read my series throughout the Rugby Championship will know that I was not impressed with the way Michael Cheika was setting up his backline. This match was no exception. Israel Folau was wasted at 13 and his few decent breaks came from when he was back retrieving kicks. Even odder was the way that at every set piece, the Wallabies seemed to be swapping their position in the back line. While that could be done to great effect to confuse the defence, the only ones who looked confused were in green and gold! Folau’s best attribute is arguably his ability to contest the high ball – something wasted in the centre. I was not surprised to see the back line begin to look more organised once Samu Kerevi came on in the centre and Folau was moved to the wing. Suddenly players were in their correct positions and they had a hard, physical runner in the midfield. I’ll be interested to see what Michael Cheika does in the next few matches.

World Cup warm-up

While an important match in itself, the hosting of this match at Nissan Stadium – set to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final – was also meant to be a warm-up and test ahead of the tournament. To say I was not encouraged is a bit of an understatement.

Granted Australia have been in poor form, but to only have an attendance of 46,143 in a stadium with a capacity of over 72,000 seems hugely disappointing. Being a football stadium, the pitch also did not fill me with hope as it started cutting up almost immediately. While it can maybe withstand the odd game of rugby, will it be able to hold up to matches on 21st & 22nd September, 12th & 13th October, 26th & 27th October and then still be in a good enough condition to make the final on 2nd November the spectacle it should be? I have my doubts.

But perhaps worst of all in this match was the sponsors on the pitch. I completely understand the reasons for the sponsors to show on the pitch and I accept that, but to have them digitally added onto the broadcast rather than painted onto the pitch was a dismal failure! The computer systems seemed unable to differentiate between the pitch itself and the players, with the players constantly disappearing as they ran “over” the sponsors. If this is technology they plan to use for the World Cup, they have a lot of work to do!

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 6

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 6

The 2018 Rugby Championship came to a close in Round 6 with a reverse of the Round 4 fixtures. If Round 4 will be remembered as the week of upsets, Round 6 will go down as the week of stunning comebacks as champions New Zealand scored 2 converted tries in the final 5 minutes to beat South Africa, while Australia overturned a 31-7 halftime deficit in Argentina to win 34-45, clawing themselves into third place in the standings at the Pumas’ expense.


South Africa 30-32 New Zealand

At 30-18 with just 10 minutes left, South Africa looked set to do an incredible double over the All Blacks. At the final whistle, they were left shell-shocked, trying to figure out how they were on the losing side. I would argue that things started going wrong for them slightly earlier in the match, just after the hour mark. From this point, the Springboks made the following changes:

  • 60′ Vincent Koch for Frans Malherbe
  • 63′ RG Snyman for Eben Etzebeth
  • 66′ Damian Willemse for Willie le Roux
  • 70′ Sikhumbuzo Notshe for Francois Louw
  • 73′ Embrose Papier for Faf de Klerk, Mbongeni Mbonami for Malcolm Marx
  • 74′ Tendai Mtawarira for Steven Kitshoff
  • 78′ Elton Jantjies for Damian de Allende

Now I think some of these substitutions, especially the removal of de Allende and le Roux, were due to injury rather than tactical reasons, but that is a lot of experience leaving the pitch in the final 20 minutes – a time when New Zealand are know to be at their most dangerous. Koch is a quality replacement but has been away from international rugby for years, while Jantjies lacks the same physicality of de Allende. But the sheer quality and – probably even more importantly – the experience of the players coming off the pitch was always going to make things difficult for the Springboks. De Klerk and Marx had been arguably 2 of the best players on the pitch, so if they were able to continue, they should have remained on til the very end. It’s important to build experience and strength in depth, but the chance to beat the All Blacks (twice in a handful of weeks!) should have been too good to turn down. Hopefully moving forwards, Rassie Erasmus will be a bit more careful with his substitutions in big games.

 

It feels crazy to say when talking about New Zealand, but their midfield struggled on Saturday. Much like the week before, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty failed to consistently create a threat in attack and Beauden Barrett also struggled. The back 3 of Ioane, Naholo and Smith were arguably wasted for the first 50 minutes. However, once Richie Mo’unga came on for Waisake Naholo (with Ben Smith moving to the wing and Barrett to fullback), the back line suddenly looked more dangerous and the All Blacks’ fortunes improved. I wonder if Steve Hansen has inadvertently found a new way to set up his squad, making up for the lack of creativity provided by this centre pairing by playing a 10/15 hybrid like Damian McKenzie or one of the Barretts at 15, but using Ben Smith as a more reliable option with more attacking midfield pairings. With the quality of players available and the versatility of many of the New Zealand backs, Hansen will have so many options at his disposal when he comes to creating his match-day 23s, even when he has a more limited number of players in the squad come the World Cup.


Argentina 34-45 Australia

Momentum is a cruel thing in professional sports, just ask the Pumas. They could not have had a much better start, Pablo Matera crossing for a try within 2 minutes on the way to a 14-0 lead by the 5 minute mark. Despite a try from Michael Hooper, the momentum was clearly with Argentina, who went into halftime 31-7 up despite having lost Nicolas Sanchez to injury during the half. However, their momentum stalled at halftime and the Wallabies got an early try through Izack Rodda, while Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty also crossed in quick succession. The momentum was now firmly against the Pumas who could only muster a single penalty in the second half to the Wallabies’ 38. Argentina had 68% possession and 68% territory in the first half, but were limited to 35% possession and 33% territory after the break.

A bit like the Springboks’ final 10 minutes, I think Argentina struggled with a lack of leadership when it was so desperately needed. Agustin Creevy is not the superstar he used to be anymore and I would argue that the Pumas would benefit from swapping him and Julian Montoya around, as Montoya has recently appeared more reliable at set pieces while bringing Creevy on against tired defences could get the best out of him while also bringing a highly experienced leader onto the pitch later in the game. Perhaps even more importantly, they need to get their European-based leaders back in the fold, sooner rather than later!

 

Full credit to the Wallabies for a stunning comeback, but I do not think that this should save Michael Cheika’s job. I’m not one to enjoy seeing coaches lose their job, but despite a strong team, the results have been poor and the first half performance at the weekend was an embarrassment! They have never been lower in the world rankings and should consider themselves extremely lucky not to finish bottom of the table in this Rugby Championship. It may not be ideal switching coaches especially just a year out from the World Cup, but they have just under 3 weeks until Bledisloe 3 (where there would be no pressure on them, having a new coach and being 2-0 down) followed by Autumn Internationals against Wales, Italy and England… there will be no better time before the World Cup. It will be interesting to see how the ARU act…


 

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 5

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 5

It will come as no surprise, but New Zealand have won the Rugby Championship for the 3rd consecutive time. Their 17-35 defeat of Argentina in Buenos Aires may not have been their best performance of the tournament, but it was a welcome bounce back after their loss to South Africa in the last round. Meanwhile, Australia – the only other team to have won the tournament in its 4-team format – find themselves bottom of the table with just one match left after a 23-12 loss in Port Elizabeth.


South Africa 23-12 Australia

He’s been scoring regularly in the tournament this year, but I’m still not sold on Aphiwe Dyantyi for the Springboks. The flyer from the Lions has scored 5 tries so far but I feel that quite a few of them have been down to being in the right place at the right time and benefitting from the players inside him – though I suppose that is a big part of playing on the wing. I often feel that away from the line he is too quick to put boot to ball rather than taking the contact and recycling, which has wasted a number of possessions for South Africa. Defensively as well he looks vulnerable. At the death against New Zealand, his flying out the line did enough to make Damian McKenzie knock on to end the game, but rushing out is not always the option. He did it so many times against Australia, a backline performing better (more on that soon) would have taken advantage of it and isolated him to break down his wing. He was also completely outjumped at a crosskick by Israel Folau close to the line and was lucky Australia couldn’t capitalise from it. He looks like he could be a great player and a dangerous asset for the Springboks in the coming years, but he still has work to do to reach his best.

The Australian back line is a mess! I’ve wrote previously how I think that finding another 10 to compete with Bernard Foley is a smart idea, but Kurtley Beale is not the answer as he needs more space to work his magic. As if that wasn’t bad enough, once the subsitutions started, players seemed to be moving everywhere! Foley came on but appeared to be in the centre with Folau, Toomua moved to fly half, Beale was at fullback, Hodge and Haylett-Petty covered the wings. I like how versatile all the players are, but that formation makes no sense at all! Too often in this tournament the Wallabies’ back line has looked fairly impotent and in this match it felt like any real danger to South Africa came from the back 3 returning kicks and other moments of broken play. I think they are missing the physical presence of Tevita Kuridrani or Samu Kerevi – who are both out injured – in the midfield. But injuries happen and Cheika does not appear to be able to find a formula that works in their absence.


Argentina 17-35 New Zealand

When most rugby fans my age or older think of Argentinian rugby, they probably remember the days of dominant packs pushing their opposition around the park. That is sadly no longer the case. The Pumas scrum was manhandled by the All Blacks and the lineout struggled at times, going 11/16, with captain Agustin Creevy struggling to hit his man at the top of his jump. In part, I would imagine they are struggling due players based away from Argentina not being available – most of these lads play for Los Jaguares, who will face strong packs but not necessarily international quality scrums – and also due to the move towards a more fluid, expansive game. I’m not blaming the Pumas’ exciting backline – it’s a joy to watch in full flight – but they need to go back to basics and shore up their set piece, otherwise the backs will never have a platform to allow them to reach their full potential. If they can do that… they will be a danger at the World Cup.

Sonny Bill Williams made his first appearance of the tournament yesterday, which just highlights the quality of options available to New Zealand. Through the tournament, Williams, Ryan Crotty, Ngani Laumape, Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown have all started in the centre positions. Not many other nations could boast even close to that strength in depth! While both Williams and Crotty played well in this match, I don’t think they provided the same quality of attacking ball that some of the other options have. My personal pick would be to have Laumape at 12, where his physical approach is hard to stop on the gain line, and Goodhue at 13, where he has played a crucial part in a number of breaks while also doing a solid job in defence, something that has been key to Crotty’s selection in the past. Off the bench I would then select Lienert-Brown, who does not always appear to have the best of impacts from the start, but fully takes advantage of gaps left by a tiring defence. With Laumape (25) the oldest of this trio (Williams is 33 and Crotty 30), if they become the main options in the centre now, they will be good enough to potentially win a third successive World Cup and then be reaching their best years as the All Blacks approach RWC2023, much in the way Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith grew together into arguable the best centre pairing of the last 10 years.


Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 4

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 4

It was the weekend for upsets in Round 4 as both New Zealand and Australia came up just short against South Africa and Argentina respectively. The All Blacks could have won the tournament with 2 rounds to spare had they earned a bonus point victory, but they must now go to Argentina on the 29th and try to win there (so it would appear the inevitable has just been delayed), while this is the first time the Pumas have won more than one game per season in this tournament. Australia meanwhile have dropped to 7th in the World rankings, their lowest ever position!


New Zealand 34-36 South Africa

“It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile… winning’s winning” – Vin Diesel, The Fast and the Furious

The All Blacks shot themselves in the (kicking) foot in this match. While Handrè Pollard was nearly perfect off the tee, Beauden Barret was anything but, having success on only 2/6 kicks while hitting the post on multiple occasions. He may be arguably the best fly half in the world, but his kicking off the tee is erratic at best and nowhere near consistent enough for a Tier 1 team. New Zealand outscored South Africa 6 tries to 2, they carried them 624m to 245m, they beat 39 defenders to the Springboks’ 12 and had 75% of the possession… yet due to Barrett’s questionable kicking they lost by 2 points. Even at the end they should have won it, as they had over 10 phases camped on the South Africa line – many of them with Damian McKenzie in the pocket – but decided to forgo a simple drop goal attempt and spread the ball for a try, knocking on after the hooter had gone. The All Blacks are a wonderful team and a joy to watch, but I would argue that they are not pragmatic enough anymore. They have the ability to run it in from anywhere and will frequently, but with the game on the line, they do not have the rugby brain of a Dan Carter or Jonny Wilkinson to take the easy 3 points and keep the scoreboard ticking over. If more teams can find a way to score a similar amount of tries, then the All Blacks could be at risk of more losses in the near future.

While I am coming down hard on the All Blacks, it would be remiss of me not to also praise South Africa’s defensive effort. The Springboks made 196/235 tackles (83% success) and refused to give in, even when defending on their line or a man down. Yes they were broken on occasions, but anyone would be against such a good team. The All Blacks handling was poor at time, but I feel this often came from the pressure put on them by the defence, while Cheslin Kolbe intercepted Anton Leinert-Brown early in the second half for a try and Aphiwe Dyantyi (who I’m not sold on defensively if I’m honest) did just enough to fly out the line at the death and force the knock-on from McKenzie to give South Africa the game. I still think they are searching for the right formula in their line-up, but if they can continue to defend so doggedly, the results will keep coming.


Australia 19-23 Argentina

Something is not right in that Australian back line. Marika Koroibete, Israel Folau (at wing) and Dane Haylett-Petty is arguably one of the most dangerous back 3s in world rugby, but they are not getting enough ball aide from countering kicks they have fielded. Matt Toomua as well was pretty much anonymous in this game, other than his kicks at goal and a few other clearances. The midfield is not working at the moment!

Part of this may be down to fatigue, as Toomua has been clocking up the air miles and returning to play for Leicester on the rest weekends. I think that is a ridiculous decision as the extra travel and matches will be fatiguing him and stopping him playing at his best, while increasing his risk of injury.

More than that though, I feel the decision to pick Kurtley Beale at 10 is holding them back. He is a fantastic player and can play the position, but I think he works better in the centre where he has a bit more time and space to work his magic. I applaud the decision to try someone other than Foley at 10 as they need to look at options in case he gets injured, but I don’t think Beale is the option and would rather see Toomua or Hodge given the 10 shirt for the last 2 matches, allowing Beale to move back to centre. This team is not far from being successful and they have the quality of players, they just need to find the right mix.

Argentina are back to their beautiful and dangerous best! Nicolas Sanchez may be easily wound up, but he is one of the most complete packages at 10 in the game currently. The back 3 of Moyano, Boffelli and Delguy is one of the most exciting in international rugby, while Boffelli’s monster boot will punish teams from inside his own half. The scary thing is that players like Santiago Cordero and Joaqin Tuculet could also still come into contention ahead of the World Cup. In the forwards, their discipline seems vastly improved and they are also getting more front foot ball through players like Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer, bu8t again can get even stronger when Facundo Isa comes back in the fold.

Like many international teams recently, Argentina looked to hit their low in the Summer Tests against Wales and Scotland but with Mario Ledesma taking charge they are quickly climbing back up the mountain and will be very difficult to beat if they carry on like this.


Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 3

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 3

We are now halfway through the tournament and I think we can give the title to New Zealand. Despite resting a number of players – allowing 2 payers to make their first starts and another to come off the bench for his debut – and losing 2 stars to injury in the opening 10 minutes, the All Blacks face of against a Pumas team that player really well… and still won by 22 points! Meanwhile, Australia had to contend with some late withdrawals and a halftime deficit to score the only points of the second half and get the win.


New Zealand 46-24 Argentina

I wrote recently about the incredible strength in depth the All Blacks have. This match was a prefect example. They lost starters Brodie Retallick and Ngani Laumape to injury within the first 10 minutes and were also without Ben Smith at that point as he went through the HIA process. Despite this, they still managed to come away with a convincing win in their first ever game at Trafalgar Park. As well as some regular bench warmers being given starts – most notably Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea and TJPerenara – Steve Hansen also handed first starts to flanker Shannon Frizell and fly half Richie Mo’unga.

Despite a shaky start – he missed his first penalty to touch – and the early loss of Laumape outside him, Mo’unga had an assured match, kicking 6/7 shots at goal for a personal haul of 14 point while showing a good range of passes and almost sending Jack Goodhue over for a try with a lovely popped pass, which led to Perenara’s try on the next phase. It currently appears that he is competing with Damian McKenzie for the role of Beauden Barrett’s backup. Personally, I’m not a fan of McKenzie at 10 as I feel that he is not able to play the structure game anywhere near as well as he is able to exploit the space by playing 15, so I would love to see Mo’unga given the 10 jersey for the next 3 Tests to give him every chance to grow into the position.

As for Frizell, he was arguably the star of the show. As well as making 16 tackles, the Highlander made 91 metres off 16 carries and was heavily involved in a number of tries (as well as scoring one!) with his strong runs and also his deft hands to play the pivot role in the critical phase that put Nehe Milner-Skudder over in the corner. At just 24 years old, this guy looks to be the future of the 6 jersey and the long-term replacement for Jerome Kaino. Liam Squire has done well at the position and is a more experienced player, but I feel that Frizell had more of an impact on this match than Squire has been having. I would be shocked if Frizell is not the regular starter moving forward.

 

Argentina played a wonderful game. They played some beautiful rugby. They scored some beautiful tries. They lost by 22 points. One of the few areas where the Pumas really struggled in this game was the scrum. Despite not an early change in the second row and Joe Moody being missing, the All Blacks were dominant and Karl Tu’inukuafe especially had success during the game.

Now Argentina certainly wouldn’t have been helped by the loss of Juan Figallo, who is now out until 2019 following an injury playing for Saracens – honestly, the fact that Premiership players are flying all the way back to play for their clubs during rest weeks is ridiculous! – but I don’t think this was all down to just him being missing. Watching the game, I noticed on Twitter some people had noticed the odd way the second rows were binding. Rather than binding with the prop in front through their legs, they were binding on the prop’s outside him. I’ve never tried binding like this but having spent much of my time in the tight five, I can’t see how this knits the scrum together better than the usual binding. With Australia looking good in the scrums this weekend, Argentina need to do some work in practice this week to ensure they can keep things close.


Australia 23-18 South Africa

Following the victory, captain Michael Hooper talked about his team’s resilience to get the victory in this match. Following the initial team announcement, the Wallabies had star David Pocock pull out ahead of the day with a neck injury suffered in Round 2, then Israel Folau and Adam Coleman were announced as also having withdrawn closer to the match.

In the match itself, the team put their issues behind them and put in a dogged defensive display, stopping South Africa from crossing the try line on a number of visits to the 22. Their attack was by no means perfect with Kurtley Beale shifted to 10 and Toomua brought in at 12, but they did enough to hold on for the victory. Special mention needs giving to Taniela Tupou. The Tongan Thor appeared to be injured following a collapsed scrum that left him on his back – having played tight head for years I hate to imagine the shapes his body made to get in that position – yet despite such visible discomfort he held his own an a series of 5m scrums at the death as the Wallabies held on for the win. Having seen the replays of the collapse and the discomfort he was in, I was certain he would have to come off so to see him make it to the end highlighted the resilience of this team on the day. Add back players like Pocock and Folau and get the attack working better, this team can quickly jump to the next level.

 

As resilient as Australia’s defence were, South Africa’s inability to cross the whitewash was costly. After a couple of indifferent matches, Handre Pollard was dropped to the bench and Elton Jantjies given a shot at 10. I have been very clear previously that I am not a fan of Jantjies at all so maybe I am being a bit harsh, but I don’t remember him doing much that had a positive impact on the game – other than his kicks at goal. Though the commentary praised his attempted cross-kick to Aphiwe Dyantyi under penalty advantage, he should have been putting the ball into the in-goal area rather than ahead of the line, which allowed Dane Haylett-Petty the opportunity to come forwards onto the ball and make the catch, while he also put a poor grubber kick over the dead ball line when the Springboks had a spell of pressure 5m out. While I’ve argued for Pollard’s inclusion over that of Janjies, right now I don’t know if either is the right option, so I would suggest another option to Rassie Erasmus.

With just 1 win from 3 and 2 games remaining against New Zealand, I would recommend putting in Damian Willemse at 10, and supporting him by going for Pollard at 12 as a second playmaker. The two of them in midfield, combined with Willie le Roux at 15, could form a devastating triangle of playmakers and finally allow the team to get the best out of their back line. That may be a lot to ask with home and away fixtures coming up against the All Blacks but I think at this point, the most important thing is developing the right players and finding the right squad, so I would go with this regardless of the result as long as the performances are good. Let’s be honest, nobody is beating the Kiwis anytime soon!