It’s hard to believe but we’re already 3 weeks through Super Rugby Aotearoa and the teams are already starting to really separate themselves from each other in the standings. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs went to Christchurch in search of a crucial win but will find themselves returning home with just a losing bonus point, having not led at any point in the match.
In wet conditions, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie each slotted a first half penalty but it looked like the match would be devoid of much excitement, until Sevu Reece beat McKenzie to a high cross-kick from Mo’unga and broke down the right wing, before feeding the ball inside to Will Jordan for the go-ahead try. The same 2 players combined again shortly after half time, with a quick lineout from Reece catching out the Chiefs and allowing Jordan to run in uncontested. The Chiefs began to fight back after this and Sean Wainui crossed to narrow the deficit, but the Crusaders managed to hold on and remain one of only 2 teams still unbeaten in the tournament – the other being the Blues (3-0), who have a bye next week before their trip to Christchurch.
New kid on the block
If there’s one person currently that will be making All Blacks Head Coach Ian Foster reconsider a 10/15 playmaker axis, it’s Crusaders fullback Will Jordan. The 22-year-old has started the tournament in fine form and is currently keeping David Havili on the bench with his great performances.
In bad conditions today, Jordan looked assured under the high ball and made some incisive runs, finishing with a match-high 98 metres. Not only that, but he is clearly developing a good link with Sevu Reece, being in the right place to support for the opening try and seeing the opportunity with Reece to take a quick lineout for the second try. If he carries on like this, international recognition can’t be far away.
The only thing going against him right now, though, is that he is much more of a prototypical fullback, as opposed to the second playmaker that I think the All Blacks will be going for, especially given the great performances Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett are putting in at the position. It may be that for the near future at least, Jordan has to prove that he can also have a great impact on the game from the wing, much like Ben Smith and Israel Dagg did at times to keep themselves in All Blacks contention.
Play every second
The Chiefs certainly weren’t happy with the awarding of Will Jordan’s second try, but they had only themselves to blame. The laws state that a quick lineout can be taken provided it is on/behind the mark, nobody else has touched the ball and the lineout had already formed, which was exactly the circumstance when Reece fed Jordan for the crucial score.
It seemed like many of the team saw Aaron Cruden go over to speak to referee James Doleman and assumed that time was off. However, Cruden was not the captain so had no right to speak to the referee and was rightfully brushed away.
I always remember being told to play to the whistle, but in situations like this, it is a little more complicated than that. Usually the moment the ball goes into touch you can have a quick rest as you prepare for the set piece, but the one thing you can’t do is switch off mentally, as the moment you start doing things by rote rather than reacting to what’s going on around you is the moment your opponent will make you regret it.
Hopefully with Warren Gatland at the helm, the players will have learned from this mistake. But in the meantime, with just 2 points from 3 games, that is a costly and completely unnecessary mistake.
Set piece success
When you’re playing in wet conditions like in this match, there a 2 things you need more than anything else: a playmaker who can control the game and put you in the right areas of the pitch, and a pack that can gain the upper hand at the set piece. While both teams certainly had the former in Cruden, McKenzie and Mo’unga, it was the Crusaders pack that gained the advantage that probably proved crucial.
Of course the set piece is always important, but in bad conditions it becomes even more so as the territory game leads to more lineouts, while the greasy ball will likely lead to more handling errors and therefore more scrums.
In this match, the Crusaders pack managed to stop a 5m catch and drive from the lineout midway through the first half, despite the Chiefs throwing in a couple of backs to increase their numbers. They caused the lineout problems all game, especially after Chiefs’ replacement hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho entered the fray. Overall, the Chiefs ended up losing 4/20 (20%) of their own lineouts, while they also lost 1/5 of their scrums (20%) and found themselves being pushed back and giving away penalties on multiple occasions.
The old adage is that the forwards win the match and the backs decide by how much. The Crusaders once again showed that to be true.
Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.
As I continue down the list alphabetically, today I will be looking at New Zealand.
As defending champions, New Zealand qualified automatically for the tournament.
It was a mixed year for New Zealand. They shockingly finished 3rd in the shortened Rugby Championship, with just the 1 win in Argentina, while they also drew 16-16 at home to South Africa and were stunned by a 47-26 loss to Australia in Perth.
They did however get their own back on the Wallabies with a 36-0 victory at home, before defeating Tonga 92-7 in a warm-up match that saw them willingly go down to 14 men for the final 15 minutes.
During the year, a number of regular starters began to find their places at risk, with Reiko Ioane and Ben Smith being replaced by George Bridge and Sevu Reece, while Damian McKenzie’s injury suffered representing the Chiefs in Super Rugby eventually saw Beauden Barrett moved to fullback, with Richie Mo’unga coming in at flyhalf.
Pool Stages (1st in Pool B)
New Zealand 23-13 South Africa
New Zealand 63-0 Canada
New Zealand 71-9 Namibia
New Zealand C-C Italy
New Zealand 46-14 Ireland
England 19-7 New Zealand
New Zealand 40-17 Wales
To start the tournament facing off against one of their biggest rivals was always going to be a hard match, but the All Blacks got off to a perfect start with a victory that left them highly likely to finish top of the pool. The Mo’unga/Barrett 10/15 axis and the change of personnel on the wings really began to function well, with Reece especially causing real issues for the Springbok defence, while the team also looked to capitalise on their opponents errors and punish them with tries. Against Canada and Namibia, they controlled the game well and built a platform to excel off regardless of the personnel on the pitch – just look at TJ Perenara’s try while he played on the wing against Namibia – though they did take a while to get going against Namibia, with a number of penalties (including 2 first half yellow cards for high tackles) and inaccuracies. Though the cancellation of their match against Italy due to Typhoon Hagibis put them through at the expense of the Italians, who were still mathematically able to qualify for the knockouts, I think that on the form shown in the previous 3 matches, the All Blacks would have qualified regardless.
Against Ireland, the All Blacks put in a performance that was terrifying and probably made many people feel that they were set to complete the three-peat. New Zealand played Ireland off the park, with Mo’unga controlling the game, Aaron Smith having one of his best performances in a while and hugely impressive performances from Reece and Ardie Savea too. Against England, however, they found themselves on the receiving end of a dominant performance, with the team struggling to deal with England’s quick defensive line and a lineout that was out to steal as much ball as possible. The additions of Perenara and Sonny Bill Williams brought an improvement to the performance, but too late to turn the game around.
With the Bronze final being a match that neither team appeared fully committed to, New Zealand ran riot against the Welsh. Mo’unga controlling the game and scoring a try, while Ben Smith looked back on form while scoring 2 tries as they took advantage of a Welsh defence that was over-chasing.
Not the best tournament for the All Blacks, but only one match that they should really look back on as a missed opportunity.
Let’s be honest, this cycle’s All Blacks squad was not the same quality of the last couple, but there were signs this year that the next cycle will see another top quality team coming through.
For so long, they have stuck to just Beauden Barrett at 10, but I have felt for a while that Mo’unga gives more control at flyhalf, while moving Barrett to 15 allows him to be even more dangerous. If they want to stick to the 10/15 playmaking combo, then they will be spoiled for choice when McKenzie returns from injury, while young fly halves like Josh Ioane, Stephen Perofeta and Tiaan Falcon will also be looking to put in huge performances in Super Rugby to break into the squad. While Williams and Ryan Crotty have likely played their last games in the black jersey, in Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown and Ngani Laumape (who I will continue to argue should have been in the squad), they have 3 world class centres to build the squad around, while Reiko Ioane is also a potential option in the centre and may look to revitalise his All Blacks career there with the quality of wingers coming through.
In the pack, Kieran Read will clearly be a loss, but the decision to use Ardie Savea at any available back row position has brought a great new dimension to the pack, allowing a more specialist fetcher like Sam Cane and then another player who can vary depending on the tactics, for example Shannon Frizell, Dalton Papalii, Luke Jacobson, Vaea Fifita and Akira Ioane, while injuries and suspensions for New Zealand’s main second rows over recent years have also allowed players like Patrick Tuipulotu and Jackson Hemopo to get some time in the squad, while Fifita is also an option there. Finally, in the front row, the majority of players are in their mid-late twenties so likely have another World Cup in them, while there are already young talented players coming through who will be pushing into the squad with a couple of good seasons in Super Rugby.
This is not a squad that will suddenly drop in quality anytime soon. The only thing that needs sorting right now is a replacement for Steve Hansen. While results and performances may suggest that he stayed in the role a season or 2 too long, he is still a highly experienced coach that has been with the team for so long. It is vital that New Zealand Rugby get the right man in to replace him, otherwise the improvements of the other teams around them over the last few years could see them come under pressure to stay in the top 3 of the World Rankings.
We are just days away from the start of the Rugby World Cup and we now know the players who will be on show. With the 31-man squads finalised, it’s time to start taking a look at the squads and looking at who will stand out during this tournament. In 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder made his all Blacks debut in August, before going on to be a star of the tournament and make the tournament dream team, along with Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who definitely wasn’t known to the masses before the tournament.
With so many people who aren’t die-hard rugby fans set to watch the tournament, or many whose knowledge is maybe limited to their own nation’s players, I decided to do something similar to my Players to Watch in the Six Nations article, and expand that to each team of the World Cup. While I try to watch as much rugby as I can around the world, you’ll see that even I have blank spots as I select some players that may be bigger names in their teams, but they still may be lesser-known names to the wider public.
Who are you looking out for during the tournament? Today, we’ll look at Pool B:
Ngani Laumape was going to be my pick here until his shock omission, so I have instead chosen to look at Sevu Reece. I made mention of Nehe Milner-Skudder earlier in the article and he is basically the Milner-Skudder of the 2019 All Blacks squad, having only made his debut in recent months. With pace, power and footwork, Reece looks the real deal and comes into the tournament having been the top try scorer in the last Super Rugby season.
The first 2 rounds of Super Rugby made it clear that I had to pick to Herschel Jantjies. The Stormers scrum half did me some help in my fantasy team this year but even I wouldn’t have imagined his international career would begin with 3 tries in 2 Rugby Championship games and a draw against New Zealand in Wellington. Capable of controlling the game well enough to lead the team, he is such a danger with ball in hand if given too much space. Between him, Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach, head coach Rassie Erasmus is spoiled for choice at 9.
While I have to mention Gloucester’s Jake Polledri who I rate highly, I am going to the backs again here with my selection of Matteo Minozzi. The fullback missed this year’s Six Nations through injury, but proved himself to be a potent attacking talent in the 2018 tournament with 4 tries in 5 games. Part of the rebuild going on at Wasps this summer after moving from Zebre, Minozzi will be looking to make up for lost time. Expect him to run riot against Namibia and Canada.
This was the hardest of the 20 teams competing to pick by a country mile. Reynaldo Bothma was going to be my pick here until he recently announced his retirement – I really hope there was no pressure from Harlequins affecting that decision – so in his absence I have picked Aranos Coetzee. The prop gets a selection here by virtue of his experience of playing at a relatively high level, having played for Racing, Brive and the Cheetahs all in top tier leagues while also featuring for South Africa’s U18s team back in the day. An experienced prop will be invaluable during the tournament.
Canada are a team that have really struggled for success in recent years, but if they are to have any success in the tournament, D. T. H.van der Merwe will surely be involved. The winger bizarrely struggled to get any time at Newcastle Falcons but has excelled at the Scarlets and in 2 spells with Glasgow. Internationally, he has scored 38 tries in 57 caps and has started every game at the last 3 World Cups, scoring 6 tries – including 4 in the 2015 tournament.
After a couple of weeks off, New Zealand played their last Test before attempting to win their third consecutive Rugby World Cup. Facing off against Tonga in Waikato, the All Blacks fielded a strong lineup that put their opponents to the sword, scoring 14 tries through 9 different scorers, while Beauden Barrett and debutant Josh Ioane added 14 and 8 points with the boot respectively. Tonga did get a consolation try in the final minutes through captain Siale Piutau, with Tane Takulua kicking the conversion for a 92-7 final score.
Having just gone 92-0 up with about 15 minutes left, New Zealand made an interesting decision to remove Ryan Crotty but not bring anyone on in his place, instead finishing the match with 14 men. Speaking after the game, Steve Hansen explained that part of the reason was as they did not want to risk Crotty any further as he returned from injury, while it was also a chance to put themselves under pressure and replicate going a man down in a match situation.
Personally, I don’t know if I believe that not wanting to risk Crotty for the full 80 was really part of the thinking, as if this was the case then they would have removed him rather than Ben Smith or Beauden Barrett. I think that they were always planning to use this as a chance to test themselves a man down.
Part of me likes the thinking here. Going a man down in a big match can be a killer and no training will really replicate a matchday situation. However, they did not really react to the situation, continuing to play a high-tempo game with quick-tap penalties rather than slowing everything down as they usually would to use up the 10 minutes. It was telling that they started to give away a number of penalties after going down a man and eventually conceded in this period despite barely being troubled in the first 70 minutes.
The thing that doesn’t sit quite right to me though is that I can’t help but feel that (intentional or not) it was a little disrespectful to do this against Tonga in a capped Test. I definitely feel that there is a place for this sort of situational practice in a match, but I don’t know if that should be happening in a capped Test. I would rather see an uncapped match in the build-up to a tournament where teams announce ahead of time that they will be running situations like being a man down, that way it does not feel like the Test or the opponent is being disregarded.
As someone who does not get to watch Tonga play very often, this match was disappointing. With Sevu Reece, Ben Smith and Codie Taylor all scoring in the first quarter, the game was already over as a competition.
Watching the game, Tonga didn’t really do anything horrible. They had 48% possession and 51% territory, while New Zealand actually attempted 3 tackles more than Tonga. What proved the difference was the Tonga defence. It set itself up very narrow to avoid being broken through the middle, but that just let the All Blacks play it wide and get around them that way, while turnovers proved costly. What it came down to was that the Tongan defence were unable to deal with the might and skill of the All Blacks once their front-up defence was left chasing.
Tonga have the misfortune of being in an strong World Cup Pool, hopefully they can do some work on their defence over the next couple of weeks to deal with the opposition once they get past the initial defensive line.
With the shorter Rugby Championship over for another season, we had the reverse of last weekend’s fixtures begin with Australia’s trip to Eden Park. Last week, the Wallabies dominated 14-man New Zealand, but the All Blacks had made some changes for this match and looked much more dangerous from the off, taking an early lead through the boot of Richie Mo’unga. While Australia worked their way into the game, an errant display off the tee from Christian Leali’ifano kept them scoreless, while New Zealand scored 2 quick tries through Mo’unga and Aaron Smith for a 17-0 halftime lead. It was more of the same after the break as New Zealand kept Australia scoreless while scoring a further 3 tries themselves on the way to a 36-0 victory.
Back when South Africa beat New Zealand in the 2018 Rugby Championship, I suggested that the All Blacks needed to become more pragmatic and be willing to kick the points. In this match, we saw a different side of the team, and they looked so much better for it. While they were willing to put points on the board by kicking penalties rather than going for the corner, Richie Mo’unga – who looked more comfortable at 10 this week – was happy to put the ball in behind the Wallabies defensive line, with some of his kicks to the corner causing Australia real problems. They even almost got a try off one of these kicks as it held up just metres from the line and forced Reece Hodge to play the ball under pressure. The kicking game did not give the Wallabies a chance to counter and did a great job of keeping the momentum with the men in black.
This is not to say that the All Blacks didn’t use their back line and still attack in the usual way. They did plenty of that too – to great effect – but the important thing was that between the forwards making hard yards (most notably Ardie Savea), the backs cutting through the defence and a strong kicking game, the All Blacks had the right balance that suddenly makes them look much more dangerous again with the World Cup just around the corner.
Last week, Australia were on fire, they looked like they were fighting for their lives and looked dominant. This week, it was not an awful performance, but the errors crept back in. Too many balls went to floor, most notably when an Australia attack was ended by a Reece Hodge drop that was picked up by Mo’unga and ran back for the opening try. While the pass dropped low to make it a difficult catch, Hodge was too flat and being just a couple of steps further back would have allowed him to take the ball and continue the attack, potentially changing the shape of the game. If Australia can cut out the errors and do the basics right, they look a very dangerous team.
More than that though, they also need to cut out the stupid penalties. Jaco Peyper was very kind to them today as he twice allowed them to get away with taking out New Zealand players well beyond the ruck, while he also gave just a scrum after Izack Rodda knocked on and a teammate picked the ball up from a clearly offside position. Despite this, they still gave away 9 penalties… too many for a side that wants to win the big matches. The Wallabies really need to sort out their discipline if they want to make it past the World Cup quarterfinals.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
Usually I try to stick to 2 players from each team in this section, but today I felt that I needed to take a moment to mention 4 All Blacks. Whether they were dropped or just rested as Steve Hansen looks at his options, Owen Franks, Ben Smith and Reiko Ioane will have been worried about their starting spots watching the great performances of Nepo Laulala, Sevu Reece and George Bridge. In the absence of Scott Barrett and Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu put in a strong performance – including muscling Kurtley Beale back over the All Blacks try line in the first half – and surely confirmed his spot as the fourth choice lock – assuming Retallick is fit. Moving over to the Wallabies, Tolu Latu had another strong performance that included a very smart kick downfield and I think he may be securing the starting hooking spot, while Taniela Tupou did a good job of helping solidify the scrum following Allan Alaalatoa’s injury.
Moving onto the players who will be a little more nervous, Ben Franks may be a risk of missing the cut following the performances of Laulala and replacement Angus Ta’avao, while Jack Maddocks looks like he has fallen behind Adam Ashley-Cooper in the pecking order. Of those who were actually involved in the match, Richie Mo’unga ha a strong game but will be hoping a shoulder injury is not too serious, while Kurtley Beale may find his spot in the staring XV at risk after a game where he struggled under the high ball, though I imagine he will still be in the squad due to his experience and versatility.
With the shortened version of the Rugby Championship over, the attention of rugby fans will now be turning to the upcoming World Cup. Though it is hard to believe it has been almost 4 years since the All Blacks lifted the trophy in London, we are just a matter of weeks away from the deadline for teams to name their squads for the tournament.
Having won the World Cup at home in 2011, the All Blacks became the first nation to ever defend their title when they won again in 2015, becoming the first team to win the tournament 3 times. Now, having been ranked #1 in the world since late 2009, the All Blacks have the chance of the first “three-peat” in Rugby World Cup history. Having coached New Zealand since 2004 first as an assistant coach and then from 2012 as head coach, this will be Steve Hansen’s last World Cup with the team as he will standing down after the tournament, so it’s safe to imagine that he will want to go out on a high, though some people will surely be wondering if that is possible after a less than stellar Rugby Championship campaign.
As I have done with a number of other nations, I will be continuing my “Journey to RWC2019” series with predictions of each 31-man squad for the Rugby Championship teams, and today we will be looking at the All Blacks. With the Rugby Championship being so close to the World Cup, I am using the squads they have picked for this tournament as the basis for my squads, but I have also looked at some notable names who have been selected for the Maori All Blacks or not included in either squad but could come into consideration. To remind you, this is not the squad that I would pick, but instead the squad that I think Steve Hansen will take.
So without further ado, I predict that Steve Hansen’s 31-man squad for the World Cup will be:
New Zealand regularly take 3 hookers to the tournament and considering the injury history of Dane Coles over recent years, I expect that trend to continue here as he is too good to leave out, but precautions must be taken. Codie Taylor has done a great job in Coles’ absence to the point that I wouldn’t be wholly surprised to see him given the starting shirt. As for the 3rd hooker, things become more difficult. Nathan Harris and Ash Dixon look to be out of luck after being assigned to the Maori All Blacks this summer. I initially thought that Asafo Aumua would get the nod as they begin to look to the future, but I now believe that it will be Liam Coltman who goes to Japan, as he has been the next man up during the Rugby Championship.
For the rest of the front row, I will not be looking beyond the Rugby Championship squad due to the importance of scrums in the international game. The Crusaders pair of Owen Franks and Joe Moody have become regulars when available. Karl Tu’inukuafe was one of the breakout internationals last season but appears to have fallen out of favour this season and would likely require injuries ahead of him in order to make it to the tournament. Ofa Tu’ungafasi will travel to provide cover for Moody, while Nepo Laulala will provide cover for Franks. For the final spot, I will go for Angus Ta’avao, as Franks appeared to struggle in the first Bledisloe match so may not have the starting spot as secured as he would have hoped.
The first 3 names in the All Blacks second row corps pick themselves. Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are one of the best lock pairings in World Rugby, while Scott Barrett can easily come in with no real drop off in quality. However due to Barrett’s ability to play in the back row, I expect Steve Hansen to also pick one more. While Jackson Hemopo also provides cover for the back row, I think that the spot is more likely to be filled by Patrick Tuipulotu, who has more experience at this level. The big question here though is on Retallick’s fitness after he left the South Africa match with a dislocated shoulder. If he’s fit, then he travels. If there is any delay in his recovery, however, I expect Hemopo to take the spot that opens up.
Captain Kieran Read is the obvious selection here, while Sam Cane and Ardie Savea will surely both travel to compete for the 7 jersey – or potentially even play together as a 6/7 combination. For the final 2 spots, things get harder to judge. Akira Ioane is a talented player but with Savea able to cover 8 and Kirean Read there, he is still stuck with the Maori All Blacks and likely won’t be capped until after the tournament. Vaea Fifita looked to be their next star at 6 a few seasons ago but has since falling down the pecking order. Dalton Papalii has been the recent inclusion, but the Blues’ struggles and lack of international experience could hurt him. Liam Squire is currently asking to not be selected for the All Blacks but could come back into contention if he makes himself available for the World Cup. Shannon Frizell burst onto the scene in his first couple of caps but had a limited impact on later matches in last year’s Rugby Championship. While part of me is thinking that none of these players will make it and Hemopo may even take the spot as a utility forward, I’m going to pick Vaea Fifita here as he has experience in the second row and provides another option in the lineout. The final spot goes to jackal Matt Todd, who was one of the stars of the Super Rugby final and made Super Rugby’s top 10 for offloads and tackles completed.
The top 2 pick themselves here as both Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara are among the best in the world at the position. Bryn Hall’s success with the Crusaders and link with Richie Mo’unga does not appear to have been enough to see him promoted from the Maori All Blacks. While Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has been the usual 3rd man since Tawera Kerr-Barlow moved to France, he has spent most of the season on the bench while his teammate Brad Weber has had a stunning Super Rugby season, so I see him making the squad instead of his more established rival.
He may not be my pick for the number 10 jersey, but Beauden Barrett looks set to lead the line at the World Cup, while Richie Mo’unga is the clear option behind him given Damian McKenzie’s injury. Or they may even both make the starting line-up with Barrett at 15. As a 3rd fly half, I expect that they will rely on cover from elsewhere in the squad after Josh Ioane was one of the first players cut, most likely Jordie Barrett.
I could have easily picked 6 or 7 players at the position but in line with previous squads have limited myself to just 4. Jack Goodhue is one of the best all-rounders in the centre corps, while Ngani Laumape has had a stellar season for the Hurricanes. Anton Lienert-Brown may not have had the best matches when starting but is lethal off the bench around the hour mark. As none of the centre options are that experienced covering other positions, I can only imagine Steve Hansen taking 4 centres, which means a big name will be missing out. With these 3 making the plane, I expect a more experienced presence to take the final spot. Ma’a Nonu rolled back the years with his performances from the Blues but it feels like his time is over, while Sonny Bill Williams has missed most of the season through injury and not looked close to his best during the Rugby Championship. New Zealand can look a little questionable defensively at times, so I expect Ryan Crotty to take the final spot by virtue of his stellar defence. However, he did pick up an injury in the Super Rugby semifinal and if he does not recover in time, then I see a fit Williams taking the spot.
Again, Damian McKenzie’s injury leads to some big decisions at this position, further hampered by the retirement of Israel Dagg. Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith will compete for the 15 jersey (assuming that Beauden Barrett is not given the jersey fulltime), while Smith is also very experienced on the wing for New Zealand and Barrett has played there for the Hurricanes too. Rieko Ioane’s 22 tries in 24 Tests guarantee him a place on the plane. Ben Lam does not appear to be in consideration despite another strong season for the ‘Canes. Nehe Milner-Skudder’s chances of a second World Cup seem gone after a torrid series of injuries stopped him from jumping on from his starring role at RWC2015. Waisake Naholo is also currently not involved with either the Rugby Championship or Maori All Blacks squads as he comes back from injury, so I think that he is left to play in the Mitre 10 Cup before making his way to the Premiership, while Crusader fullback/winger George Bridge comes in to cover the back 3. The All Blacks showed with Milner-Skudder’s selection 4 years ago that they are not afraid to bring in a winger with just a few caps as a bolter into their World Cup squad. I can see that happening again this year in the form of Sevu Reece, who just finished this season as the top try scorer in Super Rugby.
The final round of this season’s shorter Rugby Championship began in Perth this weekend 2019’s first Bledisloe Cup match. The Wallabies took an early lead with a try from Reece Hodge and though Anton Lienert-Brown & Rieko Ioane both crossed in the next 10 minutes, Australia led 16-12 at the break, while New Zealand were left reeling after a red card for Scott Barrett just before halftime. The extra man had an impact after the break as Australia scored a further 5 tries to the All Blacks’ 2 on their way a 47-26 victory, their biggest scoreline against New Zealand. Coupled with South Africa’s win later in Argentina, Australia finished 2ⁿᵈ in the tournament and the All Blacks an unprecedented 3ʳᵈ, leaving themselves at risk of losing their World #1 ranking to Wales.
With James O’Connor returning to the starting lineup and starting at 13 for the fist time in his Wallabies career, this partnership with Samu Kerevi was the 13ᵗʰ centre pairing they have used since the end of the 2015 World Cup. If this match is anything to go by though, Michael Cheika has finally found what should be his first choice midfield combination. Christian Leali’ifano has helped bring more control to the team while he also does a good job of attacking the line. Kerevi is in the form of his life and makes the big metres to put the team on the front foot, while bringing in O’Connor at 13 gave the team a much better balance than they had with Tevita Kuridrani as he had the pace, vision and skills to play whatever situation he was in, resulting in multiple assists in this game.
This close to the World Cup, Cheika now needs to give this midfield time together, but I would be interested to see Tom Banks given another go at fullback as O’Connor’s inclusion provides another playmaker option that reduces the need for Kurtley Beale (who has had his moments but on the whole been rather quiet) at 15. With a return to New Zealand next week, it will be interesting to see the back line selected.
I all the years that I’ve been regularly watching rugby, I can’t remember a New Zealand team that had so many questions to answer this close to the World Cup. The 6 shirt is one that has not been sufficiently filled since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand and while Ardie Savea looked to be the best option given the depth at 7, this performance from the back row was largely disappointing – though Savea did finish with more metres made than any other player in black. Richie Mo’unga has not looked comfortable at 10 with Beauden Barrett at 15, but I can’t help feel that part of this was due to the forwards not putting the team on the front foot and the ever-changing cast at 12 and 13 (this week saw Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue start, with Ngani Laumape replacing Goodhue just 19 minutes in). Whether at wing or fullback, Ben Smith has been a star for the All Blacks for years, but he has looked far from comfortable during recent matches .
Now it may just be that the team are experimenting with different options and do in fact have all their plans settled ready for the World Cup. If so, they are playing a dangerous game as people will be looking at the draw against South Africa and this loss with confidence. The All Blacks are looking not just beatable, but ordinary. Momentum can be a great thing when you start winning, but when you’re struggling its the exact opposite. They need to put in a big performance and get a result at home next weekend.
RWC2019 Winners and Losers
Starting with a man who has already received praise in this article, James O’Connor has come in from the cold and shown that not only is he deserving of a place in the 31-man squad, but he should arguably be starting. Tolu Latu is another who has overcome off-field issues and earned another shot with the national team. Starting today and putting in a strong performance, he’s surely cemented his place in the squad and may have even beaten Folau Fainga’a to the starting spot. While there were not many great performances from the men in black, Dane Coles looked back to his best and will be pushing to cement the starting spot despite strong opposition from Codie Taylor. Atu Moli‘s selection on the bench for this match also seems to have brought an end to Karl Tu’inukuafe’s chances of going to Japan, and he will be hoping to make it onto the plane as one of the loosehead options.
Moving onto players who maybe getting nervous about their places, Ben Smith will need to hope that Steve Hansen goes on the idea that “form is temporary, class is permanent” and continue to select him. His versatility and experience will likely save him but there is the distinct possibility that he could be a high profile exclusion. His try aside, Anton Lienert-Brown again struggled to impose himself on a match from the outset. He does so well off the bench, but in a limited-numbers squad and with so many options at centre, could that limited impact as a starter prove costly? The rise of Tolu Latu has possibly brought an end to Jordan Uelese‘s chances of making the squad, having not featured since his injury-hit cameo against South Africa. Another player whose chances of making the squad look to be over is Nick Phipps, who has not been involved in the tournament at all, with all the minutes going to Will Genia and Nic White.
We reached the halfway point of this season’s Rugby Championship on Saturday (that’s a sad thought!) with a match between New Zealand and South Africa. The 2 teams will both be in Pool B at the World Cup, so while both teas were looking to test the depth of their squads in an attempt to pick the 31 men they take to Japan, both teams will have also wanted the psychological edge of a win over their rival.
In a match full of handling errors from the All Blacks, 2 South Africa penalties gave them an early lead, but a try for Jack Goodhue and Beauden Barrett’s conversion gave New Zealand a 7-6 lead at halftime. The game remained close throughout the second half and with the final play of the game Herschel Jantjies (on for much of the half following a failed HIA for Faf de Klerk) managed to collect a chip forward from Cheslin Kolbe to score out wide and Handrè Pollard slotted the conversion to secure a 16-16 tie. The All Blacks will more likely be concerned with the health of Brodie Retallick, however, as he suffered a dislocated shoulder that could put his World Cup in jeopardy.
Beauden Barrett had been the go-to fly half for New Zealand for a while now, but this match found him moved to fullback, while Richie Mo’unga took the 10 jersey. I really like this decision from Steve Hansen as I have been saying to my friends for a while that I would pick Mo’unga over Barrett as I find him a more reliable option, while moving Barrett to 15 keeps his playmaking ability on the park and arguably enhances it by giving him more space to work from, similar to what we were seeing with Damian McKenzie prior to his injury.
While Mo’unga had a shaky start with a couple of charged kicks, he grew into the game, while Barrett also had a strong game and got the assist for Goodhue’s try. What did surprise me though was the decision to give Barrett the kicking duties. Barrett has been the kicker for the All Backs on plenty of occasions so there is nothing new to learn there compared to Mo’unga. As it turns out, that decision arguably cost them the game as Barrett left 6 points on the field with 2 missed kicks that a top-level international kicker should be making, before being replaced off the tee by Mo’unga.
So often in the past, a team has needed to play the best match of their season and still require some luck to avoid losing in New Zealand. That was not the case here though, as South Africa put in a good workmanlike performance that I would describe as solid rather than spectacular.
With Faf de Klerk at the helm, they did a great job of keeping the All Blacks down their end of the pitch and putting them under pressure, with Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am doing a great job of stopping them making ground through the middle. Cheslin Kolbe is tiny by present international rugby standards but was anything but a pushover, completing 13 of his 15 attempted tackles – only Kwagga Smith (15/16) and Pieter-Steph du Toit (14/16) made more for the Springboks.
The set piece saw them largely keep parity with the number 1 team in the world, and watching the replacement props come on and immediately win a scrum penalty against New Zealand’s starting front row will have given the team a huge psychological boost with a crucial rematch in Japan just months away.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
If 2 tries on debut wasn’t good enough for Herschel Jantjies, he did not look like a player earning just his second cap against the All Blacks and scoring the crucial try at the death by beating opposite number Aaron Smith to the ball will have made it even sweeter. Off the back of these 2 performances it’s hard to imagine Rassie Erasmus not taking him to Japan. The starting pack for the Boks certainly looked like the first choice players minus injured captain Siya Kolisi, which seems to suggest that Kwagga Smith is being heavily considered for a spot in the squad. By being the team’s top tackler and also having some great moments on the ball and at the breakdown, he certainly didn’t do himself any harm. For the All Blacks, Shannon Frizell was given a shot in the number 6 shirt that currently seems up for grabs and certainly grew into the game, while one of his rivals for the place, Vaea Fifita, was probably given a better shot of making the squad by covering the second row position on the bench. Brodie Retallick’s hopes of making the plane depend on how quickly he can recover from his dislocated shoulder, while Scott Barrett is also currently missing through injury, which gives Fifita a great chance to prove himself as an option at lock to increase his chances of making it onto the plane.
The player whose World Cup hopes were hurt most (literally in this case) was arguably Brodie Retallick, who has suddenly gone from a definite starter to someone hoping he can recover in time to make it into the squad. Sonny Bill Williams is making his way back from injury and though he was involved in the try, he struggled to have any significant impact on the match and put his team on the front foot in the same way that Ngani Laumape has. Moving over to South Africa, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi both struggled at times in the lineout without providing as much as usual around the park, which could put them at risk if Schalk Brits can prove himself worthy of being first or second choice in the squad. Likewise, the success of Herschel Jantjies will put Cobus Reinach as risk if Rassie Erasmus decides to only take 2 scrum halves.
New Zealand and Argentina got underway in 2019’s shorter-format Rugby Championship on Saturday in Buenos Aires. The Pumas chose to stick largely to the Jaguares players that just went all the way to a Super Rugby final, while the New Zealand squad was a blend of experience and experimental.
A try from Ngani Laumape and a Brodie Retallick interception just before halftime helped to give the All Blacks a 9-20 lead at the break. After the break, the Pumas held them scoreless, but could not fully make up the deficit, with Emiliano Boffelli’s try bringing the final score to 16-20.
This was an odd match for the Pumas. Both as the Jaguares and the national team, they have shown over recent seasons that they are at their best when they are playing an open game and getting their outside backs into the game. While they looked dangerous when given the chance, their impact was limited in the first hour as Tomás Cubelli and Nicolás Sánchez played a territory-heavy game. While this kicking game did cause the All Blacks some problems – Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett surprisingly struggled under the high ball – and led to Boffelli’s try, it certainly felt like Argentina hared their chances by not keeping hold of the ball more.
When they started playing their usual game more in the second half, they started creating chances and came very close to getting the winner, only for a foot in touch to see the have a late try disallowed. With a 59% tackle completion percentage in this game, it could be suggested that playing a more possession-heavy game would have actually benefited them and quite possibly seen them come away with victory.
Ever since Richie McCaw’s retirement, the battle for the number 7 shirt has been a close one between Sam Cane and Ardie Savea. This match saw the battle temporarily put on hold though, as Cane was given the 7 shirt and Ardie Savea settled in at 8. Obviously, captain Kieran Read will still be the starter at the position until after the World Cup, but such was Savea’s performance, it could have seen him earn a starting spot in the 6 shirt. While he will cause issues at the breakdown, he comes into his own as a ball carrier and he did a good job of helping put the All Blacks on the front foot in the first half.
Vaea Fifita struggled to have an impact on the match in a 6 shirt that nobody has managed to claim as their own since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand. This close to the World Cup and with Matt Todd emerging as another potential option at 7, a switch across the scrum for Savea could allow the All Blacks to get their best players on the pitch at the same time.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
Arguably the biggest winner from this game was Ngani Laumape, who was a star of this season’s Super Rugby and carried that form into this match with 72 metres (the most of anyone on the pitch) and a try. Sevu Reece didn’t get many chances to have the ball in space but looked good when he did and was also willing to go looking for the ball. For Argentina, Matías Moroni has been cementing his position on the right wing in the absence of Bautista Delguy and has surely guaranteed himself a spot on the plane.
While Laumape had a strong game, Anton Lienert-Brown was very quiet and once again seemed to suggest that he is better coming off the bench in a Test match compared to starting. Likewise, Vaea Fifita struggled to impact the game in attack while also giving away a couple of silly penalties, which will not help him in his battle for the 6 shirt. For the Pumas, nobody really played themselves out of contention, but getting only 10 minutes at the end will not have helped Felipe Ezcurra work his way up the pecking order in a deep scrum half depth chart.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.