2022 Rugby Championship Round 1: South Africa v New Zealand

2022 Rugby Championship Round 1: South Africa v New Zealand

The 2022 edition of the Rugby Championship kicked off in Nelspruit with the first of 2 away matches for New Zealand in South Africa. The Kiwis came in at risk of dropping in the world rankings and with Ian Foster’s role as head coach being seriously questioned and it require a great tackle out wide from Jordie Barrett to stop Makazole Mapimpi going around the outside of him as the Boks looked to spread the ball wide. The home side were almost immediately back on the attack, and when Kurt-Lee Arendse put pressure on Beauden Barrett in the air under a Handré Pollard high ball, Lukhanyo Am was there to claim the loose ball and feed the Bulls wing for the early try. Though New Zealand were getting some possession they could not get out of their half, and when captain Sam Cane was pinged for going off his feet at the breakdown, Pollard kicked the 3 points to make it a 10-point lead with a quarter of the game gone. With Arendse challenging them in the air, the All Blacks were struggling to deal with the high ball, and when Siya Kolisi beat Akira Ioane to the net loose ball, South Africa quickly recycled and spread the ball wide, but Damian de Allende’s kick forward just refused to stay infield as Mapimpi tried to catch up to it, while a timely turnover from Ardie Savea under his own posts brought the next South African attack to an end. With just 4 minutes left in the opening half, Jordie Barrett got the All Blacks on the scoresheet with a penalty after Damian de Allende encroached into an offside position at a South Africa scrum—though rarely seen penalised, both back lines should stay at least 5m behind the hind foot until the ball is out—and this appeared to give the visitors some heart as they went on the attack, only for Malcolm Marx to bring it to a swift end with his second turnover of the match on his 50ᵗʰ Test cap, which saw his side go in at the break with a 10-3 lead.

The South African dominance continued after the break and saw Pollard kick another penalty with 30 minutes remaining. With Jordie Barrett struggling with a foot injury, Richie Mo’unga was brought on at fly half—with Beauden Barrett moving to 15—but it had little impact as South Africa continued to dominate, allowing Handré Pollard to kick a drop goal just before the hour. New Zealand finally saw themselves gifted with possession in the South African 22 with just over 15 minutes remaining after Arendse kicked out on the full when the ball had been played back into the 22, but the threat lasted just a couple of phases before replacement hooker Dane Coles knocked on. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, the South African defence continued to play as they had all night, and when Lukhanyo Am won a turnover penalty just inside the New Zealand half, Pollard kicked the penalty to open up a 16-point lead—a notable figure as a loss of 15 points or more would see the All Blacks drop to 5ᵗʰ in the World Rankings. An impressive game for Arendse was ruined by a late red card for taking out Beauden Barrett in the air with 5 minutes remaining—an incident that saw both players stay down for a number of minutes and Arendse eventually stretchered off. With just minutes left but a one-man advantage, Caleb Clarke made a break and was stopped just short by Damian Willemse, but bought time for his support, which allowed Shannon Frizell to go over in the corner, but some loose play as New Zealand went hunting for the bonus point on their next possession saw the All Blacks flanker fumble Sam Cane’s pass, and replacement Willie le Roux nipped in to score under the posts, Pollard kicking the conversion for a 26-10 victory.

Fifty up

On a recent article, I named Malcolm Marx as one of my top 5 hookers currently playing. Today was the perfect example of why.

While he was ultra-reliable at the set piece, he was also used as one of the primary carriers on first phase off the lineouts, and yet despite this meaning pretty much all of his carries were into an organised defence, he still managed to break the gain line with every single one of his carries, with one knock on in contact the only real blight on his 53-minute performance.

But where he really came alive was in defence, where he won 4 turnovers. The best openside flankers in the world would be happy with 4 turnovers in a Test match, this is coming from a hooker. He is so physically strong and in control of his body, while he has the nous to get himself in the right position as the tackle is made an the technique to get himself over the ball and latched on in a split-second.

Don’t ever be fooled by how often he starts on the bench, Marx is an elite player who should never be underestimated. This Man of the Match performance on his half-century was a timely reminder.

New faces, same result

The NZRU shockingly allowed Ian Foster to stay in his job following the series loss to Ireland, instead sacking his assistants. But this will surely have doomed Foster, even if he remains in the job for one more week with another Test against the Boks in South Africa next weekend.

The big worry for a while with New Zealand has been how there appears to be no plan in attack. Well the change in coaches certainly didn’t help there as the All Blacks looked worse than ever, creating just 1 attack of note, which was not even manufactured by the team, but simply a broken tackle late on and the individual skill of Caleb Clarke. Had the Boks nt scored that second try at the death, a 9-point difference would have been far too kind on the All Blacks and thoroughly undeserved.

Granted, the South African defence didn’t make things easy for New Zealand, with players regularly shooting out the line to make the man and ball tackle, but New zealand never looked like thy had an answer and continued to try and truck it up through the middle with their centres and forwards, who were too often being caught behind the gain line.

As a rugby fan, it is actually a real disappointment to see the All Blacks reduced to such a shambles. If Ian Foster survives this latest embarrassment, I begin to worry just how far this team can fall.

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Ireland in New Zealand: Team of the Tour

Ireland in New Zealand: Team of the Tour

We are one week on from that historic day that saw Ireland ear their first series victory over the Kiwis in New Zealand. A fantastic 3-Test series saw the Irish recover from a disappointing defeat to make history 2 weeks running to win the series 2-1, while the wider squad also got plenty of rugby during the tour with a 2-match series against the Maori All Blacks, which ended 1-1.

And so, as we spend this period after the Summer Tours patiently waiting for the beginning of the Rugby Championship,it’s time to look back over the tour to create my combined XV. Now this one will be a little different, as I have made the executive decision to base this on all 5 matches rather than just the Test series.

Who do you think should have made the XV? Let me know in the comments below.



My combined XV from Ireland’s 5-match tour of New Zealand is:

1) Andrew Porter: Oh how the All Blacks miss Joe Moody. In his absence, George Bower got the start in all 3 Tests… and if you’ve watched Squidge Rugby’s video on the 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ Tests, you’ll know how poor his performances were! In contrast, Porter continues to play at a high level after moving over from the tighthead side. He may still have room for improvement at the scrum and should arguably have received a red card for his high tackle on Brodie Retallick, but in the loose he remains an important player in both directions, and carried well for an important early try in the 2ⁿᵈ Test.

2) Dan Sheehan: It was a quiet series for Codie Taylor as New Zealand struggled to create anything in attack. Sheehan meanwhile completely outplayed his more experienced opponents, being solid at the set piece and being an ever-willing carrier in the loose, with some clever footwork helping to beat the defenders. With Rónan Kelleher currently out injured, this Test series may have just given Sheehan the advantage in the race for the #2 jersey.

3) Tadhg Furlong: Maybe not the most notable performances from the Leinster tighthead, but he was solid and reliable all around the park, which is more than can be said for the All Blacks’ options.

4 & 5) Tadhg Beirne & Kieran Treadwell: Regular readers will know that I’ve been championing Beirne since his Scarlets days, but now his quality is becoming impossible to ignore even in the biggest Test matches. Solid and reliable all around the park, he put in some great carries to help get the Irish on the front foot, but really stood out in defence. If he wasn’t stopping the All Blacks with a tackle before the gain line, he was getting in with the jackal to win a crucial turnover or penalty. Became a one-man defensive behemoth late in the 3ʳᵈ Test, with a interception and a series of successful jackals stopping consecutive attacks. As for his partner, Kieran Treadwell gets the nod here after some solid performances against the Maori All Blacks, while he immediately acclimatized to the game when coming on late in the defensive efforts to finish off the crucial 3ʳᵈ Test.

6) Peter O’Mahony: A few times I have wondered if O’Mahony was past it and taking up a spot in the 23 that would be better suited to a young player who could benefit from gaining more experience. But these last few weeks saw him play arguably some of the best rugby of his career. Gains bonus points if his supposed dig at Sam Cane is true.

7) Josh van der Flier: Is he one of the most underrated players in world rugby? Ultra-reliable and constantly in the right place to make a tackle, he also appears to have added a bit more of a carrying game, just adding another bow to his quiver.

8) Ardie Savea: Probably one of the hardest spots to pick, and Caelan Doris is very unlucky to miss out, but Savea was one of the few positives for the All Blacks during this series. Has pace, power, good handling and a good rugby IQ. One of only a few players who frequently looked dangerous or caused Ireland issues, New Zealand were certainly hit hard by losing him in the 2ⁿᵈ Test.

9) Jamison Gibson-Park: If we were basing on just 1 match, Aaron Smith’s 1ˢᵗ Test was the most impressive performance, but he struggled to make an impact in the other 2. Gibson-Park may not have had such a stand-out performance but consistently kept the ball moving quickly form the base of the ruck to keep the All Blacks on the back foot.

10) Johnny Sexton: Like O’Mahony it recently looked like Sexton may be past his best but he was vital on this tour. Led the attack as he usually does, while his leadership was spot on. You just have to look at the way Ireland fell apart after his injury in the 1ˢᵗ Test to see how important he is to this team.

11) James Lowe: A quick shout-out to Connor Garden-Bachop, who looked dangerous going forward in both matches for the Maori All Blacks. Instead it was the former Maori All Black who gets the nod here. Like some other players on this list, he may have put in more spectacular performances in the past, but he was reliable both on offence and defence, and took his moments well to assist the Irish when going forward.

12) Bundee Aki: Came off the bench and impressed in the first 2 Tests after a solid first match against the Maori All Blacks, and took advantage of Garry Ringrose’s head injury to get a deserved start in the deciding 3ʳᵈ Test. Carried hard and with great lines to put the All Blacks on the back foot.

13) Robbie Henshaw: Split his time between 12 and 13 depending as to if he was partnering Bundee Aki or Garry Ringrose, but the quality of his performances never faltered. Did what was required in attack while helping to marshall the Irish defence..

14) Will Jordan: One of only 2 All Blacks to make the list, what makes it even more impressive is that Jordan does so from 1 start and one appearance off the bench. Jordan knows how to make finding and exploiting a gap look easy and was one of the few players to have any success against the Irish defence.

15) Hugo Keenan: What impresses me so much about Keenan is just how well he does the basics. He so rarely makes mistakes and then builds off that to produce an accomplished performance with regularity. Completely outplayed Jordie Barrett, despite the latter also being the All Blacks’ goal kicker.

New Zealand v Ireland: The 2022 Decider

New Zealand v Ireland: The 2022 Decider

Ireland’s 2022 tour of New Zealand came to an end with a final Test against the All Blacks. The 3-Test series was tied at 1-1, with 2 games against the Maori All Blacks leaving the tour balanced at 2-2, so this third Test in Wellington would truly be the decider.

The All Blacks had not lost consecutive Tests at home in over 20 years but they found themselves under pressure from the off,, and when captain Sam Cane tackled Josh van der Flier off the ball, Ireland kicked to the corner and mauled the Leinster openside over for the opening try within 4 minutes. In a tight first half that saw an error-strewn performance from the Kiwis, Jordie Barrett missed the chance to narrow the gap with an early penalty, but was more successful with his second attempt early in the second quarter. The Irish looked to be dealing with the All Blacks, and took a chance to hit them on 28 minutes as they found some space down the blind side, James Lowe getting in behind the line then feeding Hugo Keenan for the try, Sexton kicking the conversion before adding a long-range penalty just minutes later. The Irish were beginning to dominate the game, while the All Blacks were falling apart, and some quick hands from the men in green sent Robbie Henshaw over just minutes before the break, Sexton adding the extras to take him over 1000 points in Test rugby and Ireland to a 3-22 lead at the break.

The All Blacks started the second half in much better fashion, and after 3 minutes of concerted pressure, Ardie Savea stretched out to get a much-needed early try. Any hopes that this would spark a comeback by the All Blacks were given an extra spark as Andrew Porter was sent to the bin on 51 minutes for a high tackle on Brodie Retallick, and New Zealand quickly took advantage of the extra man to send Akira Ioane—only starting after Scott Barrett pulled out injured earlier in the day—for his first ever Test try. A Sexton penalty provided some respite for the Irish while crucially taking things back to a two-score game, but an attempt from halfway just minutes later rebounded off the post, and as both teams looked to re-find their shape, Ardie Savea’s inside pass released Will Jordan to go the length and score, Jordie Barrett’s conversion just missing as Porter returned to the pitch. back to a full complement, Ireland were back on the attack and some lovely timing on the pass from Hugo Keenan sent the rampaging Bundee Aki up to the 5m line, where Ardie Savea was pinged at the breakdown, and like in the opening minutes, the men in green kicked to the corner and set up Rob Herring to peel off the maul and stretch to the line, Sexton’s conversion making it a 10-point game with 15 minutes remaining. Rugby league convert Roger Tuivasa-Sheck came on for his debut with 10 minutes remaining and with the All Blacks set to have a scrum in the Irish 22, but a strong shove from the Irish pack made things awkward for New Zealand, who soon wasted their opportunity as Sam Whitelock caught Tadhg Beirne with a neck roll at the breakdown, allowing the Irish to clear their lines, while turnovers from Beirne brought an end to the next 2 attacks just moments later. With just 5 minutes left, Sexton hobbled off to be replaced by Joey Carbery, while Beirne was also removed for Kieran Treadwell, but the defence held firm to secure a 22-32 victory on the night, an historic 2-1 series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand and a 3-2 series win for the overall tour.

Clueless

I may have only got into rugby 20 years ago, and it may have been only 12 years ago that I became obsessed and started watching too much rugby (is there such thing?), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a poor All Blacks team.

In attack, they are panicking and going for the miracle pass or kick far too early, rather than going through the phases and putting the Irish under pressure, letting the space create itself… and that’s when they aren’t gifting the Irish with handling errors—has an All Blacks team ever struggled so much to even just hold onto the ball?—or moronic penalties, such as Beauden Barrett cleaning players out beyond the breakdown and Sam Whitelock’s neck roll. Granted they improved somewhat i the second half but they still rarely looked like scoring against 15 men and were constantly seeing their attack impacted by the Irish defence, with many of their tries requiring a moment of individual brilliance.

The side has been stagnating and falling apart under Ian Foster throughout his tenure, put in terms of the individual players, the quality is still there. Thanks to the stupidly early draws for the Rugby World Cup, we find ourselves in a position where only 2 of our current 4 top-ranked nations (New Zealand, Ireland, France, South Africa) can make it past the quarter-finals, and right now it’s hard to imagine that even the most biased Kiwi fans could genuinely believe that they would be one of them. This loss needs to be the catalyst for change, starting with the removal of Ian Foster (if he is not smart enough to step down himself) and the rapid appointment of a replacement—Scott Robertson being the obvious candidate— who can use the upcoming Rugby Championship as a chance to take stock of what he has and start building combinations. If they move soon, there may still be time to make the All Blacks competitive again in time for the World Cup.

The next mission

What a moment for Ireland. They were arguably the better team for much of the first Test, but fought back from disappointment to make history 2 weeks running, with a first Test win in New Zealand and now a first series win in New Zealand. They should rightly be proud of their achievements this summer.

However, now they have an even more important (and potentially more difficult) task: maintaining his level of performance and intensity for another year and a half, through to the end of the World Cup. The idea of Ireland peaking a year out from the World Cup and then going downhill in the major tournament is not a new one, an therefore Andy Farrell and the Irish leadership have a colossal task on their hands.

As mentioned above, the World Cup draw has left them on the wrong side of the knockouts and facing either France or New Zealand in the quarter finals (on current form, I would expect it to be France), and so this means that they will need to be at the top of their game to even make the semi-finals for the first time.

As great as the team will feel right now, the team cannot rest on their laurels and must look to continue pushing on. If they can, 2023 may become an even more historic year for them than 2022 has ended up becoming.

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New Zealand v Ireland

New Zealand v Ireland

Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand reached its mid-point with the second Test against the All Blacks. The tourists had the stronger start last week and it was more of the same in Dunedin this week, with an early break from Tadhg Beirne bringing them into the New Zealand 22, and after a minute of concerted pressure Andrew Porter managed to bash his way over for the opening try within 3 minutes. Johnny Sexton kicked the conversion and a penalty ten minutes later, and the All Blacks soon found themselves put in more of a hole when Leicester Fainga’anuku was sent to the bin for a late hit on Mack Hansen, though the 14 men successfully dealt with the resulting driving maul after Ireland kicked to the corner. Things were about to get even worse for the home side though, as a hurried kick from Beauden Barrett was countered by Sexton and as he was brought down, his support man Garry Ringrose was tackled early by Ofa Tu’ungafasi, who joined Fainga’anuku in the bin—though how a penalty try wasn’t given is beyond me as referee Jaco Peyper and TMO Tom Foley were clearly seeing a covering defender that didn’t exist. Ireland’s attack however suddenly lost all cohesion an accuracy, which allowed the All Blacks to hold out and clear their lines before welcoming back Fainga’anuku, but they found themselves almost immediately back down to 13 as Angus Ta’avao (on to cover Tu’ungafasi’s absence at the scrums) went high on Garry Ringrose, resulting in a head-on-head collision. With a penalty in the All Blacks 22, Ireland chose to go for the scrum to force the All Blacks into pulling 2 backs into the pack (due to the scrums going uncontested until Tu’ungafasi’s return, both teams must field a full 8-man scrum) but once again the Irish attack lacked accuracy and a knock-on from James Lowe allowed the defenders to once again clear their lines and get back to 14 men, though some confusion as to who could come back on as player had to be sacrificed for replacement props had led to Ardie Savea being unintentionally replaced for the rest of the game. However after weathering a storm, the All Blacks found themselves finishing the half in the Irish 22, and after James Ryan was sent to the bin for failing to retreat at a penalty, Beauden Barrett (perhaps inadvertently) kicked the ball as it squirted out of a ruck before darting through the defence to drop on the loose ball over the line for the most fortuitous of tries, with brother Jordie kicking a simple conversion to cut the Irish lead to 7-10 at the break.

It was the Irish on the attack again in the early stages of the second half, and when another strong carry from Beirne got them up to the All Blacks’ try line, it was Andrew Porter again who dotted down for his 2ⁿᵈ try of the night and 4ᵗʰ Test try. As a close half continued, Sexton kicked 2 penalties to put Ireland 16 points ahead with 13 minutes remaining. With 6 minutes remaining, the All Blacks found themselves at the Irish try line but were held up 3 times in quick succession. They kept fighting and Will Jordan was sent over out wide for the try, but with Jordie Barrett missing the touchline conversion, scoring 11 more points in 2 minutes proved an impossible task and the Irish hung on for an historic 12-23 victory, their first ever win over the All Blacks in New Zealand.

Releasing the pressure

While Ireland can arguably feel aggrieved that Leicester Fainga’anuku only received a yellow for his hit on Mack Hansen and that no penalty try was given for Ofa Tu’ungafasi’s early tackle on Garry Ringrose, they only had themselves to blame for not being further ahead at halftime.

As accurate as they were around the pitch, when they made it up to the All Blacks 22, things started to fall apart for them. Even before they found themselves with the numerical advantage, a great opportunity came to a disappointing end as Robbie Henshaw failed to collect the ball as he came steaming onto it in an attempt to crash through the defensive line off a scrum. Then twice against 13 men, all cohesion seemed to disappear and the ball was being flung anywhere and everywhere, giving the All Blacks defence a chance to recover an get in on the steal one time, while a second resulted in a Lowe knock-on. Then in the second half, James Lowe ended one chance by sailing a long pass into touch on the edge of the 22 when putting the ball through the hands may have been sufficient.

It’s almost as if the Irish were panicking when they got close to the line, trying to force the try too soon. Porter’s tries showed how patience and concerted pressure in the 22 will break down the All Blacks soon enough, the Irish just need to trust themselves more, take a deep breath and work through the phases to earn the try.

New Zealand v Ireland

New Zealand v Ireland

Having lost to the Maori All Blacks in midweek, Ireland’s next stop on their tour of New Zealand was a trip to Eden Park for the first of 3 Tests against the All Blacks. Ireland had never beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, but got the first chance with some sustained pressure in the 22 that eventually saw Keith Earls go over for the opening try after 6 minutes. The All Blacks had seen their preparations interrupted by COVID cases and were looking very ordinary against a strong Irish defence, but finally managed to work some space for debutant Leicester Fainga’anuku on 20 minutes, and when the Crusaders wing was stopped just short of the try line, Jordie Barrett came onto the ball from the ruck at pace to crash over, before kicking the conversion to put them ahead. The Irish continued to look the more dangerous side, but when James Lowe slipped as Garry Ringrose tried to offload the ball to him, Sevu Reece was first to the loose ball and outpaced everyone in the race from his 22 to the Irish try line, while things got even worse for the Irish as the same phase of play saw them lose Johnny Sexton to a failed HIA. The momentum shifted with that and the All Blacks were suddenly looking the more dangerous, and they had their third try with 5 minutes left in the half as Beauden Barrett’s grubber into the Irish 22 was collected by Quinn Tupaea. And it was soon 4 as Aaron Smith sniped through the middle of a ruck and chipped Hugo Keenan, and though he failed to regather under pressure, Ardie Savea was following up to dive on the loose ball over the line, with Jordie Barrett kicking all the conversions for a 28-5 lead at the break.

The Irish got the start they needed in the second half though, as a series of phases just short of the New Zealand line eventually saw Garry Ringrose go over in the corner. However the All Blacks soon had the pressure back on the Irish, and when Ardie Savea got on the outside of Ringrose, who slipped off the tackle, he had the pace to make it over for his second try of the night. Ireland continued to fight though and again managed to spend some time in the New Zealand 22, which eventually resulted in Josh van der Flier crashing over from short range, only for replays to show that the ball had been dislodged as he went over by Rieko Ioane, just moments after he had also denied Joey Carbery with what appeared to be a high tackle. and the Irish were made to pay with just 10 minutes left as Pita Gus Sowakula went over off a 5m scrum to score on his debut. The Irish looked to end on a high, and after Andrew Porter was held up, replacement centre Bundee Aki managed to crash over from close range on the next attack to score. Karl Tu’inukuafe was sin binned late on for not rolling,but the All Blacks defence held out and Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier were both held up over the line and one final driving maul halted to secure a 42-19 victory for the hosts.

Extra ordinary

Obviously having COVID cases affecting the build-up (and a separate illness for Richie Mo’unga) is not going to help the All Black be at their best, but boy did they look ordinary. In defence, they were struggling to deal with all the pressure coming from the Irish, with minimal impact at the breakdown (unless you count the penalties they conceded), while in attack there was very little being created.

While some great work was done to release Fainga’anuku down the wing after 20 minutes, Tupaea’s try was a result of poor Irish covering behind the defensive line, and the other 2 in the half were purely opportunistic. Despite being 28-5 up, the All Blacks were arguably second best for most of the half and large portions of the second.

For so long, the All Blacks had such an air of invincibility that the game was almost won before it even kicked off. These days however, despite still having some absolute superstars in their ranks, the All Blacks are just another team—and that makes them beatable!

22 and a half men

I’ve quite frequently been of the opinion of late that continually playing Johnny Sexton is going to be the downfall of the Irish. And here we’re seeing it again. While he is a great player and leader for the Irish, he has played so many minutes that nobody else is getting even close to enough minutes of Test rugby to be able to slot in when Sexton is not available. The game completely turned when he went off in this game a heads dropped and such a large source of leadership and organisation.

As Ronan O’Gara stated before the match, Test rugby is about the 23 men. Sexton’s body rarely lets him play the full 80 minutes consistently at this level. They need a second fly half who—even if they are not at the same level as Sexton—can come in and still run this team to a high level. However with Sexton taking almost all the minutes when he is available, nobody has been able to get a real shot at the 10 shirt behind him, which means whoever is picked as Sexton’s understudy goes in underprepared.

Granted when you’re touring New Zealand you want to try and prove a point, but Andy Farrell and the coaches need to prepare for the eventuality that Sexton is not available at a key point in the World Cup and the best way to do that is to keep Sexton out for a run of games and focus on the players behind him. I would argue that the Autumn Tests should be about finding the next 2 fly halves on the depth chart and then using the 2023 Six Nations to give them as much Test experience as possible, while Sexton’s body gets a much-deserved rest to help him through to the end of the World Cup. Heck, with Sexton now being stood down for 12 days as part of the new concussion protocols, they may as well start the Autumn process now.

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

As both Super Rugby Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere club rugby season come to an end, it’s time to switch our attention from club rugby to the international game as a number of the Northern Hemisphere nations go on tour:

  • England to Australia
  • Ireland to New Zealand (facing both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks)
  • France to Japan
  • Wales to South Africa
  • Scotland to Argentina (while a Scotland “A” side will also face Chile in an uncapped match)
  • Italy to Portugal, Romania and Georgia

Now regular readers will have guessed what’s coming here, as I look at the majority of the teams above (in this case all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams) and pick a player from each team to watch out for during this tour. Often they will be someone relatively new to Test rugby, sometimes someone with a point to prove as they face the pressure of depth at their position, and sometimes a player who may have already made a name for themselves, but finds themselves now switching to a different position.

Of course these are just my picks, and there were certainly some other options that I could have gone with, so feel free to chuck who you would have selected in the comments!

Argentina

Starting off this list with someone who firmly falls into the third category I mentioned with Santiago Carreras. You may have noticed that I have began a series of my picks for the top 5 players in the world at each position and (SPOILERS) the Gloucester back will be appearing in one of those articles down the line. But it will not be the one about fly half, and that is where he has found himself playing in recent Tests. He certainly has the skillset to excel there, but he lacks the experience, having never started a professional club match at the position and not likely to anytime soon at Gloucester. With Michael Cheika having taken over leadership of the Pumas, will he stick with the Carreras experiment to take advantage of the depth Argentina have in the back 3, or will he look to play his best players in their best positions?

Australia

With 16 caps to his name already at the age of just 22, Angus Bell looks to be around for the long haul. A dynamic loosehead, he is becoming a much more solid scrummager and will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on the English tighthead crop with Kyle Sinckler missing. If he can cause some damage at the set piece, England could be in trouble.

England

There were so many ways to go with this pick and I was very tempted by returning players like Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga or the inexperienced Joe Heyes, but instead I have gone for Care’s Harlequins teammate Joe Marchant. The centre has always had great attacking quality but had added a super reliable defence to his game, while he also has the ability to move out to the wing. He may have a fight to make the starting XV when everyone is available, but with both Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade missing this tour, Marchant has a chance to push for that starting spot. His familiarity with Marcus Smith will certainly help things in attack, while he will play a big role in helping shut down an exciting Australian back line.

France

As if France weren’t dangerous enough, they may have found another future star just in time for the World Cup in the form of Yoan Tanga. The 25-year-old Racing 92 back row really stood out to me with his consistent carrying in the tight for the Barbarians in their humiliation of England last weekend, which repeatedly drew in multiple tacklers to finally get him down. The French backline is dangerous when given space, and Tanga’s carrying will just give them even more to work with.

Ireland

Sticking with the pack here, I’m going for Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan. It feels like in an ideal world with everyone available, the Irish hookers in the matchday 23 will be Sheehan and Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher, with the big question just being who starts. However with Kelleher out injured, Sheehan will surely be the clear first choice ahead of Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan and with the World Cup just a year away, he has a legitimate chance to secure the number 2 shirt.

Italy

I was initially going with Six Nations hero Ange Capuozzo here but a second glance at the scrum half position made me change my mind. With Stephen Varney left out after a poor Six Nations that ended with injury and limited minutes for Gloucester, Callum Braley’s retirement from international rugby leaves the Azzurri short of experience at scrum half this summer. Step forward Alessandro Garbisi! Paolo’s younger brother has shone with the U20s and has been racking up the minutes for Benetton in the URC. He may not be the finished product yet, but a summer facing 3 of the top 4 teams from the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship will be a great way for him to gain experience in the senior team.

New Zealand

What a difference a season makes. Last year, the All Blacks were seriously lacking centres, whereas now they seem almost spoiled for choice. And while part of this is down to the return of Josh Goodhue from injury and another year of experience for last year’s crop, they are also helped by the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from rugby league. The centre played 20 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code alongside almost 200 appearances in the NRL, and has grown into the 12 position in his first season with the Blues. With a great range of skills, clever footwork and good strength, Tuivasa-Sheck has the chance to be the new Sonny Bill Williams.

South Africa

Evan Roos was going to get my pick here until I realised that André Esterhuizen only had 8 caps! The Quins centre is arguably one of the best inside centres in the world, but has the challenge of being in the sae national team squad as Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, while South Africa’s recent favouring of a 6-2 split on the bench has led to them usually going for a more versatile player on the bench rather than a specialist centre. However his form has been incredible over recent seasons and he is fully deserving of a return to the national team and will be looking to put in some big performances against Wales to solidify his spot in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Scotland

Another in a similar spot to Santi Carreras, Blair Kinghorn may not be as entrenched in the Scottish XI, but he was clearly in the reckoning for a spot in the back 3. However his skillset has recently been used more at fly half, and with Finn Russell given a summer off and Adam Hastings forced to pull out of the touring squad through injury, Kinghorn looks likely to wear the 10 shirt against the Pumas. With Scotland underperforming of late and resting some key players this summer, and facing an Argentina team looking to climb back up the rankings under a new head coach, the pressure will be on Kinghorn.

Wales

Finishing off this list with a potential debutant in Tommy Reffell. Many would argue that the Leicester flanker should have been capped well before this, but he now goes into the South Africa tour off the back of a strong performance in the Premiership final. Back row is an area where Wales have plenty of quality but don’t seem to give anyone a long enough chance to secure a spot. But with Reffell’s all-round ability in the loose and real danger at the breakdown, can he prove himself worthy of an extended run in Wayne Pivac’s 23?

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 5

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 5

We’re here! 5 weeks of rugby came down to this final week of Test matches, and some absolute crackers.

November 9ᵗʰ 2002 was the last time that Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all lost Tests on the same day. Well flash forward to 20ᵗʰ November 2021, which saw 14-man Australia lose 29-28 to Wales courtesy of a last minute Rhys Priestland penalty, New Zealand fall to 2 losses on the bounce following a 40-25 loss to France and South Africa lose to a last gasp Marcus Smith penalty that gave England a 27-26 victory.

Elsewhere that day, Scotland saw Stuart Hogg break their record for Test tries with his 25ᵗʰ as they finished off their Autumn with a 29-20 win against Japan, Italy earned their first win since RWC2019 with a 17-10 victory over Uruguay and Georgia and Fiji drew 15-15 in Spain, while the weekend came to an end with Ireland following up their win over New Zealand with a record 53-7 victory over Argentina.


Scotland

While Scotland have shown some good stuff this Autumn, this match continued a trend that has me worried for their Six Nations hopes. While they have incredibly talented players and and are developing some real depth in many positions, their discipline at the breakdown is shocking.

In attack, they look to play good rugby, but end up not supporting effectively enough and getting pinged for sealing off or holding on, while in defence they continued to hurt themselves with penalties for not rolling away quickly or correctly with maddening frequency.

Sometimes you have to slow things down any way you can, but too many of these penalties they are giving away are just dumb. With England, Ireland and France all looking like they could have dangerous attacks come the Six Nations, the Scots have to avoid making it easy for their opposition by gifting them easy territory and chances for 3 points.

Japan

Japan are struggling in attack right now. Too much of their rugby is going from wing to wing without really going forwards, and defences are reading it, with Scotland frequently jamming up out wide in this game to cause issues. And the reason for this is that they are not getting those big carries over the gain line that they need.

Kazuki Himeno is a top player, but he is not an unknown anymore. Teams are accounting for him and focusing on him. He needs help. And the way to do this is to bring Tevita Tatafu into the starting back row. Tatafu “the Hitman” always seems to bring an extra something to the Japanese game when he is brought on, and will usually require more than 1 tackler to get him down, which then takes some of the attention away from Himeno and other carriers, allowing the team to start getting on the front foot and creating the space out wide for Kotaro Matsushima.

He may have been a leader and superstar for them for many years, but Michael Leitch is past his prime now and if Japan want to continue pushing forward, they need to move on from him as part of the starting XV and make Tatafu a regular in the starting XV.

Italy

Italy are putting together a decent squad even with star player Jake Polledri out injured long-term, but they are making a crucial error in attack that is making them far too easy to defend against. Much like Japan at the moment, the Azzurri are trying to go wide too quickly, without earning the right to do so by hitting it up in the middle of the pitch and around the fringes of the breakdown.

It’s strange why they aren’t doing so, as they certainly have the quality. Plenty of the pack frequently show themselves to be good carriers of the ball, while there even were occasional moments when Italy did play around the breakdown or hit it up through the middle and actually found themselves having some degree of success. But then far too often we would quickly see a return to the side-to-side rugby that was far too easy for the Uruguayan drift defence to deal with.

Players like Monty Ioane, Matteo Minozzi and debutant Pierre Bruno are already looking dangerous as a potential back 3. If space could be created for them out wide by hitting up players like Luca Morisi, Seb Negri, Danilo Fischetti and Ivan Nemer off 9, 10 and 12, while also utilising the threat of Stephen Varney around the breakdown, this Italian team will quickly jump to another level.

Uruguay

Keep an eye on Los Teros!

In this match, they showed that they have an organised defence, and a number of players who are certainly able to make a nuisance of themselves at the breakdown. In attack, they caused plenty of problems when they kept things tight, with the pack working well as a unit, while there is some real flexibility in the back line. Meanwhile in the set piece, they may be a little lightweight in the pack when it comes to the scrum, but with the 6′ 8″ Manuel Leindekar in the team, they’ll always be looking to disrupt the opposition lineout.

They pushed the Italians hard in this game and there is certainly an argument that they should have had a penalty try as Danilo Fischetti tackled Facundo Gattas before he caught the ball 5m out from the line; a decision which would have levelled the scores and given them a man advantage for the last 5 minutes… and that was without 2 of their stars: scrum half Santiago Arata and fly half Felipe Berchesi!

The Uruguayans have recently qualified as Americas 1 for the first time in their history, beating the USA and are targeting automatic qualification for RWC2027, which considering their pool will probably require victories over Italy and the Africa 1 qualifier. While it won’t be easy, I wouldn’t rule it out.

Georgia

What a performance from the Lelos! While this was far from Fiji at their best, the Georgian players did a great job of defending as a team. They limited the Pacific Islanders to just 2 tries, which is already more than can be said for many Tier 1 nations, but what makes this even more impressive is that one of these was not down to poor defence, but instead an interception that immediately put the Fijians in behind the Lelos as they had been looking to strike.

While they may not have created much of note in attack, much like los Teros against Italy, they fought hard through their pack and in the midfield, earning a number of penalties, with Tedo Abzhandadze having a solid game off the tee.

It’s no mean feat to front up against the Fijians for 80 minutes, the Georgians should be proud of their performance.

Fiji

As resilient as the Lelos were, this performance from Fiji was a big step down from last week’s against Wales. Despite keeping 15 men on the pitch, they failed to create much of note in a surprisingly error-strewn display, with their opening try even coming from an opportunistic interception 10 metres from their own line just moments after having an attack break down inside the Georgian 22.

In the second half, the performance improved slightly and it started leading to more chances, with Aminiasi Tuimaba unlucky to put a foot in touch as he attempted to go over for a second try, before some much more typical Fijian handling skills sent Viliame Mata over in the other corner.

It’s rare to see the Fijians play so bad, I can’t help but wonder if they played down to their opposition. If that is the case, they need to cut this out quickly. Days after arguably losing tot he worse team in their RWC2019 opener to Australia, they put in a poor performance against Uruguay and lost, which almost cost them automatic qualification for the 2023 tournament. Every team has the odd bad day, but with the quality of teams like Georgia and Uruguay improving, and the arrival of Moana Pasifika in Super Rugby Pacific hopefully beginning a regrowth of the other Pacific Island Teams, Fiji can ill afford to play down to their opposition too often.

England

The Marcus Smith era for England has begun. Owen Farrell’s injury firmly handed the reins over to him, and with the England captain only just set to be returning as the Six Nations begins, Smith took his chance to show that he doesn’t need the Saracen as a second playmaker at 12. Farrell has been a wonderful servant to England, but his role in the squad should now be one of the closer off the bench, or an experienced leader in a second string team.

Everyone was looking forward to seeing how a midfield of Smith, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade would do against the Springboks, and it looked incredible… for 6 minutes until Tuilagi went off injured. But even with Joe Marchant moving into the midfield, things ran smoothly and we saw some of the best attacking play England have produced in years, with Smith excelling, Freddie Steward continuing to secure the 15 shirt and Henry Slade (who is that second playmaker at 13) having one of his best games in an England shirt.

The ideal back line outside Smith is coming together now. May and Slade provide the experience at 11 and 13, while Steward’s ascension to the starting fullback role now means that Anthony Watson can fill the second wing spot once back from injury in the knowledge that there is someone capable covering the backfield. The only position that now needs sorting is 12. Manu Tuilagi is clearly the superstar option, but his injury history makes it difficult to trust him. While the Marchant and Slade pairing actually had a great impact on this game, I think that a more physical “crash ball” style centre would be better for the team.

To me, this leaves 2 options. Ollie Lawrence provides the long-term option aged just 22, and has looked decent when given a legitimate chance on the Test stage. The other option would be Mark Atkinson, who has finally received some recognition with recent call-ups after becoming one of the best 12s in the Premiership. While he would likely only be around to get the team through the World Cup and lacks the international experience, he has an incredible range of skills, being solid in defence while in attack, he was always able to crash through the line and find an unlikely offload, but in recent years has developed a passing and kicking game to make him an all-round threat.

Obviously as a Gloucester fan, I admit there may be some bias, but the thought of Marcus Smith and Henry Slade combining with Atkinson in midfield, and having players like Ellis Genge, Alex Dombrandt and Tom Curry taking his offloads as he gets through the contact is absolutely mouth-watering, and I think that he should be the one to fill the 12 shirt for the Six Nations.

South Africa

This game perfectly highlighted the issue with South Africa’s recent gameplan. If they come up against a team who can just about match them for physicality, things become difficult for them.

If they can’t completely overwhelm a team physically and get guarantee a try from their 5m lineouts, they find themselves in a position where they aren’t scoring many tries and are just relying on their kicks at goal. And while a team like England under Eddie Jones have the lack of discipline to allow South Africa to win that way, a team with the right firepower and a willingness to attack can also find ways to beat the South African defence and put a couple of tries on the board.

It can take time to build up a score just off the tee, but that can be wiped away in an instant by a try beneath the posts. South Africa need to add a more expansive side to their game, or teams will find a way to get around the defence and pull out wins, like David did against Goliath.

Wales

Looking back over the last 2 weeks, Wales have every right to be worried. Over the last 2 matches, Wales have spent 110 minutes out of a possible 160 with at least a 1-man advantage, and 30 of those minutes they actually had a 2 man advantage. At no point in the two games have they been at a numerical disadvantage. And yet it took a couple of later tries to rescue a victory—and put an undeserved gloss on it—against Fiji, and a last gasp Rhys Priestland penalty to defeat the Wallabies.

When you consider just how often recently the Welsh have found themselves on the right side of a red card, it is a real worry just how much the Welsh are struggling to take advantage of the extra space on the pitch.

Granted they have had some key players out injured, but you cannot rely on the same starting XV to play and win every match, while the players who have come in have generally done a good job. It is the overall style of play that appears to be the issue. Too often at the top of the game, teams play to not lose rather than play to win. Unless they look to improve their play to take advantage of the extra men—drawing in the defence to create space outside for the speedsters—they’ll soon find themselves facing the embarrassment of outnumbering their opponents but still coming away with nothing.

Australia

Deluded Dave Rennie may disagree, but Australia’s discipline was woeful in this game, an any capable Tier 1 nation would have annihilated them on the scoreboard. The Wallabies gave away 13 penalties in this game, which is already close to double the amount you really want to give away, but more than that was the impact of these penalties.

Of these 13 penalties, 5 were kicked for 15 points, while another was kicked to the corner for Ryan Elias’ converted try. 22 points conceded directly from Australian penalties. And yet even that isn’t the full story. Rob Valentini’s red card was a classic case of a big guy trying to make an impact on the game with a dominant hit, but not making the effort to get low enough, and while his shoulders may have hit low enough, the upright tackle and head-to-head clash made it a clear red that would leave the team without one of it’s enforcers and most destructive carriers for over an hour.

If the Wallabies are going to keep playing so naïvely, then that spell of success they had with Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi’s return will be exactly that, a bright spell in an otherwise dismal era.

France

This was a huge win for Les Bleus!

Ever since they sorted out their coaching team and started the rebuild with their very first match of the new World Cup cycle, they have been my favourites to win RWC2023 in front of home crowds. And while the team’s results have been largely impressive, and the young core of the team has become an experienced unit, they were still lacking something a victory that would make everyone sit up straight and take notice. Well now they have that.

This was a statement victory for the French. Romain Ntamack has been quiet at 12, but a move back to fly half unlocked him and he had one of the best games of his international career, while the site of him evading the All Blacks kick chase and running the ball out of his own in-goal to set up what was almost a 2-phase coast-to-coast try will live long in the memory. What makes this even more impressive is that fullback and goal kicker Melvyn Jaminet was uncapped this time last year, while key players like Virimi Vakatawa and captain Charles Ollivon were unavailable.

Granted this isn’t the New Zealand of old, but when an unfortunate officiating error from Wayne Barnes and Luke Pearce gifted them a 50:22 that began a spell of about 15 minutes of All Black dominance and a fight back on the scoreboard, the French still found an answer—with Ntamack’s break from his in-goal shifting the momentum and Damian Penaud’s interception try securing victory—when in the past they may have let the result getaway from them.

With France having 3 home games in the 2022 Six Nations, including Ireland and England, they have a chance of backing up this victory with a Grand Slam, which will help develop an air of invincibility at just the right time.

New Zealand

What now for New Zealand? After 2015 and 2016 saw the All Blacks go on an 18-Test winning streak 2021 has seen them lose 3 matches (20% of their Tests for the season). So what next?

Well with the Rugby World Cup just under 2 years away, the NZR have a big decision to make. Moving on from Ian Foster now will be admitting that they made a mistake in appointing him over Scott Robertson 2 years ago, but with Super Rugby Pacific just months away, would the Crusaders head coach abandon his team at such late notice and accept the role which he was previously refused?

But what if they stick with Foster?

Well first of all, he will need to stop chopping and changing his 23 so severely every match. Changes are understandable as you want to ensure that there is a depth to the squad both in quality and experience, but right now it is harming the team chemistry. Similarly, Rieko Ioane needs a settled position. It is one thing to cover another position in the case of injury, but he cannot be rotating between 11 and 13 every week as he has been.

Similarly, a decision needs to be made on the starting 10 and centres, as this is a unit that desperately needs to develop an understanding together if they want to compete against the best teams.

Have the All Blacks got time to turn things around? Yes. Do they have the quality? Of course! Will they? Only time will tell…

Ireland

It took Ireland a while to get going in this game, with the Pumas nabbing an early try, and a number of errors from the men in green early on. To be honest though, I think this can be explained away with the inclusion of Joey Carbery instead of Jonathan Sexton, the return of Robbie Henshaw from injury, a rare appearance for Robert Baloucoune and a couple of late changes on the pack, which saw Jack Conan and Iain Henderson both pull out in the build-up and James Ryan going off injured in the first half.

However, as the game went on, the chemistry built and by the end, the team was running rampant. This is a good sign for Ireland, who I feel should play the Six Nations without Sexton to get used to playing big games without him in case of injury during the World Cup, while Tadhg Beirne did a fantastic job of stepping up at the last moment and in the game to pick up the leadership roles of Henderson and Ryan.

While it would have been nice to see a less experienced player come into the back row following Conan’s injury, I can understand the decision to play Peter O’Mahony given the experience that had already been ruled out.

Now Ireland must build on their success this Autumn as they move into the Six Nations and towards the World Cup.

Argentina

This is a big moment for the Pumas. head coach Mario Ledesma’s contract is coming to an end and a decision must be made on whether he deserves a new one. So what is the case for and against?

First of all, let’s look at the against. Ledesma has just 7 wins from 30 Tests, 4 of which were Romania, Tonga, the USA and a Welsh team that was missing all of its Lions. While the results have rarely been there, even the performances have dropped off a cliff this year, with the wide array of exciting players in the back 3 feeding off scraps, while Santiago Carreras is being wasted as starting fly half considering he has no top-flight club experience at the position. Meanwhile, Tomás Lavanini continues to get picked despite being a red/yellow card in waiting, and other serial offenders like Guido Petti and Marcos Kremer also remain key players. But perhaps most damning of all have been the off-field problems, with a number of players—including former captain Pablo Matera—facing disciplinary action for breaching lockdowns. It all comes back to the leadership, and that appears to be lacking from Ledesma, and this embarrassment at the hands of Ireland should be the final score.

However, has he just been dealt a bad hand? Los Pumas have not played on home soil since before the 2019 World Cup and have been forced to enter a series of bubbles due to the coronavirus pandemic, under those situations, any team would struggle. Similarly, they found themselves out in the cold as COVID brought an end to the old format of Super Rugby, and while Super Rugby Pacific has welcomed 2 Pacific Island teams, there was no place for Los Jaguares, leaving Argentina without a franchise in a top-tier league.

To me though, selection is one of the big worries and for that reason, I think it’s time for someone else to come in and show what they could do.

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 4

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 4

Hello and welcome to my look at the fourth week of the Autumn Tests. And what a week it was! The battle of the Wooden Spoons saw Argentina defeat Italy 16-37 in Treviso as the Azzurri lost prop Marco Riccioni to an ACL injury. Meanwhile in Edinburgh, Stuart Hogg finished off a Try of the Month contender but it was not enough to defeat South Africa as the World Champions won 15-30. In the match of the week, Ireland may have lost Jonathan Sexton for the rest of the month, but they emerged with a 29-20 win over New Zealand. Freddie Steward continued to solidify himself as the new England fullback as England defeated an error-strewn Australia 32-15. In Bordeaux, France proved too strong for Georgia, beating the Lelos 41-15, while fans at the Principality Stadium saw Louis Rees-Zammit’s wonder try help rescue Wales from embarrassment as they defeated 14-man Fiji 38-23.


Italy

Italy are a side developing and going in the right direction. Their is passion in their play, the defence is looking strong (on the whole) and a new generation of young stars, with Marco Riccioni, Danilo Fischetti, Ivan Nemer, captain Michele Lamaro, Paolo Garbisi, Gianmarco Lucchesi, Marco Zanon, Federico Mori and Stephen Varney all 24 or younger!

Unfortunately one area that has been a struggle has been at the lineout. Lucchesi looks a wonderful all-round player, but has struggled with his throwing at Test level so far and needs to improve quickly. The Italians are putting together a dangerous back line, but if their pack cannot give them the platform at the set piece, then they will continue to struggle to impose themselves in attack.

The good news however is that Lucchesi has time to learn. He is only 21, while former captain Luca Bigi still has a number of good years in him at 30, so can likely remain as the starter through to the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup if needed as Lucchesi develops with this pack.

Argentina

It may be an odd thing to say considering Argentina scored 5 tries to Italy’s 1, but the Azzurri arguably tried to play more rugby than the Pumas. Argentina, however, played a very clever game. They trusted their defence to deal with the Italians—granted, this was helped a lot by Italian inaccuracies—and focused on a strength of theirs: the high ball.

While the Italians showed last week that they are good in this area, the Pumas were even better, with Emiliano Boffelli especially dominating the skies in this match. It also helped Santiago Carreras with his transition to fly half, as the high ball and kicking game is an area he already excelled at from his time in the back 3, while the broken play after the kick would be much easier for him than an organised defence.

Is this a sufficient gameplan to beat most Tier 1 nations? No, but expect to see it remain a vital part of their armoury.

Scotland

The Scots played some wonderful rugby in this game and scored a couple of beautiful tries, but they still ended up losing by 15 points. As a team, they gave away 15 penalties, which is almost double what you want to give away against an elite team. And against South Africa, it is even more dangerous, with Frans Steyn able to knock over a penalty for 3 points from 60m with relative ease, while they will also happily kick to the corner and push themselves over your line with the driving maul.

The scrum really struggled to find parity against the Springbok pack, while the attacking play led to a number of times where a player took contact with insufficient support, allowing the jackals like Malcom Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Kwagga Smith to get on the ball and win penalties. Meanwhile in defence, the Scots tried their hardest to make a nuisance of themselves at the breakdown, but did not have the discipline to pick their moments and got pinged for going off their feet or not rolling away quick enough.

The Scots have the quality to beat almost anyone on their day. But they need to cut out the penalties if they want to start defeating the elite teams with any regularity.

South Africa

With the Springbok’s next game against England, Jacques Nienaber and his expert waterboy Rassie Erasmus have a big decision to make at scrum half.

With Faf de Klerk out injured, Herschel Jantjies has been wearing the number 9 shirt with Cobus Reinach warming the bench. However, Jantjies recent performances have not quite been reaching the level of when he first came on the scene. While his style of play is probably a closer match to that of de Klerk than Reinach, he has had some real troubles at the base of the ruck as pressure is put on, while his kicking has not been at it’s best, probably also due to the pressure he is under.

With Reinach’s introduction, the Boks felt more dangerous. The ball was coming away from the breakdown quicker and with more zip, while the ball was also being kept in hand more, allowing the running of Damian de Allende to start creating space out wide. If I was picking the Springbok side for next weekend, he would be filling the 9 shirt.

Ireland

Last week, I challenged Ireland to play the same quality of attacking rugby from 1-23 as they did against Japan. Well they did that, but they went even further than that!

Granted they were again an embarrassment of an All Blacks team, but their defence was largely exemplary, getting in their opponents’ faces and giving them very little time and space to create anything from. Along with this, they made a real nuisance of themselves at the breakdown, seriously limiting the quick and clean ball that TJ Perenara was getting. And then with the arrival of Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne off the bench, the Irish started winning some crucial penalties at the breakdown just as their teammates were tiring and the All Blacks were starting to find a little more space.

On the strength of the last 2 weeks, Ireland are my firm favourites for the 2022 Six Nations. While France remain my favourites for the World Cup for now, Ireland could usurp them if they can continue these performances for the rest of the series and in the Six Nations, while also showing that they can replicate their success without Jonathan Sexton.

New Zealand

Back at the peak of New Zealand’s success over the last decade, New Zealand’s biggest strength wasn’t anything superhuman. They just did the basics very well and were extremely accurate in the way they played, focusing on just doing the basics of draw, pass, catch with complete reliability and then looking to expand the game with some magic.

This current New Zealand team, however, feels like it is always trying for the spectacular without being able to do the basics. And it is hurting them. The lack of a consistent midfield is hurting the team as too much is breaking down there due to a lack of chemistry. The team is being set up to fit Beauden Barrett, a wonderfully skilled player who disappears all too often against an organised and aggressive defence, so when Richie Mo’unga comes in, he is being asked to play in a different way than with the Crusaders.

This isn’t something new, the team was beginning to go stale towards the end of the Steve Hansen era, but the decision to promote Ian Foster rather than bring in the new thinking of Scott Robertson has exacerbated the issue. Foster has said that the back line should be accountable for this loss. In fact, he should be accountable and needs to fall on his sword or be removed from the role if the All Blacks want any chance of getting to the World Cup final 2 years from now.

England

They may have ended up with a comfortable victory, but this was a largely disappointing attacking performance from England. With the exception of a couple of breaks and Freddie Steward’s try, they looked incapable of creating anything of note, despite having the playmaking duo of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell. But I don’t put this down to either of them, or any of the backs for that matter.

The issue here was Eddie Jones’ ridiculous use of Manu Tuilagi, naming him out of place as a wing, but then having him spend all the time in the middle of the pitch. It made the midfield far too crowded and took away any balance to the back line as there was no opportunity for the playmakers to do anything. But it also meant that when England managed to set something up and work some space to the wing, there was nobody there to exploit it.

This was just the latest in a long line of experiments from Eddie Jones that should never be repeated. Thankfully for the balance of the team, Owen Farrell’s injury means that we will likely see Tuilagi return to the 12 shirt against the Springboks, allowing likely either Adam Radwan or Max Malins to come in on the wing. It may put more pressure on Smith, but should also make things easier for him with a backline more akin to what he is used to at Harlequins.

Australia

This match highlighted just how quickly things can go wrong on a tour. Australia have 2 elite tighthead props in Allan Ala’alatoa and Taniela Tupou, but found themselves without both players after the pair showed symptoms of concussion. Now with a limited number of players in a touring party, you’d maybe have one more specialist tighthead, but the man who would have filled this role, Pone Fa’amausili was forced to withdraw from the squad through injury in the middle of October

Now it would be far from ideal but not necessarily a disaster if you were at home, as you would be able to call players into the team from their clubs with relative ease. But Australia are half a world away and—ironically probably helped by the Giteau Law that has kept most players in Australia—they had just one tighthead prop of note playing in top-tier European rugby: Ollie Hoskins of London Irish. So that meant that heir only options against England were him and James Slipper, who is primarily a loosehead.

So now you have the big decision. Hoskins gets less than a full week in camp and has no Test experience, so starting him is a big step up and running a risk to team chemistry due to his lack of time with the squad, however while Slipper may have the experience, loosehead feels very different to tighthead, so there is a risk of issues at the scrum.

The decision was made to go with Slipper, and perhaps they were lucky as Ellis Genge’s positive COVID test meant that he was up against the much less experienced Bevan Rodd. Certainly this made Slipper’s job easier, but he still had some scrums where he really struggled, giving the backs very little platform to attack off. If ever you were unsure why a tighthead prop can earn such a high wage, this week showed just how hard to replace they can be.

France

What an impact Jonathan Danty had on this game! The Stade Français centre came on with just under half an hour remaining but really made a mark on the game. Against a weaker defence, the playmaking duo of Mathieu Jalibert and Romain Ntamack had some success, but still struggled to dominate in the way the coaches would have wanted. However, Danty’s introduction for Melvyn Jaminet (with Jalibert moving to 15) gave Les Bleus a focal point for the early stages of the attack, to help create the space outside.

Granted it wasn’t all perfect, with Jalibert getting his positioning all wrong defensively for Akaki Tabutsadze’s try just after the hour, but such is the form of Jaminet, I think that he would not usually be played there and that it was done more to rest Jaminet with an eye to next weekend.

With 2 wins from 2 but questionable performances, and a beatable All Blacks the next up at the end of the week, Les Bleus have a chance to get a big result here, but they won’t do so with Jalibert and Ntamack at 10 and 12. If they bring in Jonathan Danty, they could be just 80 minutes away from a statement victory.

Georgia

Georgia put in a strong effort, with some impressive attacking play and a couple of well taken tries. However, what really cost them in this game was the sheer number of penalties.

It’s probably no real surprise, with many of the players not even playing in an elite league, so playing against a Tier 1 nation is always going to be a massive step up in quality. But the number of penalties just makes things even harder for the Lelos, as they lose their attacking opportunities, while ending up on the back foot. And then as the penalties build up, the obvious happens with yellow cards, and then the job becomes almost impossible for a Tier 2 nation against a top Tier 1 nation, as the numerical disadvantage makes it all-but impossible for them to cope defensively. In the case of this match, they shipped 14 points while playing with 14 men, scoring just 3 of their own, while Grégory Alldritt was also held up over the line during this period.

It’s not easy, but if Georgia want to start getting victories against Tier 1 opposition, their discipline needs to improve.

Wales

This was a very disappointing performance from a strong Welsh team, who should consider themselves lucky they won. It’s hard to believe considering they are coached by the same man who got the Scarlets winning with such sexy rugby a few years ago, but the team was not playing heads up rugby at all.

With Fiji down to 14 men from the 25ᵗʰ minute, and also twice down to 13 men for 10 minutes, there was frequently space out wide for the team to exploit, especially given the pace of wings Louis Rees-Zammit and Alex Cuthbert. And yet too often the ball was kept tight or kicked away, allowing Fiji a chance to attack—and if anyone can still attack as dangerously when down a man or two, it’s Fiji!

Never was this more obvious than at one point in the second half when Wales were deep in their 22 and on the left touchline. With just 13 men in the Fijian defence at this point, and players having to cover the backfield, the widest defender was in the centre of the pitch. A couple of quick passes or an accurate cross-kick would have released Alex Cuthbert, whose blend of pace and power would have potentially allowed him to go the length, but at the very least made some serious ground to put Wales on the front foot… Instead, they chose to kick the ball away.

Wales need to be very careful not to fall into the trap that England find themselves in, playing god-awful structured rugby and ignoring all the chances that are created as it’s not the set move. If they can play heads up rugby, they will be a real threat with the depth they are creating.

Fiji

While it’s obvious to say that Eroni Sau’s red card and the yellows for Albert Tuisue and Eron Mawi cost Fiji a big victory, what really cost them in this match was the lineout.

As impressive as Sam Matavesi was around the pitch, he struggled to hit his man reliably at the lineout with a number of overthrows, losing 4 lineouts. Alex Cuthbert’s try came directly from one of these lost lineouts, as the ball was quickly spread wide to catch the Fijian backs unprepared.

But it’s not just the Cuthbert try that makes these lost lineouts costly. The Fijians are an incredible attacking side, with the power, pace and ball skills to beat anyone. However they need to have the attacking platforms to get themselves on the front foot. This is something that will improve with players getting to spend more time together, so hopefully with the upcoming arrival of the Fijian Drua in Super Rugby Pacific, we will begin to see a greater degree of chemistry in the national team, which will help the set piece.

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

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


Ireland

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

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

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

Japan

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

New Zealand

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

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

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

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

England

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

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

Tonga

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

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

South Africa

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

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

France

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

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

Argentina

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

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

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

Scotland

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

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

Australia

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

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

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

rugby autumn nations series logo

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 2

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 2

Hello and welcome to my look at the second week of the Autumn Tests. Sadly a lack of available broadcasts meant that I couldn’t cover Week 1 at all, but with this week having a limited schedule as it was outside World Rugby’s Test Window, this still gave us a chance to ease into the action.

The action started up in Edinburgh as Scotland took on a Tongan side who had only been together for a handful of days and were still missing a number of their players. While the Tongans certainly tried to make a game of it and caused some issues early on with their strong running, the Scottish players’ familiarity with each other—despite missing their Premiership players and Finn Russell, the chemistry was still there from everyone being based at just Edinburgh and Glasgow—was clear to see and they ran away with a 60-14 victory, with Rufus McLean scoring a brace on debut and fellow wing Kyle Steyn bagging 4 tries.

The action then continued at the Principality Stadium, where Wales were taking on the All Blacks. With New Zealand fielding an almost first choice XV, it was always going to be a tough task for a Welsh team missing its Premiership players and also a number of other regulars through injury, and things got even worse as Beauden Barrett kicked off his 100ᵗʰ Test cap by intercepting Gareth Anscombe and running in for the simplest of tries. Wales kept themselves in the fight for 60 minutes despite losing Alun Wyn Jones (on his record-breaking 148ᵗʰ Wales cap) and Ross Moriarty to injury in the first half, but fell off a cliff after the hour mark and shipped 4 tries without reply for a final score of 16-54, with Jordie Barrett’s missed conversion at the death just denying the All Blacks a record points haul against Wales.


Scotland

With Finn Russell and Adam Hastings both unavailable, Gregor Townsend made a big call for this match by selecting Blair Kinghorn at flyhalf. It’s been a long time since Scotland had such strength in depth at 10, with Russell and Hastings the clear regulars, but Duncan Weir and Jaco van der Walt also in the running and now young Ross Thompson making his debut off the bench, but I think that getting Kinghorn Test experience at fly half is a clever move.

When you go to a World Cup, spaces are limited, and while you could get away with 2 specialist fly halves, a third fly half would seem a waste, unless they could also fill in at other positions. While I’m sure some of them could probably fill in as emergency centres or fullbacks, they are not really multi-positional players, whereas Kinghorn can already cover the entire back 3 and being an option at 10 just adds another string to his bow come selection time as his versatility will make him indispensable, despite the strength in depth available in the Scottish back 3.

Not only that, but by gaining the experience at 10, it also gives the team much more tactical flexibility, as he can move into the first receiver position if the fly half is stuck in the breakdown, down injured or carded. He has the skillset to excel at the position, especially when you consider that if he was to play the position much in a World Cup, it would likely be against the lower-ranked teams. What he needs now is a chance to play there with a bit more regularity, both for Edinburgh and the national team, as he will face much better defences than a Tongan team missing a number of stars, who have only had 4 days training together and then had to reorganise on the fly with 2 injuries in the back line and a 6-2 split (including a scrum half) on the bench.

Tonga

You really have to feel for Tonga. They need to accept every game they can against Tier 1 opposition just to get matches, but so often they end up in situation like this or against New Zealand in the summer: facing off against teams outside World Rugby’s Test Window. What this means is they end up playing teams who are already stronger and better resourced, but then have the added difficulty of playing without many of their top players, who will not be released from the Premiership/Top 14 outside the Test windows. With such inexperienced squads and minimal prep time, it’s hardly even close to a fair contest.

Of course, it can lead to the discovery of some great players, like 32-year-old prop and former professional boxer Loni Uhila, who made his debut at Murrayfield. The “Tongan Bear” plays for in Fédérale 1 (the 3ʳᵈ tier of French rugby, and highest level of amateur rugby) and while he struggled a little at the scrum, he more than held his own in the loose, with some strong carrying and passes that a back would be proud of, all while playing in the most heavy-duty pair of rugby boots that I have ever seen!

Hopefully with the arrival of 2 Pacific Island franchises in Super Rugby Pacific, things will start to get a little easier for the Pacific Island teams, as they can try to bring talent to these franchises. But with just 2 teams for the whole Pacific Islands, there will still be plenty of players in the Premiership and Top 14. World Rugby needs to step in and help to a larger degree, even if it is only to outlaw the Tests outside set windows to ensure that the nations have everyone available for the matches.

Wales

While there was a lot to be disappointed about for Welsh fans, something that can’t be focussed on enough was the performances of the back row. With so many players unavailable through injury or playing in the Premiership, there was a real worry about the back row coming into the game. And yet they more then held their own.

Taine Basham looked like he had been playing Test rugby for years, popping up to steal the ball at breakdowns and making a couple of great breaks, while Aaron Wainwright put in a performance reminiscent of his rise to prominence towards the end of the Warren Gatland era, perhaps even better!

On the strength of those performances, the pair deserve to keep their places for the upcoming matches and have the quality to become regulars in the back row moving forward. Basham will only improve as he plays more at this level, while Wainwright will also benefit from consistently playing at this level. Add in a experienced cleaner like Justin Tipuric or Josh Navidi when they’re fit, and this is an incredibly dangerous unit going forwards toward the World Cup.

New Zealand

How great is Ardie Savea?! The Hurricanes back row has been a part of the squad for years, but has really come in to his own with the retirement of Kieran Read.

This game was another classic example of why he is so good. He has the power to just keep going in the tackle. If you go high on him to get on the ball, he will just carry you along as his leg drive gains him more metres. And yet if you go low and stop him from making more ground, he will simply offload the ball to a man in support. To properly stop him, it’s going to take at least 1 man going low and another going for the ball, which is then just going to create space elsewhere for the All Blacks to exploit with quick ball.

But that’s not it, as he also has solid pace and an impressive acceleration to make him a threat in more open play as well as the tight. You just need to look at Sevu Reece’s try, where he exchanged quick passes with Reece and Rieko Ioane down the left wing, you could easily have mistaken him for his older brother Julian. And to make him even better: he has that versatility, being able to play anywhere in the back row, allowing the coaches to adapt the back row to either the opposition or the way they are looking to play, putting him at 8 if they want to play fetchers like Dalton Papalii or Sam Cane, or on the flank with a quality number 8 like Hoskins Sotutu.

He probably doesn’t always get the recognition he should, as he puts in these performances weekly, but don’t be shocked to see him remain a key cog in the All Blacks XV for the coming years.