Autumn Nations Series 2022: Combined XV

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Combined XV

The Autumn Series is over for another year. 1 year out from the Rugby World Cup and South Africa are developing a more expansive game; France and Ireland are reaching new heights; Italy are finally seeing the results from a complete rebuild of their infrastructure; and a number of big teams are looking in deep trouble.

And so as we look back on 5 weeks of action, all that remains is for me to make my customary combined XV, and let me tell you it was not easy given some of the performances. Who would make your XV? Let me know in the comments.


My Team of the Autumn Nations Series is…

1) Pierre Schoeman: Carried well and was strong in the scrummage to help create a platform for the backs to attack off, while also giving us a moment of comedy with his Superman impression as he tried illegally jumping over a tackle.

2) Ken Owens: The Sheriff’s return showed just what Wales have been missing at hooker. Had a few wobbles at the lineout but seemed more reliable than before his time out, while his carrying and willingness to make the hard metres is something that Wales has desperately needed.

3) Frans Malherbe: Found himself getting penalised at the scrum maybe a little more than usual, but the way he manhandled the English scrum was such a dominant performance that could not be ignored. Having been his plaything in 2 matches now, mako Vunipola likely comes out in a cold sweat whenever he hears the Springbok’s name.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Tadhg Beirne: Etzebeth is in the form of his life and it is a joy to behold, that he wasn’t nominated for World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year is a farce! Meanwhile Beirne continues to do what he does best in every game: does his duty at the set piece, causes nightmares at the breakdown and has a positive impact in the loose.

6) Jac Morgan: The silver lining to a dismal Autumn for Wales. Carried in a way that Wales have been missing for a long time, consistently making yards in the contact and finishing with 4 tries. Looked completely at home on the Test stage and should now be looking to secure the 6 shirt as his during the Six Nations.

7) Dalton Papali’i: Sam Cane’s absence gave Papali’i a chance to show what he could do, and such was his quality that Ian Foster should be looking to name a new captain. Made a positive impact all over the pitch, while adding much more threat with ball in hand. Great reading of the English gameplan to intercept Jack van Poortvliet’s pass away from the lineout and had the pace to run in untouched from halfway.

8) Lorenzo Cannone: The younger Cannone brother is the second back row on this list to have only debuted for his country this year, but is fully deserving of his place here, even given the form of Ardie Savea. Looked comfortably at home on the Test stage and consistently popped up as a carrying option to help the Azzurri get on the front foot. Fully deserving of his tries against Samoa and South Africa.

9) Stephen Varney: Had a hard time last season with limited minutes for Gloucester, while his form in the Six Nations wasn’t great before his injury. But was back to his absolute best this autumn, providing quick ball for his team while also controlling the game well with some great kicking.

10) Finn Russell: Gregor Townsend better feel like an absolute moron for dropping him. Came in after 2 ordinary performances from Blair Kinghorn and Adam Hastings and put in 2 wonderful performances, almost beating the All Blacks. With Russell playing, the Scottish performances are taken to a completely different level.

11) Mark Nawaqanitawase: Commentators better get used to pronouncing his name as he looks like he will be around for a long time. Looked better with each match he played and was key to Australia’s comeback against Wales. With his blend of pace and power, he reminds me somewhat of George North when he first hit the Test Rugby scene.

12) Stuart McCloskey: Finally got a chance and looked every bit the Test player, despite injury and personnel changes around him making it far harder to bed himself in. Hopefully he gets to keep the 12 shirt for the Six Nations but will come under pressure from the returning Bundee Aki.

13) Len Ikitau: Has secured his spot in the Australian XV and quietly gone about his business over the last year to under the radar become one of the best 13s in Test rugby. Despite frequent personnel changes all around him, Ikitau has become one of those reliable defensive linchpins up there with Chris Harris and Lukhanyo Am.

14) Kurt-Lee Arendse: Talk about taking your chances! The absence of Cheslin Kolbe gave Arendse his opportunity and he’s been undroppable since. Scored in every match of the series on the way to 5 tries in total, looking comfortable as part of the territory game or South Africa’s more expansive play.

15) Willie le Roux: This series showed just how vital le Roux is to the Springboks. As they looked at fly half options beyond the injured Handré Pollard, they looked rudderless when he wasn’t playing, but like potential World Cup winners when he was at 15, such is the way that he comes in as an extra playmaker and take pressure off of his 10. Always seems to be the one throwing the key pass for a South African try.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v South Africa

After 5 weeks of action, the Autumn Nations Series reached its finale with England hosting South Africa. The World Champions’ selection was hampered a little by the absence of any Irish, English or French-based players, due to the Test being played outside World Rugby’s Test window, and yet their pack’s dominance in the early scrums gave Faf de Klerk an early shot at the posts, but his radar was slightly off, while England captain Owen Farrell missed an even easier opener of his own just minutes later. Farrell finally opened the scoring after 12 minutes after Frans Malherbe was penalised at a scrum. A strong carry in the 22 from Evan Roos allowed de Klerk to pull things level after Alex Coles was pinged for a high tackle, while Farrell again missed from in front of the posts just minutes later. South Africa tried to make the hosts pay for Farrell’s misses with a clever move at the front of a 5m lineout, but the defence jus managed to hold Siya Kolisi up over the line. As the game reached the half hour mark, Damian Willemse kicked a drop goal to give the visitors the lead, and then just minutes later, he countered a long kick and set Willie le Roux away down the right wing to draw the defence and release Kurt-Lee Arendse, who stepped marcus Smith for the opening try. Willemse’s next touch saw him again get a break going as he arced around Maro Itoje and offloaded inside to release Arendse, but the wing’s grubber to the corner was blocked by Freddie Steward as England looked vulnerable. England’s pack were struggling to deal with their opponents in the set piece, and as the half came to an end, de Klerk added another 3 points off the tee for a 3-14 lead at the break.

England rung the changes at the break, with the entire front row being replaced and Jack Nowell on for Tommy Freeman, but a timely counterruck from the Springboks turned the ball over on the edge of the 22 to allow Willemse another simple drop goal. A great take in the air by Freddie Steward put England on the front foot and allowed a further half-break from Smith that earned a penalty, which Farrell landed, but a moment of stupidity from Jonny Hill gave South Africa a penalty that was kicked to the corner, and Tom Curry soon found himself going to the bin for illegally slowing down the ball in the following phases, and it only took a couple of phases with the man advantage before Eben Etzebeth scored the second try of the game, though he appeared to be on the floor when he played the ball. As the hour approached, the Boks won another scrum penalty against the 7-man English pack, and de Klerk bisected the posts from halfway to stretch the lead to 21 points. England were dealt a lifeline just after, though, as Thomas du Toit was sent off just minutes after coming on for a dangerous high challenge, while Jacques Nienaber inexplicably chose the same moment to remove Willie le Roux. Wth the man advantage, England were starting to find some space, but it was not until Ben Youngs took a quick-tap penalty in the South African 22 that they really made use of this, as they used the quick ball to send Henry Slade over for the try, while the Boks also lost de Klerk and Kolisi to injury for the remaining minutes. But the visitors defence held firm and if anything put the hosts under more pressure, to secure a 13-27 victory.

Eddie’s England

How can you tell that a Test-level coach doesn’t have a clue? Watch their team try to take on South Africa at their own game. Despite plenty of prior matches that show the way to trouble South Africa is to play expansive rugby, and that by trying to take them on up front and through the kicking game is almost certainly going to see you lose, Eddie Jones chose the latter and England paid the price.

Selecting Mako Vunipola to take on Frans Malherbe—who treated him as a plaything in the RWC2019 final—always felt like a strange decision and, like in 2019 was proved to be completely wrong as he was dominated at the scrum, while Tommy Freeman was not so much thrown in at the deep end, more thrown into shark-infested water with bloody meat attached to him. And to top it all off, keeping Owen Farrell as kicker when he was struggling with an injury that affected his kicking was idiocy given Marcus Smith was on the pitch. Were it not for Thomas du Toit’s moronic red card, England would have had no way back in this match, and even then, the last 10 minutes were more panicked play than structured attack.

And if you want a final indictment of Eddie Jones and his coaching, you just have to look at the build-up to Etzebeth’s try. England dealt with the restart and eventually won a penalty against Faf de Klerk, only for Jonny Hill to manhandle the scrumhalf after the whistle, resulting in the penalty being reversed. With England under pressure, Curry was forced to illegally intervene and was righty carded as the team were already on a warning for repeated infringements. Then when South Africa were stopped on the England try line, the players around the ruck were too busy appealing to the referee to deal with the ball spurting out of the ruck and Etzebeth recovering and stretching for the line.

Discipline starts with the coach. If they can’t get that right, and then pick completely the wrong tactics, then it’s time for them to move on. The sooner England are away from Eddie Jones, the better.

Dominant

The South African scrum is one of the most feared weapons in Test rugby, and for good reason. Such is the strength in depth of the Springbok front rows, there are genuine debates over whether the starting front row or bench are better. England has one of the strongest scrums in World Rugby, so to see them demolished so effectively just shows the quality of the Boks.

But you still see the Boks get it wrong sometimes, as they get pinged before the ball comes in for putting too much pressure on. In the case of most teams, you could understand wanting to push things to get a slight advantage ahead of the ball coming in, but if any team has the quality and the weight of pack to just hold off a moment, they will probably still be able to dominate the scrum, while if anything, it will likely then highlight the opposition’s own attempts to get an advantage before the ball comes in.

In a closer game, that could be the difference between a win and a loss.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Australia

With World Rugby’s Test window officially over, Wales faced off against Australia in Cardiff for the final round of the series with both teams missing their English- and French-based talent, while injuries were leaving the Australian ranks especially depleted, but a strong first scrum allowed Ben Donaldson to open the scoring with an early penalty after Wales failed to secure the kickoff. It was the Welsh who scored the first try though; Tomow Williams crabbing off the back of a ruck to draw 2 tacklers and offloading to put Alun Wyn Jones through and into the 22, and the experienced lock fed Jac Morgan to power his way over for another try, having scored a brace last week against Georgia. Donaldson and Anscombe traded penalties as both teams tried to take control of the game, and as the game entered the second quarter, Wales managed to play the ball through the hands to put Taulupe Faletau over in the corner, Anscombe’s touchline conversion and another penalty soon after making it a 14-point lead. Australia finally made a chance of note, but Jed Holloway’s charge for the line was stopped by a fine tackle from Josh Adams, who had been promoted to the starting XV following a late injury to Leigh Halfpenny. Australia were finally managing to spend some time in the Welsh half though, and with the pressure, chances were starting to be created, only for loose handling skills to bring the attacks to a disappointing end, but they finally made their way over the line after a Welsh penalty allowed them to set up a driving maul from a 5m lineout to send Folau Fainga’a over for the try, Donaldson adding the extras. There was time for a Welsh response before the break though, and when Rio Dyer’s break was stopped just short of the line, Jake Gordon was sent to the bin for cynically impeding replacement scrum half Kieran Hardy as he tried to play the ball away. Wales looked to take advantage of the extra man by going for the scrum, but the Wallabies defence just managed to hold Hardy up over the line to end the half with the score at 20-13.

The second half started with Reece Hodge hitting the upright with a penalty from inside his own half, and they were unable to take advantage of the possession as a collapsed scrum saw replacement prop Tom Robertson—on at the break for captain James Slipper—sent to the bin as the Wallabies were already on a warning for scrum offences from the first half. With Gordon still in the bin for a couple of minutes, the Welsh took advantage of the extra 2 men to kick to the corner and drive Morgan over for his 2ⁿᵈ try of the game. And they were just inches away from scoring again as Anscombe’s cross-kick was just a little too long for Alex Cuthbert as they took advantage of playing 15v14. However with a penalty advantage, it was just a momentary delay, and a kick to the corner saw the Welsh keep the pressure on and eventually create the overlap to put Dyer over in the corner. Wales were dealt a blow as Gareth Anscombe suffered an injury as he attempted to tackle Ned Hanigan, with Rhys Priestland coming on in his place, and his first duty was to take the ball over his own line under pressure as his team failed to deal with a high ball from Tom Wright. Back to 15 men, the Wallabies, who had brought on a number of replacements, suddenly looked confident, and Mark Nawaqanitawase forced himself over in the corner, though replacement fly half Noah Lolesio was unable to land the conversion from the left touchline. As the game entered the final 15 minutes, replacement Pete Samu read the pass of Rhys Priestland to intercept it, and though he had 70m ahead of him, the way was clear, but for the outstretched leg of Justin Tipuric, who was sent to the bin for his trip. And the visitors immediately took advantage, kicking to the corner and running a clever move off the lineout to send Nawaqanitawase powering over for his second try of the game, Lolesio cutting the deficit to single figures with the conversion. The momentum was firmly shifted the way of the visitors, and with 7 minutes remaining, Ryan Elias collapsed a maul on its way to the line to give Australia a penalty try and 2-man advantage. And with just 2 minutes remaining, Nawaqanitawase carried the ball up to the Welsh 22, and as the ball was spread wide, Kieran Hardy failed to keep hold of his attempted intercept of Len Ikitau’s pass, and replacement hooker Ryan Lonergan picked up the loose ball to go over and give Australia the lead. With 1 minute left, Tipuric was back on for Wales, and when Australian latchers went off their feet at what would have been the last ruck, Wales had 1 more chance. Priestland didn’t help his pack with a kick that should have gone to the corner only just making the 22, and as the 14 men went through the phases, Lonergan managed to turn the ball over and kick it out for a 34-39 victory.

It’s been a poor Autumn for Wales, but one bright spark has been the form of Jac Morgan. 22-year-old Ospreys back row was one of the few bright sparks with his 2 tries against Georgia (having had a third disallowed), and if anything, he looked even better this week.

One thing that the Welsh pack has consistently lacked in recent years is carrying options in the pack. Players who can consistently take hold of the ball and make the hard metres to put the attack on the front foot. Well Morgan—previously left out of Welsh squads as he lacked the carrying ability Wayne Pivac wanted—was providing exactly that, consistently making metres not just in space, but in and through contact, so it’s no surprise that, with an attacking fly half controlling the game, the Welsh attack was able to get going in a way we have not really seen recently.

Going forwards Morgan needs to be makingthat 6 shirt his own, but Pivac’s made a habit of being consistently inconsistent in his back row selections. Morgan needs to make sure that his form stays at least at this level to ensure Pivac has no excuse to drop him.

Running on fumes

Despite the win, this was another bad performance for Australia, but can anyone really be surprised. The Wallabies were playing for their 5ᵗʰ consecutive week, in a month where World Rugby’s Test window lasted 3 weeks. 5 Tests in 5 weeks is hard enough at the best of times, but to come so soon after the Rugby Championship just makes it even more of a burden on the players.

So is it any surprise to see that the team just ran out of gas as these tests went on? They were playing too much rugby in too short a time, with things being made even worse as the team suffered injury after injury. And these 2 things combined to leave the Wallabies playing with a XV made up of players who are on the ultimate fringe of the squad and players who have played too much rugby and are running on fumes.

And if there are 2 things that will kill a team’s chances in the game, its exhaustion and a lack of familiarity with your teammates, as both will create and accentuate gaps in the defensive line, while also leading to unforced errors in attack.

Whose idea was it to play so much rugby, and why? Because it certainly doesn’t feel like the players’ wellbeing was of foremost thought, and it has left the team in the ultimate slump less that a year out from the World Cup.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v Japan

Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v Japan

Another successful Autumn came to an end for France with the visit of Japan. Les Bleus’ decision to play their strongest available XV as a clear mark of respect to their opponents, who had the first attack of note as Kazuki Himeno sniped off a ruck and carried into the 22, though a handling error eventually ended the pressure and a penalty at the scrum allowed the hosts to clear their lines. France were soon on the attack, though, and after phases of pressure on the edge of the 22, Romain Ntamack’s grubber was kicked on by Damian Penaud, and when fullback Ryohei Yamanaka failed to keep hold of it as he covered across, Penaud dived on the loose ball for the opening try. As conditions worsened, Japan struggled to deal with the French conveyor belt of hard carriers, eventually gifting Thomas Ramos the simplest of penalties, and he added another just after the 15 minute mark as Koo Ji-won obstructed France’s routes to the kicker, while Les Bleus were forced into a reshuffle of their backs due to an injury to Gaël Fickou, resulting in Yoram Moefana moving into 13 and back row Sekou Macalou again coming on as a wing. Japan finally got on the scoreboard as the first quarter ended; Ntamack choosing to run back a kick with no support led to him being turned over, and Anthony Jelonch was forced to illegally slow down the Japanese breakdown to give Lee Seung-Sin an easy kick off the tee. Japan had a half-chance soon after as a tip-on off the top of a French lineout failed to find it’s man and scrum half Naoto Saito kicked on, but though he beat his opposition to the ball, his next kick on was overhit and saw the ball go dead. The late deluge of rain was affecting French plans as the ball became slippery in hands, but the monstrous carrying of the French pack won a penalty in front of the posts for Ramos to convert with 30 minutes gone. And as the game approached halftime, Maxime Lucu took advantage of some confusion after another ball came off the top of the lineout to break down the 5m channel, before feeding his captain Charles Ollivon for the try, Ramos adding the extras for a 21-3 lead at the break.

Japan has started the first half with a breakaway, and they did again for the second half, with Shogo Nakano shooting through agap, but this time the immediate support was there on his shoulder from Saito to take the pass and go over for the try, Seung-Sin converting. Franc were soon back to controlling the game as their powerful carries in midfield made space for the backs to exploit out wide, though there were some moments where they still looked somewhat disjointed. A cut to the bridge of his nose that caused heavy bleeding brought an end to Ntamack’s game, with Matthieu Jalibert coming on, and his clever mid-length kick down the wing caused nightmares for the Japanese defence and allowed him to recover it and feed Bastien Chalureauto carry the ball up to 5m out, and when the ball was fed back, it was spread wide to the left for Damian Penaud to score his second of the game. However, an error at the restart from Grégory Alldritt gifted the Brave Blossoms a penalty kick to the corner, and a clever planned move off the top saw Siosaia Fifita sent over untouched. France looked to immediately answer and thought they had when Penaud put Jonathan Danty over in the corner, but replays showed that though his dive avoided him stepping into touch, the ball was dotted down on the touch-in-goal line. But France secured the victory with 7 minutes remaining. A cheeky chip and collect into the Japanese 22 from Matthieu Jalibert put the defence in disarray, and when the ball came out to Danty on the wing, he played it back inside to Anthony Jelonch to score. However Jalibert’s next action was not so silky: winning the chase of a kick back into his in-goal, but then trying to play his way out and floating the offload into touch, but the French defence held firm on their line and secured the turnover, along with a 35-17 victory that secures an unbeaten 2022 for Les Bleus. 

Wing forward

Sekou Macalou may have just secured his spot in the 23 over the last couple of weeks. A back row by trade, the 27-year-old has come on early in both matches due to injuries, but with France favouring a 6-2 split with Matthieu Jalibert and a scrum half covering the backs, he has found himself coming on to play wing.

And while many forwards in his situation would do their best impersonation of a fish out of water, jelonch put in performances that actually looked like a Test wing. His pace was enough to hold his own, while his positioning was extremely impressive, especially in defence, where he would not commit himself too early and knew to use his touchline as an extra defender.

So why does this secure his space in the 23? For the exact potential situations we have seen the last 2 weeks. France clearly have the preference of a 6-2 split, but when you look at their ideal 23, it leaves them with nobody to cover the wings. However, if you have a forward who can do such an impressive job there—just consider the quality of wing he has faced over recent weeks—it allows Fabien Galthié to select the extra forward on the bench safe in the knowledge that Macalou can cover an emergency at wing, making it effectively a 5.5-2.5 split instead.

Unprepared

This Japan side was heavily changed from the one who lost to England last week, and that just highlighted one massive point: This team is still trying to find themselves one year out from the World Cup.

Much like Georgia and Fiji, they are a team who have the quality to take Tier 1 scalps, but without being in the Six Nations or Rugby Championship, they do not get the regular fixtures against Tier 1 opposition that they need to stop these occasional victories being an upset, and arguably they do not get enough matches period, which has certainly not been helped by the impact of COVID earlier in the cycle.

Rugby has reached an important point in its life. The top teams outside Tier 1 need to be playing in major competitions against Tier 1 opposition with regularity in order to keep growing, while teams like Chile and Portugal making it to the World Cup at the expense of the USA, who just a few years ago were in incredible form, has highlighted just how close everything is getting below Tier 1.

The international calendar needs a shake-up sooner rather than later. It is probably time for at least another 4 nations to be added to the World Cup, while existing Tier 1 competitions (the Six Nations and Rugby Championship) need amending or replacing to keep with the times and acknowledge the growth of rugby around the world.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v South Africa

After last week’s historic victory over Australia, Italy were on to Genoa to face South Africa. The World Champions were fielding a strong side, but without Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus following his ban for a series of disgusting tweets blaming Wayne Barnes for last week’s defeat to France.

Italy were clearly bouyed with confidence after last week’s win, but maybe a little too much as Tommaso Allan floated his first pass into touch just 5m from his try line, but Italy were let off as the Springboks chose to go quick and Faf de Klerk found himselfin touch as he went down a non-existent blind side. It was only a minor reprieve, though, as the visitors spread the ball wide on their next possession, and Willie le Roux took advantage of the inside defence blitzing up and leaving Ange Capuozzo covering 2 men to put Kurt-Lee Arendse over in the opposite corner. Despite the early setback, Italy were still looking to play attacking rugby, and a South African offence at the breakdown allowed Allan to cut the deficit to 2 points with a penalty from 40 metres. Cheslin Kolbe immediately responded with a penalty of his own after Giacomo Nicotera cleared Siya Kolisi beyond the breakdown at the restart, but the Azzurri hit straight back with some quick hands from Michele Lamaro sending the looping Capuozzo through a gap and over for a try, with Allan’s conversion giving the hosts the lead. As the second quarter began, Allan and Kolbe traded penalties as both teams looked to play positive attacking rugby, and after half an hour, Bongi Mbonambi peeled off a maul to crash over for a try, though the placement of the ball seemed very delayed and he was probably lucky to stay on the field after telling referee Matt Carley to “referee both sides”. Italy were straight back on the attack and threatening the South African line, but after they kicked a penalty to the corner, the Springboks pack managed to nullify the catch and drive to turn the ball over, and the teams went in at the break with the score 13-18.

Eben Etzebeth soon made his entrance just minutes into the second period, but the first points came from the boot of Tommy Allan as Faf de Klerk chased a kick from an onside position, but the Azzurri failed to deal with the restart, allowing Kolbe to win the ball in the air and go in for the try unchallenged, though he hurt himself doing so and had to be replaced by young fly half Manie Libbok, whose introduction immediately opened up the attack, allowing Arendse to go over for his second try just minutes after the restart, Libbok taking over the kicking duties and landing the conversion from the touchline. Italy were still looking to attack, but a penalty to the 22 failed to find touch as they looked to find a quick response, and South Africa made them pay as Kwagga Smith crashed over for the try the next time the Boks made it into the Italian 22, while the driving maul send Malcolm Marx over for a try just after the hour. The hosts refused to let their heads drop though, and after going the length with some beautiful varied attacking rugby, Lorenzo Cannone continued an impressive start to his Test career by crossing for his 2ⁿᵈ Test try. South Africa soon hit back though the rampaging ginger rhino Steven Kitshoff, but the game soon faced a long stoppage after Edoardo Padovani got his head in his wrong place in a tackle at the restart. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, a great backs move off a scrum saw le Roux go through the gap and feed Willemse—now playing on the wing—for a try, while a late break for Arendse allowed hi to put Cobus Reinach over for a try right at the death, Libbok kicking the conversion for a 21-63 victory for the Springboks, though the game still ended on a high for Genoa-born Pierre Bruno as his proposal was accepted after the game in front of a cheering crowd.

Pride

Let’s be honest, an Italian win against that Springbok squad was always going to be a dream. The important thing here for the Azzurri was that they backed up last weekend’s win with a good performance. And you could argue that they did exactly that.

Yes there were a few costly errors, but this was a great performance from the hosts in front of a cheering crowd, and they were every bit as in the game as the Boks in the first half, while the visitors’ superior quality proved the difference as the game went on. But even then, they never let their heads drop and continued trying to play their game, highlighted by Cannone’s late try.

More importantly, this is a team who are playing with a clear identity and shape right now—which is more than can be said for some Tier 1 Teams—and the players are seeing the positive results from playing this way, which will just continue to encourage them, and with players like Capuozzo, Alessandro Garbisi and Lorenzo Cannone coming through, and Jake Polledri continuing his return from injury with Gloucester, they are creating even more depth in their squad.

Expect to see this team continue to build in 2023.

The answer?

I’ve been saying for a while that South Africa have an issue at fly half, but could Manie Libbok be the answer? The 25-year-old from the Sharks came on for just his 2ⁿᵈ cap, and while he was probably helped by the arrival of Eben Etzebeth and the bomb squad providing quicker ball, he calmly slotted into the fly half position and took over control of the game alongside Willie le Roux with an assuredness that far exceeded his Test experience.

While Damian Willemse has his moments, he looks much more suited to the utility back role right now, whereas Libbok looks like a legitimate option at fly half, especially as South Africa look to start playing a more attacking style of rugby, as he has the range of passing to keep the attack varied, is comfortable switching with Willie le Roux as play demands, will willingly take the ball to the line and on top of all that, will be able to take on the kicking duties!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s crazy to think that he has not been given more of a chance to stake his claim this year, and I think that Jacques Nienaber needs to give him the start next week against England and at least let him play an hour, if not the whole game. If given a fair chance, he could legitimately be pushing Handré Pollard for the starting spot.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Georgia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Georgia

The last full round of Autumn Nations Series fixtures kicked off in Cardiff as Wales welcomed Georgia to the Principality Stadium. The pressure seemed off of Wayne Pivac following a win over toothless Argentina last weekend, but his men found themselves behind within minutes of the kickoff courtesy of a penalty from Tedo Abzhandadze. A period of Welsh pressure after 15 minutes gave them a penalty to the corner, but after the maul was halted, the ball was spread wide and Alex Cuthbert found himself tackled into touch by Davit Niniashvili. However a clever lineout move a few minutes later saw Jac Morgan go over for the try, Rhys Priestland adding the extras. And Morgan was over for another just minutes later as quick recycling of the ball allowed Tomos Williams to find him unmarked on the blind side. Wales were turning a period of dominance into points, and thought they had a third try after Josh Adams won the chase to his own kick, only for a forward pass to him from Tomos Williams to wipe the score off the board. and the teams went into the break with the score at 12-3.

The second period started much like the first, with most of the game taking place between the 22s, but Wales’ decision to keep kicking the ball came back to haunt them on 50 minutes as Alex Cuthbert was given a yellow card for taking out Alexander Todua in the air. And the Georgians took advantage once they made it into the Wales 22, with Abzhandadze’s cross-kick finding Todua in acres of space for a try just before the hour, with Abzhandadze’s conversion making it a 2-point game. And as the Lelos got the momentum, the fly half had a chance to put them ahead with 15 minutes remaining with a penalty, only to pull the kick to the left. With 7 minutes remaining, it looked like Jac Morgan had completed his hattrick after an error from Niniashvili under the high ball, but replays showed that Taulupe Faletau had knocked on in the build-up as he tried to collect his own kick on. A massive Georgian scrum allowed them to clear their lines, and the next with 3 minutes remaining demolished the Welsh scrum on their own ball to earn a penalty, and with his first kick of the game, 21-year-old replacement fly half Luka Matkava kept his nerve to kick the Lelos into the lead. An error at the restart gifted Wales with one more opportunity off a scrum, but the Georgian pack once again demolished them on their own ball to earn a penalty and secure an historic 12-13 victory.

Freefalling

Georgia are an improving team with a good solid defence, but let’s be honest: they aren’t Ireland or the Springboks. And yet Wales made them look like such with an aimless attack.

Yes they may have had a spell where they scored 2 tries (and just missed on another) in the first half, but beyond that the attack looked pedestrian, despite a the entire back line being regulars in the 23 or highly experienced internationals. And while the pack showed a few more changes, you would have thought there was still enough there to beat the Lelos.

Instead, the attack looked aimless as Tomos Williams and Rhys Priestland kicked ball away, the pack struggled to make any metres of note in contact and the return of Owen Watkin at 12 appeared to break any midfield chemistry that had been building between George North and Nick Tompkins. And it all combined to leave players like Louis Rees-Zammit feeding of scraps.

Wayne Pivac has been in the role for years now, and yet there is no consistency of selection as he appears to still have no idea what his best XV or his team identity is. And with losses at home to both Italy and Georgia in 2022, they are lucky that the Six Nations relegation suggestions haven’t began in the same way they do each time Italy lose a game. It seems clear now that Pivac is not the man to lead the team, and while replacing him now would be a late call, it would allow Wales to use the Six Nations as a chance to prove themselves. Let’s be honest, even a poor World Cup under someone else would surely be an improvement on the current situation, where an exit at the pool stages seems the least of their worries, as finishing outside the top 3 of a pool made up of Georgia, Fiji, Australia and Portugal (and thereby missing out on automatic qualification for RWC2027) looks a real possibility.

A seat at the table

This is a big day for Georgia, their first win over a Tier 1 nation other than Italy (who they beat in the summer), and at the Principality Stadium of all places! The calls have been loud for Georgia to get more matches against Tier 1, and following this result they are sure to get deafening.

We’ve seen in the past how it took so long for Argentina and Italy to win their spot in Tier 1 tournaments that the team who earned them the spot soon aged out with a lack of quality underneath, so that cannot be allowed to happen again here. And while there is plenty of experience is the squad, there is also a generation of exciting young talent in their 20s coming through, spearheaded by Abzhandadze, Vasil Lobzhanidze (preparing for his 3ʳᵈ Rugby World Cup despite being only 26), Niniashvili and Giorgi Kveseladze, who was missing from this game.

Georgia need every chance to continue building after this Rugby World Cup, and to do that, they need 2 things:

  • They need to be playing regularly against Tier 1 opposition, and that means finding a way to get them into a top competition, which will then see Tier 1 Nations playing in Tbilisi, which will only help grow the sport in the country.
  • They need to get at least 1 club side into a top tier competition, while ideally also keeping a sprinkling of players through other leagues, as this will just widen the number of players getting regular matches against Test-level players

If the Lelos can get these things soon, the next cycle could be massive for them.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Australia

After defeating the World Champions and testing their depth against Fiji, Ireland’s Autumn Nations Series campaign came to an end with the visit of Australia. The Wallabies were looking to get back on track after following up an impressive display against France with an historic loss to Italy, and they thought that they had got a near-perfect start as Nic White sniped over for a try after just 3 minutes, only for a neck roll in the build-up from Dave Porecki to wipe it out, while Hunter Paisami was lost to injury, Jordan Petaia taking his place. Ireland had lost Jonathan Sexton in the warm-up, leading to a first Test start for Munster’s Jack Crowley, and the young fly half opened the scoring with a penalty after 9 minutes. In a tight affair, Bernard Foley missed with his first chance off the tee as the first quarter came to an end while a good kick to the cormed with 6 minutes left in the half jut saw the lineout stolen by James Ryan. Discipline was frequently costing the the Wallabies in the Irish half, and with 5 minutes left in the half, Folau Fainga’a—on a a HIA replacement for Dave Porecki—was sent to the bin for a neck roll, and the Irish took advantage of the extra man to go to the corner. But when Dan Sheehan was stopped just short of the line as the maul spun towards the touchline, Jamison Gibson-Park was not careful enough with his foot placement and played the ball at the ruck with a foot in touch, bringing the half to a disappointing end and the score at 3-0.

Ireland looked to start the second half positively and take advantage of the extra man, but were unable to find the killer pass to convert the pressure, while what looked like a try for Jamison Gibson-Park as Fainga’a was about to return to the field was ruled out as Mack Hansen just put a foot on the line before offloading to his scrum half as Nic White and Bernard Foley tried to force him into touch. As the game approached the hour mark, Bernard Foley kicked a penalty to draw the teams level, but any celebrations were muted as Taniela Tupou left the pitch on a stretcher following a non-contact leg injury. The crowd was brought into voice with 15 minutes remaining though as a strong carry from Caelan Doris off a lineout in the Australian 22 put the Irish on he front foot, and after Craig Casey’s snipe was stopped by a high tackle, the forwards drew in the defence with a series of pick and go drives, before casey’s flat pass allowed replacement Bundee Aki to crash over for the first try of the game, Crowley adding the extras with a simple conversion. And it was as if the try was a shot of Red Bull to the veins, as Australia immediately went down the field and spread the ball to send Petaia over in the corner, with Foley curling the conversion in. With just under 10 minutes remaining, Ross Byrne was brought on to replace the inexperienced Crowley, an just minutes after his introduction, a scrum penalty allowed him a kick at goal from out wide that he made look simple. With just 2 minutes left, the visitors won a penalty out wide ont he edge of the Irish 22 and made the call to go for the corner, only for them to concede a penalty as the backs came to join the maul and failed to enter from the back, and Ireland held on to secure the 13-10 victory.

Building again

For so long now the Irish centre pairing has been almost as easy to guess as the starting fly half if Jonathan Sexton was fit, with 2 out of Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki starting, and often the other on the bench. Now, after years of impressing for Ulster, Stuart McCloskey is finally getting selected again for the national team, but it’s hampering the team’s fluidity.

And it’s not his fault, but just a matter of chemistry. Those 3 centres were so used to playing in the various combinations that they could help cover for even a sub-par fly half, as they had the chemistry to naturally know where the other would be. Now, wth McCloskey finally getting a shot, he is finding himself having to get used to everything: the Irish system, different fly halves and also different centre partners, which also hasn’t been helped by his early injury against South Africa and Robbie Henshaw’s against Fiji. And to have 3 different starting fly halves over this time won’t have helped things either.

It just highlights the importance of not just building your 23 early in your world cup cycle, but the entire wider squad and beyond. Yes there will always be bolters, but you want to minimise the impact any late bolters or injuries to key players has on the squad chemistry. Mich like I have argued that Sexton has taken too many of the minutes this cycle, has there been too much focus on the main 3 centres, and could this come back to haunt the Irish in France?

Shooting themselves in the foot

This was a perfectly winnable match for Australia. Their defence found ways to cope with Ireland for much of the game, while their few attacks of note did find chinks in the Irish armour. However they continually shot themselves in the foot with poor discipline.

I lost count of just how many attacks were ended by a gold-shirted arm finding its way around an Irish neck, making it all too easy for the officials to call the neck roll, so many so that it not only cost them an early try, but also eventually led to Folau Fainga’a being sent to the bin, while the lineout that led to Aki’s try was courtesy of a penalty to touch, and Rob Valentini was lucky to have a SANZAAR referee in charge to deem his head clash with Dan Sheehan just a penalty rather than the card he deserved.

Is there not enough focus on discipline during the week? Is it an arrogance to think that they can get away without officials seeing? Something must be causing this issue. And it needs sorting fast, or the team will just continue its freefall down the world rankings.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v New Zealand

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v New Zealand

After mixed results against Argentina and Japan, England’s Autumn Nations Series campaign stepped up a gear with the arrival of New Zealand. The All Blacks were coming in off the back of 2 wins but very different levels of performance in the previous weeks, but this week they ere ahead after just a matter of minutes as Dalton Papali’i read the England lineout move and intercepted Jack van Poortvliet’s pass to go over from long range. England were struggling to get a hanhold in the game early on, and when a scrum penalty allowed New Zealand to kick to the corner, the All Blacks maul found it all too easy to work their way over for a second try in the opening 10 minutes, Codie Taylor getting the armchair ride to the line. Going 0-14 down finally spurred an England attack, and after winning a penalty they kicked to the corner, only for their maul set-up to be pinged for obstruction. Ill discipline and inaccurate play were costing England, and when Ardie Savea pounced on van Poortvliet not controlling the ball well enough at the back of a ruck deep in his own 22, it sparked an attack that ended in a try beneath the posts for Rieko Ioane, only for the TMO to spot a neck roll from him a few phases earlier to let England off. England’s next attack ended in a fumble from Jonny Hill close tot he try line, but when Richie Mo’unga saw a pass fly out of his hands horribly wrong in his own 22, England were gifted with a central scrum, a penalty against Tyrel Lomax gave Owen Farrell the simplest of kicks at goal after 25 minutes. As the clock ticked down on the first half, New Zealand had time for one last attack, only for Jordie Barrett to knock on with the line at his mercy, and while an attempted tackle by Ellis Genge hat involved head-to-head contact was ignored by officials, a penalty against the prop for offsie allowed Jordie Barrett to kick the All Blacks into a 3-17 lead at the break.

With Owen Farrell struggling with a knock picked up lae in the first half, Marcus Smith took over kicking duties and had an easy first kick just minutes into the second half, and a clever delayed pass from the flyhalf on the edge of the visitors 22 sent Manu Tuilagi up to the try line, but after a series of pick-and-gos from the forwards, New zealand won the penalty for the latcher going off their feet while the backs were left looking at the wide open space they had in front of them. And they were made to pay minutes later as a clever crossfield kick to Caleb Clarke coming infield allowed him to release the looping Rieko Ioane, who otpaced everyone to run in unchallenged from is own 22. A clever flat pass from Owen Farrell set Luke Cowan-Dickie charging into the 22, but yet another attack came to nothing as Brodie Retallick waited for van Poortvliet to pick up the ball and hooked his arm as he passed to force the knock on. England kept coming with the attacks, but New Zealand’s defence were finding it too easy to stop them when things got dangerous and turn the ball over. England continued to create chances that they couldn’t finish, while as the game entered the final 10 minutes, Beauden Barrett landed a drop goal to stretch the lead to 19. Barrett’s next involvement was much more cynical, killing the ball as Marcus Smith’s break was stopped just short of the line, and he found himself sent to the bin, while Will Stuart was adjudged to have scored his first England try on the next phase. And England took full advantage of the extra man to strike again just minutes later, with Freddie Steward going over out wide, Marcus Smith cutting the deficit to 7 with the conversion. And with just 2 minutes remaining, England completed the turnaround as Stuart crashed over from close range, Smith’s conversion trying the game with a minute left. It all came down to the restart, and ENgland secured the ball, with Marcus Smith choosing to kick the ball out to end the game as a 25-25 draw.

Learning opportunity

This is not a match that Jack van Poortvliet will look back at fondly. The young scrum half has been fantastic for England, but had a torrid day against the All Blacks.

Right from the opening minutes, the rote attack of Eddie Jones’ England was laid bare as they looked to throw a long lineout and then go off the top, and while a more experienced 9 may have recognised that the lineout going beyond the 15m line would have given the rear gunner extra time to get up in the passing lane, this was missed by the young Tiger, who saw his pass picked off as easy as you like for an early New Zealand try.

Not long after this, a box kick sailed far too long, allowing New Zealand to gather and call the mark with no pressure, while at the other end of the pitch, he was caught out taking too long at the back of a ruck where the ball was to the side of the hindmost foot rather than under it—therefore technically being out of the ruck—and this gave Ardie Savea the extra fraction of a second he needed to attack him and make the tackle during the kick motion. And then sadly his final act of the game was to knock on as Brodie Retallick perfectly timed a hook of his arm as he tried to play away from the breakdown.

While it was a poor game, it was probably actually what a young 9 like him needed. It was a reminder of the extra pressures of playing at Test level and the quality that you will be up against. Your kicks and passes have to be that extra inch more accurate, and there is that yard less before a defender is in your face. The key for him is to look back at this match as a learning experience and aim to be back to his usual standard next week.

Of course, that is assuming Eddie doesn’t do his usual thing of now dropping him from the 23 and all future squads off the back of 1 bad game…

Playing with the big boys

New Zealand may not be the team that they used to be after years of stagnation under Ian Foster. However, what they still are is a bunch of very skilled—and more importantly very big—players. And England showed exactly how not to attack against them. While they frequently got through the All Blacks’ defensive line with a clever tip on or flat pass at the line, they then tried to make it a physical battle to get over the line.

So let’s look at that New Zealand defence. While you may rightly query Bower’s workrate in defence, he is as physical as anyone else in the New Zealand front row, while playing Scott Barrett at 6 added extra physicality, Papali’i adds much more than Sam Cane at 7, and everyone knows that Ardie Savea is physicality personified! Then in the backs, playmakers Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett’s strength and defensive ability is often overlooked as people focus on their attacking skill, Jordie Barrett has added extra physicality to the 12 position since replacing David Havili, while Rieko Ioane’s strength is often forgotten as people talk about his pace. Then finally on the wings, you have Caleb Clarke, whose strength is clear to all, and Mark Telea, who more that holds his own as well.

So when you look at this team, it is very clear that you don’t want to take them on physically, as there are very few teams who will be able to match them in this department. Instead, they key is to working the shapes and the space, utilising clever tip-ons and running lines to keep the defence on their toes, and most importantly, avoiding your pack getting white line fever and getting it out to the backs once the space is there.

It’s noticeable that with the extra space provided by Beauden Barrett’s yellow card, England put more focus on attacking the space once they reached the 22, and in doing so, they completed the comeback. The complete difference between the first 70 minutes and the final 10 minutes shows just how important it is to target the right areas when attacking New Zealand.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Scotland v Argentina

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Scotland v Argentina

After a week of wondering what might have been, Scotland’s Autumn Nations Series came to an end with the visit of Argentina. Having faced each other in a 3-Test series just months earlier, there was plenty of familiarity between the teams, while Scotland would have been hoping that home advantage and the return of a few stars rested in the summer would make the distance.

But the home side were immediately under pressure, giving away a penalty off the kick-off, which Emiliano Boffelli duly dispatched. As the players settled into the game, it was Scotland who were making the early attacks, and when Finn Russell’s offload put Sione Tuipulotu through a gap, he had the strength to fight his was over for the opening try. Argentina started keeping the ball in hand more, and a clever grubber to the corner from Pablo Matera forced Duan van der Merwe to take the ball over his own line under pressure from Boffelli, and after the initial planned move off the resulting scrum failed, Argentina won the ball back and immediately struck by putting the ball through the hands to put Jeronimo de la Fuente over in the corner. As the game enterest the second quarter, an illegal clean-out from Marcos Kremer on Jamie Ritchie saw the flanker sent off, and the hosts immediately took advantage of the loss of one of the Pumas’ top tacklers to score, with Duhan van der Merwe just managing to juggle Finn Russell’s offload and gain control of the ball to ground it over the line. And with the half hour approaching, another strong carry from van der Merwe and break from Finn Russell put the Scots on the front foot and resulted in Darcy Graham fighting his way over on the far side for the hosts’ 3ʳᵈ try. However, the Pimas grew back into the game and managed to cut the deficit with a try for Matías Alemanno, which left Scotland with a 19-15 lead at the break.

It didn’t take long for Finn Russell to find his way through a gap after the game restarted, and a clever offload to Stuart Hogg kept the ball alive for Graham to score in the corner. And things soon got worse for the Pumas as Alemanno was given a yellow card on 48 minutes for an illegal cleano-out, while his fellow lock Tomás Lavanini followed just moments later as the resulting maul from a 5m lineout was dragged to ground illegally. Scotland’s haste to immediately take advantage of having 3 extra men on the pitch resulted in a handling error, and when the next attack ended in similar fashion, Matías Orlando was the first onto the loose ball, and he released Boffelli for the unlikeliest of coast-to-coast tries. Scotland were soon back on the attack, and after a legitimate jackal was completely ignored by referee Karl Dickson—who was unwilling to reward the Pumas’ jackalling all game—Tuipulotu was eventually sent over in the corner. As the game reached the hour mark and tempers began to fray, Argentina welcomed back their locks from the bin and replaced Santiago Carreras with the more experienced Nicolás Sánchez, while Chris Harris was also replaced by Cameron Redpath. But after Darcy Graham was tackled into touch to spark a 2nd brawl in 3 minutes, Thomas Gallo and Jamie Ritchie were sent to the bin for their role in the fracas. And when the rugby restarted with a Scottish scrum beneath the posts, Argentina successfully held Redpath and then Zander Fagerson a few minutes later. However a missed touch from Sanchez soon put the visitors back under pressure, and after a knock-on on the floor from Tuipulotu was ignored by the officials, Russell calmly slotted a grubber behind the defence, which Redpath dotted down for hs first Test try. And then when Jamie Ritchie was allowed back on with a Scottish lineout 5m from the visitors’ line but Gallo forced to continue watching from the sideline, the Scots drew in the defence with the maul, before spreading to send Stuart Hogg over beneath the posts. And with the game over as a competition, Darcy Graham finished his hattrick in the corner with just 3 minutes left. As the Pumas looked to finish with a consolation try, Sione Tuipulotu was sent to the bin for a tip tackle, and with the final minutes played 14v14, replacement hooker Ignacio Ruiz managed to burrow over for a try, with Sanchez’s conversion making it a final score of 52-29

Clear frontrunner

If you ever thought there should be a competition for the starting fly half spot just now, the last couple of weeks have made it very clear that Finn Russell is head and shoulders above the other options.

Not even in the squad at the start of the month, the mercurial stand-off was called up following Adam Hastings’ injury against Fiji, and immediately leapfrogged Blair Kinghorn and Ross Thompson to take the 10 shirt against the All Blacks, almost leading the team to an historic victory.

And against Argentina, he was at his best. his eye for a gap consistently found the hole to exploit in the Pumas’ defence, and he then had the speed to hit the gap and the physicality to get his arms through the tackle and offload to the supporting player, which directly led to 3 tries in the match, with Russell’s offload being the assist on 2 of the occasions. But beyond that, his speed and variation of passing kept the defence guessing, his kicking out of hand was brilliant, going long when he needed to slow things down and play a territorial game, but also with a range of chips and grubbers to tear the defence apart. Oh and even his goal-kicking was nearly faultless.

A fully deserved Man of the Match award was his reward for the performance and you must think that if there are issues between him and Gregor Townsend, it is the coach’s job that is more at risk right now.

Arg

I can’t help but feel sorry for the Pumas. Karl Dickson’s inability to referee the breakdown made it a free-for-all all game, and while that is no excuse for Kremer or Alemanno’s offences, it is just inviting offences like that to happen. Regardless, the offences happened, and then more offences as they tried to cope led to them losing even more players to the bin, while the officials also weren’t looking to treat the teams evenly, giving the hosts even more of an advantage.

And yet despite everything that was going against them, the Pumas kept on fighting right to the end. Granted Scotland rushed things by trying to score too quickly after Argentina went 3 men down, but the defence from Argentina could have easily let the numerical disadvantage be an excuse, and instead put in a monster rearguard effort that not only successfully defended the line multiple times at that point, but then also turned the ball over and scored against the run of play. And then you also just have to look at the effort to hold up Scotland over the line twice more a little later in the game, and their efforts to finish on the high of scoring the final try.

While discipline has to be much better, this is a team that will fight and claw tooth and nail for every point. And it is that passion and determination that will make them a threat against anyone on their day.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v Australia

The second weekend jam-packed with Autumn Nations Series action kicked off in Florence as Italy hosted Australia. The Azurri were coming into the match off the back of a big win against Samoa, but were forced into a late change as Paolo Garbisi was ruled out with a hip injury, with Tommaso Allan taking over at fly half, and it took just 86 seconds for hi to open the scoring with a penalty after the Wallabies failed to secure the kickoff. Australia were fielding a highly-changed side from their last-gasp loss in France, and after a clever lineout move saw Will Skelton carry hard up to the line, Italy held out over a series of phases at the expense of an easy penalty for Noah Lolesio to even the scores. Allan missed his next kick at goal, but Italy just looked to keep coming each time they got the ball, and when Monty Ioane released Allan down the wing, the fly half was illegally impeded by Jake Gordon as he chipped on, resulting in a yellow card for the scrum half and a kick to the corner for the Azzurri, and as they looked to go wide, Tom Wright just managed to cover Ange Capuozzo’s grubber to the corner before the arrival of Pierre Bruno, though it came at the expense of another 5m lineout, which came infield to create a blind side for Italy to attack, with Luca Morisi’s looped pass sending Bruno over in the corner. And when Will Skelton was turned over just as the sin bin period was about to expire, Italy burst en masse down their right wing, creating an overlap that sent Capuozzo over for the try, Allan adding both conversions to make it a 14-point powerplay. A high tackle from Federico Ruzza gave Australia possession in the hosts’ 22, and after going through the hard phases, Lolesio’s wide pass allowed Tom Wright to dive over in the corner. As the clock ticked down on the half, both teams continued trying to go at each other, but both defences held firm and the teams went in at the break with Italy leading 17-8.

The Wallabies started the second half carrying more directly, and when Fraser McReight went over for the try, Lolesio was able to cut the deficit to 2 points with his conversion, while Allan soon struck back with a penalty of his own, while missing his next attempt. But just after the hour, a clever backs move after a lineout deep in Australian territory saw Capuozzo sent over for his second try of the game and a 10-point lead. A handling error at an Italian lineout saw Taniela Tupou turn the ball over, and he and Ned Hanigan sent replacement prop Tom Robertson over in the corner just moments after he inexplicably escaped a yellow card for a late hit on Tommaso Allan—which ended the Italian’s game—and Lolesio’s conversion brought the visitors back within 3 points with 10 minutes remaining. A high tackle from Darcy Swain allowed Allan’s replacement Edoardo Padovani a chance to extend the lead off the tee, but his kick from the 10m line fell well short, however his next kick from closer in with 5 minutes left was struck much better to stretch the lead to 6. The Azzurri were minutes away from making history, but there was time for one more Australian attack, and when Cadeyrn Neville forced his way over out wide on the final play, it all came down to the conversion. Ben Donaldson had only just come on for his debut 5 minutes earlier and now had the chance to save his nations’ blushes, but with all eyes on him, the young Waratahs fly half pushed a tricky kick wide of the far post, leaving the Azzurri to celebrate their first ever victory over the Wallabies, by a score of 28-27.

Onwards and upwards

This is another huge result for Italy and a statement to the rugby community. After ending a long run of losses to Tier 1 nations with victory in Wales at the end of the Six Nations, to now back that up with another Tier 1 scalp inthe summer shows just how far this team has come.

But it is so much more than that. This team performance was miles on from even the start of the 2022 Six Nations. This is a team that was not just dogged in defence, but also dangerous in attack, with big carriers in the pack like Lorenzo Cannone, who was a standout today, a balanced midfield in Morisi and Brex and a back 3 that had a great blend of pace, power and elusiveness. And then you must remember that this team was even missing its first choice fly half in Paolo Garbisi and also Jake Polledri, who continues his return from long-term injury. Even in the very recent past, the team lacked depth, but now it is truly starting to become apparent, and that is a testament to the rebuild Conor O’Shea started during his time in charge.

And now they have the personnel, they can go further. Their attack is not just passing down the line and hoping they can find space ot wide, or hitting one-up runners. This is a team that is creating shape and misdirection with their attacking in line with any Test team.

Granted both this and the Wales win were against weakened suads, but in both cases, it has still been a group of players who are in and around the wider squad on a regular basis, while even these teams would have been putting 50+ points on the Azzurri a few years ago. Now teams have to look at fielding their first string teams, and I don’t think it will be long until we see the Azurri beating one of those.

Consistently inconsistent

This is a dark day for Australia. Yes they may have put out a highly-changed squad, but the majority of these players will be pushing for a spot in the World Cup squad. And yet for much of the game they struggled to create anything of note and were generally outplayed by the hosts. This team should have been strong enough to beat Italy, instead it is just another example of an embarrassing defeat, which completely wipes out last week’s great performance against France.

But what was even worse was the stupid penalties. Jake Gordon’s yellow card was costly and unnecessary, and the final 10 minutes would not have been so close had Robertson been rightly sin binned for his cheap shot on Tommaso Allan, while a number of other players were also penalised for tackle offences.

To me, this suggests that the main issue is with the coaching. With Wales, Fiji and an improving Georgia in their pool, can they afford to continue with these inconsistent performances under Dave Rennie, or do they need to look to move on at head coach and hope that a late change has the same inspired affect that it did when Michael Cheika was brought in as head coach in October 2014, going on to reach the Rugby World Cup final a year later.