2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Scotland

The middle match of Super Saturday saw Ireland hosting Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Ireland knew that they still had a chance of winning the tournament should England defeat France later that evening and after a free-flowing first 15 minutes, they found themselves just denied the opening try as Josh van der Flier was held up following a driving maul. However they were trying again with a m maul on the opposite side of the pitch just minutes later, and this time Dan Sheehan was able to splinter off and crash over to break the deadlock. As the half wore on, Ireland began to dominate possession and territory, and the next time they made it up to the Scottish try line, it was Cian Healy who forced himself the final couple of inches to cross the whitewash. However the Scots finally worked their way through some phases and Pierre Schoeman managed to reach out for the line and score, though the conversion from Blair Kinghorn—starting at fly half ahead of Finn Russell following his latest breach of team protocols—drifted wide of the posts to leave the score at 14-5 at the break.

The Scots had the chance to open the scoring after the break as a deflected kick bounced fortuitously off off Stuart Hogg’s thigh to beat his opposite man and allow him to regather, but with 3 men supporting inside, the Scottish captain decided that it had been too long since he had butchered a try and he instead held onto the ball and allowed himself to be tackled into touch just short of the corner by Hugo Keenan. His selfishness became even more costly just before the hour as the latest period of Irish possession in the Scottish 22 saw van der Flier go over for Ireland’s 3ʳᵈ try of the game. The Scots continued to attack, but despite getting some possession and territory, they could still find no way of seriously troubling the Irish defence, and a late yellow card for Ben White set the Irish up nicely for Conor Murray to go over with just a minute left on the clock to earn a bonus point and a 26-5. That result secured Ireland the Triple Crown, while the bonus point meant that a French draw (providing no bonus point) against England would be enough to send the title back to Dublin.

It’s been a while, but it feels like one of Ireland’s few weak spots over the last couple of years is finally sorted: hooker. While Rory Best was a leader, he often struggled at the lineout, and the man who inherited the number 2 jersey, Rob Herring, didn’t necessarily look bad, but was not the same quality as the team around him.

However over the last year or so, Rónan Kelleher finally seemed to win the number 2 jersey, while fellow Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan also took his chances to impress and take on the starting role following Kelleher’s injury. Both are fantastic modern-day hookers; they have the mobility of a back row, the handling skills to match anyone in this Irish team and (most importantly) they are reliable at the line-out.

At just 24 and 23 respectively, Kelleher and Sheehan look to be the go-to hooker pairing for Ireland for the foreseeable future. And the scary thing is that they will likely only get better over the next few years as they get more accustomed to Test rugby.

Now all the Irish lack is a replacement for Jonathan Sexton…

Scotland

While I questioned if it was time the WRU moved on from Wayne Pivac, I think it’s time that the Scots moved on from Gregor Townsend. While they have developed great depth and pulled out some big results, they still flatter to deceive and fail to put together a genuine challenge for the title.

Throughout the tournament their backs have struggled to put together much of note, and the decision to replace Finn Russell with with Blair Kinghorn didn’t help things either—arguably Kinghorn should have been replacing Stuart Hogg at 15, then maybe the team would have stopped butchering their best chances.

But while the aimless attacking has been bad, probably the last straw came following last week’s win over Italy, with 6 players (Ali Price, Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Darcy Graham, Sam Johnson and Sione Tuipulotu) breaching team protocols by leaving team premises to go to a bar. That’s 3 of your biggest leaders and all of your playmakers in the back line. If they’re doing this, it suggests that there is some disconnect between them and Townsend, while this is not the first time Russell has been disciplined for breaching team protocols. It seems Townsend has lost control of the team, and there’s no coming back from that.

But this should be an attractive side to potential replacements. The depth of this squad is better than I can remember it being in a long time, with Rory Darge, Ben White, Andy Christie and Ben Vellacott all earning their first caps and players like Schoeman, Tuipulotu, Josh Bayliss and Kyle Steyn all gaining vital international experience. With a decent number of Tests still to play ahead of the World Cup, this is the time to move on from Townsend and bring in someone who can turn this potential into results.

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

The penultimate Saturday of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off with Scotland’s trip to Italy. The Italian’s las win in the competition came at Scotland’s expense, and the Azzurri took an early lead through a penalty from Paolo Garbisi. However it was the Scots who got the opening try on 17 minutes after a loose Italian kick allowed them to counter; George Turner broke down the right wing and as his supporting men kept the ball alive, Finn Russell was able to spread the ball wide to send Sam Johnson over in the left corner. Italy soon found themselves on the attack, but Ali Price intercepted Callum Braley’s pass just 5 metres from the Scottish line and broker away with Kyle Steyn, and as the wing ran out of space he chipped back inside for the supporting Chris Harris to finish. The Italians were not deterred by such a blow though, and after Garbisi missed a penalty, a sweeping move to the right saw Pierre Bruno dominate contact with Stuart Hogg and offload back inside to Callum Braley for the try, with Garbisi’s touchline conversion bringing them back within 2 points. However an Ali Price break put the Scots into the Italian 22, and after a head injury forced a stoppage, the Scottish back ran some clever lines to send Harris crashing over for his second, with Russell kicking the conversion for a 10-19 halftime lead.

The game remained close after the break, but the Scotland attack appeared to be growing in confidence, and when an inside pass from Finn Russell put Darcy Graham through just inside the opposition 22, the wing stepped his way over to secure the bonus point. As the hour approached, Italy made a number of changes, but this arguably interrupted their play and as Garbisi missed another penalty, a comeback was looking unlikely. That “unlikely” became “almost certainly not” as Man of the Match Ali Price broke the line on the hour and mad plenty of ground before sending captain Stuart Hogg over in the corner, while Monty Ioane was beaten by the bounce of the ball just minutes later as he ran onto a grubber kick with the line at his mercy. However Italy kept on the pressure and forced another try through Ange Capuozzo, just 22 minutes into his debut off the bench. This score appeared to invigorate them and with 7 minutes left were perhaps unlucky not to get a penalty try as their maul was collapsed just short of the line, but they refused to give up and with the clock 2 minutes into the red, Capuozzo stepped over for another try and a 22-33 final score.

Italy

One player who doesn’t get talked about anywhere near enough in this Italian squad is Monty Ioane. While the 14 shirt has been somewhat a revolving door of players, Ioane has deservedly made the 11 shirt his own.

A strong and willing carrier, he rarely gets the chance to find himself with the ball and clear air in front of him, but he continually still makes metres, with a great combination of strength and footwork to beat defenders and break tackles. Meanwhile in the kicking game he runs his heart out and competes well, while also popping up in the midfield to provide an option to get a move going by taking an inside pass through a gap or to chase a cheeky chip (as we saw from Braley today) if the kick defence is too deep.

At 27 years old, he is in his prime and will benefit as Italy continue to improve as a team, as it will create the space out wide for him to exploit rather than forcing him to make the space himself, and as this next generation of stars comes through from the U18s and U20s, he will be an experienced mentor to take his replacements to even higher levels.

Scotland

This was a big match for Scotland. After a big start to the tournament with victory over England, things have gone downhill and they took a shellacking 2 weeks ago. With stars Jamie Ritchie and Duhan van der Merwe missing, there was always a risk of the Italians becoming a banana skin today.

But the Scots got things right today, going back to their kicking game and relying on the quality of their defence to limit the Italian opportunities, and then taking advantage of any poor Italian kick chases or gaps in the Italian defence with the quality of attackers like Ali Price, Finn Russell, Darcy Graham and Stuart Hogg going the length of the field in just seconds.

2 weeks ago, Scotland threw out their gameplan as soo as they found themselves behind… and lost. This week, they stuck with it, and if they continue to do so, they will be a challenge for many teams.

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v France

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v France

After taking a week off, the Six Nations Championship returned for round 3, starting with France’s trip to Edinburgh. Les Bleus were the only team still capable of winning the Grand Slam this year, and soon found themselves ahead at Murrayfield as Antoine Dupont’s break was followed up by a series of strong runs from the pack and ended with Paul Willemse crashing over from close range. The Scots soon hit back with a penalty from Finn Russell, but the French immediately answered by spreading the ball all the way to the left off a lineout and then sweepin back right, with Damian Penaud and Cyril Baille both keeping the ball alive as they were bundled into touch, allowing Yoram Moefana to cross for the try. The Scots finally began to get some control on the game and Baille was perhaps lucky to not give away a penalty try for a high tackle on Ali Price as he was held up on the line, but the Scots kept up the pressure with a quick tap and soon saw Rory Darge go over for a try on his first Test start. As halftime approached, the game felt like it was on the edge of a knife, and when Duhan van der Merwe broke away in midfield with support, it looked like the Scots would go into the break with the lead. However while Chris Harris’ support line was bettered only by his wide pass to Stuart Hogg, the Scottish captain had forgotten his catching hands and saw the chance disappear, a moment that would come back to haunt them even more just moments later as Gaël Fickou arced over in the corner, with Jaminet converting to turn what could have been a 17-12 lead for the Scots into a 10-19 lead for France.

If there was any question as to how the momentum had shifted in the final moments of the first half, it took just 2 minutes for the French to score their 4ᵗʰ try and secure the bonus point, as Damian Penaud broke down the wing and chipped forward, and though he was outpaced by both Hogg and van der Merwe, all three were beaten by a wicked bounce of the ball which fell into the hands of Jonathan Danty to go over on his return from injury. The Scots continued to have plenty of possession, but were having to attack from deep, and when Darge had the ball ripped in a maul, the ball was spread to Penaud to go over out wide, and the wing scored his second with just minutes left as Romain Ntamack foundhi in acres of space with a clever cross-kick. The game was over as a competition, but when replacement Blair Kinghorn fielded a kick and found a gap in the French defence, he burst through and fed van der Merwe for a try that at least salvaged a little pride for the home side, with a final score of 17-36.

Scotland

While this was anything but a good day for the Scots, one massive positive they can take from the game was the performance of Rory Darge. With Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson both out injured and Hamish Watson also ruled out with COVID, Darge found himself given the 7 shirt having made his debut off the bench in round 2.

And what a performance the young back row put in! For a player to make 1 or 2 turnovers at the breakdown in a Test is usually an achievement, Darge seemed to be the one consistently getting a hand in at the crucial moment, bringing a number of promising French attacks to an early end. And while he did not have quite the physicality of Watson in attack, he certainly did his fair share of carrying with 14 carries (a team high) for 39 yards.

While it is still early days, Darge looks like a natural at Test level, and this is great news for Scotland as they look to develop depth in their back row. For a while now it has been Watson, Ritchie and one other in the back row, but Fagerson and Magnus Bradbury have both grown into capable Test players. With Darge now entering the fray, they have 5 great options to pick from when everyone is available, with Bath’s Josh Bayliss and Saracens’ Andy Christie also looking like they could become regulars in the wider squad over the coming years—good news for everyone except Nick Haining, who will surely struggle to keep his spot when other options are available after another performance that showed he is not suited to this level.

France

This was a stellar performance from Les Bleus. Though the Scots had the greater possession and ran for more metres, there was only ever one winner in doubt.

Barring a few breaks, the French defence comfortably dealt with everything the Scots threw at them, while the pack dominated at the set piece and helped create quick ball in attack. And with the quality of ball carrying throughout the squad, the team were able to consistently manipulate the Scottish defence—who were given an even harder task with the loss of Chris Harris at halftime—to score in just a handful of phases.

But they didn’t even just do this in one way. They utilised a break by then having their forwards charge onto the ball at pace to keep up the momentum for Willemse’s try, while for multiple tries they forced the defence to overcommit to the farwing by spreading it from the right touchline all the way to the left wing in one phase, only to then put it through the hands and work the numbers spreading the ball right back to the right wing where the Scots ran out of numbers.

Back in 2020 I predicted that France would win the 2023 Rugby World Cup. While the Springboks still look deadly, these performances from France continue to convince me that I made the right choice.

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Scotland

Round 2 of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off today in Cardiff with Wales facing Scotland. Wayne Pivac’s men had made a number of changes following last week’s dismal loss in Dublin and got the opening points with a pair of penalties from Dan Biggar on his 100ᵗʰ Test, however Scotland were soon on the board themselves when Duhan van der Merwe was released down the wing into the Scottish 22. After a series of phases, Finn Russell wrapped around in midfield and spread the ball wide to Darcy Graham, whose clever footwork allowed him to beat Louis Rees-Zammit to the corner. Three Russell penalties to one from Biggar gave the Scots the lead, but a strong driving lineout from 5m out saw Tomas Francis go over to level the scores at 14-14, a scoreline which survived to the break.

In a tight second half, Russell and Biggar traded penalties, but after a second attempt from Biggar came back off the posts to be recovered by Wales, Alex Cuthbert was just denied a try in the corner by some solid defence. However, in the checking of the potential try, a deliberate knock-on was noticed from Finn Russell and the fly half was sent to the bin with just 13 minutes remaining. Wales went through the phases but could not get over the line in the early moments and Dan Biggar chose to take the drop goal for a 20-17 lead with 10 minutes remaining. Though it left Scotland with a chance, the Welsh defended hard and repelled all attacks, but had a nervous moment in the final seconds as a high shot from Taine Basham was checked by the TMO. However referee Nic Berry found the home crowd too loud to resist and let the young flanker away with just a penalty, and the 15 men on Wales managed to stop the Scots around halfway and won a penalty with the clock in the red to confirm their victory.

Wales

The Welsh lineout has been somewhat unreliable at the best of times in recent years. However with both Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones missing, this has looked even more of a risky area. Scotland certainly thought that they could get some fortune here judging by the selection of Sam Skinner at 6.

However the lineout did a fantastic job today, being near perfect in its ball retention, while even mauling Tomas Francis over from short range at a vital point in the match. Sometimes it can really hurt to lose players of such quality as Owens and Jones, but what it does is force the other players on the pitch to step up and fill the void. And while I still don’t know how Ryan Elias gets away with a hendred dummy throws at each lineout, he is starting to get some familiarity with players like Adam Beard and Will Rowlands, which is helping solidify a key area of the game.

The challenge now will be to continually hit these high levels in repeated Tests.

Scotland

While the Welsh defence and physicality was infinitely better this week, Scotland did not help themselves. With Sione Tuipulotu, Chris Harris and Duhan van der Merwe all starting, this was arguably one of the most physical back lines Scotland have played in years. And yet they were not used enough.

While there were some moments, such as the try, where they were utilised well—van Der Merwe breaking into the 22, an arc and offload from Harris getting them up to the 5m line and the physicality of the midfield allowing Russell to hit the Welsh with the wrap play— there was not enough of this through the game. Wales were clearly playing much more confidently and yet the Scots would just kick the ball back to them and let them play their game, allowing Dan Biggar to run the game, while too often van der Merwe was just left carrying into contact rather than being put into space, resulting in multiple turnovers.

In Finn Russell, they have one of the most gifted attacking 10s in rugby. If Scotland want to start winning regularly and challenging for the Six Nations, they need to start playing to their strengths.

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v England

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v England

With the latest edition of the Six Nations having got underway in Dublin, we weren’t made to wait long for the battle of the auld enemies as England made the trip to Murrayfield to face Scotland.

Eddie Jones’ men came in with some unfamiliar combinations, but they were the dominant team from the start, though it took 17 minutes before they could take advantage on the scoreboard, courtesy of a penalty from Marcus Smith. However the Scots appeared to be woken up by this, and after a quick throw caught England napping, Stuart Hogg put Darcy Graham through a gap and Ben White—on for his debut as a HIA replacement for Ali Price—popped up on his inside shoulder to put Gregor Townsend’s men in the lead, with Finn Russell adding the extras. As the half went on, England continued to dominate the territory game with strong carries and kicks to the corner, but a strong lineout drive saw the ball held up over the line and the only additions to the score before the break were a penalty apiece for the fly halves for a 10-6 halftime score.

It was more of the same early in the second half, with Smith adding another penalty, and as the English pack got a solid lineout drive going, the Harlequins fly half looped round to the large blind side to go over in the corner and give his team the lead, before kicking another penalty just after the hour before being replaced by George Ford. Scotland were soon on the attack though, and as Finn Russell put i a cross-kick to Darcy Graham, the wing was clearly impeded by a deliberate slap forward by Luke Cowan-Dickie and with no other cover anywhere near, referee Ben O’Keeffe awarded the penalty try to level the scores with 15 minutes remaining and sent the Exeter Chiefs hooker to the bin. As the clock ticked into the final 10 minutes, Finn Russell kicked the Scots ahead following a scrum penalty out wide, and when Darcy Graham won a turnover following 4 minutes of reset scrums, Scotland could finally boot the ball out to celebrate a 20-17 victory that would see them retain the Calcutta Cup for the first time since 1984.

Scotland

Scotland went for an interesting tactics with their kicks today, choosing to keep most of them infield rather than kicking the ball out. While it suggests that they are confident in their fitness that they can keep going at a high tempo, it’s also very dangerous play as it allows England the chance to either counterattack or kick the ball back to touch for a territorial advantage.

I can’t help but wonder if this was decision was made due to a nervousness about the English driving maul. They were certainly hurt by it on a couple of occasions during the match, so any chance to reduce the number of English lineouts makes sense, while on some occasions the kick chase was so good that it actually put the opposition under pressure as they tried to kick.

However, while it took away one weapon, it gave England the chance to run the ball back and was a big factor in Scotland barely playing any rugby in the opening hour, whereas kicking to touch would have allowed them moments to regroup and even try to steal ball at the lineout.

Next week, against a Wales team with dangerous counterattackers in the back 3 but questions over the lineout, don’t be shocked to see the Scots putting more of their kicks out to touch.

England

England dominated this game, yet once again what should have been an easy victory turned into a disappointing defeat due to Eddie Jones’ tactics.

While the pack played incredibly well—solid in the set piece and carrying tirelessly with strength—the back line lacked any semblance of shape in attack, which is no real surprise considering it included no specialist 12s or wings and three 13s. But more than just the bad shape was the continued tactic of kicking for territory rather than playing heads-up rugby.

Marcus Smith is a fantastic talent, but this tactic hobbles him, while it also puts pressure on the defence to be solid, which it struggled to be in this match. If they played real heads-up rugby, this game would have been over by the hour, instead, England spent most of the match behind courtesy of just a few moments of attacking quality from a team who should have been down and out.

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2022: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2022: 6 to Watch

We are now less than 2 weeks away from the 2022 edition of the Six Nations. 5 rounds of rugby spread over 7 weeks as the Home Nations, the French and the Italians battle to be regarded the best team in the Northern Hemisphere.

And so with the initial squads announced—and a number of replacements already made due to injuries, bans and COVID—it’s time for my annual look at each squad and selection of a player to keep your eyeson. So who makes the list this season?

England

You can certainly argue that his performances should have seen him earn more that just 1 cap off the bench against Tonga by now, but this could be Mark Atkinson‘s chance to show what he can do on the international stage. Atkinson is the only specialist 12 in the squad, and with Owen Farrell injured he would be the obvious option to join Marcus Smith and Henry Slade in midfield. Atkinson would provide the physical presence at 12 that Marcus Smith is used to from playing with André Esterhuizen at Harlequins, but also has a wonderful offload and a range of passes and kicks to exploit any situation.

France

Another player who only made his Test debut in late 2021, Thibaud Flament is my pick for Les Bleus. With experienced players like Paul Willemse, Bernard Le Roux and Romain Taofifénua in the squad, the Toulouse lock is far from guaranteed gametime, but is one of the latest in the new generation of French talent coming through. While many of the French locks are powerhouses, Flament is a highly dynamic player, which makes him a weapon in the team’s already exciting attack and has already earned him a Test try in just 3 caps.

Ireland

Another player who may finally get a chance due to injuries ahead of him is Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune. The wing has been a regular for Ulster for years and even spent a little time on the 7s circuit, but at 24 is just now reaching his prime. With James Lowe and Jacob Stockdale both currently injured, this could be his chance to push for minutes during the tournament, though there’s still no guarantee given the quality of options available in the back 3 and his own recent return from injury. If he get his chance though, just watch him tear up the pitch with his impressive blend of pace and power.

Italy

It’s not often the national team captain comes up on this list, but at just 23 years old and with 10 caps to his name, Michele Lamaro is anything but widely known to international audiences. A regular starter in the last campaign, Lamaro seemed to struggle at 8, but looked much more impressive when moved to flanker in the Autumn. Jake Polledri is still a long-term injury and cannot be replaced, but Lamaro brings a lot around the breakdown and a level of leadership that belies his youth. With his club Benetton now becoming successful, could he help lead a similar turnaround for the Azzurri?

Scotland

I’ve said for a while that what Scotland have missed is that physicality to help them regularly get over the gain line on early phases to create the space to exploit. Well Glasgow centre Sione Tuipulotu is a powerhouse who provides just that. More commonly used as an outside centre, he may struggle to feature in the 13 shirt too often due to the form of British & Irish Lion Chris Harris, who I would consider one of the very best 13s in the world at the moment, but if Gregor Townsend can get him working at 12, or utilise him off the bench, he’s going to be a real handful.

Wales

While there are questions over how much the first 5 names on this list will be playing, it will be he ultimate shock if Adam Beard is not a regular in the Welsh XV. Though he has struggled to hold down a spot in the Welsh second row over recent seasons, he showed his quality during the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa. Now with Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens both missing, Beard has to step up and not just become a leader in the pack, but sort out a lineout that has been an issue in recent seasons.

Who would your picks be?


Throughout the tournament, I will be running a predictions pool on Superbru, and you are invited to join! For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was. It’s purely for fun, so no entry fee and no prize… except bragging rights!

You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with the code densgird

Guinness Six Nations

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 5

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 5

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

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

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


Scotland

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

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

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

Japan

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

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

Uruguay

Keep an eye on Los Teros!

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

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

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

Georgia

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

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

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

Fiji

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

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

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

England

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

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

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

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

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

South Africa

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

Australia

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

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

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

France

This was a huge win for Les Bleus!

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

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

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

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

New Zealand

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

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

But what if they stick with Foster?

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

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

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

Ireland

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

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

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

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

Argentina

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

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

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

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

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 4

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 4

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


Italy

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

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

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

Argentina

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

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

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

Scotland

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

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

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

South Africa

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

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

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

Ireland

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

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

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

New Zealand

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

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

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

England

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

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

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

Australia

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

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

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

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

France

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

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

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

Georgia

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

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

Fiji

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

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

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

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

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


Ireland

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

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

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

Japan

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

New Zealand

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

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

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

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

England

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

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

Tonga

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

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

South Africa

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

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

France

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

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

Argentina

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

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

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

Scotland

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

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

Australia

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

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

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

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2021 Autumn Tests: 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.