The World Champions upped their preparation ahead of the Rugby Championship and their first match since winning the Rugby World Cup with the Springbok Showdown. 50 home-based players were split into 2 squads of 25 and faced off in a “Green v Gold” (though going by the kits, Green v White would be more accurate) match at Newlands, where they had been due to face Scotland in their first post-World Cup international.
In a sleep-inducing first half, Damian Willemse and Elton Jantjies traded penalties, but those of us who didn’t fall asleep saw Willemse miss 3 out of 4 kicks, leading to Gold trailing 6-3 at the break. The second half started with more positive rugby, but it was bad news for Gold as Willemse was rightly adjudged to have prevented a probable try by pulling back Yaw Penxe out wide, leading to a penalty try for Green and a 10-minute spell on the naughty step for the fly half. Though they gave away more penalties than Gold, Green built some dominance in the set piece and on 56 minutes, they drove a maul up to the try line from close range, allowing captain Siya Kolisi to break off and cross for the try. As time passed with little success for Gold, Green secured the win with a 3ʳᵈ try, positioning a number of forwards out wide for a cross-kick following a 2-man lineout, and a fortuitous bounce off the head of JD Schickerling and a scramble on the floor resulted in replacement back row Juarno Augustusdotting the ball down over the line. As the clock ticked down, a break from Lukhanyo Am set up Gold for a commiseration try, but Jason Jenkins was held up over the line and the Green defence held strong following the resultant scrum, with Thomas du Toit winning the penalty that allowed Gold to kick the ball to touch to finish the game as 25-9 victors.
South Africa won the Rugby World Cup off the back of strong defensive displays and powerful set pieces allowing them to score a try or 2 to best their opponent. Judging by this match, there is no immediate change in tactics planned under new head coach Jacques Nienaber.
In the first half especially, the game very rarely went past a handful of phases before the ball was kicked downfield. Territory was at the forefront of players’ minds tactically, and though the attacking play increased after the break, it was still very limited.
It was very hard for the players in the back 3 to show their quality in attack and I felt especially sorry for Rosko Specman, who worked tirelessly in a support role and chasing kicks up and down his wing for very little reward.
Don’t expect the Springboks to be throwing the ball around in the coming years. A physical, defensive, territory-focused game may not be the most attractive rugby to watch, but South Africa do it so damn well.
While a defensive performance isn’t the most attractive of things at the best of times, it becomes a hundred times worse when the players are as rusty as the 50 on show in this match. Super Rugby was suspended in mid-March, but unlike New Zealand and Australia, South Africa has not had any top-flight rugby since then and the only players who have were not included as they are based abroad.
While the teams often looked to play the territory game, there were times that they actually tried to played the ball, only for things to come to a swift close due to someone knocking the ball on or throwing a loose pass. Meanwhile a number of lineouts ended with scrappy ball off the top, putting the attacking team under immediate pressure. Even a large portion of the kicking game was questionable, with some deep kicks being fielded too easily and a number of more attacking kicks not paying off.
The Springboks still have time before the Rugby Championship begins, but they don’t have the competitive matches under their belt that the majority of the Australian and New Zealand squad do, and that could harm them in their opening matches.
With Handré Pollard currently missing through injury, this was the perfect opportunity for Damian Willemse to stake his claim for the Springboks 10 jersey and potentially even win the starting job ahead of Elton Jantjies. Unfortunately, things didn’t really work out for him.
His kicking off the tee left a lot to be desired, only managing to bisect the posts on 1 of 4 attempts, but that was far from the end of it. He certainly tried to get things going in attack and get the team firing, but too often this came to a quick end as players did not seem to be on his wavelength – though there was a lovely grubber in behind early on that required a wonderful covering tackle from far-side winger Penxe to stop Specman when a try looked likely. And then unfortunately, Willemse found himself spending 10 minutes in the bin having given away a penalty try by pulling back Penxe when he was chasing a kick into the in-goal, and by the time he returned to the pitch, he was moved to 15 as Curwin Bosch had entered the fray.
Granted Jantjies didn’t blow the proverbial roof off with his performance, but he did what was required to get the team the win and did not seem as involved in any errors or negative moments.
However, this may not be Willemse’s chances of a starting spot gone, as he put in a good performance after returning to the pitch at fullback, including controlling the air when coming forward to take high balls. Very few players got a chance to stand out in the back lines, while having a playmaker at 15 would give the Boks extra tactical options, so don’t be too surprised if the 22-year old gets the nod there to open the Rugby Championship.
Replacing the Beast
This is a new era for the World Champions, as they look to go on without Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, who retired from international rugby following the World Cup. Luckily, they been spoiled for years by already having one of the (in my opinion) top 5 looseheads in the world sharing time with him: Steven Kitshoff.
The Stormers prop did not have the best of starts to this game, struggling in some of the early scrums, but soon sorted things out and started winning penalties at the set piece with some degree of regularity. Meanwhile, he continued to excel around the park, with his handling skills highlighted by a great pickup from a terrible pass by Scarra Ntubeni deep in their own half. But more than anything, he has an engine, lasting longer than most of the front rowers while getting himself around the pitch, such as when he went from a scrum on the Green 22 to winning a turnover penalty – there are few props who win turnovers as often as him – on the Gold 22 on the other side of the pitch following a Green break!
Kitshoff has the number 1 shirt secured for the forseeable future, the Boks just need to find the right man to come off the bench.
Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.
As I continue down the list alphabetically, today I will be looking at South Africa.
As the team who finished 3ʳᵈ at RWC2015, South Africa automatically qualified for the 2019 tournament.
While things were not looking great earlier in the cycle, the move to get rid of Allister Coetzee and have SARU Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus take over the head coach role started to improve performances and results.
Coming into 2019, South Africa won the shortened Rugby Championship with wins at home to Australia and away to Argentina, to add to a draw in New Zealand. In their final warm-up matches ahead of the World Cup, they managed a victory at home to Argentina and demolished Japan 7-41.
Pool Stages (2ⁿᵈ in Pool B)
New Zealand 23-13 South Africa
South Africa 57-3 Namibia
South Africa 49-3 Italy
South Africa 66-7 Canada
Japan 3-26 South Africa
Wales 16-19 South Africa
England 12-32 South Africa
Looking at their pool before the tournament, South Africa would have been confident that they would make it out of their pool, with their opener against New Zealand likely deciding who came first. Despite coming in looking on better form, South Africa came off second best against New Zealand, with their mistakes being punished by a clinical All Blacks side, though there were some very strong performances from winger Cheslin Kolbe and back rowers Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
With the hard match out of the way, the rest of the pool stage was about spreading the minutes throughout the squad to keep everyone fresh while remaining dominant. This chopping and changing of players did lead to some sloppy moments that cost them points, but never enough to put the win at risk. While Faf de Klerk didn’t have the best of pool stages, Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach showed the depth at 9 in this squad, while the pack did an incredible job of dominating at mauls and scrums. Against Italy, this physical advantage was nullified by early Italian injuries resulting in uncontested scrums less than 20 minutes into the match, but a red card for Andrea Lovotti soon after halftime helped the Springboks pull away. They finished off their pool stage with a strong 66-7 win over Canada, but after putting on 40 points in the first 30 minutes, they failed to push on after Josh Larsen’s 36ᵗʰ minute red card.
If there was any worries that this limited second half against Canada hinted at problems to come, the Springboks quickly proved that would not be the case, as they got revenge for Japan’s win in Brighton. The pack was dominant from the first minute and this, combined with some great defence from Lukhanyo Am in midfield, nullified the Japan attack and created an incredible platform to attack off. De Klerk was starting to come back to form by this point and with his job made so easy by the pack, he was able to control the attack and get a try of his own, well playing an important role in the defence.
De Klerk’s game management – along with that of fly half Handré Pollard – proved important in a tight semifinal against Wales. Again, the Springbok pack gained an advantage and the defence held strong to stop the Welsh, while a combination of the halfback’s tactical kicking and Damian de Allende’s hard running (and deserved try) were enough to pull out a narrow victory.
Going into the final with England, we were given a clash of 2 great packs, but the South African forwards earned the dominance and another strong tactical game, with the team eventually breaking down England for a couple of late tries, earning the Springboks their 3ʳᵈ World Cup title to pull level with New Zealand.
This is a squad in a very good position. Coming into the tournament, only 7 of the squad were in their 30s, so a very high number should still be available come 2023, while a number of younger players who are maybe on the fringes of the XV and 23 at the moment are set to become regulars over the next few years, such as RG Snyman, Damian Willemse, S’busiso Nkosi, Herschel Jantjies and Kwagga Smith.
The key thing right now is not cutting off any options. A few years ago, the preference was clearly towards players based in South Africa, but so many of the squad and other potential internationals like the du Preez brothers are moving abroad. Players like Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach can point to playing abroad as having revitalised their career, so it could be that by allowing other players to move outside of South Africa, it allows them to learn different playing styles while also opening up spots back home for the talent coming through.
Right now, there are a few places that maybe need some attention. In the back row, it Francois Louw and Vermeulen will have both played their last World Cups, while flankers Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit will also both be in their 30s. Kwagga Smith is an incredible talent, great at the breakdown while his 7s background makes him dangerous in the loose. Dan de Preez looked fantastic for the Sharks and has carried that form into his early days at Sale. At 24 years old, this is the perfect time to bring him into the national squad and build him into the next star in the back row. Fly half also needs a look, as Elton Jantjies will be 33 come the next tournament and does not appear international standard to me anyway, while Handré Pollard can be a great player for a defensive territory-focused gameplan, he does not have the same level of expertise when running a more expansive attack. Curwin Bosch and Damian Willemse need to decide now if they want to play fly half or full back internationally and focus on the position, while the next generation of fly halves needs to start making its way through in Super Rugby too.
The other key thing right now is the man in charge. With the World Cup over, Rassie Erasmus has left his role as head coach to focus on his duties as SARU Director of Rugby. We saw in the Allister Coetzee reign just how badly things can go with the wrong man in charge, so the union need to make sure that they get in someone who can build on Erasmus’ good work. Johan Ackermann is a name that has been mentioned and while I completely agree with the quality of his work with the Lions and Gloucester, as a Gloucester fan I hope that the Springboks job will be his in the far future.
Assuming they get the right person in charge, this is a team that will be hard to beat over the coming years.
We are just days away from the start of the Rugby World Cup and we now know the players who will be on show. With the 31-man squads finalised, it’s time to start taking a look at the squads and looking at who will stand out during this tournament. In 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder made his all Blacks debut in August, before going on to be a star of the tournament and make the tournament dream team, along with Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who definitely wasn’t known to the masses before the tournament.
With so many people who aren’t die-hard rugby fans set to watch the tournament, or many whose knowledge is maybe limited to their own nation’s players, I decided to do something similar to my Players to Watch in the Six Nations article, and expand that to each team of the World Cup. While I try to watch as much rugby as I can around the world, you’ll see that even I have blank spots as I select some players that may be bigger names in their teams, but they still may be lesser-known names to the wider public.
Who are you looking out for during the tournament? Today, we’ll look at Pool B:
Ngani Laumape was going to be my pick here until his shock omission, so I have instead chosen to look at Sevu Reece. I made mention of Nehe Milner-Skudder earlier in the article and he is basically the Milner-Skudder of the 2019 All Blacks squad, having only made his debut in recent months. With pace, power and footwork, Reece looks the real deal and comes into the tournament having been the top try scorer in the last Super Rugby season.
The first 2 rounds of Super Rugby made it clear that I had to pick to Herschel Jantjies. The Stormers scrum half did me some help in my fantasy team this year but even I wouldn’t have imagined his international career would begin with 3 tries in 2 Rugby Championship games and a draw against New Zealand in Wellington. Capable of controlling the game well enough to lead the team, he is such a danger with ball in hand if given too much space. Between him, Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach, head coach Rassie Erasmus is spoiled for choice at 9.
While I have to mention Gloucester’s Jake Polledri who I rate highly, I am going to the backs again here with my selection of Matteo Minozzi. The fullback missed this year’s Six Nations through injury, but proved himself to be a potent attacking talent in the 2018 tournament with 4 tries in 5 games. Part of the rebuild going on at Wasps this summer after moving from Zebre, Minozzi will be looking to make up for lost time. Expect him to run riot against Namibia and Canada.
This was the hardest of the 20 teams competing to pick by a country mile. Reynaldo Bothma was going to be my pick here until he recently announced his retirement – I really hope there was no pressure from Harlequins affecting that decision – so in his absence I have picked Aranos Coetzee. The prop gets a selection here by virtue of his experience of playing at a relatively high level, having played for Racing, Brive and the Cheetahs all in top tier leagues while also featuring for South Africa’s U18s team back in the day. An experienced prop will be invaluable during the tournament.
Canada are a team that have really struggled for success in recent years, but if they are to have any success in the tournament, D. T. H.van der Merwe will surely be involved. The winger bizarrely struggled to get any time at Newcastle Falcons but has excelled at the Scarlets and in 2 spells with Glasgow. Internationally, he has scored 38 tries in 57 caps and has started every game at the last 3 World Cups, scoring 6 tries – including 4 in the 2015 tournament.
After winning the Rugby Championship in Salta last weekend, South Africa returned to Pretoria to take on Argentina in a World Cup warm-up match against Argentina. Last week, the Pumas were annihilated at home, but as both teams fielded heavily changed lineups this week, we had a much closer affair. S’busiso Nkosi put the Springboks ahead, only for an intercept try by Guido Petti to give the Pumas an 8-10 halftime lead. Nkosi and Matera traded second half tries to keep things close. With just a few minutes left and South Africa just 3 points ahead, Argentina scored through Lucas Mensa, only for the try to be disallowed for an obstruction early in the attack. Elton Jantjies kicked the resultant penalty to secure the win by a scoreline of 24-18.
Having missed the Rugby Championship through injury, this match mas notable as the return to international rugby of Springboks captain Siya Kolisi. In a 53-minute appearance, the openside put in a timely reminder of just how important he is to the team, before we even account for his leadership skills. Off of just 3 carries, Kolisi made 14 metres and put the Springboks on the front foot, while defensively he made 6 tackles, with none missed and was unfortunate to be penalised for taking out the 9 at one breakdown where replays suggested that Felipe Ezcurra had already picked up the ball.
Most importantly though, he did not look at all out of place or off the pace despite having not played a match since May and he looks certain to reclaim the South African 6 jersey come the World Cup.
The Pumas came so close to winning this match, but eventually were denied by a penalty that wrote off what would have been the winning try. While it was a disappointing way to end the competition (I think it was the right call, but I have also seen more deliberate and blatant obstructions allowed), it was a perfect way to sum up the game for Argentina.
ESPN’s stats page says that the Pumas conceded 11 penalties through the game and while they don’t break it down between the halves, I am comfortable in saying that the vast majority of those penalties – not to mention a couple of free kicks at scrum time – came in the first half. Giving away so many penalties in the first half stopped them from impacting the game as they were constantly finding themselves forced to defend back in their own half; once they cut down on the penalties in the second half it became more of a contest.
While Argentina are in a bad run of form and find themselves in a tough pool, their main rivals, England and France, both have a tendency to give away more penalties than a Tier 1 team should be, very similar to Argentina. If the Pumas can improve their discipline, it could potentially be the key to making it through to the quarterfinals.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
As well as the returning Kolisi, I think captain for the day Schalk Brits put in a strong performance with a couple of good runs and completing 17/18 tackles, while he was also very accurate at the lineout. I doubt that he will move ahead of Malcolm Marx or Bongi Mbonambi on the depth chart, but it was a timely reminder of his qualities and his playing style may get him on the plane as an extra option to allow the regular starter some time off. S’busiso Nkosi has often disappeared from games over the last months, only to suddenly appear with one impressive run for a try. This happened twice in this game with 2 very well taken tries, while he finished with 67 metres made and 5 defenders beaten from 5 runs. For the Pumas, debutant Lucas Mensa did not appear overawed at all on his first debut, putting in a solid performance and almost scoring the winning try, while Castres stand-off Benjamín Urdapilleta appeared to bring more to the Argentine attack after his introduction.
While Urdapilleta took his chance well, starting fly half Joaquín Díaz Bonilla once again failed to get anything going in attack and also struggled to organise the team structure before he was replaced. Bautista Delguy has not made it back into the Argentina squad since his season was derailed by injury despite a number of tries in the Currie Cup for the Jaguares XV. With Sebastián Cancelliere starting and Santiago Carreras coming off the bench for his debut, it’s looking like Delguy could find himself on the wrong side of the cut when the 31-man World Cup squad is named. For the Boks, Thomas du Toit has fallen down the pecking order over the last 10 months and I don’t think there was much in this case to help his case, as he failed to replicate the scrum dominance that South Africa boasted last week, while a failed HIA for Marcell Coetzee harmed his chances of making it into a strong back row.
This season’s shorter Rugby Championship came to an end in Salta as Argentina hosted South Africa. Last week’s draw in New Zealand, combined with the All Blacks’ loss to Australia earlier in the day, left South Africa knowing that victory would see them win the tournament for the first time since the 2009 Tri Nations. Things didn’t start well for them, as Santiago Cordero dotted down within 2 minutes, but the Springboks turned things round to lead 13-22 at the break before holding the Pumas scoreless on the way to a 13-46 victory and the Rugby Championship crown.
On 6ᵗʰ July, the Jaguares were playing in the Super Rugby final. Just over a month later, the vast majority of those players are looking back at a Rugby Championship campaign that has finished winless. In Super Rugby they looked so dangerous but in recent weeks, they have struggled to get much going on a regular basis. I think that this comes down to one main thing: fatigue. Due to Argentina’s policy of only selecting home-based players when possible, that has limited the national team to picking the majority of their players from just 1 top flight team. This means that the majority of these players are coming off the back of a long Super Rugby season where they are having to regularly travel vast distances to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, while their replacements are in the exact same situation. Sadly, with the World Cup just around the corner, I think that the Pumas will need to keep picking strong squads in their warm-up matches to try building some momentum, which will lead to all of their top players going into the pool stages tired and likely to under-perform.
How can this be changed? Like Italy in the Pro 14, Argentina needs a second franchise in a top tier league. That way they can double the player base they can pick from, which will allow them to pick fresher players and increase the competition in the squad. The issues here? Well first of all, Super Rugby does not look to be in any position to take on a new franchise given they are in the process of cutting the Sunwolves, the Pro 14 may accommodate them but the travel would be ridiculous and the MLR is not anywhere near the level of the top-tier leagues at the moment, so an MLR franchise would more likely be a feeder for the Jaguares. If we imagine for a moment that Super Rugby did add a second Argentine franchise, we would then need to expect a decline in Argentina’s success in Super Rugby for a few seasons as a number of Jaguares players would likely move to the second franchise for more regular starts, so both teams would need to build up their depth.
It doesn’t look like there’s any easy fix, but as things stand it may be that the Pumas have reached their peak.
Last week I discussed how South Africa put in a solid but unspectacular performance to tie against New Zealand. While they had some moments to break out in this game, it was much more of the same from the Springboks, and I think they are better for it. The centre pairing of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am is shutting down some of the best attacking teams in World Rugby, the pack is looking dominant despite missing captain Siya Kolisi, and in Handré Pollard they have the perfect 10 for this style of play.
Pollard is a physical player who can hold his own in defence and attack, but more than that he is a player who will do the right thing on the ball. With players like Faf de Klerk in the team, he does not have the full weight of controlling the game on his shoulders and he is revelling in the chance to show his quality. Though he has his off days with the boot, he has a good range and finished this game with a haul of 31 points (2 tries, 3 conversions, 5 penalties). Jantjies gives a good option off the bench (with Pollard able to move to 12 if they want another playmaker) but Rassie Erasmus has to stick with the hot hand right now, and that is Handré Pollard.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
Despite playing outside Argentina, Santiago Cordero has been given the start in the last 2 matches and his try will have really helped him earn a seat on the plane to Japan. I recently suggested that Marcos Kremer could make the squad as cover at lock, and being given the start in the second row this weekend suggested that Ledesma is looking to do so. For the Springboks, Makazole Mapimpi will have appreciated the extra freedom to attack in this match and finished with a try, while Trevor Nyakane put in a strong performance in the scrums and completed all 15 of his tackles in defence.
With Bongi Mbonambi putting in a strong performance, Schalk Brits will likely be left hoping Rassie Erasmus chooses to take 3 hookers to Japan. As arguably one of the best 9s in the world, Faf de Klerk‘s poor performance won’t have cost him a place in the squad, but it may have put him under pressure from the in-form Herschel Jantjies. Given the strength in depth for the Pumas in the back 3, Ramiro Moyano will be hoping a quiet tournament doesn’t see him get overlooked if Bautista Delguy is fit, while Joaquín Díaz Bonilla may be a little nervous that Benjamín Urdapilleta was preferred for this game and managed to get some counterattacks going.
With club rugby over for another season, the thoughts of many fans have been turning towards the upcoming World Cup and the squads that their teams will be selecting. However, for the teams of the Rugby Championship, their focus has had to be initially on a shortened version of their annual tournament.
Despite coming 3rd at RWC2015, the loss to Japan in the pool stages meant that this was a roller-coaster of a tournament for them, which has continued over the following years, with a loss to Italy in 2016 and a 57-0 embarrassment at New Zealand some of the biggest low points. Though results still may not have gone their way, they have looked better since Rassie Erasmus replaced Allister Coetzee in the head coach role and have even had a couple of great results against the All Blacks. This is a team that look on the up.
As I have done with a number of other nations, I will be continuing my “Journey to RWC2019” series with predictions of each 31-man squad for the Rugby Championship teams, continuing today with the Springboks. With the Rugby Championship being so close to the World Cup, I am using the squads they have picked for this tournament as the basis for my squads, taking into account the performances from the first 2 rounds but also looking some notable names who are not included but could come into consideration. To remind you, this is not the squad that I would pick, but instead the squad that I think Rassie Erasmus will pick.
So without further ado, I predict that South Africa’s 31-man World Cup squad will be:
South Africa generally take 3 hookers to recent World Cups, so with Bismarck du Plessis left out of the Rugby Championship squad, this looks pretty easy to pick. Malcolm Marx is one of the best hookers in the world currently and when he is at the breakdown, it is like having another flanker on the pitch, while Bongi Mbonambi has been the go-to replacement for him. The final spot goes to Schalk Brits, who retired from rugby but ended up playing again for the Bulls this season and gives a different skill-set for the opposition to defend in open play.
Vincent Koch is a key part of the Saracens scrum and will split time at tighthead with Frans Malherbe. At loosehead, Tendai Mtawarira provides experience and Steven Kitshoff has quietly become one of the best at the position over the last couple of years. Thomas du Toit has dropped down the pecking order and now looks 4th choice at best at loosehead, behind Lizo Gqoboka, who started every Super Rugby match for the Bulls this season. However, I feel that both will miss out in favour of Trevor Nyakane, who started against Australia and came off the bench against the All Blacks.
With 4 locks likely to travel, it was pretty easy to narrow down the options here. Franco Mostert’s work rate is incredible and he will likely start at 5, while the 4 shirt probably belongs to Eben Etzebeth. RG Snyman has been the next man up of late, but Lood de Jager is a quality player who could push his way into the 23 and will surely make it on the plane to Japan as well.
As captain, Siya Kolisi is sure to travel, provided he recovers in time, while I think he would be joined in a 1st choice back row by Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit, who would also provide extra cover at lock. Francois Louw has continued to be a regular despite playing for Bath in recent seasons, while a strong performance in the number 8 shirt against Australia was a timely reminder of his versatility and surely confirmed his seat on the plane. Judging by previous squads that included just 5 back rowers, this leaves just 1 spot. Dan du Preez had a fantastic season before a rib injury ended it prematurely. Rynhardt Elstadt started against Australia, but I do not feel there was enough in his performance to earn him a space in the squad. Warren Whiteley has had a torrid season with injuries limiting him to just 4 Super Rugby appearances but has the experience his rivals lack (including having previously captained the team). Instead, I think that Kwagga Smith will go as his experience playing for the Blitzbokke provides a different style of play for a South African back rower, while he can also cover 8 as well as openside flanker.
3 scrum halves appears to be the norm recently for the Springboks at World Cups, and though it looked like Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier were being brought on for the World Cup, it looks like they have dropped down the pecking order at just the wrong time. Faf de Klerk has looked incredible since joining Sale and has worked his way not just back into the South Africa squad, but also the conversation for best 9 in the world. Cobus Reinach was also in the international code but was arguably the best 9 in the Premiership this season. Even before the Rugby Championship began this season, I felt that Herschel Jantjies had done enough to make it onto the plane as a 3rd option, but his performances against Australia and New Zealand now make me think that he will be pushing for significant playing time in the tournament.
Had he not been forced to retire, I imagine Pat Lambie would have come into the reckoning. However, with him unavailable and Sale-bound Robert du Preez not included in the Rugby Championship squad, it looks like Elton Jantjies and Handrè Pollard will travel to Japan as the 2 specialist 10s.
This was a very difficult selection to make, with 5 players (6 if you include Jan Serfontein who is currently injured but has been mentioned by Rassie Erasmus) fighting for probably no more than 4 spots. Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel have been the preferred pairing of late, so will surely travel. Frans Steyn has impressed off the bench in both Rugby Championship matches and his experience, versatility and monster boot off the tee lead me to believe that he will travel. With 2 inside centres also selected, it looks like André Esterhuizen will miss out following a poor performance against Australia, while outside centre Lukhanyo Am put in a great defensive performance against the All Blacks that likely cemented his place in the squad.
Aphiwe Dyantyi is one of the new stars coming through in South African rugby and has most likely earned a space in the XV, while Cheslin Kolbe and his lightning fast legs will surely travel even if he only makes the bench. Willie le Roux did not have the best of seasons in a struggling Wasps side, but I think his experience and playmaking ability will still earn him a call-up. If he can recover in time to prove himself, I expect Damian Willemse to travel and gain more experience for the future while also being an emergency cover at 10. The final spot goes to Makazole Mapimpi, who has been in fine try-scoring form over recent years and has been given the full 80 minutes – but not been given many chances to attack – in both Rugby Championship matches so far. If Willemse fails to sufficiently recover, Curwin Bosch would have been the obvious like-for-like replacement, but the inclusion of Steyn at centre and Bosch’s omission from the wider squad leads me to believe that they would rely on Kolbe and le Roux to cover 15 and instead select S’busiso Nkosi.
We reached the halfway point of this season’s Rugby Championship on Saturday (that’s a sad thought!) with a match between New Zealand and South Africa. The 2 teams will both be in Pool B at the World Cup, so while both teas were looking to test the depth of their squads in an attempt to pick the 31 men they take to Japan, both teams will have also wanted the psychological edge of a win over their rival.
In a match full of handling errors from the All Blacks, 2 South Africa penalties gave them an early lead, but a try for Jack Goodhue and Beauden Barrett’s conversion gave New Zealand a 7-6 lead at halftime. The game remained close throughout the second half and with the final play of the game Herschel Jantjies (on for much of the half following a failed HIA for Faf de Klerk) managed to collect a chip forward from Cheslin Kolbe to score out wide and Handrè Pollard slotted the conversion to secure a 16-16 tie. The All Blacks will more likely be concerned with the health of Brodie Retallick, however, as he suffered a dislocated shoulder that could put his World Cup in jeopardy.
Beauden Barrett had been the go-to fly half for New Zealand for a while now, but this match found him moved to fullback, while Richie Mo’unga took the 10 jersey. I really like this decision from Steve Hansen as I have been saying to my friends for a while that I would pick Mo’unga over Barrett as I find him a more reliable option, while moving Barrett to 15 keeps his playmaking ability on the park and arguably enhances it by giving him more space to work from, similar to what we were seeing with Damian McKenzie prior to his injury.
While Mo’unga had a shaky start with a couple of charged kicks, he grew into the game, while Barrett also had a strong game and got the assist for Goodhue’s try. What did surprise me though was the decision to give Barrett the kicking duties. Barrett has been the kicker for the All Backs on plenty of occasions so there is nothing new to learn there compared to Mo’unga. As it turns out, that decision arguably cost them the game as Barrett left 6 points on the field with 2 missed kicks that a top-level international kicker should be making, before being replaced off the tee by Mo’unga.
So often in the past, a team has needed to play the best match of their season and still require some luck to avoid losing in New Zealand. That was not the case here though, as South Africa put in a good workmanlike performance that I would describe as solid rather than spectacular.
With Faf de Klerk at the helm, they did a great job of keeping the All Blacks down their end of the pitch and putting them under pressure, with Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am doing a great job of stopping them making ground through the middle. Cheslin Kolbe is tiny by present international rugby standards but was anything but a pushover, completing 13 of his 15 attempted tackles – only Kwagga Smith (15/16) and Pieter-Steph du Toit (14/16) made more for the Springboks.
The set piece saw them largely keep parity with the number 1 team in the world, and watching the replacement props come on and immediately win a scrum penalty against New Zealand’s starting front row will have given the team a huge psychological boost with a crucial rematch in Japan just months away.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
If 2 tries on debut wasn’t good enough for Herschel Jantjies, he did not look like a player earning just his second cap against the All Blacks and scoring the crucial try at the death by beating opposite number Aaron Smith to the ball will have made it even sweeter. Off the back of these 2 performances it’s hard to imagine Rassie Erasmus not taking him to Japan. The starting pack for the Boks certainly looked like the first choice players minus injured captain Siya Kolisi, which seems to suggest that Kwagga Smith is being heavily considered for a spot in the squad. By being the team’s top tackler and also having some great moments on the ball and at the breakdown, he certainly didn’t do himself any harm. For the All Blacks, Shannon Frizell was given a shot in the number 6 shirt that currently seems up for grabs and certainly grew into the game, while one of his rivals for the place, Vaea Fifita, was probably given a better shot of making the squad by covering the second row position on the bench. Brodie Retallick’s hopes of making the plane depend on how quickly he can recover from his dislocated shoulder, while Scott Barrett is also currently missing through injury, which gives Fifita a great chance to prove himself as an option at lock to increase his chances of making it onto the plane.
The player whose World Cup hopes were hurt most (literally in this case) was arguably Brodie Retallick, who has suddenly gone from a definite starter to someone hoping he can recover in time to make it into the squad. Sonny Bill Williams is making his way back from injury and though he was involved in the try, he struggled to have any significant impact on the match and put his team on the front foot in the same way that Ngani Laumape has. Moving over to South Africa, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi both struggled at times in the lineout without providing as much as usual around the park, which could put them at risk if Schalk Brits can prove himself worthy of being first or second choice in the squad. Likewise, the success of Herschel Jantjies will put Cobus Reinach as risk if Rassie Erasmus decides to only take 2 scrum halves.
2019’s shorter-format Rugby Championship got underway on Saturday as South Africa hosted Australia in Johannesburg. The Wallabies had a poor 2018 and would have been hoping to get some momentum ahead of the World Cup, however things have not started well with the Springboks taking a 14-10 halftime lead , before pulling away for a final score of 35-17, with tries from Lood de Jager, S’busiso Nkosi, Cobus Reinach and a brace from debuting scrum half Herschel Jantjies.
Carlsberg don’t do Test rugby debuts, but if they did they would probably be similar to that of Herschel Jantjies. The diminutive Stormers halfback appears to have pulled ahead of the other South African-based scrum halves following a strong Super Rugby campaign and backed that up with a great performance here. Helped by a pack that generally kept him on the front foot, he barely looked phased by being on the big stage and scored 2 good tries – running a good supporting line off Nkosi for his first and taking advantage of an undefended 5m channel for his second – while he could have had another in between, only to be stopped just short.
Go back a couple of seasons and South Africa seemed to be really missing a quality 9, but suddenly they are spoiled for choice with Faf de Klerk currently one of the best in the world and Cobus Reinach back in the national team after being arguably the best int he Premiership at his position this season. Coming off the bench, Reinach showed that he was also ready to play at Test level for the first time since 2015 by keeping the ball moving quickly and even managed to cross for a try of his own.
It may be that Rassie Erasmus was considering taking 3 scrum halves to Japan anyway, but on these performance he may just decide to do so in order to avoid a selection headache.
I can’t imagine things changing this close to the World Cup, but I can’t see Australia having too good of a record this year with Michael Cheika at the helm.
Taniela Tupou’s yellow card was clear as day. It came after the whistle was blown, there was no attempt to wrap his arms around Rynhard Elstadt, it’s questionable whether he came through the (oft ignored these days) gate to enter the breakdown and he clearly didn’t attempt to keep his feet while doing so. It was a brainless infringement – especially considering Australia had just won the scrum – and he can honestly consider himself lucky that he made contact with Elstadt’s chest rather than head or a red would have been a no-brainer. And yet Cheika still came out questioning the quality of referee Paul Williams instead of his team’s awful performance.
I’ve had questions over some of his selections in the back line for a while and this match proved no different, as the backs struggled to put anything together for much of the match. Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty had awful games and Tom Banks was barely involved as the midfield struggled to create anything for them. Things improved once Matt To’omua and Kurtley Beale came on, which I really think is down to Foley having a second playmaker on the pitch to help him break down the defence. Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani are both quality centres but did not work well together in this team. It will be interesting to see if Cheika pairs one of the two (in my opinion, Kerevi) with a second playmaker in the centre for their next match.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
While Herschel Jantjies was one of the clear winners here in terms of pushing for a space on the plane to Japan, he was not the only one. Francois Louw rolled back the years with a strong performance, while also giving a timely reminder that he can cover the number 8 position while Warren Whiteley tries to get himself fit in time for the tournament. Isi Naisarani and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto put in good performances but their impact was hampered by a tight 5 that struggled to gain parity with their opposite numbers. Coming off the bench, Frans Steyn reminded fans of his quality with a strong cameo, carrying the ball more than André Esterhuizen had and for double the metres, while he also appeared to get the back line looking more cohesive.
As if Steyn’s impressive cameo wasn’t bad enough for André Esterhuizen, his own performance was pretty poor, with a series of mistakes and minimal impact running the ball, while in defence he struggled to deal with Samu Kerevi. Warrick Gelant‘s kicking was poor and his running was often aimless and sideways. As I mentioned above, if I was adding a playmaker into the Australian centre, I would pair them with Kerevi, who brought his Super Rugby form into this match, whereas Tevita Kuridrani struggled to impact the game. Perhaps the most unfortunate though was substitute hooker Jordan Uelese, who is fighting to be backup to Folau Fainga’a but found himself coming off just minutes after his introduction due to a head injury. Hopefully he gets another chance in the coming matches.
The Autumn Tests came to a close for most teams this week, but there was still much on the line. England and Australia both knew that a victory would go a long way to making a poor 2018 look better, but the Wallabies looked second-best throughout the match. The USA’s run of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018 eventually came to an end against the Irish, but they made it a contest and have reached their highest ever position in the World Rankings as a result. The result of the weekend though belonged to Fiji, whose win over the French on Saturday night saw them leapfrog France and Argentina into 8ᵗʰ place.
The Week 4 results were:
France 14-21 Fiji
Ireland 57-14 USA
Wales 20-11 South Africa
England 37-18 Australia
Scotland 14-9 Argentina
Japan 32-27 Russia
Italy 3-66 New Zealand
Spain 10-28 Samoa
Georgia 20-9 Tonga
Romania 20-27 Uruguay
England have generally had an advantage over the Wallabies in the pack, but with Australia having improved in threat department and England missing so many starters (and replacements in some cases!) it would have been understandable if Australia had the edge there this week. They didn’t. Ben Moon has well and truly taken his chance this autumn and may have put himself in contention for a trip to Japan next year as he looks to have replace the now-retired Joe Marler as England’s best scrummager at loose-head. Meanwhile Kyle Sinckler put in a stunning performance and has surely guaranteed himself the number 3 shirt for the 6 Nations. Mark Wilson continued to put in strong performances and I think he could conceivably find himself starting at 6 next time England play. 2018 was not a good year for England on the whole, but the performances that some of the players have put in when given the chance this November has suddenly given fans some hope that things may be getting back on the right track for a strong World Cup campaign.
Having been unable to watch Australia face Italy last week, I was interested to see how a midfield with Matt Toomua at 10 and Bernard Foley at 12 would function. To say that Foley was anonymous for most of the match is an understatement as his 2 main impacts on the game were missing a despairing tackle on Elliot Daly as he went past for a try and his grubber kick to put Israel Folau over in the corner at the end of the match. While I am beginning to think Cheika has the right idea with Folau at 15 and Haylett-Petty on the wing (Folau appears to cut more effective lines entering the line late than Haylett-Petty), he still seems to be struggling to organise the rest of the back line, which is leading to an incoherent mess. If Australia want to have any chance of reaching another World Cup final next year, they need to sort something out quick!
Wales’ gameplan appeared to change the moment Dan Biggar stepped on to the pitch. After a game where they had been spreading the ball well and causing the Springboks across the park, suddenly the game devolved into kicking the ball back to South Africa and surviving another onslaught with their staunch defence. While Biggar and his back 3 – especially George North – caused the Boks problems as they tried to collect the high ball, it put so much pressure on the Welsh defence and against a team playing better that could have proved fatal. Dan Biggar is undoubtedly a talented player and a clutch goal kicker, but I do not think his style of play matches the style that Wales are trying to play. For me, Gareth Anscombe has nailed down the 10 shirt – even if he did miss a few kicks to touch – and it is now up to Warren Gatland to decide if he wants Rhys Patchell or Dan Biggar on the bench, though Patchell’s ability to play 15 will likely see both of them on the plane to Japan.
I’ve often heard the phrase “earning the right to go wide” but I can’t remember a match where the need to do that was more obvious than in this one. Too often South Africa were looking to spread the ball wide early in their possession without the forwards having dragged in defenders or any backs running effective dummy lines. In fact, they were often throwing a miss pass to the winger, which allowed the defence to drift across. They are a team clearly building back to their best, but they need to learn to control the game better regardless of the personnel on the pitch if they are to become more consistent.
Scottish rugby has been so exciting in recent years, but when I saw this back line announced to face an attacking team like the Pumas I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the weather gods were not on our side and rain early in the first half denied us the expansive game we were hoping for. Personally, I like the look of a back 3 including both Hogg and Kinghorn as they are both such impressive players and with them both being fullbacks, it gives Scotland solidity under the high ball while also a great option to attack the high ball and try to win it back. Russell, Hastings and Hogg are all such great playmakers and controllers of the game with a range of passes and kicks and the legs to run it themselves, so having all three of them on the pitch at the same time could make it so hard for opposition teams to defend against them. I’m not sure if Russell and Jones is the best centre partnership defensively, especially in matches where the pack is not the most phyical, but I would love to see it used again in the 6 Nations to see how it can workout, with Alex Dunbar on the bench in case they need to improve their defensive solidity.
I’ve got to admit, I’ve been really disappointed by the Argentinian’s attacking tactics during this tour. During the Rugby Championship, their attacking play through their backs was ripping through teams, however over recent weeks, the back 3 stars of Boffelli, Delguy and Moyano have had limited opportunities to attack and in this game, Nicolás Sánchez continually put boot to ball and forced the Scots to show their composure under the high ball with mixed results. I think that this is a team currently set to compete against more attack-minded teams like the rest of the Rugby Championship, while against Tier 1 teams who focus on a solid defence, as you find with most 6 Nations teams, they do not yet have the quality in their overall game to threaten the line as well.
The Irish are developing such depth in their squad! It’s fair to say that as things stand, only Garry Ringrose, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne would be in contention for a place in the first choice starting XV, yet all the players who featured suggested that they would be more than capable of coming into that team and doing a good job. The pack may have had some issues against the American lineout in the first half, but they were too strong for the Eagles at the scrum and the entire team pounded away mercilessly for 80 minutes both in attack and defence, eventually grinding the tiring Eagles down enough for the back line to cut them apart as the game wore on. The incredible defensive efforts and ball-control tactics, combined with the depth they have developed in their squad is why Ireland are currently my favourites for the World Cup.
I never thought that the USA had a chance of winning this game, such is the strength of Ireland, but they came out the blocks so well and did better than the 24-14 halftime score suggests. The move at the lineout that saw them initially set up a maul but then get the ball back to Joe Taufete’e who had remained on the touchline to rampage into the 22 was really good to see and he reacted well to the poor tackling technique to go over for a try. Perhaps even more beautiful, but in a slightly different way, was the driving maul that resulted in a penalty try. In Taufete’e, Manoa and (currently injured) AJ MacGinty, the Eagles have some great talent to build the team around and the success that they have had this season will surely help get more Americans into the sport.
After what I feel should have been a Man of the Match performance against England, Michael Leitch saved Japan at Kingsholm on Saturday. The Japanese had played so well against England but struggled to reach the same heights against Russia. Leitch’s tries came at crucial times, with his first coming after a strong Russian start had the Brave Blossoms 3-16 down, while his second try with just 8 minutes left proved to be the match-winner. Japan need to make sure their talismanic captain stays fit if they want to have some degree of success when they host the World Cup.
Yuri Kushnarev is one of the stars of this Russian team, so to see him go off during the first half could have been a huge loss for the Bears. However Ramil Gaisin did a great job off the bench and gave his team every chance to win. He ran the back line well and did a great job of pegging Japan back with some of his kicks, while his cross-kick to hooker Stanislav Sel’skiy for his try was inch-perfect. Now I’ll be completely honest and say that I don’t know much about Russian rugby, so I have had to rely on Wikipedia a bit here and I noticed that Gaisin is listed as a fullback on the national team’s page. Vasily Artemyev is a great player but he did not look comfortable at fullback, especially when forced to kick, so I think it would benefit Russia to promote Gaisin to 15 and move Artemyev back to the wing while Kushnarev stays at 10. With 7s star Vladimir Ostroushko playing well at 13, the Bears have the making of a good back line that could cause opponents unseen problems at the World Cup.
This was not a good match for Les Bleus. The pack did well on their own scrum and in the lineouts, while captain Guilhem Guirado was the scorer of both tries on the night. However, the back line struggled to have a positive impact on the game. The back three were limited in attack and the centre pairing of Gaël Fickou and Mathieu Bastareaud were almost anonymous in this game. The French back line has to play so much better if they are to be competitive against other Tier 1 nations and the first thing is stability. With Camille Lopez and Matthieu Jalibert having both missed considerable time this year (Jalibert’s injury in his 6 Nations debut ended last season and he suffered another injury in preseason with Bordeaux) and that has seen the national team run though a number of options at 10, while the 9 jersey has also been a competition between Morgan Parra (due to start this match until he was injured), Baptiste Serin, Antoine Dupont and Sébastien Bézy. Less than a year out from the world Cup, finding consistency in your halfbacks is key and that is what France need to do going into 2019 is narrow down their selections and stick to the same players when possible. In my eyes, Lopez, Serin and Parra should be nailed onto the World Cup squad, as should Jalibert if he can get himself fit and perform as he did before his injuries. I would also take Dupont as a third scrum half option to keep things fresh in a dangerous pool, as Parra could (if needed) move to 10 as he has in the past – it may not be a natural it, but he has played there before at international level and has the skills to control the game.
Last week I was saying how Fiji need to play against a competitor who will force them to play a more structured game. France were that team and so it was great to see how a more structured Fijian approach would look. What stood out to me was the lack of a kicking game from the halfbacks. Neither Frank Lomani nor Ben Volavola were looking to play a tactical kicking game, and while it did not cost them in this game, against better defences they will struggle if they are always trying to play the ball out of their own half. Equally costly could be their discipline. The Fijians had 2 tries cancelled out on the night and while Semi Radradra’s picking up of the ball from an offside position was an easy mistake to make, Tevita Cavubati’s late hit on Yoann Huget was just stupid and unnecessary. With Australia, Wales, Georgia and Uruguay as their opponents in Pool D of the World Cup, Fiji could come anywhere in the top 4 of this pool (sorry Uruguay) and improving their tactical kicking and discipline could be just what they need to make it into the top 2.
Week 3 is in the book and if we’re being honest, there’s only one result everyone is talking about. Ireland shocked the world when they beat New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 and they did it again at the weekend in front of a raucous Irish crowd at the Aviva Stadium. Away from this match, a number of Tier 1 nations gave the fringe players a run-out this weekend as they played nations a little lower in the rankings, with mixed results.
The Week 3 results were:
France 28-13 Argentina
Ireland 16-9 New Zealand
Chile 0-73 Maori All Blacks
Scotland 20-26 South Africa
England 35-15 Japan
Wales 74-24 Tonga
Italy 7-26 Australia
Georgia 27-19 Samoa
Uruguay 7-68 Fiji
Before we get into my thoughts, a quick thank you to my colleague and fellow rugby not Phil, who abandoned me for a trip to Twickenham this weekend but made up for it by sending me the photos you will see today and a few others that you will see in later posts.
With less than a year until the World Cup, a number of (largely fringe) players were given a chance against Japan to improve their odds of selection. Come full time, new cap Joe Cokanasiga was the only player from the starting XV to come away with a heightened reputation. Danny Care is so often a danger off the bench but once again he struggled to have the same positive impact from the start, as did Alec Hepburn and Harry Williams. Elliot Daly continues to struggle under the high ball in this series, Alex Lozowski made a crucial tackle to stop Michael Leitch but also missed a number of crucial tackles and did not bring anything to the attack. Once again George Ford showed that he is unable to effectively lead an international back line without Owen Farrell outside him to take the pressure off him. Meanwhile, Zach Mercer was treated awfully by being pulled for Dylan Hartley during Jamie George’s sin bin and then getting subbed early in the 2nd half.
I expect the line-up against Australia will be very similar to what we saw against South Africa and New Zealand. So the question then becomes “what should be done in the 6 Nations?” Personally I think that if Eddie Jones plans to take Farrell and just one other out-and-out 10 to Japan, then George Ford has proved he is not the man and Danny Cipriani needs to be given a realistic chance to earn a spot in the squad. I would love to see Chris Ashton or Jack Nowell given the chance at 15 against Australia as the Wallabies are bound to target us with high balls for Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty to chase.
Obviously England are missing a number of top players and don’t want to peak too far ahead of the World Cup, but right now I struggle to see how this team will be competitive in the latter stages of the tournament… if they get that far.
I understand why Man of the Match is almost always given to a player from the winning team, but it was a travesty that Michael Leitch did not win the award for this match. The Japan captain was everywhere on the pitch and led his team from the front. He was involved in many of their best moments and scored a try where he broke a number of (admittedly poor) English tackles before stepping inside Elliot Daly. Japanese rugby may not have stepped on as much as some would have hoped since the last World Cup, but with players like Leitch there to inspire them, things will hopefully improve in the coming years.
Not many teams can say they have a defence coach who has beaten the All Blacks. Ireland however can boast a defence coach in Andy Farrell who has beat them 4 times (with England in 2012, with Ireland this weekend and in 2016 and the 2nd Lions Tests in 2017) and drawn once (2017 Lions Tour 3rd Test). Andy Farrell has done a wonderful job of teaching his teams to front up at the breakdown and keep their discipline in defence. For Chris Robshaw in 2012, see Peter O’Mahony in 2018, the Munster skipper is a perfect representation of what Farrell is looking for from his back row. Meanwhile Johnny Sexton and Kieran Marmion (who arguably had his best match in an Irish shirt on Saturday night) did a wonderful job of controlling the game and the defence refused to give an inch and worked as a pack, forcing New Zealand to have the ball where they don’t want it. If you want to see how to beat the All Blacks, take a look at Farrell’s work.
I’ve been saying for a while now that New Zealand have looked beatable and boy did they look it on Saturday night! Under heavy pressure from the Irish defence, players were making uncharacteristic errors. Beauden Barrett has not had the best of seasons in my view and in this match his threat was almost completely nullified, while even Damian McKenzie struggled to positively impact the game. Ardie Savea is a talented player but it is clear that this team are missing Sam Cane at the breakdown. The All Blacks can arguably consider themselves fortunate to not find themselves with a man in the bin as they gave a number of penalties away in and around their 22, but Wayne Barnes was lenient towards both teams’ indiscretions in this match. With just one match against Italy remaining, I will be shocked if Richie Mo’unga is not given a starting spot as it is becoming clear that they need to look at their options beyond Barrett ahead of the World Cup. They have chopped and changed a number of players in 2018 – their strength in depth is incredible – but I feel that entering 2019, Steve Hansen needs to start narrowing down and looking at the players he will take to Japan and working on the combinations. They may look beatable right now, but actually doing so is still a challenge and it won’t take much for them to peak in time for another tournament.
As much as Uruguay struggled to be competitive in this game, there were some good moments from them and a suggestion that, given the right chances, they could become more competitive. As such, I was thrilled to hear during the commentary that almost half of their squad are set to compete in the upcoming season of the MLR. While obviously some way off the level of the top leagues, this is still a great way for Uruguay to benefit as the players will be facing a higher standard of competition weekly. Potentially they could look to enter their own expansion team in the future, similar to how Canada have the Toronto Arrows as of this season and make the MLR develop into a truly American league.
No offence to Uruguay, but I don’t really see what Fiji really gained from this choice of opposition. With 8 places between the teams in World Rugby’s ranking system, there was a clear gulf in quality despite Fiji resting a number of players and giving players from the NRC team Fijian Drua a run-out on the international stage. We know how good Fiji are in an open game and unfortunately the Uruguayans could not give them enough opposition to make them work on a more cohesive performance. I feel that Fiji should be looking to arrange matches with teams that will force them to play a more structure style as this is going to be key to the national team moving up the rankings. Just take a look at the nations ranked higher than them following this weekend:
Fiji are putting together a group of players that can equal these teams and arguably play better rugby than some of them (looking your way Eddie Jones!) but the one thing they lack right now is the ingrained structure that they can build a match around to ensure they are playing in the right areas of the pitch. To quote Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious: “It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning”. Fiji now need an opponent that will teach them the importance of keeping the scoreboard ticking over force them to take their structured game to the next level.
Like England, Wales made wholesale changes to their starting line-up this week for the visit of Tonga. Unlike England, most of the players given a chance in this match showed they deserved to be playing on the international stage. One intercepted pass aside, Tomos Williams looked good at scrum half and Aled Davies also impressed off the bench, including finishing off one of the tries of the month. Even if Rhys Webb comes back to Wales, he’s going to have some competition for his place in the national squad. Dan Biggar had a solid game but for me still kicked too much (thought they were more attacking cross-kicks, which is an improvement), but Rhys Patchell also did a great job of bringing the back line into the game. Jonah Holmes was solid at 15 on his debut (but I imagine Liam Williams will take the 15 shirt in Leigh Halfpenny’s absence this weekend), Steff Evans was at his best in a free-flowing attacking game and the centre pairing of Owen Watkin and Tyler Morgan showed that there is some depth developing in the midfield and Wales may not have to rely so heavily on Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies. In the forwards, Jake Ball put in a timely performance to remind everyone of his credentials, while Aaron Wainwright and Seb Davies were wonderful throughout and Ellis Jenkins continued to cement himself as my latest man-crush while showing himself as a more than international captain. I don’t expect many of these players will feature against South Africa this weekend, but as the World Cup draws near they have done a good job of pushing themselves into contention for a seat on the plane.
After a poor start not helped by a harsh yellow card mere minutes into the game, Tonga did a stellar job to get back into the match in the 2nd quarter and draw the scores level soon after halftime. However, their higher average age showed in the second half as Wales’ fresher youngsters ran away with things, leaving a scoreline that did not do the islanders justice. Tonga’s issue right now is that too many of their top players are reaching their twilight years and not enough of the new generation are playing in the top leagues. Sione Vailanu looked great but he will not be a regular in the Saracens back row, while many of the players in the Southern Hemisphere will play in the Mitre 10 Cup or the NRC but not the Premiership. Tonga need to get more players into top level competition if they want to remain competitive in the foreseeable future. How can they do that? I have some ideas, which would benefit not just them but all the Pacific Island teams and I will look to write about that in the coming weeks.
Watching Scotland in recent years, I have loved the way that they have been willing to try something slightly different to catch teams out in a game. In last year’s 6 Nations, they left the Irish pack looking stupid after putting Alex Dunbar in the lineout and throwing straight to him to run over from 5 metres out. Their latest lineout try was a little more conventional (it was actually scored by a forward this time) but no less clever. The movement forward of front man Gordon Reid and the lift of Ben Toolis by the front pod left a wonderful gap for Hamish Watson (standing in the conventional scrum half position) to run into to receive the throw and go over for a try. Add to that the incredible decision to set up a maul in the middle of the field during open phase play – a ploy which saw the Scots push the Springboks back. A team cannot rely on gimmicks to win games, but Scotland under Vern Cotter and now Gregor Townsend have done a wonderful job of playing smart rugby while also making it attractive and adding in the occasional clever ploy to catch the defence off guard. I can’t wait to see what they have in store when we reach the World Cup!
The more I watch South Africa this season, the more I think they need Pat Lambie. Elton Jantjies has an incredible skill-set but I do not see him as a reliable 10 at international level and wonder if he would benefit from a move to 12 similar to Kurtley Beale. Meanwhile Handré Pollard is a more reliable option in general play but his kicking off the tee can be questionable. Meanwhile, it is likely too close to the World Cup for Damian Willemse to earn the 10 jersey, unless one of the more experienced fly halves would play outside him. It’s going to be very hard to reach the top without a consistent and reliable 10. If Rassie Erasmus can sort this, then I think this team is very close tot he finished article.
Argentina managed to get more ball to their electric back 3 this week compared to against Ireland last week. However they still struggled to have the impact they would want on the game as France were so disciplined at keeping their defensive line spread wide to ensure Ramiro Moyano, Bautista Delguy and Emiliano Boffelli had minimal space to work their magic in. The French have an annoying knack of peaking just in time for the World Cup, it looks like they’re building towards it again.
The Pumas can be great to watch, but they can also be infuriating. One moment that stuck in my mind from this game was an Argentinian scrum in their own 22. The Pumas have struggled somewhat with the scrum this year, but in this scrum they got the push on against the French. Then they ruined everything by not listening to the referee’s instructions to use the ball, resulting in the scrum being reset with turnover ball. It is criminal to give away the ball at a set piece in your own 22 and it was only a great tackle by Nicolás Sánchez that allowed Argentina to get the ball back and clear their lines. They surprised the world when they reached the semi-finals of RWC2015 at Ireland’s expense, but they need to cut out stupid mistakes like this if they are to reach the semis again.