Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 3

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 3

We are now halfway through the tournament and I think we can give the title to New Zealand. Despite resting a number of players – allowing 2 payers to make their first starts and another to come off the bench for his debut – and losing 2 stars to injury in the opening 10 minutes, the All Blacks face of against a Pumas team that player really well… and still won by 22 points! Meanwhile, Australia had to contend with some late withdrawals and a halftime deficit to score the only points of the second half and get the win.


New Zealand 46-24 Argentina

I wrote recently about the incredible strength in depth the All Blacks have. This match was a prefect example. They lost starters Brodie Retallick and Ngani Laumape to injury within the first 10 minutes and were also without Ben Smith at that point as he went through the HIA process. Despite this, they still managed to come away with a convincing win in their first ever game at Trafalgar Park. As well as some regular bench warmers being given starts – most notably Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea and TJPerenara – Steve Hansen also handed first starts to flanker Shannon Frizell and fly half Richie Mo’unga.

Despite a shaky start – he missed his first penalty to touch – and the early loss of Laumape outside him, Mo’unga had an assured match, kicking 6/7 shots at goal for a personal haul of 14 point while showing a good range of passes and almost sending Jack Goodhue over for a try with a lovely popped pass, which led to Perenara’s try on the next phase. It currently appears that he is competing with Damian McKenzie for the role of Beauden Barrett’s backup. Personally, I’m not a fan of McKenzie at 10 as I feel that he is not able to play the structure game anywhere near as well as he is able to exploit the space by playing 15, so I would love to see Mo’unga given the 10 jersey for the next 3 Tests to give him every chance to grow into the position.

As for Frizell, he was arguably the star of the show. As well as making 16 tackles, the Highlander made 91 metres off 16 carries and was heavily involved in a number of tries (as well as scoring one!) with his strong runs and also his deft hands to play the pivot role in the critical phase that put Nehe Milner-Skudder over in the corner. At just 24 years old, this guy looks to be the future of the 6 jersey and the long-term replacement for Jerome Kaino. Liam Squire has done well at the position and is a more experienced player, but I feel that Frizell had more of an impact on this match than Squire has been having. I would be shocked if Frizell is not the regular starter moving forward.

 

Argentina played a wonderful game. They played some beautiful rugby. They scored some beautiful tries. They lost by 22 points. One of the few areas where the Pumas really struggled in this game was the scrum. Despite not an early change in the second row and Joe Moody being missing, the All Blacks were dominant and Karl Tu’inukuafe especially had success during the game.

Now Argentina certainly wouldn’t have been helped by the loss of Juan Figallo, who is now out until 2019 following an injury playing for Saracens – honestly, the fact that Premiership players are flying all the way back to play for their clubs during rest weeks is ridiculous! – but I don’t think this was all down to just him being missing. Watching the game, I noticed on Twitter some people had noticed the odd way the second rows were binding. Rather than binding with the prop in front through their legs, they were binding on the prop’s outside him. I’ve never tried binding like this but having spent much of my time in the tight five, I can’t see how this knits the scrum together better than the usual binding. With Australia looking good in the scrums this weekend, Argentina need to do some work in practice this week to ensure they can keep things close.


Australia 23-18 South Africa

Following the victory, captain Michael Hooper talked about his team’s resilience to get the victory in this match. Following the initial team announcement, the Wallabies had star David Pocock pull out ahead of the day with a neck injury suffered in Round 2, then Israel Folau and Adam Coleman were announced as also having withdrawn closer to the match.

In the match itself, the team put their issues behind them and put in a dogged defensive display, stopping South Africa from crossing the try line on a number of visits to the 22. Their attack was by no means perfect with Kurtley Beale shifted to 10 and Toomua brought in at 12, but they did enough to hold on for the victory. Special mention needs giving to Taniela Tupou. The Tongan Thor appeared to be injured following a collapsed scrum that left him on his back – having played tight head for years I hate to imagine the shapes his body made to get in that position – yet despite such visible discomfort he held his own an a series of 5m scrums at the death as the Wallabies held on for the win. Having seen the replays of the collapse and the discomfort he was in, I was certain he would have to come off so to see him make it to the end highlighted the resilience of this team on the day. Add back players like Pocock and Folau and get the attack working better, this team can quickly jump to the next level.

 

As resilient as Australia’s defence were, South Africa’s inability to cross the whitewash was costly. After a couple of indifferent matches, Handre Pollard was dropped to the bench and Elton Jantjies given a shot at 10. I have been very clear previously that I am not a fan of Jantjies at all so maybe I am being a bit harsh, but I don’t remember him doing much that had a positive impact on the game – other than his kicks at goal. Though the commentary praised his attempted cross-kick to Aphiwe Dyantyi under penalty advantage, he should have been putting the ball into the in-goal area rather than ahead of the line, which allowed Dane Haylett-Petty the opportunity to come forwards onto the ball and make the catch, while he also put a poor grubber kick over the dead ball line when the Springboks had a spell of pressure 5m out. While I’ve argued for Pollard’s inclusion over that of Janjies, right now I don’t know if either is the right option, so I would suggest another option to Rassie Erasmus.

With just 1 win from 3 and 2 games remaining against New Zealand, I would recommend putting in Damian Willemse at 10, and supporting him by going for Pollard at 12 as a second playmaker. The two of them in midfield, combined with Willie le Roux at 15, could form a devastating triangle of playmakers and finally allow the team to get the best out of their back line. That may be a lot to ask with home and away fixtures coming up against the All Blacks but I think at this point, the most important thing is developing the right players and finding the right squad, so I would go with this regardless of the result as long as the performances are good. Let’s be honest, nobody is beating the Kiwis anytime soon!


 

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 2

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 2

We may only be a third of the way through the tournament, but it would take a brave/foolish person to bet against New Zealand winning another title again. On the occasion of Owen Franks’ 100th Tests cap, the All Blacks romped away to a 40-12 victory over Australia to Ensure they keep hold of the Bledisloe Cup for another year, while Argentina got their first win under Mario Ledesma at home to South Africa.


New Zealand 40-12 Australia

Despite having considerably less registered players than England, South Africa and France (according to World Rugby’s latest data), the depth of the all Blacks has been incredible! Though they have been far from perfect, they have ran out comfortable victors both weeks against Australia. Even crazier is that they are doing this with Scott Barrett – probably their star player in the Summer Tests – back on the bench now that Brodie Retallick has returned. The loss of Ryan Crotty last week has not seemed to have an impact on the team as Jack Goodhue has been impressive at 13, while Ngani Laumape (who was not even in the original squad) had an increasing impact on the game as the match went on. Reiko Ioane was barely missed either, as Ben Smith moved to the win and Jordie Barrett deputised at fullback. Even crazier is that Richie Mo’unga, who has just led the Crusaders to back-to-back Super Rugby titles, has not even made the matchday 23 for either of the last 2 matches! Even with Julian Savea now out of the picture, stars like Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ben Lam are unable to make the 23 either! Even Dane Coles could struggle to get his place back in the starting XV once he is available, such has been the form of Codie Taylor – though a bit more reliability is needed currently in the lineout. I wrote last week about Australia possibly coming undone with a couple of injuries to key players; I can’t see this happening any time soon with New Zealand.

Looking at the Australia 23 on paper, that is a strong squad. Despite Israel Folau’s absence, there is plenty of skill and experience in a back line containing Will Genia, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beala Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete. In the forwards, Australia have 2 of the best jackals currently in rugby in the form of experienced duo Michael Hooper and David Pocock and a good blend of youth and experience. And yet for all this, they never looked to have a shot of winning once we got into the second half. They conceded 6 tries on the day but it could have been so much worse as Beauden Barrett had a try disallowed for a knock-on in the build-up, a forward pass from Laumape denied Waisake Naholo a late try and a wonderful last-ditch tackle from Foley put Jordie Barrett into touch just short of the line.

It just felt like there was something wrong with the system Australia were playing. 13 is such a difficult position to play defensively and Reece Hodge was caught out on a number of occasions in only his 2nd Test match in that position. Kurtley Beale also began struggling against Laumape in the second half. Yet despite this, Matt Toomua was kept on the bench until the 65th minute, by which point the game was over. Australia also butchered one of the biggest ovrlaps I’ve seen after winning the ball back on the New Zealand line in the left corner, hitting it up through the forwards for multiple phases when there had been 7 men free outside New Zealand’s widest defender Brodie Retallick. Something really needs changing ahead of the next round and I would suggest starting Toomua. The Leicester centre is a more physical player than Beale, and has a range of kicking and passing to be an effective playmaker in midfield. If Folau is still unavailable for the next game, Cheika could do much worse than moving Hodge to the wing in place of Jack Maddocks (who was largely anonymous in his first start) and bringing Toomua into the centre.


Argentina 32-19 South Africa

Argentina are back! They have looked so much better under Ledesma in the last 2 weeks than they did under Hourcade in the summer. Nicolas Sanchez looked a shadow of the player we know him to be against Wales and Scotland, but he ran things for the Pumas in this match and had a full house of try, conversion, penalty and drop goal by half time on the way to a personal tally of 17 points in this match. With Sanchez impressing, the back line are firing on all cylinders again, with them working overlaps for Ramiro Moyano’s try and both of Bautista Delguy’s. They are by no means perfect yet and were let off by South Africa on a number of occasions, but the signs of improvement are clear and by the World Cup they could be a real threat again.

After a number of improvements under Rassie Erasmus, this match was a real step back for the Springboks. They completed only 64% of their tackles as they were frequently caught out when Argentina spread the ball wide. In attack, they missed some great chances, with Lukhanyo Am’s forward pass denying Aphiwe Dyantyi a try, while I found myself yelling at the screen when Faf de Klerk looked for a runner to an empty blind side to the left of a ruck, only to have to go back to the open side as nobody else reacted to the opportunity. There were some wonderful moments in attack, often from de Klerk and Willie le Roux again, but they just weren’t accurate enough. Add to that Eben Etzebeth’s yellow card for cynically slowing down a breakdown on the South African line and they were always up against it against an Argentina side that seemed to grow in confidence following 2 quick tries. Handre Pollard appears to be the best option at 10, but his goal kicking has been unreliable so far this tournament and I would recommend giving de Klerk kicking duties and allowing Pollard to focus on the rest of the game. I would love to see Damian Willemse given some starts at 10 with Pollard outside him at 12, but considering Argentina would usually be considered the 2 easiest matches, I think this tournament will be more about establishing the best XV and then using the Autumn Internationals to give less experienced players a chance.


Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 1

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 1

The 7th edition of the annual Rugby Championship got underway this weekend and I doubt it will shock anyone to see New Zealand take an early lead in the tournament. The All Blacks may not be at their strongest but this is still a team that looks likely to finish the tournament undefeated. They played against an Australian team who handed debuts off the bench to Jermaine Astley and Jack Maddocks, while also welcoming back Premiership starts Tatafu Polota-Nau and Matt Toomua. Following a recent change in selection criteria, Saracens’ Juan Figallo was also back in action, playing for an Argentinian team entering a new era with Mario Ledesma at the helm, while Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux also continued their run in the South Africa team that started against England, joined once again by Bath’s Francois Louw.

 


Australia 13-38 New Zealand

Are Australia relying too much on the same players? I was thinking during the match that Bernard Foley has become an ever-present in this team recently and, with Quade Cooper out of the picture, I was struggling to pick who would be second choice behind him. Israel Folau is another player who is an ever-present when fit and I can’t help but wonder if the lack of variation in the playing squad could come back to haunt them come the World Cup, especially when you see New Zealand spreading appearances around a selection of players. It appears that my thoughts were timely as Folau limped off injured and it has since been announced that he will be missing he reverse at Eden Park.

So what are the options at 10 and 15? Well I think the most obvious options at 10 were the guys playing just outside Foley at the weekend: Kurtley Beale and Reece Hodge. Beale has the all-round skill-set to play at 10 but I think he thrives a bit further out at international level. Reece Hodge’s long-range kicking will always keep him in or around this starting line-up due to Foley’s limited range. With his versatility, he has become the Adam Ashley-Cooper of the team, playing wherever he is needed, but I think he and the Wallabies could benefit from him moving to the fly half position, where he has been playing regularly for Melbourne Rebels. He is strong enough to defend the 10 channel so would not have to be hidden on the wing in defence like Foley was on Saturday, while there would not be much of a drop in kicking percentages as he is solid off the tee with a larger range. Moving him to 10 would also allow Beale/Toomua to be partnered in midfield by Samu Kerevi/Tevita Kuridrani to give the balance of playmaking and strong running, while also allowing Cheika to continue picking specialist players in the back 3. At 15, the obvious choice would be Dane Haylett-Petty, who has deputised there during Folau’s previous absences, but Jack Maddocks looked good on his debut and Beale could again be a danger picking his lines from further back. There are plenty of options available and while I appreciate nobody wants to lose a Bledisloe Cup match, there are only a handful of matches remaining before the World Cup. Previous World Cups have seen teams suffer multiple injuries all at the same position – think back to Stephen Donald’s appearance on the bench in the 2011 final. I’m sure Michael Cheika would rather be able to turn to seasoned veterans than a bunch of rookies.

As much as I expect New Zealand to remain unbeaten, they looked anything but unbeatable at the weekend. Their lineout was turned over far too often and the number of handling errors was unbelievable. And yet they still won comfortably, scoring 6 tries in the process. The reason: they were clinical when the chances appeared. Their opener came from a simple missed tackle on Ben Smith, the next a turnover by Waisake Naholo that was spread to the far wing where there was space, the third a knock on by Dane Haylett-Petty that Beauden Barrett fly hacked on and controlled over the line. Even the next try, New Zealand took advantage of the space caused by Folau leaving the pitch injured while play was still going. Though they may not be as consistently great in attack as they were a few years back, they are solid in defence even when Ryan Crotty is unavailable and have the ability to cut apart a team when given the opportunity. This team look like they could be beaten, but whoever beats them will need to be switched on for every second of the 80 minutes and minimise the errors.


South Africa 34-21 Argentina

South Africa are back on the up! After a torrid couple of years under Allister Coetzee, Rassie Erasmus appears to be getting the team back on track just in time for the World Cup. England and Argentina, plus and understrength Wales, may not have been the sternest of tests, but the signs are good so far. It does not surprise me either that part of this turnaround includes starring roles from Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux, both of whom have been revitalised playing in England. De Klerk has impressed me so much in recent internationals with his quick ball, eye for a gap (see his snipe to the line for South Africa’s last try) and his attacking box kicks that led to Aphiwe Dyantyi’s second try. Le Roux takes so much pressure off the fly half by becoming a second playmaker, he is dangerous collecting the high ball (though he failed to collect the bomb that led to Nicolas Sanchez’s try), targets the 13 channel and has a great range of passing and kicking – just look at his inch-perfect crosskick for Dyantyi’s opener. Similar to Australia though, they need to find some depth at key positions like fly half. Elton Jantjies has never convinced me when given the chance and I don’t feel he can be a long-term option. As such, it was good to see Damian Willemse come on for his debut at 10 with Pollard moved to 12 in order to support him. Japan 2019 may be a bit too soon for him to take the reins, but if he continues to get gametime in the competition then he could have a big impact on the biggest stage.

Though they may have conceded 6 tries, this performance from the Pumas was a far cry from the embarrassment of the Summer Tests. Despite being mainly the same players, this squad looked much more switched on and energised under Ledesma than in the final days of Daniel Hourcade’s reign. Nicolas Sanchez looked miles better than in the summer and the team looked dangerous after South Africa took an early lead. There is still a long way to go, as they were often caught out wide by the Springboks, but early signs are good for a team that appear close to welcoming back Europe-based stars like Facundo Isa and Juan Imhoff.


Eyes On: South Africa v Wales

Eyes On: South Africa v Wales

The Summer Tests are officially underway. Though World Rugby’s international window was not yet open, South Africa and Wales decided to kick things off early with a match in Washington’s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Both teams fielded sides that can be kindly called B teams and its safe to say it showed as the two teams toiled to a 20-22 final score in Wales’ favour.

 

Scaring off the States

I really hope American fans don’t put too much thought into this match or they will never ant to watch rugby again. This was probably the worst Tier 1 international rugby match I have ever seen! Both teams had a number of debutantes and inexperienced players and very few of them did enough to try and catch their head coach’s attention (more on that later). Granted the rainfall just before kickoff would not have helped, but the handling skills of the players would have been considered unacceptable even in the Welsh Premiership.

Hallam Amos’ try came from a smart turnover from Ellis Jenkins, but he was only given the opportunity because the South Africans were too busy bumping each other to notice the ball had come out of the ruck. Tomos Williams’ try came off the back of a counterattack from Gareth Anscombe that was only possible due to a poor South African clearance that should have been put into touch. Travis Ismaiel intercepted a blind pass from Amos in the Welsh 22 and Ryan Elias’ winner summed up the game perfectly, falling on the ball over the try line after Robert du Preez had 2 clearances charged down in quick succession, the second ricocheting off Ismaiel into the dead ball area. It’s fair to say the only try that didn’t come as a result of an error was Makazole Mapimpi’s, though it could be argued that a penalty try should have been awarded when Owen Watkin deliberately played Elton Jantjies’ chip out of play to deny Jesse Kriel a chance to score.

As if all those errors weren’t enough, Watkin also knocked on with an overlap of approximately 7v3 following a great break by Ross Moriarty. Inexcusable play for a match at this level. And what could make the poor handling even worse? God awful scrummaging! It felt like the scrums went on forever as they were being reset so often. If there is anything that will stop more people becoming fans it is endless scrums.

From a wonderful game like Ireland’s win against the All Blacks in Chicago to a pile of rubbish like this… On behalf of the rugby community, I apologise to every American watching and hope you will give the sport another chance.

Though saying that, was anyone watching? The stadium didn’t even reach half capacity. Despite rugby growing in the USA due to the continued success of the men’s 15s and 7s teams and the introduction of Major League Rugby, people did not seem interested in this game! Is it any real surprise though? The springboks have been poor under Allister Coetzee and memories of their poor results and performances will not just go away now Rassie Erasmus is in charge. Put them against a Wales team that has very rarely been called exciting in recent years and you can’t help but feel sorry for the American fans at the drop in quality from previous matches. If we want to bring in new fans, we should be giving them a match involving the Barbarians, that can’t help to build excitement whilst also introducing new fans to rugby’s values.walsa

The broadcast

Wales’ Summer Tests are being broadcast on Channel 4, who will also be showing a match in each round of the upcoming season’s Champions Cup. On this showing, I’m not looking forward to it. While they got a number of quality pundits (Shane Williams, Ugo Monye and Thinus Delport) and experienced commentators in Eddie Butler and Martyn Williams, the whole thing was an absolute shambles!

The broadcast was apparently relying on pictures from an American feed and it was as if the people in charge had never seen a game of rugby before. The first half especially was full of poor camera angles and closeups that didn’t even show the ball, it was almost impossible at some moments to know what was going on. And those were the moments when the feed actually worked, as we were left without pictures on at least 2 occasions, not good enough for an international match. It wasn’t even just technical difficulties, with some of the commentary being of questionable quality and I must admit I still don’t understand why Eddie Butler felt the need to comment on the passing of Elton Jantjies’ father after complications following a bee sting, not helped by the manner of the comment before moving on to another subject making it sound as if it was humorous… safe to say I wasn’t laughing.

And with all of this going on, how did Channel 4 react on social media? By posting god awful tweets that someone clearly thought were funny. They weren’t and this was just made even worse by the poor broadcast. I was so excited to hear that we would be getting more rugby on free to air TV, but if they don’t improve their quality quickly, Channel 4 won’t be getting many viewers on a regular basis.

Laying down a marker

With the World Cup just over a year away, players are running out of chances to earn a spot in the tournament squad. Every international match is a huge opportunity but there were only a few people who really put their hands up.

André Esterhuizen made some good strong runs from inside centre and was arguably the best player for South Africa on the night. With Ben Te’o out of the June Tests, England’s midfield will be rather lightweight and I would not be surprised to see him given a chance to stake a more permanent claim in that match.

wals2For Wales, co-captain Ellis Jenkins was in my opinion the best player on the pitch, making a number of important turnovers that either stopped South African chances or created chances for Wales. Though he did have a couple of handling errors he also had a decent game in attack. He has a lot of competition at flanker but if he continues to play like this it will take a brave man to drop him form the starting XV. Scrum half Tomos Williams showed some good flashes around the fringes on his debut and had good strength to break through 2 attempted tackles for his try. However, there were times when his control of the game was lacking, he needs to work on that going forward at international level if he wants to become a regular in the 23 now that Rhys Webb is out of contention. Gareth Anscombe did enough for me to keep the 10 shirt for the next match, but there is room for improvement. He did a great job to draw in Elton Jantjies off a lineout and exploit the space with a flat pass to put Ross Moriarty through a gap, and his counterattack off a poor clearance set Wales up for Williams’ try, however his game was not consistent enough against a poor South African team and he had a mixed day with the boot, though a couple of his misses were very close and from out wide. If Gatland does want to create a more attacking gameplan, he needs to stick with Anscombe and Rhys Patchell rather than go back to Dan Biggar.

In international rugby, you’re not going to win regularly without a reliable fly half. Elton Jantjies is not that. The Lions 10 has never impressed me when I have seen him play, either for the Lions or the national team and I was always impressed by the way the Lions were able to have such success in recent years of Super Rugby despite him. In this match he was anything but reliable, with a couple of good moments being generally outweighed by a lack of control of his back line. Robert du Preez started well after replacing him by nailing his first kick at goal but he did not see out the game well with his attempted clearances being charged down twice within less than a minute to gift Wales the winner. I will not judge du Preez on one game (with the small dead ball areas I would have put the onus on the scrum half to make the clearance at the end) but he will need someone to support him to make sure his confidence does not drop from this. Last season, it appeared Curwin Bosch could be set to be the next big thing at 10 for the Boks, but this season he has been moved to 15 for the Sharks and has not looked as good there. While the Springboks have a history of grooming future fly halves in the fullback position, his play was not good enough in this match with poor kicking and limited attacking impact, so I fully expect Willie le Roux to be back in the 15 shirt against England. If South Africa are to improve, they need to find the answer at 10 quickly.

Post-Autumn Internationals Rugby Ramble

Post-Autumn Internationals Rugby Ramble

The Fourth Game

So for most nation’s rugby fans, the Autumn Internationals finished last weekend, but fans of Wales and South Africa – or people like me desperate for a rugby fix – were treated to one solitary match in a fourth week of Autumn International action. But should this game have taken place?

This fourth Test was played outside World Rugby’s international window, so Wales’ selections were seriously hampered not just by existing injuries, but also by players based outside Wales being unavailable due to club commitments. Taulupe Faletau was the only Premiership player to feature for Wales this weekend as I believe he has a release written into his contract with Bath, but his club are now understandably in trouble with Premiership Rugby for going against their rules.

The extra game must also have an effect on Wales’ position in the World Rankings as they are generally the only one of the home nations to play all 3 of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa every autumn, which considering they don’t have great records against these teams must surely be harming their ranking and possibly contributing to harder pools at the World Cups.

Considering the quality of crowds they get at the Principality Stadium, I can understand why the WRU choose to play an extra match as it brings in extra money while also getting a chance to blood less experienced players on the international stage when the Premiership-based players are unavailable. I have no problem with Wales continuing to play an extra match but think they could benefit from tweaking the scheduling of the games. At the moment, Wales are basically only putting out their ideal squads for 2 out of 4 games, as one of their 3 games during the window will be against a Tier 2/3 team (this year was Georgia) and they will put out a less experienced squad for this and also have a weakened squad forced on them by the loss of Premiership players in the final Test. I think it would benefit Wales to try and arrange for the Tests against the 3 big nations to be in the international window, while then playing the lower tier nation in the other Test match. This way, Wales are not taking a hit in the rankings by playing a weakened team against a rival, fans get to see the stars play in up to 3 matches and the national team still gets to develop less experienced players against an emerging nation.

Going South in the rankings

This was not a great autumn for South Africa. When the Springboks whitewashed France 3-0 over the summer, there were thoughts that they had finally turned a corner under Allister Coetzee, however finishing third in the Rugby Championship following a record defeat to New Zealand suggested things weren’t as rosy as they seemed and they went 2-2 this Autumn with wins against France and Italy but losses to Wales and France. This indifferent form has seen them fall out of the top 5 in the World Rankings, leapfrogged by a Scotland side that was missing a number of stars.

kicks
Things didn’t really improve during the game

While the 24-22 score against Wales looks commendable at first glance, it must be remembered that this was a Wales team missing a number of top players that completely outplayed the Boks in the opening 40. Against Ireland, they did not appear able to cope with the home team’s kicking game, and their performance against Wales suggested that very little had been done to improve on this throughout November as Wales frequently took advantage of this. Dillyn Leyds and Warrick Gelant both showed flashes of quality in attack but very little to make a fan feel comfortable when their team are defending. Are they really the best options for South Africa right now? You could ask that question about a number of the team.

South Africa brought in a 30-cap minimum for players outside of the country, but they still appear to be behind home-based players in the pecking order. Granted Francois Hougaard and Pat Lambie have only just returned from injury, but surely Francois Louw, Bryan Habana, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Duane Vermeulen (all experienced internationals) would improve this team, while Kwagga Smith – an important cog in the Lions’ run to the 2017 Super Rugby final and a star of autumns match between the All Blacks and Barbarians – would have also given the Boks another option tactically.

Elton Jantjies is not a reliable enough fly half at Test level and the decision to take off Handre Pollard – one of their better performers on Saturday – for him may have actually cost them the game. There are some quality players in this squad – Malcom Marx and Siya Kolisi have had great seasons and the squad should be built around them and a core of reliable players – but I feel they need to find someone to replace the man at the top. South Africa have struggled the last 2 seasons under Coetzee (which says a lot about how the French are struggling at the moment!) and I think they need to move on quickly if they don’t want a repeat of the embarrassment they felt when they lost to Japan in RWC2015. At least at that point they were able to recover and make it to the semi-final, as of now I wouldn’t trust the current crop to be able to do this.

Taking a chance

A number of players made their debuts or added to their limited caps in November due to limited availability of some international regulars. Some may struggle to make many more appearances for their country barring an injury crisis, but there were some who have surely put themselves on the coaches’ radar.

I wrote about Josh Navidi’s long wait for a home debut a few weeks back and I am happy to say that he impressed me throughout the Autumn Internationals. This was a Wales squad in transition as they try to change their playing style, but Navidi shone despite this. Considering the quality of his rivals – Warburton, Faletau, Moriarty and Tipuric all went on the Lions Tour – Navidi will need to stay at the top of his game, but I would not be surprised to see him on the bench come the 6 Nations and perhaps even pushing for a start if Moriarty’s injury issues persist.

InkedScreenshot_2017-12-06-16-04-23_LI
A bold prediction made by my mate weeks before Parkes’ Wales debut

Saturday’s game against South Africa also saw the international debut of Hadleigh Parkes. The 30-year-old kiwi has just qualified for Wales on residency and was thrown straight into the starting lineup against the Boks. A good friend of mine is a Scarlets fan and has been hyping him up to me ever since the squad for the Autumn Internationals was announced. Having watched him on Saturday, I can understand why! His playing style seems to fit what Wales are looking for at 12 with their new style of play – a more open gameplan with playmakers at 10 & 12 – and at the moment it looks like he will be competing for the starting spot with Owen Williams. Williams looked decent in attack but I think that Parkes looked more solid in defence, which has in my mind put him in pole position for the 6 Nations. With Scott Williams off to Ospreys in the summer, it looks like Parkes and Jonathan Davies (once back from injury) will be the de facto centre partnership at Scarlets, so I think this chemistry will also be beneficial to the national team moving forwards.

Sticking with Scarlets, Steff Evans had a mixed autumn for Wales. He had some flashes of quality in attack but not as many as fans would have hoped or expected, however his defence was questionable and a number of tackles showed poor technique similar to that of Leigh Halfpenny, which proved costly in a couple of cases. Personally, I think that Evans should be given more of a chance as there were very few moments where the Welsh back line looked confident playing the attacking style that will benefit him, while the chopping and changing of players in the midfield and the loss of Jon Davies put a lot more pressure on him in defence. Injuries to George North and Liam Williams also added to the chances for Hallam Amos this autumn and I feel that he took his chances well with a couple of good tries. Depending on how much rugby North between his return from injury and the start of the 6 Nations, I would be tempted to start Amos instead of North in the next match. Leigh Halfpenny has also not been as impressive as fans would have hoped in recent Wales performances and is arguably not the form 15 in the Wales squad, despite Gatland’s insistence on putting Williams on the wing. If I was picking the starting back 3 for the 6 Nations on current form, I would give Evans and Amos the chances on the wing with Williams moving to 15.