November is here and for rugby fans that means one thing: the Autumn Internationals are here. Following up on their Bledisloe Cup whitewash, the All Blacks fielded a much-changed XV against Japan to begin their journey to the Northern Hemisphere, while the Home Nations all kicked off their month, including a trip to Chicago for Ireland to face Italy.
The results from Week 1 were:
- Japan 31-69 New Zealand
- Wales 21-10 Scotland
- England 12-11 South Africa
- USA 22-59 Maori All Blacks
- Ireland 54-7 Italy
Now unfortunately due to where certain games were televised, I was only able to watch the England and Wales games so this week I will be focusing on these 2 matches. But first a couple of other points that I felt necessary to mention…
People may be surprised by the lack of international matches this weekend, but there is an important reason for this: World Rugby’s window for Test matches did not cover this weekend. For this reason, teams were not required to release players to the national teams, which is why players like Liam Williams and Dan Biggar were not involved in the Doddie Weir Cup game at the Principality Stadium and a number of influential South Africans like Willie le Roux, Faf de Klerk and Franco Mostert did not feature against England.
I do not understand for one moment why World Rugby are allowing these games to go ahead. Yes, players missing gives coaches a chance to test players on the fringe of the squad but they could do that in their other matches anyway. It’s just yet another match where players have a chance of getting injured (as happened to Tom Curry against South Africa and Ben Morgan & Manu Tuilagi in the preceding week) and in a time when many people would already argue that players play too much, this is yet another risk to those taking part.
I understand the unions need to generate revenue, but in a week where the WRU and SRU have had to be publicly shamed into donating to the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, it just feels like this is another example of the greedy unions putting money before player well-being.
Watching the England match at home with my colleague Phil was a roller coaster of emotions, and none more so than in the final moments of the game as Owen Farrell put in a huge hit on André Esterhuizen. Next to me, Phil was yelling out a slightly less polite variant of “what a hit!” and while I initially began to cheer, the moment quickly caught me as I began to wonder if the hit was legal, not helped at all when I saw that referee Angus Gardner was speaking with the TMO. My heart was in my mouth and the relief when Gardner announced he was happy with the challenge and ended the game was overwhelming.
Unsurprisingly, this became the most talked about moment of the weekend’s action, but I must admit I was shocked by how many fans, reporters and pundits felt that the hit was illegal, with people throwing out sanctions from just a penalty all the way to a red card! My personal feeling when I saw the replays along with the officials was that it was a legal hit.
I saw some people online comparing this to Danny Cipriani’s red against Munster and – while I didn’t agree fully with that call – I don’t see how that comparison can be made here as Cipriani clearly did make contact with the head, whereas Farrell’s shoulder made contact with the head. To me the question about legality came down to whether this was a tackle or a shoulder charge. Farrell hits with his right shoulder and I won’t argue that his right arm is down by his side, but the angle from behind Esterhuizen showed that his left arm did attempt to wrap and he in fact almost managed to rip the ball out, but the force of the hit pushed them apart.
What I have not seen many people mention online was that South Africa’s penalty to go 9-11 up came after Thomas du Toit and RG Snyman tackled George Kruis together, each with the arm they were tackling with down by their side. If you say Farrell’s was illegal then so are those hits, so the blame cannot be put on Angus Gardner or the officials for “blowing” the call at the end. Gardner has been consistent on his rulings in this match, it is now up to World Rugby to ensure this consistency continues. Farrell may have avoided a citing, but I doubt we have heard the end of this just yet.
Back when I was playing junior rugby, I remember being constantly coached that the first tackler should go low to stop the ball carrier, then the second man should go high. It seems that not many of the England team remembered this at the weekend. Going into the game, I was worried by how the pack would front up against the Boks and I would argue that the answer was all too often not very well. Players continually went high and it allowed players like Eben Etzebeth and Damian de Allende to continually make ground and put the Springboks on the front foot for much of the match. One of the few times that someone went low on Etzebeth, Kyle Sinckler stopped him in his tracks and dumped him on the floor. While I understand going for the ball, the important thing must always be to stop the carrier first.
Looking ahead to the next match against the All Blacks, I think Eddie Jones has to make some changes. While I thought Alec Hepburn was unfortunate to be pulled at halftime, I think Ben Moon did very well off the bench and would in fact suggest starting Moon and Williams (probably the stronger scrummagers) then having the more mobile Hepburn and Sinckler come off the bench in the second half. I have been critical of Mark Wilson’s selection previously, but I think he went about his business well and think he has earned his spot for the next match. I would also give Zach Mercer an overdue first Test start as I feel he made a really positive impact off the bench and (assuming Tom Curry is fit to face New Zealand) I would drop the largely ineffectual Brad Shields to the bench. I don’t think there should be any changes to the back line – though I do wonder if Elliot Daly’s struggles under the high ball may see a return for Mike Brown – but if Manu Tuilagi is fit then I would love to see both him and Ashton on the bench in place of George Ford as they would probably be bigger game changers, while Henry Slade can play 10 if something happens to Farrell.
Regardless of your thoughts on Farrell’s tackle, that one moment did not lose South Africa the game. Malcolm Marx is a fantastic player – he recently made my team in my World XV Challenge – but he had a poor game at Twickenham and overthrew a number of crucial lineouts. In the 10 minutes that Maro Itoje was in the sin bin, England won 3-0 despite the Boks starting the period with a penalty 5m out from the England line. Perhaps even worse, they made the same mistake that New Zealand did against them in the Rugby Championship by not going for the drop goal. They had Handrè Pollard and Elton Jantjies both on the field and had the ball pretty central int he England 22 with just minutes left, yet neither made an attempt to get in the pocket or set up for a match-winning drop goal and instead Lood de Jager allowed Owen Farrell to rip the ball away. Had England been a little smarter with their time management and held onto the ball for just a few phases after this, that would have been the match over and the debate about Farrell’s tackle would have never begun. This South Africa team has come a long way since Rassie Erasmus took over and they wee arguably missing a number of key players due to European clubs not releasing them, but if they want to take the next step then they need to start managing the game better in the key moments.
With Warren Gatland having returned to New Zealand ahead of the Doddie Weir Cup following the passing of his father, I can’t help but feel that Shaun Edwards took charge of training in his absence. This was a vintage performance from the Welsh reminiscent of some of their most successful seasons with Gatland at the helm.
The Scottish forwards were unable to get on the front foot, such was the physicality of the Welsh defending, and this then allowed the defence to hassle Adam Hastings and make it all but impossible to get the back line working effectively on a regular basis. I was surprised and disappointed when I saw Dan Lydiate had been named in the starting XV as I was really looking forward to seeing Ellis Jenkins get a shot in the team but the Ospreys flanker rolled back the clock with a wonderful performance and with so many back rows currently unavailable he may have just put himself back in contention for the World Cup squad.
Despite the dominance of the Welsh defence, Scotland still had some great chances and could potentially have come away with victory. George Horne (who did a wonderful job off the bench) put in a lovely little chip into the Welsh in-goal area for his brother Peter, but the centre just couldn’t quite get hold of the ball and dot it down. Jonny Gray did actually dot the ball down over the line but the try was rightfully disallowed and a penalty given against the lock for a double movement.
While the Horne drop was unfortunate, it was by no means an easy catch to make, but to me the Gray penalty was so stupid as he knows that he is making a double movement (I have been in a similar position before where I have started reaching for the line and realised that I will be short, so instead presented the ball to my team) and his support is clearly there. It is not a matter of reach for the line or get turned over, if he presents the ball back, Scotland keep the pressure on and potentially score a couple of phases later. Instead, a penalty allows the Welsh to not just clear their line but also get possession back. This was a costly mistake from one of the most experienced players in the squad.