2021 Autumn Tests: Team of the Series

2021 Autumn Tests: Team of the Series

With the cancellation of the Barbarians’ match against Samoa, we are now 1 week on from the end of the Autumn Test series. A series that saw New Zealand lose 2 weeks on the bounce, Italy get their first win since the World Cup, Wales continue to struggle to beat teams despite a numerical disadvantage and France, Ireland and England suggesting that they will be the teams competing for the Six Nations title in a few months.

So with all the action out of the way, all that remains is for me to pick my Team of the Series. As always, this is just my personal opinion, so let me know if you think I missed someone. I’m also having to account for the fact that I saw many teams play 3 or 4 times and others just once, so I also have to consider consistency across multiple games compared to one solid performance. So without further ado, my Team of the 2021 Autumn Tests is:

1) Andrew Porter: He’s been bossing things for Ireland at tighthead in recent years, but with Tadhg Furlong back to his best, Porter has made the transition from tighthead to loosehead without any drop in quality. A great scrummager, this series also highlighted Porter’s ability both defensively and offensively in the loose, with some strong carries and impressive handling skills.

2) Peato Mauvaka: What a series for Mauvaka. The Toulouse hooker found himself a regular in the 23 due to Camille Chat’s injury, and an injury to clubmate Julien Marchand elevated him to the starting spot as the matches went on. And boy did he take his chances, with 5 tries in 3 games to highlight Les Bleus’ continued strength in depth at the position.

3) Tadhg Furlong: Like his teammate Andre Porter, Furlong is everything you could possibly hope to find in a prop. A superb scrummager, Furlong is a wrecking ball when carrying but with the handling skills and rugby IQ to find a pass to keep the ball moving.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Adam Beard: Etzebeth wins a spot in a third consecutive one of these, having also featured in my Team of the Lions Series and Team of the Rugby Championship. Initially coming onto the scene as an enforcer to replace Bakkies Botha, Etzebeth has become a fantastic leader and all-rounder, running some great lines when South Africa actually play attacking rugby to go with his excellence in the set piece and defence. Meanwhile, Adam Beard had the tough task of having to step up and be the leader in the second row after another injury to Alun Wyn Jones, providing some consistency at the position despite some variation in who partnered him.

6) Ellis Jenkins: The Welsh flanker made his long-awaited return to Test rugby after a horror injury on his last international appearance and showed us all what we’ve been missing with a series of fantastic performances. He carried well and really highlighted is leadership in the way he dealt with the officials, but really showed his quality with a series of impressive turnovers, often in key moments. Let’s hope that he can now stay injury-free!

7) Josh van der Flier: Probably one of the most underrated players in the Irish squad, van der Flier earned his place on this list with a series of strong appearances for an impressive Irish team. Ever reliable, he can make yards and keep the ball moving in attack, but in defence he just quietly goes about his business stopping the opposition while allowing those around him to receive the plaudits. Ireland would not be able to field 2 carriers in Caelan Doris and Jack Conan at 6 and 8 if it weren’t for the work that van der Flier puts in.

8) Aaron Wainwright: He initially seemed to struggle under Wayne Pivac, but Aaron Wainwright got a chance to start with a number of regular internationals missing and took his chance. He maybe lacks that extra half yard of pace to be one of those elite open field 8s or that extra 10kg of muscle to be a wrecking ball 8, but he is a solid all-rounder whose versatility should always keep him around the 23, if not in the starting line-up.

9) Antoine Dupont: He might not have stood out as much as in some matches, but this was another great series for Dupont. With the added burden of the captaincy in the absence of Charles Ollivon, and with a heavily rotated pack and changes at fly half, the Toulouse halfback was the model of consistency, while also showing off his range of attributes.

10) Romain Ntamack: What a difference 1 performance can make. Playing at 12 for much of the first 2 Tests, we saw solid but largely quiet performances from Ntamack as France lacked the physical runner they needed in midfield. However with a move to fly half in the second half, Ntamack began to look more like the young star we had see in recent years, but he saved the best ’til last with a magnificent performance in the win over New Zealand, with a well-taken try and a break from behind his own try line that will live long in the memory.

11) Monty Ioane: Probably a controversial one in here, given Italy’s results, but Ioane is one constant highlight for the Azzurri. Despite getting little space to work in, he continued to make metres going forward both in contact and by finding and exploiting any gaps, while he also covered back on a number of occasions and held his own against multiple opposition players to allow his team time to get back and secure the ball once he finally went to ground.

12) Damian de Allende: Does de Allende get the recognition he deserves? I don’t think so but he is here. The Munster centre is a true two-way player at 12, with his strong running often requiring more than one defender to bring us down, while defensively he creates a solid midfield pairing with Lukhanyo Am to stop the gain line being breached, and is near-impossible to move legally once he latches on over a tackled ball-carrier, allowing him to win crucial turnovers.

13) Garry Ringrose: Injury to Robbie Henshaw gave Andy Farrell the easiest of selections at centre in Bundee Aki and Ringrose, and the Leinster centre took his chance well. A solid all-rounder, Ringrose excels in a more open game than Ireland ad been playing, but with their more attacking mindset this Autumn, he got a chance to shine.

14) Andrew Conway: The options that Ireland have in the back 3 are incredible, but Conway showed in these Tests that he will take some shifting. His elusiveness and his ability to score a try are well known (though he was happy to remind us with a hat-trick against Japan) but what he really showed in this game was how important he is to the Irish kicking game, not just challenging in the air, but the way he times his runs to perfection to stop the opposition making any ground after taking a kick.

15) Freddie Steward: The first couple of times I saw Steward play (England U20s) I was not impressed. But he’s developed well at Tigers and deserved his chance with the national team. And boy has he taken that chance, surely securing the 15 shirt for the coming years with his dominance in the air and a brilliant all-round game.

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2021 Autumn Tests: Week 5

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 5

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

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

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


Scotland

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

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

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

Japan

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

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

Uruguay

Keep an eye on Los Teros!

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

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

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

Georgia

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

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

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

Fiji

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

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

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

England

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

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

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

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

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

South Africa

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

Australia

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

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

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

France

This was a huge win for Les Bleus!

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

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

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

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

New Zealand

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

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

But what if they stick with Foster?

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

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

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

Ireland

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

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

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

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

Argentina

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

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

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

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

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 4

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 4

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


Italy

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

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

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

Argentina

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

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

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

Scotland

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

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

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

South Africa

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

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

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

Ireland

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

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

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

New Zealand

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

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

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

England

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

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

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

Australia

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

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

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

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

France

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

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

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

Georgia

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

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

Fiji

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

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

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

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

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


Ireland

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

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

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

Japan

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

New Zealand

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

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

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

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

England

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

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

Tonga

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

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

South Africa

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

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

France

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

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

Argentina

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

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

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

Scotland

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

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

Australia

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

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

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

rugby autumn nations series logo

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 2

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 2

Hello and welcome to my look at the second week of the Autumn Tests. Sadly a lack of available broadcasts meant that I couldn’t cover Week 1 at all, but with this week having a limited schedule as it was outside World Rugby’s Test Window, this still gave us a chance to ease into the action.

The action started up in Edinburgh as Scotland took on a Tongan side who had only been together for a handful of days and were still missing a number of their players. While the Tongans certainly tried to make a game of it and caused some issues early on with their strong running, the Scottish players’ familiarity with each other—despite missing their Premiership players and Finn Russell, the chemistry was still there from everyone being based at just Edinburgh and Glasgow—was clear to see and they ran away with a 60-14 victory, with Rufus McLean scoring a brace on debut and fellow wing Kyle Steyn bagging 4 tries.

The action then continued at the Principality Stadium, where Wales were taking on the All Blacks. With New Zealand fielding an almost first choice XV, it was always going to be a tough task for a Welsh team missing its Premiership players and also a number of other regulars through injury, and things got even worse as Beauden Barrett kicked off his 100ᵗʰ Test cap by intercepting Gareth Anscombe and running in for the simplest of tries. Wales kept themselves in the fight for 60 minutes despite losing Alun Wyn Jones (on his record-breaking 148ᵗʰ Wales cap) and Ross Moriarty to injury in the first half, but fell off a cliff after the hour mark and shipped 4 tries without reply for a final score of 16-54, with Jordie Barrett’s missed conversion at the death just denying the All Blacks a record points haul against Wales.


Scotland

With Finn Russell and Adam Hastings both unavailable, Gregor Townsend made a big call for this match by selecting Blair Kinghorn at flyhalf. It’s been a long time since Scotland had such strength in depth at 10, with Russell and Hastings the clear regulars, but Duncan Weir and Jaco van der Walt also in the running and now young Ross Thompson making his debut off the bench, but I think that getting Kinghorn Test experience at fly half is a clever move.

When you go to a World Cup, spaces are limited, and while you could get away with 2 specialist fly halves, a third fly half would seem a waste, unless they could also fill in at other positions. While I’m sure some of them could probably fill in as emergency centres or fullbacks, they are not really multi-positional players, whereas Kinghorn can already cover the entire back 3 and being an option at 10 just adds another string to his bow come selection time as his versatility will make him indispensable, despite the strength in depth available in the Scottish back 3.

Not only that, but by gaining the experience at 10, it also gives the team much more tactical flexibility, as he can move into the first receiver position if the fly half is stuck in the breakdown, down injured or carded. He has the skillset to excel at the position, especially when you consider that if he was to play the position much in a World Cup, it would likely be against the lower-ranked teams. What he needs now is a chance to play there with a bit more regularity, both for Edinburgh and the national team, as he will face much better defences than a Tongan team missing a number of stars, who have only had 4 days training together and then had to reorganise on the fly with 2 injuries in the back line and a 6-2 split (including a scrum half) on the bench.

Tonga

You really have to feel for Tonga. They need to accept every game they can against Tier 1 opposition just to get matches, but so often they end up in situation like this or against New Zealand in the summer: facing off against teams outside World Rugby’s Test Window. What this means is they end up playing teams who are already stronger and better resourced, but then have the added difficulty of playing without many of their top players, who will not be released from the Premiership/Top 14 outside the Test windows. With such inexperienced squads and minimal prep time, it’s hardly even close to a fair contest.

Of course, it can lead to the discovery of some great players, like 32-year-old prop and former professional boxer Loni Uhila, who made his debut at Murrayfield. The “Tongan Bear” plays for in Fédérale 1 (the 3ʳᵈ tier of French rugby, and highest level of amateur rugby) and while he struggled a little at the scrum, he more than held his own in the loose, with some strong carrying and passes that a back would be proud of, all while playing in the most heavy-duty pair of rugby boots that I have ever seen!

Hopefully with the arrival of 2 Pacific Island franchises in Super Rugby Pacific, things will start to get a little easier for the Pacific Island teams, as they can try to bring talent to these franchises. But with just 2 teams for the whole Pacific Islands, there will still be plenty of players in the Premiership and Top 14. World Rugby needs to step in and help to a larger degree, even if it is only to outlaw the Tests outside set windows to ensure that the nations have everyone available for the matches.

Wales

While there was a lot to be disappointed about for Welsh fans, something that can’t be focussed on enough was the performances of the back row. With so many players unavailable through injury or playing in the Premiership, there was a real worry about the back row coming into the game. And yet they more then held their own.

Taine Basham looked like he had been playing Test rugby for years, popping up to steal the ball at breakdowns and making a couple of great breaks, while Aaron Wainwright put in a performance reminiscent of his rise to prominence towards the end of the Warren Gatland era, perhaps even better!

On the strength of those performances, the pair deserve to keep their places for the upcoming matches and have the quality to become regulars in the back row moving forward. Basham will only improve as he plays more at this level, while Wainwright will also benefit from consistently playing at this level. Add in a experienced cleaner like Justin Tipuric or Josh Navidi when they’re fit, and this is an incredibly dangerous unit going forwards toward the World Cup.

New Zealand

How great is Ardie Savea?! The Hurricanes back row has been a part of the squad for years, but has really come in to his own with the retirement of Kieran Read.

This game was another classic example of why he is so good. He has the power to just keep going in the tackle. If you go high on him to get on the ball, he will just carry you along as his leg drive gains him more metres. And yet if you go low and stop him from making more ground, he will simply offload the ball to a man in support. To properly stop him, it’s going to take at least 1 man going low and another going for the ball, which is then just going to create space elsewhere for the All Blacks to exploit with quick ball.

But that’s not it, as he also has solid pace and an impressive acceleration to make him a threat in more open play as well as the tight. You just need to look at Sevu Reece’s try, where he exchanged quick passes with Reece and Rieko Ioane down the left wing, you could easily have mistaken him for his older brother Julian. And to make him even better: he has that versatility, being able to play anywhere in the back row, allowing the coaches to adapt the back row to either the opposition or the way they are looking to play, putting him at 8 if they want to play fetchers like Dalton Papalii or Sam Cane, or on the flank with a quality number 8 like Hoskins Sotutu.

He probably doesn’t always get the recognition he should, as he puts in these performances weekly, but don’t be shocked to see him remain a key cog in the All Blacks XV for the coming years.

2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

Between the British & Irish Lions Tour and the Rugby Championship, we’ve been chock full of international rugby in recent months. But we’re far from over as the Southern Hemisphere teams come North for their end of season tours. And with the Rugby World Cup just 2 years away, it is now a crucial time for players to start proving themselves to secure a spot in their nation’s line-up and make themselves indispensable.

With that in mind, as I do for most of the major tournaments, I have looked at the majority of teams who you may find yourself watching over the next month and picked 1 player from each team who I think you should be keeping an eye on. Some will be youngsters trying to carry their club form onto a bigger stage, some will be fringe players trying to prove themselves, and some are players who you may not have heard much of unless you watch them frequently, but should really be paying attention to while they are on the pitch.

So let’s get started!

Argentina: Santiago Carreras

Carreras is one of the hot young outside backs on the scene for Argentina, an area where they have really been spoiled for choice in recent seasons. Capable of excelling at either wing or fullback, he’s reliable in the air and while he may not have the top-level speed of some of his fellow Gloucester wings (let’s be honest, few do!), he has the footwork to make up for it! He looked on the cusp of being one of the next stars at the position, if only Argentina could improve things further infield. However, things have got even more interesting following a Rugby Championship campaign that saw him start at fly half for the final couple of matches, despite never starting at the position in a top flight club match. Will he continue at the position or will he be moved back to the outside positions where I feel he is at his best? Only time will tell.

Australia: Hunter Paisami

What a couple of seasons for Paisami. The young Reds centre’s physicality and impressive defence saw him called up to the Wallabies squad as part of their rebuild and was looking pretty secure until he missed the majority of the Rugby Championship for the arrival of his first child, which coincided with the return of Samu Kerevi from the international exile. Well with Kerevi missing, Paisami is back in against July and while Kerevi’s presence may hinder his first team chances (with the quality available, I can’t imagine that Dave Rennie will frequently start with 2 physical centres) he still has the chance this Autumn to secure his spot in the wider squad.

England: Alex Dombrandt

I could have so easily gone for British & Irish Lions Sam Simmonds or Marcus Smith here as they finally find themselves getting picked by Eddie Jones, but I have instead gone for Dombrandt. While Simmonds is a quality 8, Eddie Jones has shown a preference for larger men at 8, so the young Harlequin could find himself at the head of the queue with Billy Vunipola finally left out. Despite being a big boy, Dombrandt has a turn of pace that will prove dangerous when put through a gap, but is more than just a carrier, as he also contributes more than a few turnovers at club level.

Fiji: Levani Botia

So now we come to a player who is firmly established in his nation’s XV, but due to the sheer quality of players around him at Test level he arguably doesn’t get the wider recognition he deserves. At 32, the La Rochelle centre is a veteran of the game and a physical specimen, happy to carry hard but even happier to tackle even harder. But what makes Botia very interesting is his versatility. While usually a 12, he is equally at home at 7 for both club and country, and has the ability to turn the ball over as good as any international 7. With the Fijian squad for these Tests only selecting from the Northern Hemisphere and missing injured players like Semi Radradra, expect Botia to come to the fore and lead by example.

France: Jonathan Danty

It’s crazy to believe that the Stade Français centre only has 8 caps to his name, but that just goes to show the quality available to France, while there was also a move towards youth following the last World Cup that saw him overlooked. However, he took his chance on his 2 appearances in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup that saw France test their depth and earned another 2 caps in their summer Tests against Australia as part of a weakened French team. While he may not be part of the first choice XV, he provides a physical carrying option at 12 and seems to impress whenever given a chance. If he can continue to put in similar consistent performances, he may just be able to secure himself a spot in the home World Cup.

Georgia: Giorgi Kveseladze

Georgia may be better known for their forwards but they are developing an impressive young backline and Kveseladze is a key part of that. You may remember him from his impressive solo try against Ireland in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup, but what has been really impressive is his defensive quality at 13, which will have only been helped by moving to Gloucester and training alongside Chris Harris. While his appearances at Kingsholm have been limited so far, most of the Lelos back line still play in Georgia, with Kveseladze one of only 5 backs at a top flight club (the other 4 all being based in France, while there is also 1 player in the Pro D2) and that constant experience in an elite professional setup will be vital for the team.

Ireland: Simon Zebo

He’s back! After returning from France, Simon Zebo is back in the Ireland squad a the first opportunity following his return to Munster. Capable of playing wing or fullback, Zebo still has a great turn of pace despite being 31 now, but has the experience to go with it, and has started the season strongly at Thomond Park. Ireland are chock full of talent in the back 3, but I can’t help feel that Zebo still has that special something to secure a spot in the starting XV by the start of the 2022 Six Nations.

Italy: Marco Riccioni

I remember as I was getting into rugby, Italy’s strength was it’s pack, including a front row that could dominate the scrum. Well Italy have quality throughout the squad now but need to start getting that fearsome pack back, and Riccioni could be a key part of that. The tighthead has been a part of the national team for a few years now and at 23 should be ready to take a step forward in his career and start becoming a veteran. But he is certainly going about it in the right way, having left a Benetton team that has never been this successful to join Saracens on their return to the Premiership. This is exactly the kind of move that Italy needs with just 2 top-flight club teams, and will hopefully lead to success both for Riccione and the Azzurri.

Japan: Tevita Tatafu

While I still feel that Kazuki Himeno doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, I have instead looked at his fellow back row Tatafu. Back row has been a position of strength for the Brave Blossoms for a while now, but Tatafu broke onto the scene in style with barnstorming performances against both the British & Irish Lions and Ireland over the summer, earning just his 4ᵗʰ and 5ᵗʰ caps 5 years after he earned his first 3 in the Asia Rugby Championship. Japan can sometimes look a little too lightweight in attack, but Tatafu’s carrying will be crucial in helping create a strong attacking platform against even the best international defences.

New Zealand: Akira Ioane

As great as the All Blacks are, they’ve struggled to find a true successor to Jerome Kaino in the 6 shirt. However they may finally have done to with the rise of Akira Ioane. It may have taken him a little longer that his younger brother Reiko to secure a spot in the All Blacks 23, but he has all the traits to excel in the team, with enough pace to hold his own on the 7s circuit and the power to be a true enforcer in the pack. Keep an eye out for him in wide positions on attack, where he will create matchup nightmares, being able to break away if given space or dominate contact against smaller wingers, while using his great handling skills to keep the attack going.

Scotland: Matt Scott

So if we’re all being honest, Chris Harris has become one of the best 13s in the world and has that spot secured. However the situation at 12 is much more open, and that gives Matt Scott a chance. Injuries have hampered his career, but he has always impressed when able to put a run of games together. Currently part of a Leicester Tigers team that has turned things around after a dismal spell, Scott is a great all-round talent, but what really stands out watching him play is the clever lines that he runs to burst through a hole and catch a defence flat-footed. If he can stay fit, he can really put his hand up for the 12 shirt.

South Africa: Damian Willemse

With Morné Steyn calling an end to his international career, the Springboks have decided to stick with just 2 specialist fly halves in their squad. The reason? Damian Willemse. Willemse is becoming something of the new utility back of world rugby, with a set of skills that allows him to play throughout the back line. Truly, this may be holding Willemse back, as he has struggled to excel at any position. However, if he can be given a run in a position, he could really start to excel, especially with the way that the Springboks use their fullback as a second playmaker. After a heavy fixture list this summer, don’t be shocked if the Boks start varying their back line a bit more in these Tests, and let’s see where Willemse fits in the plan.

Tonga: Hosea Saumaki

Probably a new name to most of you, and I must admit that even I know very little about Saumaki, but what I know has me excited. The wing recently moved to Leicester Tigers but has spent most of his career in Japan, where he has known how to make it over the try line, scoring 10 tries in 13 appearances for Canon Eagles in his debut season in the Top League. With the international retirement of Siale Piutau, there is very little experience (especially at an elite level) outside of fly half, so despite only having 3 caps to his name, Saumaki will need to step up and become a leader, while if he and fullback Telusa Veainu can both find space, they could be dangerous out wide!

Uruguay: Santiago Arata

One of the players who truly stood out to me during Uruguay’s RWC2019 campaign was young scrum half Santiago Arata. Arata looked a really exciting talent back then, and has since started to earn professional experience, first with the Huston Sabercats in the MLR and now in the Top 14 with Castres. If he can learn from a player of Rory Kockott’s quality, that will be huge for Los Teros, who still have most of their players playing in Uruguay for Peñarol Rugby in the Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR), South America’s answer to the MLR.

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

In the build-up to RWC2019, Gareth Anscombe looked to have secured the number 10 jersey ahead of Dan Biggar, only for a knee injury to completely derail his career as it was reaching new heights. Well the new season also brought a return to rugby for the Ospreys outside half, and he has picked up where he left off at club level. With the English-based players unavailable for the match against the All Blacks as it falls outside the Test window, will Anscombe be straight back into the Test arena? And will a good performance keep him in the 23, as Callum Sheedy has not had a promising start to the season with Bristol. Anscombe feels a better fit for Wane Pivac’s more expansive Wales team, so Anscombe’s return to Test rugby and the fight for the 10 shirt is worth keeping both eyes on.

2021 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

2021 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

We are now 1 week on from the end of the 2021 Rugby Championship. A tournament that saw World Champions South Africa go on a 3-match losing streak while Australia welcomed back some of their exiles to go on a 4-match wining streak. Meanwhile New Zealand tied up the tournament in 5 weeks and went top of the world rankings, only for a last-gasp loss to South Africa in the tournament finale to give the top spot in the rankings back to the Springboks.

So with all the action out of the way, all that remains is for me to pick my Team of the Tournament. As always, this is just my personal opinion, so let me know if you think I missed someone. So without further ado, my Team of the 2021 Rugby Championship is:

1) Steven Kitshoff: He may be one of the best looseheads in the world, but the Stormers prop found himself largely on the bench in this tournament. However, the Springboks use their bench very differently, and Kitshoff became a key part of the “Bomb Squad” that would come on to help turn matches. An expert scrummager who pulls his weight in open play, Kitshoff was key to helping keep the Boks competitive.

2) Malcolm Marx: Codie Taylor came close to taking this spot but was harmed by the chopping and changing of the squad, while Julián Montoya was solid but unspectacular in a struggling Pumas team. So we look to South Africa, and again it’s the game-changing talent of the “Bomb Squad” that makes the list. Marx play like an extra back row and his work in the loose is crucial when the Boks play a more open game, while he finished the tournament with 3 tries—the most of any forward.

3) Taniela Tupou: If I could create an ultimate team using any player in the world, Tupou would be my pick at 3. The “Tongan Thor” is an absolute unit and tough to contend with at the scrum. But it is in open play where he really comes into his own, with a good turn of pace but an incredible engine that can see him still going late into a Test match, while his handling skills have him at risk of being expelled from the front row union.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Lood de Jager: Is it any real surprise how many of the South African pack are making the list considering how much reliance the Springboks had on them. Even in the poorer performances the tight five still held their own, while these two behemoths in the second row played a huge role in the defensive effort, creating a physical platform in attack and dominating at both theirs and their opponent’s lineouts.

6) Akira Ioane: Three and a half years ago I picked Ioane in my Uncapped XV. While he then dropped away for a few years, he is now living up to his potential and looks like the best option the All Blacks have had at 6 since Jerome Kaino. A great enforcer in defence, Ioane also has the pace (he spent time on the 7s circuit) and power to be a dangerous carrying threat in wide positions. If he can carry this on for a few more seasons, he could be coming into consideration as one of the best blindsides in the world.

7) Michael Hooper: It’s so hard to leave out Siya Kolisi, but Hooper gets the nod here. While both give 100% in every game and lead their teams with distinction, Hooper has been doing so in a team going through a a rebuild, while he also always appears to be in just the right place to make a crucial impact on the game.

8) Ardie Savea: Rob Valentini certainly grew into the role as the tournament went on and Duane Vermeulen had some great moments coming back from injury, but Ardie Savea was the most consistent. A 7 initially with the physicality and skillset that allows him to play across the entire back row, Savea has the physicality and carrying ability to help put the All Blacks on the front foot in attack and take advantage of any gaps that he is put through, while he also dealt admirably with the etra pressure of being named captain in Sam Cane’s absence.

9) Tate McDermott: He may have lost his starting spot to Nic White as the tournament went on, but McDermott remains one of the brightest lights on the world stage at scrum half. He has the eye for a gap and the pace and footwork to exploit it, keeping defences honest, while he also made a crucial intervention to deny Lukhanyo Am a try. He only turned 23 during this tournament so his best years are still ahead of him, which will only be heightened by the improving performances from his team around him.

10) Quade Cooper: Beauden Barett’s haplessness against the dominance of South Africa harmed his chances, but in truth Cooper would likely have taken this spot anyway. Coming back from such a long international exile, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat at this level and helped turn the team around by taking control of the team, finishing the tournament with the 3ʳᵈ-highest points tally despite not featuring in the first 2 rounds.

11) Makazole Mapimpi: He made my Team of the Lions Series earlier this summer and keeps his place in this team after another solid tournament. I can’t help feel sorry for Mapimpi, who is one of the best wings in the game currently. A proven try scorer, Mapimpi”s chances are so limited in a South African team that barely spreads the ball, but he willingly goes about his business in defence and the kicking game, while taking his chances when given them.

12) Samu Kerevi: Special mention to David Havili, who has done a great job of transitioning from back 3 to 12 and quickly excelling at international level, but Kerevi was the obvious pick here. Another of Australia’s returning exiles, Kerevi’s impact on the team has been monumental. He’s provided a regular and reliable option to put the Wallabies on the front foot, and this has also allowed the players around him the space to play their very best game. If he can continue in the same vein during the Autumn Tests, he has a great chance to push for World Player of the Year.

13) Lukhanyo Am: A missed try in the first Test against Australia proved costly, but Am had another great tournament. The Springbok remains probably the best defensive 13 in world rugby and continues to thrive in this team especially when they are able to control the speed of the game. Len Ikitau is unfortunate to miss out, but Am’s experience on the big stage shone through when it was needed.

14) Andrew Kellaway: How could Kellaway not make this team after finishing with a whopping 7 tries—4 more than his closest competitor! In his first season of Test rugby, he has shown that he knows how to get to the try line, with a brace in his first match against the All Blacks, but the improvement in the Wallabies performances has just given him even more chances which he has taken with aplomb!

15) Jordie Barrett: The clear choice here at 15, Barrett’s range of skills makes him a brilliant option at 15 (or anywhere in the back line), while his goal kicking has been op notch as he has been allowed to become the number one kicker, allowing him to nail some clutch kicks. As I said a few weeks back, this is the brother that I pick for my team, not Beauden.

 

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v Argentina

With the 100ᵗʰ Test match between South Africa and New Zealand out of the way, it was time for the hosts Australia to take on an Argentina team that had been left out of a midweek photo session for the tournament. After such a close match in the opener of this double-header, it was always going to be a tough affair to live up to, and sadly for all but the home fans, this was not going to be anywhere near as close a match.

The Pumas have struggled throughout the tournament but had the chance to take an early lead, only for Emiliano Boffelli to curl an eminently kickable penalty wide. The Pumas were quickly made to rue this missed chance, as a break from Samu Kerevi brought the hosts up into the Argentina 22, and as the ball was spread wide, Reece Hodge slipped out of Lucio Cinti’s tackle to go over for the opening try. Australia were quickly taking control of this game, and when Len Ikitau was stopped just short of the try line after winning the race to a Quade Cooper grubber, Kerevi was able to pick and go off the base of the ruck and force his way over beneath the posts. The Pumas finally got on the board with a Boffelli penalty as Rob Valentini was caught obstructing the chase at the restart, but the Wallabies were still clearly in control and thought they had a third try on the half hour as Nic White sniped off the back of a ruck and dive for the line, only to ground the ball against the base of the post short of the line (something that was previously a try but no longer) and lose control forwards, however the Wallabies had a penalty advantage and Cooper kicked the 3 points for a 17-3 halftime lead.

The Pumas came out firing after the break, and after a penalty allowed them to kick to the corner, the pack drove captain Julián Montoya over for a crucial try, however Boffelli missed the conversion from out wide and a penalty that followed son after. The strong start to the half was soon hurt by indiscipline though, and what should have been a penalty for the Pumas was reversed as Marcos Kremer tripped Reece Hodge during advantage, resulting in the flanker being sent to the bin. With the man advantage, Australia made their way downfield to the Argentina line, but were forced to settle for a James O’Connor penalty after Pablo Matera killed the ball. However, Australia secured the win with just over ten minutes left as James O’Connor received the ball 5m out, took a step to his right before popping the ball back inside to his left for Andrew Kellaway to go over, and though the final pass looked forwards, none of the officials felt that there was any need to check, allowing the replacement fly half to kick the Wallabies into a 27-8 lead that they would hold until the final whistle.

At 24 years old and comfortable at both lock or flanker, Marcos Kremer is a fantastic player on his day; a great enforcer who will carry, tackle and cause problems at the breakdown all day long. However, on a bad day, he is more than a little reminiscent of his fellow lock Tomás Lavanini, with a lack of discipline that too often proved costly.

In the second half of this match, the Pumas were beginning to get stronger. They had a try and were within 9 points of the Wallabies, despite Boffelli having left 8 points on the field with missed kicks, and were putting pressure on the hosts to win penalties. Unfortunately, twice in the space of 5 minutes, a penalty in the Australian half was reversed due to an offence by Kremer, the first as he shoulder charged Marika Koroibete after the whistle, the second his trip on Reece Hodge that saw him sent to the bin. Now with the second incident, I think there are certainly questions about why Matthew Carley took so long to blow the whistle when it was clear that no advantage was coming, but the point is that Kremer so frequently lacks the discipline to avoid these unnecessary incidents, which ends up costing his team.

The Pumas are in a bad place right now. They’re defensively weak, and struggling to create many chances in attack, with their superstar wingers barely getting a chance to show their quality. When they get penalties, they need to make the most of them, not have them overturned, which then allows their opponents to not only clear their lines but also set up their own attacks. If Kremer can continue to play the enforcer but cut out these stupid penalties, it will go a long way to helping the Pumas be more competitive.

The battle for number 10

Go back a couple of months and it looked like Noah Lolesio was at a point where he would be taking over the Australian number 10 jersey on a long-term basis. Suddenly, it looks like he has dropped out of the 22, with Quade Cooper coming out of the cold and James O’Connor returning from injury.

Both Cooper and O’Connor are incredibly talented players who have had rollercoaster careers. Yet now that they are in their 30s, they have both matured as players and also developed into true leaders at the fly half position, and I would argue that they give the Wallabies the best chance of winning right now—just as long as Lolesio is kept in the squad to learn off them.

But what we also saw on Saturday was a great way for the pair to be used. As the specialist 10, Cooper makes sense as the starter, especially while Nic White is being entrusted with the starting spot at 9. But then you have the chance to replace the pair with O’Connor and Tate McDermott with 20-30 minutes left, and the pair can use their chemistry from playing together for the Reds and McDermott’s threat around the fringes of the breakdown to terrorise a tiring defence.

Not only that, but O’Connor’s versatility is perfect for the Australian bench, as he is also able to come on to cover fullback should the starter get hurt or provide injury cover or a different tactical option at centre alongside Cooper.

With the World Cup just a couple of years away, could these two be the ones to lead Australia to victory, before finally passing over the torch to the next generation.

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v New Zealand

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v New Zealand

With Australia having completed the double over South Africa, it was time for part 2 of the double header, which saw winless Argentina face off against unbeaten New Zealand. With 2 matches against World Champions coming up, The All Blacks gave a number of big names a rest, but it was still a highly capable side sent out to face the Pumas, and it took just 5 minutes for them to open the scoring, with a break from Hoskins Sotutu releasing Will Jordan, who was stopped just short, only for Patrick Tuipulotu to crash over from short range. Emiliano Boffelli and Jordie Barrett traded penalties, but the Kiwis were looking for tries, and came close on 2 more occasions in the opening quarter, with both Jordan and Reiko Ioane having scores ruled out. However it was third time lucky on 26 minutes, as New Zealand got the shove on at a 5m scrum, allowing TJ Perenara to attack the blind side and—with Jordie Barrett attracting the attention of the wide defender—outpace the Pumas back row to the corner. Just minutes later, Reiko Ioane found a gap in midfield and utilised his break to get away, only to be hauled down just short of the line. He successfully dotted the ball down but a referral to the TMO found that he had got back to his feet while held by the tackler so he again found his try ruled out. With the half coming to a close, a break from Ardie Savea and a clever chip down the right wing brought the All Blacks up to the Argentina try line again, and after a number of phases, the ball squirted out as Samisoni Taukei’aho was stopped short, only for Savea to flick the ball into the hands of Tupou Vaa’i, who had to simply take one step to make it in for another try and a 3-24 halftime lead.

After the break, it was the Pumas who got on the scoresheet first through another Boffelli penalty, but New Zealand stretched their lead just minutes later as Will Jordan’s flick-on from Quinn Tupaea allowed Ardie Savea to draw the covering defender and send Taukei’aho over in the corner. Despite still clearly being second best, the Pumas were certainly more of an attacking threat in the second half, and finally got a try when Boffelli caught Santiago Carreras’ inch-perfect cross-kick and dotted down under pressure from Barrett and Jordan. However they almost conceded off the restart as Carreras’ clearance was charged down by Finlay Christie, only for the replacement scrum half to lose control as he tried to dot down. As the second half went on, the Pumas continued to grow into the game and start creating chances, but they kept finding ways to bring their attacks to disappointing ends, and with just a few minutes left in the game, the All Blacks finished with a flourish as Scott Barrett carried through contact and threw a lovely offload out the back of his hand for Vaa’i to go over for his second try of the game, with Jordie Barrett converting to secure a 13-36 win that should see the All Blacks jump to the top of the World Rankings.

Out of place

When I noted last week that Santiago Carreras was an option to cover fly half, I sure as hell wasn’t expecting Mario Ledesma to give him the 10 shirt this week and put Domingo Miotti on the bench! While Carreras has covered the position at times and certainly has the skill set, he has never started there at Test level, nor in Super Rugby or the Premiership.

And that inexperience certainly showed in this game, with 2 exit kicks charged down and a few other issues. But he certainly grew into the game, and came to life even more as the game opened up in the second half. If I’m being completely honest though, what he did best could have honestly been done from the fullback position.

Could Carreras be the next star at 10 for the Pumas? I certainly think he has the skillset, but he would have to start playing the position almost exclusively at both Test and club level, which isn’t going to happen considering Gloucester have just brought in Adam Hastings. At 23 years old, Carreras is at a crucial point in his career. He has the potential to become one of the world’s best, but to do that, he needs to start playing the same position week in week out. And if he’s going to be prioritising one position, I feel that it has to be fullback.

The best three

It’s absolutely crazy to me that Hoskins Sotutu is not a regular in this All Blacks side. Granted there are plenty of fantastic back row options available even with Sam Cane missing, but the Blues number 8 provides everything you want from the position: pace, power, good handling skills and an analytical brain. Ardie Savea may be the incumbent, but he could easily move to 7 with Cane absent, as he did for this game.

With 2 matches coming up against a wounded South African team, picking the right back row will be vital. You want a back row dynamic enough to run rings around the Springboks if they try to play an open game, but also a back row big enough and strong enough to front up to the might of the Springboks.

For me, there is only one trio to pick. Ardie Savea is guaranteed to start somewhere in the back row, and I would start him at 7, with Sotutu retaining his place at number 8, and the impressive Akira Ioane returning at 6. By picking this trio, you have 3 strong, dynamic ball carriers for the Springbok defence to deal with, while Ioane and Savea working as enforcers in defence. However, this is Ian Foster picking the team, so don’t be shocked to see Sotutu drop straight back out of the 23.

Step backwards

Over recent years, the Pumas have taken so many steps forward, but suddenly appear to be falling apart. One thing that has consistently been the case in recent weeks is that the team is creating chances in most games, but then making some error to bring the chance to an end. The more I have thought about it, the more I think that this is at least in part due to the loss of the Jaguares.

Through the 4 seasons of the Jaguares being part of Super Rugby, we saw a clear improvement in the quality of the national team, as the vast majority of the players were training and playing together every week. And while that may have limited them against the elite teams, it was enough to at least make them able to challenge in every match.

However, with COVID stopping cross-border Super Rugby competition, the Jaguares were left out in the cold, and that has remained the case as South Africa’s teams have joined the Ultimate Rugby Championship, while the Australian and New Zealand franchises have been joined by Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua in the new Super Rugby Pacific. This means that they are the only Tier 1 nation without a single club in a top-tier league.

Having their squad spread all around the globe, it makes it so much harder to bring everyone together sufficiently enough to build up any chemistry. Similarly, it is harder for prospective future stars to make the step up, as they will likely need to get on the international scene before a top flight club takes an interest in them.

But where can Argentina look to re-establish the Jaguares? It’s unlikely that Super Rugby Pacific will be looking to add more teams any time soon. The Ultimate Rugby Championship is focused over just a couple of time zones even if there is some distance between South Africa and the other nations involved. The Premiership and Top 14 are both domestic leagues for just 1 single country each. The only established professional league that would make sense would be the MLR, but that league isn’t yet to the level of competition that Argentina need to challenge at the top level, though it would at least allow them to potentially bring back a few of their internationals while also find new young talent to then potentially pick up contracts in the elite leagues.

In the meantime though, don’t be shocked to see the Pumas continue to struggle as they adapt to the loss of the Jaguares.

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v South Africa

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v South Africa

With the 2021 Rugby Championship entering its fourth round, last week’s shock victory for the Wallabies over World Champions South Africa had really opened up the table. With this round being a reverse of last week’s fixtures, the Springboks had an immediate chance to get revenge, but they almost went behind after just 4 minutes after a break by Samu Kerevi off first phase ball was ended only by Andrew Kellaway failing to keep hold of Folau Fainga’a’s offload. The Springboks soon had a chance of their own with a 5m lineout, but after Eben Etzebeth broke off early and was brought to ground, he was adjudged to have crawled along the floor. The Wallabies were soon back on the attack, and after Faf de Klerk was sent to the bin for cynically killing the ball, it took them just a few phases from the resulting 5m lineout before Len Ikitau stepped out of Handré Pollard’s tackle and crossed for his first Test try. Pollard cut the lead with a penalty, but Ikitau was soon over for a second try, after a clever inside pass from Tom Banks to the late-arriving Marika Koribete helped create an overlap on the right, with the wing then sending the young centre over in the corner. With South Africa back to 15 men, the game tightened up, and Pollard kicked 3 penalties to one from Cooper, while Lachlan Swinton also spent 10 minutes on the naughty step for a no-arms tackle on Duane Vermeulen.

Having cut Australia’s lead to just 3 points by half time, the World Champions took the lead soon after the break, with Faf de Klerk putting in a clever grubber down a narrow blindside and Lukhanyo Am beating the turning Reece Hodge before dotting the ball down—a small atonement for last week. However they could not match up to the Wallabies for long, and the introduction of Pete Samu from the bench just opened the game up even more, with Marika Koroibete starting the final quarter with his first 2 tries of the campaign. With the game entering the final 10 minutes, the Wallabies held a 13 point lead and the South Africans were pushing for a try, but some solid Australian defence saw Michael Hooper and Samu Kerevi each winning crucial turnover penalties, while Cobus Wiese was given a yellow card for going off his feet to hit Kerevi in the head at the second turnover, allowing the Wallabies to clear their lines and hold on for a 30-17 victory that will see them climb into the top 3 of the World rankings and go just 1 point behind South Africa in the table.

Finely balanced

It’s amazing how just a couple of personnel changes can completely change a team, but that seems to be what has happened here with the Wallabies. With Quade Cooper coming in at 10 and not needing a second playmaker at centre, it has given the Wallabies the opportunity to play a more physical 12 in Samu Kerevi and a 13 in Ikitau who can exploit the space provided.

With that midfield, coupled with a strong and dynamic carrier in Marika Koroibete, and you have a back line capable of running riot and creating space for Banks and Kellaway. However a great back line still needs a pack to help them, and they are developing that too. Taniela Tupou must be close to having his membership to the front row union revoked with the way he plays in the open—just look at his input for Koroibete’s try! Meanwhile in the back row, Michael Hooper is always a danger in space, while Rob Valentini just looks more comfortable throwing his weight around with every match. and then when Pete Samu comes off the bench, he brings another dynamic carrier who also has the strength to beak tackles.

By having these carriers, Australia now have not just the necessary physicality to break the gainline, but the players to follow that up and keep the team on the front foot with 3 or 4 phases of hard carrying. Then add in the handling skills of some of these players like Tupou and Kerevi, and there is the distinct threat that one line break could be all it takes for the team to get over for a try.

Wrong man

While I think that Australia got their selections almost spot on this week, I think that South Africa made a big mistake. With Pieter-Steph du Toit missing trough injury, Franco Mostert was moved into the back row and Malvin Orie given the start at lock. While this selection would fit how the team has played of late, they finally chose to play attacking rugby in this match, and I think the selection of Mostert at flanker hurt them.

This is nothing against Mostert, he is a great player with an incredible engine, but the open game is then asking so much more of him. A better selection would have been one of the three back rowers on the bench: Kwagga Smith. The former 7s star is an incredible talent, but his speed and ability to get around the park is much more effective in an open game like this than the tight territorial battles we have seen the Springboks play of late.

Wanting Mostert at flanker to provide a third lineout option was understandable during the Lions series, but with Duane Vermeulen back in the line-up, this isn’t necessary. South Africa have great strength in depth, Jacques Nienaber now needs to start considering which players are better for the type of game they are looking to play.

Captain Fantastic

While doing the double over the World Champions is already cause for celebration, it was even more so for Michael Hooper, who was becoming the Wallabies’ most capped captain. With 113 caps to his name (placing him 28ᵗʰ all time for most-capped rugby players) and at only 29 years old, her certainly has the chance to add plenty more caps to his tally before his career comes to an end.

And those caps are all well-earned. The openside is a fantastic talent, one of the very best fetchers in the Southern Hemisphere, but also with the leadership and an all-round game that sets him apart from many other 7s. Hooper’s work rate is unmatched, and even in the worst Australian performances, he will often still stand out as one of the best players on the park. He has great handling skills and the speed to be like another centre when the team is on the attack, but also the strength and grit to match any back rower in the more physical side of the game. And as this tournament has proved, he’s not afraid to spill some claret for his country.

Perhaps it has been due to playing so much of his career in the shadow of David Pocock, perhaps it is the way Australia have been so up and down through his career; whatever the reason, I don’t believe that Hooper gets the wider acclaim that he deserves. Considering how frequently he has had to adapt to new laws at the breakdown during his career, when he hangs up his boots in the (hopefully still far away) future, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him remembered as one of the best opensides to play the game.