England v Barbarians

England v Barbarians

With Freddie Burns kicking Leicester to a late victory over Saracens, the Premiership Rugby season came to an end and the eyes of English fans turned to the Summer Tests as England kicked off the action at Twickenham with a match against the Barbarians, which saw the invitational team win 52-21 despite playing the entire second half a man down following a red card to WIll Skelton.

Of course the Baabaas are always going to be tough to judge as the are full of quality individuals but have little time together as a team, and similarly this was an England team missing its Leicester and Saracens players, so we can expect a very different team when England kick off their tour, but what can England learn from this match?

England: 21

Tries: Joe Cokanasiga (36′), Jonny May (51′), Marcus Smith (60′)

Penalties: Marcus Smith (16′, 35′) 

Barbarians: 52

Tries: Penalty (18′), Charles Ollivon (24′), Damian Penaud (38′,55′) Baptiste Couilloud (46′), Louis Carbonel (67′), Max Spring (74′), Antoine Hastoy (79′)

Conversions: Antoine Hastoy (25′, 68′), George Kruis (47′, 75′, 80′)

Toothless

It’s not easy being an England fan these days.

There are some bad teams in rugby, but very few look as toothless or lost in attack as England. Eddie Jones has made a big thing of this “formationless rugby” that he wants to play, but too often when they have played this year, they have just looked lost.

Today was another such occasion. England made a couple of midfield breaks through the forwards in the early minutes, but there was no cohesion in the play, and it’s notable that their sole try in the first half came from countering a kick rather than going through the phases. It wasn’t really until the introduction of Danny Care early in the second half (by which point Will Skelton’s red card had left England with a 1-man advantage) that England started to find some shape and cohesion, scoring a couple of tries. But even then, many attacks came to dull endings or saw England letting men get isolated and turned over.

Granted it is probably an attacking style that benefits from a group of players who are used to playing together (which would of course hamper this cobbled together team) but with the World Cup just over a year away and a lot of questions still regarding the England line-up, are they running out of time. Can Owen Farrell’s experience get this attack working, either alongside Marcus Smith or in pace of him? Or is it time for Eddie Jones to consider this another failed experiment and go back to a more conventional attack.

Awful day for Atkinson

With Manu Tuilagi’s inability to stay match fit, something that England have continually lacked under Eddie Jones has been an answer for when he is not available. While Eddie Jones has usually chosen to go for a more lightweight and playmaking midfield in his star’s absence, one player whose club performances over he same timeframe should have earned him more chances was Mark Atkinson.

Well the Gloucester centre got his chance today, but it couldn’t have really gone much worse for him. England’s complete lack of structure and fluidity limited his effectiveness, which was then made even worse playing against a centre pairing of heavyweights Levani Botia and Virimi Vakatawa and a defence coached by Shaun Edwards. Meanwhile in defence, the normally solid defender fund himself falling off a few tackles and being outpaced to the outside by Damian Penaud for a break midway through the first half. Watching him today, it was sadly obvious that he hadn’t played any competitive rugby for a couple of months. And then to make it even worse, a 50/50 pass in his 22 failed to loft over Penaud and allowed the French wing to go over for a try right a England started to get back in the match.

He certainly started showing his quality more in the second half, with a couple of involvements in the build-up to Jonny May’s try, but given that’s against 14 men following Will Skelton’s red card, you can guarantee that it won’t get the recognition that it deserves.

While Atkinson’s form over recent years and his status as the only crash ball 12 available to England right now (with Tuilagi, Worcester’s Ollie Lawrence and Leicester’s Dan Kelly all out injured) should be enough to put him on the plane to Australia, it wouldn’t surprise me if this match is the excuse Eddie Jones will use to leave him out.

Welcome returns

Well there was little to be happy about for England today, fans should be pleased with the returns of Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga. Cokanasiga was playing for England for the first time in just over a year, while Care had become one of the many whose face didn’t fit in Jones’ England, having not played since November 2018, despite having been arguably one of the best 9s in the world in recent years.

And while England lost badly, there were certainly positives to take from their performances. Cokanasiga looked to be troubled a little by an ankle injury sustained midway through the first half, but made a couple of good breaks and finished off Tommy Freeman’s stunning kick counter with a strong carry to the line with a tackler hanging off of him. With his size and power, he provides a different option out wide that could be especially useful with Manu Tuilagi missing the tour, if they can get him coming in off his wing and find some holes to punch him through in midfield.

And as for Care, well his experience and quality certainly helped England bring some shape to their attack. Will he be given the chance to show his quality Down Under? Or was he just brought in as Eddie wanted an experienced 9 in camp while Ben Youngs was still with Leicester. If care isn’t on the plane to Australia, it may be time for a riot.

Avengers XV

Avengers XV

Those who know me will know that as well as being a big sports fan, I am a massive geek. Star Wars has been an obsession as long as I can remember, Middle Earth became one when the release of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy introduced me to that world, and following a massive binge ahead of Captain Marvel to catch up on everything I had missed in time for Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Union has also secured a place in my heart.

These last couple of weeks have been big for me in my MCU fandom. With the home release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, I am finally back up to date with the MCU, and have loved the opening 2 episodes of Moon Knight, while me rewatch of the franchise with my mother (whois watching for the first time) is also getting close to being up to date. So with all that going on, it’s safe to say that I have had the MCU on the brain.

And so for a bit of fun this week, I decided to cross over the MCU with one of my other great loves: rugby. Imagine the the Avengers and their allies got together for a game of rugby, what would the team look like?

Obviously this is just a bit of fun and very tongue in cheek, so please don’t take this too seriously and let me know your selections in the comments, as you’ll notice I ended up leaving out some big names, while also stuck to the heroes rather than include the villains.

Loosehead Prop: Korg

MCU Thor Ragnarok Korg

The scrum is a vital part of the game, and with Korg packing down in the front row, it’s hard to imagine many people will be pushing him backwards. Not only that, but as such an easygoing character, he’s not likely to get too riled up by his opposition.

Hooker: M’Baku

MCU Black Panther M'Baku

A late addition to my team, the leader of the Jabari Tribe will provide some leadership in the front row and show a ferocious visage to unnerve his opposition. Strong but dynamic, he is everything you want from a modern hooker.

Tighthead Prop: Hulk

MCU Thor Ragnarok Hulk

Let’s be honest, props generally are the smartest members of the team, you just don’t notice as they hide that on the pitch behind a much more ferocious attitude… sound familiar? If you thought Korg’s side of the scrum was imposing, imagine the big green meanie packing down on the other side of M’Baku… then feel sorry for the opposition pack.

Locks: Groot & Ant-Man

We’ve got a huge front row and an even bigger second row! With Groot’s ability to grow on the spot and Scott Lang able to grow to at least 60ft, it’s going to be all-but impossible for M’Baku to overthrow them at the lineout. Let’s just hope Groot isn’t calling the lineouts or the only play will be “I am Groot”.

Blindside Flanker: Iron Man

MCU Iron Man 2 Tony Stark

Let’s be honest, blindside is an interesting position these days as there’s so many ways you can go, depending on the type of game you’re trying to play. You could go for an enforcer or a slightly more dynamic third lock.Well in Tony Stark, you have an all-rounder, as his suit has enough firepower to make him an enforcer, while also keeping him super dynamic in the loose and being able to take advantage of his suit’s rockets to be an extra jumper at the lineout.

Openside Flanker: Black Widow

MCU Black Widow Natasha Romanov Yelena Belova

Some people may be surprised at this pick, but the Black Widows have proved that they can hold their own, while they are also experts at covert infiltrations, exactly what you want at the breakdown. And just like with Sale’s Curry Twins, if Natasha isn’t available, her “sister” Yelena can do the exact same job just as well.

Number 8: Drax the Destroyer

MCU Guardians of the Galaxy Drax

It was probably pretty obvious that he’d be my pick here once he wasn’t named in my front row. Drax is a number 8 in the mould of Billy Vunipola and Duane Vermeulen: a big guy who will run at you hard and put the team on the front foot with some impressive carries.

Scrum Half: Rocket Raccoon

MCU Guardians of the Galaxy Rocket

Let’s be honest, a scrum half is just a small guy without the physicality to back up his big mouth, who the opposition hate all the time and his teammates hate some of the time.

Fly Half: Hawkeye

MCU Thor Hawkeye

One of the key members of the Avengers though often underrated (the Avengers have never lost with Clint Barton present). A highly experienced operator with a quiver full of tricks, and you know you can count on him for 100% accuracy.

Inside Centre: The Winter Soldier

MCU Falcon and the Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes

Centres these days need to be a jack of all trades, and as a supersoldier, Bucky Barnes certainly brings that to the role. Years of experience alongside his fellow centre (more on that shortly) makes for a reliable defensive organisation, while in attack Bucky uses his vibranium arm for some wicked handoffs and beautiful offloads.

Outside Centre: Captain America

MCU Avengers Captain America

Perhaps the most rounded player on the pitch, the 13 needs to have pace, physicality, good all-round skills, and be a leader and organiser in defence. Well, Steve Rogers is certainly all of that, and with his old pal Bucky at 12 they’ll have a strong partnership.

Wings: Pietro Maximoff & Spider-Man

Is there anything more scary than a wing with pure unadulterated pace? Nope, and that is why Pietro Maximoff was probably the easiest pick of the entire XV. Meanwhile how annoying is it for a team to put in some lovely build-up play only for the wing to knock the ball on? Well with Peter Parker and his sticky fingers on the wing, you have the safest hands on the pitch.

Fullback: Kate Bishop

MCU Hawkeye Kate Bishop

We’ve all seen it before: the seasoned veteran gets the start at fly half, while their successor starts at fullback to get first team experience in a similar position with slightly less pressure. Well, enter Kate Bishop for a taste of first team action as Clint Barton’s retirement nears.

2022 Six Nations: England v Wales

2022 Six Nations: England v Wales

With France’s win over Scotland confirmed, today’s Six Nations action moved to Twickenham, which would play host to England’s match against Wales. England’s build-up was disrupted by an injury to Manu Tuilagi following the initial naming of the squad, but they still found themselves too strong for the Welsh in the early stages, with a series of penalties allowing Marcus Smith to kick them into a 6-0 lead in the opening 5 minutes. The Welsh grew into the game and after a clever kick from Nick Tompkins put the Welsh deep in the English 22, they found themselves with a lineout 5m out, but inaccuracies cost them. England hit back from this warning and when Charlie Ewels was held up over the line, Liam Williams was sent to the sin bin for cynically playing the ball in the ruck. However the 14 men held out with a scrum penalty allowing them to clear their lines as referee Mike Adamson found himself out of his depth, and England were forced to settle for 2 more penalties from Smith for a 12-0 halftime lead.

In the last round, I noted how the Welsh lineout had finally began to sort itself out and avoid being a liability. Well it seems that praise came too early as Elias struggled to connect with his men throughout the game, and just minutes after the break and with a lineout in his own 22, he overthrew his entire pack (though it must be noted that nobody was even lifted, so it may not have all been his fault) and the ball went straight to Alex Dombrandt, who went over for his first Test try. The Welsh attack looked more cohesive in this half, and when they finally got some possession in the England 22, a clever flat pass from the back of a ruck by Tomos Williams sent Josh Adams over in the corner. What had been a 17-0 lead for England suddenly looked fragile, and after a series of penalties allowed Wales more time deep in the English 22, Topkins went over just after the hour and Dan Biggar converted to cut the lead to 5. 2 penalties from Smith gave England some breathing room but they couldn’t quite kill off the game, and when Kieran Hardy went over from a quick-tap penalty in the 80ᵗʰ minute, Biggar managed to take a quick drop goal conversion to bring the score to 23-19 but crucially give Wales one final chance to play. Of course they would need to go the length, but what looked the unlikeliest of victories suddenly became more realistic as England captain Courtney Lawes was penalised for a deliberate knock-on. However referee Adamson’s officiating style would be called questionable at best and though he awarded the penalty, he chose not to send Lawes to the bin, and though Wales found themselves in the English half, they were unable to penetrate the 15-man English defence and Maro Itoje won a crucial turnover to secure victory for England.

England

Plenty has been said about Marcus Smith over the last couple of weeks, but today was another great example at just how dangerous he is with ball in hand.

The young Harlequins fly half repeatedly took the ball to the line, but did a great job of varying his play between playing the ball off to a forward to truck it up and running with it himself. This variety is crucial. If he plays the ball off every time, the defence can adapt to this and zero in on the forward,whereas if he runs, they know that they have to commit to him. However by varying it up, it forces the defender to make a decision as to whether they commit to Smith or the forward runner. And the moment the defender makes up their mind and commits one way or the other, Smith can strike by doing the opposite.

Granted, England were outscored 3 tries to 1 today, and that try was gifted to them by the Welsh, but that was not on Smith’s play. With such a lightweight back line outside of him, he was forced to rely on forward runners, whereas the option of a more physical back (Tuilagi may be out but Mark Atkinson and Dan Kelly were both playing in the Premiership today) would have added an extra dimension to the attack and given the defence a third option to consider.

Wales

Wales should consider this one that got away from them. Had they turned up in the first half, or had their lineout been of Test rugby standard, they could have won this.

The performance in the first half was the real killer. There was a clear tactic from the off to get the ball out to the wide men as soon as possible, and they certainly had some success out wide, with Alex Cuthbert carrying for 137 metres. The issue however was that there was not enough organisation to deal with these breaks and half-breaks. Too often the ball carrier would find themselves isolated once the were stopped, gifting England possession, territory, while 2 of Marcus Smith’s penalties came from Cuthbert holding on as support failed to get to him soon enough—those 6 points alone would have been enough to change the result. They still weren’t perfect in the second half, but they were much better organised. And with that, they were able to build phases in the England 22 and force their way over their tries.

A tactic of getting it wide as quick as possible puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the team to keep up with the back 3, who are often the fastest men on the pitch. Will Wales look to stick with this game plan in 2 weeks’ time? Or was this a plan to try (and fail) to keep the ball away from the English pack?

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v France

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v France

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

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

Scotland

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

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

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

France

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

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

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

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

2022 Six Nations: Italy v England

2022 Six Nations: Italy v England

Round 2 of the 2022 Six Nations finished off on Sunday with England’s trip to Rome. Eddie Jones’ men were looking to get their campaign back on track after an opening day defeat against Scotland and would certainly have been hoping that the Italian U20’s 6-0 victory on Friday night was not a sign of things to come.

And while the Italians put some pressure on early, it was the visitors who scored first as Max Malins got around the outside of the defensive line and fed the ball back inside for the supporting Marcus Smith, who converted his own try. And the lead was doubled midway through the first half as England got quick ball off a lineout move and went through the phases for Jamie George to go over next to the posts. The Azzurri were being hurt hard by the penalty count, and England were happily taking advantage of the territory, but while England thought they had third try through Maro Itoje after Harry Randall found some space around the fringe of a lineout maul, the TMO found that Nick Isiekwe illegally obstructed in the formation of the maul., while their next attack minutes later saw Ellis Genge get white line fever and knock on as he tried to pick and go for the line. However the visitors did get a try right before the break. Stephen Varney attempted to clear up after a high ball from his opposite number Harry Randall, but his pass went wild and ended up in English hands, and after a clever run from Freddie Steward coming in off the left touchline, the ball was spread wide right to Jamie George, who just had the pace, power and wingspan to reach the corner, Smith converting for a 0-21 halftime lead.

Kyle Sinckler was introduced at the break and this helped the English begin to gain some dominance at the scrum and after a strong scrum in the Italian 22, Marcus Smith held Federico Mori just long enough to release Elliot Daly—onearly following a failed HIA for Jack Nowell—with a flat pass to send him over in the corner to secure the bonus point. What followed was a period of possession and territory for the Azzurri, but they could not find their way over for a try, though Tom Curry was very lucky to avoid a yellow card for cynically killing the ball during one of the Italians’ most successful attacks. However as the replacements came on, England found themselves kicking more and inviting the pressure but held on strong, and when Leonardo Marin fumbled a high ball from Marcus Smith just outside his 22, England quickly exploited it and Kyle Sinckler went over for the try. With just under 10 minutes left, Italy found themselves camped in the English 22 again but a fumble at the back of the scrum ended their attack and gave England just enough time for one more attack, which saw Henry Slade go over but lose possession of the ball as he tried to ground it under pressure from Tiziano Pasquali for a final score of 0-33.

Italy

Italy need to find the balance in the back row, as it’s costing them at the moment. Granted, were everyone available, it is highly likely that the starting trio of Jake Polledri, Seb Negri and captain Michele Lamaro would be the go-to unit. However with Polledri out and Sergio Parisse in the twilight of his career, the focus has been to go to the younger players. Unfortunately, they have struggled to have any real impact on the games.

With Negri on the bench this week, there was a clear lack of carrying from the back row, while Giovanni Pettinelli will have likely wished the ground swallowed him up after fumbling the ball at the base of a crum deep in the English 22. While the answers long term may be making their way up from the U20, in the short term I think that the best answer would be the experience an all-round playing ability of Braam Steyn, who at 29 should still be a part of this squad at least through the World Cup.

England

Make sure you’re sat down before you read this: England actually came out and played rugby this week. With Harry Randall given the 9 shirt, he brought his natural quick game into play, and the speed of ball made it so easy for the pack to batter the Italian defence while the backs had the space for creative players like Smith, Malins and Steward to show their quality.

However things were far from perfect. There were a number of errors from the players, who clearly weren’t used to playing at such a pace, while a better defence like most suspected World Cup quarterfinalists would have would also find themselves catching England isolated or behind the gain line more often. Moreso, the speed and attacking mentality disappeared the moment Harry Randall was removed, just before the hour.

And to sort this is a simple situation: keep playing this way. Ben Youngs has been a fantastic player, but now that he has equalled Json Leonard’s record of 114 England mens’ caps, his time as a starter (or perhaps even in the 23) needs to be at an end as England look to play a faster tempo of rugby week in week out. Only by doing this can they cut out the errors and then find a way to build on this attacking game to beat the best defences even if Manu Tuilagi isn’t present.

2022 Six Nations: France v Ireland

2022 Six Nations: France v Ireland

Round 2 of the 2022 Six Nations continued with Ireland’s trip to Paris to face France. With both teams winning comfortably in round 1, this looked like a potential early title decider.

The Irish came in without captain Jonathan Sexton, who was ruled out midway through the week, and soon found themselves down on the scoreboard as Antoine Dupont crossed for a try after less than 90 seconds, with Melvyn jaminet adding the conversion and a penalty soon after. After such a bad start, Ireland needed to get themselves into the game and did so in the best way from the restart, with Mack Hansen beating Jaminet to the ball and going over untouched, Carbery converting on his first Six Nations start. The game calmed down slightly after such a frantic start, but the game remained hugely physical and Les Bleus’ attack allowed Jaminet to stretch the lead with 3 more penalties for a 19-7 halftime lead.

Jaminet quickly added another penalty after the break, but when Andrew Porter won a penalty at the restart, Joey Carbery went to the corner and the Irish pack managed to dive Josh van der Flier over for a vital try, which Carbery converted, while Jamison Gibson-Park found and exploited a gap just minutes later for another 7 points. With the points margin having suddenly dropped from 15 points to 1, the French hit back and when they turned the Irish over on their own 5m line, Cyril Baille crashed over from short range. arbery cut the lead to 3 with a penalty as the game entered the final 10 minutes but with just minutes left a clever kick from Gaël Fickou put the French on the attack and though Jaminet was adjudged to have held the ball up over the line, an hand in the ruck from Caelan Doris allowed the fullback to kick the simplest of penalties and Les Bleus saw out the final minutes to keep their title hopes alive with a 30-24 victory, while Ireland were left to settle for a losing bonus point.

France

This was a huge performance from France, and while their attacking quality let to some beautiful tries, it was the defence that proved crucial, especially in the first half. Ever since Shaun Edwards made the move across the channel, Les Bleus have looked a different beast without the ball.

While the Irish did find a couple of chinks in the second half, the first half was a truly dominant display. Not only were they physical and trying to dominate the point of contact, they were also incredibly smart with the way they treated the breakdown. They picked their moments to attack the breakdown when they felt they could win the turnover, and held off when it wasn’t on, allowing them to spread the full team across the pitch while Ireland found themselves having committed multiple players to a non-existent ruck to secure quick ball.

And when they were spread in defence, they came up with pace and closed down all opportunities for the Irish. Take away one bad restart, one poor maul defence and one poorly guarded ruck and that French line isn’t troubled. But Because of those efforts, we all know that Shaun Edwards will expect better, and that’s why the French will continue to improve.

Ireland

It’s crazy to think that this was Joey Carbery’s first Six Nations start, but this also highlighted the big issue with this Ireland team. They will not win the big games without Jonathan Sexton.

Sexton is arguably a fantastic talent, but the reliance on him has left Ireland in an awful position where nobody has been given enough of a chance to played the position with any regularity and impose themselves in the squad. And that means that when Sexton is suddenly not available, nobody is able to adequately replace him.

With the World Cup pools already decided, the best thing that Ireland could do is rest Sexton for the rest of the season and let pick a pair of 10s to get all the minutes and develop with the team. That way even if anything happens to Sexton, their chances of progressing in the World Cup are still at a decent level. Otherwise, an injury to Sexton right before the tournament could see Ireland go from potential champions to missing out on the knockouts.

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Wales

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Wales

The latest edition of the Six Nations Championship got underway in Dublin with Ireland taking on defending champions Wales.

Wales came in with a host of players missing through injury and soon found themselves defending in their own 22 against an Irish onslaught, which eventually ended in debutant Mack Hansen floating a lovely ball out to Bundee Aki to score in the corner. The Irish were by far the stronger team, but struggled to turn this early superiority into points, with Jonathan Sexton following up a difficult but successful conversion with 2 missed penalties from far easier positions before finally adding 3 points off the tee to pass Owen Farrell for the third-most points in Six Nations history (behind just Jonny Wilkinson and Ronan O’Gara). As the half went on though, some errors from the home team allowed the Welsh to start growing into the game and with a 10-0 halftime score, the fixture looked far from over.

Unfortunately for the Welsh, the second half started much like the first, with the Irish going through the phases in the Welsh 22, and after a poor ball was played out to Andrew Conway—who was forced to step in to take it—the Munster wing’s clever stop-go gave him the chance to angle to the corner flag, and through he was tackled he just managed to stretch to the line. Things soon got even worse for the defending champions as Josh Adams was sent to the bin for a shoulder barge off the ball on Sexton, and the men in green wasted no time in sending Conway over for a second try, before Garry Ringrose went over on the counterattack at the very end of the sin bin period. With the game over as a competition, the question became “will Wales score a point?”. And they finally did with 5 minutes left as Taine Basham intercepted Tadgh Beirne’s offload (one blot on a otherwise brilliant performance for the former Scarlet) to cross under the posts for a 29-7 bonus point win for Andy Farrell’s men.

Ireland

While Ireland certainly carried on where they left off and were clearly the stronger team, they will certainly look back at this match and know that they can be better.

Granted conditions were typically British (wet and windy), but the men in green found a number of attacks coming to an early end due to handling errors. Meanwhile a couple of strong attacking positions were ruined by poor setting of the maul deep in the Welsh 22, including one which saw Caelan Doris pinged for obstruction. And then of course we have that offload from Beirne which in hindsight was never on and cost the team a deserved clean sheet.

Of course this is just week 1, and that means that we will likely just see improvements from the Irish as he tournament goes on. If they can cut out the errors, they will be turning into a real force in Test rugby again and be putting themselves in with a good shout of challenging for the Championship despite having to play away to rivals France and England.

Wales

Sometimes you look at the team sheet and can already see that it’s going to be a difficult game. That was the case when I looked at this Welsh line-up. Of course with the number of injuries Wales had, it was always going to be difficult, but the moment I saw Josh Adams named at 13, I could not see beyond an Irish victory.

13 is arguably one of the most important positions in professional rugby. You need to be a real all-rounder: pacy, good stamina, able to kick and pass very well, a reliable tackler, a great communicator and highly organised both in attack and defence. And while Josh Adams is many of these, he is not experienced at the position, especially at Test level.

While he may have coped had Wales been the dominant attacking team, they were instead struggling to cross the gain line in attack, while defensively, Adams was targeted by the Irish, who repeatedly challenged either his inside or outside shoulder and repeatedly found themselves getting over the gain line. Though it’s no excuse, I’m sure there was a large degree of frustration involved in Adams’ awful shoulder charge on Sexton, which arguably killed the game off as the Welsh not only lost a decent field position but also shipped 12 points while he was of the pitch.

While Adams at 13 was far from the only issue that needs addressing following such a poor performance, it is an easy one to fix. If Wales want to win against Scotland next week, they need to play Adams where he plays best and bring in a specialist centre to shore up the midfield.

Guinness Six Nations

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.

rugby autumn nations series logo 

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.