Autumn Nations Series 2022: Combined XV

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Combined XV

The Autumn Series is over for another year. 1 year out from the Rugby World Cup and South Africa are developing a more expansive game; France and Ireland are reaching new heights; Italy are finally seeing the results from a complete rebuild of their infrastructure; and a number of big teams are looking in deep trouble.

And so as we look back on 5 weeks of action, all that remains is for me to make my customary combined XV, and let me tell you it was not easy given some of the performances. Who would make your XV? Let me know in the comments.


My Team of the Autumn Nations Series is…

1) Pierre Schoeman: Carried well and was strong in the scrummage to help create a platform for the backs to attack off, while also giving us a moment of comedy with his Superman impression as he tried illegally jumping over a tackle.

2) Ken Owens: The Sheriff’s return showed just what Wales have been missing at hooker. Had a few wobbles at the lineout but seemed more reliable than before his time out, while his carrying and willingness to make the hard metres is something that Wales has desperately needed.

3) Frans Malherbe: Found himself getting penalised at the scrum maybe a little more than usual, but the way he manhandled the English scrum was such a dominant performance that could not be ignored. Having been his plaything in 2 matches now, mako Vunipola likely comes out in a cold sweat whenever he hears the Springbok’s name.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Tadhg Beirne: Etzebeth is in the form of his life and it is a joy to behold, that he wasn’t nominated for World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year is a farce! Meanwhile Beirne continues to do what he does best in every game: does his duty at the set piece, causes nightmares at the breakdown and has a positive impact in the loose.

6) Jac Morgan: The silver lining to a dismal Autumn for Wales. Carried in a way that Wales have been missing for a long time, consistently making yards in the contact and finishing with 4 tries. Looked completely at home on the Test stage and should now be looking to secure the 6 shirt as his during the Six Nations.

7) Dalton Papali’i: Sam Cane’s absence gave Papali’i a chance to show what he could do, and such was his quality that Ian Foster should be looking to name a new captain. Made a positive impact all over the pitch, while adding much more threat with ball in hand. Great reading of the English gameplan to intercept Jack van Poortvliet’s pass away from the lineout and had the pace to run in untouched from halfway.

8) Lorenzo Cannone: The younger Cannone brother is the second back row on this list to have only debuted for his country this year, but is fully deserving of his place here, even given the form of Ardie Savea. Looked comfortably at home on the Test stage and consistently popped up as a carrying option to help the Azzurri get on the front foot. Fully deserving of his tries against Samoa and South Africa.

9) Stephen Varney: Had a hard time last season with limited minutes for Gloucester, while his form in the Six Nations wasn’t great before his injury. But was back to his absolute best this autumn, providing quick ball for his team while also controlling the game well with some great kicking.

10) Finn Russell: Gregor Townsend better feel like an absolute moron for dropping him. Came in after 2 ordinary performances from Blair Kinghorn and Adam Hastings and put in 2 wonderful performances, almost beating the All Blacks. With Russell playing, the Scottish performances are taken to a completely different level.

11) Mark Nawaqanitawase: Commentators better get used to pronouncing his name as he looks like he will be around for a long time. Looked better with each match he played and was key to Australia’s comeback against Wales. With his blend of pace and power, he reminds me somewhat of George North when he first hit the Test Rugby scene.

12) Stuart McCloskey: Finally got a chance and looked every bit the Test player, despite injury and personnel changes around him making it far harder to bed himself in. Hopefully he gets to keep the 12 shirt for the Six Nations but will come under pressure from the returning Bundee Aki.

13) Len Ikitau: Has secured his spot in the Australian XV and quietly gone about his business over the last year to under the radar become one of the best 13s in Test rugby. Despite frequent personnel changes all around him, Ikitau has become one of those reliable defensive linchpins up there with Chris Harris and Lukhanyo Am.

14) Kurt-Lee Arendse: Talk about taking your chances! The absence of Cheslin Kolbe gave Arendse his opportunity and he’s been undroppable since. Scored in every match of the series on the way to 5 tries in total, looking comfortable as part of the territory game or South Africa’s more expansive play.

15) Willie le Roux: This series showed just how vital le Roux is to the Springboks. As they looked at fly half options beyond the injured Handré Pollard, they looked rudderless when he wasn’t playing, but like potential World Cup winners when he was at 15, such is the way that he comes in as an extra playmaker and take pressure off of his 10. Always seems to be the one throwing the key pass for a South African try.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Australia

With World Rugby’s Test window officially over, Wales faced off against Australia in Cardiff for the final round of the series with both teams missing their English- and French-based talent, while injuries were leaving the Australian ranks especially depleted, but a strong first scrum allowed Ben Donaldson to open the scoring with an early penalty after Wales failed to secure the kickoff. It was the Welsh who scored the first try though; Tomow Williams crabbing off the back of a ruck to draw 2 tacklers and offloading to put Alun Wyn Jones through and into the 22, and the experienced lock fed Jac Morgan to power his way over for another try, having scored a brace last week against Georgia. Donaldson and Anscombe traded penalties as both teams tried to take control of the game, and as the game entered the second quarter, Wales managed to play the ball through the hands to put Taulupe Faletau over in the corner, Anscombe’s touchline conversion and another penalty soon after making it a 14-point lead. Australia finally made a chance of note, but Jed Holloway’s charge for the line was stopped by a fine tackle from Josh Adams, who had been promoted to the starting XV following a late injury to Leigh Halfpenny. Australia were finally managing to spend some time in the Welsh half though, and with the pressure, chances were starting to be created, only for loose handling skills to bring the attacks to a disappointing end, but they finally made their way over the line after a Welsh penalty allowed them to set up a driving maul from a 5m lineout to send Folau Fainga’a over for the try, Donaldson adding the extras. There was time for a Welsh response before the break though, and when Rio Dyer’s break was stopped just short of the line, Jake Gordon was sent to the bin for cynically impeding replacement scrum half Kieran Hardy as he tried to play the ball away. Wales looked to take advantage of the extra man by going for the scrum, but the Wallabies defence just managed to hold Hardy up over the line to end the half with the score at 20-13.

The second half started with Reece Hodge hitting the upright with a penalty from inside his own half, and they were unable to take advantage of the possession as a collapsed scrum saw replacement prop Tom Robertson—on at the break for captain James Slipper—sent to the bin as the Wallabies were already on a warning for scrum offences from the first half. With Gordon still in the bin for a couple of minutes, the Welsh took advantage of the extra 2 men to kick to the corner and drive Morgan over for his 2ⁿᵈ try of the game. And they were just inches away from scoring again as Anscombe’s cross-kick was just a little too long for Alex Cuthbert as they took advantage of playing 15v14. However with a penalty advantage, it was just a momentary delay, and a kick to the corner saw the Welsh keep the pressure on and eventually create the overlap to put Dyer over in the corner. Wales were dealt a blow as Gareth Anscombe suffered an injury as he attempted to tackle Ned Hanigan, with Rhys Priestland coming on in his place, and his first duty was to take the ball over his own line under pressure as his team failed to deal with a high ball from Tom Wright. Back to 15 men, the Wallabies, who had brought on a number of replacements, suddenly looked confident, and Mark Nawaqanitawase forced himself over in the corner, though replacement fly half Noah Lolesio was unable to land the conversion from the left touchline. As the game entered the final 15 minutes, replacement Pete Samu read the pass of Rhys Priestland to intercept it, and though he had 70m ahead of him, the way was clear, but for the outstretched leg of Justin Tipuric, who was sent to the bin for his trip. And the visitors immediately took advantage, kicking to the corner and running a clever move off the lineout to send Nawaqanitawase powering over for his second try of the game, Lolesio cutting the deficit to single figures with the conversion. The momentum was firmly shifted the way of the visitors, and with 7 minutes remaining, Ryan Elias collapsed a maul on its way to the line to give Australia a penalty try and 2-man advantage. And with just 2 minutes remaining, Nawaqanitawase carried the ball up to the Welsh 22, and as the ball was spread wide, Kieran Hardy failed to keep hold of his attempted intercept of Len Ikitau’s pass, and replacement hooker Ryan Lonergan picked up the loose ball to go over and give Australia the lead. With 1 minute left, Tipuric was back on for Wales, and when Australian latchers went off their feet at what would have been the last ruck, Wales had 1 more chance. Priestland didn’t help his pack with a kick that should have gone to the corner only just making the 22, and as the 14 men went through the phases, Lonergan managed to turn the ball over and kick it out for a 34-39 victory.

It’s been a poor Autumn for Wales, but one bright spark has been the form of Jac Morgan. 22-year-old Ospreys back row was one of the few bright sparks with his 2 tries against Georgia (having had a third disallowed), and if anything, he looked even better this week.

One thing that the Welsh pack has consistently lacked in recent years is carrying options in the pack. Players who can consistently take hold of the ball and make the hard metres to put the attack on the front foot. Well Morgan—previously left out of Welsh squads as he lacked the carrying ability Wayne Pivac wanted—was providing exactly that, consistently making metres not just in space, but in and through contact, so it’s no surprise that, with an attacking fly half controlling the game, the Welsh attack was able to get going in a way we have not really seen recently.

Going forwards Morgan needs to be makingthat 6 shirt his own, but Pivac’s made a habit of being consistently inconsistent in his back row selections. Morgan needs to make sure that his form stays at least at this level to ensure Pivac has no excuse to drop him.

Running on fumes

Despite the win, this was another bad performance for Australia, but can anyone really be surprised. The Wallabies were playing for their 5ᵗʰ consecutive week, in a month where World Rugby’s Test window lasted 3 weeks. 5 Tests in 5 weeks is hard enough at the best of times, but to come so soon after the Rugby Championship just makes it even more of a burden on the players.

So is it any surprise to see that the team just ran out of gas as these tests went on? They were playing too much rugby in too short a time, with things being made even worse as the team suffered injury after injury. And these 2 things combined to leave the Wallabies playing with a XV made up of players who are on the ultimate fringe of the squad and players who have played too much rugby and are running on fumes.

And if there are 2 things that will kill a team’s chances in the game, its exhaustion and a lack of familiarity with your teammates, as both will create and accentuate gaps in the defensive line, while also leading to unforced errors in attack.

Whose idea was it to play so much rugby, and why? Because it certainly doesn’t feel like the players’ wellbeing was of foremost thought, and it has left the team in the ultimate slump less that a year out from the World Cup.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v Japan

Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v Japan

Another successful Autumn came to an end for France with the visit of Japan. Les Bleus’ decision to play their strongest available XV as a clear mark of respect to their opponents, who had the first attack of note as Kazuki Himeno sniped off a ruck and carried into the 22, though a handling error eventually ended the pressure and a penalty at the scrum allowed the hosts to clear their lines. France were soon on the attack, though, and after phases of pressure on the edge of the 22, Romain Ntamack’s grubber was kicked on by Damian Penaud, and when fullback Ryohei Yamanaka failed to keep hold of it as he covered across, Penaud dived on the loose ball for the opening try. As conditions worsened, Japan struggled to deal with the French conveyor belt of hard carriers, eventually gifting Thomas Ramos the simplest of penalties, and he added another just after the 15 minute mark as Koo Ji-won obstructed France’s routes to the kicker, while Les Bleus were forced into a reshuffle of their backs due to an injury to Gaël Fickou, resulting in Yoram Moefana moving into 13 and back row Sekou Macalou again coming on as a wing. Japan finally got on the scoreboard as the first quarter ended; Ntamack choosing to run back a kick with no support led to him being turned over, and Anthony Jelonch was forced to illegally slow down the Japanese breakdown to give Lee Seung-Sin an easy kick off the tee. Japan had a half-chance soon after as a tip-on off the top of a French lineout failed to find it’s man and scrum half Naoto Saito kicked on, but though he beat his opposition to the ball, his next kick on was overhit and saw the ball go dead. The late deluge of rain was affecting French plans as the ball became slippery in hands, but the monstrous carrying of the French pack won a penalty in front of the posts for Ramos to convert with 30 minutes gone. And as the game approached halftime, Maxime Lucu took advantage of some confusion after another ball came off the top of the lineout to break down the 5m channel, before feeding his captain Charles Ollivon for the try, Ramos adding the extras for a 21-3 lead at the break.

Japan has started the first half with a breakaway, and they did again for the second half, with Shogo Nakano shooting through agap, but this time the immediate support was there on his shoulder from Saito to take the pass and go over for the try, Seung-Sin converting. Franc were soon back to controlling the game as their powerful carries in midfield made space for the backs to exploit out wide, though there were some moments where they still looked somewhat disjointed. A cut to the bridge of his nose that caused heavy bleeding brought an end to Ntamack’s game, with Matthieu Jalibert coming on, and his clever mid-length kick down the wing caused nightmares for the Japanese defence and allowed him to recover it and feed Bastien Chalureauto carry the ball up to 5m out, and when the ball was fed back, it was spread wide to the left for Damian Penaud to score his second of the game. However, an error at the restart from Grégory Alldritt gifted the Brave Blossoms a penalty kick to the corner, and a clever planned move off the top saw Siosaia Fifita sent over untouched. France looked to immediately answer and thought they had when Penaud put Jonathan Danty over in the corner, but replays showed that though his dive avoided him stepping into touch, the ball was dotted down on the touch-in-goal line. But France secured the victory with 7 minutes remaining. A cheeky chip and collect into the Japanese 22 from Matthieu Jalibert put the defence in disarray, and when the ball came out to Danty on the wing, he played it back inside to Anthony Jelonch to score. However Jalibert’s next action was not so silky: winning the chase of a kick back into his in-goal, but then trying to play his way out and floating the offload into touch, but the French defence held firm on their line and secured the turnover, along with a 35-17 victory that secures an unbeaten 2022 for Les Bleus. 

Wing forward

Sekou Macalou may have just secured his spot in the 23 over the last couple of weeks. A back row by trade, the 27-year-old has come on early in both matches due to injuries, but with France favouring a 6-2 split with Matthieu Jalibert and a scrum half covering the backs, he has found himself coming on to play wing.

And while many forwards in his situation would do their best impersonation of a fish out of water, jelonch put in performances that actually looked like a Test wing. His pace was enough to hold his own, while his positioning was extremely impressive, especially in defence, where he would not commit himself too early and knew to use his touchline as an extra defender.

So why does this secure his space in the 23? For the exact potential situations we have seen the last 2 weeks. France clearly have the preference of a 6-2 split, but when you look at their ideal 23, it leaves them with nobody to cover the wings. However, if you have a forward who can do such an impressive job there—just consider the quality of wing he has faced over recent weeks—it allows Fabien Galthié to select the extra forward on the bench safe in the knowledge that Macalou can cover an emergency at wing, making it effectively a 5.5-2.5 split instead.

Unprepared

This Japan side was heavily changed from the one who lost to England last week, and that just highlighted one massive point: This team is still trying to find themselves one year out from the World Cup.

Much like Georgia and Fiji, they are a team who have the quality to take Tier 1 scalps, but without being in the Six Nations or Rugby Championship, they do not get the regular fixtures against Tier 1 opposition that they need to stop these occasional victories being an upset, and arguably they do not get enough matches period, which has certainly not been helped by the impact of COVID earlier in the cycle.

Rugby has reached an important point in its life. The top teams outside Tier 1 need to be playing in major competitions against Tier 1 opposition with regularity in order to keep growing, while teams like Chile and Portugal making it to the World Cup at the expense of the USA, who just a few years ago were in incredible form, has highlighted just how close everything is getting below Tier 1.

The international calendar needs a shake-up sooner rather than later. It is probably time for at least another 4 nations to be added to the World Cup, while existing Tier 1 competitions (the Six Nations and Rugby Championship) need amending or replacing to keep with the times and acknowledge the growth of rugby around the world.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v South Africa

After last week’s historic victory over Australia, Italy were on to Genoa to face South Africa. The World Champions were fielding a strong side, but without Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus following his ban for a series of disgusting tweets blaming Wayne Barnes for last week’s defeat to France.

Italy were clearly bouyed with confidence after last week’s win, but maybe a little too much as Tommaso Allan floated his first pass into touch just 5m from his try line, but Italy were let off as the Springboks chose to go quick and Faf de Klerk found himselfin touch as he went down a non-existent blind side. It was only a minor reprieve, though, as the visitors spread the ball wide on their next possession, and Willie le Roux took advantage of the inside defence blitzing up and leaving Ange Capuozzo covering 2 men to put Kurt-Lee Arendse over in the opposite corner. Despite the early setback, Italy were still looking to play attacking rugby, and a South African offence at the breakdown allowed Allan to cut the deficit to 2 points with a penalty from 40 metres. Cheslin Kolbe immediately responded with a penalty of his own after Giacomo Nicotera cleared Siya Kolisi beyond the breakdown at the restart, but the Azzurri hit straight back with some quick hands from Michele Lamaro sending the looping Capuozzo through a gap and over for a try, with Allan’s conversion giving the hosts the lead. As the second quarter began, Allan and Kolbe traded penalties as both teams looked to play positive attacking rugby, and after half an hour, Bongi Mbonambi peeled off a maul to crash over for a try, though the placement of the ball seemed very delayed and he was probably lucky to stay on the field after telling referee Matt Carley to “referee both sides”. Italy were straight back on the attack and threatening the South African line, but after they kicked a penalty to the corner, the Springboks pack managed to nullify the catch and drive to turn the ball over, and the teams went in at the break with the score 13-18.

Eben Etzebeth soon made his entrance just minutes into the second period, but the first points came from the boot of Tommy Allan as Faf de Klerk chased a kick from an onside position, but the Azzurri failed to deal with the restart, allowing Kolbe to win the ball in the air and go in for the try unchallenged, though he hurt himself doing so and had to be replaced by young fly half Manie Libbok, whose introduction immediately opened up the attack, allowing Arendse to go over for his second try just minutes after the restart, Libbok taking over the kicking duties and landing the conversion from the touchline. Italy were still looking to attack, but a penalty to the 22 failed to find touch as they looked to find a quick response, and South Africa made them pay as Kwagga Smith crashed over for the try the next time the Boks made it into the Italian 22, while the driving maul send Malcolm Marx over for a try just after the hour. The hosts refused to let their heads drop though, and after going the length with some beautiful varied attacking rugby, Lorenzo Cannone continued an impressive start to his Test career by crossing for his 2ⁿᵈ Test try. South Africa soon hit back though the rampaging ginger rhino Steven Kitshoff, but the game soon faced a long stoppage after Edoardo Padovani got his head in his wrong place in a tackle at the restart. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, a great backs move off a scrum saw le Roux go through the gap and feed Willemse—now playing on the wing—for a try, while a late break for Arendse allowed hi to put Cobus Reinach over for a try right at the death, Libbok kicking the conversion for a 21-63 victory for the Springboks, though the game still ended on a high for Genoa-born Pierre Bruno as his proposal was accepted after the game in front of a cheering crowd.

Pride

Let’s be honest, an Italian win against that Springbok squad was always going to be a dream. The important thing here for the Azzurri was that they backed up last weekend’s win with a good performance. And you could argue that they did exactly that.

Yes there were a few costly errors, but this was a great performance from the hosts in front of a cheering crowd, and they were every bit as in the game as the Boks in the first half, while the visitors’ superior quality proved the difference as the game went on. But even then, they never let their heads drop and continued trying to play their game, highlighted by Cannone’s late try.

More importantly, this is a team who are playing with a clear identity and shape right now—which is more than can be said for some Tier 1 Teams—and the players are seeing the positive results from playing this way, which will just continue to encourage them, and with players like Capuozzo, Alessandro Garbisi and Lorenzo Cannone coming through, and Jake Polledri continuing his return from injury with Gloucester, they are creating even more depth in their squad.

Expect to see this team continue to build in 2023.

The answer?

I’ve been saying for a while that South Africa have an issue at fly half, but could Manie Libbok be the answer? The 25-year-old from the Sharks came on for just his 2ⁿᵈ cap, and while he was probably helped by the arrival of Eben Etzebeth and the bomb squad providing quicker ball, he calmly slotted into the fly half position and took over control of the game alongside Willie le Roux with an assuredness that far exceeded his Test experience.

While Damian Willemse has his moments, he looks much more suited to the utility back role right now, whereas Libbok looks like a legitimate option at fly half, especially as South Africa look to start playing a more attacking style of rugby, as he has the range of passing to keep the attack varied, is comfortable switching with Willie le Roux as play demands, will willingly take the ball to the line and on top of all that, will be able to take on the kicking duties!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s crazy to think that he has not been given more of a chance to stake his claim this year, and I think that Jacques Nienaber needs to give him the start next week against England and at least let him play an hour, if not the whole game. If given a fair chance, he could legitimately be pushing Handré Pollard for the starting spot.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Australia

After defeating the World Champions and testing their depth against Fiji, Ireland’s Autumn Nations Series campaign came to an end with the visit of Australia. The Wallabies were looking to get back on track after following up an impressive display against France with an historic loss to Italy, and they thought that they had got a near-perfect start as Nic White sniped over for a try after just 3 minutes, only for a neck roll in the build-up from Dave Porecki to wipe it out, while Hunter Paisami was lost to injury, Jordan Petaia taking his place. Ireland had lost Jonathan Sexton in the warm-up, leading to a first Test start for Munster’s Jack Crowley, and the young fly half opened the scoring with a penalty after 9 minutes. In a tight affair, Bernard Foley missed with his first chance off the tee as the first quarter came to an end while a good kick to the cormed with 6 minutes left in the half jut saw the lineout stolen by James Ryan. Discipline was frequently costing the the Wallabies in the Irish half, and with 5 minutes left in the half, Folau Fainga’a—on a a HIA replacement for Dave Porecki—was sent to the bin for a neck roll, and the Irish took advantage of the extra man to go to the corner. But when Dan Sheehan was stopped just short of the line as the maul spun towards the touchline, Jamison Gibson-Park was not careful enough with his foot placement and played the ball at the ruck with a foot in touch, bringing the half to a disappointing end and the score at 3-0.

Ireland looked to start the second half positively and take advantage of the extra man, but were unable to find the killer pass to convert the pressure, while what looked like a try for Jamison Gibson-Park as Fainga’a was about to return to the field was ruled out as Mack Hansen just put a foot on the line before offloading to his scrum half as Nic White and Bernard Foley tried to force him into touch. As the game approached the hour mark, Bernard Foley kicked a penalty to draw the teams level, but any celebrations were muted as Taniela Tupou left the pitch on a stretcher following a non-contact leg injury. The crowd was brought into voice with 15 minutes remaining though as a strong carry from Caelan Doris off a lineout in the Australian 22 put the Irish on he front foot, and after Craig Casey’s snipe was stopped by a high tackle, the forwards drew in the defence with a series of pick and go drives, before casey’s flat pass allowed replacement Bundee Aki to crash over for the first try of the game, Crowley adding the extras with a simple conversion. And it was as if the try was a shot of Red Bull to the veins, as Australia immediately went down the field and spread the ball to send Petaia over in the corner, with Foley curling the conversion in. With just under 10 minutes remaining, Ross Byrne was brought on to replace the inexperienced Crowley, an just minutes after his introduction, a scrum penalty allowed him a kick at goal from out wide that he made look simple. With just 2 minutes left, the visitors won a penalty out wide ont he edge of the Irish 22 and made the call to go for the corner, only for them to concede a penalty as the backs came to join the maul and failed to enter from the back, and Ireland held on to secure the 13-10 victory.

Building again

For so long now the Irish centre pairing has been almost as easy to guess as the starting fly half if Jonathan Sexton was fit, with 2 out of Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki starting, and often the other on the bench. Now, after years of impressing for Ulster, Stuart McCloskey is finally getting selected again for the national team, but it’s hampering the team’s fluidity.

And it’s not his fault, but just a matter of chemistry. Those 3 centres were so used to playing in the various combinations that they could help cover for even a sub-par fly half, as they had the chemistry to naturally know where the other would be. Now, wth McCloskey finally getting a shot, he is finding himself having to get used to everything: the Irish system, different fly halves and also different centre partners, which also hasn’t been helped by his early injury against South Africa and Robbie Henshaw’s against Fiji. And to have 3 different starting fly halves over this time won’t have helped things either.

It just highlights the importance of not just building your 23 early in your world cup cycle, but the entire wider squad and beyond. Yes there will always be bolters, but you want to minimise the impact any late bolters or injuries to key players has on the squad chemistry. Mich like I have argued that Sexton has taken too many of the minutes this cycle, has there been too much focus on the main 3 centres, and could this come back to haunt the Irish in France?

Shooting themselves in the foot

This was a perfectly winnable match for Australia. Their defence found ways to cope with Ireland for much of the game, while their few attacks of note did find chinks in the Irish armour. However they continually shot themselves in the foot with poor discipline.

I lost count of just how many attacks were ended by a gold-shirted arm finding its way around an Irish neck, making it all too easy for the officials to call the neck roll, so many so that it not only cost them an early try, but also eventually led to Folau Fainga’a being sent to the bin, while the lineout that led to Aki’s try was courtesy of a penalty to touch, and Rob Valentini was lucky to have a SANZAAR referee in charge to deem his head clash with Dan Sheehan just a penalty rather than the card he deserved.

Is there not enough focus on discipline during the week? Is it an arrogance to think that they can get away without officials seeing? Something must be causing this issue. And it needs sorting fast, or the team will just continue its freefall down the world rankings.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Scotland v Argentina

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Scotland v Argentina

After a week of wondering what might have been, Scotland’s Autumn Nations Series came to an end with the visit of Argentina. Having faced each other in a 3-Test series just months earlier, there was plenty of familiarity between the teams, while Scotland would have been hoping that home advantage and the return of a few stars rested in the summer would make the distance.

But the home side were immediately under pressure, giving away a penalty off the kick-off, which Emiliano Boffelli duly dispatched. As the players settled into the game, it was Scotland who were making the early attacks, and when Finn Russell’s offload put Sione Tuipulotu through a gap, he had the strength to fight his was over for the opening try. Argentina started keeping the ball in hand more, and a clever grubber to the corner from Pablo Matera forced Duan van der Merwe to take the ball over his own line under pressure from Boffelli, and after the initial planned move off the resulting scrum failed, Argentina won the ball back and immediately struck by putting the ball through the hands to put Jeronimo de la Fuente over in the corner. As the game enterest the second quarter, an illegal clean-out from Marcos Kremer on Jamie Ritchie saw the flanker sent off, and the hosts immediately took advantage of the loss of one of the Pumas’ top tacklers to score, with Duhan van der Merwe just managing to juggle Finn Russell’s offload and gain control of the ball to ground it over the line. And with the half hour approaching, another strong carry from van der Merwe and break from Finn Russell put the Scots on the front foot and resulted in Darcy Graham fighting his way over on the far side for the hosts’ 3ʳᵈ try. However, the Pimas grew back into the game and managed to cut the deficit with a try for Matías Alemanno, which left Scotland with a 19-15 lead at the break.

It didn’t take long for Finn Russell to find his way through a gap after the game restarted, and a clever offload to Stuart Hogg kept the ball alive for Graham to score in the corner. And things soon got worse for the Pumas as Alemanno was given a yellow card on 48 minutes for an illegal cleano-out, while his fellow lock Tomás Lavanini followed just moments later as the resulting maul from a 5m lineout was dragged to ground illegally. Scotland’s haste to immediately take advantage of having 3 extra men on the pitch resulted in a handling error, and when the next attack ended in similar fashion, Matías Orlando was the first onto the loose ball, and he released Boffelli for the unlikeliest of coast-to-coast tries. Scotland were soon back on the attack, and after a legitimate jackal was completely ignored by referee Karl Dickson—who was unwilling to reward the Pumas’ jackalling all game—Tuipulotu was eventually sent over in the corner. As the game reached the hour mark and tempers began to fray, Argentina welcomed back their locks from the bin and replaced Santiago Carreras with the more experienced Nicolás Sánchez, while Chris Harris was also replaced by Cameron Redpath. But after Darcy Graham was tackled into touch to spark a 2nd brawl in 3 minutes, Thomas Gallo and Jamie Ritchie were sent to the bin for their role in the fracas. And when the rugby restarted with a Scottish scrum beneath the posts, Argentina successfully held Redpath and then Zander Fagerson a few minutes later. However a missed touch from Sanchez soon put the visitors back under pressure, and after a knock-on on the floor from Tuipulotu was ignored by the officials, Russell calmly slotted a grubber behind the defence, which Redpath dotted down for hs first Test try. And then when Jamie Ritchie was allowed back on with a Scottish lineout 5m from the visitors’ line but Gallo forced to continue watching from the sideline, the Scots drew in the defence with the maul, before spreading to send Stuart Hogg over beneath the posts. And with the game over as a competition, Darcy Graham finished his hattrick in the corner with just 3 minutes left. As the Pumas looked to finish with a consolation try, Sione Tuipulotu was sent to the bin for a tip tackle, and with the final minutes played 14v14, replacement hooker Ignacio Ruiz managed to burrow over for a try, with Sanchez’s conversion making it a final score of 52-29

Clear frontrunner

If you ever thought there should be a competition for the starting fly half spot just now, the last couple of weeks have made it very clear that Finn Russell is head and shoulders above the other options.

Not even in the squad at the start of the month, the mercurial stand-off was called up following Adam Hastings’ injury against Fiji, and immediately leapfrogged Blair Kinghorn and Ross Thompson to take the 10 shirt against the All Blacks, almost leading the team to an historic victory.

And against Argentina, he was at his best. his eye for a gap consistently found the hole to exploit in the Pumas’ defence, and he then had the speed to hit the gap and the physicality to get his arms through the tackle and offload to the supporting player, which directly led to 3 tries in the match, with Russell’s offload being the assist on 2 of the occasions. But beyond that, his speed and variation of passing kept the defence guessing, his kicking out of hand was brilliant, going long when he needed to slow things down and play a territorial game, but also with a range of chips and grubbers to tear the defence apart. Oh and even his goal-kicking was nearly faultless.

A fully deserved Man of the Match award was his reward for the performance and you must think that if there are issues between him and Gregor Townsend, it is the coach’s job that is more at risk right now.

Arg

I can’t help but feel sorry for the Pumas. Karl Dickson’s inability to referee the breakdown made it a free-for-all all game, and while that is no excuse for Kremer or Alemanno’s offences, it is just inviting offences like that to happen. Regardless, the offences happened, and then more offences as they tried to cope led to them losing even more players to the bin, while the officials also weren’t looking to treat the teams evenly, giving the hosts even more of an advantage.

And yet despite everything that was going against them, the Pumas kept on fighting right to the end. Granted Scotland rushed things by trying to score too quickly after Argentina went 3 men down, but the defence from Argentina could have easily let the numerical disadvantage be an excuse, and instead put in a monster rearguard effort that not only successfully defended the line multiple times at that point, but then also turned the ball over and scored against the run of play. And then you also just have to look at the effort to hold up Scotland over the line twice more a little later in the game, and their efforts to finish on the high of scoring the final try.

While discipline has to be much better, this is a team that will fight and claw tooth and nail for every point. And it is that passion and determination that will make them a threat against anyone on their day.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Fiji

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Fiji

Having backed up their Summer Series victory over the All Blacks with a winover World Champions South Africa, it was a very different Test for Ireland this weekend as they welcomed Fiji to the Aviva Stadium. The Irish had made a number of changes from their “first choice” XV and were lucky not to go behind early on as Teti Tela’s early penalty was pulled wide. However it was just a temporary stay of execution, as just moments later the visitors spread the ball wide on halfway and got around the Irish to put Kalaveti Ravouvou over for the try, while things got even worse for the Irish as Robbie Henshaw’s game was brought to an end after just 4 minutes. Nick Timoney escaped punishment minutes later for a no-arms tackle on Levani Botia, and the Ulster back row took advantage of this to go over for Ireland’s first try after 15 minutes, a time that should have still been during his sin bin period. Fiji were struggling to find an answer to Ireland’s driving maul, and after Kieran Treadwell was held up under penalty advantage, Manasa Saulo was sent to the bin for the team’s accumulation of penalties in their own 22, and the Irish took advantage of the extra man in the pack to drive Timoney over for a second try. Tela soon added a penalty after Treadwell was caught offside at a clearance, but the Irish were straight back on the attack and Robert Baloucoune was sent over for the try in the corner, with Mathieu Raynal deciding that a crawl in the build-up from Jimmy O’Brien was legal. A breakdown penalty against Levani Botia as Saulo returned to the pitch allowed Ireland to kick up into the Fijian 22 again, but after a couple of phases opened up space to hit back on the blind side, Mack Hansen knocked on with the line a his mercy. However when some of the Fijian kick chasers started their run before they were played onside, Ireland were given another chance from 5m out and after going through the phases, Jack Conan tried to crash over out wide but couldn’t stop himself being pushed into touch. As Fiji looked to attack in the final minute of the half, Tadhg Beirne’s counter-ruck led to a turnover and as Hansen chipped on, Fiji just about covered it under heavy pressure at the expense of a lineout close to their line, but the defence held firm andBotia won a turnover that allowed them to kick the ball out to end the half with the score at 21-10.

With Fiji struggling for much structure in attack, Ben Volavola was brought on early in the second half, but the Islanders’ chances of victory were dealt a huge blow just 5 and a half minutes into the half as Albert Tuisue was sent off for a no-arms tackle that made contact with the head of Joey Carbery. Things soon got even worse as Api Ratuniyarawa was sin binned 5 minutes later for collapsing a maul, while at the other end of the pitch Cian Prendergast showed them how to legally deal with a maul, coming through the middle to get on the ball carrier and taking him to ground. As the game reached the hour, the 13 men of Fiji successfully turned over an Irish driving maul, but they were then pushed off their own ball on the resulting scrum, which wheeled perfectly for Craig Casey to send Hansen over on the blind side. As Fiji returned to 14 men on the pitch, a fabulous offload from Seta Tuicuvu to the looping Jiuta Wainiqolo allowed the wing to break and feed back inside to replacement scrum half Simione Kuruvoli to go over beneath the posts, to allow Volavola an easy conversion. Ireland continued to attack and look dangerous as debutant fly half Jack Crowley appeared to have opened up the attacking game with his introduction, but a series of individual errors meant that these chances continually ended in disappointment. However as the game entered the final 10 minutes, a strong carry by replacement Max Deegan took the hosts up to the Fijian 5m line, and Cian Healy finally burrowed over for the try, with Crowley kicking the conversion to secure a 35-17 victory.

Developing depth

With the World Cup less than a year away, Andy Farrell was clearly using this match to look at the depth within the squad with a view to filling the final couple of spots in the World Cup squad, but also to start looking ahead to the players who will be replacing the outgoing generation as we enter the next cycle going into 2024. So who really stood out among the fringe players?

Nick Timoney was lucky to avoid being penalised early in the game, but performed well for the rest of the match, with his 2 tries and a Player of the Match award deserved after his big carries, while replacement back row Cian Prendergast also looked a real handful in defence. Kieran Treadwell partnered well with Tadhg Beirne and though he gave away a poor penalty int he first half, he made up for it with some great carrying.

In the backs, Muster duo Craig Casey and debutant Jack Crowley certainly appeared to bring more to the attack than the starters, though it must be noted that they also benefited from the extra space caused by Tuisue and Ratuniyarawa’s cards. Robert Baloucoune will be disappointed with the lack of good ball that came his way, but his Ulster teammate Stuart McCloskey put in a solid all-round display to try and further his claim for a spot in the first team.

Their own worst enemy

We all know that teams like Italy and the Pacific Islands are not often refereed as leniently as the bigger Tier 1 nations, but even so, Fiji’s discipline is atrocious!

While you can understand the odd offside or breakdown penalty as every team gives these away, they were giving away basic penalties like chasing a kick from an offside position or poor tackle technique—just look at Tuisue’s red card, where his tackle on Carbery was always too high, but then made even worse as he led with the shoulder and made no attempt to wrap the arm, or last week where a swinging arm cost them a yellow card.

But what really kills them is their inability to defend the maul legally. It cost them a yellow card last week against Scotland and 2 in this match, and that will usually be enough to kill off any chance of victory, especially against the top teams. And it’s not as if they are unable to do it, as they successfully dealt with an Irish maul on the hour despite having 2 of their more experienced forwards in the bin, so if they can do it in those circumstances, why cant they do so with 15 men on the pitch?

I recognise that this is far from their only issue, and that for those playing in Super Rugby, the atrocious disciplinary standards of SANZAAR will not be helping the matter, but they have the physicality and skill to compete against most of the top teams, and while they clearly need a fly half to control this team and get them directed, simply just improving the discipline will be enough to put the pressure on some of those teams above them and start turning these gutsy losses against Tier 1 into wins.

Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v South Africa

A Saturday full of rugby came to an end in Marseille as France hosted South Africa. A hugely physical start saw Faf de Klerk’s early offside give Thomas Ramos an early kick from range, which he despatched with ease for a 3-0 lead. With Willie le Roux back in at 15, South Africa were looking much more comfortable than last week, but things became much harder after 11 minutes as Pieter-Steph du Toit was sent off for a dangerous clean-out to the head of Jonathan Danty. As both teams continued to look to play positive rugby, a turnover by Charles Ollivon caught Kwagga Smith offside for Ramos to double the lead, while the World Champions found their lineout reliability taking a huge hit, and when France finally found themselves with possession in the visitors’ 22, Cyril Baille managed to force himself over from close range. While the French were starting to take hold of the game, they were struggling to deal with the Springboks’ driving maul, and one such maul earned the visitors a penalty just inside the French half which Cheslin Kolbe kicked to put them on the board after 25 minutes, while the next one 5 minutes later saw Siya Kolisi break out as it collapsed to go over for a try without any tackler even getting close. As the half came to a close, Ox Nche was penalised for not rolling away, and Ramos successfully bisected the posts for a 16-10 lead at the break.

Another penalty from Kolbe cut the lead to 3 soon after the restart, but when Faf de Klerk failed to effectively clear his lines under pressure from Cameron Woki, a mighty French maul allowed Thomas Ramos to almost immediately take the lead back out to 6. What had already been a crazy game then took it’s next massive twist, as Antoine Dupont was given a red card for taking out Cheslin Kolbe in the air just 8 minutes into the half, and after a series of penalties in the corner, the South African forwards attacked infield and then he ball went back blind for Willie le Roux to put Kurt-Lee Arendse over in the corner, de Klerk kicking the conversion (having taken over kicking duties while Kolbe underwent a HIA) to put the Boks ahead, before kicking a penalty minutes later. France hit back with a Ramos penalty just before the hour. As both sides emptied the benches going into the final half hour, Maxime Lucu and Sekou Macalou just combined to force Kurt-Lee Arendse into touch as he went hunting another try, but the French wing was pinged moments later for getting back to his feet when held, and with both de Klerk and Kolbe off the pitch, Damian Willemse found he target with his penalty. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, South African replacement Deon Fourie was sent to the bin for an offence at the French maul, while Romain Ntamack made way for Mathieu Jalibert, but it was the forwards who put France back ahead, as their siege on the try line saw Sipili Falatea pushed over the line with a pick and go, but a first miss of the night from Ramos left them with just a 1-point lead with 5 minutes remaining. As the clock ticked down, a huge scrum from the French against the depleted Springbok pack allowed Thomas Ramos to kick the lead to 4 points. South Africa secured the restart, but a crucial turnover from Yoram Moefana won the ball back for Les Bleus and they held out for the final 30 seconds for a 30-26 victory.

Pushovers

One thing that will likely have Fabien Galthié a little worried will be just how effective the Springboks maul was. Despite being a (very big!) man down, the Springboks were making France look like Japan, such was the ease they were making metres with the maul.

Now granted this isn’t France’s ideal pack (or biggest, with players like Paul Willemse missing) and the sheer number or injury-enforced changes made early on won’t have helped, but these were not fringe players packing down against the Springboks and being made to look they they were facing a team 2-3 age grades above them. As the game went on, the French pack had some success themselves with the driving maul, but they still looked at risk whenever the visitors were setting the maul.

France have a wonderful all-round team, but teams with big physical packs will look at those maul and perhaps see a chink in the French armour. The good news is, with almost a year still to go, there is still plenty of time to work on this.

Where there’s a Willie, there’s a way

Is there anybody more underrated in Test rugby than Willie le Roux. Often panned online by fans, and continually looking to be replaced by the coaches, the experienced fullback continues to show his quality when given the chance.

Granted he isn’t the best defensively, but what he does is so vital to the Springboks attack, as he plays the second playmaker role, comfortably coming in at first or second receiver depending on the phase and what the team are looking to do, while when he takes the ball around the 13 channel, there are very few players who will time the simple pass tot he winger so perfectly while making it look so easy.

Right now, South Africa have a serious issue at fly half, but it is notable just how much less of an issue this is when le Roux is there to assist them, as he takes so much pressure off of them and allows them to focus on what they do best—a perfect example being how last week Damian Willemse’s runs with the ball brought the attack to a standstill, while this week they looked like a way to draw in defenders and look for a gap to exploit.

So go ahead and keep hating him, he may just be the difference between defending the World Cup or losing in the quarterfinals.

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Argentina

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Argentina

After a disappointing hammering from a “beatable” New Zealand team, Wales were hoping to get their Autumn back on track with the arrival of Argentina, and they were almost immediately on the attack as a kick counter from Louis Rees-Zammit, making his first test start at fullback, sparked a break that took them up to the Pumas 22 before a handling error. Wales had the early momentum but errors continued to end their attacks, while the Puma’s first attack saw them break into the 22 and draw a penalty, which Emiliano Boffelli kicked for the early lead. Welsh indiscipline soon had the Pumas back in the hosts’ 22, and Rees-Zammit was forced to cover a clever grubber into touch right in front of his try line, while another penalty at the lineout allowed Boffelli another simple kick at goal. A knock-on at the breakdown from Gonzalo Bertranou gifted Wales a scrum going into the second quarter, from which they won a penalty and went to the corner, but after the first attack was stopped illegally and they went back to the corner, Matias alemanno managed a timely steal in the air to allow the visitors to clear their lines. Wales were soon back on the attack though, only for Ken Owens to spill the ball as he went over. Another penalty on the half hour saw Wales go to the corner, and this time they were able to get the driving maul going, giving Taulupe Faletau an easy ride over for the opening try, with Gareth Anscombe’s conversion giving them the lead, while he kicked another penalty 3 minutes before halftime for a 10-6 lead at the break.

The second half started much like the first, but when Juan Cruz Mallia failed to get any height on his kick, Tomos Williams successfully charged it down and beat the fullback on the trn to dive on the ball in-goal to extend the lead. The Pumas responded by bringing on a new front row, who immediately won a scrum penalty, but after the Pumas went to the corner, Adam Beard won a crucial turnover penalty. The Pumas were soon back attacking the Welsh try line, and after a clear high tackle on Ignacio Ruiz was ignored by the officials, Pablo Matera was held up over the line. As Argentina looked to get their next attack going, a cynical play on the scrumhalf from Will Rowlands while he was off his feet saw the lock sent to the bin and allowed the Pumas to kick back into the Welsh 22, only for Pablo Matera to knock on as he slipped as the ball was passed to him. Errors continued to blight the Pumas’ second half, and with Rhys Priestland kicking a penalty just after the hour, they were now even losing their 10-minute powerplay. But a strong rolling maul just moments after Rowland’s return saw Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro escorted over for the try with 12 minutes remaining and Boffelli’s conversion cut the lead to 7. A poor exit at the restart from replacement scrum half Eliseo Morales on his debut gifted Wales a lineout in the 22, and when they went for a clever chip into the middle, Mallia just beat George North to the ball on the try line. As the game reached the final minutes, the Pumas had possession on halfway but were unable to create any line breaks, and as the clock went red, Wales turned them over and kicked out for a much-needed 20-13 victory.

Zam the man

While Wayne Pivac’s constant chopping and changing means that you can never quite be sure, pretty much everyone else will be in agreement that wales have found their new 15 in Louis Rees-Zammit.

The Gloucester speedster has made a name for himself with some incredible performances on the wing, but has been known to go missing for Wales out there as their team have sometimes struggle to get the attack going. However right from the start, it was clear that the move to 15 was one that would see him much more involved in the game.

While everyone knows about his incredible pace, he also has a great eye to spot the gap to exploit to start a break, is more than capable of competing in the air—he certainly held his own against Emiliano Boffelli today—and has a big boot to play his part in the kicking game.

But more than that, it’s a simple matter of getting the best players on the pitch at the same time, and by moving to 15, it allows both Alex Cuthbert and Rio Dyer to cover the wings, resulting in 2 strong and quick wings who can cause problems out wide or coming inside and a lightning quick 15 just looking for a gap, who can also hold his own in contact.

Wales will face tougher tests, and still need to work on how to utilise Rees-Zammit better, but a move to 15 seems a strong start.

Kicking off

Is it time for Argentina to make a change at their restarts? Usually, you will see the fly half kicking the restarts, but there is no law that this has to be the case. It’s understandable why, as it means that if the ball is won back, there is a playmaker who has naturally been held back at the restart and not involved in the chase, but at this level of the game, there are more than enough players who could temporarily fill in as a playmaker for one phase at the restart.

Santiago Carreras is a fantastic player with an incredible skillset, but pretty much all of his professional experience as a fly half has come at this level, and you do see some errors in his game as a result, including a tendency to float a couple of restarts too long and into touch on the full. Meanwhile, his performances at Gloucester have highlighted his quality in the air, with him often being used to compete at the restart, as Boffelli often is.

What I would suggest is looking for an alternative option to take the restarts, which would free up Carreras to join Boffelli in trying to compete for the ball, while also allowing them to vary things up more as opposition teams would have to account for both of them if they moved around at the restart.

Right now, I feel that Carreras needs some of the pressure taken off him while he learns a new position on the hardest stage. If this small change can not just relieve pressure on him, but also utilise his skills to add an extra weapon at the restart, surely that’s a win-win.

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v Japan

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v Japan

After a week of excuses for their loss to the Pumas, it was back to the pitch for England as they take on Japan. After waiting forever for the Smith/Farrell/Tuilagi midfield that we were promised would make England world-beaters but did very little, the trio were immediately broken up, with Guy Porter getting the start at 13, but it was his opposite number with the first action of note as he charged down Marcus Smith’s kick and looked to break downfield, only for the officials to adjudge his teammate Ryohei Yamanaka was offside, allowing Owen Farrell an easy kick off the tee to open the scoring. England’s pack were gaining early dominance, and when they won a penalty that allowed England to kick into the 22, the ball came out to the backs and Marcus Smith put Freddie Steward over for the opening score the opening try after 12 minutes. It wasn’t long until another England scrum penalty allowed them easy entry into the Japanese 2, but as England tried to play quick attacking rugby for that rare occasion under Eddie Jones, the accuracy was lacking. As the game entered the second quarter, a break by Steward on the kick counter saw Jack van Poortvliet release Joe Cokanasiga, who was stopped just short but managed to offload to Marcus Smith to score in the corner. They found themselves under pressure on the half hour mark though, as a contested lineout was recovered by Japan, which allowed them to open their account for the day with a penalty from fly half Takuya Yamasawa. And they were soon back on the attack, Michael Leith breaking out of his 22 and feeding Dylan Riley; the centre found himself isolated so kicked on and surprisingly beat Jonny May to the ball in the 22, and while the England wing successfully stopped him short of the line, he was then sent to the bin for illegally killing the ball, allowing Yamasawa another easy kick to narrow the gap. However the 15 men conceded just on the stroke of half time. A clever kick to the corner from van Poortvliet was recovered by Japan, and as the ball was played infield to create a better angle for the kicker to clear, the England chase converged to force a turnover, with the ball then being quickly spread to put Porter over, with Owen Farrell adding the extras for a 24-6 lead at the break.

The second half saw Yamasawa replaced by Seung-Sin Lee, whose early penalty attempt from long range was pushed wide as England returned to a full complement. Meanwhile, England chose to put their next penalty into the corner, and after the spread right to left failed to result in a try, the ball started coming back through the forwards and Ellis Genge crashed over for the try. Momentum was with England, and after a great counterruck from Maro Itoje created a turnover, Farrell put boot to ball and Porter won the chase for his second try. As the hour approached and both teams began using their replacements, Japan managed to steal a try as the ball came out unexpected from a ruck deep in English territory, while their next attack of note saw Farrell win the race to Dylan Riley’s grubber. And as England went to the other end of the pitch, a driving maul was brought down illegally for a penalty try, with Siosaia Fifita sent to the bin.  And the hosts brought up the half century with 6 minutes remaining after Freddie Steward’s kick bounced kindly for Henry Slade to kick on (while leaving Kotaru Matsushima stranded) for Marcus Smith to cross for his second of the day, while another break from Slade just moments later ended in disappointment as his grubber kick to the corner was just too heavy for Jonny May to catch up with, leaving England 52-13 victors.

Wasted opportunity?

So what did England actually learn from this match? Their defence performed well against a team that likes to spread the ball, managing to keep the key players quiet for most of the match. However their attack was once again limited and unimaginative, with some questionable decisions from Marcus Smith.

Van Poortvliet showed that he should be the starter at 9 going forward, though an opportunity to get Alex Mitchell used to Test rugby was wasted as Ben Youngs was gifted another cap, while Porter’s inclusion also feels somewhat wasted when we know that Jones is focused on Manu Tuilagi joining Smith and Farrell in midfield, especially as Slade’s impressive late cameo on his 50ᵗʰ cap reminded everyone that he is likely the next up at 13 in Tuilagi’s absence.

Meanwhile the pack showed it’s dominance at the set piece, but with Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge the clear starters, would this not have been an opportunity to start Joe Heyes and a less experienced loosehead? Similarly with Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie the clear top 2 for England, was this not an opportunity for those lower in the pecking order to push their case for the third hooking spot?

Finally, while it is great to see Owen Farrell kicking 100% off the tee, is a match like this not the chance to give the kicking duties to Marcus Smith to get him used to kicking at Test level in case Farrell were to be unavailable in a key World Cup match?

This may be a solid victory for the hosts, but has it really been used effectively as Eddie Jones builds for the World Cup?

When push comes to shove…

As talented as Japan are, they are not going to compete for any tournaments any time soon, as they are just not competitive enough in the tight 5.

They may be reliable in the loose, but find themselves unable to cope with a decent pack in the scrum or the mauls, going backwards at a rate of knots or going to the floor, either of which results in a penalty for the opposition, gifting them territory and possession while forcing Japan to defend again rather than use their attacking skills.

In attack, they can mitigate this by getting the ball in and out, but the problem is in defence, where they are immediately under pressure, and their opposition know they have the dominance so will happily keep the ball in there and push on until they get the penalty.

But how will they improve at this area? Does keeping all their talent in Japan hinder them, as they don’t end up playing in the Northern Hemisphere leagues where scrummaging has become and art form? Or do they need more matches than just the World Cup, June Tests and Autumn Nations Series to face off against the best teams in the world and make playing against an elite pack the norm?