Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Scotland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Scotland

With 7ᵗʰ place sorted, it was on to Dublin, where Ireland faced off against Scotland for 3ʳᵈ place in the overall standings. The Irish were playing what Andy Farrell would probably consider his best available team and had the first chance to put points on the board with a penalty, only for Jonathan Sexton to put his kick wide. Scotland grew into the game and after Jaco van der Walt missed a kick on his Test debut, he successfully kicked his next 3 while Sexton also found success with a second effort. As the game began to open up around the half hour mark, an Irish attack was stopped by what referee Matthew Carley considered a deliberate knock on by Duncan Taylor and the centre was sent to the sin bin. The Irish took advantage of the extra man, kicking the initial penalty, and scoring the opening try just before the break, as Robbie Henshaw beat Darcy Graham in the air to a Sexton high ball into the Scotland in-goal, and Keith Earls beat Ali Price to the loose ball on the floor, though Sexton missed the conversion for an 11-9 lead at the halfway point.

The momentum remaining with Ireland after the break and they took advantage of it, with Cian Healy pushing over from a pick-and-go following a series of phases deep in the Scottish 22, before another set of phases in the 22 created a one-man overlap that allowed Peter O’Mahony to send Earls over in the corner, with Sexton adding both conversions. Scotland hit back with a wonderful solo effort from Duhan van der Merwe, sniping down the side of a ruck and past an oblivious Rob Herring before rounding Jacob Stockdale with an arcing run, van der Walt converting. However, the Scottish discipline let them down and Ross Byrne kicked a penalty. The Irish thought they had another try as O’Mahony was fed the ball in acres of space on the right wing, only for a covering tackle from van der Merwe to force him to put a toe in touch, but Byrne kicked another penalty to take the score to 31-16, and the Scots could find no answer in the final minutes.

Man of the match

Man of the Match Caelan Doris should be quickly becoming one of the first names on the team sheet. The Leinster back row brings an extra dimension to the Irish back row, making the hard metres alongside CJ Stander but also being able to open his legs and eat up the ground when given space.

Ireland need to find more ball carriers who can consistently make metres in attack in order to compete against the more physical teams like England, France and South Africa, and a back rower like Doris who can truck the ball up in the tight but also take the ball wider out helps to create a match-up nightmare.

Combining Doris with Stander also creates a degree of tactical flexibility, as both could conceivably pack down at 8 or 6 and do the same job around the pitch, allowing the team to vary who is at the base of the scrum to keep the defence guessing. With Stander an adept jackal, bringing in a flanker who will tackle non-stop would create a great balance to the back row and allow the star players to do what they do best.

Finding the balance

For so long, I have talked about how Scotland will be a threat if they can find the right balance, and it looks like they now have it in the back line. Ali Price is rowing into a very mature halfback and is probably underrated in his ability. In Stuart Hogg at 15 and whoever they have at 10 (van der Walt adding to the depth at the position with Duncan Weir, Adam Hastings and Finn Russell), they have a great playmaker axis, with Hogg creating space when he gets the ball out wide or coming in at first receiver to allow his fly half to play wider.

Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham are arguably the most dangerous pairing on the wings, with Sean Maitland and Blair Kinghorn providing great alternatives, and with the current centre pairing, it looks like they are finally getting released.

Today’s pairing of Duncan Taylor and Chris Harris may be known more for their defensive organisation, which is an important factor in Test rugby, but they also help to create the platform in midfield by running at the line and also knowing when to pass. Harris especially has developed a better attacking game since his move to Gloucester and can be a danger in the 13 channel, while Taylor has the work rate that all coaches cherish. Combine this with the danger of the carriers in the pack and the dual playmakers, and the space will come for the stars out wide to shine.

It was notable that Scotland struggled to create without Taylor on the pitch, and also looked much more beatable in defence. Scotland need to get the Taylor/Harris centre pairing on the pitch as much as they can, or find someone who can come in and keep the dynamic going.

rugby autumn nations cup no background

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

The Tri-Nations edition of the Rugby Championship reached its end in Parramatta as hosts Australia took on Argentina. New Zealand’s victory last week meant that – bar the unlikeliest of routs – the 2 teams on show were fighting to finish 2ⁿᵈ, but both teams were coming in looking to finish the tournament on a high.

The Pumas have had a tough week following a heavy defeat and the re-emergence of racist social media posts from 3 players including captain Pablo Matera, but it didn’t seem to affect them on the pitch with their defence being as ferocious as ever in the wet. They found themselves temporarily down to 14 at the quarter-hour mark though, as Marcos Kremer was sent to the bin for a dangerous clean-out on James O’Connor, Reece Hodge kicking the penalty to put the Wallabies ahead. Nicolás Sánchez soon levelled with a penalty of his own from halfway, and just minutes after Kremer returned, it was Australia who had a man sent to the bin, Michael Hooper for the same offence on Sánchez, who was forced off for a HIA. Sánchez’s replacement Domingo Miotti – on for his Test debut – kicked the Pumas into a lead, before the Pumas took advantage of the extra man in the pack, driving a maul from their own 22 up tot he 10m line, before Felipe Ezcurra broke down the blind side and fed Bautista Delguy, who scythed between Hunter Paisami and Marika Koroibete to score the opening try, which Miotti converted. Sánchez returned to the pitch, but the Wallabies had a chance to narrow the gap right before the break with a scrum penalty right under the posts, which Hodge duly kicked for a 6-13 halftime score.

The Aussie comeback continued in the second half with Hodge landing another penalty, but their hopes soon took a hit as replacement Lukhan Salakaia-Loto was sent off on the hour mark for a high tackle on Santiago Grondona, who had to go for a HIA. Miotti, back on the pitch as Sánchez struggled with a niggling injury, kicked the penalty to take the Pumas to 16 points. Australia didn’t give up though and after some sustained pressure, Grondona’s replacement Lucas Paulos was sent to the bin for collapsing a maul after Angus Gardner tired of the Puma’s repeat offending. Australia kicked the penalty to the corner and a well-worked lineout saw captain Hooper driven over for the try, with Reece Hodge converting to level the scores. With just minutes left, Australia earned a penalty wide right just inside the Argentina half and Hodge stepped up to try and win the game, only for his 100% record to disappear as the kick sailed wide right to secure a 16-16 draw. The result means that Argentina and Australia finish on equal points, but points difference gave the Pumas 2ⁿᵈ place in the standings and the Wallabies had to settle for 3ʳᵈ.

Midfield might

Australia were very unlucky to lose their starting 10/12 combo of James O’Connor and Matt To’omua very early in the tournament, with O’Connor only returning in this final game. However, what it did do is open up an early opportunity for some of the youngsters in the squad to shine. None did that more so than Hunter Paisami, who has excelled as a physical presence at 12, becoming a key part of the defence and a solid runner in the channels.

His centre partner in this game, Jordan Petaia, has been less successful. He is an extremely skilled player and stronger than he first looks, but he has looked out of sorts in recent games and lacking in confidence, which is hampering his game. Just in this game alone, he wasted a couple of good attacking opportunities by putting boot to ball.

Once To’omua is back, the Wallabies have a choice to make: do they stick with the risk/reward of Petaia, or do they look at the more defensively secure Paisami? To’omua’s ability as a playmaker would make up for some of the lost attacking flair, but would Paisami find himself more exposed in the 13 channel than he currently is at 12? Thankfully for Dave Rennie, he will have plenty of options when you also consider Reece Hodge and Irae Simone, while Noah Lolesio gaining experience will also allow the option to push O’Connor out to the centres. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a few headaches.

Power pack

On thing that this match really highlighted was the strength in depth of the Pumas in the back 5 of the pack. The apparently ideal back row trio coming into the tournament was Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Rodrigo Bruni, with Matías Alemanno and Guido Petti at lock. However, with Matera and Petti both left out this week following the reveal of racist tweets years ago, Kremer’s versatility was utilised by moving him into the second row, while Facundo Isa and Santiago Grondona came into the back row.

Isa is a fantastic talent who is always going to be fighting with the initial trio for a starting spot in that Pumas back row, and the very best compliment that Grondona can be given is how little his selection instead of Matera – an incredible talent and inspirational leader – appeared to change of affect the Pumas. Even the replacements for this game, Lucas Paulos and Francisco Gorrissen, looked at home on the international stage despite their inexperience.

If a team hopes to go far in a tournament, they need to be able to rotate their squad with minimum drop in quality. Looking at the Pumas’ options in the back 5 of the pack, it’s fair to say that they are setting themselves up nicely with a couple of years still to go until the World Cup.

rugby logo tri nations 2020

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

The pool stages of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup came to an end in Dublin as Ireland hosted Georgia. The Irish have been having an up and down tournament but got off to a good start as a series of phases in the Georgian 22 ended with Billy Burns gliding through a gap to score a try on his first Test start. Burns added the conversion and a penalty shortly after, but the Georgians hit back as Giorgi Kveseladze found a gap in the Irish midfield and exploited it, using Vasil Lobzhanidze as a distraction to beat Jacob Stockdale and stepping around Burns’ tackle to score under the posts, leaving Tedo Abzhandadze with an easy conversion to bring the score back within 3. Burns soon added another penalty to double the lead, and the Irish thought they had a second try around the half-hour mark after Rob Herring was driven over following a lineout, but replays showed that Beka Gorgadze had managed to get under the ball and hold it up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as Ireland went through the phases off the resultant scrum and created the space out wide for Hugo Keenan to score, with Burns converting. It looked like the Irish had another try as half time approached when Jacob Stockdale set Stuart McCloskey free down the left wing, however a review from the TMO showed that the pass from Stockdale had gone forwards, while one final attempt to score before the break was also adjudged to have been held up over the line.

The Lelos were looking much more competitive in this match and got the opening points of the second half with a penalty from Abzhandadze, but Ross Byrne – on early in the half for the injured Burns – replied with a penalty of his own. Substitutions, a couple of head knocks and a serious injury to Gorgadze stopped either team from building any real momentum in the second half, but the Irish finished the game on the attack and after earning an attacking lineout 5m from the Georgian try line, they faked the maul and instead sent CJ sStander on a charge for the line, however the Lelos succeeded in holding him up and holding onto a tied second half and a 23-10 final score. The result means that Ireland will face the Scots in the 3ʳᵈ-Place Final, while Georgia will face Fiji for 7ᵗʰ, assuming the islanders are able to play.

Taking their chance

Andy Farrell is going to have some big calls to make against Scotland. He needs to be looking to the future and figuring out the players who will be a key part of his RWC2023 campaign, but a 4ᵗʰ-placed finish would also be a very disappointing result, especially given the manner of their defeat to England.

For this game, Ireland put out a strong squad, but still managed to test their depth at some positions, with starts for players like Burns, Bealham and McCloskey and a debut for Shane Daly off the bench. I would expect that next week, they will go with their strongest available team, so who put their hands up for selection in this game?

Billy Burns had a strong first half, looking comfortable in his first start and getting the back line moving well for the second week running, while it was noticeable that the attacking quality dropped off in the second half after he came off. As someone who can also hold his own in defence, I would argue that the focus should be on Burns as the starting 10 moving forwards, with a view to having him as a leader within the squad by the time the World Cup comes around.

Hugo Keenan has had a great tournament and once again looked both dangerous with ball in hand and solid under the high ball. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be a nailed on starter come the Six Nations.

Chris Farrell has been unlucky over the years that he has had to compete against Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, but he is taking his chance well and consistently helped the Irish get on the front foot in attack while remaining pretty solid in defence and has been one of their more consistent players in the tournament.

Tadhg Beirne is in such an interesting position, as he never really seems to have a bad match, but seems to struggle to hold down a place in the squad. An incredibly mobile player who is super dangerous at the breakdown, Beirne showed both of these skills in the first half, appearing a 6 in this game, but equally adept at lock. He feels like a slightly bigger version of Peter O’Mahony, but I feel he would be a great option as a 4, providing mobility and an extra breakdown threat to complement what appears to be the most balanced Irish back row of CJ Stander, Caelan Doris and Will Connors.

Building to success

It feels harsh to say, but the Lelos were poor in the first 2 weeks. This week however, they looked legitimately competitive against a 23 that was maybe not full strength, but still plenty strong enough to leave me expecting a very one-sided affair. That proved far from the case though, as the Lelos competed for the full 80 and were fully deserving of the draw in the second half, often pushing back the Irish with their solid defence.

To me, this is showing that part of the Georgian problem in the opening weeks was he lack of preparation, with them not getting to spend much time together ahead of the tournament and players spread throughout the French leagues, Georgian teams and a few in Russia or England. With such little time together – and much of that spent having to travel to Tier 1 nations who are too worried about themselves to travel to Georgia.

The Lelos need to start getting fair treatment, in the same was as people discuss the importance of Tier 1 Nations travelling to the Pacific Islands, they also need to be travelling to Tbilisi so that the Lelos can face top teams in front of a home crowd on a ground they know well. If they start getting that, it’s just a matter of time before they start getting results against Tier 1 nations.

rugby autumn nations cup no background

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

With England’s place in the Autumn Nations Cup final confirmed, eyes turned to Paris to see who they would be facing as France took on Italy. Having defeated Scotland last weekend, Les Bleus knew that a win over Italy would see them top the pool, but Top 14 player usage rules meant that they were playing with a largely inexperienced 23, which would increase Italy’s hopes of a first win against a Tier 1 nation since 2016.

France got off to a good start with Matthieu Jalibert kicking a penalty just 3 minutes into the game, but this was followed by a 20-minute period of tight rugby with plenty of kicks for territory. The Italians found the breakthrough, as Marco Zanon charged through the line and fed Paolo Garbisi, who offloaded to Carlo Canna to cross for the opening try, though Garbisi missed the conversion. It looked like the Azzurri may hold the lead into halftime, but a late 5m lineout for the French gave them a platform and centre Jonathan Danty crashed over from short range, with Jalibert converting for a 10-5 halftime lead.

Things went downhill for the Italians after the break, with Jacopo Trulla sent to the bin for a deliberate knock on. The French used the man advantage to kill the game off, with tries from Gabin Villière, Baptiste Serin and Teddy Thomas, with Jalibert adding 2 conversions. The Italians kept fightingfor some pride in the final quarter but could not find the breakthrough and France added one more try at the death through Sekou Macalou, with replacement Louis Carbonel kicking the conversion for a final score of 36-5.

Staking a claim

Due to an agreement with the Top 14, players were limited in the number of matches they could play in during this tournament, which led to an almost completely different 23 playing this week, comprised mainly of highly inexperienced players and a handful of former internationals like Uini Atonio and Brice Dulin. While the lack of chemistry certainly caused some issues in this match, there were a number of players who stood out an will hope that their performances may bring them closer to the first choice squad.

Matthieu Jalibert already seems to be the go-to replacement for Romain Ntamack and though it is clear that he needs more experience at this level, he controlled the game well and will benefit from more playing time with the regulars.

Jonathan Danty had a great match in midfield, utilising his physicality in both attack and defence, and capping it off with a try. While Gaël Fickou provides a great ball-playing option at 12, Danty provides a more physical option that could provide a different dimension to the back line.

Brice Dulin was a great talent when he first came on the scene for Les Bleus and looked very much back to his best with his silky running and reliable boot in the kicking game, including a high bomb that could again add an extra dimension to the back line.

Finally, in the pack, Sekou Macalou put in a fine defensive performance, soaking up ball carriers and winning the turnovers, while his late try was a just reward for his efforts on the day. His one issue is that he finds himself competing with captain Charles Ollivon for the 7 shirt, but he would be a dangerous addition off the bench.

Finding the breakthrough

Italy find themselves in an interesting position. Paolo Garbisi looks better with every cap, and while Carlo Canna provides a second playmaking option at 12, he is often utilised as a crash ball instead, doing it with gusto but to little effect. In this match, Marco Zanon really showed his quality with a number of line breaks, including 3 in the build-up to Canna’s try. It looks like he is close to cementing his place as one of the starting centres, but is Canna the right option beside him?

I think it is time that Canna is moved to the bench to allow Garbisi to run the backline, with Matteo Minozzi providing a secondary playmaker option at 15. This would then allow a second specialist centre to pair with Zanon, either the experienced Luca Morisi or the young but impressive Federico Mori, to create a dangerous centre pairing that will force defences to narrow up in midfield and provide more space out wide for the wings to exploit.

Will it work? There’s no guarantee. But with talismanic back row carrier Jake Polledri out for some time, the Azzurri need to find a breakthrough somewhere.

 

rugby autumn nations cup no background

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

A rollercoaster Rugby Championship reached its end for New Zealand as they faced off against Argentina in Newcastle. The All Blacks were coming into the match off the back of losses to Australia and the Pumas, but quickly established themselves as the stronger team in this game, though Jordie Barrett missed an early kick from range and older brother Beauden knocked on at the line after Anton Lienert-Brown stopped the Pumas winning a Richie Mo’unga high ball in their 22. They soon found the breakthrough, though, as they managed to get a touch on Nicolás Sánchez’s attempted clearance to keep the ball in play, and after a series of phases, Mo’unga floated a pass out to Dane Coles to go over in the corner. Mo’unga added the conversion and a penalty, before making a thrilling break and spreading the ball wide to Caleb Clarke, however the wing was not quite able to stay in play as he tried to score in the corner. Mo’unga had one more chance to add o the score before halftime, but the ball came out off the posts and the Pumas were able to clear their lines for a 0-10 halftime deficit.

The second half opened with both sides looking dangerous in attack, but after New Zealand quickly worked their way into the Pumas 22, it took until the 50ᵗʰ minute for them to dot down, though this was denied for a knock-on by Caleb Clarke. The All Blacks won a penalty from the resulting scrum and kicked to the corner, and a clever lineout move by the forwards saw Ardie Savea crash over from close range, Mo’unga adding the extras. The game continued to be a close affair as the substitutions stared en masse, but 2 of the replacements proved key as Santiago Carreras, on at 15 in place of Sánchez, struggled attacking flat to the line and gifted the ball to Will Jordan to run in from halfway twice in 2 minutes to secure a bonus point victory, with Mo’unga adding both conversions. New Zealand thought they had added the cherry to the top of the cake as the lock ticked into the red with Reiko Ioane crossing, but a TMO review instead awarded a penalty to the Pumas and saw Tyrel Lomax sent to the sin bin for a clearout to the head. The Pumas had the chance to kick the ball out and end the game, but instead chose to kick to touch and launch one more attack, however the All Blacks won the ball back and put Patrick Tuipulotu through a gap to add an undeserved shine on the result, Mo’unga adding the 2 points to secure a 0-38 victory that all-but guarantees the All Blacks will win the Tri Nations.

Testing the depth

The Pumas certainly drew the short straw with the fixture scheduling after South Africa pulled out, as they are the only one of the 3 teams involved this year who has to play on 4 consecutive weeks. As such, it was no giant surprise to see a number of changes to the 23, but unfortunately I feel that it proved costly in his match.

In place of the highly experienced prop pairing of Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro and Francisco Gómez Kodela, Santiago Medrano (24 years old) and Mayco Vivas (22) were given the start, but they found the All Blacks scrum too much for them to deal with. Obviously the only way they can learn to scrummage at the top level is by putting them into matches like this, but unfortunately it proved costly in this match as their scrum was in almost constant retreat and giving away penalties at an alarming rate, which was gifting New Zealand possession and territory far too often.

As if that wasn’t enough, the number of scrums skyrocketed as a heavily changed back line struggled to create any cohesion, with too many attempts to put a player through a gap resulting in the ball going to floor. This only got worse as Santiago Carreras – who usually plays in the back 3 for Argentina – was brought on at fly half, as he clearly wasn’t comfortable in the position and gifted Will Jordan 2 tries when he tried to play flat to the line and bring the back line into play.

Obviously it was disappointing on the day, but the players will have learned a lot from this match and will benefit from this in the long term. And I’m sure there will be a lot more focus in the coming week on building the chemistry.

Inefficient

A 0-38 victory certainly looks good on paper, but I can’t help feel that anyone who actually watched the match will feel that this didn’t really do much to help Ian Foster’s job security.

When you think of the All Blacks, you think of a team that pounces on your mistakes and exploits them by making the right decisions to score the try. Instead, this game was just another example of blown opportunities from New Zealand.

Beauden Barrett is meant to be one of the best players in the world but couldn’t even hold onto the ball as he crossed the line under pressure from Felipe Ezcurra, while Reiko Ioane may also be thankful that Tyrel Lomax’s indiscretion meant his potential try was not looked at further. Mo’unga created a brilliant chance with his break and wide pass to Clarke (who had already wasted one chance with a knock on 5m from the line), but the winger was then selfish by trying to round the defender himself, rather than holding his line to draw the defence as they rushed across and then feeding the man who was in the process of looping behind him. And then finally in the early minutes of the second half, Anton Lienert-Brown wasted an overlap 5m from the line by playing the ball back inside.

This is not the clinical team that we are used to, this is a bunch of players who have lost direction and were lucky Carreras gifted them 2 tries to make it to the bonus point. New Zealand need to replace Foster with someone who can refresh the team, pick the players on form and get the best out of them. That man is currently at the Crusaders: Scott Robertson. But they will need to move quick as there’s always the chance he could move abroad to take on an international role elsewhere.

rugby logo tri nations 2020

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Scotland v France

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Scotland v France

Sunday saw round 2 of the Autumn Nations Cup come to an end at Murrayfield as Scotland hosted France. The French were finally kicking off their campaign following the cancellation of their match with Fiji and they got off to the quicker start as Thomas Ramos landed an early penalty. Les Bleus thought for a moment that they had the opening try after 9 minutes as Virimi Vakatawa and Blair Kinghorn both dived on a kick through, but replays showed that the centre did not have control of the ball and France had to settle for another Ramos penalty. The Scots finally built into the game and 2 penalties from Duncan Weir drew things level, but Matthieu Jalibert hit back with a drop goal. As the tussle for supremacy continued, Ramos added another penalty and Weir added one of his own, before a gargantuan scrum earned the French a penalty at the end of the half. Instead of going for the 3 pints, they went to the corner, and after going through the phases, Vakatawa crossed the line but was held up, keeping the halftime score level at 0-0.

Following the break it as another scrum that saw the breakthrough, but this time it was the movement of the backs off first phase, as Gaël Fickou’s inside pass set Vincent Rattez free and the winger fed Vakatawa to cross for the opening try, which Ramos converted. Scotland hit back with another penalty soon after, but could find no breakthrough, and Ramos added another penalty on the hour to make it a 7-point game. Ramos had the chance to seal the win with another late penalty but missed the target, leaving Scotland with the chance to snatch a draw. They got a chance as Wayne Barnes awarded them a penalty in midfield with the clock in the red, and the Scots looked to the big boot f Stuart Hogg to put them as close to the corner as possible. Unfortunately the captain put a little too much on the kick and the ball sailed into the dead ball area, allowing France to clear and celebrate a 15-22 win that will leave them as favourites to top the pool.

Formidable front row

As if the talent in the French back line wasn’t scary enough, this match really highlighted the quality of the pack, and especially the front row. In Jean-Baptiste Gros, Camille Chat and Demba Bamba, Les Bleus were putting out what would be considered their second-choice front row (judging by recent matches), and yet they were still dominant, highlighted by a monster scrum just before halftime that saw them demolish the Scottish pack and earn a penalty. Then when the usual starters came on in Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand and Mohamed Haouas came on, it was just more of the same.

In Marchand and Chat, France have 2 hookers who would waltz into most national teams and could conceivably both be considered in the top 5 in the world, with their strong carrying and their expert jackaling just adding to their reliability at the set piece. And in the 4 props you have expert scrummagers and some dynamic carriers.

And the scariest thing of all: the oldest of them is Baille at 27 years old! Most of these players are only just about coming into their prime or have still not reached it, and as such they are only likely to get better as the team builds towards a home World Cup.

Be very afraid…

Target acquired

Under Shaun Edwards, the French defence has become a nightmare to deal with. With such a physical unit and players so dangerous at the breakdown, Scotland knew that going head-to-head with them would end disastrously, so looked to a more territorial game.

However when you watch the kicks they were putting in, they were still looking for a way to fight the French with the kicks, often putting the high balls towards Thomas Ramos and Vincent Rattez, who are smaller and less able to compete in the air. You can also see that they were looking to target these players with their own selections in the back 3, with a 6’4 monster in Duhan van der Merwe and 2 fullbacks in Hogg and Blair Kinghorn, while Sean Maitland off the bench also covers both wing and 15.

By being able to pepper the smaller members of the French back 3 with high balls and have a high ball specialist or a bigger player competing against them in the air, Scotland were giving themselves a good chance of winning the ball further up the field and getting in behind the French line. Assuming England and France face off at the end of the tournament, it will be interesting to see if England do similar, utilising Jonny May and Anthony Watson.

rugby autumn nations cup no background

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Georgia

England’s Autumn Nations Cup opener against Georgia is not one that will live long in the memory for many people, but let’s get through this.

Eddie Jones put out a side full of experience but also with a few debutants, and though they quickly found themselves camped on the Georgian line, it took them quarter of an hour to finally break the deadlock as Wasps flanker Jack Willis forced himself over on debut, converted by Owen Farrell. The physical contest continued, but the Lelos struggled to get any territory of note and conceded 2 tries in quick succession as England utilised the driving maul for Jamie George to earn a first half brace, the first of which was converted by Farrell. England finally remembered they had a back line just before half time and Jonathan Joseph came off his wing to create an overlap that allowed Elliot Daly to go over in the corner to secure the bonus point, while Farrell converted for a 26-0 halftime score.

Any hopes of a more exciting second half were quickly doused by deteriorating weather conditions, but Jamie George found reason to celebrate just before the hour mark as another driving maul saw him complete his hat trick, with Farrell adding the 2 points. Georgia kept competing however and earned some possession in the England 22, but the England defence coped with them and worked their way back downfield, allowing replacement Dan Robson to snipe over from close range for his first Test try, which Farrell converted for a final score of 40-0.

Mauled

For a team so revered for their scrummaging ability, the Georgians really have an issue with the maul. The Lelos don’t appear to have any way to stop a Tier 1 team when they get the driving maul set, with Scotland scoring 3 times and setting up another try using the driving maul just a couple of weeks ago, to add to Jamie George’s hat trick today.

Every time a team gets the maul set against Georgia, it either seems to end in a penalty due to the Lelos bringing it down illegally, or else with the referee blowing his whistle for a try. Meanwhile when the Lelos get the chance to put together a driving maul of their own, England found it all to easy to break the pack apart and get through on the ball.

Georgia need to be playing against Tier 1 teams regularly in order to improve these facets of the game. Until they do so, teams will be kicking their penalties to touch in the knowledge that all they need to do is set up the maul and drive the Lelos out of the match.

Wasted opportunity

While it was great to see Ollie Lawrence and Jack Willis making well-deserved debuts, this was still a wasted opportunity from Eddie Jones to test the depth of his squad and give some of his younger players experience. What does anyone learn from a halfback pairing of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell in this game, or regulars Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Jamie George and Jonny May. Similarly, Jonathan Joseph is as much an international wing as Elliot Daly is an international fullback – not at all.

Instead, the form players form the Premiership could have been rewarded, with a back row of Ben Earl, Jack Willis and European Player of the Year Sam Simmonds, who didn’t even make the wider squad. Ollie Thorley could have been given his debut on one wing, with players like George Furbank, Ruaridh McConnochie, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Joe Cokanasiga looked at for the other spots in the back 3 – yet only Furbank and Thorley made the wider squad and neither made the 23! Ben Spencer and Robson should be fighting for the 9 shirt, but Spencer was forced to watch from home while Robson made a 20 minute cameo. And then we come to fly half, where Owen Farrell plays the full 80 minutes while Jacob Umaga fails to make the 23 and Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds – who just led Exeter to the league and European double – don’t even make the wider squad.

Hopefully a day doesn’t come when England regret not blooding more talent in matches like this.

rugby autumn nations cup no background

Rugby Championship 2020: New Zealand v Argentina

Rugby Championship 2020: New Zealand v Argentina

As we entered the third week of the Tri Nations edition of the Rugby Championship, Argentina entered the fray in Sydney, facing off against New Zealand.

The All Blacks were putting out what they considered their strongest possible team following last week’s loss to Australia, but after a confrontational opening 15, they found themselves level at 3-3 courtesy of penalties from Richie Mo’unga and Nicolás Sánchez. As the half progressed though, it was the Pumas who found the breakthrough, and when New Zealand failed to cover Sánchez’s chip into their 22, the fly half eventually recovered the ball and crossed under the posts for the opening try, which he converted before adding another penalty to extend the lead. The South Americans’ defence continued to frustrate the All Blacks, and when Tomás Cubelli slipped away at a ruck and fed Juan Imhoff, it took a fantastic last ditch tackle from Aaron Smith to halt the winger and as the phases progressed, Richie Mo’unga managed to hold up the ball as Pablo Matera crossed the try line. The Pumas won a penalty from the resulting scrum however, and Sánchez kicked it through the posts for a 3-16 lead at the break – their highest halftime differential against New Zealand.

The second half began much like the first, with the Argentinian defence holding strong and Sánchez punishing any New Zealand indiscipline with 3 points. However, a strong driving maul from the All Black won them a penalty which they kicked to the corner, and a quick ball to the front caught the Pumas out and allowed Sam Cane to be driven over for a try, converted by Mo’unga. Any hopes of a kiwi comeback were diminished, though, as Sánchez added another penalty while the Pumas defence continued to hold firm, and when Sánchez kicked a 6ᵗʰ penalty with just minutes left, a historic win was confirmed. There was still time for one last hurrah from New Zealand, which earned Caleb Clarke his first Test try, but it was just a consolation and as the Argentine contingent in the crowd made themselves heard, the Pumas were able to celebrate a 15-25 victory – their first ever win over New Zealand.

Back to basics

So many times we have seen the Pumas come out looking to take teams on offensively and falling to a gallant defeat. This was a very different performance however. While their attacking play was limited, their defence was incredible.

Led by flankers Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer, and with debutant Santiago Chocobares at 12, the defence was near-perfect, with barely a tackle missed all game and a strong team effort meaning that though the All Blacks may make metres and occasionally get through the first line, they very rarely looked a threat.

And everywhere else on the pitch, they just did the basics right, playing a good territorial game and being reliable at their own set piece while causing issues for New Zealand on opposition ball. And more than anything, they showed desire, fighting for everything and standing up for their teammates – epitomised by captain Matera from first minute to last.

You could see how much this meant to the Pumas at the end, and by simply doing the basics, they were fully deserving of the win.

Change or be changed?

While doing the basics right was key to this win for the Pumas, for so long that was just a prerequisite to having a chance to beat the All Blacks. This team looks a shadow of their former selves under Ian Foster and with his opening 5 games now resulting in just 2 wins, a draw and 2 losses, things don’t look good. This is the first time the All Blacks have lost consecutive games since 2011, and considering they have come against an inexperienced, rebuilding Australia and an Argentina team whose players have barely played since the outbreak of COVID-19, you can’t help think that their final match in the tournament against Argentina could decide if Foster keeps his job.

And for that reason, Foster needs to throw caution to the wind and pick on form rather than the tried and tested he has gone for in his so-called “strongest XI” of late. Hoskins Sotutu needs to be given the start and fellow Blues back rowers Dalton Papali’i and Akira Ioane should be joining him and Sam Cane in the 23. Beauden Barrett needs dropping  from the XV so that Jordie Barrett can play 15 and Mo’unga needs to be allowed to play his natural game like we see at the Crusaders. Ngani Laumape needs to be given the 12 shirt as he is a game-changing talent, while Reiko Ioane at 13 will create a match-up nightmare, while Caleb Clarke and Jordie Barrett should be joined in the back 3 by Will Jordan, who was one of the form players in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Will this be enough to save Ian Foster’s job? Only time will tell.

rugby logo tri nations 2020

Premier League 2020/21: October

Premier League 2020/21: October

The Premier League is now well and truly underway, and if the rest of the season carries on like this then it will be one to remember. Defending champions Liverpool got off to the worst possible start to the month with a 7-2 humbling at the hands of newly-promoted Aston Villa and lost star defender Virgil van Dijk to an ACL injury in their next match against Everton, but recovered well to finish the month top of the table.

Leicester suffered disappointing losses to Villa and West Ham, but still found themselves in the top 6 with Wolves, Villa, Everton and Chelsea, with Spurs and City rounding out the top 8. At the bottom of the table, 4 teams remained winless, but 3 draws for West Brom left the Baggies just above the relegation zone, which is currently inhabited by Burnley, Fulham and last year’s surprise package Sheffield United, who each have just 1 point to their name.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Son Heung-Min (Tottenham) – 8 goals; Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton) & Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 7 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 8 assists; John McGinn (Aston Villa) – 4 assists; James Rodriguez (Everton) & Aaron Cresswell (West Ham) – 3 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Rui Patricio (Wolves) – 4 clean sheets; Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa), Alex McCarthy (Southampton) & Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 3 clean sheets 


Safe hands?

Everton have had their best start to a league campaign in some time and with their quality up front and he struggles of some of the big teams, this looks like an opportunity for a first top-6 finish since the 2013/14 season. However if they miss out, I can’t help feel that a lot of it will come down to Jordan Pickford’s performances between the sticks.

While Pickford is certainly capable of pulling off some stunning saves, he is anything but reliable. Though they started the month with a win over Brighton, Pickford gifted the Seagulls a goal by fumbling Leandro Trossard’s shot, allowing Neal Maupay to score, while Tom Davies had to make a crucial block at 3-1 when Pickford slapped a cross straight to Maupay.

2 weeks later in the Merseyside Derby, he was lucky to stay on the pitch after an awful and completely unnecessary challenge on Virgil van Dijk, causing an ACL injury that has ended the Dutchman’s season. It was a disgusting challenge that deserved a red card all day long, but Pickford got away with it as an offside was called in the build-up, so the challenge was never looked at – a ridiculous decision in my eyes. And yet despite this lucky break, he still went on to almost cost his team the game, with a poor effort to stop Jordan Henderson’s late shot, an offside picked up by VAR the only thing saving him.

That’s just 2 matches, but it’s already more than you expect to see off a top keeper in the space of a couple of months, and with a shaky defence you need someone reliable in goal. Frankly, it was no surprise to see him dropped for the first Premier League match of November (though he was back for this weekend’s game against United), but Carlo Ancelotti must surely realise that he made a mistake by not bringing in a legitimate upgrade at the position during the transfer window – something that Chelsea did, to the tune of 3 clean sheets in the league already!

Missing piece

Who would have though that after 2 months of Premier League football, Manchester City would be down in 8ᵗʰ? Pep Guardiola’s men have not started the season well, winning only 3 of their opening 6 games, while November saw them only manage draws against Leeds and West Ham.

It’s crazy to say, but the team is struggling to score goals, with just 4 goals scored in 4 games in November, despite the plethora of attacking options that Pep Guardiola has to choose from. And there is a simple reason for this: while Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus are great strikers, they have not been regularly available in these opening weeks of the season, and City have not had the depth to cover for it, instead playing wide men like Raheem Sterling and Ferran Torres in the central position, to limited effect.

I understand that with the 3-up-front formations that many teams go for these days, less strikers are needed on the roster, but both Aguero and Jesus have spotty injury histories, so it makes sense to have at least one more specialist striker in the squad, as in a league as strong as the Premier League, you will not have the time to think about where you should be or what you should be doing, you just need to act on instinct, and that will not come naturally to a winger.

Carry on

Liverpool’s opening 2 matches of the month could not have gone much worse: an embarrassing 7-2 loss at Villa, then losing Virgil van Dijk for the season against Everton. The Dutchman is arguably one of the best centrebacks in the world and I’m sure many still remember the dismal defensive performances the Reds put in before his arrival – the Villa loss wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much of an aberration back then!

Can Liverpool cope without him? Clearly yes, as they won both of their following league matches to complete the month top of the table, while they still have talented – just not reliable – defenders in their squad. Don’t be surprised to see the Reds looking to bring in a replacement for van Dijk in January – someone who could then realistically go on to become his partner once he is back.

But until then, don’t be surprised to see Liverpool go on the idea that “a strong defence is a swift and decisive offence.” In Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané, they already had one of the most potent attacking units, while the acquisition of Diogo Jota just adds to that either as a 4ᵗʰ weapon on the pitch or to allow some rotation in the front 3 with minimal drop in quality. Oh and then let’s not also forget that they have playmakers like Thiago Alcântara and Xherdan Shaqiri and 2 super dangerous fullbacks in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson. Expect them to have an answer for any goal they concede.


Team of the Month

Wolverhampton Wanderers

It looked like Villa were going to be the obvious choice here with a huge victory over Liverpool, but their 0-3 loss to Leeds came at just the wrong time and game me the chance to look elsewhere, eventually landing on Wolves.

While they may not have had the same challenges as Villa this month, they successfully navigated matches to 3 wins and a draw, with an aggregate score of 5-1, to leave them 3ʳᵈ in the table. But what made this more impressive is that they have continued this success despite the loss of Diogo Jota to Liverpool. They are far from the strongest of squads in the league, but are so consistent as a team, you never want to rule them out in a match.


feat football prem league logo white

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Scotland

The longest Six nations in history reached it’s final day with a customary Super Saturday. What was not so customary was the location, as Llanelli’s Parc y Scarlets played host to Wales and Scotland.

The swirling winds proved a nightmare for both sides, with a Finn Russell penalty the only points of the opening quarter. The first try came on the half hour mark, as a Scottish throw to the back of the lineout in their own 22 went too far and set up Rhys Carré for the opening try. Dan Biggar kicked the conversion and things got worse for the Scots as Finn Russell left the field injured. The Scots had a half-chance right before halftime, and though they were unable to convert it, they did win a penalty which Adam Hastings kicked to reduce the deficit at the break to a point.

The game remained close after the restart, but Scotland got the breakthrough as a catch and drive lineout resulted in Stuart McInally crossing for a try in the corner. With Dan Biggar having gone off injured, Leigh Halfenny kicked the Welsh back within a point, but the Scots got a kickable penalty at the death and, with Hastings now also off injured, Stuart Hogg kicked the 3 point to secure a 10-14 win, Scotland’s first win in Wales since 2002, and 4ᵗʰ place in the standings, while Wales’ first campaign under Wayne Pivac ended in a disappointing 5ᵗʰ place.

Record breaker

Probably the biggest disappointment about this result for Wales is that it came on the day that captain Alun Wyn Jones won his 149ᵗʰ cap to break Richie McCaw’s record for international caps.

The Ospreys lock has rightly become a legend of Welsh Rugby, having now earned 140 Test caps for Wales as well as 9 Test caps with the British and Irish Lions. A natural leader whether captain or not, he commands the lineout so well and will be putting in maximum effort from kickoff to the final whistle.

Like the man he is replacing at the top of the list of most Test caps, his relationship with the referees and his years of experience mean that he is able to not just toe the line of legality but push it to extremes without getting penalised.

Probably the greatest compliment that I can give him is that as a teammate or supporter, you love him, as an opponent, you hate him.

Van’s the man

While the selection of Blair Kinghorn on the wing was probably right for this match due to the way the swirling wind affected the high ball,  I can’t help but feel that the number 11 shirt should belong to Duhan van der Merwe moving forwards.

While Kinghorn is a talented player, he is also a more versatile player who could make an impact off the bench, while I would argue that the pairing of van der Merwe and Darcy Graham provides the most dangerous attacking tandem on the wings. But what van der Merwe also offers is the extra physicality that the Scots have often missed. By bringing him in off his wing, he provides a dangerous crash ball option, while if he can be put through a gap, he then has the pace to exploit it to the maximum.

Don’t be surprised to see the Edinburgh wing becoming a regular starter for Scotland in the Autumn Nations Cup and 2021 Six Nations, and potentially even making a late run for the British and Irish Lions touring party.

Welsh weakness

While van der Merwe adds to the Sottish physicality, the Welsh are really struggling in this area. Wales have fantastic players, but so many of them are lacking on the physical side, with small, technical back rowers and fast, agile wingers. While this can work to a degree, there are many teams who will require you to have a more physical edge in order to get the win.

This is even more evident right now with the loss of Hadleigh Parkes from the 12 shirt, while George North is a shadow of the player he used to be on the wing. While the inside centre position could be sorted in the coming years by Willis Haloholo and Johnny Williams, Wales needs to develop strong, mobile forwards to give the pack that extra oomph. Cory Hill and Will Rowlands could potentially be the guys in the second row but they need to prove it, as does Aaron Wainwright in the back row. Josh Navidi will always play above his strength, but ideally Wales also need Ross Moriarty to get back to his top form and bring back the physical running game he initially had when he first came on the scene with Wales and Gloucester.

If Wales can’t sort out their physical deficiencies soon, they could be in for some disappointing times.

Guinness Six Nations