South Africa v Wales: Team of the Series

South Africa v Wales: Team of the Series

We are one week on from the end of Wales’ summer tour to South Africa. A series that saw sporting stadia in South Africa return to capacity, while Wales also made history with their first victory over the Springboks in South Africa, while the World Champions emerged with a 2-1 series victory.

And so, as we spend this period after the Summer Tours patiently waiting for the beginning of the Rugby Championship, it’s time to look back over the tour to create my combined XV.

Who do you think should have made the XV? Let me know in the comments below.



My combined XV from Wales’ 3-Test series against South Africa is:

1) Steven Kitshoff: Ended the club season winning the inaugural URC final and followed it up with some solid performances off the bench as part of the Bomb Squad. May not have been as noticeable in the loose with Wales spending much of the time he was on the pitch defending but caused the opponent tightheads issues in the scrum.

2) Malcolm Marx: Sticking with the Bomb Squad, Marx continued to impress all over the pitch with his appearances off the bench, and scored a crucial ty as the South African fightback began during the opener in Pretoria.

3) Sam Wainwright: Probably a shock to everyone with my selection here. At 24 years old and with just 6 appearances in the Premiership for Saracens (all off the bench, totalling less than 50 minutes), it was understandable that many were asking who this third choice tighthead on the tour was, but he held his own at the scrum against some of the best in the world and will surely be adding many more caps to his name over the coming years.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Will Rowlands: The South African behemoth was the only one to start all 3 Tests for the Springboks as he brought up his century of caps and payed a key role in South Africa setting their dominance. As for Rowlands, with Beard’s performances having secured one of the Welsh lock spots, the pressure was on him to step up and reach his potential as Alun Wyn Jones reaches the twilight of his career, and that’s exactly what he did with some strong carrying and defence, while he even had some success disrupting the South African lineout.

6) Dan Lydiate: Much like Peter O’Mahony, Lydiate was given the 6 shirt and rolled back the years with a series of brilliant performances. His reliable and tireless tackling played a key role in a Welsh defensive display that did itself proud against the Boks.

7) Tommy Reffell: Fans have been clamouring for his call-up for a couple of years now, and when he was finally selected, the Leicester Tigers openside certainly produced the goods. Looked a natural at Test level, tackling well and turning ball over to end South African attacks with regularity. Fully deserved his try in the decider.

8) Taulupe Faletau: Jasper Wiese had a solid game in Pretoria but could not back that up in the finale, while Evan Roos was not able to impose himself in a team that lacked chemistry and Kwagga Smith found his minutes limited and split between 8 and flanker. Faletau therefore gets the nod as he continues to just quietly go about his business in all areas of the game.

9) Kieran Hardy: Wales have some strong options at scrum half, but Hardy certainly feels the right choice at the moment. Controlled the game well alongside Dan Biggar, while his box kicks were right on the money.

10) Dan Biggar: Another quality series from the Northampton stand-off, who was the most consistently impressive of the 3 starting 10s we saw during the series. Kicked well, controlled the back line well when they actually attacked and made some crucial interventions in defence. Was unfortunate to be the one who Willie le Roux coaxed into a deliberate knock-on for the deciding penalty at Loftus Versfeld.

11) Josh Adams: It was a surprisingly quiet series for Makazole Mapimpi, while Alex Cuthbert’s involvement was cut cruelly short by injury, and so the slot goes to Josh Adams. Not that he didn’t earn it, playing with a leg heavily strapped and yet still chased kicks so well, not to mention scoring the late try in the second Test that tied the game and gave Gareth Anscombe the chance to win the match.

12) Damian de Allende: Nick Tompkins is looking more and more comfortable as he gains experience at this level, but de Allende was a difference maker here. Solid in defence and running hard in attack, he als showed his more technical side with a lovely grubber for Cheslin Kolbe’s try in the corner.

13) Lukhanyo Am: George North was a solid defender but anonymous in attack until the decider, whereas Lukhanyo Am continued to show the world just how good he is with 2 more fantastic performances at 13, while he looked equally impressive after injuries forced hi out onto the wing.

14) Louis Rees-Zammit: Rees Lightning’s pace proved a real threat to the South African defence and caused them some real problems, while he was also unlucky to et a yellow card after a try-saving tackle and great jackal, though I can understand how the referee was not in an ideal position as he was unable to keep up!

15) Damian Willemse: The new utility back in the Springboks squad and the reason they can feel comfortable putting only 2 backs on the bench. Willemse had a solid series despite injuries and a first half horror show from Elton Jantjies forcing him to play a range of positions over the 3 Tests.

South Africa v Wales: The 2022 Decider

South Africa v Wales: The 2022 Decider

After Wales’ historic win last week, everything was to play for in the third and final Test against South Africa. Following last week’s disappointment, the Springboks were back to a much more recognisable XV—including a 50ᵗʰ cap for Bongi Mbonambi and a 100ᵗʰ cap for Eben Etzebeth—and thought they had got off to the best possible start when Makazole Mapimpi collected a kick out wide to go over in the corner, ony for replays to show he had a foot in touch, leaving Handré Pollard to kick 3 points from a penalty. They were straight back on the attack however as Damian Willemse beat Dan Biggar to a high ball in the Welsh 22 to earn a penalty, and after kicking it to the corner for a 5m lineout, Damian de Allende’s drive to the line saw him stopped just millimetres short of the Welsh line. The pressure on the Welsh line just continued as each attack ended in a penalty, allowing South Africa to go again, and as he clock reached 14 minutes, Handré Pollard managed to crash over for the try then kicked the conversion for a 10-0 lead. Wales were finally able to get some possession of their own, and after George North and Louis Rees-Zammit made ground down the wings, Nick Tompkins released Josh Adams with a wide pass, and while the wing was stopped by the covering Willemse, he successfully offloaded to the supporting Tomy Reffell for the try that his performances in South Africa deserved. An injury to Cheslin Kolbe caused a reshuffle in the South Africa back line entering the second quarter—Lukhanyo Am moving to the wing, Willemse into centre and Willie le Roux coming on at 15—and the game entered a period of parity, with much of the play taking place between the 10m lines. A Dan Biggar penalty on halfway appeared to spark the home side back into life, and when they won a penalty of their own deep in the Welsh 22, they went to the corner and Mbonambi peeled off the back of the maul to power through Kieran Hardy’s tackle an score the try with 2 minutes left in the half, Pollard adding the extras. There was time for one more chance for the Boks as the ball was spread right from a Kwagga Smith turnover. De Allende sent a grubber kick down the 5m channel and while Am managed to outpace the Welsh defenders, his attempted hack on sent the ball into touch for a 17-8 halftime lead.

Dan Biggar was able to make it a one-score game just moments into the second half, but the Boks thought they had an immediate response through a try by Lukhanyo Am, only for the try to be chalked off for a forward pass from scrum half Jaden Hendrikse after he made the break. Biggar chipped away at the home team’s lead with another penalty, while the next Boks attack saw them go through a series of penalties to the corner Siya Kolisi eventually forced himself over next to the post. With a 10-point lead, South Africa continued to attack, but utilised the kick in behind more to ensure that even if the attack failed the Welsh would have to play from deep, while Wales could find no answer against the South African defence and a pair of late penalties from Pollard secured the victory and the Test series with a score of 30-14.

Making a point

After a couple of questionable performances in this series, South Africa were out to make a point today. They were carrying and tackling with an extra intensity that made clear they were not just up for the match, but determined to win.

But more than that, they varied their game. This wasn’t all about strong defence, kicking for territory and forward dominance at the set piece, they were doing everything. From Pollard’s high balls that were exactly on the mark for the South African back 3, to spreading the ball wide and stretching the defence, to the grubber kicks in behind the defence,  to hitting hard and consistently in midfield for umpteen phases… this Springboks team looked much more dangerous and , more importantly, complete than they had of late.

And in doing so, this is a major statement from the Boks. We all know that they can win games the ugly way.. Today they decided to remind us that they do have other ways to win too. 3 weeks from now, South Africa host New Zealand twice in consecutive weeks to start their 2022 Rugby Championship campaign. Judging by today’s performances, the All Blacks could be in serious trouble.

Taking them on

Credit to Wales, after 2 weeks of barely even trying to fire a shot in attack, they took the game to South Africa in this deciding Test. Rather than kicking everything and only looking to play when a South African penalty or error gave them possession in an attacking position, the Welsh were varying the game and making things less predictable, which then led to them managing to find space and playing into it.

Most notably was the Reffell try, which was made after a George North break up the left wing—the first attacking thing we’d seen from him all series!—the ball then being spread to Rees-Zammit to break up into the 22 on the other wing, and then while things got a little less polished, the Welsh continued to look to keep the ball moving and create space to exploit, which they then managed, allowing Tompkins to release Adams, who may have finished himself were he not so heavily strapped up, but found Reffell on the supporting line inside for the try. In just one attack, we had seen more intent from Wales than the rest of the tour!

Unfortunately, they struggled to consistently win the scrums, while their hookers’ issues throwing at the lineouts reared its ugly head again—how so many professional hookers struggle in this area despite it being a crucial part of the game is beyond me—and that limited the platform they had to play off, while in defence they gave away penalties far too easily. But this was a timely reminder to the world: as great as the South African defence is, they are not infallible and a team that will spread the ball and play attacking rugby can cause them serious problems.

rugby south africa crest

South Africa v Wales

South Africa v Wales

After filling Loftus Versfeld last week, the action moved to Bloemfontein for the second Test between South Africa and Wales. The Springboks were fielding a squad very different to their last-gasp win a week ago—not that it in any way devalued the match, take note Wales Online and Sir Gareth Edwards—but they were behind within seconds to a Dan Biggar penalty, though opposite number Handré Pollard soon answered with an early penalty of his own. The rest of the opening half was a tight affair, with both fly halves missing their next kick at goal, as on multiple occasions the Springboks found themselves turned over in and around the Welsh 22 by Tommy Reffell and as the teams went in at the break it was still just 3-3.

The second half started much better for the Boks with a couple of Pollard penalties, while Biggar—who appeared to be struggling with a shoulder issue and was soon replaced by Gareth Anscombe—missed a kick of his own. Wales’ discipline was again struggling as they were forced to consistently defend, and with 15 minutes gone in the half, South Africa made a break down the right and while they were brought down, Alun Wyn Jones was adjudged (wrongly) by referee Angus Gardner to have cynically played the ball in the ruck and the replacement captain was sent to the bin and Pollard soon added another 3 points from the tee. The Welsh desperately needed something, and Gareth Anscombe’s penalty just after the hour cut the deficit to 6 points as Jones returned from the bin, but his next kick drifted wide as the game entered the final 10 minutes. It was not going to be a comfortable end to the game for the Boks though, as Handré Pollard hobbled of with 6 minutes left, and with Wales earning a penalty at the scrum, they kicked to the corner and went through the phases before spreading wide left to send Josh Adams over for the only try of the game with 2 minutes left. Anscombe added the extras to give them a 12-13 lead and the defence held out for the final minute of the game to secure Wales’ first ever victory over the Springboks in South Africa.

Growing pains

Ahead of the match, here was plenty of talk as to how the South African selection—changing 14 men in the XV and more on the bench—disrespected Wales and devalued the match. And while Wales may have come away with the victory, I hope the people who made those comments now feel suitably stupid after their first choice Wales team created just one attacking chance of note against this supposed B team.

More than anything, this just showed the strength in depth of South African rugby, as many of the stars moved abroad which left space for the younger generation to grow early. And as for devaluing a game, There are only a finite amount of Test matches per year, and even less that are not part of a competition like the Rugby Championship. So to be in one of those non-competition matches 1 year out from a Rugby World Cup, of course you need to be testing the depth of your squad when your first choice team is looking so solid, giving the younger players much-needed Test experience and a chance to break into the World Cup squad, while also giving the current fringe players a chance to prove that they should retain their spot in the squad.

Arguably on the day, it was the South African team selection that proved the Springboks’ downfall, but I would argue that it was the sheer number of players who weren’t used to playing together at this level—or used to playing at this level at all, and this clearly led to a disjointed attack that as a result only showed flashes of quality. But this is a necessary part of rugby.

Wales have not become world-beaters overnight. Likewise South Africa have not stopped being a force in Test rugby with this 1 loss.

Earning his stripes

Is there something in the water in Leicester at the moment? After Jack van Poortvliet joined Freddie Steward in looking like a Test veteran in his first start against Australia, Tommy Reffell was having an absolute stormer of a match here, having also impressed on his debt last week.

In attack, he was carrying well when asked to and securing ball for his side, while in defence (which was most of the match) he was shining, being a constant threat at the breakdown and bringing an end to a number of South Africa’s most promising attacks and deservedly earning the Player of the Match award.

Wales have incredible depth on the flanks, so Reffell needs to take his chance while he can. In recent years under Pivac, we have seen players put in a string of great performances and then completely disappear from the 23 the moment they have a quiet game. By being so impressive in his early appearances against such quality opposition, hopefully he’s earning some credit in the bank.

South Africa v Wales

South Africa v Wales

Last summer, South Africa ran out 2-1 series winners against the British & Irish Lions in empty stadiums. Now, some of the Lions were back as Wales arrived in Pretoria for the first match in their 3-Test series. And a sold out Loftus Versfeld was soon silenced after a turnover at the lineout allowed Wales to spread the ball to Louis Rees-Zammit who outran everyone for the opening try. Wales had certainly caught the Springboks out early on, and as Kieran Hardy’s box kicks set up a good territorial game, Dan Biggar soon added to the lead with a drop goal from around 45 metres out. The Boks started growing into the game though and won a penalty, but Elton Jantjies first attempt at goal hit both posts before landing back in play. The South African fly half had more luck with his next kick, which was soon cancelled out by Biggar, but he was clearly not having the best day off the boot as he missed another kickable penalty, before overhitting a penalty to the corner. These misses suddenly looked even more costly as the ball went loose following a lineout over the top by Wales, and it was Rees-Zammit who was first onto the loose ball, going over for his and Wales’ second. As the half was going into the final 5 minutes, South Africa finally found a moment of attacking fluidity with a break down their left wing that left Dan Biggar forced to make a crucial tackle on Faf de Klerk to save a try, though the Welsh captain was sent to the bin for illegally slowing down the ball at the resulting breakdown. With the extra man, South Africa went for the lineout, but the maul was dealt with by the men in red, who secured the ball off their own scrum and kicked the ball out to end the half with a 3-18 lead.

The World Champions started the second half stronger against 14 men, and finally found the breakthrough on 46 minutes with a solid 5m lineout maul sending Bongi Mbonambi over, the first time that they had really physically dominated Wales in the match, with Willemse adding the extras following Jantjies removal a half time. Wales were back to 15 men, but South Africa now had the momentum and Willemse was playing much more accurately at 10 than Jantjies had done, and things soon got even worse for Wales as Tomas Francis, who had only just come on, got his head on the wrong side of the tackle and took Steven Kitshoff’s knee straight to the side of his head, ending his game before it had even really began. The loss of Francis was made even more noticeable by the arrival of the Bomb Squad, and when the game restarted with a South African penalty, they kicked to the corner and drove Malcolm Marx over for a try. Biggar added a pair of penalties to stretch the lead, but as the game started to open up, the World Champions started looking more dangerous, and a clever grubber to the corner from Damian de Allende was finished in the corner by Cheslin Kolbe, while Alun Wyn Jones was also sent to the bin for an offence in the build-up. That man advantage proved too much for Wales in the final moments of the sin -bin period, as the World Champions broke through Kolbe before going through the phases, and when Willie le Roux was found in space, Rees-Zammit just managed to haul him down short, but was then yellow carded for not releasing at the breakdown, and the World Champions used that 2-man advantage to maul for the line and earn a penalty try, with Rhys Carré being sent to the bin for collapsing the maul. With Jones returning to the pitch, Wales were 2 men and 6 points down, but kicked a penalty to the corner and miraculously managed to drive Dewi Lake over for the try with 3 and a half minutes left to level the scores, but Biggar’s touchline conversion drifted just right of the posts. With just half a minute left, Wales had possession about 30 metres from their line, but replacement scrum half kicked the ball away and invited the South African counterattack, which made it back to that 30 metre mark before Dan Biggar was adjudged of a deliberate knock-on. with the clock in the red, Damian Willemse stepped up and kicked the resulting penalty to break Welsh hearts and secure a 32-29 victory.

Place in doubt

Elton Jantjies is a player whose consistency has always been an issue, but has usually been able to show flashes of real quality. Well sadly for him, today those flashes were sorely missing. The man considered South Africa’s attacking 10 could get nothing going at all in the first half and had a nightmare with his kicking—both off the tee and out of hand. Even his decision making was questionable, most noticeable when he chose to put up a high cross kick into the Welsh in-goal that put Cheslin Kolbe up against Josh Adams without there being any penalty advantage, leading to neither claiming the ball cleanly and the covering Liam Williams dotting down the loose ball.

Of course Handré Pollard the clear standout number 10 and at least one of Damian Willemse, Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe (all of whom can cover the 10 shirt) likely to be in the 23, South Africa can get away with using one of these more versatile players as one of their backs in 1 6-2 bench split. However none of them regularly play fly half and to win a World Cup, you would likely still want a second specialist 10, even if just to play the “weaker” teams in the pool or to be there if Pollard gets injured in the tournament. Is Jantjies that man? Performances like this will certainly not go in his favour.

Time may be running out, but if one of the young specialist 10s coming through in the URC can have a solid year, showing that they can reliably kick and run a back line, they have every chance of finding their way into the 2023 World Cup Squad at the expense of the Japan-based Jantjies. Or perhaps Willemse’s performance in relief of Jantjies has already ended his shot of appearing in France.

Signs of improvement

I will put my hands up and admit that when the squads were announced, I only saw this match going one way: badly for Wales. However, the Welsh put in a performance that could probably be considered one of their best under Pivac. What has really been missing of late for Wales has been the physicality, but today they went toe to toe with the most physical team in World Rugby and came out with their head held high.

Granted it wasn’t he most attacking of performances, but we are used to that from years under Warren Gatland. And this was a solid base to build off, as very few teams will attack with the physical ferocity that South Africa brought in that second half. But not just that, their late try for Dewi Lake was an incredible moment as they drove the maul some ten metres and splintered the South African maul defence, something that you don’t see many teams doing.

This should be massive for Welsh belief. The key now is to repeat the intensity in the second Test next week and make this level of performance the norm.

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

As both Super Rugby Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere club rugby season come to an end, it’s time to switch our attention from club rugby to the international game as a number of the Northern Hemisphere nations go on tour:

  • England to Australia
  • Ireland to New Zealand (facing both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks)
  • France to Japan
  • Wales to South Africa
  • Scotland to Argentina (while a Scotland “A” side will also face Chile in an uncapped match)
  • Italy to Portugal, Romania and Georgia

Now regular readers will have guessed what’s coming here, as I look at the majority of the teams above (in this case all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams) and pick a player from each team to watch out for during this tour. Often they will be someone relatively new to Test rugby, sometimes someone with a point to prove as they face the pressure of depth at their position, and sometimes a player who may have already made a name for themselves, but finds themselves now switching to a different position.

Of course these are just my picks, and there were certainly some other options that I could have gone with, so feel free to chuck who you would have selected in the comments!

Argentina

Starting off this list with someone who firmly falls into the third category I mentioned with Santiago Carreras. You may have noticed that I have began a series of my picks for the top 5 players in the world at each position and (SPOILERS) the Gloucester back will be appearing in one of those articles down the line. But it will not be the one about fly half, and that is where he has found himself playing in recent Tests. He certainly has the skillset to excel there, but he lacks the experience, having never started a professional club match at the position and not likely to anytime soon at Gloucester. With Michael Cheika having taken over leadership of the Pumas, will he stick with the Carreras experiment to take advantage of the depth Argentina have in the back 3, or will he look to play his best players in their best positions?

Australia

With 16 caps to his name already at the age of just 22, Angus Bell looks to be around for the long haul. A dynamic loosehead, he is becoming a much more solid scrummager and will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on the English tighthead crop with Kyle Sinckler missing. If he can cause some damage at the set piece, England could be in trouble.

England

There were so many ways to go with this pick and I was very tempted by returning players like Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga or the inexperienced Joe Heyes, but instead I have gone for Care’s Harlequins teammate Joe Marchant. The centre has always had great attacking quality but had added a super reliable defence to his game, while he also has the ability to move out to the wing. He may have a fight to make the starting XV when everyone is available, but with both Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade missing this tour, Marchant has a chance to push for that starting spot. His familiarity with Marcus Smith will certainly help things in attack, while he will play a big role in helping shut down an exciting Australian back line.

France

As if France weren’t dangerous enough, they may have found another future star just in time for the World Cup in the form of Yoan Tanga. The 25-year-old Racing 92 back row really stood out to me with his consistent carrying in the tight for the Barbarians in their humiliation of England last weekend, which repeatedly drew in multiple tacklers to finally get him down. The French backline is dangerous when given space, and Tanga’s carrying will just give them even more to work with.

Ireland

Sticking with the pack here, I’m going for Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan. It feels like in an ideal world with everyone available, the Irish hookers in the matchday 23 will be Sheehan and Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher, with the big question just being who starts. However with Kelleher out injured, Sheehan will surely be the clear first choice ahead of Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan and with the World Cup just a year away, he has a legitimate chance to secure the number 2 shirt.

Italy

I was initially going with Six Nations hero Ange Capuozzo here but a second glance at the scrum half position made me change my mind. With Stephen Varney left out after a poor Six Nations that ended with injury and limited minutes for Gloucester, Callum Braley’s retirement from international rugby leaves the Azzurri short of experience at scrum half this summer. Step forward Alessandro Garbisi! Paolo’s younger brother has shone with the U20s and has been racking up the minutes for Benetton in the URC. He may not be the finished product yet, but a summer facing 3 of the top 4 teams from the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship will be a great way for him to gain experience in the senior team.

New Zealand

What a difference a season makes. Last year, the All Blacks were seriously lacking centres, whereas now they seem almost spoiled for choice. And while part of this is down to the return of Josh Goodhue from injury and another year of experience for last year’s crop, they are also helped by the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from rugby league. The centre played 20 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code alongside almost 200 appearances in the NRL, and has grown into the 12 position in his first season with the Blues. With a great range of skills, clever footwork and good strength, Tuivasa-Sheck has the chance to be the new Sonny Bill Williams.

South Africa

Evan Roos was going to get my pick here until I realised that André Esterhuizen only had 8 caps! The Quins centre is arguably one of the best inside centres in the world, but has the challenge of being in the sae national team squad as Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, while South Africa’s recent favouring of a 6-2 split on the bench has led to them usually going for a more versatile player on the bench rather than a specialist centre. However his form has been incredible over recent seasons and he is fully deserving of a return to the national team and will be looking to put in some big performances against Wales to solidify his spot in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Scotland

Another in a similar spot to Santi Carreras, Blair Kinghorn may not be as entrenched in the Scottish XI, but he was clearly in the reckoning for a spot in the back 3. However his skillset has recently been used more at fly half, and with Finn Russell given a summer off and Adam Hastings forced to pull out of the touring squad through injury, Kinghorn looks likely to wear the 10 shirt against the Pumas. With Scotland underperforming of late and resting some key players this summer, and facing an Argentina team looking to climb back up the rankings under a new head coach, the pressure will be on Kinghorn.

Wales

Finishing off this list with a potential debutant in Tommy Reffell. Many would argue that the Leicester flanker should have been capped well before this, but he now goes into the South Africa tour off the back of a strong performance in the Premiership final. Back row is an area where Wales have plenty of quality but don’t seem to give anyone a long enough chance to secure a spot. But with Reffell’s all-round ability in the loose and real danger at the breakdown, can he prove himself worthy of an extended run in Wayne Pivac’s 23?

Upward Trajectories

Upward Trajectories

After a highly impressive victory over Toulouse in the semifinal, many were expecting Leinster to once again win the Champions Cup final last weekend. However, La Rochelle had different ideas, and Arthur Retière’s late try helped secure a 24-21 victory for the Top 14 outfit.

And while many people will be celebrated for the victory, one notable name is really adding to their legacy: Ronan O’Gara. The Munster and Ireland fly half had a legendary playing career which has seen him inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, but his coaching career is taking him to even higher levels. After retiring from playing in 2013, O’Gara joined Racing 92 as a defence coach, who won the Top 14 once during his 4-year spell. From there, he moved to New Zealand to join Scott Robertson’s Crusaders team as a backs coach, and during his spell there, the Crusaders won back-to-back Super Rugby titles. After this success, O’Gara jumped up to the top spot as head coach of La Rochelle. Having been promoted to the Top 14 in 2014, the team had been developing some consistency in making the playoffs, and O’Gara built on that, with the team losing in the finals of both the Top 14 and the Champions Cup (both to Toulouse), before taking the step forward to win the ultimate European prize this season. And while results have generally gone well, it is also the performances and O’Gara’s way of thinking that has drawn praise from players, pundits and fans alike. It’s hard to imagine anyone else being the frontrunner for the Irish job if Andy Farrell were to step away right now, and in fact probably the bigger question is whether he comes back to lead a province beforehand, especially with Munster going through somewhat of a rebuild this summer and also seeing Graham Rowntree come in as head coach.

With O’Gara’s growth and development surely making an international appointment just a matter of “when” rather than “if”, it got me thinking of some other coaches whose success surely has them deserving of—or well on their way to—an international head coaching gig.

Scott Robertson

If I’d been in charge of selecting Steve Hansen’s successor, Robertson would already be the head coach of the All Blacks. While the All Blacks have faltered, the Crusaders have continued their success, and Robertson has been key to it. After the dark days of the end of Todd Blackadder’s reign, which saw the team finish as low as 7ᵗʰ in the 2015 and 2016 Super Rugby seasons, the team won 3 Super Rugby tournaments in a row and were running 3ʳᵈ when the 2020 Super Rugby season was halted by COVID. However, they then won back-to-back Super Rugby Aotearoa titles, while a 3ʳᵈ-place finish in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman saw them miss out on a spot in the final by just 6 points (which must have hit them hard as they conceded a try at the death in 2 wins, one of which even denied them a bonus point). However, they once again finished in the top 2 of the table in the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season and (at time of writing, ahead of the quarterfinals) will be looking to earn that title over the coming weeks.

Robertson is (in my opinion) one of the top coaches out there, and I’ll be shocked if he is not appointed the All Blacks head coach following the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

 Steve Borthwick

Another player whose quick turnaround of a struggling team to return them to greatness, Steve Borthwick already has experience in an international coaching setup as England forwards coach, before moving to Leicester. Tigers had just finished 11ᵗʰ in back-to-back seasons, but Borthwick immediately turned things around and got the team back into the top half of the table in the 2020/21 season, before topping the table in the 2021/22 season to secure a home semi-final.

Though he has limited experience as a head coach, he has showed that he can get a team united in one vision and turn around a team with high expectations in a tough league, while his experience at Test level both as a player and forwards coach would set him up as a great option for many international teams, perhaps he will even be Eddie Jones’ replacement after RWC2023.

Stuart Lancaster

The former England head coach has the ignominy of leading England to their pool-stage exit at RWC2015, but it is clear that other parties were interfering with that run—highlighted by the Sam Burgess saga. However his move to Leinster, where he is a senior coach, has seen him earn praise across the board, while Leinster have won 4 consecutive Pro14s, a Champions Cup and at time of writing are probably the favourites to win the inaugural URC having topped the combined table.

Such has been his success, it’s time that he gets another shot at Test level, perhaps with a nation that has slightly lower expectations than England (how much would an Italy/Georgia/USA benefit from a coach of his calibre) while teams like Wales and Scotland may also want someone reliable to steady the ship following the disappointing (so far) reigns of Wayne Pivac and Gregor Townsend.

Shaun Edwards

The best defensive coach in World Rugby. The former Wigan rugby league star has become known for his time as defence coach of Wales, the 2009 British & Irish Lions and now France, where he has solidified himself as one of the best coaches in the game. But he also has plenty of head coaching experience, having led Wasps (then London Wasps) from 2005-2011, having started there as a defence/backs coach in 2001. Edwards’ trophy cabinet speaks for itself:

  • Wasps assistant coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 3 Premierships
  • Wasps head coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 1 European Challenge Cup, 1 Premiership
  • Wales assistant coach: 3 Six Nations
  • France assistant coach: 1 Six Nations

Edwards sets a culture within the team, which helps lead to success. If the RFU aren’t looking at him as Eddie Jones’ replacement following the World Cup, it will be a crime!

Who else would you add to this list?

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Italy

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Italy

It feels like only a couple of weeks ago that the 2022 Six Nations was kicking off, and yet we already find ourselves at Super Saturday, the final day of the tournament. This year’s super Saturday kicked off in Cardiff, as Wales faced Italy. Avoiding the Wooden Spoon was mathematically impossible for the Azzurri, but they finally opened the scoring after 13 minutes through a Paolo Garbisi penalty after he was tackled off the ball, while Edoardo Padovani soon added a penalty of his own. An error off the restart gave the Welsh a period of possession in the Italian 22 which they repeatedly failed to exploit, but they finally took advantage of an Italian knock-on to break from deep in their half and stretched the defence to breaking point, allowing Owen Watkin to go over for the try, with Dan Biggar converting to put his side ahead on the occasion of his 100ᵗʰ cap. The lead lasted just a matter of minutes though as the Garbisi/Padovani pairing added 2 more penalties just after the half hour mark. As the clock ticked into the red, a strong Italian scrum in the right hand corner earned a penalty advantage and when Johnny McNicholl failed to hold Garbisi’s cross-kick in the air, Owen Watkin just beat Callum Braley to dot down the loose ball, and the Italian decision to go for a lineout with the penalty saw them held out, though they would still go into the break with a 7-12 lead.

Going into the second half and it was the Azzurri who had the first attacks of note, with a timely jackal from Josh Navidi saving them after Italy broke around the fringes with their forwards and a great cover tackler denying Monty Ioane in the corner. Wales finally got some possession, though and after a penalty at the scrum set them up with a 5m lineout, Dewi Lake managed to force himself over, with Biggar again adding the extras to put his side ahead. Things then went crazy as Ange Capuozzo and Monty Ioane chose to counter a kick into their in-goal under pressure, and ended in Danilo Fischetti leading a chase of Michele Lamaro’s kick to earn a penalty for sealing off beneath the posts, which Garbisi duly dispatched to restore the Italian lead. Wales made a umber of substitutions on the hour—including removing Alun Wyn Jones on his return to injury for his 150ᵗʰ cap, and moving Dan Biggar to fullback to allow for Calum Sheedy’s introduction in place of McNicholl—but they were lucky not to find themselves falling even further behind as Padovani’s next penalty drifted to the right of the posts. However the fresh players took their chance as Wales took advantage of a turnover on halfway to put together some phases of quick ball, and when Josh Adams cut back inside he found a gap between 2 tiring forwards to score the third try of the game. With just ten minutes remaining the Welsh appeared to gain so much confidence, and Wyn Jones soon thought he secured the result by crashing over from close range, only for the officials to decide that he was held up over the line by Braam Steyn, who was himself celebrating his 50ᵗʰ cap. With the clock ticking down it looked like another case of “so near but so far” for brave Italy, but with 2 minutes left, Ange Capuozzo found a gap in the kick chase and broke down the right wing, feeding the supporting Padovani to score beneath the posts and allow Garbisi to kick the simplest of conversions as the clock went red, securing a 21-22 victory, their first win on Welsh soil and first Six Nations win since they defeated Scotland in 2015.

While they may have finished the game with 3 tries, this was a poor attacking performance from Wales. Despite quality throughout the team, there did not seem to be much inspiration, and that has been an issue throughout the tournament, regardless of the personnel that Wayne Pivac has selected.

The backs stand too flat and are rushing the ball out to the wings in the hope that they can get around the outside, but either the rushed passes are inaccurate, or the ball is getting to the wings, only for them to find that the defence has drifted across with them. Meanwhile, the forwards are taking the ball standing still too often, which today allowed Italy to dictate the contact too often and put themselves in a position to slow the ball down or force a turnover.

With the World Cup just a year and a half away, this is a crucial moment for the WRU. Do they look to move on from Wayne Pivac, giving his replacement the Summer and Autumn Tests and 2023 Six Nations? Or do they keep faith in the man who coached the Scarlets to Pro12 glory in the 2016/17 season and hope things improve?

Italy

It’s something that I’ve been saying has been coming for a while, but despite Wales having looked shaky all tournament, even I didn’t see the win coming for Italy today. But this is a huge moment for Italian rugby.

While they may have been outscored by 3 tries to 1, the performance from Italy all around the park was huge, and on another day Ioane scores in the corner and they score off the cross kick or following maul just before half time. But while it’s been a long time since their last Six Nations victory, it has been a time of growth from the bottom up. And what shows this most is the quality of player missing today.

Legendary captain Sergio Parisse is gone, but in Michele Lamaro they have a new talisman to lead them through the next 10 years. Jake Polledri—arguably one of the few players who could be considered World Class—is still injured, while his fellow back row Seb Negri has also missed the last couple of games. And yet this has allowed Toa Halafihi a run of games in the number 8 shirt and he has grown into the role. In the backs, the absence of Tommy Allan and Carlo Canna has led to the introduction of Leonardo Marin, while Matteo Minozzi’s absence has led to a run of strong performances by players in the 14 shirt, and now the emergence of Toulouse-bound Ange Capuozzo. And as this all goes on, the U18s and U20s continue to not just be competitive, but win their fair share of games. And that quality will just continue to find its way into the senior squad over the coming years, allowing them to end up with a squad that has quality not just from 1-23, but throughout the wider squad and beyond.

This summer will see the Azzurri face off against USA, Canada and an Argentina team that has just seen head coach Mario Ledesma replaced by Michael Cheika. The timing could not be better for Italy to bounce on and put together a run of wins and potentially beat another Tier 1 nation.

2022 Six Nations: Wales v France

2022 Six Nations: Wales v France

The penultimate round of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off with a rare Friday night fixture as Wales hosted France. Both Melvyn Jaminet and Dan Biggar were able to land early penalties in a scrappy start, but when Jaminet and Gabin Villière countered a kick from Liam Williams, les Bleus got on the front foot and soon created the space to put Anthony Jelonch over for the opening try. The French continued to be frustrated by the Welsh defence though, and as the home team grew into the game, a pair of penalties from Biggar narrowed the French lead to a point, while a last minute drop goal attempts from Melvyn Jaminet dropped short for a 9-10 halftime score.

Jaminet kicked an early penalty after the break, but a Welsh penalty soon had them with a lineout 5 metres out from the French line, only for Ryan Elias to become isolated and held up over the line. It was the Welsh who has the next chance just after the hour as Dan Biggar found Taulupe Faletau on he wing with a deft cross-kick, only for Jonathan Davies to fumble the number 8’s pass back inside with the line at his mercy. As the French ill-discipline continued, Wales continued to enjoy the territorial advantage without being able to get over the line and when Peato Mauvaka stole the ball with the clock in the red, the game came to an end with a 9-13 result that keeps hopes of a French Grand Slam alive.

Wales

It was yet another new back row combination for Wales in this tournament, as Josh Navidi returned to Test rugby, with Seb Davies being promoted to join him and Faletau. But what an impact they had. Navidi and Faletau did what they always did, but it was Davies who had a huge impact on the match.

One of those huge physical specimens at 6 who has a surprising amount of ball skills, his introduction gave the Welsh a physical answer to the power of the French pack, but where he really proved important was at the lineout.

The French have used the lineout to set up a number of their tries through the tournament, but with Davies joining locks Adam Beard and Will Rowlands as lineout jumpers, the Welsh were able to limit French options at the set piece and cause Cameron Woki a nightmare in picking the right option resulting in a number of opportunities being ruined as the usually-reliable lineout struggled to function.

Such was the performance from Davies, it was a shock to see him replaced by Ross Moriarty, especially so early in the second half. And it was clear to see that the French appreciated the reduced pressure as a crucial late lineout saw them call for a ball to the tail from Peato Mauvaka. Could things have gone different had Davies been kept on for the full 80 minutes?

France

The old cliché is that you never know what France will turn up, but under Fabien Galthié they have generally been much more reliable. However, tonight’s performance was especially odd.

While the lineout struggles certainly didn’t help the French attack, it also felt somewhat tame, with far too much kicking that was often very poor—either kicks down the middle that the Welsh kicked back with interest or high balls that the Welsh won with ease.

It was almost as if the team was allowing Wales to have the ball and daring them to attack, trusting in the quality of Shaun Edwards’ defensive coaching, but this almost cost them as they gave away far too many penalties, while better handling from Jonathan Davies would surely have seen him go over for the go-ahead try just after the hour.

When the French did attack like we expect, they scored within a handful of phases, while they also managed to look dangerous in a spell of Harlem Globetrotters rugby that saw them offloading in contact with regularity and getting in behind. Had they done more of this, the Welsh defence looked like they would be in serious trouble.

Now, with only England between them and the Gran Slam, expect a week of questions as to which France turns up next week.

2022 Six Nations: England v Wales

2022 Six Nations: England v Wales

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

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

England

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Scotland

Round 2 of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off today in Cardiff with Wales facing Scotland. Wayne Pivac’s men had made a number of changes following last week’s dismal loss in Dublin and got the opening points with a pair of penalties from Dan Biggar on his 100ᵗʰ Test, however Scotland were soon on the board themselves when Duhan van der Merwe was released down the wing into the Scottish 22. After a series of phases, Finn Russell wrapped around in midfield and spread the ball wide to Darcy Graham, whose clever footwork allowed him to beat Louis Rees-Zammit to the corner. Three Russell penalties to one from Biggar gave the Scots the lead, but a strong driving lineout from 5m out saw Tomas Francis go over to level the scores at 14-14, a scoreline which survived to the break.

In a tight second half, Russell and Biggar traded penalties, but after a second attempt from Biggar came back off the posts to be recovered by Wales, Alex Cuthbert was just denied a try in the corner by some solid defence. However, in the checking of the potential try, a deliberate knock-on was noticed from Finn Russell and the fly half was sent to the bin with just 13 minutes remaining. Wales went through the phases but could not get over the line in the early moments and Dan Biggar chose to take the drop goal for a 20-17 lead with 10 minutes remaining. Though it left Scotland with a chance, the Welsh defended hard and repelled all attacks, but had a nervous moment in the final seconds as a high shot from Taine Basham was checked by the TMO. However referee Nic Berry found the home crowd too loud to resist and let the young flanker away with just a penalty, and the 15 men on Wales managed to stop the Scots around halfway and won a penalty with the clock in the red to confirm their victory.

Wales

The Welsh lineout has been somewhat unreliable at the best of times in recent years. However with both Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones missing, this has looked even more of a risky area. Scotland certainly thought that they could get some fortune here judging by the selection of Sam Skinner at 6.

However the lineout did a fantastic job today, being near perfect in its ball retention, while even mauling Tomas Francis over from short range at a vital point in the match. Sometimes it can really hurt to lose players of such quality as Owens and Jones, but what it does is force the other players on the pitch to step up and fill the void. And while I still don’t know how Ryan Elias gets away with a hendred dummy throws at each lineout, he is starting to get some familiarity with players like Adam Beard and Will Rowlands, which is helping solidify a key area of the game.

The challenge now will be to continually hit these high levels in repeated Tests.

Scotland

While the Welsh defence and physicality was infinitely better this week, Scotland did not help themselves. With Sione Tuipulotu, Chris Harris and Duhan van der Merwe all starting, this was arguably one of the most physical back lines Scotland have played in years. And yet they were not used enough.

While there were some moments, such as the try, where they were utilised well—van Der Merwe breaking into the 22, an arc and offload from Harris getting them up to the 5m line and the physicality of the midfield allowing Russell to hit the Welsh with the wrap play— there was not enough of this through the game. Wales were clearly playing much more confidently and yet the Scots would just kick the ball back to them and let them play their game, allowing Dan Biggar to run the game, while too often van der Merwe was just left carrying into contact rather than being put into space, resulting in multiple turnovers.

In Finn Russell, they have one of the most gifted attacking 10s in rugby. If Scotland want to start winning regularly and challenging for the Six Nations, they need to start playing to their strengths.