Six Nations 2023: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2023: 6 to Watch

We are now less than 2 weeks away from the 2023 edition of the Six Nations, and boy is this edition going to be exciting. Wales and England come in with new head coaches, while Italy arrive with genuine belief of picking up some wins after wins over both Wales and Australia in 2022. And to top it all off, these 5 matches will likely go a long way to helping the coaches select their squads for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, with only a couple of pre-tournament warm-ups remaining after the Six Nations.

And so with the initial squads announced, it’s time for my annual look at each squad and selection of a player to keep your eyes on. And with the World Cup so close, I considered looking at some players who are maybe on the fringes of the squads, but found myself largely selecting young players who at this point are probably pushing to start but may not yet be household names. Who would your picks be?

England

Billy Vunipola’s disappointing return to the England squad is over and Tom Curry is out injured (but would hopefully not be used at 8 by Steve Borthwick), so with Zach Mercer still in France, this is a chance for Alex Dombrandt to try making the 8 shirt his own. A strong but dynamic carrier and real threat at the breakdown, the arrival of Harlequins’ Nick Evans as attack coach will surely get the best out of the Cardiff Met alumnus.

France

France did things right by completely rebooting their squad at the start of the cycle with 2023 in mind, so most places in the 23 are now secured. However the retirement of Virimi Vakatawa for medical reasons and a recent knee injury ruling out Jonathan Danty for 3 months, the centre position looks a little thin. Step up Yoram Moefana, who will provide another hard carrying option in the midfield. If he can form a strong connection with Romain Ntamack and Gaël Fickou, could he oust Danty from the starting spot come the World Cup?

Ireland

Sticking in the centres here and Stuart McCloskey had a strong Autumn campaign at 2 with Bundee Aki missing through a ban. Well Aki is back now but McCloskey also remains courtesy of Robbie Henshaw’s ban. A strong carrier with an eye for an offload, the 30-year-old Ulster star should have arguably earned more caps, having not yet even hit double figures! Can he do enough to beat out Aki for the 12 shirt? This could be the difference between a place in the World Cup squad or watching the tournament at home.

Italy

The most-capped player on this list, Jake Polledri was well on his way to becoming one of the very best number s in the game until a horror injury left his career in the balance. Well he’s back and included in the Italy squad, but has had little playing time for Gloucester this season. At his best, he has the pace to exploit a gap and the strength to make ground with every carry, while he is also an accomplished jackal. The question right now is just what level he can reach ahead of the World Cup and how much we will see him in this Six Nations.

Scotland

While Duhan van der Merwe has one wing secured, Darcy Graham’s injury presents an opportunity for Kyle Steyn. Eligible to play for Scotland via his mother, Steyn brings pace and power to the wing, which is arguably something that Scotland have often not had enough of in their lineup. Scored 4 tries on his first start for Scotland against Tonga and will surely be keen to secure his place in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Wales

Wales’ late capitulation against Australia in the Autumn may have brought about the end of Wayne Pivac’s tenure, but it was also the Test debut for Ospreys’ Joe Hawkins. A talented playmaker who appeared to make a real difference in getting the team firing against the Wallabies after a series of dour performances, he also seems to fit the Warren Gatland template of a big physical 12 as he is comfortable taking the ball to the line and taking the contact himself. At just 20 years old, Wales may have finally found the long-term successor to Jamie Roberts and Hadleigh Parkes.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Australia

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

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

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

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

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

Running on fumes

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

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

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

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


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Georgia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Georgia

The last full round of Autumn Nations Series fixtures kicked off in Cardiff as Wales welcomed Georgia to the Principality Stadium. The pressure seemed off of Wayne Pivac following a win over toothless Argentina last weekend, but his men found themselves behind within minutes of the kickoff courtesy of a penalty from Tedo Abzhandadze. A period of Welsh pressure after 15 minutes gave them a penalty to the corner, but after the maul was halted, the ball was spread wide and Alex Cuthbert found himself tackled into touch by Davit Niniashvili. However a clever lineout move a few minutes later saw Jac Morgan go over for the try, Rhys Priestland adding the extras. And Morgan was over for another just minutes later as quick recycling of the ball allowed Tomos Williams to find him unmarked on the blind side. Wales were turning a period of dominance into points, and thought they had a third try after Josh Adams won the chase to his own kick, only for a forward pass to him from Tomos Williams to wipe the score off the board. and the teams went into the break with the score at 12-3.

The second period started much like the first, with most of the game taking place between the 22s, but Wales’ decision to keep kicking the ball came back to haunt them on 50 minutes as Alex Cuthbert was given a yellow card for taking out Alexander Todua in the air. And the Georgians took advantage once they made it into the Wales 22, with Abzhandadze’s cross-kick finding Todua in acres of space for a try just before the hour, with Abzhandadze’s conversion making it a 2-point game. And as the Lelos got the momentum, the fly half had a chance to put them ahead with 15 minutes remaining with a penalty, only to pull the kick to the left. With 7 minutes remaining, it looked like Jac Morgan had completed his hattrick after an error from Niniashvili under the high ball, but replays showed that Taulupe Faletau had knocked on in the build-up as he tried to collect his own kick on. A massive Georgian scrum allowed them to clear their lines, and the next with 3 minutes remaining demolished the Welsh scrum on their own ball to earn a penalty, and with his first kick of the game, 21-year-old replacement fly half Luka Matkava kept his nerve to kick the Lelos into the lead. An error at the restart gifted Wales with one more opportunity off a scrum, but the Georgian pack once again demolished them on their own ball to earn a penalty and secure an historic 12-13 victory.

Freefalling

Georgia are an improving team with a good solid defence, but let’s be honest: they aren’t Ireland or the Springboks. And yet Wales made them look like such with an aimless attack.

Yes they may have had a spell where they scored 2 tries (and just missed on another) in the first half, but beyond that the attack looked pedestrian, despite a the entire back line being regulars in the 23 or highly experienced internationals. And while the pack showed a few more changes, you would have thought there was still enough there to beat the Lelos.

Instead, the attack looked aimless as Tomos Williams and Rhys Priestland kicked ball away, the pack struggled to make any metres of note in contact and the return of Owen Watkin at 12 appeared to break any midfield chemistry that had been building between George North and Nick Tompkins. And it all combined to leave players like Louis Rees-Zammit feeding of scraps.

Wayne Pivac has been in the role for years now, and yet there is no consistency of selection as he appears to still have no idea what his best XV or his team identity is. And with losses at home to both Italy and Georgia in 2022, they are lucky that the Six Nations relegation suggestions haven’t began in the same way they do each time Italy lose a game. It seems clear now that Pivac is not the man to lead the team, and while replacing him now would be a late call, it would allow Wales to use the Six Nations as a chance to prove themselves. Let’s be honest, even a poor World Cup under someone else would surely be an improvement on the current situation, where an exit at the pool stages seems the least of their worries, as finishing outside the top 3 of a pool made up of Georgia, Fiji, Australia and Portugal (and thereby missing out on automatic qualification for RWC2027) looks a real possibility.

A seat at the table

This is a big day for Georgia, their first win over a Tier 1 nation other than Italy (who they beat in the summer), and at the Principality Stadium of all places! The calls have been loud for Georgia to get more matches against Tier 1, and following this result they are sure to get deafening.

We’ve seen in the past how it took so long for Argentina and Italy to win their spot in Tier 1 tournaments that the team who earned them the spot soon aged out with a lack of quality underneath, so that cannot be allowed to happen again here. And while there is plenty of experience is the squad, there is also a generation of exciting young talent in their 20s coming through, spearheaded by Abzhandadze, Vasil Lobzhanidze (preparing for his 3ʳᵈ Rugby World Cup despite being only 26), Niniashvili and Giorgi Kveseladze, who was missing from this game.

Georgia need every chance to continue building after this Rugby World Cup, and to do that, they need 2 things:

  • They need to be playing regularly against Tier 1 opposition, and that means finding a way to get them into a top competition, which will then see Tier 1 Nations playing in Tbilisi, which will only help grow the sport in the country.
  • They need to get at least 1 club side into a top tier competition, while ideally also keeping a sprinkling of players through other leagues, as this will just widen the number of players getting regular matches against Test-level players

If the Lelos can get these things soon, the next cycle could be massive for them.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Argentina

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Argentina

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

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

Zam the man

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

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

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

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

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

Kicking off

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

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

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

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

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v New Zealand

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v New Zealand

With the Test Window now open, Wales’ Autumn Nations Series campaign got underway with the visit of New Zealand to the Principality Stadium. Wales were forced into a late reshuffle after Leigh Halfpenny pulled out through injury but should have had an early numerical advantage when referee Wayne Barnes and his team of officials missed Dalton Papali’i making contact with the head of Gareth Anscombe, and instead Richie Mo’unga opened the scoring with a penalty just a minute later. The Welsh were having the best of the possession early on, but a break from Papali’i following a turnover from Ardie Savea put the All Blacks on the front foot in the Welsh 22, and after going through the phases, Codie Taylor finally burrowed over for the try. As both sides tried to deal with a greasy ball, the visitors were getting the penalties in their favour, and their next visit to the Welsh 22 once again ended with Taylor forcing him over from close range after phases of concerted pressure. With Wales finally winning a penalty after 20 minutes, Rhys Priestland put the ball in the corner, but their maul went nowhere and their attack was pedestrian at best, going backwards for the majority of the 17 phases before finally winning another penalty. Priestland again kicked to the corner, and this time the crowd had something to celebrate as a lovely strike sent the looping Rio Dyer through a gap to score on his debut. A counterrucking turnover of the next All Blacks attack upped the volume of the crowd, and a break from Nick Tompkins off the resulting lineout brought the home side up to the 22 and drew a penalty, which Gareth anscombe kicked to bring the deficit back to 7 points after half an hour of play. But the All Blacks were straight back into the Welsh 22 following a penalty from Taulupe Faletau, and after putting pressure on the line to earn a penalty advantage, Richie Mo’unga kicked high to the corner, where Jordie Barrett beat Dyer in the air for the visitor’s third try. The hosts had one more chance before the break when an overthrown New Zealand lineout was gathered by Ken Owens, drawing a penalty which Anscombe kicked for a halftime score of 13-22.

The Kiwis were under pressure soon after the break, as a rare errant pass from Aaron Smith was kicked to the corner by Tomos Williams, who combined with Taulupe Faletau to force Beauden Barrett out right next to his try line, and while they failed to make anything of note from the position, they did earn a penalty, which Anscombe kicked to cut the lead to 6. Smith quickly made amends though, as he crabbed off the side of a maul and found a gap to shoot through to celebrate becoming New Zealand’s most-capped back with a try. The Welsh refused to give up, though, and when Tomos Williams chipped through in the 22 under penalty advantage, Rhys Priestland challenged Mo’unga in the air to force the ball to bobble loose, and skipper Justin Tipuric just about collected the ball with sufficient control as he went over next to the posts to give Anscombe an easy conversion. The All Blacks were straight back in the Welsh 22, though, and when Nicky Smith fell for the most theatrical of offloads from Ardie Savea, the back row carried through the gap and offloaded to Aaron Smith for another try. A Tomos Williams quick tap pen put him in behind the defence just before the hour, but his offload to Tipuric went agonisingly forwards. In comparison, the All Blacks looked like scoring each time they made it into the Welsh 22, and after a fumble backwards from Caleb Clarke stopped an initial attempt to spread the ball, they reset and went through the phases, with Savea eventually diving over to open up an 18-point lead. With the result looking likely, Wales brought on Sam Costelow for his debut in place of Priestland, but it was the originally intended fly half for the day, Anscombe, who made the next impact as he charged down a kick from former New Zealand U20s teammate Beauden Barrett and regathered, only for Richie Mo’unga to tackle him into touch just short of the line, and with just minutes left in the game, another attack in the Welsh 22 saw Beauden Barrett sent brother Jordie over from close range. With the clock in the red, Wales chose to play from deep after winning a free kick in the own 22, but an untimely slip from Anscombe led to a turnover penalty, and after kicking to the corner, the pack drove replacement Samisoni Taukei’aho over for a try to take the All Blacks over the 50-point mark, with Beauden Barrett’s conversion making the final score 23-55.

Finding a balance

This Welsh team still isn’t the finished picture, but it appears to be finding a good balance. Rowlands and Beard are getting used to playing together as a pair, as are Tompkins and North, 2 combinations where familiarity and chemistry can be so important. In the pack, the return of Ken Owens provides a hard carrying option that allows Wayne Pivac to pair returning flanker Justin Tipuric with another jackal in Tommy Reffell, while North provides a physical option in the midfield to create space for the electric wings Rio Dyer and Louis Rees-Zammit, which was perfectly highlighted by the way he created the gap for Dyer’s try.

They aren’t the finished article, though. The rest of the tight five still needs to provide more metres with the hard carries, and until they manage that, their latchers need to do a better job of securing their weight in the tackle. Meanwhile North chose to keep hold of the ball a couple of times when he could have probably played the ball out to Rees-Zammit and then ran the inside support line. Probably most worrying was how a period of 17 phases saw them go from having a driving maul about 8m out from the All Blacks line to being 30 metres from the line. They may have won the penalty at the end of it, but their attack looked pedestrian at times and easy to deal with… and this is against a team who aren’t known for their impressive defence of late.

It’s a step in the right direction for Wayne Pivac’s men, but they still have a way to go if they want to challenge in the World Cup next year.

Taking control

One thing that the All Blacks should be really happy with from this game is the effectiveness of their scrum. Granted the Welsh aren’t known for having an elite scrum, but the All Blacks pack were dominant on the day, winning a number of penalties and refusing to give Wales a clean platform to work off, while giving themselves a solid and steady platform.

The new starting prop pair of Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax has been a revelation for the All Blacks in recent months, and at 24 and 26 respectively, you can’t help but think that they could potentially be the pairing for the next cycle, while Fletcher Newell is also establishing himself as a regular off the bench aged just 22.

The pack will certainly face much sterner tests, but the continued success of such a young group gaining experience is huge for a side that are arguably in a miniature rebuild with the World Cup just a year away.

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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?