Eyes On: Ireland v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Ireland v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Ireland and Wales faced off at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon in their final warm-up match ahead of the Rugby World Cup. With Joe Schmidt’s tenure as Ireland head coach finishing ending in Japan, this was his last game on Irish soil and it had a fairytale ending. Rob Kearney put the hosts ahead with a try, but Hadleigh Parkes’ try and 5 points from Leigh Halfpenny’s boot gave Wales a 7-10 lead. The second half could only be described as a siege as it felt like the entire 40 minutes was spent in the Welsh 22, with Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan crossing to give Ireland a 19-10 victory that earned them the #1 spot in the World Rankings for the first time in their history.

Ireland

Devin Toner’s omission from the Irish squad was understandable given the depth in the Irish second row and his own drop in form, but it was also a surprise for one big reason: Ireland’s lineout has been anything but secure this year. Rory Best, Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell are all highly impressive players, but they have struggled to get consistency when throwing in.

You can imagine that if Paul O’Connell had hair, he would be ripping it out watching recent matches; the lineout used to be such a weapon for Ireland, but it currently feels as likely to hurt them as it does their opponent. The set piece is such a vital piece of international rugby and losing the ball on your own throw as regular as Ireland have been is a big worry. They may be able to get away with it int heir pool, but it could prove costly against Scotland and will certainly be an issue if they make it to the knockouts and have to take on either New Zealand or South Africa.

Wales

Wales have a fantastic defence, but even the best of defences will be breached a couple of times if not given a break. In the second half against Ireland, Wales could not stop defending because they could not get any significant time on the ball. This match highlighted the big worry with the Wales squad that may prove costly int he World Cup: they lack carriers in the pack.

When you watch teams like England, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, France and Australia, they all have a number of forwards who will carry over and over again and regularly make at least a metre or 2 to keep the team going forwards. Even Italy are starting to get this with players like Jake Polledri and Seb Negri. Wales seriously lacked that in this match. Their pack (both starters and replacements) combined for a measly 30 metres, which was only 4 more than Josh van der Flier made on his own. It is this lack of carriers that made the omissions of Samson Lee and Rob Evans even more of a surprise as they are comfortable taking the ball in hand.

Phil, Gez and I all had Wales making it to the semifinals and eventually finishing 3ʳᵈ when we made our predictions for the tournament. If they don’t get their forwards carrying more, they will be lucky to make it past the quarterfinals.


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Eyes On: Australia v Samoa – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Australia v Samoa – RWC2019 Warm-ups

With their first World Cup match just weeks away, Australia finished off their series of warm-up games by taking on Samoa in Sydney. The Wallabies made a number of changes for this match but still took a 22-3 lead with tries from Adam Coleman, Marika Koroibete, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto. Samoa made a comeback after the break with a brace from Dwayne Polataivaia, before 2 late tries from Dwayne Haylett-Petty and Matt To’omua secured a 34-15 victory.

Australia

Despite making a number of changes, Australia’s attack was great to watch in this match, especially the first half. They kept a high tempo, which really caused the Samoan defence issues as it stopped them getting reset.

A big part of the way they kept the tempo high was by not waiting for the scrum half to reach the breakdown, instead trusting the forwards to assess the situation, realise that the ruck had been won and get the ball out to the backs themselves. Not only that, but 6 of the starting pack ran for 10+ metres in this game. This was a set of forwards who were comfortable on the ball and were trusted to do what is right.

Now it is just a matter of waiting to see if this approach continues in the World Cup. It’s one thing letting the team play freely against a team you are confident of beating; its something entirely different to take the risk of playing with less structure in a big game against a stingy defence.

Samoa

Watching the first half, I was shocked by how far Samoa had fallen. The team that was famous for hard runners and hard hitters like the Tuilagi Brothers and Brian Lima has fallen so far over the last couple of cycles, to the point that they only qualified for the World Cup via the repechage. I remember a team that were always going to be a physical challenge but also play great rugby and simply lack the organisation and discipline to regularly beat the Tier 1 nations. Watching this game, there was nobody putting in the hits, players were dropping off tackles everywhere (Koroibete’s try was embarrassing defence from Samoa) and there was very little to write home about in attack.

Things quickly changed in the second half, though, as Paul Alo-Emile and Logovi’i Mulipola came on for Michael Alaalatoa and Jordan Lay in the front row. The impact was immediate, as they began to take control of the scrum, which led to a try just a few minutes later as they forced a wheel that allowed them to break down the blind side for Polataivaia’s first try. That try really seemed to flip a switch and bring back a little of the old Samoa. They suddenly looked up for a fight and quickly scored again through Polataivaia, while Australia were forced to regroup in order to get back in control.

Pool A is one of the more open groups. Ireland and Scotland would be expected to qualify for the knockouts with Japan coming 3ʳᵈ, but if Samoa can regularly play like in the first 20 minutes of the second half, then they could definitely put themselves in the mix.


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Eyes On: New Zealand v Tonga – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: New Zealand v Tonga – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After a couple of weeks off, New Zealand played their last Test before attempting to win their third consecutive Rugby World Cup. Facing off against Tonga in Waikato, the All Blacks fielded a strong lineup that put their opponents to the sword, scoring 14 tries through 9 different scorers, while Beauden Barrett and debutant Josh Ioane added 14 and 8 points with the boot respectively. Tonga did get a consolation try in the final minutes through captain Siale Piutau, with Tane Takulua kicking the conversion for a 92-7 final score.

New Zealand

Having just gone 92-0 up with about 15 minutes left, New Zealand made an interesting decision to remove Ryan Crotty but not bring anyone on in his place, instead finishing the match with 14 men. Speaking after the game, Steve Hansen explained that part of the reason was as they did not want to risk Crotty any further as he returned from injury, while it was also a chance to put themselves under pressure and replicate going a man down in a match situation.

Personally, I don’t know if I believe that not wanting to risk Crotty for the full 80 was really part of the thinking, as if this was the case then they would have removed him rather than Ben Smith or Beauden Barrett. I think that they were always planning to use this as a chance to test themselves a man down.

Part of me likes the thinking here. Going a man down in a big match can be a killer and no training will really replicate a matchday situation. However, they did not really react to the situation, continuing to play a high-tempo game with quick-tap penalties rather than slowing everything down as they usually would to use up the 10 minutes. It was telling that they started to give away a number of penalties after going down a man and eventually conceded in this period despite barely being troubled in the first 70 minutes.

The thing that doesn’t sit quite right to me though is that I can’t help but feel that (intentional or not) it was a little disrespectful to do this against Tonga in a capped Test. I definitely feel that there is a place for this sort of situational practice in a match, but I don’t know if that should be happening in a capped Test. I would rather see an uncapped match in the build-up to a tournament where teams announce ahead of time that they will be running situations like being a man down, that way it does not feel like the Test or the opponent is being disregarded.

Tonga

As someone who does not get to watch Tonga play very often, this match was disappointing. With Sevu Reece, Ben Smith and Codie Taylor all scoring in the first quarter, the game was already over as a competition.

Watching the game, Tonga didn’t really do anything horrible. They had 48% possession and 51% territory, while New Zealand actually attempted 3 tackles more than Tonga. What proved the difference was the Tonga defence. It set itself up very narrow to avoid being broken through the middle, but that just let the All Blacks play it wide and get around them that way, while turnovers proved costly. What it came down to was that the Tongan defence were unable to deal with the might and skill of the All Blacks once their front-up defence was left chasing.

Tonga have the misfortune of being in an strong World Cup Pool, hopefully they can do some work on their defence over the next couple of weeks to deal with the opposition once they get past the initial defensive line.


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Eyes On: Scotland v Georgia – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Scotland v Georgia – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After making history by being the first Tier 1 Nation to play in Tbilisi last weekend, Scotland returned to Murrayfield to take on Georgia again in their final warm-up match ahead of the World Cup. After each team knocked on with the line at their mercy, Scotland took the lead through tries from Ali Price and Blair Kinghorn, while 3 penalties from young fly half Tedo Abzhandadze kept the Lelos just 1 point behind at half time. A try from Sam Johnson extended the lead from Scotland, who ran away with it in the final 15 minutes with tries through Darcy Graham, George Horne and Pete Horne, for a final score of 36-9.

 

Scotland

Playing this close to the World Cup is risky and it may have backfired for Scotland on Friday night. The Scots had a number of players leave the pitch early. Blair Kinghorn had started the match well but left the pitch soon after his try with a head injury and did not return. Richie Gray was removed at half time in his first appearance during these warm-ups as a precaution following a tight hamstring. Jamie Ritchie came off with a facial injury early in the second half and is now at risk of missing the tournament (Magnus Bradbury will travel to Japan with the squad in case Ritchie has to pull out). Ben Toolis, who had come on for Gray, only lasted 25 minutes before being removed for a head injury of his own.

While it is obviously not ideal for so many players to suffer injuries (especially head injuries) this close to the tournament, this may have actually given the team some good experience of coping with a limited squad. With the Horne Brothers and Chris Harris covering the backs on the bench, it looks like the back 3 were expected to play the full 80 minutes, but they reacted well to losing Kinghorn by moving Tommy Seymour to 15 and introducing Chris Harris on the wing. With Toolis an Bradbury having already come on, there was no more back row/lock cover on the bench when Toolis had to be removed, so George Turner was moved to cover in the back row and Grant Stewart came on at hooker.

With only 8 spots on the bench and 31 places in a World Cup squad, it is always going to be hard to effectively cover every position. As such, having players with the intangibles to cover multiple positions will be invaluable to Scotland as the matches start to come thick and fast.

Georgia

While they did not play poorly last week, this performance from Georgia was miles better. The Lelos weren’t just there to make up the numbers, they were genuinely in the game until the final 15 minutes. With the game being much more even, it allowed some of their players to really shine.

At just 20 years old, Tedo Abzhandadze appears to have established himself as the starter and looks like he will be a star for the next few cycles. In this match, the young fly half gave the full repertoire: controlling his back line well, making plays with his feet and kicking well for territory, while he also had a relatively good day off the boot, hitting 3 of his 4 kicks. Sticking with the backs and Soso Matiashvili had a great game. The fullback ran for 89 metres (the next closest was Darcy Graham’s 57m) and beat 11 defenders (nobody else beat more than 5).

For so long, the Georgians have just been talked about in terms of their pack. While the pack is obviously still a big weapon, it is great to see the team getting some stars in the back line to take them to a new level. Australia, Wales and Fiji will have a fight on their hands for the top 3 spots in Pool D.


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Eyes On: England v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: England v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

England brought their warm-ups for the World Cup to a close at St James’ Park on Friday night with a match against Italy. England started slow and were lucky to not go behind as Tommaso Benvenuti knocked on close to the line, Owen Farrell’s boot giving England a 9-0 halftime lead. Ben Youngs, who was much improved from last week, crossed the line early in the second half. George Ford was introduced for Piers Francis soon after (with Owen Farrell moving to 12) and this led to an improvement in England’s performance and tries for Joe Marchant, Ellis Genge and Anthony Watson, while the Azzurri were unable to get any points on the board, resulting in a 37-0 final score.

 

England

No offence to Italy, but this was never a match that England should be losing. As such, I think Eddie Jones dropped the ball here by not using the match to prepare his squad even more for the trials of a World Cup.

While it was great to see Ruaridh McConnochie finally make his debut, I feel that he should have been given the full 80 minutes to get used to international rugby, as he is now going to the tournament with barely any international 15s experience. Jack Singleton is going with hardly any more experience to his name and his recent appearances have been cameos in the back row – there was no need to risk Jamie George in this game with 2 other hookers available! Moving onto another specialist position, Eddie Jones decided to take only 2 scrum halves to Japan and name George Ford as their emergency 9. As such, I would have made sure he got some time practising the position in a Test match in case he is called upon during the tournament, and what better one than in this final game against an opposition that would probably be a little more forgiving if he made a mistake.

Saying all this, it was great to see Anthony Watson moved to the 15 position. Elliot Daly has not looked completely comfortable at the position, but Watson (admittedly under less pressure) looked very calm there and I think should be given the starting 15 spot, especially as Daly could move back to 13 if Henry Slade is not 100% ready to play.

Italy

It feels like every week I’m coming on here criticising Italy for their attack, but it just isn’t good enough. I’ve been very clear at how I think the attack needs more variety and it became clear in this match. A great multi-phase move off a lineout led to a great break through Seb Negri (who was fantastic in this match) and Carlo Canna, but once they got to the England 5m line the attack stalled and they were slowly pushed back over 20 phases until they spread it wide and Benvenuti knocked on just a few metres out. England’s defensive line comes up fast and Italy had no answer to it, but something as simple as a tip-on pass or an inside ball would have kept the defence on their feet and probably also forced them to commit more players inside, giving Benvenuti the space to finish off the attack and score the try. South Africa also favour a defensive line that shoots up fast, so Italy need to be looking at their tactics if they want to have any chance of upsetting the Springboks.

It wasn’t just the attacking tactics, but also the kickoffs that perplexed me. Every time, they were kicking long, giving Ben Youngs all the time in the world to pick his spot when kicking to touch. It may have meant that Italy were getting the ball back with a lineout, but it was never with good territory. Italy really need to look at varying their kickoffs to keep the opposition guessing, while also making some of the kicks more contestable or closer to the chasing players to try putting pressure on the moment the opposition catch the ball.


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Eyes On: France v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: France v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After matches against Scotland home and away, France continued their World Cup preparations on Friday night with a warm-up match against Italy. France made a number of changes but took an early lead through Yoann Huget. Italy scored through Mattia Bellini, with Tommaso Allan’s conversion putting the Azzuri ahead. A penalty try and a score for Camille Chat gave Les Bleus a 19-7 halftime lead and they ran away with it in the second half with tries from Antoine Dupont, Arthur Iturria, Wenceslas Lauret and Thomas Ramos giving them the 47-19 victory, with Bellini getting a second and Jake Polledri scoring an unconventional try as a commiseration.

France

Les Bleus came out the blocks hard in this game. The defensive line was flying up to minimise the time Italy had on the ball, the breakdown was often a battleground as players looked to slow the ball down or turn it over and the team were doing everything they could to win the ball back at the lineout.

While it clearly rattled the Italians early on, they soon grew into the game, helped in no part by the fact that France were being repeatedly penalised. France were coming too far across or playing the man at the lineout, they were playing the ball on the floor at the breakdown and they were frequently shooting up too soon and getting caught offside. So poor was their discipline, Louis Picamoles was sin binned in the 18th minute and Rabah Slimani 4 minutes later, both due to an accrual of penalties by the whole team.

Following Slimani’s card, the team appeared to back off a bit and reduced their penalty count significantly, though they still found themselves pushing things a little too far in the lineout. And it was at this point that they started having more success, as they stopped gifting Italy possession and territory.

Against Argentina and England, France will need to get the balance right between putting pressure on their opponents and not giving away too many penalties.

Italy

Italy were their own worst enemies in this match. A couple of their tries came from poor defensive mistakes, such as Michele Campagnaro shooting out the line to create a dogleg for the opening try and Bellini being stepped far too easily by Antoine Dupont for his try. In attack, they made far too many basic handling errors, bringing many of their promising attacks to an end. A good break by Matteo Minozzi ended when his offload back inside was straight to the hands of Gaël Fickou, leading to the France penalty try, while a couple of great opportunities from 5m lineouts were ruined by handling errors. Even Jake Polledri’s try appeared to be an accident – I struggle to imagine that’s how he planned for it to go!

If they play like this against New Zealand and South Africa, we could be seeing some very one-sided games. If they continue to play like this against Namibia and Canada, 3ʳᵈ place and automatic qualifying for RWC2023 may not look as comfortable as it should do.


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Eyes On: Georgia v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Georgia v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

It was a historic day on Saturday as Tbilisi’s Dinamo Arena hosted Georgia’s first home match against a Tier 1 nation. Scotland put out a strong team and it paid dividends, as tries from Ben Toolis and Rory Hutchinson helped to open up a 3-23 halftime lead. In the second half, a second for Hutchinson and tries for Darcy Graham and Scott Cummings confirmed the 10-44 victory, with Karlen Asieshvili’s try giving the home fans something to cheer.

Georgia

With Georgia not often playing against Tier 1 opposition on televised channels, it’s not very often that I get to watch them play outside of the World Cups. However, from what I have seen in recent seasons, the calls for them to replace Italy in the Six Nations are ridiculous.

In this game, Finn Russell and the Scottish team played well, but it was made easy for them as the Georgians struggled to cope with the quality of rugby they were forced to defend against. It was far too easy for Scotland to cut them apart – it felt like a highly physical training game too often. When they did manage to stop the Scots cutting them apart, it generally ended with them gifting Scotland points or territory through a penalty. Meanwhile, too many of their attacks ended in costly handling errors. The gulf in class was obvious and something that I also noticed when they played Italy during the 2018 November Tests.

This is not a critique of Georgia, more just a note that replacing Italy with them will not help anyone in the long run. There was plenty of good to see from the team: they kept going to the end, their catch and drive lineouts were a fantastic weapon and there is some quality coming trough the age groups, helped by incredible facilities. More than that, the crowd were amazing and the atmosphere seemed incredible when I was watching on TV. Georgia needs to be facing – and hosting – Tier 1 nations far more often. Directly replacing Italy in the Six Nations is not the answer, but they have outgrown the tournament they are in and something needs to be done to ensure Georgia is playing against better nations in order to continue improving.

Scotland

Georgia have become famous over the years for the strength of their pack. So many of the players who have made it into one of the top European leagues have been forwards. When you play against Georgia, you know that things will be tough in the scrum.

I make that point, so that when I say Scotland held their own in the scrums in this match, that achievement gets the recognition it deserves. Willem Nel has always been known as a good scrummager, but Allan Dell has improved so much over the recent years to make the number 1 shirt his own. Perhaps even more impressive is that their replacements Zander Fagerson and Jamie Bhatti also managed to keep the balance at the set piece.

Earlier that day, Ireland’s pack were in devastating form against Wales. With Ireland and Scotland likely facing off for the top spot in their pool, being able to nullify the Irish scrum could be a key factor in that match.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

So, for this I will only be focusing on the Scots for 2 reasons: 1. I don’t know enough about the Georgians to know where they have depth, and 2. By the time I post this, they will have already announced their squad!

Rory Hutchinson‘s rise at Northampton this year was already a great story, but I thought an international call-up was too soon. He has looked better with each appearance however and with 2 extremely well-taken tries on his first start, I think that he has put himself in a great position to force his way in as a bolter. I also thought that another great all-round performance from Darcy Graham, including dotting down Finn Russell’s grubber for a try, will have been enough to secure his seat on the plane.

Huw Jones is a quality player and a few years back I considered him one of the best 13s in international rugby, but the centre position suddenly looks extremely deep and he struggled to make an impact after replacing Sam Johnson in this game. I also think that Matt Fagerson will have been disappointed to be removed as he has had very little time on the pitch to prove himself worthy of a spot in the squad.


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