Summer tours, the final chapters (continued)

England will be delighted to play a game at sea level to end what has been a fairly inauspicious tour against a Springbok team very much in transition. Rassie Erasmus is yet to lose a Test since he took the reigns and his influence is being felt both on and off the field in South African rugby, unlike his predecessors he’s been able to pick the players that he wants instead of selecting players who fit within a tight set of parameters laid out by people outside the coaching set up and the results have proved his approach is a beneficial one.

However now he’s won his first Test series Erasmus has given some players on the periphery of his squad the chance to shine in the third Test with Elton Jantjies starting at 10, Chiliboy Ralapelle and Frans Malherbe come into the front row and a Centre combination of Andre Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel make an appearance. The new inside backs could take a while to find their feet as a combination especially defensively and that might give England a bit of joy in attack.

England themselves have made a few changes and one in particular smacks of desperation, Joe Marler’s inclusion at Loose Head could be a huge weakness particularly at scrum time as he gives up a stone and a half to Malherbe. Chris Robshaw comes into the backrow as Brad Shields has fallen ill, Robshaw was one of the players who really suffered at altitude in the first Test and couldn’t even command a spot on the bench for the second Test. Billy Vunipola re-breaking his arm in the second Test leads to Nathan Hughes starting his 17th Test and he’s yet to be the dominant force that Eddie Jones needs from his number 8. Danny Cipriani starts a Test for the first time in 10 years (coincidentally the last start was against the Boks in Twickenham) and this is where Eddie Jones’ logic seems particularly difficult to follow. If Cipriani was starting because the Test series is over and George Ford is too important to risk in a dead rubber then why aren’t Jason Woodward and Dan Robson getting starts too? If Eddie believes that Cipriani is the creative force who can conjure tries from nowhere when his pack is getting a bit stuffed (like it has been on occasion at Wasps) why didn’t he start him ahead of Ford before now? Its all a but muddled, but it is what it is I can see Cipriani being a driving force for England in attack but I think even at sea level England will struggle to dominate the Bok pack. Elton Jantjies is always a potential weakness and more often than not will crumble under pressure so Ben Curry (who has been England’s best player so far on this tour) has a vital job, if he can get to Jantjies then Cipriani might get some all important turn over ball to work with.

Only 1 thing is certain about this game, with new half back combinations and squally weather predicted for Cape Town it won’t be the prettiest 80 minutes of rugby you’ve ever seen. If England can start as quickly as they have in the previous 2 weeks and continue their intensity then they might finally get the win Eddie Jones needs (he doesn’t really, he’s not too bothered about what happens now provided his conditioning team have scheduled their program so his team in November 2019 but he’s fed up of answering questions from clueless journalists). If the weather is wet and windy then England’s pack have got a long Saturday evening ahead of them and with Willie Le Roux, Jean-Luc Du Preez, Handre Pollard and the “retired” Schalk Brits to come off the bench the Springboks should have enough firepower to complete an increasingly comfortable whitewash

Summer tours, the final chapters (continued)

Australia and Ireland are playing the only live Test series this weekend after Ireland’s victory in the second Test last week. Australia’s tight 5 have been a real thorn in the side of an Irish team who rolled over opposition seemingly at will during the 6 Nations and along with Marius Van Der Westhuizen’s laissez-faire approach to tacklers rolling away (or not) they provided David Pocock with a near perfect return to Test rugby as he turned over Irish ruck seemingly at will (Ireland conceded 21 turnovers in all on that occasion). In the second Test however they conceded just 9 as specialist 7 Dan Leavy replaced Jack Conan and CJ Stander returned to his natural position of number 8 (although it should be mentioned that kiwi ref Paul Williams’ penchant for whistle blowing made for a much more staccato game and cleaner rucks for Conor Murray to walk with).

This week Ireland have gone back to the back row that struggled in the first Test but with Pascal Gauzere in charge of the whistle this week team selection maybe a secondary factor in terms of the outcome of this game. Gauzere refereed the Top 14 semi final between Montpellier and Lyon and the home certainly appeared to benefit from a few decisions as Montpellier were awarded 13 penalties compared to Lyon’s 8.

The Irish backline is bolstered by the return of Jacob Stockdale who was missed last week especially when Ireland found themselves hammering away at the Australian try line and missed the rapier like Stockdale, instead they had to repeatedly use the blunt instruments like Stander and Furlong who eventually crashed over for the winning try. Ireland also welcome back the defensive wall who is Bundee Aki at 12, which moves Robbie Henshaw out into the 13 channel where he looks far less comfortable than Garry Ringrose and that is the key indicator of where Joe Schmidt and this Ireland squad are just 15 months out from a World Cup.

I think Schmidt is trying to get new combinations to dovetail to improve the depth of his squad, the only slight surprise is that the 2 most important people in his squad start this weekend in Murray and Jonny Sexton but after the chasing Australia gave Ireland when Schmidt rested Sexton in the first Test maybe he’s hoping Sexton can inspire the unsettled players to a higher level of performance than Joey Carberry could.

Ireland are the bookmakers favourite for this game and Gauzere’s Northern Hemisphere interpretations at the breakdown may well benefit the tourists but I think Hooper, Pocock and the man mountain Lukhan Tui in the backrow should cause chaos that Peter O’Mahoney alone won’t be able to counter.

Summer tours, the final chapters

Thus far New Zealand v France have provided 2 Tests where officials “interpretations” have been more important than any rugby played. The first Test saw Remi Grosso recieve a double skull fracture in a tackle that referee Luke Pearce didn’t deem worthy of just a penalty because he believed Grosso to be falling into the tackle. In the second Test French fullback Benjamin Fall recieved a red card from Angus Gardner after 12 minutes (which was later rescinded) when France led 3-0 and the contest was largely finished. The depleted French team did manage to hold the All Blacks to just 26 points, half the number they wracked up against a full strength Les Bleus side the week before (save for Paul Gabrillagues 10 minutes in the sin bin).

Scoring has been an issue for France however as they’ve only managed 24 points in the 2 games, strangely with 14 players last week they dominated possession with 58% (against 34% the week before) but line-outs have been their Achilles heel in both games as they’ve won less than 66% of their own throws over the 2 Tests.

Selection wise both coaches have tinkered with the starting lineups this week, New Zealand are starting Damian McKenzie at 10 in what some Kiwi fans have christened an “experiment”, he’s joined in the backline by Jack Goodhue who makes his debut at 13 outside Sonny Bill Williams who hasn’t started a Test yet this season. A new look backrow sees Ardie Savea at 7 and Shannon Frizzell (who’s brother is an Australian Rugby League International) starting at 6 with a true open side in Matt Todd on the bench.

France have jiggled their backline around too with Gael Fickou, usually a 13, starting on the left wing as Wesley Fofana starts at 12 after an injury ravaged season at Clermont and alongside Fofana his Clermont teammate Remi Lamerat starts at 13. Meanwhile France have gone for mobility in the pack with Bernard Le Roux moving from his usual position in the backrow to the second row and 2 24 year olds (Kelian Galletier and Mathieu Babillot) as flanker’s and one of the lightest number 8’s playing International rugby in Kevin Gourdon they must be hoping to tire the more physical All Black pack out.

There’s a very real chance that John Lacey will be the most accurate referee to take charge of a Test in this series and even though his interpretations may favour the French and their desire to have quick rucks I can’t see New Zealand losing this one, especially if the French set piece continues to struggle. It may well be a more respectable score for the tourists than the first 2 games have been though and with strike runners like Fofana, Lamerat and Fickou able to break tackles Teddy Thomas should have some space to run into.

Aviva Premiership playoff preview Exeter v Newcastle

Sadly the Falcons at the Chiefs isn’t a Super Bowl matchup where we get to Vic Beasley chasing Patrick Mahomes around Mercedes Benz Stadium, it’s yet another game of rugby in the unnecessary playoffs that administrators love and players suffer through because generating revenue is far more important than any player welfare concerns that anyone might have.

This game seems particularly unnecessary when you consider Newcastle have got an aggregate score of 99-37 when they’ve played the top 3 teams this season! For their part Newcastle do have the joint top try scorer in the league in the shape of Vereniki Goneva (13 alongside Josh Adams) but Goneva has very often been the Falcons only incisive runner and it will take more than 1 attacking threat beat Exeter at home.

Exeter have only been beaten at home once this season and that was during the 6 Nations when they were without all of their International players, the weather also had a part to play in that result as Gareth Steenson’s conversion to win the game was blown off course and Worcester ran out 6-5 victors. That was back in February and after their early exit from European competition Exeter have had a comparatively sparse fixture list, with just 3 games since the end of March, Newcastle’s foray into the knock out stages of the Challenge Cup saw them play 5 over the same period.

Whilst it is impressive that Newcastle have returned to the playoffs their mixed form away from home, largely caused by a questionable defence, they’ve conceded on average 24 points away from home this season (although Exeter put 34 past them back in October). Actually Newcastle and Exeter have played 3 times this season (but who counts the Anglo-Welsh Cup?) but Exeter won that game at Sandy Park too.

Sandy Park is a bit of a fortress, Exeter have scored on average 32 points each game this season and barring some inexplicable weather conditions (which are entirely possible in their part of the world) I can’t see Newcastle being able to stop the foreboding doomsday device that is the Exeter pack. It might not be the prettiest game Exeter’s season ticket holders have seen all season as the Falcons are bound to everything humanly possible to stop them but with Gareth Steenson and Joe Simmonds there to punish the inevitable penalties it should be a fairly smooth passage to Twickenham for the Devonians.

Aviva Premiership playoff preview Saracens v Wasps

Wasps one saving grace this season is that they aren’t Northampton. Northampton had the misfortune of being in Saracens Champions Cup group and so had to suffer 4 thrashing’s at the hands of their not too distant neighbours conceding 237 points in the process (an average of 60 points per game)! Wasps only conceded on average 38 points per game in their 2 games against Saracens this season (38-19 & 15-38), so while others have faired worse against the other men in black Wasps chances are razor thin.

For their part this season Wasps have played some exceptional attacking rugby and most of what has been good about them this season has been anchored by Danny Cipriani and pivoted on Willie Le Roux. Cipriani has this uncanny knack of narrowing defensive lines and Le Roux has the pace to exploit any gaps out wide. But its not just Le Roux’s ability to run that shreds defences, his flat passes have provided a few tries for Christian Wade and he can thread through pinpoint grubber kicks too (although he has been known to put in a few heavy one’s too that allow defenders to recover). Whether or not Lima Sopoaga can provide enough of a threat to narrow defences next season remains to be seen, he’s more of an attacking kicker than a running threat so Wasps might be a different team to watch in the future (or Jimmy Gopperth might be Wasps’ future 10).

Saracens have been missing various different ball carriers all season (Skelton, Koch, Billy Vunipola, Rhodes, Tolofua, Itoje, Clark, Earl and Sione Vailanu who was only signed on a temporary deal have all missed games) Jackson Wray has been an almost ever present though and must be top of the list when it comes to player of the season honours. Unfortunately for Wasps Itoje, Rhodes, Koch, Skelton and Earl we’re all in Saracens match day squad at the weekend and the team carried the ball for 588 metres on their way to a 9 try 62-12 demolition of Gloucester. While Wasps defence will surely be better than Gloucester’s was on Saturday it will take a monumental effort from the Wasps forwards to stop Saracens at source.

It might not be another 38 point performance from Saracens as they will surely be more intent on accumulating points than scoring tries, there’s no bonus points to play for after all, but I’m expecting Saracens to have too much for a Wasps team who have struggled to put together an 80 minute display together of late. For Wasps they just have to hope it’s a case of where there’s a Willie (Le Roux) there’s a way.

Bold predictions for 6 Nations week 2

Ireland v Italy bold prediction – Ireland to win by 40 points

Last week Ireland did the whole ruthless efficiency thing as they squeezed past France with the last kick of the game in atrocious conditions (some would say very Irish conditions) in Paris. Whilst they did fail to score a try and Johnny Sexton was their only points scorer virtually the whole team outplayed their opponent. Ireland had 68% possession and territory (70% and 72% in the first half!) which is pretty spectacular for a team playing away from home. This domination was built on the solid foundation the forwards provided, they won 18 of 19 set pieces and won 162 out of 166 rucks alongside 4 of the 4 mauls they attempted. They only conceded 6 penalties (although it would be prescient to point out that Nigel Owens was on the whistle and he has definitely his own laid back approach to the laws of rugby), the only part of their game that was less than excellent was their defending as they missed 15 tackles, about 4 of which came as Teddy Thomas scorched in from 60 metres out.

For their part Italy endured a tough opening game at home against the doomsday device that is Eddie Jones’ England and while their scrum showed a similar consistency to panna cota they didn’t go down without a fight. Italy won the territory and possession battle against England with 52% of both and they did cross for 2 tries but ultimately their disorganised defence which lead to a complete lack of line speed meant England could dance over for 7 tries of their own (if Italy had managed to keep a lid on Sam Simmonds and Anthony Watson the final score would have been a more respectable 15-26). I can’t imagine Italy will be able to dominate either possession or territory against Ireland’s efficient pack and if Johnny Sexton can get some quick ball he will pick Italy’s passive defensive line apart.

England v Wales bold prediction – Wales leave west London with their 100% record intact

England haven’t lost at Twickenham in 14 games but the last 6 Nations team to win there were Wales. To paraphrase Phil Collins – I can feel it coming in the air this morning, even if it would be a huge upset. Although here’s a few reasons why Wales could do it:

  1. England are coming off a 6 day turn around so Wales have had an extra preparation day
  2. England had to fly back from Italy but Wales only had to travel down the M4
  3. Wales only made 98 tackles (they missed 15) compared to the 136 England had to put in (they missed 17) as they lost the territory and possession battles in Rome
  4. Last year in Cardiff England really struggled with the Welsh physicality until Ross Moriarty was substituted (well done Mr. Howley)
  5. England conceded 9 penalties and 1 free kick in Rome, Wales only gave away 7 and 1
  6. Wales made 18 clean breaks and 13 offloads against a Scotland team who tackled well but were very disorganised. England made 14 clean breaks and 11 offloads against a defence that ultimately conceded 46 points
  7. Eddie Jones has provided Wales with enough motivational material for about the next 7 seasons over the last few days. Calling out an inexperienced 10 is pretty bog standard bully boy stuff but ripping into a Lions captain with 123 Test caps is either desperate or nonsense.
  8. Jonathan Joseph replaces Ben Te’o to face the same Centre combination that beat his Bath team 35-17. And both Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams scored tries in that game.

Confidence is going to be the deciding factor in this game and it’s technically impossible to determine who will have the most once the game kicks off but the Scarlets have won 15 games in the league and European Champions Cup which is more than any English team in their respective competitions and this Wales team has 10 Scarlets starting so they shouldn’t be short on belief.

And for what it’s worth I personally can’t get on board with the whole “Test rugby is a big step up” platitude mainly because playing rugby (or any sport) is exactly the same when the ball is in play. Uncontrollable variables like who you’re representing or how big the stadium is or what the opposing coach said about you on Thursday are exactly that, uncontrollable. The ball is the same size, the rules are the same (although do vary from referee to referee) and the aim is the same, control yourself, keep a clear head and communicate with your team mates.

Scotland v France bold prediction – Good Finn Russell turns up and absolutely shreds the French defence

Not only did France have to make a lactic acid inducing 238 tackles against Ireland they also missed 15, conceded 10 penalties (plus 1 free kick) and spent more than two thirds of the game in their own half. They also suffered some controversial injuries too which have caused 3 changes in their starting XV with 32 year old Lionel Beauxis being recalled to start at 10 for the first time in six years.

Scotland weren’t terrible last week and on the stats sheet they were relatively close 48% territory (60% in the first half), they beat 19 defenders and they did score a consolation try in the 79th minute. A confused selection (Huw Jones at 12 wasn’t great) and Ali Price starting badly and descending into some sort of shame spiral were pretty fatal but Greig Laidlaw and his stoic solidity are starting this week. Scotland have scored 19 tries in their last 9 6 Nations games at Murrayfield including 3 the last time they played France there so I can’t see them repeating last week’s lacklustre showing. The return of Simon Berghan from a ban should bolster the scrum too, provided he keeps his cool a 6 foot 4, 19 stone Tight-head prop should bring enough physicality to trouble a French team who are still having nightmares about relentless Irish forwards running into them.

6 Nations bold predictions

Every dog and their man has come up with their own 6 Nations preview this week and since the final standings all seem the same (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy) I thought I’d try something different, hopefully humorous and, in a break from the norm, remotely interesting.

Wales v Scotland

Bold prediction – this one finishes as a draw

On paper this game involves 2 teams full of skill and attacking intent and a referee who has very little time for either of the above. Pascal Gauzere can be one of the most frustrating referees to watch because he doesn’t appear to have any feel for the game and has no hesitation in checking as many incidents as possible with the TMO (who is David Grashoff and he has been known to take an interminable length of time just to make incorrect decisions).

Josh Adams makes his Wales debut on the wing meaning that Wales have a back line comprising of 5 Scarlets and a former Scarlets academy winger but Rob Howley insists they are not going to play Scarlets rugby. Rob Howley was an excellent scrum half in his playing days but scrum halves rarely make good backs coaches and it must have something to do with how playing at 9 mainly involves what sport psychologists call “closed skills”, you box kick, you snipe around the fringes or you pass to the first receiver and let them do the fancy stuff. Everyone else in the back line has to respond to external stimuli such as defenders, support runners, their proximity to the touchline as well as the decisions the 9 has to make (kick, pass or keep running) and generally scrum halves who coach backs have no appreciation for any of these factors at all, my own personal belief (and concern) in this was reinforced by Howley’s use of the phrase “Welsh play book” this week because you can really only have a play book for closed skills.

All the talk about Scotland this week has been about how injured their front row is but they have selected one of the best props from the 2017 6 Nations and the stand out hooker from the Autumn Internationals in Gordon Reid and Stuart McInally, Scotland will presumably be looking to play like Glasgow Warriors have been in the new Pro 14 league this season (they’ve 12 out of 13 and recorded 10 bonus points too) and that’s why everyone has great expectations for this game.

I’m expecting fraught defensive coaches on both sides because for all the attacking talent on display (Adams, Evans, Davies for Wales and McGuigan, Harris, Seymour, Hogg in particular for Scotland) there are a number of new combinations and inexperienced Test match players who will provide opportunities for their opponents to expose. If the Welsh fowards can get the upper hand then Scotland will have to wait longer than 16 years to win again in Cardiff, but I can’t see Gauzere and his cohorts allowing anyone to dominate this game.

France v Ireland

Bold prediction – France’s noveau riche start like a house on fire and build a big enough lead to hang on to.

Jaques Brunel isn’t going die wondering in his first game as France coach, he’s starting an 19 year old at Fly Half and if that doesn’t work he’s got a 21 year old to come off the bench to save the day. He’s also got a 21 year old scrum half on the bench (who is seriously quick), two 23 years old’s in the pack and 4 24 year old’s on the bench alongside him so maybe (just maybe) the excitement is back in French rugby?

Now, on paper Ireland should crush these French youngsters like great, big, experienced things crush new, smaller, younger things but since 2008 Ireland have only once in France (by 2 points in 2014) and they’ve drawn once whilst losing 4 times. In fact since 1954 Ireland have only won 3 times in France so Ireland at 2/5 on with the bookmakers almost seems to be a minor oversight.

Brunel has gone for an injection of youth because France are perceived to be one of the unfittest teams in the 6 Nations and Ireland are almost mechanical in their dedication to strength and conditioning work so they should be able to outlast their hosts and with both Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens on officiating duty at the Stade de France the chances that this one is decided by an error are pretty slim. Nigel Owens does like a game to flow though so rucks will be hotly contested and there may be some bodies flying in all directions. If France make a good start, and they do have a team full of ball carriers who like to offload, this game could be a real nail biter but if Ireland can keep their heads (and they rarely do in Paris) the bookies are right.

Italy v England

Bold prediction – it’s hard to make any prediction that doesn’t involve England winning, but how about England winning with 14 players on the pitch.

This is the game where England always look a bit scratchy, don’t thrash Italy as conclusively as they should but Owen Farrell will make sure they win by at least 30. In theory the relentless, spirit crushing threshing machine that is the England tight 5 should provide England with enough clean ball to win this by 100 points but Italy are always ul for their first game at home and something weird usually happens, it snowed one year!

Italy are in a seemingly perpetual “transition phase” possibly because they appear to pick their team out of a hat, admittedly they’re missing players like Venditti (who doesn’t love a 17 stone winger? <well Dean Richards didn’t, but I’m talking about normal people>) and Leonardo Sarto (who doesn’t love a 6 foot 3 winger?) but they do have players like Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Gori and Maxime Mbanda on the bench when they should all be starting.

The one hope Italy have is that Eddie Jones’ England and discipline are rarely easy bedfellows and English discretions may give the Azzurri a glimmer of hope, but they usually kick at the post with all the accuracy of a North Korean missile launch so even that’s a slim hope.