November. The end of season Southern Hemisphere tours are upon us and with 2019 Rugby World Cup looming on the horizons, these fixtures will be seen as an initial assessment on squad depth and where improvements are required. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on what we should expect in the coming weeks.
New Zealand keen to reestablish dominance on tour
A drawn series against the British & Irish Lions in July, a series where New Zealand will feel that they left behind. This tour will be a chance to showcase their talent and provide an ominous statement of intent against NH rivals. The fixture list is intriguing as the All Blacks lock horns against France twice in the space of three days. November 18th sees a trip to face Scotland with a final tour game against Wales on November 25th. What to expect from New Zealand? Squad rotation will be seen to full effect next week with the fixture in Lyon. New Zealand have abundance of talent in their ranks and the likes of Perenera, Laumape, Fifita will look to deliver and give Steve Hansen evidence to continue in the side. This is a tour where Sam Cane could be the standout back rower for the All Blacks; his ability to read breakdowns and win turnover ball will be huge in this set of fixtures. The Welsh clash for the breakdown battle will be worth the gate admission fee. You cannot see how New Zealand will be beaten in this tour. Barrett is playing sublime rugby this season both from hand and boot and with an exciting set of backs to be unleashed at any time, the tour opponents have being duly warned.
Australia looking for consistency
Victory over New Zealand last month was a much needed tonic for Michael Cheika’s side to gain confidence. Consistency issues against New Zealand have being duly punished in recent test match fixtures so it was imperative that the Wallabies competed against the All Blacks first and foremost. The win was bonus territory and Australia come into this tour on good confidence scoring sixty-three points against Japan. Defense is a work in progress as thirty points were leaked. Arguments on the merits of this point but the late try concessions will have disappointed Cheika. Australia’s tour will see fixtures against Wales (familiar foe), England and Scotland. The key performance point for Australia on this tour will be how the front five perform as an unit. Consistency issues this season and the scrum has gone backwards against all SH teams at different intervals. Australia are an exciting side to watch in full flow, their speed of pass and running lines are excellent. Kuridrani is a key player in all that Australia in early phases. His power and running style means gain line breaks. Speight is a player who if given ball will create issues for all the NH teams. If the pack can go well on this tour, 2019 RWC chances are elevated. A key tour for Cheika and team beckons.
South Africa keen to impress new coaching ticket
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Niebaner have departed Munster and will look with interest at the progression of this South African side. They commence the tour with a much anticipated tussle against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. Recent form suggests South Africa are rebuilding nicely after a terrible shut-out loss to New Zealand this season. It was a pivotal fixture; the players have regrouped well and produce stirring performances thereafter running New Zealand to a close loss. Pride was restored in the jersey. This tour will be to identify key personnel to build the side around for the 2019 RWC. This is when South Africa typically start to show signs of promise and Ireland will be duly warned. Etzebeth and De Jager are a massive second row partnership, solid set piece execution. Jantjies at ten is developing into a world class ten. His ability to eye a pass is to the fore but his kicking game is a work in progress. Kriel provides energy and skill to the three quarters; excellent movement where gain line meters are gained. The Ireland test match will go some way to determine how South Africa approach the rest of the tour where they face France and Italy to conclude their tour. With changes to the management team, players will be keen to impress the newly joined Erasmus to the coaching ticket. Niebaner’s defensive skills will be an added boost to the Springboks; all starting to point to a revitalized South African outfit in 2018 and 2019.
Argentina looking to end season on a high note
A tough season for Argentina this season. They have competed for good stretches of test matches but have being let down by lapses in concentration and discipline have being exposed to the max. The most recent results against South Africa illustrated this point perfectly, several well worked tries scored but a red card to Lavanini (home game) opened the gates for South Africa to win with a bit to spare. Talented side with an abrasive front row who will test any side with their scrummaging ability. Creevy and Herrera are world class front row players and England have being duly warned on their prowess from last season’s encounter. Leguizamon is a superb eight, great skill set to the player and with Hernandez pulling the strings at ten, this side will not fear any opponent. England, Italy and Ireland are scheduled this month. The squad depth is a source of concern and it will be interesting to see if Argentina can reveal a couple of new players on tour to increase confidence and momentum ahead of RWC 2019. A disappointing international season but this November international series is an opportunity to end the season on a good note. Abrasive but well capable of exposing defensive weakness out wide, the Pumas deserve plenty of respect.
England look to continue improvement
Eddie Jones has being in bullish form ahead of the November internationals. His side went last season unbeaten until Ireland beat them at the Aviva Stadium in March and there was plenty of positives for Jones to reflect upon from last season. The pack were solid in set piece where Maro Itoje and George Kruis had excellent international seasons. Itoje’s work rate and pace for a forward is sublime and his versatility switching from back row to second row is such a valuable asset to England. Set piece was solid but questions remain on the hooker position. George vs. Hartley. Hartley getting the nod due in part to being captain but Jamie George has grown in stature last season and the British & Irish Lions tour has made him an even better player. Billy Vunipola’s injury will be an interesting subplot; a chance for Jones to run the rule over a couple of candidates. England’s attacking lines improved as the season progressed last year. Farrell and Youngs looking to hit back line players with pace hitting the line incredibly flat. The back line has being an interesting side-note to the international series. Yarde has being omitted. Solomona has had an opportunity to impress but it looks like May and Daly will be the key attacking threats for England. Test matches against Argentina (pack workout beckons), Australia and bankrupt Samoa will tell more about England but the key contest will be against New Zealand, all in good time.
Ireland move on without Zebo
Simon Zebo’s decision to move to France next season has seen the player omitted from the national team squad. Joe Schmidt quite clear on his intentions with Zebo, a player with creativity and flair from full back. Ireland will miss the player particularly in games where creativity is required to break up the field. Ireland’s squad selection apart from Zebo had few surprises. Sexton and Murray will be asked to control game management. Murray with his spiral kicks. Sexton looking to launch his back line at regular intervals. The front row looks excellent. Furlong is in incredible form currently and with Jack McGrath alongside, the scrum should go well. The question mark is the set piece; statistics for the Ireland hooker players are less than stellar and South Africa will look to expose this facet of play this weekend. The back row options are endless. It will be interesting to see how CJ Stander goes against his native homeland, excellent ball carrier and work ethos. This series of games will see hopefully who is best placed to fill the full back and ten positions. O’Halloran and Carbery will get game time at full back. Carbery potentially may get game time against Fiji at ten. Ireland’s weak point in recent RWC cycles has being their inability to find an adequate squad to fill multiple positions when injuries arise. Schmidt must take note of failures from the past. Argentina game will be abrasive; the pack exchanges will be interesting to observe.
Wales fresh faces looking to make impact
November has not being a good month for Wales in recent years; not many wins. Gatland has changed up the squad dropping the likes of Jamie Roberts, Sam Davies, Scott Williams and Luke Charteris from the squad. Excellent players but is this a sign that Gatland and management are switching their style of play. Australia do not seem to be buying it and are expecting physicality in ball carrying, abrasive breakdown contest. The squad dynamics though would suggest that if Wales can gain parity in the pack, a back line with the likes of Liam Willams, Steff Evans, Leigh Halfpenny must surely indicate fast ball out wide under the roof of the Principality Stadium. The back row has always being a strong area for Wales, hoping Josh Navidi gets game time as the Cardiff Blues player has being a consistent high performer in Pro 12 / 14 leagues this year. The front five will be an area where Australia and New Zealand will look to turn the screw at scrum-time. The front row looks vulnerable without the likes of Samson Lee in the ranks. Gatland looking to see new talent, will be intriguing if the players impress against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa. Does Gatland bring back the players left out this time around?
Scotland look to continue upward progression
Scotland were the most progressive NH side last season. Under the management of Vern Cotter, the RBS 6N tournament went well. Despite the mauling against England, the side competed well and earned notable scalps against Ireland, Wales and Italy with an exciting brand of rugby. The back line play of Jones, Fife, Hogg and Seymour were to the fore and with solid game management from Russell and Laidlaw at half-back, the team played with an increased attacking threat. The pack were competitive. Gray’s leading from the front but there were issues defending opposition mauls and the scrum did struggle at times against England and France. New head coach Gregor Townsend will look to address these issues but also look to build on the expansive attacking style seen last season. His tenure for Glasgow Warriors means that the national side will look to execute an expansive style of play. The fixtures look tough with visits from New Zealand and Australia but confidence should be high before this with a visit from Samoa who are financially bankrupt and the appetite of the players on national duty may not be what it should be.
Italy need to build momentum
Conor O’Shea will look for Italy to follow the lead of Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby with more determined, competitive performances. There has being an upturn in performance with the two clubs this season and it is hoped that the national side will improve as a result. Plenty for O’Shea and management to work on. The pack is a work in progress, discipline and penalty count needs to be reduced and this is the key indicator to see where Italy are at after this month’s fixture list. Increased penalty count will lead to points conceded for Italy. The back line and half-backs need to be better; lack of threat out wide meant that opposition could stifle ball carrying from the pack creating turnover ball. November is a time where Italy need to show signs of improvement in all areas of the pitch. Let us not be started on the kicking off the tee; abysmal last year. Hopefully, there will be a positive run of performances from Italy but the fixture against Fiji will make or break this side. Fiji will fancy their chances. Italy need to send out a statement of intent. Argentina and South Africa are teams which Italy will look to compete well against but this weekend is their proverbial cup final to build confidence and momentum.
France: Club vs. Country
The fact that two fixtures against the All Blacks are within a three day period says a lot on French rugby, national vs. club is rearing its head. National team has suffered due to lack of training camps during the season when compared with other RBS 6N teams. Guy Noves is facing an uphill task; he has the players now but the game plan will be conservative. It has to be given the lack of training sessions that the squad has had. New Zealand (first test) will be interesting. Can the French pack be competitive for long enough to allow the back line enough ball to create try scoring opportunities? The second fixture against All Blacks in Lyon is a bit of a mystery. Is this a representational side or an actual test match? South African game will be a true indicator of where the team is at. France, mysterious as always. The clubs are patiently waiting for their assets back to resume league action next month. The disparity between national side vs. professional club is growing by the day. Sad development.