A rip-roaring weekend of Test rugby saw some titanic battles between the world’s best sides. Ireland outplayed and outfought a shellshocked All Blacks, while England’s took some time to put a patched up Australia to the sword. For Scotland, it was a familiar story, outmuscled by South Africa, while Wales were given a fright by a tenacious Fiji side.
Eddie Jones plays tinkerman
England laboured to victory over a Wallabies side clearly missing the bludgeon of Samu Kerevi in midfield and rugby intellect of Quade Cooper pulling the strings. Granted there was upheaval in the front row with Ellis Genge and Joe Marler pulling out through Covid, but the decision to play Tom Curry as a long-term ploy at 8 looks debatable, when he has an ‘oven-ready’ specialist 8 in Alex Dombrandt waiting on the pine. The big Harlequin, on his introduction, immediately showed the vision and handling skills to put players into holes, as he does so comfortably for Quins.
In the backs, it was often a guessing game as to who was running the show. Boy wonder, Marcus Smith, or the old dodger, Owen Farrell, who exuded authority and control on his 100th cap. With the Saracen limping off late on, Smith, who put Freddie Steward in quite beautifully for his early score, may see what it’s like to have the keys to the kingdom against the Springboks this weekend.
The positioning got more curious the further out you went. Manu Tuilagi was on the right flank, but positionally looked like he was operating in the midfield channel, while Henry Stade and Freddie Steward yo-yoed to cover the backfield and protect Tuilagi’s limited aerial game. Eddie Jones, of course, has dictated that the number on the back of the shirt is redundant if you have smart players able to interchange at will when they play what’s in front of them but his own ‘chaos’ theory may yet unravel when playing against a side as structured as the Springboks, who will strut into South-West London on the back of victories over Wales and Scotland.
With scores to settle after the humbling in Yokohama, England’s first task will be to neuter the much-vaunted South Africa scrum It will need to be tamed before England can weave any aesthetically-pleasing attacking patterns to bewitch Rassie Erasmus’ well-drilled side. As an early school report Martin Gleason, their new attack coach, will know England were far from their fluent best against Australia, and will be graded as, ‘could do better’.
‘Big Courts’ has an all-court game
Given that he’s England’s sixth most-capped player of all time, Courtney Lawes is understated and underrated. When the Lions squad announcement was made back in May, news filtered out that Lawes hadn’t even had a preliminary letter saying he was in the frame, and Gatland had to argue the toss for his inclusion as the 37th member of the squad, before starting in all three Tests.
Given Gatland and Eddie Jones have diametrically opposed viewpoints on many things, the fact they both hold Lawes in the highest-regard should point to his worth. He will turn 33 in February but he is still adding to his game. Renowned for folding opposition players in half for much of his career, he has tweaked his defence to avert cards and his tryline cover tackle against Tonga showed he is blessed with finesse as well as fire when it comes to stopping the opposition.
Lawes has also added to his carrying game. He has shown his neat footwork in spinning out of tackles and his passing game has matured, as we witnessed with his inside pop pass to Underhill and later Jamie George, to put him into space and again it was his quick inside ball to Jonny Hill that saw Angus Bell overcompensate when dumping him onto the turf to earn a yellow card.
Captain against Tonga, Lawes is a versatile back five player, whom you would not bet against travelling to the World Cup as England’s elder statesman at 34 and a Test centurion.
Wales’ search for a ‘big six’
National coaches often draw up depth charts to assess their playing stocks. If there is one conclusion Wayne Pivac makes from a mixed Autumn Series it’s that Wales are lacking size in the backrow. This was starkly demonstrated with the selection for the Fiji game. Three opensides gifted selected, but none of whom were over 6ft and none tipped the scales much beyond 16st.
Compare that with the Fijian backrow; Albert Tuisue 6ft 2in and 18st, ‘Big’ Bill Mata 6ft 5in and 18st 4lbs and Mesulame Kunavula, a strapping 6ft 5in and 17st 7lbs. In boxing parlance, it was a physical mismatch and so it proved as Wales lost the gainline and were detonated at the breakdown. Of course in mitigation, Wales are stricken with injuries even so Pivac has noted the dearth for a ‘big six’, which is in vogue.
Backrow balance is key and Wales’ creates trio of the last decade was arguably Sam Warburton as a fetcher, Dan Lydiate as a tackler and Taulupe Faletau as a ball-carrier. The Welsh are not renowned for their natural size and Pivac will know he has to be resourceful to go toe-to-toe with his larger-limbed rivals.
Tom Smith’s homecoming
Tom Smith is an unassuming man, likely bashful at being presented to a cacophonous Murrayfield on Saturday as the latest entrant to Scottish Rugby’s hall of fame.
If Smith shies away from gushing tributes, let us gush now on his behalf. For he was a prop forward of magnificent footballing skill, and unyielding grit. Though in his heyday only two decades ago, few front-rows of the time possessed Smith’s intelligence on a rugby field; his ability to dummy, run, distribute and kick would have allowed him to slot comfortably into the modern game.
This elan did not come at the cost of set-piece steel either. Though a short and relatively light loose-head Smith was a ferocious scrummager. Many a heavier, vaunted adversary had his reverse lights flashing when the Scot packed down and began shunting.
Indeed, on the 1997 Lions tour, Smith was a near-silent but immensely effective member of the dynamic touring pack widely expected to be smithereened by their hulking rivals. His legacy in red stands tall, not merely as a Lion who started six consecutive Tests in 1997 and 2001, but who until this year’s tour, was the last Scot to start a Test full stop. Sir Ian McGeechan rates him as “the greatest Scotland player of the professional era”.
In 2019, Smith revealed he had been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, an illness he continues to fight. His return to Murrayfield and delivery of the match ball was due recognition for a titan of the Scottish game.
What a task Kieran Crowley has on his hands. Italy’s wait for victory stretches longer than the Tiber, a grim record that now stands at 16 straight defeats and two winless years. Not since trouncing Canada at the 2019 World Cup in Japan have the Azzurri won a Test match.
Italian rugby appears to be in a permanent state of transition. They do, at least, seem to have the right people in charge after an overhaul of the federation, the appointment of Crowley, the wily former All Black, to head coach and the ascension of Franco Smith to director of rugby.
Crowley is steeped in the culture of the Italian game. He has the respect of the players, having guided Benetton to their maiden Pro14 play-off and a fine Rainbow Cup triumph. He and Smith have revived Italy’s ‘A’ side, so that players on the cusp of international rugby have more opportunities at a greater level. The age profile of the team continues to drop. The style will be more pragmatic than Smith’s expansive, but risky, blueprint of the past season – a blueprint which, despite its ambition, yielded just six tries in five championship matches.
Italy have the nucleus of a young and talented squad, but bridging the chasm that has opened up between themselves and the rest of the Six Nations is a monstrous challenge. It will take years, if it ever happens.
They were competitive against the All Blacks for an hour, without ever threatening to trouble the illustrious tourists. They were underwhelming against Argentina, plagued by errors and indiscipline and a worrying toothlessness in attack. Their set-piece, once such a formidable weapon, disintegrated. Their propensity to ship points in the final quarter remains a big problem.
Crowley is using the autumn to build depth and assess his cattle. Come 2022, it will have been seven years since Italy won a Six Nations game. He and his green troops must restore their credibility.
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