Jacob Whitehead looks ahead to the next round of November Internationals
Exciting new-look France team for Autumn Nations Cup and other Test talking points
Last week’s Autumn Nations Cup games weren’t all classics, but the same can’t be said for other rugby around the globe, with Argentina and Australia playing out a tense draw and England Women beating France in a last-minute thriller.
By the law of averages – maths graduates look away – this weekend’s Autumn Nations Cup matches should be belters. We’ll see a confident England visit a Welsh side with their backs to the wall, an exciting new-look France team chock-full of talent, and everybody’s new second-favourite team, Argentina, attempting to repeat their dismantling of the All Blacks.
With three Internationals on Saturday and an Irish curtain call on Sunday, all sprinkled liberally with some domestic action, what points do you need to know as you stay rooted to your sofa?
Can Argentina do it again?
Argentina v New Zealand, 8.45am, Saturday 28 November, Newcastle, Live on Sky Sports
Mario Ledesma would be a great card player. I’m sure he already is. The only time he’s ever been seen to smile was when the Pumas beat the All Blacks two weeks ago – he must have the best poker face south of the equator.
He’s shuffled his deck against the All Blacks this weekend, making a very bold gamble by changing ten of his starting XV from last weekend’s draw against the Wallabies. Only Nicolas Sanchez starts from that game’s back-line, with the hugely experienced fly-half set to win his 83rd cap in New South Wales.
Nevertheless, it’s clear Argentina now have impressive depth – their new back three of Emiliano Boffelli, Ramiro Moyano, and Santiago Cordero show absolutely no drop in quality, with Boffelli in particular unlucky not to have been starting previously over the slightly erratic Santiago Carreras. Watch out for Moyano – he’s got a record of scoring stunners against the All Blacks.
Elsewhere, Ledesma’s new centre pairing of Juan Cruz Mallia and Jeronimo de la Fuente have a lot of talent – de la Fuente replaces the impressive youngster Santiago Chocobares’s defensive work while Mallia has a touch of X-factor. Just look at these highlights from last autumn’s World Cup…
Remember that their last meeting was won in the back row, and Ledesma has kept his two key flankers – Marcos Kremer and captain Pablo Matera – in the starting team, and included Facundo Isa for his first start since before last year’s World Cup.
New Zealand haven’t lost three consecutive Tests since 1998, and Argentina will need to get themselves to an incredible psychological place to make that a reality. But, perhaps inspired by the loss of Diego Maradona and the fact no one has backed them for the last two weekends, they could just do it.
Welsh back row thrown to English Lions
Wales v England, 4pm, Saturday 28 November, Llanelli, Live on Amazon Prime, Premier Sports & S4C
England were bullies last Saturday. A bully that meticulously planned how they would pummel their victim. They didn’t so much need imagination – just efficiency, physicality and calmness. A hard trio to beat.
At the centre of that were their back row: Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola. The latter two had their best games in white since the World Cup, and that includes Underhill’s Man of the Match performance against Scotland in February. It would be no surprise to see all three as the starting Lions back row in South Africa next summer.
Throw in the fact that Eddie Jones has picked a six-two bench split, a combination he’s never lost with, and England’s potential intensity has gone through the roof. Who would want to play an hour against the ‘Kamikaze Kids’, only to look up to see Ben Earl and Jack Willis trotting on?
Well, Shane Lewis-Hughes and James Botham have that task, backed up by their formidable experience of… three Wales caps between them. Heck, they only have a combined 49 domestic appearances – that’s less than half of Ben Youngs’s international caps!
Wayne Pivac’s hand has been forced by injuries to Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric and while both impressed in the quagmire against Georgia, England are another test entirely. It’s sink or swim for the young Welsh flankers – and we know how ruthless the England pack can be.
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Exciting new-look France team for Autumn Nations Cup
France v Italy, 8.10pm, Saturday 28 November, Paris, Live on Amazon Prime & Premier Sports
The FFR had an agreement with the Top 14 clubs that players would be available for only three games in this thrown-together autumn campaign, meaning that Fabien Galthie has had to change nearly his entire squad for this weekend’s meeting against Italy.
While for some France squads of the past, this curveball could have thrown the side into disarray, something feels different about this group.
Galthie will be sure to recognise the importance of depth if his side are to win a World Cup – and after a calendar year in which his starting XV has barely changed, this could be the chance for others to come through.
Remember how significant a supposed ‘under-strength’ England tour to Argentina in 2017 was in discovering players for the World Cup – Ellis Genge, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill all saw their first meaningful international action.
This is a perfect game for this new-look French side – playing for the opportunity to appear in the Autumn Nations Cup final, avoiding a top ten-ranked side, but still facing the formidable test of an Italian team who were impressive against Scotland two weeks ago.
The most interesting part of the French selection lies in the forward pack, where no player has more caps than hooker Peato Mauvaka’s four. Each of their back row has a real point of difference – and with no specialist replacement on the bench, they will be in for a big day against Maxime Mbanda & Co.
Ball-handling wizard Cameron Woki scored against England in the 2018 U20 World Cup final, openside Sekou Macalou is an athletic marvel, while Anthony Jelonch provides the graft and ability to cover the entire back row, which Galthié so values in starters Gregory Alldritt and Francois Cros.
Watch out for the red-haired mane of second-row Kilian Geraci, only 21 yet a player whose international debut seems somehow overdue, the Lyon player having been such a pivotal part of France’s U20 double champions.
Zanon leads way as Italy seek scalps
France v Italy, 8.10pm, Saturday 28 November, Paris, Live on Amazon Prime & Premier Sports
Italy really could have beaten Scotland two weekends ago. They were leading right into the 67th minute, having had the better of the forwards battle and scored one sumptuous try. It was only when Scotland emptied their bench to show their superior depth that the dam broke – and Zander Fagerson’s try was quite simply bizarre.
Paolo Garbisi has attracted most of the attention for Italy so far this autumn by virtue of possessing the holy trinity of youth, the fly-half shirt and a sidestep most mortals would die for, but outside him Marco Zanon has begun to blossom into a bit of a star.
Italy’s excellent score against Scotland was manufactured by Zanon, who picked the ball up on the 15-metre line with very little on. He shrugged off Duncan Weir, swatted away a fly in the shape of Darcy Graham and raced into clear air. The ball passed through the hands of Marcello Violi and Mattia Bellini, before finding itself with Matteo Minozzi, who completed a sensational 60-metre score.
Zanon was vice-captain of Italy U20 and has overcome some adversity to be in the team now – his knock-on on the try-line in the 2019 Six Nations possibly cost his side the chance of a win over France. At the centre of an inexperienced Italy back-line, could he make amends for that on Saturday?
Ireland look north for inspiration
Ireland v Georgia, 2pm, Sunday 29 November, Dublin, Live on Channel 4 & RTE
Ulster did impressively in the Guinness Pro14 last season, finishing runners-up to Leinster – and Andy Farrell has now turned to their players in his search to find some back-line chemistry before the Six Nations starts again in only two-and-a-half months’ time.
Billy Burns impressed with his ambition off the bench against England, his delicate chip setting up clubmate Jacob Stockdale, who has also been recalled for the clash against Georgia.
This week will be Burns’s chance to stake his claim to eventually take over from Sexton after Ross Byrne failed to shine last week – and he’ll be joined in the back-line by Stuart McCloskey, the bulky centre making his first Test appearance since 2018.
Ireland struggled to get front-foot ball last week – their difficulty getting over the gain-line highlighted by Amazon Prime’s excellent new graphic – and Byrne may feel slightly aggrieved that Burns will invariably receive far better service against a more limited Georgian side this weekend.
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