It was the last round of action this November so Paul Williams gives us his reflections
Fiji show what could be
Whilst Ireland dominated the USA and the World Rugby awards, it would be remiss not to mention Fiji’s victory over France. It was the result of the weekend and probably the Test result of the year.
The difference in financing and preparation time between the two teams couldn’t be starker. Superficially, both teams are filled with well-paid household names playing for big clubs and big wages. But that isn’t how Test rugby works. Test rugby is about preparation time. If it wasn’t then the Barbarians would be the best international team in the world and would stroll through every team in the top ten.
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Whilst most of the Tier One nations have weeks to prepare, Fiji and the other Pacific Island nations have days. As neutral as this column tries to be, it was hugely satisfying the see Fijian’s giving their French counterparts a cheeky slap around the face. Well played Fiji.
England go big on the Wallabies
England went big against the Wallabies in every regard.
Not only was the winning margin massive for a Tier One fixture, but the way in which England produced it was equally gargantuan. It may seem overly simplistic to say that England overpowered the Wallabies, but that’s what happened. You only needed to see the first scrum of the game to understand the rest of the eighty minutes.
The Wallaby scrum was demolished in the opening passages of play with their front row creating a new yoga move – the ‘downward dog’ became the ‘mangled wallaby’. But it didn’t stop there. Ben Te’o’s inclusion in the first Test raised a few eyebrows, but in the fourth test, he raised some serious questions about the Wallaby midfield with Bernard Foley and Samu Kerevi missing three tackles each. In fact Kerevi missed as many as he made.
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With David Pocock absent, Sam Underhill and his associates feasted on the floor like it was a Toby Carvery and the increasingly impressive Mark Wilson delivered another immaculate performance at No 8.
The ‘Big’ problems for Australia weren’t reduced to the forwards or central channels either. Joe Cokanasiga once again delivered a freakshow performance with three clean breaks and seven defenders beaten, which is hardly surprising given that he’s so big (whatever he’s wearing looks like compression gear). Eddie Jones’ position is quite rightly stabilising, Cheika’s is not. The ice underneath him is becoming so thin you can see the predators peering through.
Gatland is finishing off his CV perfectly
At some stage in the next few years, a TV channel will create an episode of ‘I love the Noughties’ – that’s a reference to times and dates, not Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper. It will feature people fondly remembering The Inbetweeners, Krispy Kreme donuts and Starbucks. Unless you’re Welsh of course.
The Welsh edit would also reference that despite Warren Gatland having revolutionised Welsh Test rugby, his record over the southern hemisphere squads hasn’t been good enough. As of 2018 that is no longer the case.
Wales’ victory over the Boks was a gamechanger for Gatland and the squad. Yes, Wales have beaten South Africa before, but overall, they haven’t been particularly good squads. The current Bok squad is different and whilst it may not be as vintage as 2007 or 2009, it has been good enough to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2018.
It was a fantastic team performance from Wales. And ‘team’ is the pivotal word. Wales’ previous victories against the southern hemisphere squads have tended to involved Hollywood/miracle moments where Shane Williams had to beat 15 players in one phase or a centre has needed to run 80m to finish an intercept. This performance was different.
It was a collective effort of sustained pressure. Alun Wyn Jones was immaculate as ever and Aaron Wainwright, Ellis Jenkins and Justin Tipuric look like they’ve been playing together for decades. But let’s not ignore the impact of Dan Biggar. Some regard Biggar as Wales’ third option at ten, which is premature. His composure and goal-kicking against the Boks was rock-solid. Wales are in a good position and Gatland deserves the praise.
Scotland defuse the bombs
Sometimes it is easy to become accustomed to homogenised rugby. Where attacking and defensive systems have become so clinical and precise that it feels like you’ve seen it all before.
Scotland v Argentina was not like this. It was like stepping back into the 1980s and showed that the best coaches still have the ability to play the conditions even if the computer says “No”. Due to the weather, the entire game was a throwback to when full-backs earned their wages from catching high balls, not cross-kicks.
It would be unfair to label the entire game as a kick-fest. Stuart Hogg’s scanning of the line and blindside attack, which led to Sean Maitland’s first try, was attacking rugby at its best. But this was a defensive game from the outset and deliberately so. A tactic which will serve both well come the Rugby World Cup.
Knock-out games are rarely ten try thrillers; they’re often a pick and mix of every aspect of the game. One being goal-kicking. An aspect where Scotland did enough and the Pumas did not. Sanchez won’t be able to kick his goals at 43% come next September. And that’s a fact.
Owen Farrell does it again
One can only assume that Owen Farrell has rugby’s equivalent of diplomatic immunity.
What Farrell must do to get penalised for a shoulder-barge is baffling. I’m looking forward to seeing his first red card, because it will probably mean that he’s managed to sneak a weapon onto the field.
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Even the most hardcore of England fans will concede that a no arms tackle, on the try-line, is a penalty and therefore a penalty try.
In the week that World Rugby publicly called for more cards to change players’ behaviour, the decision is even more unusual.
Twitter is usually awash with comments about the All Blacks existing in a refereeing-immune bubble, but Farrell seems to be even a level above that. Confusing.