Paul Williams reflects on the big movers and shakers from the second weekend of November Tests
Wales finally end Wallabies hoodoo
Beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder; it is in the eye of the winner. And whilst some on social media have criticised the aesthetics of the Wales v Wallabies game, if you’re Welsh – or Warren Gatland – those negative tweets will be tricky to read through the plumes of smoke emanating from your massive hand-rolled Cuban. It’s a first win over Australia for a decade and ended a run of 13 defeats against them.
Make no mistake, to keep the Wallabies try-less is rare. Even when their pack hasn’t functioned in recent seasons, their back-line always has. Counter-attack tries are a Wallaby speciality, so to make them rely entirely on goalkicking is an achievement.
Wales had a 90% defensive completion (135 tackles from 151 attempts) and whilst everyone defended to their limit, the work of Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty was near flawless. Tipuric tackled with panache and an appreciation of the following jackal; Moriarty tackled like a medieval drawbridge being slammed in your face.
But as bold as Wales’ defensive efforts were, it was the psychological workload that mattered most. To beat the Wallabies in the last five minutes was more than just getting a monkey off their backs – this was a troop of baboons on their shoulders flashing their red bums and screaming in their ears.
Even Ireland’s off-days are good
It may seem a bit petty to call Ireland’s 28-17 win over Argentina an off-day. Beating the current Pumas squad is not easy, particularly with their back-line firing as it is. But sometimes it is more accurate to judge the quality of a squad by their bad days, not the good ones. And currently, Ireland’s bad days are good enough to beat everyone except the All Blacks.
With cross-kicks and chip-throughs regularly flying ten yards wide or long of their target, Johnny Sexton’s kicking from hand was uncharacteristically wayward. The Irish lineout was twitchy and after 80 minutes the entire team had managed just one clean break between them.
However, whilst there were undoubted negatives that the All Blacks will target next week, there were some big positives too. Bundee Aki had arguably his best game for Ireland, with every carry punching over the gain-line and an offload permanently cocked and ready.
Related: Exclusive interview with Bundee Aki
The Irish scrum was straight and weighty, the ball-carrying of James Ryan will have guaranteed a start against New Zealand and Dan Leavy’s performance means that Sean O’Brien’s injury, whilst painful for him, won’t be felt by Ireland.
Just like the All Blacks, even when Ireland aren’t good, they’re still good enough and that is a very positive sign.
England have a seven, now they need to pick him
Sam Underhill is a proper seven. Against the All Blacks he was almost 007 and was by far the most destructive back-row forward on the field – a facet of the game that is hugely important when your lineout melts in the second half.
He made 24 tackles and created such a mess on the floor that the pitch could have done with a once-over, from a council-owned street-sweeper, after every breakdown.
Whilst the number of tackles was impressive, it was the ferocity of the impact and the ability to get straight into the jackal that was game-changing. At just over 6ft tall, he is smaller than many of the opensides that England have tinkered with over the past five seasons. Those shorter levers mean than he not only gets into position quicker, but he’s hard to move when he gets there.
Add to that the disallowed try, which involved a run that gave Beauden Barrett motion sickness, and you have arguably the best performance from an English openside during this World Cup cycle and maybe the one before that.
Whilst no coach will publicly be happy with a loss, losing to the All Blacks by one point is like beating another Tier One test team by five. Bundle that positivity together with a new openside and England have their heads above water again.
Scotland weren’t Scotland and it was perfect
Many have tried taking on Fiji in an open expansive game. It doesn’t work and often ends in tears or sackings. When you have two NBA-standard ballers playing at lock and a back-line that carry like baddies from Lord of the Rings and yet step like members of the Bolshoi ballet, throwing high-risk offloads and flighty miss-two passes is a bad idea.
Just ask Peter Horne, who was forced to take a rib-exposing pass in the second half and was sent so far backwards he saw Michael J Fox in a DeLorean.
Thankfully, Scotland’s risks were few and far between. Finn Russell showed his true versatility and instead of dazzling us with his hands, did it with his feet. Russell executed arguably the finest tactical kicking display of the weekend, with every kick measured and executed with time to spare.
It was also interesting to see Russell kicking a lot of ball along the ground, as it takes more time to gather a bouncing ball than a flighted one – making counter-attacks harder to generate.
Instead of relying on the usual mix of rapid counter-attack and line breaks, Scotland looked to their set-piece for tries, especially in the first half, and forced Fiji to concede two yellow cards due to their maul defence.
You could watch Fiji all day
Not every team gets to win World Cups. Not every team gets to the top four in World Rugby’s rankings. Largely due to funding and the inequality that faces many Pacific Island nations, this is where Fiji find themselves.
But just because Fiji don’t have a realistic chance of winning the World Cup, doesn’t mean they don’t have a vital role to play in rugby. The rugby they play is beautiful.
The set-piece may not be the equal of many of the Tier One nations, the squad not as deep and the yellow cards that they conceded against Scotland a problem, but no one plays rugby like them.
To watch men of that size offload like they do is worth £50 of anyone’s money. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Leone Nakarawa take the ball to ground.
To not enjoy watching Semi Radradra play rugby should be an offence punishable by flogging. How a 6ft 3in, 16st bloke can glide over the ground as he does is mesmerising. He could probably run across a rugby field made of blancmange and wouldn’t leave a trace.
Fiji may have been heavily beaten by Scotland, but they’re amazing to watch.
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