Jacob Whitehead gives his thoughts ahead of another busy weekend of international rugby

Is Ross Byrne Johnny Sexton’s successor? And other Test talking points

Last weekend’s Autumn Nations Cup and Tri-Nations matches served up some intriguing, skilful and downright unprecedented games of rugby.

Italy threatened a surprise result against Scotland until the final quarter, Jack Willis took to international rugby like a jackal to a feast, while Wales’ set-piece proved itself even more of a complex mess than the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

One match overshadowed the rest – Argentina’s first-ever win over the All Blacks. It didn’t matter that the Pumas hadn’t played for 13 months when gladiators such as Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Julian Montoya were forged in the heat of the moment.

Just as Giuseppe Verdi saw each season as a symphony, we could read the previous week of the autumn as the first movement, a rising crescendo promising more to come. The themes have been established, but individual melodies still need to be played out over the coming weekend – so what can we expect to experience?

Australian props asked to tame Pumas 

Australia v Argentina, 8.45am, Saturday 21 November, Newcastle, Live on Sky Sports 

The rugby world (well, those in the UK and Ireland) was split into two camps last Saturday morning. Those who set their alarms and rose, yawning, for New Zealand v Argentina at 6am, and those who enjoyed a weekend lie-in (well-earned I’m sure). However, I’m equally sure the latter group will be well awake in time to watch the Pumas this week…

Australia v Argentina is never usually the sexiest game of the Rugby Championship, often overshadowed by the hulking presence of New Zealand v South Africa on the same weekend. But both these sides are now in the running for the title.

It was the ferocity of their forward pack that carried Argentina to victory over the All Blacks, an intensity apparent from Pablo Matera’s early conversation with referee Angus Gardner: “They must show some respect, I’m playing for my country.”

New Zealand were bullied up front – and Australia have changed both their props to try to make sure it doesn’t happen to them.

Australia and scrummaging have traditionally gone together like water and oil – you never want to see the two mix, and when they do, it usually provokes an international outcry. But Australia have found a man the size of a small oil tanker to solve this – Taniela Tupou, also known as the Tongan Thor.

Tupou was a surprise exclusion from the starting XV to face the All Blacks two weekends ago but made up for it in a matter of minutes after coming off the bench, with the tighthead decimating the New Zealand scrum as well as grabbing himself the crucial try. A 135kg foundation for the Wallabies to build around for years to come.

He’ll be joined by Scott Sio, the experienced Brumbies prop making his first Test start since the World Cup after James Slipper was ruled out having dislocated his elbow. May a historic weakness be the strength that sees them through on Saturday?

Ollie Lawrence v Chris Farrell – the battle of the 13s at Twickenham 

England v Ireland, 3pm, Saturday 21 November, Twickenham, Live on Channel 4, Amazon Prime & RTE

You’d think that wearing the No 13 shirt in 2020 was asking for trouble, but both Ollie Lawrence and Chris Farrell have each enjoyed a rapid rise in fortune this autumn. While at different stages of their careers, and with radically different styles, Saturday’s match could hinge on their clashes in the outside channels.

With Lawrence asked to bring an X-factor to England’s attack and Farrell given the responsibility of organising the Irish defence, which outside-centre will see their country home?

Chris Farrell has played 11 times for Ireland, making his debut back in 2017, but has never quite been first choice. A talented group including Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw are consistently chosen, leaving Farrell fighting for the scraps – he made his first start since the World Cup pool stages last weekend.

The Munster centre has taken a more circuitous route to international recognition than most – leaving Ulster at only 21 to spend three years in Grenoble, his path to the first team blocked by Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Paddy Wallace and Stuart McCloskey.

However, Farrell has played a starring role in Limerick in recent years, his hard-nosed running and underrated pace making him a hard man to stop, especially considering some of the intelligent lines he picks around the opposing 22. It’s in defence where he most thrives, his long body deceptively covering the wide areas. Players think they have half a step on him – and then bang, they’re in touch, Irish lineout.

Man in the middle: Ollie Lawrence in England training (Getty Images)

The latest man to face the Farrell conundrum is Lawrence, the Worcester man having been touted for England honours since videos of him as a 16-year-old schoolboy first hit YouTube. Getting his first Test start last weekend against Georgia, the inclement weather stopped us seeing too much of him in a game designed for the tight five, although he did provide some impressive continuity play at times.

With the weather set fair for Saturday, it could be his chance to burst into England’s first-choice XV, replacing Manu Tuilagi as the power athlete in Eddie Jones’s back-line. Lawrence and New Zealand’s emerging star Caleb Clarke both possess that lateral explosion only the athletically freakish have – and look out for an offloading ability to match.

Is Ross Byrne Johnny Sexton’s successor?

England v Ireland, 3pm, Saturday 21 November, Twickenham, Live on Channel 4, Amazon Prime & RTE

Johnny Sexton’s injury against Wales has forced coach Andy Farrell to begin to address the issue of the Leinsterman’s successor – and he’s turned to the veteran’s provincial understudy, Ross Byrne, over the challenge of Ulster’s Billy Burns and Connacht’s Jack Carty.

Ross Byrne Johnny Sexton’s successor

Trophy time: Johnny Sexton and Ross Byrne after Leinster’s Pro14 win (Getty Images)

With Sexton now 35, and the talented Joey Carbery injured indefinitely, Irish fans have been wondering which out-half will pilot them to the World Cup in 2023.

Saturday’s match is Byrne’s biggest test so far – fail it, and the experimental nature of the Autumn Nations Cup could see Billy Burns rewarded with a start in Ireland’s next game. Just remember that Byrne is no rookie – indeed, he was preferred over a fully-fit Sexton for this year’s Guinness Pro14 final.

Heavily criticised – unfairly in my view – for his performance in a 57-15 thrashing by England on his last start, he’ll hope to be receiving plaudits on his return to Twickenham this time around.

New Welsh faces should release pressure on Pivac 

Wales v Georgia, 5.15pm, Saturday 21 November, Parc y Scarlets, Live on Amazon Prime, Premier Sports & S4C

Something new coming into the world usually makes most souls happier. In this sense, Wayne Pivac should escape the pressure cooker at the weekend, when a Wales team full of more new hope than a Star Wars film takes to the field against Georgia.

Pivac has made 13 personnel changes after the 32-9 loss to Ireland, with three debutants in the starting XV alone – scrum-half Kieran Hardy, centre Johnny Williams and flanker James Botham. The former two both represent the Scarlets, with Williams’s inclusion a feel-good story after his recent recovery from testicular cancer. Botham has enjoyed a breakthrough year at the Cardiff Blues and is picked despite having only played 13 professional games.

Possibly the most exciting selections come from the first starts for two England-based players – Bristol’s Callum Sheedy and Gloucester’s Louis Rees-Zammit. Sheedy’s all-round skill-set is probably only matched by Gareth Anscombe among current Welsh fly-halves – could he be the man to lead Wales towards 2023?

Rees-Zammit puts the hype in hyperspeed, the flyer making his debut in a brief cameo against France. Not given the chance to showcase his quite frightening speed on that occasion, Rees-Zammit has echoes of Bryan Habana, with his fleet feet matched by the powerful shoulders of a 100m sprinter. Meanwhile, his hands aren’t bad either – and he’ll be hoping to stop Wales getting their fingers burnt.

Maverick Jalibert returns to Murrayfield

The unfortunate cancellation of pool games involving Fiji means that Sunday’s meeting at BT Murrayfield between France and Scotland is effectively a Group B decider, with the winner virtually assured of top place in the seedings.

France will have unwelcome memories of decisive games at Murrayfield – their 28-17 loss there in March ended their hopes of a Six Nations Grand Slam.

That game saw star fly-half Romain Ntamack injured within ten minutes, with 22-year-old Matthieu Jalibert called off the bench to replace him. Possessing a passing resemblance to Eminem with his bleach-blonde hair, the ten was not afraid to try new things in attack but lost himself in defence – shooting out the line to open a hole the size of the Seine for Sean Maitland’s crucial try on the stroke of half-time.

Kicking on: Matthieu Jalibert in action at BT Murrayfield in March (Getty Images)

Perhaps it was unfair to expect such an inexperienced international player to flourish with his side down to 14 men and the gruesome twosome of Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie running rampant, but Sunday will go a long way towards showing off his burgeoning development.

Ntamack is injured once again, with Jalibert handed control of possibly the most in-form back-line in world rugby. The Bordeaux stand-off is a beautifully balanced runner, and, rather surprisingly for a fairly slight figure, possesses one of the nastier hand-offs in the game.

It’s a shame we won’t get to see a battle of ingenuity between Jalibert and the injured Finn Russell, but keep an eye on Louis Carbonel too. He’s named amongst the French replacements, is a gifted attacking kicker and has an element of gamesmanship that should make him a love-hate figure in a long career.

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