6 things we learned from the weekend’s rugby


1. Hate to say I told you so

Everyone agreed last week that Wales’ decision to play a midweek game against the Chiefs was rugby suicide, with two more tests to come against the All Blacks. The fact that injuries meant that front line players like Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Taulupe Faletau were all involved, only underlined the insanity.

And yet, at half-time of the second test at the weekend, Wales were drawing 10-10 with New Zealand. Were we all about to be served a large slice of humble pie?

Well, no. As expected, New Zealand kicked up a gear in a brutal 15 minute period in the second half, exploiting tired Welsh legs to rampage into an ultimately unassailable lead. Despite a valiant Welsh fightback in the last 10 minutes, the game was won in that period when Wales found themselves chasing shadows.

So why play that game against the Chiefs? Warren Gatland, of course, is a Waikato legend, so that likely had something to do with it. And I’m all for the amateur throwback that midweek games are, but if you’re going to play them, you need to be taking a much, much bigger squad. To have your test captain playing three games in a week is utter madness.

2. Old Zealand

Oh, to be a New Zealand rugby fan. When Dan Carter and Richie McCaw retired, not to mention Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, the loss of so much experience was expected to have some sort of effect on their general play and results.

And while there have perhaps been some teething problems – their defence hasn’t been as watertight as they might have liked in the Wales series – in general the main tenets of All Black rugby have remained sturdy.

They are still insanely clinical, they still possess players from shirt number one to shirt number 23 that are comfortable with ball in hand, and they still back their ability to score from anywhere.

And they still have an embarrassment of riches. Beauden Barrett came off the bench to finally get an extended shot at the number 10 jersey at the weekend, and proved why he would walk into every other country’s team. Lima Sopoaga, architect of one of the most outrageous bits of skill I’ve ever seen on a rugby pitch (below), can’t even get in the squad.

Ardie Savea came off the bench to score a sublime solo score… you know what? We could sit here and do this for ages. The point is, the conveyor belt of talent in New Zealand is still functioning. Sigh.

3. Lies, damned lies and statistics

England’s win over Australia genuinely defied belief at times, and the stats prove it. They had 29% possession and 26% territory. They made 213 tackles to Australia’s 62. Australia made 224 passes to England’s 62. Clean breaks, defenders beaten, offloads… the list goes on. But in the one stat that actually matters, England walked away with a 16 point win.

In many ways – and bear with me here – it was reminiscent of the All Blacks. Ok, so New Zealand are never on the end of statistics quite so imbalanced, but they often end games with less territory and possession, but a healthy win on the scoreboard. They are masters of soaking up pressure and then striking when they have the opportunity.

England essentially had two try-scoring opportunities, and took them both. They rarely entered the Australian half but when they did, they usually came away with at least a penalty. That clinical nature and clarity of thought is something that was sorely lacking under the previous management. Allied with one of the greatest defensive displays probably ever seen, and you have a very solid foundation.

Now, this is not sustainable. You can’t make over three times as many tackles as your opponent and win every game of test rugby. But a series win on Australian soil is not to be sniffed at, and the belief that Eddie Jones has instilled in this team is a dangerous thing. When/if the attacking game is developed, England will be a very, very difficult team to beat indeed.

4. What’s the point?

Eyebrows were raised everywhere last week when Joe Schmidt announced the Ireland squad to take on South Africa in the second test. A week on from registering their first ever win on South African soil – and one win away from joining the Lions and All Blacks in one of the most exclusive clubs in rugby – there were to be a raft of changes.

Joe Schmidt was rotating his squad. Joe Schmidt, who doesn’t rotate against Italy in the Six Nations, was rotating his squad with a series win in South Africa within his grasp. Why?

One imagines that after a dire Six Nations, some people in the Irish hierarchy have been panicking about their depth. So this tour would have been targeted as a chance to give some younger, fresher faces some experience. And I’m genuinely not sure if they expected to win that first test.

But when they did, surely it might have been worth taking a pause. Building depth is a valuable exercise, but the consensus was that Ireland looked light on impact players on the bench for the second test. And so it proved. Having binned proven impact subs like Ultan Dillane and Sean Cronin, they were run ragged at altitude in the final 15 minutes, and with it their shot at a series win may have evaporated.

5. Raising your bat

Chris Robshaw went to 50 caps in some style, saving probably his best performance in an England shirt to bring up this milestone. For a man who was so pilloried post World Cup, it has been quite a transformation.

Freed of the burden of captaincy (which never seemed to sit well with him), he has been like a new player. Early on in both tests in Australia, he has snaffled ball at the breakdown with a proper “jackal”, something he was always accused of not doing enough.

Robshaw has always suffered for not really fitting the mould of either a six or a seven. The dreaded tag of “six and a half” has always followed him around, but instead of seeing that as a positive – he can be effective at the breakdown, but has the workrate and appetite of a six – it has all too often been used as a stick with which to beat him.

He is also one of the few genuinely skilful English forwards (which is where he and Haskell differ). His clearance kick at one stage at the weekend was a perfect example of this, and he has often been praised for his linking play with ball in hand. The point is, there is absolutely no reason why Robshaw shouldn’t be part of this England team long-term.

6. Hear the Lions roar

Allister Coetzee’s new Springbok era was in very real danger of starting with two losses in a row, to a team who had never beaten them on home soil before. Given the scrutiny and pressure that comes with being the coach of the South Africa rugby team, it would have been a precarious situation for Coetzee.

In the end, he was saved by his substitutes. Ruan Combrinck probably redefined the meaning of “impact sub”, scoring a try and tearing down his right wing every time he got the ball. Warren Whitely was another to transfer his Super Rugby form to the international arena, scoring a try and making 50 metres from eight carries.

Franco Mostert and Julian Redlinghuys helped shore up the set piece, too. What do all of these men have in common? They play for the Lions, South Africa’s form Super Rugby team this season. In fact, the Lions are the only South African side that has played any rugby this year, really. Earlier in the season, they beat the Chiefs (who just hammered Wales with their second team) 36-32 in Waikato.

The Springbok job will always come with pressures from the transformation targets that need to be hit, but equally, they need to be winning. Coetzee will surely be starting with some of these roaring Lions next weekend.

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

45 thoughts on “6 things we learned from the weekend’s rugby

  1. They are very assured about their rugby. On topic, I think that area has done OK in comparison to the South Island. Chiefs in Hamilton, Maori in Rotorua however two tests at Eden Park seems excessive, I guess its down to stadium size….

    1. Sorry Tom, the guy that was lined up to do them dropped out fairly late on. Hopefully should be fine to do them this weekend.

      1. No worries. I hope I’m not being disrespectful in saying that the articles themselves are pretty light for reading, it’s the discussion that said evaluations prompt that I look forward to.
        Was just wondering if it was left out due to the fact the match was almost a carbon copy of the first test or because it would have been impossible to give Jamie Roberts a score less than 0. Poor guy has been flogged to death this tour and clashing heads with Fekitoa in the opening minute does him no good either.
        Unfortunately with Williams very shy on pace and fitness after knee surgery, there are no standout options to replace Roberts. Maybe it’s about time Sam Davies was blooded? He’s a second playmaker with a silky variety of passing, has bags of pace and a quite wonderful range of tactical kicking. Not only would he be well suited to Wales evolving attack but he would also take pressure off of Davies kicking which was aimless at times. Considering he was head and shoulders the best junior player in 2013, I’m surprised he’s not been asked to step up in the three years since.

  2. One other thing we learnt was that Farrell (a fly half) is still a better option at 12 than most (if not all) of the 12’s in the Premiership. Not only did he score 18 of England’s 23 points but he was also heavily involved in the other five, as he was the man pulling Hartley over the line to score his try.

    Another example of EJ’s fantastic man management? This week we saw Farrell pulling other players away from a situation where he himself would have most likely been involved in previously. A lot has changed in the mentality of Farrell on the pitch since EJ has taken over at England and it’s clearly made him a better player.

    1. Agree massively on this. He seems to have maintained his spiky confrontational nature without feeling the need to get involved in unnecessary off the ball nonsense that he used to.

      He is quickly becoming one of the top midfield operators in world rugby.

    2. Slightly disingenuous to use his points total of an example of how well he played at 12, because he would have scored the same exact points playing at 10!

      That aside, I completely agree… he was brilliant. He’s always been a spiky defender, but where in the past that might have seen him fly out of the line and miss a tackle, now he seems to be the on-field defensive leader in that back-line, and his picking his moments to press better.

      I definitely think having two playmakers in the 10/12 shirts is the way to go. Ford played the conditions brilliantly well at the weekend, but I’d love to get a look at Farrell at 10 with Slade at 12 at some stage soon.

      1. Second playmaker doesn’t have to be in the 12 shirt – Slade does it from 13 for Chiefs, and Goode from 15 for Saracens. Would still quite like to see Tuilagi or Te’o in the 12 shirt at some point with Goode linking up in the line as a playmaker from 15 at some point, at least until Harry Mallinder comes along and puts an end to the arguments over the inside centre shirt once and for all…

        1. Definitely agree with you here. Whilst I think Farrell and Slade would be good, I think we would still need a bigger ball carrier at 12 or 13. No disrespect to JJ, but the teams that use the second playmaker have at least one big ball carrier in the midfield or out wide.

          At the moment the only player in the back line we have carrying the ball into the defence is Brown, and he’s not always that effective because he doesn’t have the size and bulk to do so. For me the ideal line up would be either:
          Farrell, Nowell, T’eo (or similar other ), JJ, Watson, Goode, or
          Ford, Nowell, Farrell, JJ, Yarde, Watson.
          I’m not sure Slade has re-discovered the form he was in before he got injured. He certainly seemed to work well with Farrell when they played with Burgess at 12, so maybe with T’eo at 12 Slade could slot in at 13. If so I would still have a back three of Nowell, Yarde and Watson.

        2. Harry Mallinder’s been playing mostly at 10 in the current U20 tournament, combining very nicely with John Williams who is doing a bloody good job in the 12 shirt. Both could potentially be very interesting options for England senior inside centre duty in the coming years.

  3. Well, a win’s a win. And the adage about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ seemed to be borne out last Sat.

    However (& is this a 1st?), Jamie’s 1st sentence of his last para is something England will do well to heed.

    That Oz COULD NOT, WOULD NOT score when pounding England’s line, was surely also an indictment of Cheika’s ability in selecting & as coaching a back line with even a modicum of invention. How they missed guys like Gitto, A A-Cooper etc.

    I was also wrong about Joubert. He seemed so frightened of yellow carding Haskell, Cole, Itoje, Brown, take tr pick, for serial cheating @ ruck, that he repeatedly said ‘Nxt time’, ditto. Perhaps the last time he reffed Oz in the WC was still on his gun shy mind.

    Frankly the score flattered England & again they got the lucky bounce to hike up their tally, but It won’t continue to be thus.

    On the other hand, England would have been unfortunate to have lost, notwithstanding their inability to score tries across the team, with lots of ‘Dunkirk spirit’ etc.

    I will bet Jamie’s house on Oz by 1 or 2 last up… but not my own!

    1. What ‘lucky bounce’ Don?

      As for an inability to score tries, scoring 5 tries in two games against the Wallabies in Australia with an average possession of 30% suggests the opposite – that when England have the ball they are extremely clinical in scoring tries.

      And given they’ve put more than 60 points on Aus in 2 games with that tiny amount of possession, it suggests that they are extremely clinical in taking any points on offer, not just tries.

      They just need the ball a bit more…

      1. It just hurts Don too much to say England played well and have been the better team in both tests so he needs to say we were lucky or Australia were terrible of the ref wasn’t up to it etc…

      2. Pablito

        ‘… when England have the ball’, is part of their problem; & I’m looking ahead.

        The ‘lucky bounce’ was George’s grubber. It could have gone anywhere. It happened to fall to Farrell. In the last AB test, Ben Smith punted similarly off the ground with the line @ Savea’s mercy, but the pill went sideways. That’s what I mean.

        If England continue to have c. 30 odd % possession/territory, it’s going to bite them. They will not likely have so little nxt up, but they will need to turn this deficit around nevertheless.

        And 5 tries in 2, is a narrow view. The Folau gift along with George’s grubber are hardly a constructed or planned means of scoring. The other were a pushover & a kick to the corner & Yarde’s was by outnumbering the oppo. The latter 2 were fair enough, but if you wish to grasp my pt, watch ‘Catch up’ TV for a comparison with the way in which NZ score their tries & the numbers they rack up.

        Things have gone for England to a degree with their 2 ‘tuff’ tests @ home in the 6N (which is 2nd divi & a trudge to be frank) & likewise in Oz as expressed elsewhere previously (e.g. disallowed Oz try @ a crucial time & Folau’s gift, Jobert’s refusal to yellow deliberate cheating e.g. Brown lying on the ruck under the posts b4 1/2 time – & this is from yr own scribes in the S. Times – have flattered England to some degree & papered over the cracks of 2 6’s & 10’s.

        Won’t work indef, esp v NZ.

        1. Don –
          You can perform a grubber kick so the ball goes end over end in which case it will go straight-ish.

          Kicking off the ground is completely different – it wouldn’t even be classed as a punt.

          And besides, Im sure George saw the space inside the 22 and put the ball there hoping either he or one of his team mates could reclaim it or to put more pressure on the aussies.

          1. Jake (not White I presume?)

            I’m sure George did see space. My pt was simply that the ball, whether ‘grubbered’ or ‘kicked off the ground’ (it was actually ‘punted’ in the air b4 hitting the deck by B. Smith, but that’s minutiae), can still go anywhere. Apparently because it’s oval.

            How it’s ‘completely different’ baffles me. A kick is a kick innit? It fell FOR Farrell so that was the element of its going his & England’s way. As did a few other aforementioned things.

            That’s not to say that England didn’t merit the win, not least because Oz couldn’t score.

            However, having c.70% less ball is not necessarily a winning strategy for the future I venture.

            Like nxt Sat perhaps?

            1. So England do it Lucky bounce
              Anyone else does it Exceptional skill and vision for a hooker

              Double standard much

    2. I think part of the reason for no yellow cards was that he had previously warned Moore that the penalty count was stacked against them. We had hardly conceded a penalty before those five minutes at the end of the first half, so would have been harsh to yellow card somebody with the penalty count so high against Aus with no yellow card.

      1. And when Joubert initially warned Hartley about the penalty count, the Aussies had conceded the same number, so even that wasn’t exactly warranted.

        1. TeamCam

          Same response as for dazza.

          No skin off mine, but you’re justifying yr own ol’ bean.

      2. Dazza

        Yr own (media) said England got off the hook & even named the miscreants.

        It wasn’t the no. of warnings, it was the illegal stopping of scoring opportunities that was more critical.

        IMO it’s part of the ‘smiling gnome’s’ strategy & he will likely grin himself to death before he rescinds same… unless a ref stops this degradation of the game by doing his job by yellowing the culprits. That’ll change things pronto methinks.

        Needs a Kiwi whistle blower to stop the rot I suggest.

        1. “Wrong side of the law McCaw” was always praised for his ability read a game and a genius a finding the limit of a refs interpretation ….. but England are just cheats and should be yellowed off the park for the heinous crime of stopping the opposition scoring.

          What about the damn cheating Aussies nullifying our scrum advantage by moving the match to a beach? That’s just not cricket.

    3. It won’t continue like this. Don, you talk about this as though 30% possession is a standard way England play. It certainly wouldn’t be sustainable if it were. They’d be living off scraps.

      This was an unusual type of game.The England team never normally has a problem with getting close to 50% or upwards of the ball, it’s always been an issue about using it.

      In this game England were utterly ruthless about taking their chances. Same last week, when they came back, and in both cases late in the game, instead of kicking for touch or slowing the ball down, they went for the throat and scored.

      Which is very NZ like behaviour.

      Honestly, I know you find it hard to give england credit, but using this game as some template for how England play at the moment is over the top.

  4. Here and now (almost) Lions XV
    1. Mako Vunipola
    2. Dylan Hartley (c)
    3. WP Nel
    4. Maro Itoje
    5. Devon Toner
    6. CJ Stander
    7. James Haskell
    8. Talaupe Faletau
    9. Rhys Webb
    10. Owen Farrell
    11. George North
    12. Manu Tuilagi
    13. Jonathan Davies
    14. Liam Williams
    15. Stuart Hogg

    16. Jack McGrath
    17. Rory Best
    17. Dan Cole
    18. Joe Launchbury
    19. Richie Gray
    20. Billy Vunipola
    21. Connor Murray
    22. Dan Biggar
    23. England and bath winger whose name has suddenly escaped me!!!

    1. I would be tempted to play Faletau and Vunipola together at 6 and 8 with Haskell at 7. Taylor in for Davies and Watson in for Williams with maybe Williams moving to 15 with Hogg on the bench?

    2. Cant understand how Manu Tuilagi gets into your side, has hardly played all year and is currently injured, Maybe move Farrell to 12 and Biggar at 10. and would play Ken Owens instead of Rory Best.
      You also now have the option of a fit again Halfpenny.
      I for one cant wait til 2017

      1. I will be astonished if Dan Biggar becomes a British and Irish Lion – he still has not once managed to look like a fly half that knows how to run a back line.

        Henshaw is a shoe-in for me in the centres. Probably something like this for me:
        1. Mako 2. Hartley (c) 3. Nel 4. Itoje 5. AWJ 6. Faletau 7. Haskell 8. Vunipola 9. Murray 10. Farrell 11. North 12. Henshaw 13. JJ 14. Watson 15. Hogg

        16. Best 17. McGrath 18. Cole 19. J.Gray 20. Stander 21. Webb 22. Russell 23. L.Williams

        1. That looks pretty good to me Jacob. That’s a serious back row.

          Does Nel do much round the field? I can’t remember.

          Would probably have Sexton ahead of Russell who has a tendency to make silly mistakes. And would like to fit Henderson in there somewhere. Mind you, they will be spoilt for choice at lock!

          Gray bros

          All are very good players.

          1. Lock is such a difficult one, but I like the blend of Itoje/AWJ both style wise and in terms of experience. Pick one from the rest in the 19 shirt!

            Sexton/Russell I changed last minute – mainly because I’d rather a more unpredictable 10 off the bench and I don’t think Sexton has been particularly good for a couple years now.

            Nel/Cole/Lee are all very good options at 3 and to be honest it depends on style. Cole is probably better round the park but Nel is the best scrummager out of the three.

          2. Wullie Nel gets around a fair bit. Overall stats nearly always high. Covered 9 km in the Japan game on Sat, which is good for any player, let alone a prop. Also scored a try and put in his fair share of tackles, which is par for the course with him. And he’s a monster in the scrum.

            1. Thanks for that Matto. Would definitely be starting him in that case, as you say, he is a great scrummager.

              I don’t think Lee offers enough round the field and isn’t any better than the other two come scrum time.

              Re Sexton/Russell – understand your reasoning (although I’d choose Ford rather than Russell) but feel experience would be vital against the ABs, especially if the Lions are ahead or in touching distance in the last 20 or so

            2. My only issue with Nel is his tendency to drop the ball (literally not metaphorically) at crucial moments of a game. Otherwise he is a fantastic player

              1. I can remember a couple of those Leon. In his defence though – he works his @rse off and does the full 80 far more often than not (due to the relative strength of the bench). The examples I can think of were in the closing stages, and as such were indeed crucial. However, you could ask whether he should still be on the pitch when he is dead on his feet. Should be less of an issue on a Lions tour, where you would hope the bench would be there or there about in all positions.

      2. Part of the thinking re: Manu is that I feel Farrell has to play, but not at 12. I bow to better judgement on the Irish centres but I feel Manu, when fit, is so far ahead of the others in the one position where there’s a tall death of depth and talent. In my first draft I also put Billy and Faletau in but Billy could, but doesn’t play 6 so considering the opposition I felt a true 6, from a defensive and positional point of view was the only option.

    3. I was thinking about this the other day, and we’ve suddenly got a lot of very good players in the HN (even though we’re still miles off NZ). You could easily pick three totally different first 23s that’d be world-class. My one (today, it’ll change tomorrow…) would probably be:

      1. McGrath
      2. Hartley
      3. Nel
      4. Itoje
      5. J. Gray
      6. Henderson
      7. Hardie
      8. Faletau
      9. Murray
      10. Sexton
      11. North
      12. Farrell
      13. Henshaw
      14. Seymour
      15. Hogg

      16. Cronin
      17. M. Vunipola
      18. Cole
      19. R. Gray
      20. B. Vunipola
      21. Rhys Webb
      22. Russell
      23. Halfpenny

  5. If you extend the weekend to Monday have we also learnt that Harry Mallinder is England’s future at 15? Speed, size, ball playing ability, decision making. Has been consistently impressive for the Saints, and now for England U20. Kills the Brown/Goode debate for me as he potentially offers everything they lack.

    1. 10, 15 or 12? his usual position is inside centre although he is versatile enough to play flyhalf for the Saxons once Brophy-Clews was injured and fullback for Saints on a handful of occasions

      1. Strong argument that 10 is actually his least effective position, and he’s still been one of the players of the tournament whilst playing there!

  6. Agreed Richard – he’s an exciting prospect – a real thoroughbred. Deceptively dextrous and nimble for a man in his dimensions!

  7. Regarding Schmidt’s selections, I’m not sure how much of a choice he had. After spending an hour down to 14 men the previous week the squad must have been knackered, and with sides finding it hard to last the pace at altitude in Johannesburg at the best of times there’s no way they would have done so had they gone in with an unchanged side. I just wonder how much of it was Schmidt keeping an eye on being able to put out his best team at their freshest for the final test where altitude will have no say, and being willing to go into 1-1 if that’s how things came to pass. Obviously they’d have wanted to win the game, but the first Test and even the first hour of the second show that Ireland at the best are better than the Boks at the moment, so with as close to a full strength team Schmidt can get with the injuries they have I reckon they really fancy their chances this weekend.

  8. Meant to respond to, ‘Hate to say I told you so’, earlier, however…

    ‘Everyone(?) agreed last week that Wales’ decision to play a midweek game against the Chiefs was rugby suicide, with two more tests to come against the All Blacks. The fact that injuries meant that front line players like Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Taulupe Faletau were all involved, only underlined the insanity’.

    Well this is 1 (NH, fear based?) pt of view.

    So, why would Gatland commit apparent ‘rugby suicide’ & ‘underline.. the insanity’, by playing the Chiefs?

    Is he stupid? Has he, after yrs in the job, suddenly lost the plot? Did he just wake 1 day & say,’Seems like a good idea to me’, for no apparent reason?

    Well 1 line of thought goes, that to avoid any risk in rugby, then don’t take the field I suppose.

    Or, leaving aside for a moment what could have gone wrong, in terms of the aforementioned injury concerns, what COULD be gained?

    Well, my guess is that Gatters wanted (needed) to know how his dirt trackers would fare. Would they stand up v (a depleted mind you, so not quite so risky then) a Chiefs team.

    Well he found out that they couldn’t, so some dev work to be done pronto then?! No more burying the head in the sand seems to be the (valuable) lesson.

    Besides, the ABs stuck it to Wales as is their wont as a series progresses. If they hadn’t played the Chiefs, what difference would it have made? Little methinks.

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