So near and yet so far for England in Auckland
England opened a packed weekend of international rugby at Eden Park, Auckland, where they impressed considerably, but ultimately succumbed to a 20-15 loss to New Zealand. The visitors, who were fielding a significantly under-strength XV, were competitive throughout and held a 15-15 tie late into the game, only for a Conrad Smith try to break English hearts in the dying minutes. Though the loss will be tough to stomach for Stuart Lancaster and his players, who arguably deserved at least a draw from the game, the positives far outweigh the negatives coming out of the fixture. Concerns over England’s depth in certain positions will likely have been allayed for the foreseeable future and there seems to be real competition developing for first XV spots, particularly in the engine room, back row and midfield. The All Blacks will be a far more cohesive unit in the second test in Dunedin, but if England can take the set-piece dominance they enjoyed in the first test, and mix in the regular first XV players without too much disruption, then they could still record that elusive win in New Zealand that they have been searching for since 2003.
Australia dissect disinterested French
Saturday was not a proud day in the history of French rugby, as they were thoroughly dismantled, 50-23, by a good, albeit not great, Australian side at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane. The scoreline even flatters France, who scored two late tries when it’s fair to say Australia had switched off somewhat, and a winning margin of closer to 40 points would have been a more accurate reflection of the game. Away from the harrowing score, coach Philippe Saint-Andre will be equally displeased with his players’ attitudes and demeanours, some of whom looked thoroughly disinterested in the game for the entire 80 minutes and showed no urgency defensively whatsoever. It was a good start to the series for Australia, who never really had to get out of third gear, whilst Michael Hooper as usual excelled on the openside, seemingly taking on France’s breakdown almost singlehandedly and emerging victorious.
Springboks find their rhythm ahead of the Wales’ arrival
A familiar looking Springbok side took on a South-African flavoured World XV at Newlands and after surviving some initial scares, showed their class, beating the invitational side 47-13. The presence of Springboks such as Juandre Kruger and Alistair Hargreaves in the World XV pack caused some issues for South Africa at the set-piece, but the visitors just didn’t have the cohesion to trouble the home side, despite many of their stars having played together for the Barbarians just a week before. The grizzled pairing of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield were solid in the engine room, although admittedly not the dynamic duo they once were, whilst Willie le Roux and Bryan Habana looked lively and eager to be involved, coming off their wings regularly. Wales should present a bigger challenge to South Africa on Saturday, but it’s difficult to see an under-strength Welsh team springing a surprise, especially now that the Boks have got a full 80 minutes of top level rugby under their belts.
Argentina impress in competitive loss to Ireland
If you believed the pre-match build-up, Ireland were going to have their way with a youthful and inexperienced Argentina side in Resistencia, but the Pumas actually gave a very good account of themselves, although ultimately falling to a 29-17 defeat. The game was still in the balance until the 59th minute, but an Andrew Trimble intercept try took the game beyond the hosts, who also looked to be tiring at that point. Blindside flanker Robbie Diack had an impressive debut, but it was a few unheralded Argentineans who arguably stole the limelight. Winger Manuel Montero, who scored a superb try, and flanker Tomas de la Vega both enjoyed good games, as did the more well-known Maritn Landajo, and with all three still plying their trade in Argentina, it’s likely they will be fielding some calls from European clubs in the near future.
1-from-1 for Vern Cotter
Scotland rounded off the weekend at the BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, where they beat the USA Eagles 24-6. The match was Vern Cotter’s first in charge of Scotland, and probably went as well as could be expected for not only the first match of the summer tour, but also the first match under new leadership. Several handling errors cost Scotland the opportunity of widening the winning margin, but Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg were both able to claim tries and the Scotland pack earned their side a further through a series of penalties earned at the scrum. Tests against Canada, Argentina and South Africa loom for Scotland, with each a step-up in class from the previous, but Scotland, although not imperious in Houston, have got Cotter’s reign off to a good start.
Northern hemisphere excel at the JWCs
The Junior World Championships have also been taking place this past week and have played host to some scintillating rugby. England have begun the defence of their crown well, dispatching Italy with ease in a 63-3 rout, and comfortably seeing off a highly-touted Australian side, 38-24. Ireland are also in a great position to qualify for the semi-finals thanks to a 35-21 victory over Wales and a losing bonus point picked up in their 19-13 loss to France. Wales’ remaining hopes hinge on them beating France, and Scotland somehow restricting New Zealand to less than four tries, but realistically it looks as if their aspirations towards the title died during their loss to Ireland. With just one more round of group fixtures to go, South Africa, England, France and Ireland look to be in pole position for semi-final spots, whilst the teams which fail to make it to the final four will battle it out for seeding in next year’s tournament.
Try of the Week goes to Manuel Montero of Argentina. Nicolas Sanchez created the try with a piercing run through the Irish defence, before Montero fended off the last man, and then beat the cover defence with pace and an acrobatic finish in the corner.
If the U20s were to be included, Hero of the Week would be shootout between New Zealand’s Tevita Li and England’s Nathan Earle, but given a full card of test rugby, we should probably put the JWC to one side. Instead, Martin Landajo of Argentina takes home the accolade. The scrum-half was a real livewire for the Pumas, showed excellent game management, and even managed to outplay the impressive Conor Murray. The quintet of Joe Marler, Jerome Kaino, Bakkies Botha, Bismarck du Plessis and Robbie Diack all came close to pipping Landajo.
Villain of the Week goes to France, who narrowly edge out their own coach, Philippe Saint-Andre. Questionable selections of Saint-Andre aside for a moment, the XV on the pitch looked so ambivalent, you could be forgiven for thinking they were turning out for a local 3rd or 4th XV, and even then their passion would likely have been found wanting. It was not until France emptied their bench that there looked to be any desire in the team.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images