The Scrumdown – Ireland thrill, England disappoint and a familiar story for Wales
Rugby Union: Autumn Internationals recap
I mentioned in my column last week that Ireland should be considered contenders for the RWC 2019, and based on their 38-3 thumping of the once-mighty Springboks on Saturday it’s hard to not double down on that conclusion. This was a very out-of-sorts South Africa team, one that is perhaps regretting not blooding young players earlier, as some of the less experienced players looked out of their depth, but Ireland were sensational here from minute one, when debutante Bundee Aki earned a penalty following a stellar steal in the tackle.
Winger’s Conway and Stockdale looked lively, following some great form for their respective clubs, and both were rewarded with tries. The pick of Ireland’s bunch came following some great work by the two of them taking their team to within striking distance, with CJ Stander showing some great footwork in close quarters to dance in for the try. It was scintillating stuff from a team who dominated every area of the pitch. Sexton kicked four penalties and marshalled the game with his usual steady hand, before being replaced by the exciting pretender Carbery, who looks like the perfect plan B if Ireland ever need a spark off the bench. Once Sexton makes his hero’s exit from the international stage, Carbery looks like he’ll be ready to step up.
These are exciting times for Ireland. They do have to go to Twickenham and the Stade de France in the Six Nations this winter, but they should still be eyeing a Grand Slam. First, though, they’ll look to continue their fine form against Fiji this week. After all the talk of England being the only team to challenge the All Blacks in two years, the men in green seem to be coming good at just the right time. As for South Africa, they really need to improve quickly, or they could be on the end of a clean sweep of defeats for the tour. Do not forget their loss to Italy last year, and based on this performance that could easily happen again.
Not quite the same excitement out of Twickenham where the two sides were close to putting the crowd to sleep. It was a scrappy affair with no real consistency or free-flow. England defended well, with Sam Underhill catching the eye for some shuddering tackles in the first half, but they looked slightly bereft of inspiration with the ball in hand, and they gave away too many clumsy penalties. Indeed, if Argentina had a half-competent kicker the game would have been a lot closer.
As it was, England ran out 21-8 winners, with Nathan Hughes, who looked imposing with the ball in hand, and substitute Rokoduguni scoring the only tries. It was not all doom and gloom for the red rose. The aforementioned Underhill put in a big performance, as did Mako Vunipola at scrum time and Courtney Lawes in the loose. But for others this was a huge chance to demonstrate what they can do, but were far from at their best, namely the hugely talented Henry Slade, who looked a little off-kilter in comparison to his club form. With Farrell and Itoje sure the return next week, England will need to greatly improve from this tepid performance if they wish to overcome the Wallabies.
That being said, Australia were far from their best against Wales, but inevitably they soaked up the pressure and saw the game home, their 13th straight win against Gatland’s men. Wales enjoyed huge amounts of possession, but did not seem to be able to finish off their chances, often losing the ball at the crucial moment. Typifying the match was Curtley Beale’s breakaway effort. Wales had run through phase after phase, but perhaps opted to go wide a little too early, and winger Steff Evans, who otherwise was one of Wales’s brighter sparks, was brilliantly stripped of the ball by the former Wasps back, before he ran in unopposed to put the game beyond Wales.
It’s difficult to criticise Wales too much following their 21-29 loss. They weren’t for lacking in intent, but the final product eluded them a little too often, and Australia put in an impressive shift in defence. This is, after all, a team in transition playing a team that beat the All Blacks just a few weeks ago, and they were unlucky not to get more out of it. Gatland should worry about this aparent hoodoo against Australia, though. If Wales want to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2019 they will inevitably have to beat New Zealand, Australia or both, and their record against the Southern Hemisphere giants has been atrocious. A confidence-boosting win over Georgia next week is required.
What a game it ended up being at Murrayfield. Samoa arrived just two days after their RFU was announced as bankrupt, and boy did they give the Scots a good contest. It was the power of the home side, as opposed to the cavalier style of Glasgow, which helped them into a 32-10 lead after 50 minutes. Samoa refused to accept they were beaten, though, and took advantage of some lacklustre defending to keep coming back, even when Scotland kept scoring in reply. The game finished 44-38 in the end, and who knows what would have happened if it had gone on for ten minutes longer.
Scotland were guilty of resting on their laurels a little in the 2nd half, and their defence, especially around the fringes of the breakdown, should be a cause for concern for Gregor Townsend. But full credit to both teams for making this an absolute barn-burner. It was a great advertisement for the international game, and those who watched this instead of the squalid effort at Twickenham were greatly rewarded. Scotland vs New Zealand should be interesting next week.