Six of the oldest rugby nations will clash in July. A second Six Nations in the South. What plots await?
Yes, France will play Japan, and Scotland visits Argentina. But most eyes are on Australasia and Africa.
Tour New Zealand and you will test your top two inches. Ireland face unrelenting mental pressure.
Tour Australia and you’ll test the bottom inches: your feet, your toe. Big England will need to move fast.
Tour South Africa and it tests your guts. Stubborn Wales will have to dig deep to win in the Rugby Republic.
2022 has been a revanchist year: France won the Six Nations with the fewest carries and offloads. It was collision dominance, gainline superiority, solid set piece and clever kicking; precise counterattacks fed off a hyper-aggressive Shaun Edwards’ defence.
The inaugural URC was contested by two South African teams with superior force and dynamism at the breakdown and armed with true sprinters on the chase.
The efficient Crusaders kicked and stole and choked the break-dependent Blues into utter subservience: a 14-kick margin with ten lineout steals and a bully scrum.
Big Leicester and bigger Saracens kicked 105 times in the Premiership final; two hard Saffas scored from close in and that sealed the deal. Brutal Montpellier is in the Top14 final. The defensive and kicking gurus are having the last laugh this year.
When all the weaker teams are removed, and it is just the biggest, fastest, best drilled, and fittest teams left, with “Test intensity” as per the buzz phrase, the field shrinks, second half points are hard to come by, and a coach has to answer these questions for real: who carries, who catches, who cleans, who covers?
Your kickers are predetermined. Your set pieces are dictated. Your back three does what they do. But all of those cleans, all of those carries, all of those box kicks to catch, and those clean breaks which must be snuffed out: that is actual Test rugby.
Unlike winless Ireland in New Zealand and unlucky Wales in South Africa, England does win in Australia.
In 2016, Eddie Jones enjoyed the hell out of a whitewash. He is still at the helm, despite two disastrous Six Nations in a row; every other England coach would have been sacked, but Jones has timing and extreme buoyance in his favour.
He also claims to ever see the game ahead of anyone else. He makes pronouncements, all mutually opposed.
In 2017, there shall be no numbers on players. In 2018 it is all about finishers, mate. In 2019, he has no finishers and no backup halfback. In 2020 he says three phases is one phase too many. In 2021 he says rugby is moving to full attack with longer pauses, and there is one hell of a pause in his attack. In 2022 he says it is all about quick rucks and so he picks Marcus Smith and not Danny Care, but asks Smith to play like Owen Farrell and England score a handful of tries not against Italy. On every pod since, he explains he has a developmental team still, and it’s all about France.
He reminds me of Peter Sellers’ Chaunchey Gardiner in the brilliant 1979 satire ‘Being There.’ Somewhat aimless, always happy, both misinterpreted and forever misinterpreting life, and so clearly wrong about everything, yet risen to power and despite abundant evidence of being in over his head, he survives and is even feted as a wise and visionary rugby thinker because of Brighton and one semifinal.
“In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again,” muses Chance the gardener, who is erroneously understood as metaphor master Chauncey Gardiner, political genius. Thus saith Jones about rugby.
But now he has a chance to cement his best legacy: English dominance over Australia. I predict a re-Farrellised approach. Danny Care to Farrell at 9-10 after Smith does something incorrect in Test one.
England will always have a pack. The brothers Vunipola, battering ram Courtney Lawes, rampaging Tom Curry, fireplug Jamie George and explosive Luke Cowan-Dickie, the flapping, yapping, clapping Maro Itoje, the soul destroyer Ellis Genge: that’s almost 600 caps of prime British mad cow beef.
Jonny Hill may be in fact mad, and he will lock down with Itoje for a dystopian second row. When Hill and Lood de Jager locked arms for Sale, you could have been watching Mad Max IV.
There is depth aplenty for Eddie in the pack: with Sam Underhill and Will Stuart and Charlie Ewel from bloody Bath, and Nick Isiekwe finally fulfilling great potential. Leicester Tiger Ollie Chessum was one of the Premiership’s form locks.
But in Australia, with hard fields and fast grass, and a feeling of rugby entertainment, it is the backline that begs for examination.
Jones does not seem sold on Smith. Smiths often don’t keep up with Joneses.
Farrell was in peak form for Sarries even in a losing final. I think he will find his way back to ten. The return of Care is long overdue, but he is a card magnet (leads the league) and an attractive nuisance for Nic White to provoke. For mine, I’d start Harry Randall of Bristol; bring Care in to chase the game.
69-cap wing Jonny May will chase like a famished spaniel all day long. But it is unclear who the other wing is: Joe Cokanasiga (24) of Bath? Coach’s pet Jack Nowell (39 caps and 39 injuries). Or will Joe Marchant appear on the wing?
The only certainty is Freddie Steward at fullback. He is a classic 15: big boot, good under the high ball, and he inspires confidence. This should be an ill-tempered series. It just has to be.
Michael Hooper will be sick of losing to England. He will bring all he has and that’s a lot.
I look at Dave Rennie’s group and I see a better, clearer backline than Jones can pick.
White to Quade Cooper to Samu Kerevi to Len Ikitau or Hunter Paisami to Marika Koroibete with an intervention by Jordan Petaia: there is nothing on the England side that can compare with that artillery.
Tate McDermott and James O’Connor with one of many flier candidates at the end. That is class.
The problem for the Wallabies is in the pack: but not in the props. No, that is sorted.
Angus Bell, Taniela Tupou, Allan Alaalatoa, Scott Sio, James Slipper, and Pone Fa’amausili can do the job.
I don’t think loose forward is an issue, either. Harry Wilson has come of age and if he can carry 200 times in Super Rugby Pacific, he can handle running into the English pack. Pete Samu, Rob Valetini, and Rob Leota can mix it with big boys.
The problem is at lineout: a reliable hooker-to-lock combination, maul defence, and lineout threats on England’s throw. Is Folau Fainga’a or Dave Porecki figuring Itoje and Hill out? Is Matt Philip outreaching Itoje in the air? Is Darcy Swain enough in the maul?
The problem is at cleanout: is Nick Frost able to de-limpet Curry? Is Jed Holloway big enough?
Rory Arnold, Adam Coleman, and Will Skelton made big money for a very good reason. There are about 40 caps amongst the five locks named. They will decide the series. Are they good enough? Nobody knows.
For those reasons, I think this series comes down to one kick. A make or a miss by Farrell or Smith or Cooper or O’Connor or Noah Lolesio at the death of the rubber match.
Prediction: Quade nails it.
The Kiwis host their recent nemesis. The Irish have never won in New Zealand. But since 2016 the head-to-head is 3-2 for Ireland with an average score of 25-22 to the All Blacks. The last loss, in Dublin in 2021, caused plenty of consternation for their fans because it seemed comprehensive.
In the 2022 Six Nations, Ireland showcased a multifarious attack schema to finish clear second behind the mighty French. The two top teams played very different rugby: France was dead last in time of possession (less than 17 minutes a Test) and fifth in carries and metres. The French kicked the ball farthest and won the most turnovers with the most sure and dominant tackles.
As a point of comparison, the Irish scored four times as many tries as the English (24-8), using 136 more carries and almost 500 more touches of the ball, 338 more passes, and got no cards.
However, recent form has dented Irish confidence. Using club form to predict Test team fortunes is normally a bad idea.
But when Munster is off the pace and Leinster use 13 first choice Irish internationals and come unstuck at the gain-line against La Rochelle and the Bulls, it is cause for concern. Coach Leo Cullen had batted this idea away last year, but this time he grudgingly admitted it was precisely what happened.
Big James Ryan did not win his personal duels at set piece or in the carry; but nor did Tadgh Furlong, who had been spoken of in hushed, sonorous tones of awe, the quick loose trio looked too loose, and the second half props looked shaky. Jamison Gibson-Park hit a wall. Only Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton seemed to hold their form in the business end of the season.
When someone pokes a stick in Irish spokes, what is the Plan B?
What happens if they run into a team ready to pounce?
In the Six Nations, their attack dwarfed England’s but look at a few other stats and imagine what the All Blacks can do over three matches: Ireland conceded 32 more turnovers than England, committed 38 more handling errors, were pinged at scrum 13 times, and made far fewer dominant tackles. In the one game they lost, Ireland ran into the team with the highest red zone efficiency.
If that reminds one of the Blues-Crusaders final, then it will surely give the Irish brain trust pause.
When the Bulls went to Dublin and knocked out Leinster, they did it in part by depriving the Irish of lineouts. Jake White had his kickers keeping it down the middle or in a box; and had his loosies tampering with the Irish ruck one of every three times.
Ireland is a volume pressure team. Their Six Nations campaign was built on high possession (the most possession – 20:08 per match – in the competition) allowing them to build the most rucks (105 per Test) with superbly accurate cleaners giving them the most ruck success (96.4%) at the highest speed (2.88 seconds per ruck with a whopping 71% of Irish rucks cleaned and cleared under 3 seconds).
But the Irish may have looked better in the Six Nations than they are, on defence. England barely entered their 22. Scotland was chaotic. Wales had only a few good minutes in the tournament. Italy is Italian. New Zealand usually score 30 or more points in New Zealand. Ireland will have to score.
But their way looks exhausting. Twelve of Ireland’s tries in the Six Nations were from three or more phases. That is unusual.
When the Irish get to the red zone they stay and play for a long time: the most phases in world rugby, and not focused in one channel either (like the French who tend to find edges), and that means getting props and locks to hit rucks across the full pitch continuously, which is impossible.
Thus, Ireland’s skilled loosies have to clean, leaving centres to carry. (Fortunately for Ireland, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, and Bundee Aki form one of the best and most-settled (136 caps) midfields in the world; a Kiwi worry for sure).
British rugby writer and analyst Sam Larner has done good work on this: he shows a cleaner-by-position stat from the 2022 Six Nations:
England – Lock – 26.4%
France – Flanker – 22.2%
Ireland – Flanker – 24.1%
Italy – Prop – 26.7%
Wales – Prop – 25%
The Irish attack system cannot lean on locks to clean, even if a good lock clean is golden because of size. But all the Irish forwards are cleaning more than all the other forwards in any other team. Furlong, too. Which may contribute to his listless form in club matches recently. In a three-Test series with two games against the Maoris, the chances of having their first-choice pack available are zero.
Will Ryan Baird be jumping against Sam Whitelock on the tryline?
Munster’s and Leinster’s forwards were among the top four “percentage of forward carriers” in the URC. Only the Bulls and Sharks exceeded their forward load. (Stormers forwards carried the least, in a twist).
They will need to find another gear in New Zealand. One problem is age. Conor Murray is on his last legs. Keith Earls is the oldest winger in top tier. Sexton will turn 37 on tour. Cian Healy is looking his age (and his cap level at 116). 84-cap Peter O’Mahony is only good in short bursts. Iain Henderson is good but looked underpowered against the young Stormers. Furlong is not old (29) but appears worn out, as does Ryan at only 25.
Tadhg Beirne is the most hand-skilled Irish forward, but is he a lock or a flank? The other loose forwards, Josh van der Flier (29), Jack Conan (29) and Caelan Doris (24) can be made to look a little small at times.
Young hooker Dan Sheehan looks like a Malcolm Marx starter kit: athletic, an extra flank, and powerful. He will need to show he is ready to throw in against the All Black lineout defence, or smaller Rob Herring will need to steer the ship.
Suddenly, Andrew Porter (26) is one of the most indispensable players. If he, Gibson-Park or Sexton go down, Ireland is in trouble because Murray is too slow to clear and Joey Carbery has not shown steely resolve in the British Isles. What will he do in the Shaky Isles, graveyard for visiting flyhalves?
Still, Hugo Keenan is a rock at the back, the centres are set, and until he falls, Sexton is standing tall. The Irish are a chance, but they will need to stay healthier and more confident than they seem at the moment. Andy Farrell would be telling his team they have the best odds of making history, in history.
What will they face? A highly-motivated All Black team, at home, with a nation ready for this Irish fairytale to come to a halt. However, Ian Foster is under serious scrutiny and he has to make transitional choices: is 132-Test hero Whitelock a starter next year in France? He looks light in the carry, even if he still works his socks off.
Should fleet-footed 22-year old Tupou Vaa’i add to his 12 caps? Wouldn’t Ryan and Baird struggle more against young Tupou than old Sam? Particularly because 92-cap Brodie Retallick brings plenty of nous with Scott Barrett a seasoned backup. Give 80-cap firebrand Dane Coles the start or the bench or neither? Samisoni Taukei’aho or Codie Taylor? Sam Cane has been named captain, but he is quite slow at test level compared to the Irish loosies, and not as dynamic as Dalton Papalii.
What is the All Black plan to beat Ireland? Is it the Saffa-Bulls way? Or the French-La Rochelle way? They are not the same. But they are the two ways to most reliably take the Irish out of their comfort zone.
The All Blacks have the skills and the talent. But selection is an obstacle. If an openside plays 8, a wing plays 13, a fullback plays 10, and a wing plays fullback, it can become tough to negate Ireland.
However, much of the loosie scramble is caused by world class carrier Ardie Savea playing at eight. Hoskins Sotutu and Pita Gus Sowakula both look ready for test footy against a Conan or Doris.
And what of the props? Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tu’ungafasi were toweled in the Super Rugby Pacific grand final and looked dodgy before that. Nepo Laulala is not inspiring awe. Angus Ta’avao is 32 and seems to be on the way down. George Bower is not bad. If the Irish look light at lock, the All Blacks are not tops on props. (I would use Aidan Ross off the bench).
But there is no issue with depth in the backline, except perhaps at halfback, where Aaron Smith still reigns but a clear understudy is not identified between 6-cap Finlay Christie and uncapped SRP star Folau Fakatava. Foster won’t be stressed with either of his choices at No 10. He’s spoiled for choice at the back, with Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Sevu Reece ready to rumble and Caleb Clarke or Leicester Fainga’anuku in the wings of the wings.
So, we are back to the midfield puzzle. 47-cap Rieko Ioane is not a natural 13 but perhaps has made the slot his own in the absence of a definite better option (Jack Goodhue is a very different player). For 12, it’s David Havili, Quinn Tupaea, or Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, each of them having an obvious flaw.
Predictions: New Zealand should get better with each match; Ireland will fade physically, and then, mentally. Thus, the best bet for a historic win is in the first Test. It may get ugly by the end, with a final Test blowout a true possibility. The All Blacks do seem to have the better depth and at home, it’s 3-0.
Wales has never won a Test in South Africa. They’ve played ten. The average score has been 41-16.
This is not a technical term, but they just always seem overwhelmed physically in South Africa. Not just because of hard fields, super quick back, and bigger players. They just look uncomfortable on the pitch.
Even when they appear as Lions, it seems the Irish and English reproduce their mastery better than the Welsh and Scots. Liam Williams is one of the world’s best players, on his day, but “Two Sides” the official Lions documentary puts great blame on him for not giving a pass to Josh Adams, which they reckon would have turned the tide in the series. Maybe, maybe not. I saw cover defence coming at speed.
But the point stands: the normally unselfish and clever Williams would have made things difficult, typically.
I was in Cardiff watching Wales give France all they could handle in the Six Nations and Williams was untiring in his communications to his backline, encouraging and funny and clear. I could hear him.
In South Africa, he lost his head to lose a match before, doing a shoulder charge and letting in a penalty try. The problem in the Republic is not the speed chess game faced in New Zealand: it’s MMA in a cage that’s been cut in half and your hair is on fire and the fans are spraying petrol into the ring.
Collisions. Collisions of the skeleton, heart, and mind. It’s a gladiatorial place on its best days; for rugby, it’s always on. Oh, how the Welsh will miss Shaun Edwards.
Wales brings a 1-3-2-2 pod formation to South Africa with massive reliance on attacking clear-outs. The Springboks still cling to their number one world ranking mostly because they are hard to clear out.
Wales will want to stay connected. The Boks disconnect you. With blunt force trauma, but legal trauma.
Very few of the core Bok forwards have been carded for tackle technique or foul play. They don’t need to go high or dirty. They just come hard and low and with ultimate belligerence.
Josh Navidi is one of the best at this game: he and Justin Tipuric will need help. If they are smoking defenders over the ball, who is carrying next? The Welsh props are the key cleaners in Wayne Pivac’s system: hitting 25% of their attacking rucks. That sounds good, except asking props to do that in South Africa is a fools’ errand. Three Tests: cleaning out Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, and Steven Kitshoff is just a full-time job. And then you march to a scrum.
When you tire, and it’s a gladiator’s game, in an arena baying for your blood, do you make good decisions about height of arrival or when to slow a ruck or when to clear out and not sit it: going wide to wide to wide to reload and get back up, that tires an attack prop more than a defending Saffa livewire like Lukhanyo Am or flipping Faf de Klerk.
What could Wales throw at the Boks?
A very quick and smart back three of Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Josh Adams. They just need a sniff. And Williams will probably make the pass this time. In the midfield, they can launch big George North into Am and Damian de Allende (or Andre ‘The Giant’ Esterhuizen). Dan Biggar won’t give the game away, and No 9 Tomos Williams is not bad.
The Welsh front row will struggle from the start to the end. South Africa will enjoy the chance to enter the Wales 22 risk-free, or just slot threes. Scrum penalties are a staple: Frans Malherbe is plus-34 in his career on scrum penalties, and the Boks have three flights of props to throw at Rhys Carre, Dewi Lake, Tomas Francis, Dillon Lewis, and Wyn Jones.
Adam Beard will stand tall, but Will Rowlands has big shoes to fill. He was probably the best Welsh forward in the Six Nations, so Wales will have a good second row. The issue, again, will be what happens when their third or fourth lock is up against the Boks’ bomb squad.
The box office for this series will be the loose forward battle. Navidi is unbelievably good, Taine Basham will vie with Dan Lydiate, and then there is the quiet genius Taulupe Faletau. After the French match, whilst all the other players mixed and mingled, Faletau was holding his kids, placid and peaceful. He is the type that does well in South Africa: you cannot try to match local mongrel. You have to rise above.
The battle of the bench is not Wales’ best idea, but Gareth Anscombe and Gareth Davies won’t wilt.
If Wales play their absolute best, and South Africa start slowly, the visitors could nip one Test but still lose the series. But the more likely scenario is 3-0 with the Boks having too much up front and just enough on counter and finish to win each test in the final quarter, with at least one blowout a chance.
50+ cap men include hardmen Etzebeth (on 97), Siya Kolisi, Kitshoff, du Toit, Lood de Jager, de Allende, Franco Mostert, Trevor Nyakane, and 60-cap Handre Pollard. Front rows Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, and Roar Rugby podcast guest Malherbe will get to 50 this season if healthy. There is a battalion to bring on at the end. Faf de Klerk looked ready to rumble for Sale at the end.
But there are also a number of phenoms to test if the Boks can win the series in the first two Tests. No. 8 firebrand Evan Roos won every award the URC has and his Bulls opposite number Elrigh Louw looks like a Test animal natural born. At the back, almost all of Bokdom wants Willie le Roux to have an heir, but Jacques Nienaber is not one of those, and so it is likely Damian Willemse will reprise Frans Steyn’s role as player 23 in a 6-2 split.
The big question for South Africa is at flyhalf. Pollard has had a horror run of injuries at Montpellier. When he has been healthy, he has played off 12 or 22, as Paolo Garbisi has been favoured. Pollard does not lack confidence (he was thrown to the wolves as Bok 10 when he was 20, in New Zealand) but he does lack reps. He is, as usual, the most important player in Bokland, because of a dearth of options.
Leicester is paying him 800,000 quid to try to repeat as champs and Steve Borthwick wouldn’t do that if Pollard wasn’t the goods, but he is often underrated at home and abroad. He needs a good series.
Prediction: 3-0 whitewash born of pack superiority and a better bench.