With just under a year to go before the 2019 Rugby World Cup kicks off in Japan, the action is beginning to heat up as the top nations start their final preparations for the showpiece event.
With some of those nations in action this week, here are some of the talking points from the opening round of fixtures…
Welsh ‘shadow’ players stake their claims for World Cup jerseys
Unlike previous autumns, it was a winning start for Wales in Cardiff as Warren Gatland’s side showed flashes of quality in a comfortable 21-10 victory over Gregor Townsend’s Scotland, that saw the Welsh open an autumn international campaign with a win for the first time in 16 years.
Three stand-out performers for Wales were the back-row duo of Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric, along with fly-half Gareth Anscombe. A resolute defensive performance from Wales saw Lydiate and Tipuric excel in the tackle area, whilst New Zealand-born Anscombe showed some nice deft touches in attack with his footballing skills coming to the fore in setting up tries for George North and Jonathan Davies. The three players are no strangers to the Welsh jersey but each of them has had to show their fair share of patience to grab hold of a place in the starting XV.
A run of bad luck with injuries has seen British Lion Lydiate fall down the pecking order in recent times for his country and with Wales looking to adapt to a more creative attacking game, many Welsh supporters had come to wonder whether the Ospreys flanker had a future in test rugby at all. Yet Lydiate at his best is a test-match animal of the highest calibre, and given Scotland’s domination of possession and territory in Cardiff, Wales’ no.6 rewound the clock to produce a dominant defensive display that saw him top the tackle count and relieve the pressure on his side by stealing some crucial turnovers.
Alongside him in the back-row his club colleague Tipuric also starred. Having spent much of his international career for Wales and the Lions in the shadow of Sam Warburton, the unfortunate retirement of the former Wales and Lions captain has opened the door for Tipuric to nail down that no.7 jersey at long last. Despite Wales having a number of outstanding back-row players to choose from, at his best Tipuric remains Gatland’s number one choice at openside flanker and after a storming start for the Ospreys this season the flanker maintained that form on Saturday aiding Lydiate in defence with tackles and turnovers aplenty as he highlighted once again what a top-class performer he is at this level.
Meanwhile, behind the scrum Cardiff Blues’ Anscombe finally got his long-awaited audition in the fly-half jersey, with his running game keeping the Scottish defence on their toes throughout whilst there were signs in attack that Anscombe could be the man to spark this Welsh back-line into life as he helped set up the two Welsh tries.
There are no guarantees that these three will be in possession of those jerseys by the time Japan comes around but if they maintain their current form they may take some dislodging.
England and South Africa still works in progress after scrappy encounter
Two sides who come into this autumn season with contrasting fortunes in 2018, England’s 12-11 win over South Africa was match that will not live long in the memory with both sides guilty of making a number of errors in an encounter low on quality.
Under Rassie Erasmus, South Africa look to be working their way back to being an international force with new stars Marx, Kolisi and Dyanti leading a new generation of exciting Springboks to a series win over England before defeating world champions New Zealand in their own back-yard. In contrast the bubble has well and truly burst for England coach Eddie Jones this year, with five consecutive defeats seeing his side plummet down the world rankings after a storming start to his England reign.
With both sides arriving at Twickenham missing key players, Saturday’s encounter was always likely to be a cagey affair but neither side will have been overwhelmingly happy with their displays. Having dominated possession and territory for most of the match, South Africa were guilty of frequent handling errors and poor execution on the many occasions when they visited England’s 22 and would have been scratching their heads at half-time as to how they failed to add more tries to Sbu Nkosi’s first-half score. England may have snuck out with victory in the end but much of that was down to their reliance on the boot of talisman Owen Farrell who landed three successful and decisive kicks at goal to go with Elliot Daly’s long-range penalty. Unable for large parts of the first-half to get their hands on the ball, when they did get chances in attack later on there decision-making let them down often when the South African try-line was in sight.
A slow start from both sides much improvement will be needed for either side to finish the year on a high.
Larmour hat-trick lays gauntlet down ahead of World Cup
It was another successful US excursion for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland side as they recorded a thumping 54-7 victory over Six Nations rivals Italy. Returning to the same venue where they recorded a historic victory over the All Blacks in 2016, the reigning Grand Slam champions put on a ruthless display of attacking rugby whilst showing a formidable defence in restricting the Azzurri to just the one try.
With Schmidt using the match as an opportunity to rest key players ahead of upcoming test matches in Dublin, this was a chance for some of Ireland’s fringe players to lay down a marker with the World Cup on the horizon. The likes of Tadhg Beirne, Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery did just that with strong displays but there was no doubt who the star of the show was.
21-year-old Leinster full-back Jordan Larmour has already caught the eye with some wonderful attacking displays in his fledgling career and maintained that form with a devastating hat-trick in Chicago that took the game away from Italy. Nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year, the Leinster back took his chance when finally rewarded with the 15 jersey for his country with a deadly attacking display that eviscerated the Italian defence and saw him rack up the metres made and defenders beaten as well as registering his three tries. Sizzling off the mark, Larmour is an elusive runner with scintillating footwork that often completely bamboozles defenders, the young player clearly has a very bright future ahead of him.
However ahead of him in the pecking order at full-back for club and country is the veteran Rob Kearney. A two-time Grand Slam winner with over 80 Ireland caps as well as three Lions test caps, Kearney is a world-class full-back with a CV to match his on-field ability. A multiple European and Six Nations champion, Kearney has often been at the heart of the success enjoyed by Leinster and Ireland and even at 32 years of age remains one of the best footballers of his generation. Approaching the twilight of his career, Kearney remains a favourite of Schmidt’s due to his calm nature, defensive discipline and smart attacking game.
Despite Larmour’s great potential there are still a number of flaws to iron out in his game and he still has a long way to go to steal Kearney’s starting jersey for the World Cup. Yet more performances like the one seen in Chicago and the Apprentice may overtake the Master sooner than thought.
All Blacks look to the future in 100-point thriller
Before arriving for their much-anticipated tests against England and Ireland, world champions New Zealand visited 2019 World Cup hosts Japan for a test against the Brave Blossoms.
With head coach Steve Hansen choosing to rest several key players who arrived early ahead of the European tour, this was an opportunity to blood some new All Blacks. A match-day 23 that included eight new caps produced some moments of class in attack but were also guilty of leaving their own defensive line vulnerable in what became an absolute try-fest in Tokyo as the visitors took the spoils with a 69-31 win. A hat-trick for centre Ngani Laumape and a try for the returning Dane Coles was followed up by tries on debut for George Bridge (2) and Matt Proctor as New Zealand once again displayed the great strength in depth they have in their country, with Hansen’s side producing some carnival-like rugby in attack that had the watching fans up out of their seats.
Despite running in ten tries, Hansen and his coaches will have been slightly worried to see the hosts cross the whitewash five times themselves and despite the many changes in personnel he will be aiming to ensure complacency does not creep into the All Blacks defensive game even when winning by large margins. With as many as six debutants being aged 24 or under, Hansen took the chance of using the Japanese test to blood players who, whilst perhaps not in the frame to return to Japan next year as an All Blacks squad member, could play a big part in the team’s plans for the 2023 World Cup.
With many current All Blacks’ stars young enough to make France 2023 that is another frightening prospect that New Zealand’s world domination may yet continue for years to come.
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