Autumn Internationals: Talking points from week three
England, Scotland and Ireland saw off southern hemisphere opponents in their final autumn Test, but defeated Wales still have work to do. We look at the talking points
England and Ireland may have registered 100% records in the November Internationals, but Scotland have most cause for celebration. We look at the major talking points from week three, which left just one match remaining for the home unions this autumn – Wales v South Africa.
Scotland 53-24 Australia
* Murrayfield was rocking as Scotland inflicted the heaviest-ever defeat on Australia by a northern hemisphere side. Not since France put them to the sword in 1976, with a six-try 34-6 rout, have the Wallabies been so chastened.
Excluding a big 1990 win against the Pumas, when Argentinian rugby was a far cry from today’s professional model, this was also Scotland’s biggest victory against one of the ‘big four’ from the southern hemisphere.
* It was achieved despite the absence of several leading players, including Richie Gray, Ross Ford, WP Nel, Greig Laidlaw, Alex Dunbar and, most tellingly, Stuart Hogg, whose distress was plain to see when he withdrew just before the match with a hip injury.
Scotland have been forced to dig deep into their resources, particularly in the front row where Darryl Marfo, Jamie Bhatti and George Turner have all made their Test debut this month, and their squad depth has largely stood up to scrutiny.
* Sixteen tries this month tell only part of the story. Scotland’s high tempo and adventure has been a joy to watch, and it took only three minutes for Finn Russell to set the tone with a quick drop-out. The try by Huw Jones, after Russell feigned a kick to the corner and instead tapped the ball and shifted it the other way, is classic Gregor Townsend mentality and it’s what fans love to see.
* There was no need for Michael Cheika to hide his face as he was filmed entering Murrayfield, but well done the coach for allowing Stephen Moore to start on his 129th and final Test appearance for Australia.
Moore’s first start in the Wallaby No 2 jersey had been at Murrayfield 11 years ago and he has been a magnificent servant to the game. Only six men have played more Test matches than the quietly spoken hooker and it’s rather sad that the 34-year-old’s final appearance should end in such a shocking reverse.
* What was Sekope Kepu thinking? He’s one of the leading props in world rugby but he had a moment of madness when he smashed recklessly into Hamish Watson’s head at a ruck just before half-time and earned an inevitable red card.
Kepu became the fifth Wallaby to be sent off in history but the first Aussie forward to suffer such a fate in the pro era. His team led at that stage but found the burden of playing a man light for 41 minutes far too much to bear.
* Hogg’s withdrawal meant Byron McGuigan enjoyed a first start for Scotland after coming off the bench for his debut last week.
The Sale man seized his chance gloriously, scoring the game’s opening try after two well-placed kick-ons and one ugly-looking one off his shin that threatened to spoil his big moment.
The scoring pass for his second try was given to him by stand-in full-back Sean Maitland, whose Six Nations starting place must now be under threat from McGuigan.
* Scotland’s driving maul has come on in leaps and bounds and their ruck work was hailed as the world’s best by Wallaby assistant coach Stephen Larkham on Saturday. The biggest concern will be the leaking of 12 tries this month, with the Wallabies crossing four times despite being utterly outclassed.
Occasional lapses, such as the Bernard Foley restart that Tommy Seymour allowed to bounce into the corner, also need to be eradicated if Scotland are to topple other heavyweights.
Coach’s verdict: “We get the energy from the crowd and BT Murrayfield the last two weeks has been fantastic. It’s the best atmosphere in the international game just now and it’s great for our players to experience that and thrive off that.” Gregor Townsend
Scotland’s autumn score: 9 out of 10.
Scotland haven’t won the Five/Six Nations title since 1999 and are 11-1 outsiders to break that run, but they have to be regarded as genuine contenders given their autumn form. They came close to a clean sweep this month and have played with electrifying brio.
Scotland 44-38 Samoa
Scotland 17-22 New Zealand
Scotland 53-24 Australia
England 48-14 Samoa
* Even an experimental England side was always going to be too strong for the world’s 16th-ranked team.
Tries by Mike Brown and Alex Lozowski in the first ten minutes set England on their way to their highest points tally against Samoa in their eight meetings, surpassing the 44 points scored by Jack Rowell’s team at the 1995 World Cup.
* Once again England saw a TMO review go in their favour, with Danny Care adjudged not to have knocked the ball on in the build-up to Brown’s second-minute try.
Just like last week’s trio of incidents against Australia, it was the correct call, so let’s not hear any talk about ‘controversial’ decisions! Officials are looking for ‘clear and obvious’ infringements and where none exist, as occurred when the ball hit Care’s waist and knee but not seemingly his hand, then the try should stand.
* Joe Launchbury’s early departure with injury accentuated the problems England incurred at the breakdown. Eddie Jones’s men conceded 20 turnovers and a number of penalties at the tackle situation, with Samoa putting in more numbers and driving England off the ball.
The result was a lack of fluency and slow ball for the backs to work with.
“Samoa contested hard at the breakdown, the referee allowed the contest, and our second man was a bit slow,” said Jones. “Up to this game it’s been good.”
* It’s not being wise after the event to predict that this might happen. England have a wealth of back-row talent but not a jackal master in the mould of Sam Cane, Hamish Watson or Sam Warburton.
Their back row trio of Maro Itoje, Chris Robshaw and Sam Simmonds brought plenty to the party, with Simmonds being name-checked by Jones in the flash interview. The Exeter No 8 may yet become a terrific ball-snaffling seven but for now he’s first and foremost a quick and powerful carrier, in similar vein to Ireland seven Sean O’Brien.
* England are trying to broaden their kicking game and their second try illustrated that. Instead of a box kick by the nine, George Ford was allowed to launch an up and under that Tim Nanai-Williams failed to gather.
Elliot Daly swopped and Jamie George put Lozowksi over for the try.
* There’s only so much Jones can learn from a fixture of this nature. Samoa impressed but the fact they included a player, JJ Taulagi, from the Newton Abbot club in their squad indicates the gulf between these sides.
What would be lovely to see, following five clashes with Samoa at Twickenham and three more on neutral soil at World Cups, is an England team playing in Apia.
Coach’s verdict: “It was a bit of a muddling performance. We started well but probably got seduced by the perceived easiness of the game. We have a hell of a lot of work to do. We don’t have the consistency of doing the small things right. We’ve got two years to get that right.” Eddie Jones
England’s autumn score: 6 out of 10.
England won their autumn Tests by comfortable margins but none of their performances were really up to scratch. At least, not by the standards that we now judge them. Nevertheless, Eddie Jones’s 96% win success is not to be sniffed at!
England 21-8 Argentina
England 30-6 Australia
England 48-14 Samoa
Ireland 28-19 Argentina
* Ireland’s seventh straight win since losing in Cardiff last March created another pleasing stat for the men in green – they have beaten every other Tier One country in the past two years.
This victory was never in doubt once Jacob Stockdale put Ireland 20 points clear at the start of the second half, but the Pumas rallied with three tries in the final 25 minutes.
* Jacob Stockdale was named Man of the Match by the host broadcaster and at 21 looks set for a huge future. He scored two of Ireland’s three tries, racing on to Johnny Sexton passes, and is improving rapidly as a defender.
There’s talk of him moving into the 15 shirt filled here by Rob Kearney but that would be a mistake. Kearney, 31, still has loads to offer and Stockdale is revelling in life on the left wing – he has eight tries in nine league and Test matches this season. Let him bed in at 11.
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* Not for the first time, we were treated to the classic Joe Schmidt detail in strike plays. First, Sexton’s wrap-around to take Chris Farrell’s pass and put the supporting Stockdale in under the posts.
Then some typical lineout ingenuity as Argentina piled in on Devin Toner only to find he had shifted it to Iain Henderson and was setting up a long-formation drive that included powerful centre Bundee Aki, who had been stationed at the tail of the lineout. CJ Stander scored the try and what a beauty it was.
* No Garry Ringrose, no Robbie Henshaw, no problem. The Farrell-Aki midfield partnership flourished and Ireland are developing some serious strength in depth.
When as fine a player as Jack McGrath can’t get in the side – Cian Healy, back to his “man-eating best” in the words of Sky’s Mark Robson, has possession of the loosehead shirt – then you know you’re in a good place. And we haven’t even discussed the outstanding promise of 21-year-old James Ryan in the second row.
* We’re seeing a lot of tries from grubber kicks at the moment and Argentina demonstrated the art twice at the Aviva Stadium.
Joaquin Tuculet was deemed just onside when he dotted down Nicolas Sanchez’s grubber and Ramiro Moyano scored from Gonzalo Bertranou’s delicate kick in the final play.
Argentina have made close to 50 long-haul flights this year and no team has earned a break more than them.
They’ve played 26 Tests since June 2016 and have lost the vast majority. You wonder how long they can keep it up.
Coach’s verdict: “I was disappointed Argentina scored the last two tries, but the way we built our way into the game was very satisfying. One of the best things about this group is the experienced players helping the younger players through. You want people feeding off each other.” Joe Schmidt
Ireland’s autumn score: 8 out of 10
Three wins against Top 10 opposition, with the record spanking of the Springboks a red-letter day. Ireland made 13 changes to face Fiji and almost tripped up, but normal service was resumed against the Pumas. With three successive home games in the Six Nations to follow an opening visit to shaky France, there’s reason for Irish optimism.
Ireland 38-3 South Africa
Ireland 23-20 Fiji
Ireland 28-19 Argentina
Wales 18-33 New Zealand
* The margin varies but the result stays the same. Wales have now lost 30 consecutive matches to the All Blacks since their last success 64 years ago.
This latest fixture effectively slipped away from Wales in the first half because, despite enjoying 73% territory and 68% possession, they contrived to go in at the break 12-11 behind. The All Blacks were bound to fire some shots at some point and so it proved.
* Injuries didn’t help the Welsh cause, with Rhys Webb lasting only five minutes after a heavy fall and Jake Ball departing on 18 minutes with an arm injury that led to him receiving gas and air.
However, Wales threw everything they had at New Zealand and stayed true to their new thrilling attacking vision. They made 14 offloads – twice as many as the All Blacks – and their November tally of 46 dwarfs the 26 they made during the whole of this year’s Six Nations.
* Accuracy and execution are buzzwords in rugby and the All Blacks showed again that nobody finishes like they do. Waisake Naholo’s opening try owed much to Aaron Smith’s decision to ignore the crowded Damian McKenzie and find his 14 in space on the right.
Naholo got the next too as New Zealand stretched Wales left and right from a tap, Anton Lienert-Brown supported Rieko Ioane’s run for the third try and Ioane intercepted for number four.
Ioane applied the killer blow from a slick set move off a left-field scrum and engaged in a spot of sledging – “look at the score” – before Wayne Barnes called time on a breathless match.
Scott Williams’s try, on the occasion of his 50th cap, was every bit as impressive as Wales cut through New Zealand courtesy of Hallom Amos’s superb inners line.
* Are the All Blacks vulnerable? That’s been the talk but they’ve come through the month unscathed to finish with 12 wins and a draw from their 15 Tests in 2017.
Steve Hansen has exposed 15 or so new players to All Blacks rugby and has made do, to varying extents, without such world-class operators as Ben Smith, Brodie Retallick and Kieran Read.
They’ve lost the possession and territory battles in all three November Tests and coughed up 40 penalties and four yellow cards (and how Read escaped a card at Murrayfield is beyond me).
Are they vulnerable? No, not really. They’re still winning.
Coach’s verdict: “Before the match I said the big challenge was to contain the pace and power of their wingers. They scored four tries between them and that was probably the difference. But the way we’re trying to play is very positive.” Warren Gatland
Wales’ autumn score: 6 out of 10
It’s difficult to rate Wales. Two defeats and a dire performance against Georgia suggest a wretched Under Armour Series, but you have to rejoice in their eagerness to play with width and tempo. Rob Evans made 12 passes against Australia!
Wales 21-29 Australia
Wales 13-6 Georgia
Wales 18-33 New Zealand
Wales v South Africa, 2 Dec