Saints and sinners: The weekend’s talking points
England win an epic in Argentina after late Denny Solomona try, Scotland show Gregor Townsend's hallmark in Singapore and Israel Folau ends his try drought for Australia
Saturday night fever
There would have been slaps on the back at the BBC on Saturday night after their decision to televise England’s two-match series in Argentina.
The first Test in San Juan was an absolute cracker, with the Pumas leading 7-0, 17-13, 31-23 and 34-31 at various junctures before being undone by Denny Solomona’s individual brilliance at the death.
England’s 38-34 victory is surely their best-ever result in Argentina given the absence of 30 players. Ten Englishmen made their Test debut and if teenager Tom Curry has got much of the plaudits for his non-stop tackling, then fellow back-row Mark Wilson matched him stride for stride.
George Ford ran the game beautifully and kicked like a dream, Henry Slade showed touches of magic, including a show-and-go and grubber to lay on a try for Jonny May, and Harry Williams brought to mind Jason Leonard’s Test debut in the same country 27 years ago.
To wrestle the game back after the quick-fire tries by Jeronimo de la Fuente and Joaquin Tucalet around the 50-minute mark showed a strength of character that even hard-to-please Eddie Jones had to admire.
“We’re disappointed with our performance because we gave them too many points,” said the England coach. “But what we did show was a ton of real team ethic. Ten young guys came in and did their job brilliantly.
“The other thing I liked was that young guys made mistakes but they didn’t dwell on them; Denny Solomona makes two horrific defence mistakes but then scores a brilliant try. The ability to rebound is so important.”
Gregor off the mark
Another satisfied coach is Gregor Townsend, whose Scotland reign began with a five-try, 34-13 win over Italy in Singapore.
After a lively first five minutes, the 28°C temperature and 82% humidity threatened to take all the pace out of the match. At one point, Kiwi referee Paul Williams told Scotland’s ‘water boys’ to get off the pitch, and you can’t blame Dr James Robson and Co for trying to sneak some water into the players whenever they could.
But two Scottish tries just before half-time got things back on track in a match watched by a crowd of 8,734.
The first, by Ali Price, had Townsend’s hallmark because the move started when Finn Russell feigned to kick a penalty to the corner and instead passed the ball in the other direction. How delightful that Townsend is going to bring his Glasgow philosophy to the international arena.
Later, we saw Ross Ford score his first Scotland try for nine years and then grab another six minutes later! The hooker’s second followed some sweet offloading by Duncan Taylor and Damien Hoyland and a typically impudent reverse pass by Russell.
“I’m pleased to get the win but we have a few things to work on,” said Townsend. “We knew conditions were going to be tough. The players kept believing in themselves and played some good rugby in the second half. Our set-pieces were key to our victory.”
Izzy makes Fiji dizzy
Scotland’s next opponents, Australia, had more difficulty disposing of Fiji in Melbourne than might be supposed by the 37-14 scoreline.
One notable event was a brace of tries by Israel Folau. The full-back scored 17 tries in his first 26 Tests but only three in his next 26 Tests and he ended a 12-game drought by first catching a high cross-kick and then bursting on to Bernard Foley’s pop pass for his second.
Karmichael Hunt, 30, who played pro rugby league and Aussie Rules, made his Wallaby debut at 12. He and Foley often switched around as Michael Cheika works on creating the sort of playmaker axis that worked so well at RWC 2015, when Matt Giteau wore 12.
With Kurtley Beale to come into the mix, the Wallabies could yet employ three ball-players in midfield, as England did in Argentina when using Slade and Alex Lozowski (and later Piers Francis) outside Ford. Interesting times.
The one Super Rugby match last weekend saw the Chiefs inflict a first home defeat of the year on Hurricanes, 17-14.
There were only four tries but this was another belting match, and for once Jordie Barrett came off second best in the full-back battle because Damien McKenzie was at the heart of most of the Chiefs’ best moments. He would walk into most national teams.
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I’ve sometimes criticised sides for not taking an easy three points, but the mentality to score in fives and sevens by going for a try appears to be ingrained in New Zealand.
Between them, the Barrett brothers have kicked just seven penalties in this year’s Super Rugby and when the Canes might have kicked a late penalty to secure a bonus point against Chiefs, they stuck to their guns and got it via a try by Wes Goosen.
As commentator Tony Johnson informed us, 65 of the Canes’ 85 Super Rugby tries this year have come within three phases – “They strike like lightning,” he said – and they are not alone in changing the mindset.
At one point McKenzie fell heavily after taking an aerial ball (and calling a mark) under pressure from Julian Savea near his own line. And yet he sprung up and was away, looking to attack. You have to love that.
No need for dramatics
TJ Perenara is a fabulous player, tipped by many to start at scrum-half in the New Zealand-Lions series. His extensive repertoire of skills includes a stream of tireless support runs, a deadly grubber kick and a mean rip tackle (just ask Western Force).
It would be a pity if he spoilt things with simulation of the sort we saw against Chiefs, when he went down theatrically after a gentle nudge in the back from Aaron Cruden as both men chased the ball. Cut it out!
One in the chops
Two Scottish stars, two cut cheeks. The injury to Stuart Hogg against the Crusaders was freakish, the Lions full-back running full pelt past Conor Murray just as the Munsterman raised his elbow.
The blow left Hogg reeling from a heavily bleeding gash and if an X-ray confirms that his tour is over, what a crying shame. Off-colour against the Provincial Barbarians, Hogg had played less than 20 minutes in Christchurch when the accident occurred. The New Zealand public hasn’t seen just what a thrilling talent he is.
Finn Russell also came a cropper, taking a hit to the face whilst putting in the smart kick that Tim Visser caught and scored from against Italy. Like Hogg, he required stitches but unlike Hogg he returned to run the show.
One footnote to the Lions’ 12-3 win over Crusaders. Yes, it’s an excellent result and yes, key aspects such as line speed and breakdown work and set-piece offer real encouragement.
However, the lack of attacking execution cannot be excused just because the Lions are bedding in new combinations. There were new caps aplenty across the world – for example, South Africa’s whole back three against France were on debut – and we didn’t see the sort of errors elsewhere that the Lions made in Christchurch.
The tourists need to up their game fast. The Highlanders match on Tuesday provides the next opportunity and it needs to be taken.