With Australia, England and Wales recording significant wins over the weekend, we’re joined once again by former England skipper Lewis Moody, to review the second week of the November Tests.
Setting the Standards
A damp weekend inspired some intense and physical rugby and the English performance at Twickenham highlighted this.
With an immense display at both the breakdown and in attack, England put their old foes South Africa to the sword in a convincing fashion for the first time in ten years, but Lewis Moody believes there’s still some way to go.
“It was a quite weird game really,” he mused.
“Early mistakes littered the English performance but after that early penalty spate they settled into a solid win.
“They performed well but it was hardly mesmerizing rugby and Eddie Jones is right to be criticizing the standard of performance.
“There were a lot of positives. England were ruthless in taking the gaps for scores and George Ford’s match management was absolutely exceptional after those first 20 minutes,” commented Moody.
“What really stood out for me was how poor the Springboks were. Yes, losing Eben Etzebeth was a huge blow for them as he’s one of the most physical players in world rugby and was capable of neutering the power of Vunipola, Launchbery and Lawes in the contact exchanges.
“But it was glaringly obvious that England beat them up at the gain-line and they had no game strategy to cope with that nor any plan on how to break the England game plan down.
“The comments from the coaches post-match were telling; Jones criticized England and said there was ‘much to work on’. Alistair Coetzee, the Springbok coach spent his time justifying his selections and tactics and didn’t appear to acknowledge how poor his side was.
“It is staggering that he could not see the ridiculous selection of Pieter-Steph du Toit, out of position on the right flank, was an absolutely howler of a pick. Ben Youngs targeted the big lock and basically tore him apart with dummies and snipes, two of which lead to tries.
“Rumour has it he’s going to be known as Side-Steph du Toit from here on in!” quipped Moody.
“But my point remains; SA don’t operate open and blindside as England do. They play, and have always played, a left and right configuration. With the outstanding Willem Alberts on the other flank, picking a similar player means you don’t have the back row skill blend needed to compete at this level, especially on a day where control of the contact area is key. They needed a fetcher and jackler, someone like the injured Francois Louw who does so much unseen work in the darkness of the ruck.
“Going back to the coaches comments, honesty is essential in rugby; you cannot improve things if you’re not open about your performance. I don’t believe Coetzee is being honest with himself, his players or his team and that means they’re going to struggle to improve.
“It was a very basic, diluted version of Springbok rugby and, being blunt, it wasn’t close to good enough for this proud nation of rugby,” concluded the former England skipper.
Going through the gears
“England, bluntly, never really got out of second or third gear. They’ll be delighted to get the number of points on board that they did, but I know Eddie and Paul Gustard would have laid into them regarding the leaking of soft points at the end. They are looking to emulate the best and that means a complete performance,” noted Moody.
“There was some wonderful stuff; the score off first phase possession off a line out should never happen at this level but the way Elliot Daly and the midfield created the space for George Ford to scamper over was exceptional and straight out of the Jones playbook.
“Looking forward to Fiji, I expect a few changes; Tom Wood was clearly picked as a one-off to combat the South African lineout and I await with interest the back row selection for next weekend. I was disappointed with Nathan Hughes; he needs to get his hands on the ball and make holes and he didn’t have that chance.
“England will be looking for a complete performance against Fiji, but there’s a danger they play too much rugby versus the Islanders, whose ability to score tries from any part of the field must not be underestimated.
“They’re a talented team and I believe England must play tight early on to get a platform and then play the attacking game. It should be a big win for England but never, ever underestimate the ability of Fiji with ball in hand.”
A potential Argentinean banana skin awaited the underperforming Welsh side in Cardiff but eventually the host proved just a bit too powerful for Los Pumas, with Alun-Wyn Jones producing a consummate display of power and physical dominance.
Lewis Moody believes the Welsh changes bore fruit and they looked something like their old selves again:
“Wales have been probably the most consistent side in the Home Unions for some time now, built around some world class characters like Alun-Wyn, Sam Warburton and Gethin Jenkins.
“Dropping Jamie Roberts, one of the greats of Welsh rugby, would have shocked many, but the simple fact is there was something very amiss in the Welsh push defence. Liam Williams really vindicated his selection with a brilliant display in the centre and elsewhere, Sam Warburton, Ross Moriaty and Justin Tipuric blended really well to offer that back row skill blend I mentioned earlier.
“Argentina are a top five side by merit, not by accident, and their tempo has improved notably, as witnessed by the Hernandez try.
“But Wales showed admirable fortitude to manage the game through Dan Biggar and their inside backs and to dominate a strong Pumas back with a powerful forward display.
“I have to also single out Gethin Jenkins for a special merit award. In addition to ten tackles and a powerful scrummaging display, his field kick to the corner was something of dreams for a prop and just showed what great footballers the modern forwards are. I am minded to send the clip to Jason Leonard just to remind him what a prop SHOULD be doing,” laughed Moody.
Scotland the Brave
In last week’s Expert Witness, Geordan Murphy opined that Scotland versus Australia would be closer than many thought but he didn’t expect it to be as close as the epic 2015 World Cup match.
“Yes, Geordan was wrong again!” laughed Moody.
“It was an exceptional performance in defeat by Scotland and Zander Fagerson plugged an immense hole left by WP Nel on the tighthead, adding real mobility and defence to the team effort.
“Australia, led by brilliant performances from skipper Stephen Moore and veteran David Pocock, played some sublime rugby at times and if you had to put your finger on one aspect of the match it was Pocock’s all round performance that was the difference,” explained Moody.
“However, Scotland would want to give Vern Cotter a great send off, and they’ll be devastated not to have closed out the game. We have mentioned the form of Tevita Kuridrani before but his bulldozing run and subsequent conversion from Bernard Foley was a hammer blow for the Scots.
“Closing games out is an essential habit of the top sides. We discussed before the Ireland v All Blacks match the need to play for 81 minutes and Scotland simply allowed Australia to play in the wrong area of the field without the points cushion in the closing minutes.
“On the plus side, Huw Jones looks another find for Scotland in the centre, a position where they have an embarrassment of riches, and Johnny Gray and Finn Russell put down huge markers for Lions selection next year.
“But again, in the final analysis, Scotland failed to close a game out that they should have won and they need to find the ability to close the games down in the final moments,” concluded Moody.
Irish Comebacks, Italian Destruction
Elsewhere, we saw three cricket scores as Ireland continued their winning form with a victory versus Canada, a Louis Picamoles inspired France demolished Samoa, New Zealand put new coach Conor O’Shea’s Italy to the sword and in Georgia, Japan commendably overcame a physical home side with a narrow away win.
“All of those games went pretty much as expected and I was delighted to see Sean O’Brien making his comeback,” noted Moody.
“Looking forward to the coming weekend, the three games that are the obvious ones to watch are Ireland’s hosting of a wounded New Zealand, France, in form, taking on a rocked Wallabies and Scotland hosting the wounded Pumas.
“I have a sneaking feeling Ireland may just be pushed over the line by the amazing home support once more and that would be quite incredible. The back row battle in Paris will be mouth watering but I suspect the Australian backline will win the day, and up in Murrayfield I would suggest that the forward battle will win the day and I would call Argentina by a score in that game.
“England need to show precision versus Fiji and elsewhere, there’s a delightful match up with Samoa visiting Georgia, which might just prove the closest game of them all.
“We’re witnessing an epic November Test series and the closeness of the matches shows just how strong the sport is right now,” concluded Moody.
Once again, we thank Lewis for his time and Expert Witness will be back next Wednesday to cast an eye over the events of the weekend.
Lewis Moody MBE was a breakaway flanker in the colours of England, Leicester Tigers, Bath and the British and Irish Lions. He played 71 times for England with one Test for the Lions. He now manages a children’s charity raising money for those affected with brain cancer and in December will be cycling 1000km through Vietnam and Cambodia to raise money for his charity. www.thelewismoodyfoundation.org
Lewis was speaking to James While