With the end-of-year Tests about to begin, our first Expert Witness this month is former England Sevens and Stade Français back Ollie Phillips.
After a thrilling match between the All Blacks and Barbarians last week, the November Tests swing into full momentum this Saturday as New Zealand go to face France in Paris, Ireland host the Springboks, Australia visit Cardiff and Argentina travel to Twickenham.
Ollie Phillips, formally a flying wing in the colours of Stade Français and England Sevens, is relishing this weekend’s schedule and believes that chances abound for a couple of upsets in the results:
“The simple truth is, in the last couple of years, we’ve heard a lot about the gap narrowing between the Northern and Southern hemispheres and now it’s time for us to see evidence of that claim,” he noted.
“Looking at all of the games on paper, we could see any combination of results and it’s a real opportunity for some of the ghosts of the past to be laid to rest whilst other nations such as Australia and England will look to build upon their recent successes.
“I am relishing the All Blacks visit to Paris. If there’s one side that upsets the New Zealand patterns with a degree of regularity it’s France.
“It’s a shame that (Guy) Novès’s injury list is as it is; they’re absolutely decimated in some quarters and they’ll really lack time together as a squad, as many players have been drafted in to cover short term unavailability.
“When you play in France, you realise how different some of the positional emphasis is in the game.
“As an example, the scrum-half has long been considered the playmaker to the detriment of the fly-half skillset. This has meant they’ve struggled to produce 10s of the quality of other nations; however with the emergence of Camille Lopez, I thought they’d found the man but once again injury has meant he’s unavailable.
“New Zealand are going through, by their standards, a period of experimentation and change ahead of RWC2019. They’ve been poor by their lofty standards this year and, dare I say it, are a little flaky right now.
“However, this is a game they’ll expect to win. It would take a monumental effort for France to succeed and one that I suspect would be based upon scrum and contact dominance, led by the inspirational skipper Guilhem Guirado if they pull it off,” observed Phillips.
South Africa have been inconsistent during the Rugby Championship this year although they were cheered by their fine showing in Cape Town, and the emergence of Malcolm Marx as a world class hooker. However, even their most ardent fans would suggest they’re well short of their own elevated standards and trip to Dublin is one loaded in favour of the home side.
Phillips sees more pain ahead for the proud Springboks:
“Make no doubt about it, Ireland are one of the hardest sides to beat at home in the world right now.
“With two absolutely world class half-backs, they play one of the most varied and adaptable games around, with high tempo contact delivering the quick ball needed for Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton to display their skills as tactical magicians!” exclaimed Phillips.
“The ability of those players to assess weakness and play to the conditions in front of them is as good as any in the world right now, and we’ve seen that time and time again whether for Ireland or the Lions.
“Contrast that with South Africa who have huge question marks over the precocious talent of Elton Jantjies and if you then factor in the unpredictable weather in Dublin, Ireland appear to have a degree of match control at their disposal that’s absent within the Boks.
“However, Ireland rely upon dominance of the back five of their pack to create the fast ball I mentioned, and with big units like Eben Etzebeth moving into top gear, South Africa may present the Irish with real issues on the gainline.
“Factor in too, that SA have spent a lot more time together in recent months, and you’ll see there’s a real match-up here, but my instinct is that providing they match the Bok physicality up front, Ireland’s control at half-back will see them comfortably home,” concluded the former Stade wing.
Australia visit Cardiff off the back of a home win against New Zealand. Much has been made of Wales’ inability to beat the Wallabies, losing a straight 12 consecutive games in this fixture.
Phillips sees a change in Welsh ambition but also a lack of platform for their talented backs to launch off:
“I applaud Rob Howley and Warren Gatland’s desire to play a more expansive game, led by a playmaker in the 12 channel,” he explained.
“With the riches Wales have in the back-row and at half-back, they’ve the players to play a much wider game. But sadly, the injury list, especially in the back-row, is significant for the hosts.
“After the success of Sexton and Owen Farrell playing together in this format in the summer, I think it’s made Warren re-assess his options and I believe that’s much needed. However, I return to my comment about a platform; Wales have really struggled in the tight since they lost the durability of Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones in the front row. Put simply, they’ve not the form or skill available in the props needed to launch their backs at the moment, and that is costing them big time.
“The other factor in the platform is the back row; Wales are missing probably their four first-choice flankers in an area where Australia have some fearsome performers. The contact battle is going to be vital and I see the Wallabies dominating there, despite not quite having their usual firepower in the backs, missing the mercurial Israel Folau with his break from rugby.
“Looking at the game overall, if Wales had a side approaching first choice they’d be in with a good shout; with injuries and unavailability I fear that this may be another loss for them but it might just prove that 13 is lucky for some,” he quipped.
Keeping Up With The Jones
Again, the injury theme features strongly when examining Argentina’s visit to Twickenham.
England are shorn of eight potential first-choice players through injury or suspension, yet Phillips believes England’s issues will create an opportunity for Eddie Jones to further hone his squad:
“Look, England went to Argentina in the summer with half their squad on the Lions tour and produced two great results,” he observed.
“Argentina, despite their presence in the Rugby Championship, didn’t really show up in those games and many were surprised just how well England played.
“I honestly believe that we have a lot more strength in depth than most nations right now, and that’s partly down to the excellent work in the regimes of Rob Andrew and Stuart Lancaster, who put into place the development programme we now see.
“I am relishing seeing if Semesa Rokoduguni can deliver the same defensive excellence he shows for Bath; no-one ever doubts his attacking skills but now is the time to see a more rounded game.
“Equally in the forwards, the situation gifts opportunities to the emerging talents of Sam Underhill, Zach Mercer and Sam Simmonds in the back row, and Ellis Genge up front.
“What Eddie will gain from this game is further depth in his squad, and I believe, with (George) Ford, Farrell and (Jonathan) Joseph re-establishing their creative midfield axis, that England will win comfortably.
The Injury List
A focal theme of this week’s previews has been the sheer number of players unavailable for the Tests due to injury.
Much has been made of teams not being able to field their ‘first choice XV’ but Phillips believes this is a pitfall that’s now become almost the norm for international coaches:
“The notion that any international coach is going to have a full pool of players to select from is now pretty foolhardy,” he explained.
“With a professional being statistically injured for something like 30% of his season now, it’s simply unrealistic to expect a clean bill of health for a squad.
“The themes we’ve identified this week are very reliant upon each coaches’ ability to deal with and manage the casualty list, and as we approach RWC 2019, I fundamentally believe this is going to be one of the biggest reoccurring talking points.
“In each game we’ve previewed, the fortunes and chances of the sides have been informed hugely by the injury and availability saturation and whilst not ideal, the key to a successful international team these days is a squad of depth developed to offer options when unavailability strikes.
“I have no doubt that the coaches and nations that manage this most effectively will be the most successful ones in the forthcoming months.”
We thank Ollie once again for his time and Expert Witness will return next week with more thoughts from a former star of the game.
Ollie Phillips was a flying wing three-quarter in the colours of England Sevens, Stade Français and Newcastle Falcons. Voted the ‘Best Sevens Player in the World’ in 2009, Ollie was England Sevens Captain from 2008-2010, appearing almost 100 times for his country and played in three Sevens World Cup tournaments including Hong Kong, Moscow and Dubai. He is now Head of Innovation at PwC.
Ollie was speaking to James While