November is now well embedded as pivotal month in the international rugby calendar and we welcome back Expert Witness to Planet Rugby in the shape of former Ireland and Leinster hooker, Shane Byrne.
The Tourist Season
This year, there’s an increasing momentum to the November schedule; ground-breaking matches in the USA, all of the Rugby Championship sides touring and all of the Home Unions being tested with some intriguing match-ups to assess progress and change since last year’s memorable World Cup.
Former British and Irish Lions hooker, Shane Byrne is thrilled at the prospect of the action-packed month ahead:
“There’s some real treats in store for all of us,” he explains.
“As always, it will be a great Litmus test of the progress of the various nations and I believe that we will see a few upsets along the way.
“I expect Wales to show consistency, Ireland to show progress, Scotland to improve and England to consolidate under their impressive start under Eddie Jones.”
Sweet Home Chicago
“As an Irishman, the notion of playing the All Blacks in Chicago is mouth-watering; couple that with a return fixture against the same world champions a fortnight later and you realise we’ll have a strong understanding of where the teams lie by the end of the month,” observed Byrne.
“I believe the Test in Chicago is part of the cities’ month of sport initiative and I am aware there’s also some big baseball match ups taking place alongside the rugby, and I believe it very laudable that the authorities have joined up their thinking to take a showcase game into America.
“This is a gold card for World Rugby to grow and promote the game and there’s a huge buzz everywhere I go about the fixture.
“Chicago is second only to New York in terms of the ex-pat Irish contingent. It will be a home fixture for Ireland to all intents and purposes. The venue, Soldier Field, holds around 62,000 and I suspect 50,000 will be wearing green and I trust all 62,000 will be drinking Guinness!” he quipped.
“I am sure it’ll be a roaring success and something that World Rugby will wish to repeat.”
The Tidal Wave
“Spend a little time around the squad and you realise the guys really want a crack at the All Blacks. 2013 still hurts our pride immensely; it was heart-breaking to lose in injury time, but equally, the lesson you learn is that New Zealand play for 90 minutes, not 80.
“Their ability to win in the last five minutes is utterly phenomenal and it is the standard that all teams aspire to,” admired Byrne.
“They provide the ultimate battle; a warrior side who never give in and set every standard we all aspire to.
“Many people have theories on how you beat them, but let me tell you this and make no mistake about it; the only way you’ll overcome them by playing faultless rugby for 85 mins, raising the pace in the last 30, again raising it even further in the last ten and not making a single error for that whole period. It is THAT big and that tough.
“They are a tidal wave of fitness, power and excellence. Their error count is stunning low and their creativity borders on the audacious at times.
“In any sport in the world you care to name, they are the benchmark of execution, excellence and focus, which makes winning all the more satisfying on the rare occasions you overcome them,” concluded an admiring Byrne.
“On the plus side, some are saying Ireland are still rebuilding, but I don’t agree. I think we’re over the worst of the rebuilding. Already players like Jack McGrath, CJ Stander and Iain Henderson have become effective internationals and elsewhere, Robbie Henshaw has added a new dimension to the inside centre berth.
“The form of the Ulster backs is significant and for me the biggest selection issue is in midfield, where I hope they partner the handling talents of Garry Ringrose with the power of Henshaw, allowing Jared Payne to revert to his best position at full-back.
“The back row as always will be key and looking at the travelling party, I expect Josh van der Flier and Stander to resume alongside Jamie Heaslip,” predicted Byrne.
“It’s a huge challenge, but Joe Schmidt has the attention to detail to find the weaknesses and then I guess it’s all down to that intensity and playing period I alluded to above.
“Maybe Irish luck will come into it and the occasion will work in our favour and however it pans out, and I suspect the All Blacks will win it by a score and a half, it’s going to be a landmark game and I am relishing it!”
Wales: Business As Usual
“Elsewhere, Wales should really be looking to put away a highly inconsistent Australian side.
“As always, they benefit from a magnificent midfield of Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and Dan Biggar, but the withdrawal of stand-in skipper Alun-Wyn Jones will be a big dent for them.
“Wales are really quite a benchmark side in the Northern Hemisphere these days and have been admirably consistent in recent years. But they are without Warren Gatland, a forensic investigator of others’ weaknesses which may prove costly, despite Rob Howley’s undoubted acumen.
“Wales’ key is their ability to see games out. They are very much like New Zealand in that they play for the full period. Beating them is a question of early scores; leave it too long and they have the self-belief to beat a lot of good sides,” noted Byrne.
“The Wallabies rely on a handful of world-class performers (their back row, half-backs and Israel Folau) interspersed between some doughty performers. Closing down Israel early is the key; once he steps off that left foot he’ll beat a fat man in a phonebox, so Wales will blitz at pace in his face and cut the space down for him.
“I still think this is a game Wales should win, despite their missing personnel, and I’ll be bold and call a ten point victory for the hosts,” said the Leinsterman.
The Weeks Ahead
“Whilst England and Scotland are not in action this weekend, I do want to add that I genuinely think that Scotland could be a surprise package this season. They will be shorn of the power of WP Nel on the tighthead, but elsewhere, and in the midfield particularly, they’re using their provincial successes to build a very exciting side.
“There’s been a few changes up there and as always, the Scottish public demand respect and performances, and I’ll be interested to see how they go with the brilliant centre and back row options that seem to abound for them,” observed Byrne.
“Eddie Jones’ England are on the verge of something very special, but their run of injuries in the seven berth defies belief,” he chuckled.
“What can one say about Maro Itoje that’s not already been said? Nine tests and the guy is already absolutely world class. His precision is astonishing for someone of such tender years and England’s back five will be very unbalanced without Maro, George Kruis and the evergreen James Haskell.
“The key question is if the players coming can adapt to Eddie Jones’ total rugby philosophy. I expect Tom Wood to come into the openside shirt; you need someone who has been there and understands the physicality, especially since England have South Africa first up. Wood isn’t the most creative but he’s as hard as teak and will offer a world class lineout option for England.
“I also expect to see a real battle for the 13 shirt as Henry Slade looks a quality act despite Exeter’s recent form. He will keep Jonathan Joseph honest, and elsewhere I relish seeing Nathan Hughes power in the international scene during the matches ahead,” admired Byrne.
“However, the brutal truth is, Eddie will be measured by his own success to date. On that basis, four from four is the only result he’ll be interested in and I fully expect that anything else will be deemed below par by all concerned, not least of all Eddie!” concluded Byrne.
That brings this week’s edition of Expert Witness to a close and we will return next week with more views from within the game. We thank Shane for his time once again and he will rejoin us in the New Year for more musings and a rather exciting announcement.
Shane Byrne played 41 times for Ireland with four tests for the British and Irish Lions. A great technical hooker and lineout operator, he represented Saracens and Leinster at club level.
Shane was speaking to James While