As another of the November Tests draws to a close, Former Wales centre Tom Shanklin returns to Expert Witness to examine South Africa’s disasters, Wales’ jitters, England’s progress, New Zealand’s resurgence and Australia’s excellence.
Florence and the Machine
Travelling to Italy for Florence’s inaugural test match, it’s safe to say South Africa were a nation in rugby confusion; however, Conor O’Shea’s new look Italy changed confusion into unmitigated panic as the Springboks contrived to lose to a defining display from the Azzurri.
Tom Shanklin believes this shows what a new voice brings to an international changing room.
“Conor O’Shea is both a motivator and an exceptional tactician,” he observed.
“He got a baptism of fire by facing New Zealand as his first international Test, and whilst he and his team would have learned a lot from that, Conor would have noted South Africa’s weaknesses in their other matches and it’s clear he saw the basic gameplan they were employing, and planned to negate that with the physical Italian forwards.
“Italy always provide a very distinct challenge. You cannot underestimate the power and organization of their pack and defence, nor can you ever take your eyes off the amazing Sergio Parisse, who is still their icon and defines the phrase ‘game-changer.’
“Sides that have lost to Italy have made the grave error of trying to put them away too early. This rarely happens and honest teams understand you need to break them down up front with power and low risk rugby before you can start playing expansively.
“I don’t believe the Bokke quite accepted that and perhaps they took those early exchanges for granted,” concluded Shanklin.
“This is a watershed moment for South Africa. Good teams attack both physically and intellectually, using power when needed but intelligence to underpin power.
“At the moment, as Lewis Moody observed last week, South Africa are using the most basic version of their very physical game plan and totally abdicating any form of intellectual approach. They are a power machine but by definition, far too mechanical and they are acting with little rugby IQ.
“This is evidenced by the fact they are comfortable attacking bodies, but are not looking to create or attack space and it’s clear that they have no real strategy or Plan B when the battering ram approach fails and it’s both clear and also concerning they’re not selecting for anything other than a route one gameplan.
“Conor and Italy saw this weakness; they used quick changes of direction and multiple points of attack to move the heavy South Africans around the pitch; Parisse’s ability to act in the receiver channel was absolutely key to this and he and Carlo Canna created a lot of confusion in the Springbok defence by varying the challenge through kicks, chips, contact and running plays, something that the Springboks could learn from.
“All in all, it’s a great result for rugby per se but an unmitigated disaster for the proudest of rugby nations, South Africa, who need to really examine just what they need to do to succeed and moreover, thinking about what they’re doing,” noted Shanklin.
Japan’s emergence as one of the strongest Tier 2 rugby nations has been something near meteoric in the last few years. A side that combines technique with pace and organization, the Brave Blossoms are a side not to be underestimated, as Wales found out on Saturday.
Shanklin confesses to be somewhat nonplussed by his home team’s display and questions Wales’ approach running into the match.
“Wales are suffering a similar malaise to South Africa, but maybe not quite as dramatically,” he observed.
“For eight years now, we’ve known precisely what to expect from the team; a power game played at pace with a rush defence with a couple of individual match-winners like Shane Williams and George North who are able to change the dynamics in the later stages as the game becomes more deconstructed.
“I saw this fixture as a platform to implement new tactics, to look to develop an alternate style, yet what we saw was a version of ‘same old, same old’ and as the game unfolded, it was clear that it was a very tired and poorly executed version of that traditional approach, which was very disappointing.
“There are some very basic things going wholly wrong; defensive exit strategies are unclear, our tries conceded statistics are abysmal and there’s a real worry we’ve lost the ability to think and react to the game around us,” explained Shanklin, a player that was noted for his rugby intellect.
“Put simply, teams know how to cope with us now and whilst our physical challenge remains, our mental challenge of the opposition is at large.
“In our three games thus far, how many times have we seen carriers isolated? Australia, New Zealand and England have player after player running angles off the carrier to offer continuity. Wales simply are not doing that and it seems like we’ve lost the ability to play the pacey game of a few year’s ago.
“I want to see an intent to create an alternative model; something that uses the skill sets of Liam and Scott Williams, with Justin Tipuric used to link, support and carry.
“England, under Eddie Jones, have transformed their rugby thinking and shown an ability to attack space that’s almost unheard of in their game and Wales need to follow suit,” noted Shanklin.
“Japan, well they are so disciplined and technically good that they will push many good sides, and it was a privilege to host them and see further progress.
“However, unless Wales and the under-pressure Rob Howley commit to changing the Welsh mindset, we are facing a difficult Six Nations campaign and I feel for the players, who are not being challenged to change or improve their thinking.”
In Dublin, Ireland predictably caught the backlash of New Zealand’s anger at losing against their hosts in Chicago and despite a doughty showing from the Irish, the All Black physicality and pace was compelling.
“Watching that game I was cringing at the power of the All Black hits,” shuddered Shanklin.
“It was absolutely brutal out there, one of the most intense Tests I’ve seen for a long time. It was definitely on the line of the laws and Ireland were almost battered out of the match.
“However, there’s a big difference here; I mentioned earlier about game strategies and structure. Good sides have a framework that players can fit into, and Ireland, losing three key men in CJ Stander, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw, showed they have this structure when other players such as the outstanding Garry Ringrose came on and immediately fitted into the structure and delivered.
“The biggest difference was the All Black precision in the ‘red zone’. There was a period of 20 minutes of sustained attack from Ireland that resulted in three points.
“They turned down try opportunities to kick for goal, something that is questionable in terms of moral and scoreboard. Contrast that with the All Black incursions into the Ireland 22, which yielded tries in every instance.
“It’s clear that New Zealand, despite their personnel changes, are a distance in front of the pack right now. Players fit into their simple structure with intuition, pride and physicality and I don’t think any side would claim to be their equal currently.
“However, Ireland were immense in defeat and that’s a testimony to the structure, strategy and intellect that has become a theme in my observations this week,” noted Shanklin.
Australia meanwhile will take the headlines in France after narrowly defeating Les Bleus in a passionate encounter. It was a close match and Tom Shanklin was delighted to see both flair and power present in both sides’ showings.
“Look, France have been the most infuriating under-achievers in rugby for a number of years now. Lack of selectiorial consistency, wayward strategies and daft selections have hampered any form of progress, but with Guy Novès at the helm I can see a pragmatism that’s not been evident up until now.
“Australia used the game to try a few new faces and develop their gameplan, yet still won, again underlining my theme of having a continuous structure that players fit into.
“There’s a few question marks over the Wallaby scrum; I think they failed to win one scrum all night and when Rabah Slimani came on, they really struggled.
“I was delighted to see Gaël Fickou and Wesley Fofana united in the centre towards the end of the game as many observers have wanted this combination for a long time.
“However, on the subject of centres, the finish from the incredible Tevita Kuridrani was one for the scrapbook and one we’d all be telling our grandchildren about,” quipped Shanklin.
“France are improving. They are playing a more expansive game under Novès and it will be very interesting to see how they take that form on the road during the Six Nations.”
Keeping Up with the Jones
In London, England’s rise continued as they disposed of a gifted Fijian side with style. Tom Shanklin admits to a grudging respect of his old enemies, and is quick to praise the men from his former club, Saracens.
“Everything good for England is coming from a Saracens spine of the Vunipola brothers and Owen Farrell with Bath’s George Ford orchestrating the show,” he explained.
“Farrell in particular is maturing into a real rugby intellect, tough as old boots but with the ability to work with his long-time friend, George Ford to create some sumptuous rugby.
“They also used the chance to try some new faces, with Semesa Rokoduguni and Alex Goode laying down impressive markers.
“As always, Fiji will suffer from time together and budget, but it was wonderful to see how this proud nation always embrace the sportsmanship of the game. They are lovely folk and one hopes they get the chance and budget to improve further in the 15-man game.”
The Week Ahead
Elsewhere, Scotland recorded an impressive win against Los Pumas and Georgia built upon their claims to dispose of Samoa by a score. With all of the major nations in action this weekend, Shanklin doesn’t expect any major upsets, particularly in Wales.
“I know both sides are going through a rough patch right now, but Wales will have that little bit more firepower at home and I expect them to dispose of South Africa in a very physical game,” Shanklin believes.
“England detractors may see a potential banana skin with the improving Argentineans visiting Twickenham, but the hosts are on fire at the moment and I expect England to put 20 points on their visitors.
“Despite the battered personnel in the Irish camp, they’ll thrive from their showings against the world champions and I believe they’ll take Australia by a score or more. The one that is always a hard one to call is France against New Zealand; as silly as it sounds if the All Blacks have a bogey side it’s the French!
“I don’t expect anything but a convincing win for the Kiwis but you never say never when these two nations meet,” laughed Shanklin.
Once again, we come to the end of Expert Witness for this week. We are delighted to announce our guest on the next installment will be former England fly-half Rob Andrew MBE, making his first media appearance since retiring from RFU duty earlier in the year.
Tom Shanklin was a gifted centre in the colours of Wales, Saracens and Cardiff Blues, winning 70 caps and scoring 20 international tries. You can now follow Tom and former England prop David Flatman’s podcast on the game on Twitter @flatsandshanks and https://www.acast.com/flatsandshanks
Tom was speaking to James While