Ahead of another fascinating weekend of international action, Planet Rugby takes a look at the big stories to follow.
A brave Springboks selection
Madness or genius? We will find out this weekend as a much-changed South Africa side hosts Wales following their narrow victory in the first Test in Pretoria. There was a certain amount of surprise when Jacques Nienaber altered 14 of his starting line-up for this weekend’s clash and there is a significant chance that it could backfire. It is not the individual quality of the players that have been brought in but just the sheer disruption that many alterations can bring.
No doubt South African fans will remember their clash with the Welsh in Washington in 2018 when they named seven debutants, produced an error-strewn display and duly succumbed 22-20. There is a risk history could repeat itself but, listening to head coach Nienaber, the logic is pretty sound. These players – particularly the talented younger ones such as Evan Roos who may be commanding a regular first team place soon – need to be challenged and put under pressure.
The question is whether playing them in a potentially disjointed Springbok team is the right way to go about it. A win with a solid performance and the coaches are vindicated but a loss, where the side fails to gel, and they may regret their decision to experiment. It would not just be the end result but also what they will have learnt from the clash. Is this an environment where those individuals can really thrive? If not then they will have done those players a disservice but, equally, there is an outstanding brains trust in South African rugby at the moment who are smart and innovative, and are quite rightly trusted by their fans and hierarchy.
England’s playmaking conundrum
There was criticism for the 10-12 axis, with England not really firing a shot in attack until the game was lost, but we feel it is worth persisting with at the moment. Many thought that Owen Farrell was too dominant, taking the reins at pivot far too often despite not being in the primary playmaking slot, but that wasn’t down to ego, it was by design.
That is how they approached it in their only previous match together – coincidently against Australia in November – and it resulted in a well-constructed score for Freddie Steward. The idea is to get the more fleet-footed and creative Marcus Smith in the wider channels so that he can use his pace, footwork and short passing game to find holes where the defence is usually more stretched.
However, it wasn’t convincing in the first Test and the decision-making was rather muddled. Even so, it is only one match and more time together in training may benefit them in the second encounter. A lot rides on this partnership for Eddie Jones, though, who is shaping his attack around these two forming an effective combination. The early signs haven’t been great but this isn’t the only issue in this England side.
Ireland’s response to chastening first Test defeat
It was surprising how mistake-ridden Andy Farrell’s men were in the opening Test and they will need to tighten up in a few areas. Ireland were excellent in the early stages, scoring a well-worked try, but they failed to maintain that pace in attack. It was as though they couldn’t live with New Zealand’s speed and tempo, both with and without the ball, and as a result they began to make errors.
With the Irish so good at resourcing the ruck and getting their cleanout right, it was a shock to see their attacking structure break down so often. It is a relatively simple facet for the tourists to fix, given how good they have been at it over the past year, but it is vital they do so otherwise the All Blacks will dominate yet again.
Ireland have made huge strides over recent times and it would be unfortunate to waste that. This has ultimately become a significant Test for Farrell’s charges, considering what happened in the opening game, and another heavy loss would be a big step backwards in their preparations for the 2023 World Cup.
Argentina hoping to avoid another false dawn
It was a good start for Los Pumas under the stewardship of Michael Cheika, but the former Australia head coach is well aware that there is plenty still to be done. Under Mario Ledesma, Argentina secured some impressive results, including beating the All Blacks for the first time ever, but they never really kicked on.
Top quality performances were few and far between with Ledesma in the hotseat and Cheika has certainly set about improving some of their fundamentals. In the first clash against Scotland, their set-piece work was better, they competed well at the breakdown and generally the decision-making was improved.
Los Pumas’ head honcho will no doubt seek a significant improvement, however, as they did let the visitors back into the game in the second period. Credit to the hosts for responding and sealing a victory their performance deserved but Cheika will look to eradicate those lapses in concentration. On paper, Argentina have a very competitive squad and securing a series win over the Scots will be a step in the right direction.
France to continue to display superb depth against Japan
With the start of the Rugby World Cup in France just over a year away, the host nation will be quietly confident ahead of the global showpiece as Les Bleus are in a rich vein of form under the guidance of head coach Fabien Galthie.
Despite leaving world-class players like Gregory Alldritt, Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille and Uini Atonio at home for their two-Test series against Japan, France are still very competitive and clinched a deserved 42-23 victory against the Brave Blossoms in Toyota in the series opener last weekend.
That encounter saw captain Charles Ollivon and other Les Bleus squad regulars like Demba Bamba, Melvyn Jaminet, Damian Penaud, Matthieu Jalibert, Dylan Cretin and Virimi Vakatawa leading the way, but it was performances from fringe players like Yoram Moefana, Matthis Lebel, Yoan Tanga, Pierre Bourgarit which showcased the depth in their ranks.
Although Japan were competitive during the early stages of that Test, France gained control of proceedings as the match progressed and, in the end, the 19-point winning margin was a fair reflection of the match as Les Bleus held the upper hand in most departments. The victory means France now have nine successive wins and with several of those fringe players hungry for action and keen to impress Galthie, they should extend their unbeaten run to 10 matches when these sides meet in Tokyo on Saturday for the second Test.
Australia v England second Test Preview
Planet Rugby preview the second Test between Australia and England in Brisbane.