With Scotland and the All Blacks producing one of their best Tests in recent times and England continuing their winning form Expert Witness is pleased to welcome back former Wales number eight Michael Owen to preview the big game in Cardiff and the weekend ahead.
Few gave Gregor Townsend’s men much chance on Saturday against the mighty All Blacks, but impish control from Finn Russell combined with flashes of genius from the magician at 15, Stuart Hogg, pushed the world champions down to the wire in a game of compelling drama.
“It was a crackerjack of a Test!” exclaimed Michael Owen.
“It was one you never wanted to end, where every attack brought threat at pace and both sides should be congratulated for producing a game of such tension.
“It’s a mark of the All Blacks experience and quality when they’ve the ability to repel a side playing with the style and pace of the Scots and, even then, I think Kieran Read and his men were forced to dig very deep to get that win.
“At the centre of Scotland’s excellence were a few of the guys that might have had a case for being disgruntled over Lions’ omissions; John Barclay and Jonny Gray were tireless up front and, crucially, Ali Price and Finn Russell ceded nothing to the more illustrious opponents, Smith and Barrett.
“Scotland will look back and maybe, in the cold light of day, will rue a couple of decisions, especially when down to their reserve front row and calling a scrum in front of the posts; that one moment in itself was huge for both sides; it bolted the door in Scotland’s face and you could almost see the rejuvenation of belief that one scrummage gave to the All Blacks.
“It was a pivotal moment,” noted Owen.
“With a home crowd that must have been worth seven points, it was a stunning advertisement for the game and one that both sides should take great credit from.”
In Cardiff, conversely controversy and collision seemed to be the watchwords of the day as a second string Wales plodded through the mud to eventually dispose of a feisty Georgia 13-6.
As games go, it was an unedifying spectacle, with the last 20 minutes becoming farcical as injured props littered the pitch and uncontested scrummages resulted.
“It really isn’t an adequate way for a Test to end,” smiled Owen.
“In that situation, sin binnings have a huge influence on the game and should penalise the infringing team, but when you then have a degree of uncertainty on the legalities of replacements, the whole dynamic of the game can change,” he observed.
“Without dwelling on the last moments, we have heard a lot recently about Warren Gatland’s drive to play a freer running game, and that’s to be applauded. However, rugby is about a balance; it’s about understanding which tactic to implement at what time.
“When you play sides like Georgia, Italy and Argentina, you have to accept this are very well organised and fit forwards. It’s easy to bow to the weight of public expectation and want to put 40 on them before half time, but before you can do that you need to ‘earn the right’ to go wide.
“By that I mean, you need to tire these big lads out, smash the contact area up a bit, vary the tactics and then, once the opponents are softened up, and also wondering where the attacks will come from, can you then go wide.
“Wales were far too wide early on, allowing a fresh Georgia to keep them very lateral.”
“Looking forward to Saturday, Wales will realise there’s a need not to take a binary approach and play either Plan A or Plan B! That’s a farcical notion.
“We need to play heads up rugby, mixing our point of attack with power, pace and variety, but maintain simplicity and intensity in everything we do.
“Key to this will be the matchup between two pairs of world class half-backs, Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar versus the mercurial Smith and Barrett.
“Both pairings have searing pace (from Webb and Barrett) whilst both Smith and Biggar are masters of varying points of attack, particularly with Biggar’s aerial ability.
“I wouldn’t be surprised, with Wales’ ongoing casualty list, to see the old warhorse Jamie Roberts recalled to offer a steady hand alongside Scott Williams in the midfield, and it’s a great shame that Liam Williams is unavailable to resume his successes of the summer.
“In truth, the Welsh crowd, provided Wales come out firing, will be worth a score to the lads, but it’s a huge ask, and I have a nagging feeling those injuries, which have shorn our options, may just put it out of reach, but I am hopeful of another great game,” concluded Owen.
Australia head to Scotland on Saturday after yet another chastening afternoon at Twickenham, where a dominant display by the hosts did nothing to assuage tempers and mood in the Wallaby Camp:
“England’s unbeaten run is absolute proof of the need of depth in any international rugby squad these days,” noted Owen.
“The depth they have in areas like the front-row and locks, half-back and so on is immense, and is wholly down to the excellent youth and development system England Rugby have invested so heavily in.
“Will Eddie Jones be happy with that? No, I don’t think he will; I believe England still need to find that Hooper-like link man to co-join the backs and forwards and to offer the extra wide man in support; this style of player, a new Neil Back, would be priceless in offering England the pace in continuity their invention sometimes lacks.
“But Eddie will further tinker with his squad depth for the bruising visit of Samoa, and that in itself shows you the luxuries he has at his disposal; the ability to select a team rather than the need to pick a player,” said Owen.
“Australia will travel to Murrayfield hurting from that defeat. They’re a fine side with an exceptional front and back-row, and real power in the midfield and they’ll look back on that 30-6 scoreline thinking ‘that’s not representative of our performance’.
“Scotland equally, despite another long injury list, will be champing at the bit to pick up where the left off last week.
“Key matchups will include the prospect of Bernard Foley, master tactician, versus Finn Russell, the smiling assassin. Russell’s improvement is notable; like Dan Biggar, he imposes his personality on the game and you’ve no doubt who is the boss.
“Where Scotland may struggle to contain the Wallabies is in contact, where the hosts have injuries to their first choice back-row and are faced with the most dynamic trio in world rugby right now.
“In the final analysis, part of me thinks that Scotland may have drained the tank last week whilst Australia are angered and wounded by both their performance and the media shenanigans that followed thereafter.
“I call a 10 point win for Australia, but if Scotland can take their form of last week forward, I may be very wrong!” chuckled Owen.
South Africa’s mental fortitude combined with a strong forward display, saw them overcome a committed French side in Paris and they travel to Italy with some trepidation, having lost the corresponding fixture last year:
“You’d think this would be a shoo-in for South Africa, but here’s a side with wafer-thin confidence right now. Yes, they have it in them but the only consistent thing about their game is their total inconsistency!” quipped Owen.
“Italy have, under Conor O’Shea, de-Parissed themselves a bit, which is a good thing. By that I mean Conor has been quick to use the great man in his best situations, but to develop those other players around him to react, support and take on more responsibility themselves, rather than leaving it all to Parisse.
“O’Shea is also a master tactician and I suspect we’ll see something interesting again tactically from his keen rugby intellect.
“It shouldn’t be enough to beat SA, but the way the Boks are playing who knows what might happen?”
“I also think Ireland will have too much versus Argentina. Ireland haven’t quite suffered the injury woes of Wales and Scotland yet, and Schmidt will be mindful of the need to explore his squad depth and put in a performance this weekend.”
That’s it for this week’s Expert Witness; we thank Michael for his time again and Rob Andrew will re-join us next week to run the rule over the international events of the weekend.
Michael Owen was a rangy, ball handling number eight for the British and Irish Lions and Wales. Noted for a high level of ‘rugby IQ, he played 41 times for Wales and captained the British and Irish Lions versus Argentina in 2005 before a serious knee injury curtailed his impressive career at the age of 29. He is now undertaking his Level 4 Coaching exam whilst working as Director of Rugby at Haileybury School.
Michael was speaking to James While