Expert Witness: November Tests

Date published: November 20 2014

Our Expert Witness for this week is former French international centre Brian Liebenberg.

As France recorded a famous win against Australia in Paris, it’s apt that this week’s Expert Witness is former French centre, Brian Liebenberg who returns to the chair to cast his eye over the events of the second round of November Tests.

With Wales stuttering to overcome a skilled Fijian outfit, England’s dreams trampled in the Twickenham mud by South Africa and Scotland showing remarkable fortitude in a close game against New Zealand, the big performance of the weekend came from France and was epitomised by the power and pace of Teddy Thomas, their sensational find on the wing.

“Teddy is an exceptional player,” noted Liebenberg.

“His try-scoring record is already right up there. Yes, there’s a few defensive fragilities but when you have that amount of firepower you have to give the lad his head and that try showed exactly what he’s capable of,” he remarked.

“It’s ironic that France, through enforced changes, are starting to find a combination that really works. The counterpoint in midfield of Fofana and impact sub Mathieu Bastareaud, the game management of new fly-half Camille Lopez and the power of the back five of the pack are all looking like ingredients for success for France.

“The key man for me was Lopez. He showed maturity beyond his years and a variety in his game that allowed him to combine with both the forwards and the backs alike.

“Australia are an immensely intelligent side, probably only second to New Zealand in terms of their thinking on the pitch. Yet Lopez gave them a lot of problems from different parts of the field,” smiled the former French inside centre.

“However, the Wallabies didn’t assist themselves by their selection. The difference Quade Cooper and Will Genia made when entering the fray was remarkable; pace and urgency returned and if there had been another few minutes on the clock the result may have been different.”

France still have a lot of players sidelined for various reasons. Seasoned internationals like Morgan Parra, Thomas Domingo and Louis Picamoles are all unavailable but Liebenberg believes that this will only serve to strengthen the French ranks.

“We’re getting to a point where’s there’s real depth to the selectorial thinking. As an example, Saturday’s back row were brilliant; Dusautoir his usual sublime self, Chouly a powerhouse and Bernard Le Roux everywhere. Yet we’ve still got the likes of Picamoles and Nyanga, proven performers, to come back into the side.

“In short, for the first time in a long while, I feel very confident that France will be competitive in the lead up to the World Cup,” remarked Liebenberg.

At Twickenham, England lost to a streetwise South African side that refused to give in to the power and grit of a doughty England side. However, Liebenberg believes that the learning curve is now over for England and wins are now of paramount importance for Stuart Lancaster’s men.

“We’ve now heard three seasons of rhetoric from England about learning and culture. That’s fine but they’re not developing a winning habit. This is not about final exams, it’s about making sure your coursework has an A* in every element,” he explained.

“If you look at the match stats they are quite frightening; 65% possession to England, 96% set piece completion, 92% ruck completion and only one tackle missed in 107 attempts! That’s outstanding and reading those, you’d expect a 20-point winning margin.

“But their issue is efficiency, or rather lack of it. Break test rugby down and you should be looking for a minimum of seven points for every five minutes spent in the 22 of the opposition. There are no prizes for territorial and possession dominance and quite frankly the way England are finishing, most opponents are prepared to let them keep the ball and take their scores from turnovers and English mistakes,” said Liebenberg.

“You then have to look at decision making. Let’s examine Danny Care, a man with 50 caps; his pass for the intercept try may as well have been announced with a press release. He was guilty not only of stepping twice before passing, but once he had shuffled the ONLY option available was that pass. He’d closed off every other play that had existed earlier, so any centre worth his salt would have gambled on that interception.

“Further, England’s one great strength is their push defence. They are exceptional in this area and press with great speed and momentum. However, the easiest way to unlock a push is with a chip and catch or grubber kick, exactly the play SA made. The defending scrum-half is the key man here and should be corner flagging behind the push to sweep the kick. Care had a key role there and his absence led to another Springbok score,” noted Liebenberg, a man famed for the organization and power of his defence.

“South Africa need a lot of credit for their rugby IQ. They identified the weakness in the push defence and they were also happy to let England bosh the ball up all day safe in the knowledge that England’s attacking impotence and lack of tactical awareness would let them back into the game.

“With ten tests before the World Cup, England will be very, very worried. And the biggest concern will be the lack of shape and rugby IQ that’s blighting their game,” remarked Liebenberg.

Scotland perhaps put in the surprise performance of the weekend. Driven by the skill and power of the Gray brothers in the second row they ran a second string New Zealand side right down to the wire, something not many would have predicted.

“Second-string New Zealand?” queried Liebenberg.

“Well I’ll take a back row of Vito, Cane and McCaw to any test match and I’d be quite comfortable with Dan Carter slotting in at ten,” he laughed.

“Being serious, those names alone should underline the magnitude of the Scottish display. There’s no such thing as an All Black second team and the performance of Jeremy Thrush proved that, who was outstanding all night.

“When you look at the difference between New Zealand and other sides, it’s about how players fit into a rugby culture and into pre-existing systems. It’s almost a seamless transition.

“All of their players are so comfortable with ball in hand; look at how Victor Vito exploded through the Scots defence in the first quarter; he’s spent a lot of his career playing Sevens and it showed,” observed Liebenberg.

“Scotland will be buoyed by this and Vern Cotter’s experience in European rugby is already shining through. Like England, they’ve put in the performances but need perhaps the results now. However, if you look where Scotland are now compared to where they were a year or so back then you’ll note a marked improvement.”

Wales seem to rock from crisis to crisis and Saturday was no exception when they struggled to dispose of second tier nation Fiji, in a game described by Warren Gatland as a ‘dogfight’.

“Again we see a Northern Hemisphere side failing to use possession,” remarked Liebenberg.

“Wales’ lack of