The Planet Rugby awards: Recapping the July Tests as Ireland, Chile and Georgia make history

Colin Newboult

Following a thrilling few weeks of Test action, Planet Rugby delves into some of the key players, teams and moments from the July internationals.

Best team: Ireland

No surprises first off as Ireland came into their series against New Zealand with ample hope after improvements in the Six Nations under Andy Farrell, but few could have predicted just how dominant they would be. Their first Test 42-19 scoreline defeat did not do them justice and so it proved as back-to-back victories thereafter blew the All Blacks out of the park.

To a man the Irish were excellent as the likes of Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton rolled back the years in a series win that brought tears from the former at full-time in Wellington. To achieve two firsts – a debut triumph in New Zealand followed by series glory – is outstanding from Farrell’s men and they will take so much from the past month, especially with a Rugby World Cup edging ever closer. They are serious challengers.

Best game: Argentina v Scotland third Test

Argentina claimed a narrow series win thanks to a 34-31 victory in a thrilling third Test. The Scots controlled the first 50 minutes before a second-half flurry from Los Pumas had Michael Cheika’s men within striking distance. Edinburgh wing Emiliano Boffelli was then on hand to ironically down Scotland after the final hooter with a converted try.

Ireland’s successive triumphs over the All Blacks were considered for this gong and were obviously played at a higher level than this clash, while the two matches between Chile and the USA were equally thrilling, but for sheer drama and excitement, the Argentina v Scotland decider had it all.

Best player: Tadhg Beirne (Ireland)

The Irish second-row was a colossus against the All Blacks in all three games but he left his best performance for the series decider, where he made 18 tackles, nine carries and three turnovers. His influence was most felt at the lineout, where he orchestrated a total deconstruction of the All Blacks set-piece – central to Ireland creating history.

Beirne was an inspiring figure, working hard on the field to make a difference, including a clutch interception in midfield when the All Blacks were gathering momentum in the third Test. The lock etched his name in history with a series of superb displays.

Best try: Rodrigo Fernandez (Chile v USA)

Fly-half Fernandez was one of Chile’s heroes during their Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification campaign and he made his mark with an outstanding piece of individualism during the first match of their two-legged Rugby World Cup play-off against the USA in Santiago. With their more fancied visitors holding a 12-6 lead, Los Condores needed a reaction and that came in the 51st minute when Fernandez left his stamp on the match in spectacular fashion on a wet and muddy pitch.

Despite the atrocious conditions, the 26-year-old gathered a kick just outside his 22 before setting off on a run. He soon had his opponents at sixes and sevens as he beat several Eagles defenders before crashing over for an outstanding five-pointer.

July’s defining result: Georgia beating Italy

There were wild celebratory scenes after Georgia sealed a shock 28-19 triumph over Italy in Batumi on July 10. Both countries fielded close to full-strength teams and it was a big statement from the Lelos as it was their first victory against a tier one nation. They have been knocking on the door for several years for an invitation to the Six Nations and it was significant that they registered that win against the Azzurri.

Italy have been perennial underachievers in the Six Nations and are the side which many critics feel should lose their spot in that prestigious tournament to Georgia. Although that is unlikely to happen soon, the Lelos have certainly made their presence felt with that result and hopefully we’ll see a promotion/relegation match introduced as part of the Six Nations soon.

Breakout star: Tommy Reffell (Wales)

Leicester Tigers star Tommy Reffell burst onto the scene in South Africa as his debut was followed up by two more excellent showings. The flanker was brilliant, showing an immense work rate in all three Tests whilst frustrating the Springboks at the breakdown with his impressive jackaling. There were periods when the world champions had no answer for his work at the contract area.

He is an impressive find for head coach Wayne Pivac and rounded out the series with a try in the third Test that kept Wales in the game. Reffell seems like a player that can continue to flourish in the international arena, driven by his constantly high tackle count which makes him an asset to any team as he proved in the hostile conditions in South Africa.

Best debut: Henry Arundell (England)

Teenage sensation Arundell has caught the world’s attention since his outrageous try for London Irish, and the young speedster did not stop there after sparkling in a short cameo on debut. Arundell was subbed on in the first Test with only seven minutes to go and produced magic with his first touch, scoring a magnificent try that saw him bust through two defenders before skipping around the last tackler to score.

The youngster would go on to feature in all three Tests, and if his debut is anything to go by, England have a spectacular talent in their ranks. Eddie Jones likened Arundell to Bryan Habana and David Campese, which points towards a brilliant talent that could prosper at Test level.

Best comeback story: Gareth Anscombe

That second Test delight for Wales must have tasted extra sweet for Anscombe as he capped a remarkable comeback from injury to win a key international with almost the last kick of the match in Bloemfontein. The versatile back has suffered a great deal with injury of late, having needed his leg to be realigned after he broke his tibia, making his return to such an elite level that much more remarkable.

His cameo in that second Test was pivotal in Wales winning the game and we are delighted to see Anscombe back on the rugby field playing so well as he’s an outstanding player with an excellent rugby brain. Let’s hope he now gets a good run injury free.

Most improved team: Samoa

Few fancied Samoa to win this year’s Pacific Nations Cup on Fijian soil but they proved everyone wrong as they beat Australia A, Tonga and the host nation en route to glory. Ray Niuia and Seilala Lam impressed with three tries in the tournament while Nigel Ah Wong finished on two, with Rodney Iona kicking 19 points in the two games he featured in.

Having Jordan Taufua now eligible is a massive boost for the Samoans while Premiership followers will know the qualities Theo McFarland and Chris Vui possess, with these July showings a huge confidence booster as a World Cup pool alongside England, Japan, Argentina and Chile awaits.

Man under pressure: Ian Foster (New Zealand)

That’s for sure. The knives are most certainly out for head coach Foster after a hugely disappointing month from the All Blacks. There’s been damning calls from former players and even from rugby’s other code as the heat intensifies on Steve Hansen’s successor.

Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has long been touted as the heir apparent for New Zealand’s top job but it seems Foster might survive with it so close to the World Cup. However, a poor Rugby Championship could change that.

Biggest concern: USA’s World Cup blow

They still have the opportunity to reach the global tournament but their result against Chile was not really acceptable for a country that will host the 2031 event. When Japan were announced as hosts for the 2019 World Cup there were similar concerns, but the Brave Blossoms managed to get their act together and shine at their home tournament.

Can the USA do the same? Well, they’re certainly starting from further back and their professional league is still in the primitive stages of its development. Japan, by comparison, had a well-established club set-up, which the US simply doesn’t have at the moment. Let’s hope the union gets its act together and taps into the potential the country clearly has, otherwise it will be an embarrassing tournament for them in nine years’ time.

Biggest mistake: Scotland not taking the points in third Test

Scotland were in control of their third Test clash before Argentina mounted a comeback to move to within touching distance of the visitors. However, Gregor Townsend’s men regained their composure and got back inside the opposition 22. That pressure earned a very kickable penalty, which would have given them a seven-point lead with just a few minutes to go.

Yes, Los Pumas still could have drawn but taking the shot at goal would have challenged the belief of the hosts and potentially sealed the win for the Scots. Instead, the Argentines put in a fine defensive set, cleared their lines and gained real momentum, leading to Boffelli’s series-clinching score. It looked an odd decision at the time and so it proved as Scotland succumbed to a disappointing loss.

Spirit of rugby: Dan Biggar

The Wales fly-half and current captain has been a real credit to himself and his country over the past month. He has taken the responsibility that the role of skipper brings by being incredibly honest in his press conferences and producing a number of classy moments.

Biggar firstly spoke of the privilege of playing at Loftus Versfeld in the immediate aftermath, despite an agonising defeat. He then praised – unprompted – Springbok greats Eben Etzebeth and Bongi Mbonambi for reaching their respective milestones before – again spontaneously – revealing how much he had enjoyed playing in South Africa after the third match.

These, to some, may be obvious things to say, while sceptics will claim he was simply currying favour with the South Africans, but that has never been Biggar’s style and he was ultimately speaking from the heart. He has proven himself to be a great man off the field, as well as an outstanding fly-half on it.

Biggest talking point: Red cards and high shots

Ireland’s second Test with New Zealand saw one player red carded and another two sin-binned, all in the first half. Leicester Fainga’anuku, who was given a yellow, and Angus Ta’avao were both sanctioned for dangerous tackles after making contact with the head of Ireland players. Much of the conjecture, however, centred around Ta’avao’s sending off when he had a head-on-head collision with Garry Ringrose.

Some thought it was harsh, querying what the All Blacks prop could do about the incident, while England head coach Jones went a step further and stated something needed to be done about TMO interventions. A few days later and Ireland prop Andrew Porter was only yellow carded for another head-on-head tackle, leading to much consternation in New Zealand. Porter was cited but subsequently cleared – to the surprise of many – and it certainly does raise the question over consistency.

It is a debate that will continue but World Rugby are right to clamp down on these types of tackles, especially in light of the awful news about Ryan Jones. However, some clarity needs to be provided around the laws.

Overachievers: Chile

Although it was a fantastic achievement that Chile have advanced to next year’s Rugby World Cup in France, very few people would have predicted that they would attain that goal at the start of their qualification process which started in July 2021. After seeing off Colombia over two legs of their initial South American qualifiers, which involves that continent’s bottom-ranked nations, Los Condores advanced to the South American Championship where they competed against Uruguay and Brazil.

Uruguay won that competition before reaching the 2023 World Cup – after winning their play-off against the USA – while the Chileans went into a play-off against Canada, who they beat 54-46 on aggregate over two legs. That set up another play-off between Chile and the USA and despite losing the opening match narrowly – 22-21 – in Santiago, Los Condores bounced back with a 31-29 triumph over the Eagles in Colorado to seal their spot at a Rugby World Cup for the first time. An incredible story.

Underachievers: Tonga

With the likes of Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau and Israel Folau included in their squad after World Rugby’s eligibility change – which gives players permission to change their allegiance after a three-year stand-down period – there was plenty of excitement ahead of Tonga’s Pacific Nations Cup campaign.

That excitement proved to be a false dawn, however, as neither of the aforementioned trio made an impact as Tonga went down 36-0 to Fiji in their opener. The trio were not in action again during the rest of the competition and they suffered further defeats to Samoa (34-18) and Australia A (39-22) which meant they finished at the bottom of the standings. There’s plenty of work to do for head coach Toutai Kefu ahead of their Rugby World Cup qualifier against Hong Kong on Australia’s Sunshine Coast on July 23.

READ MORE: Loose Pass Unpacks Chile’s win over USA that booked Rugby World Cup ticket and that Andrew Porter decision

 

July Internationals awards

Planet Rugby picks award winners from the July Internationals.