Archive for November, 2013

Saturday November 23, 3 PM Eastern – Stade de France, Paris

This is the match that everyone is waiting for. I cannot wait to see these two packs do battle. Over the years, France has deservedly developed a reputation for being a very inconsistent side. The French have produced forwards and backs of the highest quality, and are capable of playing both a tight, forward-oriented game, as well as an expansive attacking game. The question Saturday, as always, is: which France is going to show up? Historically, France has the best record of any of the European teams against perennial powerhouse New Zealand, and pushed the All Blacks all the way in a losing effort two weeks ago. But Les Bleus are also capable of losing to much weaker teams – for example, Tonga beat them in the group stage of the most recent Rugby World Cup.

The Springboks of South Africa are known for their extreme physicality and uncompromising approach. They tend to rely heavily on their forwards and their tactical kicking – a style which has frequently been criticized as boring. But it is certainly effective – South Africa has won two World Cups and has an immensely proud rugby history. Recently, the Springboks have been playing with a bit more adventure, making use of incredibly talented backs like Willie le Roux and Bryan Habana. Habana was the 2007 International Rugby Board (IRB) Player of the Year, and has recently rediscovered something close to his best form.

South Africa has been playing some incredible rugby this year, and they are stacked with talent throughout the team. The back row of Francois Louw, Willem Alberts, Duane Vermeulen might be the best in the world. Vermeulen is the second-best number 8 in the world behind New Zealand’s Kieran Read, and the margin between them is fairly slim. Hooker Bismarck du Plessis is the best in the world at his position – Australia’s Stephen Moore and Wales’ Richard Hibbard are wonderful players, but for my money, they are not quite in du Plessis’ league. Du Plessis plays like a fourth back-rower, and one thing you can always count on is that South Africa will be ruthless at the breakdown.

In the backs, South African captain and inside center Jean de Villiers is a natural rugby player and just exudes class. Outside him is one of the strongest ball-carrying outside centers in the world, Jaque Fourie.  One negative for the Boks is that they will be without scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, who has been in excellent form. Ruan Pienaar will start in his place.

It will take a Herculean effort for France to beat South Africa, even at home – I really believe the Boks are that good. As a neutral, I hope French captain Thierry Dusautoir has rallied his troops and that they take the game to South Africa from the first minute. If that happens, we are in for a real treat, a brutal game of rugby. I can’t quite see France pulling it off though. South Africa by 3

 

Saturday November 23, 9 AM Eastern – Stadio Olimpico, Rome

As rugby-playing nations, there are many similarities between Italy and Argentina. In both countries, soccer is king – but there are also rugby-mad regions. Italy’s rugby culture is heavily concentrated in the North – Lombardy, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna. The sport is more widely popular in Argentina, but still based in the Greater Buenos Aires area and the northwestern Tucumán Province. Both countries have had to battle to gain acceptance from the world rugby community, and now participate at the highest level of international competition – Italy in the Six Nations (since 2000) and Argentina in the Rugby Championship (since 2012). Both countries are known for their strong forward play, and particularly excellent scrummaging, although Argentina has also produced world-class backs such as Hugo Porta, Agustín Pichot, Felipe Contepomi, and Juan Martín Hernández. Perhaps more than anything else, these two teams are passionate. The emotion on the players’ faces during the national anthems is truly something to behold. Gives me chills every time.

 

Italy comes into this match on the back of a 37-31 victory over Fiji, while Argentina was trounced by Wales 40-6. Italy’s most well-known player is number 8 Sergio Parisse – he is their captain and one of the best in the world at his position. His colleagues Alessandro Zanni and Robert Barbieri are also fine players, and together they form one of the most underrated back rows in international rugby.  Young backs Tommaso Allan and Michele Campagnaro will start for Italy for the first time, at flyhalf and outside center, respectively. Flyhalf has long been a problem position for the Italians, and they will be hoping for an assured performance from the 20-year old Allan.

Meanwhile, Los Pumas are without their inspirational captain Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe and the aforementioned Hernández due to injury. They are also missing first-choice centers Marcelo Bosch and Santiago Fernández, as well as lock Patricio Albacete, due to a release agreement between the players’ clubs and the Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR).

I expect a physical, scrappy encounter with Italy coming out on top due to Argentina’s personnel issues and home-field advantage. Italy by 7

Saturday November 23, 1 PM Eastern – Murrayfield, Edinburgh

Rugby Union is the fastest growing sport in the United States, with an estimated 1.13 million Americans already involved in the game. This number is only going to increase in the years to come. USA Rugby has done a great job investing in the grassroots of the game with Rookie Rugby, and just staged a very successful Test match – they managed to sell out 18,500-capacity PPL Park in Philadelphia with a few weeks to spare, and the Eagles produced a great performance (albeit in an ultimately losing effort) against a very strong Maori All Blacks side.  The full All Blacks are considering playing a Test here in 2014. The Eagles squad features a number of players currently plying their trade at top European clubs – Samu Manoa (Northampton), Chris Wyles (Saracens), and Blaine Scully (Leicester) all play in England, while Scott LaValla plays for Stade Français in Paris. All this without mentioning the inclusion of Rugby Sevens at the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics, and the exposure that will hopefully generate for both Sevens and Union here. So these are exciting times for rugby in America.

But there’s something else the game needs in order to grow here: star players (of any nationality) who are fun to watch not only for their strength, skill, and athleticism, but also for their style, the way they express themselves on and off the field. Look no further than Australia and Western Force winger Nick Cummins. Like Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, he is nicknamed “Honey Badger” for his tenacity, although unlike the diminutive Mathieu, Cummins is a big fella at 6’2″ and 219 pounds. He has become something of a cult figure in Australia for his post-match interviews, in which he dispenses with standard sporting clichés in favor of some delightful Australianisms. In the interview below, which was conducted after the Italy-Australia match two weeks ago, Cummins speaks fondly about how it’s “good to bag a bit of meat – tasted like a bit off the bone, actually.” (“Meat,” in this context, refers to “meat pie” which is rhyming slang for “try.”)

 

But alas, the Honey Badger is not in the Australian team to face Scotland – he was one of six players to be dropped by coach Ewen McKenzie on Monday for engaging in a bit of mid-week boozing before the 32-15 victory over Ireland last weekend. Although there was no alcohol ban or curfew in place, and although there were no reports of inappropriate conduct, McKenzie felt that the players in question had had a few too many and stayed out too late, and decided he needed to send a message that he is serious about establishing a professional team culture. Rugby went professional in 1995, but it still retains some of its amateur roots, especially with regard to teams getting into a bit of mischief while on tour. So I empathize with the players, but I can understand McKenzie’s perspective as well.

This long-winded introduction brings us to the game itself. In addition to the alcohol-related suspensions of Cummins and Adam Ashley-Cooper, inside center Matt Toomua is injured, and outside center Tevita Kuridrani is serving a five-week ban for an illegal tackle he made against Ireland. The result is four enforced changes in the backline – Mike Harris and Christian Leali’ifano come in at 12 and 13, respectively, while Chris Feauai-Sautia and Joe Tomane start on the wings. As Leali’ifano has never played senior rugby at 13 (usually considered the most difficult position defensively), when defending against Scotland, Australia may drop flyhalf Quade Cooper out of the line, with the backs outside him moving in one position. That would leave Harris and Leali’ifano at 10 and 12, where they have considerable experience, and Feauai-Sautia at 13, where he started five games for the Queensland Reds in Super Rugby this year. It will be interesting to see if this makeshift backline can be effective on Saturday.

The Australian pack is unchanged – they have been deservedly criticized this season, but produced a much better performance against Ireland. They will have to conjure up another huge effort against the Scottish pack. For the Scots, lock Jim Hamilton is a guy who, as the Aussies would say, provides real mongrel – exactly what Australia has frequently lacked of late. He is a hulking figure at 6’8″ and 275 pounds, and plays a very aggressive and confrontational style. In the back row, blindside Johnnie Beattie and openside Kelly Brown, who captains the side, are good, honest grafters, while number 8 David Denton is a major ball-carrying threat.

The Scots defended bravely for long periods against South Africa last week, but were completely outclassed by a very good Springbok team. I expect to see an improved performance this weekend. If the Scots are to beat Australia, their pack will need to provide a rock-solid platform for their unsteady backline. Murrayfield is one of world rugby’s great stadiums, and the crowd will lift the Scottish players. Finally, it remains to be seen what effect the distraction of the six players being suspended may have on the Australians. I see Scotland keeping this one close for 60 minutes before Australia pulls away. It may require a moment of magic from Cooper or Israel Folau to break the Scottish resolve. Australia by 10

Friday November 22, 2:30 PM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

The fourth weekend of the Autumn Internationals gets underway Friday evening as a new-look Wales takes on Tonga. Wales has been hit hard by injuries, particularly in the backs, so Warren Gatland will start with Ashley Beck and Owen Williams (who have only 8 caps between them) in the centers, while 19-year old Hallam Amos makes his debut on the wing.

With one eye on the match against Australia next weekend, Gatland has also shuffled his pack – only Rhodri Jones at tighthead and Justin Tipuric at openside keep their places from the match against Argentina. Paul James and Ken Owens come in at loosehead and hooker, respectively, while there is an all-new second row combination of Luke Charteris and Ian Evans. In the back row, Andrew Coombs replaces Sam Warburton at blindside, and Ryan Jones replaces Toby Faletau at number 8. (Coombs may yet succumb to a back injury, in which case Dan Lydiate is likely to start.) In Warburton’s absence, Jones will captain the side, as he has done on 32 previous occasions.

Of all the changes to the Welsh team, the most interesting both for Welsh supporters and neutrals is the inclusion of the extremely talented James Hook at flyhalf. In recent years Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland have been preferred to Hook, who now plays his club rugby in France at Perpignan. Former Wales flyhalf (and now BBC pundit) Jonathan Davies has recently advocated for the inclusion of the versatile Hook, calling him a “natural rugby player,” and saying: “I think he plays well in open, loose games where he’s just reactive to what’s coming at him and he does have great instinct.”

It is likely to be just that sort of game, and I expect Hook to shine. Tonga will bring their trademark physicality and aggression, but if Wales can weather the storm over the first 20 minutes or so, they should run away with this one. Wales by 20+

 

 

The Tongan war dance - the Sipi Tau

The Tongan pre-match war dance – the Sipi Tau