The Road to Rugby World Cup begins

Paul Toia analyses the week gone in the International Test arena

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The international rugby season had a soft opening on the weekend as it rekindled the traditional Northern Hemisphere versus Southern Hemisphere rivalries that roll around at this time each year. With the official international test window opening on November 5, all of this year’s matches take a significant hold on our imagination as we are less than 12 months from the Rugby World Cup kicking off in Japan this September.

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Recently Australia and New Zealand played the third Bledisloe Cup match at Nissan Stadium in Yokohama and took the opportunity to train at their respective World Cup bases for a week either side of the game.

Japan Captain Michael Leitch in action against New Zealand

A young All Blacks team followed up the Australian thrashing with a comprehensive victory of Japan in Tokyo. There was no Beauden Barrett or Kieran Read in the side with 22 changes being rung from the 23 that had played the week before.

Yet the Brave Blossoms were no match for the power and precision of the aspiring talent on display hoping to impress the coaches enough to get a seat on the plane to next year’s Rugby World Cup.

In Edinburgh, Wales and Scotland played the inaugural Doddie Weir Cup celebrating that player’s indomitable spirit in the face of a debilitating motor neurone disease while also preparing for the upcoming battles with their southern counterparts.

Action from the Scotland v Wales clash last weekend

The Welsh dominated the contact area, and defended with confidence and line speed, to leave the Scottish attack looking ponderous and lateral. The lack of penetration had the Scottish halves too often kicking the ball away when they ran out of options. Welsh tries may have come from gaps that opened at the outside centre channelbut it was the work done up the middle by the forwards that compressed the defence and committed numbers around the ruck.

England scraped past South Africa at a jam packed, Swing Low singing Twickenham in an error strewn performance that saw the Africans score the only try of the match.

The first half was dominated by the Springboks whoconsistently crossed the gain line, bossed possession and territory. They were undone by errant throws at a couple of line outs five metres from the English try line against 14 defenders.

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Knock-ons and dropped balls robbed the game of any semblance of finesse and as the game wore on so did the starch in England’s defence. The attacking box kick employed by so many north of the equator edged the English within kicking range of the posts andsaw them take a 12-11 lead into the final 10 minutes.

The high tackle by England captain Owen Farrell at the brink of the full time whistle

The Boks had one chance to take the lead with a shot at goal shaving the wrong side of the upright. Then with time up on the clock a shoulder charge by the English captain, Owen Farrell, saw referee Angus Gardner rule that the high shot would go unpunished.

The relief on the sidelines and in the stands could be seen with England’s Australian coach, Eddie Jones, punching the air as his side had won a tight contest against a team that outplayed them for long sections of the game.

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Meanwhile in Chicago, U.S.A. the Irish and the Italians played as the headline act in a festival of rugby at Solider Field. The Black Ferns, New Zealand’s world champion women’s rugby team, took on their United States sisters before the All Black Maori played the U.S.A Eagles as part two of the tripleheader.

With many of Ireland’s stars being either rested or with club commitments, we saw many of the Emerald Isle’s future stars showing the coaches that they deserve a shot at the big time. Italy showed endeavour and enthusiasm but they were no match for the Irish over 80 minutes. Their skill accuracy and game clarity opened up the Azzurris defence around the rucks, on the edges and even straight through the middle.

France, Argentina, Australia, Tonga and Fiji join the action in the coming weeks as teams start to jostle for any advantage they can in their run into next year’s glamour event, the ninth Rugby World Cup.

Figure 1A much anticipated clash! England will play hosts to the All Blacks this week at Twickenham

Scotland versus Fiji, England versus New Zealand, Australia versus Wales, Ireland versus Argentina, France versus South Africa, Italy versus Georgia, Samoa versus U.S.A. are all being played on the weekend of November 10 with a plethora of matches to follow in the coming weeks.