November 2018 Test Matches

England vs Australia

Saturday, November 24

Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT, 17:00 SA Time
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Alexandre Ruiz (France)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

The Tale of Two Coaches.

Two Australians face off against each other this weekend. Not just any two Aussies, they are two old rugby-clubmates. Back in the 1980s Eddie Jones and Michael Cheika used to pack down for Randwick in Sydney club rugby. They played together back then, now they are playing against each other.

Although the two are old mates, there was no love lost back in 2017 when Eddie took his England team over to Australia to play Michael’s Aussies. Eddie went on the attack, as he is wont to do, with verbal grenades lobbed into the Aussie trenches, vocal flamethrowers scorched his rivals, and some sneak punches were thrown too.

In 2018 we expected a bit of the same. Eddie Jones loves the verbals, the teasing insults, the barbs and stings. He cannot resist a bit of sledging. He loves it even more when his team is the outright favourite to win a game. Last week he told the Japanese to go to the temples and pray…

Somehow, this week, Eddie has been a bit subdued. He has withheld his usual verbal jabs and attack dog approach as he and Michael Cheika have been all buddy-buddy in the run up to this week’s Test between their teams.

Of course, this whole new Eddie Jones might be because both he and Cheika have been under the cosh a bit in 2018? A bit of empathy then?

We know that Eddie has also been feeling the heat. After two successive Six Nations championships, including a grand slam in 2016, and a winning tour to Australia in 2017, Eddie was untouchable. He was almost declared an Honorary Englishman.

Then his halo slipped a bit in 2018.

During the Six Nations England lost to Scotland, France and Ireland, and then there was the losing tour to South Africa. Despite his contract having been extended for a year beyond 2019 after those first two successful years, suddenly there were calls for Eddie to go!

He is feeling a little bit of the heat that Michael Cheika is feeling too! This November Test season might help Eddie’s cause a little, or it might also go wrong for him, especially if he loses to Australia!

Michael Cheika is certainly battling for survival. There is more than a hint of desperation to be spotted in Cheika’s selections for this final Test of 2018. Kurtley Beale has been dumped from the match-day squad, while Bernard Foley is retained at 12, an experiment that seemed to have failed last week against Italy. Matt Toomua continues in the flyhalf berth, again somewhat mysteriously, as he seemed to be no better than pedestrian in this position a week ago. David Pocock is named in the starting XV, despite concerns about his neck injury and having to sit out Monday’s training session and taking no contact on Tuesday either.

Why is Cheika so desperate?

2018 has not been a great year for Wallaby supporters.

Just 4 wins from 12 starts is as bad as anyone can remember, and a loss to England might just bring the curtain down on the Wallaby coaching career of Michael Cheika and his coaching squad. Cheika has felt the heat ramping up week after week in 2018, and there have been many calls for him to step aside before next year’s World Cup. He has responded to those calls with the bulldog belligerence that we have come to expect from the man. He even received the “unequivocal” support of Rugby Australia’s Board, with RA chairman Cameron Clyne meeting with the Wallabies, and telling them they were going all the way with Michael Cheika. This meeting was in the week after they lost to the All Blacks at Eden Park back in August. Any coach who receives the “unequivocal” support of his administrators must immediately start glancing back over his shoulder. Those supportive statements are often no more than a disguised knife in the back.

Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle has also reaffirmed RA’s support for Cheika, although she did suggest that he might need some help in the assistant coaching department.

With a bit of a dog-in-the-manger attitude, Cheika promptly rejected her suggestions that he shake up his coaching staff or bring in outside help.

Perhaps he should have listened to her?

The evidence suggests that the current coaching squad are not serving the team’s, its fans’ or the game’s best interests. In 2017 the Wallabies scored 59 tries and 436 points in 14 Tests. 2018 has seen those numbers plummet to 28 tries and 231 points in the 12 matches completed to date. Last season the Wallabies scored 31,1 points and 4,2 tries per game, this year it’s 19,3 points and 2,3 tries per match.

Something is wrong with their game plan. Something has gone amiss in their finishing. Their attack seems to be toothless. Something is amiss with the Wallabies, and it certainly does seem that Michael Cheika and his coaching squad do not have the answers.

One bright light – defensively the Wallabies conceded 28,3 points per game in 2017; in 2018 it’s down to 23.7 points per game. So that’s something.

On the 1st of November Raelene Castle said an undefeated tour of Europe would be a “pass mark” for the Wallabies. She sent a message that the RA wanted to see some payback for their unequivocal support…..

Having lost to Wales, that pass mark is no longer achievable. The win over Italy might have brought a tiny bit of breathing space for Mr Cheika, but the spotlight remains unwavering. A loss to England would suggest abject failure….

His cause has not been helped much by a stomach bug hit the Wallaby squad during the last week, with Israel Folau and Bernard Foley reportedly the worst affected, although as many as ten of the squad are said to have been ill.

One would understand if Michael Cheika was just a little nervy at the moment.

Over in the England dressing room Eddie Jones might not be feeling the same degree of heat that is focussed on Michael Cheika, but he has to be aware that a very close, perhaps lucky, win over South Africa and a win over lowly Japan are not enough to suggest that the pressure is all off. The loss to the misfiring All Blacks has ramped up the pressure again, and England need to win against Australia to keep the dogs of war at bay.

Some media articles this week focussed on the international flavour of England’s changeroom, especially after Augustin Pichot pointed out that 27,7% of England’s November squad were not born in England. Somehow the social media warriors were outraged and turned on Pichot and, weirdly, called him a racist for pointing out that most teams are fielding players recruited from outside their own country. I am not sure why, but social media twits like to be outraged? They are savaging the messenger, rather than absorbing the message.

If you extend Pichot’s view a little further, you look at England coaching squad and the international flavour of England’s finest is even stronger. Eddie the Aussie has John Mitchell, ex-All Black, ex-All Black coach, ex-US Eagles coach, ex-Force/Lions/Bulls Super rugby coach, as the England Defence coach. Eddie Jones has also, from time to time, called in the likes of George Smith, ex-Wallaby, to help with breakdown skills; Glen Ella, ex-Wallaby, to help with attack skills; Andrew Johns, ex-Aussie rugby league, to help with the attack; Marc del Maso, ex-France hooker, to help with scrummaging; and Dr Sherylle Calder, South African, as coordination specialist.

John Mitchell’s is not the only Kiwi accent in the English dressing room but just as Brad Shields, Dylan Hartley and Ben Te’o now pledge allegiance to the Queen, so the defence coach has revealed his “emotional ties” with Twickenham. “When I walked back into the English changing room before the South Africa game it had been 18 years since I’d been in that room,” he said. “I was quite overwhelmed; immediately I had an emotional connection.”

England’s finest certainly has a strong international flavour. But then they used to send the Scots off to fight in their colonial wars, and the Welsh who had to face the Zulu at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, so it is nothing new for the English to make full use of those from elsewhere in the world.

For both countries, 2018 has been a struggle, and both coaches have been feeling the pressure. Both teams have their problems, and both have much to do as they head into the 2019 World Cup year. This final Test of 2018 may provide some measure of their future prospects and what level of pressure they may expect from their fans.

I would suggest that it is the Wallabies who are under more pressure than their English counterparts.

Selection News:

England:

England head coach Eddie Jones has kept faith with wing Joe Cokanasiga and hooker Jamie George for the game against Australia at Twickenham on Saturday.

Cokanasiga starts after fellow back three players Jack Nowell and Chris Ashton were ruled out, while George is preferred to co-captain Dylan Hartley.

Manu Tuilagi returns to the 23 after being forced to pull out before the opening November encounter versus South Africa and is joined on the bench by Nathan Hughes.

Elsewhere, there are several changes from the Japan contest with the majority of the team that ran New Zealand close being selected.

Henry Slade and Ben Te’o start at centre while Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs combine at half-back.

In the pack, Ben Moon and Kyle Sinckler join George in the front-row, with Courtney Lawes packing down in the second row after shifting from the blindside.

The back-row once again sees Brad Shields, Sam Underhill and Mark Wilson lining up together after impressing against the All Blacks.

Australia:

David Pocock has been named to play against England despite an injury question mark that had been hanging over his head.

Pocock missed training on Monday and was limited to non-contact work on Tuesday, casting major doubt over his chances of playing but he showed enough at the team’s final full training session of the year for Michael Cheika to pick him to play in the season finale.

Michael Cheika is sticking pretty much with the starting team that went down to Wales a fortnight ago.

Cheika has made a couple of changes as he has brought veteran tighthead Sekope Kepu into the starting line-up at for the clash, his first starting spot since the Test against the All Blacks in Sydney back in August.

Tolu Latu has been handed the hooking berth, pipping Folau Fainga’a for the season finale.

Matt Toomua has retained the flyhalf jersey after starting against Italy and somewhat surprisingly, Bernard Foley will line up at 12 again.

In a shock move, Kurtley Beale has been left out of the team entirely, the first time in recent memory that the dynamic back has missed selection when fit and available.

Israel Folau has stayed at fullback even with the return of Dane Haylett-Petty to the starting side after playing off the bench in Italy.

Jack Maddocks will start on the opposite wing.

Will Genia will play his 100th Test in the Twickenham encounter, becoming the 10th Wallaby to achieve the feat.

Thoughts:

My very first thought is that there has been nothing in the Wallabies’ recent performances against Wales and Italy to suggest they will beat England.

As I look at the team selected by Michael Cheika I become even more convinced that the Aussies are in deep trouble.

The Wallabies are still trying to find a regular starting XV that contains the right balance and team units that have gelled, or can gel, into consistent performers. Throughout 2018 Cheika has experimented with different players in almost every position in the back division. With injuries robbing him of three of his favoured midfielders, Kuridrani, Kerevi, and now Hodge, for most of the year, he has jumped around trying to fill the gaps with all sorts of combinations. This week he is persisting with Bernard Foley at 12 and Matt Toomua at flyhalf, a combination that underwhelmed a week ago against Italy.

Dane Haylett-Petty has been the most consistent performer of the entire Wallaby backline complement, especially at fullback, so he finds himself on the wing, again. Israel Folau, who has played on the wing and at centre, as well as at full back, is back in the 15 jersey, where he again under-performed a week ago.

All the evidence suggests that Michael Cheika is still struggling to find the right balance in his back division. I am not sure that he actually has any idea what that balance will look like.

He is also forced to continue with Will Genia as his starting scrumhalf despite the visible evidence that the scrumhalf is running on empty.  Genia has enjoyed a good year in the Wallaby jersey, one of the few standouts in a mediocre team, and earns his 100th cap this weekend. The problem is fatigue. Genia has slowed down markedly as the season has progressed, and has been subbed by the underwhelming Nick Phipps earlier and earlier with each passing week. Australia need him at his very best if they want to beat England. He is not at his best.

The Wallaby backline turmoil is perhaps the weakest link in the team as they face off against England.

England will be fielding Owen Farrell in his preferred position at flyhalf, together with a stable midfield combination of Ben Te’o and Henry Slade, and the back three of Elliot Daly, Jonny May, and rookie Joe Cokanasiga replacing the injured Ashton.

England have stability, continuity, some form, and pace and power on their side.

Up front the battle may be a little more even.

Scott Sio, Tolu Latu and Sekope Kepu are a strong trio, perhaps better as a scrummaging unit than the England front three of  Ben Moon, Jamie George, and Kyle Sinckler, although the inclusion of George starting at the expense of Dylan Hartley may strengthen the scrum somewhat.

The second rows also appear fairly evenly balanced, with Itoje and Laws up against Coleman and Rodda. Rodda has come on in leaps and bounds as a combatitive lock forward in 2018, and he will have to work hard to counter the aggressive interference of Itoje.

However, it is the loose-forward combinations that must worry Aussie fans.

Yes, they have the usual suspects, Hooper and Pocock, with Jack Demspey completing the trio. All three might be outstanding players in their own right, but they just do not seem to work as a combination. Certainly the Hooper-Pocock partnership has not achieved any like the heights they scaled back in 2015. Since then they have seemed disjointed and often playing away from each other on the field. The third member of the trio has been a problem as Cheika has tried a variety of combinations, none of which inspired.

The Aussie loosies often look as if they are all three playing different games on the field, instead of working as a combination.

Eddie Jones has the starting trio of Wilson, Underhill, and Shields, a combination that worked so well against the All Blacks, and they will look to hit the breakdown with the same ferocity as two weeks ago. Sam Underhill was destructive in defence and will be looking at putting maximum pressure on Matt Toomua and Bernard Foley when the Aussies move the ball from the scrum or breakdown. England also have the size and power of Nathan Hughes to come off the bench to support the starting loose trio.

England seem to have the edge in the battle of the loose forwards.

The Wallaby forwards will have to fire as a unit to put pressure on the England pack, and thus transfer some pressure onto the dangerous England backline, a disjointed effort is not going to be good enough. They will have to work hard to disrupt the Ben Youngs-Owen Farrell combination, especially as rain is expected in London on Saturday and we are likely to see the English pair unleash a kicking barrage onto the Wallaby back three with special focus on the relative inexperience of Jack Maddocks.

The two benches will be expected to make an impact, with Australia seeming a little light on the bench, especially missing the power of Taniela Tupou this week. The England bench just looks better equipped, with Nathan Hughes and Manu Tuilagi both returning to the side, along with Dylan Hartley with a point to prove, and the likes of George Ford and Richard Wigglesworth.

Prediction:

No matter which way I look at this Test, I just cannot see the Wallabies pulling their disjointed team together and finding a game plan that is good enough to trouble England.

England, by some 15 points.

The Teams:

England: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell (c), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Mark Wilson, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ben Moon
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 George Ford, 23 Manu Tuilagi

Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 George Ford, 23 Manu Tuilagi.

Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Bernard Foley, 11 Jack Maddocks, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Will Genia, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Jermaine Ainsley, 18 Allan Alaalatoa, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Ned Hanigan, 21 Pete Samu, 22 Nick Phipps, 23 Sefa Naivalu