TEST MATCH TIME!

The Silly Season Tours of 2017

Week 2

Week Two of the Silly Season looms, and another eight Test matches are lined up for our viewing pleasure (or displeasure, depending on which team you support.)

I have been taken to task for calling these November tours and Test matches the “Silly Season Tours” – They are “legitimate Test Matches” I am told, and that I should not be so skeptical of their value and importance.

Let me be quite clear, I accept that they are legitimate Test matches, and that they are of value and importance to many. However, I question their relevance and frequency! I question whether they are good for the rugby players involved in what now seems to be a never-ending season of high impact rugby.

I question whether this series of Test matches is of any value to a bunch of Southern Hemispherean rugby players who are at the end of an exhausting year of rugby. I question whether a visibly fatigued mind and body can really deliver a quality performance on the field of rugby conflict. I worry about the long-term impact of so much rugby on the health and longevity of the players concerned.

Nobody, not even some mythical superhero, can be at their best, sharpest, quickest and most innovative when the muscles are aching for some time off and the brain is already turning to mush. Remembering too, that rugby is not an office job, but a massively demanding physical challenge for the human body. If you need a break at the end of a long year in the office, what would you be crying for if that long year included being crashed and bashed around physically, day in and day out?

I make no excuses for the poor performances of players who are palpably not of international standard, as are some of those who wear South Africa’s Green & Gold. Even the fatigue of a very long year cannot be used to excuse the chaos that was evident in their ranks. However, when I see a team like the All Blacks go off the boil and stumble around a field, as they did in the second half of their Test against a weak France, then my point becomes very evident to any thinking observer.

Throughout the season, and especially towards the end of the Rugby Championships, we heard about Steve Hansen’s concern about his players lasting out the year. He rotated players, enforced sabbaticals, insisted on time outs, and generally tried to manage the amount of game time his players were getting. He knows that the November tours are really a bridge too far.

Even the Wallabies, who had a less intense Super Rugby fixture list and a much lower intensity of club and provincial rugby, are showing the signs of fatigue.

If World Rugby are serious about protecting their most valuable resource, the players, then it is time that they revisit the crowded international calendar and restructure the entire fixture list. Simple logic says that we need fewer Tests at every level of the international game. There is no doubt that Less is More!

I hear the cries of those that want to see more rugby, especially in the countries where the game is just gaining a foothold and starting to develop. I understand their need, I also believe that their need can be addressed through other avenues than a never-ending Test match circuit.

I believe that it is time for some less intense, and possibly more attractive, festival type rugby. Development teams from across the globe, playing together and playing against smaller countries too. There is even room for more top level combined teams such as the British & Irish Lions.

There is a long history of combined touring teams, why not reinvent them? Resuscitate the African Leopards, a team drawn from across Africa. They used to play games against the South African Students XV, why not reinvent that team too? They could play all over the world.

What about the old East Africa team, made up of players from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda? A rich history of seven rugby tours and plenty of matches that started back in 1954 but somehow died away after 1980. There is also the East African Scorpions, founded back in 1959.

The Pacific Islanders XV started back in 2004, why are they not used more regularly? All the island nations will benefit from the exposure their players would get from playing around the world.

The Arabian Gulf Rugby Union team that comprised players from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Lebanon should be resusitated. Include Israel and let sport build bridges…

Back in the 1990s there was a Commonwealth of Independent States team, made up of players from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova. Would it not be good for the development of the game if the players from these truly small rugby countries could have the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to expand their game?

The Caribbean Rugby Union, made up of players from across the West Indies. They last toured in 2000. They can be resuscitated.

After the 2004 tsunami the rugby world responded with the IRB Rugby Aid fixture, when the Northern Hemisphere XV took on the Southern Hemisphere XV and the proceeds went to charity. Surely more can be made of this start?

What about teams such as the Rest of The World XV, the Four Home Unions XV, the Rest of Europe XV, the Overseas Unions XV? All these teams have seen the light of day as invitational teams for specific occasions, why not develop this concept?

It does not have to be Test match rugby all the way….. It does not have to be a never-ending circus of national rugby. Give some of the senior players time off, let them play club rugby again, let them relax a bit, give some of the juniors experience under less harsh a spotlight. Allow development teams to learn, to absorb, and to enjoy the brotherhood that rugby is so famous for across the ages.

Build from the bottom up and preserve the integrity of the Test Match for the Best of the Best.

Come on World Rugby, it is time to start thinking in a more innovative way. Can the Silly Season and take rugby out to the big wide world.

Match Previews:

England vs Australia

Date: Saturday, November 18
Venue: Twickenham
Kick-Off: 16h00 local; 15h00 GMT; 17h00 SA Time; 02h00 AEDT, Sunday, November 19

Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), George Clancy (Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)

Last week England looked decidedly rusty as they struggled to put away a game Argentinean outfit. Many silly errors, strange options, and a lack of focus seemed to hinder Eddie Jones’ outfit to the point where he started blasting obscenities and throwing stuff in the coach’s box, with no concern for the ever-present cameras and microphones that have invaded every space in a rugby stadium.

Will they improve this week?

Certainly, the Wallabies will provide a far sterner challenge that did the Pumas.

The Aussies have announced an unchanged squad for this one, but have added Lopeti Timani to the extended bench, with the match-day reserves to be finalised on Friday.

Stephen Moore will become the seventh most-capped player of all-time when he runs out for his 128th game in the Wallaby jersey on Saturday, in what will be his penultimate Test.

Eddie Jones feels that his team needs to take a step up this weekend, and has made four changes to the side that defeated Argentina 21-8 last Saturday.

Owen Farrell makes a return to the team for the first time this season in place of Henry Slade at inside centre. Jonny May has been passed fit and will play on the right wing.

Anthony Watson moves to fullback after Mike Brown was ruled out following his head injury last weekend.

The only change in the forward pack sees Joe Launchbury replace George Kruis.

Maro Itoje has also been included the match-day squad as one of the replacements.

Prediction:

If we look at recent results, England lead Australia 4 – 0, having won 3 Tests on Australian soil in 2016, and then another on last year’s Silly Season tour. All those wins suggested an England team that had found it’s mojo and was starting to develop into a very good side.

Australia, on the other hand, looked like a team that was on the verge of an implosion, South African style. They looked rattled and low on confidence, any rugby skills they had learned over the years seemed to have deserted them. They did not look like a Tier One team at all.

Eddie Jones succeeded in getting under Michael Cheika’s skin, and seemed to take great pleasure in doing so. He was the bully on the beach, kicking sand in the face of the collective Aussie nerdlings.

Somehow, a year later, the roles seem to have been reversed.

Last weekend England struggled to put away a below par Argentina. They looked rusty, incoherent, and a little shocked that the Argies kept coming at them. Eddie Jones has had to publically apologise for his swearing, toy throwing tantrum in the coach’s box during that match.

This time, too, the pre-match sledging has come from the Australians. Stephen Larkham has teased Eddie Jones, saying that with the financial and player resources he has available for his England camp, anything less than a 2019 World Cup trophy must be seen as a failure.

Michael Cheika has joined in with less subtle jabs about England playing dirty rugby. He accuses them of late tackling opposing halfbacks, off-the-ball niggles, dirty scrummaging tricks, and all manner of nefarious activities in the dark underworld of the rucks and mauls. He says that it is “traditional” English rugby, suggesting that there is much video evidence available showcasing these tactics, and pointing to Chris Robshaw’s headlock tackle on Nick Phipps in 2016 as typical of the strategy.

Eddie Jones, usually quick on the repartee and a master at the verbal niggles, has been strangely subdued. Saying “bring it on” and “bring your best side” while maintaining that his job was to win the World Cup and that other games do not matter.

I am guessing that Eddie has taken note that his compatriots from the Antipodes are unbeaten in their last seven matches, including a 23 – 18 win over New Zealand and, most recently, beating Wales 29-21.

England are strengthened by the return of Owen Farrell at 12, and Maro Itoje’s return on the bench will add some late game mongrel and firepower to their squad this week. Farrell’s inclusion takes a lot pf pressure off George Ford, both as playmaker and in the goal kicking department. (Perhaps George Slade is unlucky to drop out of the starting team, he looked much better than Jonathan Joseph against Argentina.)

The England backline does seem to have the legs on the Aussies when it comes to speed across the turf, but that massive Wallaby midfield is something else. Are Farrell and Joseph able to contain the physicality of Kuridrani and Kerevi?

The pace of Elliot Daly, Jonny May and replacement full-back Anthony Watson will also have to face off against the similar pace, but increased muscularity of Kurtley Beale, Marika Koroibete and Reece Hodge.

The two packs of forwards look pretty similar in almost every aspect of their game, with the Australian loose trio again seeming to be a yard quicker than Robshaw, Underhill and Hughes. Yet, that England trio seems to have more muscle than Hooper, Hanigan and McMahon for the close in encounters. Underhill is certainly the best defender of the six loose-forwards in the starting XVs.

Perhaps the game will be won or lost at halfback. Bernard Foley seems to have found his game again, and Will Genia is a wily old campaigner that brings huge experience and exceptional game management skills to the field. Perhaps George Ford will play more freely now that Farrell is back to support him? Ben Youngs needs to find form.

The bookies are saying England, as are many of the rugby media pundits. I think Australia are heading in the right direction in 2017, and their confidence is on a high. They also want revenge! Australia, by 12 points.

The Teams:

England: 15 Anthony Watson, 14 Jonny May, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Mako Vunipola

Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Maro Itoje, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Danny Care, 22 Henry Slade, 23 Semesa Rokoduguni

Australia: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Marika Koroibete, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Samu Kerevi, 11 Reece Hodge, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Will Genia, 8 Sean McMahon, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Scott Sio

Replacements: 16 Stephen Moore, 17 Tom Robertson, 18 Allan Alaalatoa, 19 Matt Philip, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Lopeti Timani, 22 Nick Phipps, 23 Karmichael Hunt, 24 Henry Speight

France vs South Africa

Venue: Stade de France
Kick-off: 20h45 local; 19h45 GMT; 21h45 SA Time
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)

Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Tom Foley (England)
Television match official: Rowan Kitt (England)

Last week there was a vague suggestion that the Irish would have some additional motivation to knock over the Springboks after World Rugby had suggested that South Africa was the preferred bidder for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The Irish rugby authorities were a little miffed at the news, and they would have wanted this to sift down to their team before the game on Saturday.

I do not think the Irish needed the additional motivation to add to their usual focused desire to knock over the Boks?

This weekend the scenario is a little different. The Springboks travel to France bleeding from so many different wounds that they need the rugby equivalent of a blood transfusion. Adding to the pain of the loss in Dublin is the news that South Africa lost the vote to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup to none other than this week’s hosts, France. Not only have they lost the right to host the event, but there is an additional little issue, after a perceived backstabbing that has cost the country the right to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup, their rugby union president Bernard Laporte has been somewhat triumphalist in his public utterances about the outcome of the vote. That will rankle just a bit.

The Springboks might just want to send a message to the world, and to France in particular, when they trot out on the green field of the Stade de France.

The problem is that we have not one, but two imponderables as we head into this game.

Last week I wrote of the French side and how nobody can predict which team will show up on match-day. We now need to add the Springbok team to that question. Which Springbok team will pitch up on the day? The one that ran the All Blacks so close at Newlands, or the one that was abject in defeat just a week ago?

Adding to the confusion is the continued strangeness of the Springbok coach’s selection processes.

This week he has made a couple of huge changes to his team, and refused to make some that many have thought obvious. He has forgiven Duane Vermeulen for whatever it was that saw him excluded from initial selection for this tour, and called him back into the squad, and straight back into the starting XV.

Vermeulen returns to the back of the scrum to partner Francois Louw and Siya Kolisi in a more balanced looking loose trio than we have seen in a very long time.

This move has resulted in the dropping of Pieter-Steph du Toit right out of the match-day squad altogether! I am not sure what to make of this, although there is news that he is slightly concussed, he was one of the better Bok forwards last week, he is surely a better lock than Lood de Jager and the man on the bench, Franco Mostert. Mostert stays on the bench, yet Cotezee chose not to use him in that abject Test match in Dublin. I do not get it.

Finally, it does seem as if the ongoing clarion calls for a change at flyhalf have penetrated Allister Coetzee. He has made the call, replacing Elton Jantjies with Handre Pollard, in a move that seems inevitable as the strange-hair man from the Lions has sunk deeper and deeper into the morass of mediocrity and indecision that has plagued him during the last year.

Somehow Ross Cronje, as starting 9, and Rudy Paige as his bench back-up, have escaped the cut. Both are retained despite some poor performances. Louis Schreuder must have been thinking that a Bok cap was looming.

Damian de Allende has also been dropped, although only to the bench, replaced in the starting XV Francois Venter at 12.

Jesse Kriel has been retained at 13 despite numerous calls for his replacement, and Coetzee has also retained the back three from Dublin, Lleyds, Coetzee, and Skosan despite their glaring weaknesses at the international level.

Wilco Louw gets his third cap and first test start at tighthead as Coenie Oosthuizen has left for home with a dicky knee. The back-up tight head on the bench is Trevor Nyakane. There is no change at loosehead, where Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira gets another chance and extends his collection of Bok caps ever closer to the magic 100. This will be his 97th cap. Steven Kitshoff will again make an impact off the bench.

Dan du Preez is on the bench and in line for a possible debut for the Boks.

The French coach, Guy Noves, has named an unchanged starting line-up for Saturday.

On the bench there is one change as Sebastien Taofifenua comes in at the expense of Raphael Chaume as prop cover for this game.

Prediction:

Both these teams are under similar pressure. In South Africa the media and fans are calling for the head of Allister Coetzee and his coaching squad. In France they are calling for Guy Novès and his coaching squad to be shown to the rugby equivalence of Madam le Guillotine.

Both teams have been decidedly underwhelming in a number of respects this year.

The Springboks, after a truly disastrous 2016, were a whole lot better in 2017, although their results tally might disagree. After the series whitewash of France in June, they produced two good performances against Australia, drawing both games where they were clearly the better team and should have won but for silly errors and some wayward tactics. They beat the Argentinean Pumas comfortably, but were humiliated by the All Blacks in New Zealand, and then produced one of the greatest Test matches in modern history in the return fixture against the New Zealanders at Newlands. They were unlucky to lose that one.

Much was expected last week, but it was not to be, they plummeted to a humiliating 38-3 defeat against Ireland.

That result was a shock to many, myself included. I had expected the Springboks to produce something closer to the games they had played earlier in the year, but they were outthought, outclassed, and outplayed by a well prepared and determined Irish team.

Which Springbok team will pitch up this week?

France started the year in fairly good form. They finished the Six Nations in joint second place, alongside Ireland and Scotland and were competitive throughout.

Things fell apart a bit over in South Africa where they bent the knee to the resurgent Springboks, losing all three Tests quite badly.

The squad to play the All Blacks last week was full of youngsters and debutants as a host of experienced players are not available as a result of injuries. The first half against New Zealand saw the French team struggling to cope with the intensity and pace of the visitors.

A much improved second half, albeit when the Kiwis went off the boil and started to show signs of long-season fatigue, will give them some confidence as they take the field against the Springboks.

This weekend may just see a little bit of added spice as the South Africans are a little miffed at the way France “stole” the 2023 RWC hosting rights from under their noses. The Springboks have dismissed all such talk, but there will be a certain added motive to play well.

South Africa are strengthened by the return of Duane Vermeulen at the back of the scrum, he brings huge experience and physicality to the team, along with considerable leadership skills. His inclusion has allowed Allister Coetzee to choose a loose trio of proper loose forwards, no more retreaded lock forwards, or men playing out of position. This could add some much needed competition at the breakdowns.

The arrival of Handre Pollard as starting flyhalf will also bring a new dimension to Bok back play. He has already shown the world that he is a game manager and playmaker who takes the ball forward and gets his backs going very quickly. He can play off the back-foot, and does not retreat into the deep pocket when the pressure builds. His tactical kicking is accurate too.

However, the Springboks still take on the French with that very brittle looking back three. The lightweight wings and fullback simply do not engender any confidence.

It will be an interesting measure of the Springboks resilience and ability to bounce back after last week’s complete disaster. There is also the small matter of Allister Coetzee’s away win record. They will want to do something about his woeful stats.

The bookies and most pundits are suggesting that this game will be won by the home team.

I am basing my prediction of a Springbok win on the whole of their performances in 2017, despite the two very bad losses, as well as the deep hurt in a team that was starting to gel into a good outfit.

The Springboks, by 14 points.

The Teams:

France: 15 Nans Ducuing, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Mathieu Bastareaud, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Anthony Belleau, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Judicael Cancoriet, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Paul Gabrillagues, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot

Replacements: 16 Clement Maynadier, 17 Sebastien Taofifenua, 18 Daniel Kotze, 19 Paul Jedreasiak, 20 Anthony Jelonch, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Damian Penaud

South Africa: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira

Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Dan du Preez, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Damian de Allende

Italy vs Argentina

Venue: Stadio Artemio Franchi
Kick-off: 15:00 local; 14:00 GMT; 16:00 SA Time.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Pierre Brousset (France)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)

This could get interesting. Italy won their first of the year last week, and the Argentineans are desperate to win something in 2017 too. (Okay, they did beat Georgia, but they want a Tier One scalp!)

Beating Argentina would be a big one for Italy, something close to their win over South Africa a year ago. The problem is that they have not beaten the Argies since 2008, and the last six clashes have all been won by the men from down south.

The Argentineans have had a nightmare 2017, losing 12 of their last 13 games. Everyone knows that the Argentineans scrap with the best, but that they seem to lack the disciplines and the finishing to actually win games. They will have gained confidence in their most recent scrap, with England at Twickenham, but need to show much more focus and discipline in every aspect of their game.

Argentina have made four changes to their starting side, with the return of Nicolas Sanchez at fly-half bringing his trusty boot and some silky running to the team. He takes over from Juan Martin Hernandez, while Matias Orlando is in for Matias Moroni at 13. Both Hernandez and Moroni drop to the bench. Sebastian Cancelliere comes in on the right wing.

In the pack, Juan Manuel Leguizamon replaces Tomas Lezana in the eight jersey ahead of what is head coach Daniel Hourcade 50th Test in charge.

Italy have gone with the same starting XV that beat Fiji last weekend, but have made two changes on the bench with Federico Zani coming in for Marco Lazzaroni and Edoardo Gori being replaced by Tito Tebaldi.

Prediction:

Italy’s strongman and rugby icon, Sergio Parisse, is actually an Argentinean by birth. We can have no doubt that he will be at the spear tip of every Italian attack and will be the focal point of their defence too. He likes playing against his old country.

The breakdown battle will be huge, with Parisse a key combatant in this area, but I am not convinced that he has enough support from the rest of his pack to counter the efforts of Creevy, Kremer, Matera and Leguizamon.

The Argentinean pack also looks a bit bigger, heavier, and better polished than the Italians. Together with educated goal kicking of Sanchez, their dominance of the set pieces and lineouts might be the pivot on which this game swings their way.

I am going with Argentina, by 9 or 10 points.

The Teams:

Italy: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Tommaso Boni, 12 Tomasso Castello, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Andrea Lovotti

Replacements: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Federico Zani, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Giovanni Licara, 21 Tito Tebaldi, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Matteo Minozzi

Argentina: 15 Joaquin Tuculet, 14 Sebastian Cancelliere, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, 11 Emiliano Boffelli, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Martin Landajo, 8 Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 7 Marcos Kremer, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Matias Alemanno, 3 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 2 Agustin Creevy (c), 1 Santiago Garcia Botta

Replacements: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Lucas Noguera, 18 Enrique Pieretto, 19 Guido Petti, 20 Banjamin Macome, 21 Gonzalo Bertranou, 22 Juan Martin Hernandez, 23 Matias Moroni

Scotland vs New Zealand.

Venue: Murrayfield

Kick-off: 17h15 GMT; 19h15 SA Time.

Referee: Matthew Carley (England)

Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Ian Davies (Wales)

TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

Some very brave Scot said that the All Blacks are ripe for the plucking this week. Now we do know that they love the sound of the pipes skirling Scotland the Brave, and they really are a brave bunch up in those northern reaches of the British Isles, but you need not be silly and deliberately anger the visitors before you even get onto the field of play.

Try not to get up their noses, it is far better to face a complacent New Zealand.

The Scots have made two changes to their starting team to face the All Blacks, both injury-enforced. Zander Fagerson and loose forward Cornell du Preez replace the injured WP Nel and Ryan Wilson respectively.

Du Preez will earn his first cap for his adopted nation.

Simon Berghan and the uncapped Luke Hamilton come in on the bench, where Grant Gilchrist also replaces the injured Tim Swinson. Byron McGuiganmight also earn a debut cap off the bench where he has replaced last week’s debutant Chris Harris.

New Zealand have made one change to their starting XV to face Scotland on Saturday, with Codie Taylor in at hooker.

The overall match-day squad features just two changes from the team which beat France 39-18 last weekend with Taylor replacing the injured Dane Coles, and Nathan Harris coming onto the bench as back-up hooker, while Liam Squire returns to the bench.

Prediction:

The last 18 months have seen something of a revival of Scotland’s rugby fortunes. They beat both Ireland and Wales in the 6 Nations, and they also managed to beat Australia in their midyear visit to that country.

They have a new coach, Gregor Townsend has taken over from Vern Cotter, with the new coach making few changes to systems and processes to allow the team to develop along the lines set by his predecessor. This has allowed for continuity of game plan, style, and playing resources.

The Scots will be eyeing the New Zealanders, knowing that this game will be the true measure of how far they have really come in the last year and a half. They know that Australia beat the All Blacks, and they know that they beat the Australians…..

Scotland have a very good backline, built around good half-back combinations of Finn Russell, the injured Grieg Laidlaw, and scrumhalf Ali Price. They have some great ball carrying speedsters too, the likes of Lee Jones, Tommy Seymour, and Stuart Hogg will test any defence.

If they get the ball, and if they can stop the New Zealanders from scoring tries, then the Scots must think they have a fair chance to pluck a Kiwi feather for their caps.

The problem is that the Scots have a penchant for leaking soft tries. Last week they allowed Samoa to stay in the game with them in that 44-38 encounter.

They are also missing a couple of big names, with the likes of Ross Ford and Laidlaw missing due to injury.

However, they know that the All Blacks have looked a little less impressive in 2017 than in the previous decade or two. They drew a series with the British & Irish Lions, they lost to Australia, they went off the boil against France a week ago, they very nearly lost to South Africa in Cape Town.

In All Black terms, 2017 has been a little underwhelming. But, that is in All Black terms, and underwhelming does not mean losing too many games!

I just cannot see the current Scotland team knocking over the All Black machine at the moment, even if the men in black have been a little “underwhelming” by their own stellar standards. New Zealand to win by 25.

The Teams:

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Lee Jones, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ali Price, 8 Cornell du Preez, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 John Barclay (c), 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Ben Toolis, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Darryl Marfo

Replacements: 16 George Turner, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Grant Gilchrist, 20 Luke Hamilton, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Pete Horne, 23 Byron McGuigan

New Zealand: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Kane Hames

Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Liam Squire, 20 Matt Todd, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown

Wales vs Georgia

Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff

Kick-Off: 14:30 GMT; 16h30 SA Time

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)

Assistant referees: Shuhei Kubo (Japan), Sean Gallagher (Ireland)

TMO: Leo Colgan (Ireland)

Georgia dispatched Canada quite easily last weekend, but this is a whole new ball game. Wales will not be that easy!

Wales have made a whole 14 changes to their team after the scrappy loss to Australia a week back. Liam Williams is the only survivor from last week’s starting XV, and even he changes position, moving to fullback from the wing.

This week, Dan Lydiate will captain the team from the flank position.

As mentioned, Liam Williams switches to full-back, with Alex Cuthbert and Hallam Amos supporting him on the two wings. Owen Watkin, who came off the bench last week, partners Scott Williams in the midfield, while Rhys Webb starts at 9 alongside Rhys Priestland at flyhalf.

Amongst the forwards, Leon Brown lines up alongside Nicky Smith and Kristian Dacey in the front row.

Cory Hill and Adam Beard make up the second row with Lydiate in the back row alongside Sam Cross at openside flank and Seb Davies at number eight.

On the bench uncapped hooker Elliot Dee gets his first call into a match-day squad, with Wyn Jones and Tomas Francis the other front row replacements. Josh Navidi and Taulupe Faleatu complete the forward contingent. Aled Davies, Dan Biggar and Owen Williams provide the back-line cover.

Georgia have named an unchanged side from that which beat Canada last weekend.

Up front Mikheil Nariashvili, Jaba Bregvadze, Levan Chilachava form the front-row, Kote Mikautadze and Giorgi Nemsadze are the locks while Lasha Lomidze, Victor Kolelishvili and Beka Bitsadze form the loose trio.

Vasil Lobzhanidze and Lasha Khmaladze will feature in the half-backs, with captain Merab Sharikadze and Davit Kacharava in the midfield.

Mirian Modebadze and Giorgi Koshadze are the wings while Soso Matiashvili completes the side at full-back.

The only change to the previous week’s squad is in reserves, where Haig includes Merab Kvirikashvili instead of Giorgi Kveseladze.

Prediction:

Many are suggesting that Georgia are too good to be classed as a Tier Two team, yet not quite good enough for Tier One classification. Perhaps this game will give us some idea where they fit into the pecking order of World Rugby. Should they be elevated to Tier One status?

Their coach, Milton Haig, has called for a restructured Six Nations that will include Georgia, and this game might well give strength to his argument.

I do not know much about their rugby or their players, save for the few who practice their trade in France and the UK. However, they were beaten by a poor Argentine in the mid-year, and I simply cannot see them knocking over Wales this weekend.

The Wales outfit that played Australia last week seemed a bit rusty and played some scrappy rugby, yet they were not overwhelmed by the Wallabies. There are some classy players in their squad too, the likes of Priestland, Webb, Amos, both Williams, Lydiate, Cross, and a solid looking bench suggests that they will be too much for Georgia.

Wales by 20 points.

The Teams:

Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Owen Watkin, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Seb Davies, 7 Sam Cross, 6 Dan Lydiate (c), 5 Cory Hill, 4 Adam Beard, 3 Leon Brown, 2 Kristian Dacey, 1 Nicky Smith

Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Josh Navidi, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Owen Williams

Georgia: 15 Soso Matiashvili, 14 Giorgi Koshadze, 13 Davit Katcharava, 12 Merab Sharikadze (c), 11 Mirian Modebadze, 10 Lasha Khmaladze, 9 Vasil Lobzhanidze, 8 Beka Bitsadze, 7 Vito Kolelishvili, 6 Lasha Lomidze, 5 Giorgi Nemsadze, 4 Kote Mikautadze, 3 Levan Chilachava, 2 Jaba Bregvadze, 1 Mikheil Nariashvili

Replacements: 16 Shalva Mamukashvili, 17 Kakha Asieshvili, 18 Soso Bekoshvili, 19 Giorgi Chkhaidze, 20 Giorgi Tkhilaishvili, 21 Giorgi Begadze, 22 Revaz Jintchvelashvili, 23 Merab Kvirikashvili

Japan vs Tonga

Stade Ernest Wallon, Toulouse, France

Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)

Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Craig Evans (Wales)

Television match official: Jon Mason (Wales)

I have not received either team sheet, and have no form to consider with these two outfits.

I cannot establish what time the game kicks off either. None of the fixture lists of my regular sources even mention the fixture.

I will refrain from comment or prediction.

Romania vs Samoa

Venue: Stadionul Arcul de Triumph, Bucharest

Kick-off: 18:00 local; 16:00 GMT; 18h00 SA Time

Referee: David Wilkinson (Ireland)

Assistant referees: Mike Adamson (Scotland), Shota Tevzadze (Georgia)

TMO: Neil Paterson (Scotland)

The Samoans have four changes to their starting line-up to take on Romania in Bucharest on Saturday.

A single change in the backline which started last weekend against Scotland sees Dwayne Polataivao replacing Pele Cowley at scrum-half.

All the other changes are amongst the forwards where Ofisa Treviranus returns at number eight in the place of Jack Lam, who moves to the openside flank where he takes over from TJ Ioane.

Faatiga Lemalu comes in at lock, replacing Josh Tyrell, while Motu Matu’u starts at hooker with Manu Leiataua dropping down to the replacements bench.

I have no idea of the Romanian team, their squad list has not been released as I write this.

I have no information on which to make any worthwhile prediction.

Teams:

Samoa: 15 Ah See Tuala, 14 Paul Perez, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Reynold Lee-Lo, 11 David Lemi, 10 Tim Nanai-Williams, 9 Dwayne Polataivao, 8 Ofisa Treviranus, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Piula Faasalele, 5 Chris Vui (c), 4 Faatiga Lemalu, 3 Donald Brighouse, 2 Motu Matu’u, 1 Jordan Lay

Replacements: 16 Manu Leiataua, 17 James Lay, 18 Hisa Sasagi, 19 Brandon Nansen, 20 Maurie Faasavalu, 21 Melani Matavao, 22 Jj Taulagi, 23 Alapati Leiua

Ireland vs Fiji

Venue: Aviva Stadium
Kick-Off: 17:30 GMT; 10:30 SA Time
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Alex Ruiz (France)
Television match official: David Grashoff (England)

Last weekend a well prepared, determined Ireland produced some superb rugby to beat a woeful Springbok outfit in Dublin. They will be looking to build on that foundation when they take on Fiji this weekend.

Fiji had some discipline problems when they played Italy a week ago, struggling to contain the Italian forwards and bleeding penalties in the process. They will need to be much better in every aspect of forward play if they want to beat Ireland.

Ireland have rested some of their stars from last weekend, and this might count against them. Some are suggesting that this is the Irish 2nd team, and they might just fall short against Fiji.

Ireland named their match-day squad, that includes one new cap, to face Fiji on Saturday.

Munster’s Chris Farrell is set to win his first cap alongside Stuart McCloskey in a new-look centre partnership.

Andrew Conway moves to full-back with Darren Sweetnam, who won his first cap last week, starting for the first time. David Kearney returns to the side to complete the back three.

Kieran Marmion will partner Joey Carbery in the half-backs.

Up front Rhys Ruddock leads the side. He is joined in the back-row by Jordi Murphy, who lined out for the Barbarians last week and Jack Conan.

Ultan Dillane joins Devin Toner in the engine room of the second-row while Jack McGrath returns to duty in the front-row where he is joined by Rob Herring and Andrew Porter.

James Tracy, who made his debut this time last year against Canada and Kieran Treadwell, who won his first cap on the summer tour are included in the replacements.

Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander and Robbie Henshaw from last week’s starting XV will sit on the bench along with Luke McGrath and Ian Keatley. If the wheels are wobbling this bench might be called on sooner rather than later.

Fiji have made four changes to the team that lost to Italy last week, with the return of giant wing Nemani Nadolo to their side perhaps the most important of the changes. Scrum-half Henry Senioli, centre Levani Botia and flanker Dominiko Waqaniboruto are the other new men coming into the team.

Nadolo adds some real firepower to the Fijian team and has the ability to turn a game with his powerful finishing as well as his long boot.

Prediction:

I cannot see the Fijians running Ireland off their feet, despite their wide running game and some great finishers. Even this Irish “2nd” team looks too strong for the men from the Pacific islands.

Ireland by 20 points.

The Teams:

Ireland: 15 Andrew Conway, 14 Darren Sweetnam, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Joey Carbery, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 Rhys Ruddock (c), 5 Devin Toner, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Andrew Porter, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Jack McGrath

Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 CJ Stander, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Robbie Henshaw

Fiji: 15 Kini Murimurivalu, 14 Timoci Nagusa, 13 Jale Vatabua, 12 Levani Botia, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Ben Volavola, 9 Henry Senioli, 8 Nemani Nagusa, 7 Akapusi Qera, 6 Dominiko Waqaniboruto, 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Apisalome Ratuniyarawa, 3 Manasa Saulo, 2 Talemaitoga Tuapati, 1 Campese Ma’afu

Replacements: 16 Sunia Koto, 17 Peni Ravai, 18 Kalivati Tawake, 19 Sikeli Nabou, 20 Peceli Yato/Semi Kunatani, 21 Niko Matawalu, 22 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 23 Vereniki Goneva