Wales v South Africa

The team line-up is looking good for Wales’ game against the Springboks today. The coaches and the players have spoken all week about how important performance will be in this game, since Wales have registered two pretty lacklustre victories to accompany a thrashing by Australia.

Wales: 15-Leigh Halfpenny, 14-George North, 13-Jonathan Davies, 12-Scott Williams, 11-Liam Williams, 10-Dan Biggar, 9-Gareth Davies; 1-Gethin Jenkins (captain), 2-Ken Owens, 3-Tomas Francis, 4-Luke Charteris, 5-Alun Wyn Jones, 6-Dan Lydiate, 7-Justin Tipuric, 8-Ross Moriarty.

Replacements: 16-Scott Baldwin, 17-Nicky Smith, 18-Samson Lee, 19-Cory Hill, 20-Taulupe Faletau, 21-Lloyd Williams, 22-Sam Davies, 23-Jamie Roberts.

South Africa: 15-Johan Goosen, 14-Ruan Combrinck, 13-Francois Venter, 12-Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11-Jamba Ulengo, 10-Elton Jantjies, 9-Faf de Klerk; 1-Tendai Mtawarira, 2-Adriaan Strauss (capt), 3-Lourens Adriaanse, 4-Pieter-Steph du Toit, 5-Lood de Jager, 6-Nizaam Carr, 7-Uzair Cassiem, 8-Warren Whiteley.

Replacements: 16-Malcolm Marx, 17-Steven Kitshoff, 18-Trevor Nyakane, 19-Franco Mostert, 20-Jean-Luc du Preez, 21-Piet van Zyl, 22-Pat Lambie, 23-Lionel Mapoe.

Great to see Faletau on the bench after returning through injury. What an amazing player. I feel that we’ve missed him this autumn. The guy is just relentless in defence, and a superb ball-carrier from the base of the scrum. I am slightly disappointed that Warburton is injured, as he is a perfect foil for the Springboks’ bulky back row. Tipuric is undoubtedly a fine player, brilliant with ball in hand, but doesn’t offer the same physicality as Warburton. The breakdown will be an interesting area this afternoon as a result.

Under-pressure Springboks coach Allister Coetzee has taken a gamble by dropping veteran winger Bryan Habana from South Africa’s match-day 23, bringing some fresh faces into the squad, with one eye on the next Rugby World Cup in 2019.

“We have a less experienced team, but I want to see some energy and an improved performance. Our selection is also keeping in mind of the process and necessity to build towards the 2019 World Cup.”

The Springboks have endured an even more disappointing autumn than that of Wales. Only a victory will salvage some hope for them in a pretty disastrous season, which should make for a very physical and competitive showdown in Cardiff.


Pro12 Returns

The Pro12 will resume this week alongside the final round of autumn international games. Friday sees a huge evening of action for the Welsh sides, with Cardiff Blues visiting current Champions Connacht; Ospreys travelling to Glasgow; and Scarlets hosting Leinster.

Newport Gwent Dragons conclude the weekend with a home game against Edinburgh on Sunday afternoon.

All of the pro12 teams will of course be missing some of their international players, which means I am expecting some extremely close and fiercely contested games this weekend. Blues face a Connacht side starting to find some form after a terrible start to the season, and could do with a win to re-establish their position in the top half of the league table. An away win in Galway would be a great statement.

I hope to see Willis Halaholo feature again after a man-of-the-match performance on his debut, against Treviso. He scored a peach of a try, throwing an outrageous dummy pass and showing some pace. He promises to be quite a live-wire, and the prospect of his mid-field partnership with former Hurricanes team-mate Ray Lee-Lo shows a great deal of promise indeed.

Who will feature for Wales against the Springboks?

Just a few early thoughts on the matter before the team for Wales’ final autumn game is announced on Thursday…

I can’t see Alex Cuthbert being involved, sadly. There was a desperation on his face as he failed to gather a deft overhead chip and score from two metres out. I agree with Wales legend  JJ Williams’ verdict that Cuthbert would be better off returning to the Cardiff Blues this weekend and getting some more rugby under his belt. Cuthbert has proved himself a superb finisher, an expert poacher, and impossible to stop from close range when he is at his rampaging best. I want to see him back to scoring ways, but that needs to start at regional level.

If Cuthbert is not involved, a back line of George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams would have a lovely balance and could prove to be a potent combination. I would like to see both Sam Davies and Gareth Anscombe both on the bench, Davies to be introduced as fly-half and Anscombe as full-back cover.

Great to hear that Gethin Jenkins has been declared fit for the game, also. His leadership skills are invaluable to this team, his tenacity a vital cog in the make-up of the front row. He is quite brilliant at the breakdown. I would like to see him resume captaincy for this encounter

Speaking of which, I would afford starting berths to both Tipuric and Warburton – the incumbent skipper at blind-side flanker. Hopefully Faletau will also be available for selection, in which case he also must start. I think we have missed his defensive effort dearly this autumn. Moriarty definitely deserves a place amongst the replacements after two superb and typically aggressive performances in Faletau’s absence.



Late Sam Davies Drop-Goal Helps Wales Squeeze Past Japan

A moment of calm brilliance from the Ospreys’ Sam Davies saw Wales clinch a dramatic victory in the nail-biting final moments of an otherwise drab performance from the home side in Cardiff on Saturday.

Replacement Sam Davies stood back and let the forwards make ground until he was within striking distance, successfully slotting a 30m drop goal without breaking a sweat to allow Wales to nudge ahead of Japan with seconds to spare.

It’s becoming a familiar tale for Wales this autumn, sadly. Completely blown apart by Australia in the first of the November games, Rob Howley responded by dropping Jamie Roberts and was also able to call upon stars Alun Wyn Jones and Liam Williams for the Argentina clash. That was a stodgy affair, but Wales emerged (narrowly) victorious.

I was pretty confused by the Wales team sheet for the Japan game, however. On paper, this was the easiest of the four games, certainly in terms of world rankings. The first Wales international I ever attended at the Millennium Stadium was against Japan in 2004, a game we won 98-0, with Colin Charvis having a try disallowed at the final whistle, if I remember correctly. Japan are undoubtedly a different prospect nowadays, having a team in the Super Rugby tournament, and competitive against many of the top teams. They most notably beat South Africa in last year’s world cup, and are not to be taken lightly.

Therefore, I would have expected the Wales team to reflect one of two things: either to show continuity by retaining selection from the Argentina game, and building on that momentum towards next weekend’s Springboks clash; or make virtually wholesale changes, allowing the fringe players exposure and an opportunity at test match rugby.

The team chosen by Howley, however, was a strange mix of the two, leaving me slightly baffled as to exactly what Wales were trying to achieve from this game. A back-line of Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert is surely among a first choice combination – although Cuthbert has been admittedly out of form at this level for some time now. Gareth Anscombe started at fly-half for the first time, forming an entirely new half-back pairing with club-mate Lloyd Williams, while Nicky Smith started in the front row alongside Bridgend product Scott Baldwin (who had his best game for Wales in ages) and lynchpin Samson Lee.

Kristian Dacey and Rhys Gill were on the bench, and Ospreys prodigy Keelan Giles missed his chance to win his first cap from the bench as a replacement. Personally, I’d have started with all three, and changed for experience as the game wore on. I would also have started with the excellent Sam Davies at ten, who certainly showed his quality and held his nerve in the games’ dying seconds.

Instead, we were treated to yet another disappointing, sludgy performance against a Japanese side that ran with width and pace, and gave everything to the game. Wales were content with battering defenders in midfield, trying to make holes, while the visitors were playing all the attractive rugby. I think most spectators would have preferred to have lost to this Japan side if we had done so in the process of blooding young players like Giles, for example, and at least played with some more attacking flair.

Next up, the Springboks roll into Cardiff on the back of officially their worst ever year of test match rugby, having lost nine of their games in 2016, most recently to Italy in Florence. That was an incredible win for the Azzuri, their first ever against South Africa. Based on Wales’ performances so far this season, both teams I think – I hope – will come out guns blazing, wanting to prove a point, set down a marker, and end the year on a high.

The Autumn Tests: The Verdict So Far

I’d like to take a moment to cast my eye beyond the results and performances in Wales’ autumn games, and look at the fortunes of the other home nations. I have to say, it’s been a promising fortnight for the northern hemisphere.

It would be criminal not to begin by mentioning Ireland’s first ever victory over New Zealand.

Let me re-iterate. Their first ever victory.

Ireland have played a total of 29 matches against the All Blacks in their 111 years of existence, and their first victory finally came on Saturday 5th November, in front of a fervent crowd; a game staged at an NFL ground in Chicago. Their 40-29 victory was absolutely stunning. It was a win that was clearly fuelled by the memory of Munster coach Anthony Foley. Ireland’s performance epitomised the ruthlessness and determination required in both attack and defence in order to beat the best team in the world. They scored five wondrous tries in this epic victory, that will deservedly be talked about for generations.

This is a win of such magnitude that the impact could be felt throughout world rugby. Ireland successfully brought to an end a record run of 18 consecutive test victories from this world-beating All Blacks side. The fact that a side from the northern hemisphere ended this run is not to be overlooked – Ireland are likely to contribute a large contingency to next summer’s British and Irish Lions team on the back of this stunning win. This can be seen as a huge warning shot to the southern hemisphere powerhouses, as well as a warning to the All Blacks themselves that the Lions will be arriving with guns blazing next summer.

There is also huge significance to the fact that the game was staged in Chicago. America is, at present, still an emerging rugby nation – one which I feel will become a rugby superpower in the near future. This game was an absolutely brilliant advert for rugby union, and has surely won over a wave of new fans. Any ideas of developing a global professional season that incorporates North America have surely taken a huge stride forward.

Elsewhere in Europe, England were looking to continue a nine match unbeaten run when they faced the Springboks on Saturday, and they raised a few eyebrows in brushing aside the visitors with gusto. Unbeaten in 2016, it’s no exaggeration to say England are playing like world champions. The variety of their play, the skill and physicality, game plan and execution, everything looks sleek. This England side looks hungry. They are playing an astonishing brand of heads-up rugby at present that I really can’t see any Six Nations team living with come February. I must say, it’s promising news for the impending Lions tour, England’s forward pack looking particularly menacing, their backs looking strong, creative and confident. In many ways, I wish their autumn schedule included a game against New Zealand, because I don’t think any other team will come close to beating them in November, and I’d love to see how they square up to the World Cup holders.

Scotland were also in action on Saturday, and came agonisingly close to beating a spirited Australian side at Murrayfield. The Scots got off to such a brilliant start – debutant centre Huw Jones scoring twice – I was convinced a victory was on the cards. A one point defeat broke Scottish hearts, although there is so much to be positive about. With Pro12 high-fliers Glasgow forming the backbone of Vern Cotter’s side, it can only be a matter of time until Scotland find their stride. The wonderful Stuart Hogg is looking back to his best – he’ll surely be on the aeroplane to New Zealand come June.

Wales edge past stubborn Argentina

Wales fans breathed a collective sigh of relief at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, as the men in red scraped past a dogged Argentina side that looked determined to back up last week’s victory over Japan.

Wales led 6-3 at half time courtesy of two Leigh Halfpenny penalties, but frustratingly missed several opportunities to be even further ahead after dominating territory and possession.

The game opened up in the second half, Liam Williams’ try just reward for his attacking verve. It was great to see both Williams and Alun Wyn Jones back in action this week, and their presence on the pitch certainly seemed to add a boost to squad morale and an increase in quality after a shabby performance last week. Wyn Jones was visibly emotional during the anthems – he bravely chose to play ahead of his dad’s funeral, which took place today.

The Pumas clawed their way back into the game on two occasions, the excellent Juan Martin Hernandez and scrum-half Martin Landajo crossing to keep the visitors in touching distance. However, Leigh Halfpenny’s 78th minute penalty was enough to secure Wales’ first win in six games.

Emily and I had an absolutely brilliant day in Cardiff on Saturday with our friends Danny, Bek, Karl and Carrie. It was a massive weekend of rugby in the Welsh capital, with the UKAF game against Wales women the night before drawing a record home crowd of 1300 – absolutely fantastic. I cannot speak highly enough of this excellent fixture, and I hope it continues to go from strength to strength.

After some amazing matches all weekend, it has to be said the standard of rugby on the pitch between Wales and Argentina felt a little disappointing at times. I think most fans – myself included – wanted to see Wales play ambitious attacking rugby, with the kind of flair the likes of the Ospreys in particular have been playing of late. The inclusion of Liam Williams on the wing hinted at a fast paced game which never truly reached fifth gear.

Having felt a little despondent after the game (despite winning), I must say I’ve felt more positive about Wales’ performance on reflection. Halfpenny, Liam Williams, Alun Wyn Jones and the returning Sam Warburton all had excellent games, stamping their authority all over the pitch in a brutally physical encounter. It’s great to be back to winning ways, and I hope we can carry this momentum into the Japan game next weekend. That would set Wales up for an explosive encounter against South Africa in the final autumn test.