Rarely has a week gone by in this year’s international rugby calendar without a controversy relating to the All Blacks. Over the course of the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup, we saw Steve Hansen and his team accused of disrespect by Michael Cheika after a cartoon mocking the Australian coach appeared in an Auckland newspaper; Owen Franks’ contact with the face of Kane Douglas in a maul go unpunished; TJ Perenara’s try against South Africa at Ellis Park awarded despite questions over correct grounding; and an Australian try harshly ruled out for obstruction by Nigel Owens at Eden Park. Last weekend’s test match in Dublin was compelling in its physicality, but the treatment of two reckless tackles from Sam Cane and Malakai Fekitoa has led once more to furore over World Rugby’s disciplinary process.
The emotional release which followed last Saturday’s historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago was astounding. The atmosphere of drama, history and meaning began from the moment the Irish responded to the haka with a tribute to the late Anthony Foley – a moment that demonstrated why this still-nascent professional game must allow space for its traditions to be maintained, imbuing the game with colour and establishing a nexus with its amateur past which other sports have long since lost. It was heightened by New Zealand’s stirring fightback to 33-29 with 15 minutes remaining, and encapsulated by Jamie Heaslip sinking to his knees in a moment of introspection after shaking the hands of the opposition, contemplating the enormity of the 80 minutes which had passed.
When Jordie Barrett touches down in Chicago this week to link up with the All Blacks as an apprentice on their end-of-year tour, he will do so as one of the most accomplished age-grade rugby players on the planet. Over the past six months, the nineteen-year-old has been the stand-out performer in a New Zealand U20 side whose fifth place finish in June belied its talent level, played a key role in Canterbury’s thirteenth National Provincial Championship (clocking the most NPC minutes of any U19-eligible player in the last five seasons) and signed his first Super Rugby contract with the Hurricanes. Exposure to the All Black environment over the coming weeks will accelerate his development both on and off the field, and with regular opportunities in Super Rugby early in 2017 he could begin to make a claim for a place in the playing squad sooner rather than later.
Analysis of Clermont’s Argentinean fly-half Patricio Fernández, focusing on the Top 14 fixture vs. Castres on Sat 1st Oct 2016.
Australia’s attack excels at creating line breaks in the channels outside 13. Despite three defeats in their June series, they scored 10 tries to England’s 9 and created 39 line breaks to England’s 19 (per ESPN), looking most threatening when they moved the ball into these wider channels. It’s in these areas that Israel Folau is most threatening; while he is closer to the action at outside centre, when he plays at fullback (as he will on Saturday) he is able to make arcing runs from behind his centres and hit the gap before turning downhill. Bernard Foley’s range & timing of passing, along with his angles of running at first receiver, help put Folau into this space. Australia were reasonably successful in this area despite starting a centre partnership of Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani in two of the three tests; the return of Matt Giteau as a second ball-player to the midfield should make this even more of a threat on Saturday.
New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship – this year branded as the Mitre 10 Cup – is always one of the most enjoyable competitions in club rugby, performing a key role in the nation’s talent development process. Nehe Milner-Skudder’s performances for Manawatu in 2014 served as a springboard to Super Rugby and international recognition in 2015, while the part played by Seta Tamanivalu in Taranaki’s championship victory that same season led to a place in the Chiefs squad and a cap for the All Blacks in June 2016. The competition also provides an opportunity – arguably unparalleled in world rugby – for age-grade players to prove themselves against top competition. The NZRU will undoubtedly be disappointed with a fifth-place finish in this year’s U20 World Championship, but the manner in which the side rebounded from sloppy pool-stage performances against Ireland and Wales to score nineteen tries in two emphatic knockout victories was indicative of the attacking talent at Scott Robertson’s disposal, and many of these young players will be heavily involved with their provinces over the coming weeks.
Before Connacht’s inspirational run to the Pro12 title this season, the last side to capture the imagination of the Irish rugby public was Joe Schmidt’s Leinster of 2010-13. While Pat Lam will find it tough to equal the three consecutive European trophies achieved by his compatriot in Dublin, his domestic title was founded on similar principles to Schmidt’s success in that period: a superbly executed attacking system, high skill levels and an aversion to kicking away possession. The zenith of this Leinster team was perhaps the run to their first Heineken Cup in the 2010-11 season; after negotiating a difficult pool fairly comfortably, they beat Leicester and Toulouse in the knock-out rounds before a famous comeback victory over Northampton Saints in the final at the Millenium Stadium.
The number of players in each squad from this year’s World Rugby U20 Championship eligible for the 2017 tournament. Notable: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina could all return at least ten members of their 2016 squads, while finalists England and Ireland have the lowest number of potential returning players with eight and four respectively.