Ireland had the best November of all the Northern Hemisphere teams. They beat South Africa 29-15, where disciplined defence and ruthless attack saw them home. An Irish team with 13 changes then beat Georgia in a one-sided game 49-7. Ireland then pipped the Wallabies in a cracker of a game 23-20 to end the year on a high.
Joe Schmidt – ruthless obsession with basics
Strengths & Weaknesses
Ireland’s November was highlighted by some excellent breakdown, maul and defensive work. Joe Schmidts ruthless obsession with the basics has seen Ireland become voracious at the breakdown with their pressure resulting in multiple turnovers and pressure further out in the play. All of this was with a blindside in the seven jersey and missing their best two opensides due to injury. The Irish never made it easy for their opponents and their discipline on the ground saw only three breakdown penalties given away in the games against South Africa and Australia.
The excellence at the breakdown continued into Ireland’s defensive play. Aside from a crazy 15 minutes against the Wallabies, Ireland were rock solid for the majority of November. This was typified by Ireland aggressive line speed and structure which resulted in the Springboks turning over the ball 19 times in the opening fixture. There were also some innovative methods of countering opponents’ strengths, which was shown against the much vaunted South African maul by not engaging and allowing Ireland to enter around the side and grab the ball carrier.
Ireland’s maul also remains a huge strength and was a source of points throughout the series. Simon Easterby has continued the work started by John Plumtree and there has yet to be a side in rugby who can legally stop Ireland going to this weapon. With some excellent forwards due to come back from injury this is an area of Ireland’s play which will only improve.
Maul – traditional strength of Ireland
Ireland still have a lot to work on over the next year as they look towards the Six Nations and the World Cup. They need to think about putting Gordon D’Arcy out to pasture. The experienced inside centre looked off the pace in his two games and if Stuart Olding can get more game time with Ulster he’ll surely force D’Arcy out of the picture, and do battle with Henshaw and Payne for the two centre jerseys.
Ireland also need to work on their attacking game with ball in hand. Ireland’s tendency to kick ball away and rely on their excellent kick chase instead of trying to force offloads of 50:50 balls means that they are a tad predictable in attack. The axing of D’Arcy should help this but they will need to expand their attack if they are to take the next step. The return of Healy and O’Brien for the Six Nations should help here.
One area of major concern for Ireland is the scrum. Ireland were pushed around by the Boks and gave as good as they got against the Wallabies. Mike Ross needs to stay fit as he takes so long to get up to speed he is a liability early on in a series. If Ireland can keep their scrum steady they’ll prove very tough to beat.
Paul O’Connell – inspirational leader of Ireland
Ireland have ended the international season ranked third in the world and over the next year they’ll have to deal with the expectation of this. As it stands they should be aiming for the Six Nations title and a World Cup Semi Final at a minimum. With the best 9 and 10 in Europe and an outstanding coach this should be well within Ireland’s abilities.
Team rating: B +
Best Players: 1. Paul O’Connell, 2. Johnny Sexton, 3. Robbie Henshaw
Wales 13-man lineout drive
Wales had a mixed November—a decent but unsuccessful performance against the Wallabies was followed by a terrible showing against Fiji. They then went back to basics and were in the game for 65 minutes against New Zealand before being blown away. They finally got the win over a SANZAR team they craved against an under strength South Africa in the final game of the series.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The Welsh scrum has emerged as a real weapon this November. I had real doubts about Samson Lee before this series but he has really stood up and looks like an international quality tighthead. With some of their Six Nations and World Cup opponents looking vulnerable in the set piece this will be a real area of work for Wales so they can drive home their dominance. There has been a real turnaround in this area for Wales, and Gatland’s ruthless dropping of Adam Jones has paid dividends.
Skipper Sam Warburton – stayed injury free
The form of Gatland’s chosen few (I’ll touch on this later) has been back to an acceptable level. Jamie Roberts looked fit and motivated for the first time in international rugby since probably the Lions tour, and Sam Warburton strung together three decent games without his customary injury or slump. Wales will need all of their first choice players at 100% if they are to progress from their South Africa win.
An area were Wales initially looked to have sought out new ideas was their game plan. They decided to play with the ball a bit more than usual at times instead of the aimless kicking we’ve been used to over the past twelve months. Although it didn’t quite work it is encouraging for Welsh fans that the brains trust are considering a more open approach.
That said, when push came to shove they went back to what they know and relied on aggressive defense and good kicking to get them home. Far too often the Welsh look stale and out of ideas with the ball, if I were Warren Gatland I’d be thinking about changing up his backroom staff with Rob Howley in my firing line.
Warren Gatland – has a chosen few
A real area of concern for Wales is their player depth: the drop off from the first choice players to the reserves is extraordinary. It’s hard to imagine Wales coping with an injury list the size of England’s or Ireland’s. Wales faced a similar problem in 2010 before Gatland rejuvenated his side with several youngsters however this time it’s hard to know where they’ll come from. Gatland’s loyalty to the likes of Phillips, Adam Jones and Roberts whilst they were in terrible form looks to have cost him some valuable development time before the World Cup.
There seems to be a real problem with fitness and conditioning in the Welsh camp. With a number of key players playing abroad Gatland has questioned their clubs’ methods—and from Mark Hammet’s public mutterings, the less said about the regional set ups the better.
This has led to Gatland having to focus on fitness and conditioning in camp. Compare this with Joe Schmidt who has used his time to work on game plans and combinations for Ireland. It’s easy to see which team is better coached at the moment and Wales need to sort out central contracts for the long term if they are to compete at the top.
Rhys Webb – one of Wales’ best
Make no mistake 2015 is a make or break year for Warren Gatland and his staff. They face a tough Six Nations with visits to Paris, Edinburgh and Rome before facing off in the World Cup Group of Death (or Pool A to me and you). Although they’ve shown improvement this November all their fellow Six Nations teams (bar Italy) have improved by more.
Right now I’d be backing them for two Six Nations wins and unfortunately an early exit from a very tough World Cup group.
Team rating: C-
Best players 1. Rhys Webb, 2. Samson Lee, 3. Jake Ball
Italy had a mixed November—they were targeting two wins from three but only ended with the a solitary victory over Samoa in their first game. They were pipped by two points by Argentina and gave a good show of themselves against South Africa but ultimately fell short.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Italy’s game with ball hand has regressed since the Six Nations. They look utterly clueless after three phases and Jacques Brunel will be disappointed with this regression. Both South Africa and Argentina were there for the taking but Italy couldn’t fashion enough scoring opportunities. All in all there is a huge amount of work to be done.
They still need to find a set of consistent half backs who can put their pack in the right areas although new flyhalf Kelly Haimona will bear watching in Six Nations, because he had some promising moments. In the centres, 21 year-old Michele Campagnaro continued his promise also.
Italy’s number one strength is their captain Sergio Parisse. So often it seems that he is carrying the team, he produced several top drawer performances over the past few weeks and its hard to imagine Italy even being competitive without him. He must be kept fit if they are to make any headway in the Six Nations.
Kelly Haimona – new Italy flyhalf
The Italians seem to have found a couple more decent props this November. Their set piece looked solid for the most part and they’ll challenge most teams with it. They still need to work on their discipline in this area as their emotional Italian blood leads to them getting overexcited and giving away silly penalties and free kicks in the tight when they are on top.
Italy have a tough Six Nations ahead and given the form of their rivals its hard to see were they can pick up any points. At this stage they are heading for the Wooden Spoon. In the World Cup they are in a group with Ireland and France. There is always a possibility that the French could implode and let Italy sneak out of the group, however at this stage they’ll be out of the World Cup after the first weekend in October.
Team rating: D
Best players 1. Sergio Parisse, 2. Alessandro Zanni, 3. Luke McLean
See next page for review of England, France and Scotland matches in November by “Bardon”