Make no mistake: the biggest result of the autumn internationals rugby was not Ireland’s historic win over the All Blacks last weekend, but Fiji’s even more historic 21-14 win over France yesterday.
The best for last in autumn internationals rugby wrap
Ireland beat the All Blacks at home for the first time last week, but the win by the Flying Fijians was not just the first time they had ever beaten France, they also did so in Paris.
The win was also the only win by a Tier 2 country over a Tier 1 nation in this year’s rugby autumn internationals. Of the seven matches played between Tier 1 and Tier 2 countries this past month, only Fiji managed to fly the flag for the smaller nations.
And this was not a flukey win. Fiji scored two tries and also had two others disallowed for correct but tenuous reasons: one for an offside at the ruck that is often ignored, while the other was a late hit that did not really have that much effect on the play.
France threw everything at them though they were not at their best. But they weren’t allowed to be because of Fiji’s tenacious defending, tireless tackling and parity at the set pieces. If Fiji’s lineouts and clearance kicks had been a bit better, they could have wrapped up the game much sooner and they would not have had to live through the nail biting finish that they did.
Fiji’s forwards redeemed themselves after a poor display against Scotland, too, weeks ago; while the backs found some rhythm and cohesion. Centre Semi Radradra and winger Vereneki Goneva especially were outstanding while flyhalf Ben Volavola had his best game in a Fiji shirt, one or two mistakes aside.
(Click the image to see a table on the wins Tier 2 nations have had over Tier 1 nations in the professional era, up to the end of 2017. Since then, there have been two other Tier 2 victories this year: Japan beating Italy 34-17 in Oita, Japan; and USA’s 30-29 defeat of Scotland in Houston.)
Importance of proper buildup time
Of course, one important reason for Fiji’s much improved performance is that it came three weeks into their tour, showing what quality preparation and time together will do.
Ditto for Samoa and their 28-10 win over Spain, after disappointing losses to USA and Georgia. Again, time together and better fitness and training as a squad would explain the improvement.
Hopefully, these two countries along with the other Tier 2/3 nations, will get a decent preparation time before the Rugby World Cup, and not have players still playing club games on the eve of the tournament (as has happened in previous World Cups).
The most open Rugby World Cup?
With Ireland and Wales (for the first time) finishing November unbeaten and England losing by only one point to New Zealand, the North have three genuine contenders for the World Cup next year.
Scotland too will be reasonably happy with their series, losing to Wales and South Africa but beating Fiji and Argentina. They did so playing exciting attacking rugby with exciting talents such as Adam Hastings and Huw Jones to join the brilliant Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell.
Overall, the North had a good autumn series, winning eight of the 13 North vs South matches. And, as stated above, with Ireland and Wales coming through winning all their matches.
All four southern hemisphere nations suffered losses. Argentina lost all three of their matches — against Ireland, France and Scotland. Australia lost to England and Wales and defeated Italy. South Africa beat Scotland and France but lost to England and Wales. And New Zealand beat England and Italy but lost to Ireland.
All four British teams won yesterday, with Wales’ 20-11 victory over the Springboks the pick of the games. England were too strong for a disjointed Australia (read a truly scathing analysis of their tour here). Ireland, even with mostly reserves, had a comfortable time against the USA. Meanwhile, Scotland were slightly fortunate to beat Argentina 14-9 but showed they are made of sterner stuff since the time of Vern Cotter, and continuing under Gregor Townsend.
Ascendancy of the North
Taken over the whole year, the North have won 62.5 per cent of the North vs South matches in 2018; their best performance since 1982 (80 per cent).
But of course, as Australia showed at RWC 2015, form the previous year may not count for much (they had a bad 2014 but made the final the following year).
While New Zealand, Ireland, England and Wales are favorites, for now, South Africa and even Australia and France cannot be discounted – despite recent results.
Russia won’t be easy-beats
Japan were given notice that their opening match at the Rugby World Cup next year — the tournament opener, in fact — will not be a cakewalk. Russia led 22-10 at half-time and for most of the way in Gloucester, England, but finally succumbed near the end when Japanese skipper Michael Leitch scored in the corner to give Japan a close 32-27 win.
While Russia are expected to be the whipping boys in Pool A, yesterday’s performance shows that Ireland, Scotland and Samoa cannot afford to take them too lightly. Japan will know this now.
In Tbilisi, Georgia continued their solid form with a 20-9 win over Tonga, a week after seeing off Samoa — vital preparation, no doubt for their game against Fiji at RWC 2019.
At the moment, though, Fiji are clearly a step above both fellow Pacific island countries in terms of personnel and form.
In Bucharest, Romania were beaten 20-27 by Uruguay in a minor surprise, while two other home teams, Spain and Portugal, both lost to their visitors, Samoa (10-28) and Namibia (23-29) respectively. Perhaps not surprisingly, all three winners will be at RWC 2019, while the three hosts yesterday will be watching from home.
Repechage: Canada make it nine in a row – what now?
In the end, Canada, turbocharged by winger DTH van der Merwe, comfortably beat Hong Kong 27-10 to win the RWC repechage group and complete the RWC 2019 lineup.
Their reward for beating Kenya, Germany and Hong Kong in successive weekends is to now face world champions New Zealand, two-time winner South Africa, Italy and Namibia in Pool B.
It also means Canada will be playing in their ninth straight World Cup — which means every World Cup that has been played.
While the Canucks took the long way to get to Japan, now that they’re there, what can they realistically do?
Beating New Zealand would be an extremely long shot, but they should have the beating of Namibia, who are only slightly better than Kenya, a team the Canadians beat easily in the repechage.
Italy and South Africa, then, are realistic targets.
The Azzurri is a strange beast. They’re classified as a Tier 1 team by virtue of their place in the Six Nations, but they regularly lose to all the other Tier 1 teams, and would struggle against some Tier 2 nations, such as Fiji and Samoa. In the recently concluded autumn series, the Italians lost to Ireland (7-54), Australia (6-27) and New Zealand (3-66), but quelled any further talk of Georgia replacing them in the Six Nations by beating the Lelos 28-17.
Canada, at their best, can compete with the likes of Fiji, Samoa and Japan, so beating Italy is not out of the question.
The plan for the Canucks
In Japan, the Canucks will open their campaign against the Italians, who would have opened only four days earlier against Namibia. So Canada have a chance to watch Italy play and could capitalise on a team that would have had only three days of rest.
Canada then face New Zealand six days later but if there is a game they should use to rest injured or tired players, or save them for the challenge to come, this would be it.
For six days later they then face South Africa — who would have played a must-win match against Italy only four days previously. The Springboks are likely to have injuries, and their reserve pool is not as strong as New Zealand’s or even England’s. They will still field a strong team, but not their strongest.
If there is a chance of a Japan-like upset, another Brighton for shell-shocked Springboks, Kobe 2019 could be the venue.
The draw is in Canada’s favour. It’s up to them to believe and to capitalise.
Recap of the RWC 2019 Repechage qualifiers in Marseilles, France
Nov 11: Germany 26 HK 9; Canada 65 Kenya 19
Nov 17: HK 42 Kenya 17; Canada 29 Germany 10
Nov 23: Germany 43 Kenya 6; Canada 27 HK 10
More articles on the rugby autumn internationals can be read here in our RWC 2019 section.