Scotland’s near slaying of Rugby World Cup hosts France in France on Saturday night has added to the intrigue and intensity of the Springboks final two tournament warm-up against against Wales and the All Blacks, writes Mark Keohane.
Wales in Cardiff this weekend will be no hit and giggle friendly warm-up for the Springboks and the All Blacks, at Twickenham a week later, are never a hit and giggle 80 minute exercise.
I didn’t expect too much from England and Wales at Twickenham and the rugby was turgid. The drama, with England getting four yellow cards, a red card and Wales getting a yellow card, was box office, but the rugby wouldn’t sell on any day of the week.
Just under 75 000 paid to watch England, playing 12 against 15 for nearly 10 minutes in the third quarter, somehow turn a 17-9 deficit with 10 minutes to go into a two points win. Wales, in those final 10 minutes, were the very definition of shocking, and several of those players who led the Welsh embarrassment, won’t make Warren Gatland’s final World Cup squad.
Wales, in winning 20-9 a week ago and losing 17-19, won’t just fold in the World Cup, but there would have to be some kind of metamorphic change for them to be close to any final in Paris on 28th October.
England, well it is England after all and they don’t have to win a game to still be written up in the English media.
The English were short of a gallop at Twickenham and equally short of brain power. Owen Farrell was the only consistent in how he has refused to adapt his ‘league-style’ shoulder charge. His red card warrants a six match ban, but don’t hold your breath. He will get three at best. It is Farrell we are talking about and it is England.
Freddy Steward was never going to compete for the ball and was never in a position to compete with Josh Adams. His take out of Adams in the air warranted a red card. He got a yellow after much debate. Seemingly innocuous and accidental head clashes, when it could be either the attacker or defender to blame, get red cards.
Rugby is a mess when it comes to player safety, or what constitutes player safety, and I fear the biggest match at the World Cup, the final, will be determined by match official interpretation and not necessarily player brilliance.
The Springboks in Cardiff will be an indicator of how seriously to take the Welsh. I expect the Boks to comfortably put them away, on match-day quality and on game time preparation.
But I have been bullish in the past about the world champion Boks battering a Welsh team that was woeful in losing at home to Italy, and a 2-1 series win could easily have been 2-0 to Wales going into the third Test in Cape Town.
Wales, somehow, trouble the Boks. Perhaps it is their mental strength and street-fighting willingness to refuse to leave the scrap, and the Boks on Saturday, regardless of a scoreline, will know they have been in a fight.
So much can – and is likely – to happen before the Boks arrives in the south of France to prepare for their title defence at the end of the month.
I just don’t see the same 33 players named for the World Cup getting through these two ‘warm-up’ Tests unscathed.
If the Twickenham hit out lacked all the elements and intensity of a Six Nations grind between the two nations, there was nothing lacking in intensity, commitment or entertainment when a full-strength France hosted Scotland.
The visitors were outstanding in the opening quarter, France their equal in the next 45 minutes and Scotland as good at the death as they were at the start. Scotland led 10-3, France recovered to lead 27-10 and Scotland responded to level 27-all with a few minutes to go. France won it 30-27 with a late penalty, having lost the week previously at Murrayfield 25-21. On balance, over the two Tests, Scotland shaded the aggregate 52-51.
This tells you everything you should know about the challenge of the Boks tournament opener against the Scots.
The South African born and raised wing duo Duhan van der Merwe and Kyle Steyn were powerful and effective and the props Pierre Schoeman and WP Nel were more solid than spectacular.
Finn Russell at No 10 was all class and the Scots, player for player, matched the French. The two teams have met 10 times since the 2019 World Cup and France have won six and Scotland four. It could so easily have been five a-piece after the latest showdown.
I’ll be posting daily from today (Sunday) in the build-up to the World Cup and throughout the tournament. I will also be inviting opinion pieces from supporters for publishing. Don’t be shy with an offering: minimum 350 words, maximum 500 words.