Wallabies and Boks playing for more than pride

New Zealand may have this year’s Tri-Nations all wrapped up but with us only half way through the tournament there are still many games to be played, and for Robbie Deans and Peter de Villiers, two coaches both under a significant amount of pressure, it’s the chance to answer some critics.

Super Cooper returns for the Wallabies

Starting with Australia, the return of Quade Cooper shifts Matt Giteau to inside centre, leaving Anthony Faingaa on the bench. The Aussie backline as a result looks a lot more solid, the experience of Giteau and Ashley-Cooper in the centres gives them a good chance of putting players through the gaps, with Giteau’s dexterity and Ashley-Cooper’s x-factor. Have the Aussies got enough to go up to the Highveld and pull off a victory? They are certainly underdogs.

South Africa’s team for this weekend is excellent. Out go the unlucky Juan de Jongh and Gio Aplon, and they really are unlucky after their performances against the All Blacks. In comes mystery man Frans Steyn, who depending on whether you listen to his club Racing Metro or the Springboks is either unable to walk or fully fit, and Jaque Fourie returns from a four week ban to come in at outside centre. With Juan Smith coming back last week, the team has a real 2007 vintage about it, minus a few names, and what that means is that this is a side full of international experience, and one that really knows how to grind out a victory anywhere in the world.

Matfield reaches 100 caps on Saturday.

Also important to note is that Saturday will be the 100th cap for a South African legend, Victor Matfield. His consistency and excellence over the years has been unwavering, and whenever he retires he will join the likes of Eales and Johnson as one of the great second rows and captains of all time.

Two teams under pressure, but home advantage will be telling. South Africa to win by 10.


Why the All Blacks hold the best position ahead of the World Cup

New Zealand’s comeback win over South Africa was not only an indication of the quality of the side, but also leaves Graham Henry’s team in an enviable position. With a few games left in this year’s Tri-Nations and an Autumn tour to the Northern Hemisphere in a couple of months, Henry has stated that he plans to use these games to blood some other players so that “we’ve got players in every position who can play at international level going into the World Cup.” The reality is that a second string All Blacks side would probably give any other team a run for their money anyway; just look at the New Zealand Maori’s performances against England and Ireland for an indication of just how good the strength in depth is.

Aaron Cruden could step up from his apprenticeship role.

With Dan Carter now set to be out for 8 weeks after an ankle operation, 21 year old Aaron Cruden should be the man to come in, in what is a fantastic opportunity to test himself out at international level against the Boks and the Wallabies. Other players who could be rested include the slightly elder statesmen of the team such as Brad Thorn, Tony Woodcock and Kevin Mealamu in the forwards, whilst in the backs New Zealand have so many top young fliers that the likes of Muliaina, Rokocoko and Conrad Smith can easily be replaced. Bearing this in mind, here’s a stab at what an All Black second string may look like:

Ben Franks, Corey Flynn, Neemia Tialata, Sam Whitelock, Anthony Boric, Victor Vito, Liam Messam, Adam Thomson, Alby Mathewson, Aaron Cruden, Rene Ranger, Benson Stanley, Richard Kahui, Zac Guildford, Israel Dagg.

Apart from a doubt at 7, it doesn’t look bad at all. Great for the All Blacks, ominous for everyone else.

Boks mix it up for Johannesburg test.

Francois Hougaard comes in at 9.

Many changes to the line-up see Gio Aplon, JP Pietersen, Frans Hougaard, Juan Smith and Jannie du Plessis all come back in. Gio Aplon has his first start at full back for South Africa, such an important position in defence, especially so against New Zealand. The centre partnership of Jean de Villiers and Juan de Jongh is to me the best the Boks can put out. Whilst up front, Flip Van Der Merwe gets a first start at lock and will relish going up against Brad Thorn. Ricky Januarie in my eyes has done little wrong but Hougaard may give the back line a similar spark. Whether the changes will make SA stop the All Blacks though is open to debate, such has been there impressive form so far.

South Africa: 15 Gio Aplon, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Juan Smith, 6 Schalk Burger, 5 Victor Matfield, 5 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 John Smit (c), 1 Gurthro Steenkamp.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 CJ van der Linde, 18 Danie Rossouw, 19 Francois Louw, 20 Ricky Januarie, 21 Butch James, 22 Wynand Olivier.

Date: Saturday, August 21
Kick-off: 17:00 (15:00 GMT)
Venue: FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)

Bledisloe 2- All Blacks a game away from the title

Tomorrow morning New Zealand could take this year’s Tri-nations title with 4 games still left to play. Their performances over the last few months have been excellent, they are unbeaten, and having adapted to the new set of laws with what is being labelled as an “all-action” style of rugby, they have simply brushed everyone else aside.

Anthony Faingaa makes a first start at 12

For Australia last week’s defeat stemmed from a combination of being starved of possession and silly errors. The red card given to Drew Mitchell following examination from the judiciary panel has been deemed a bit unlucky, but would Australia have stopped with New Zealand with 15? It’s hard to say. Robbie Deans has obviously felt changes were needed so in come the Faingaa twins, Saia and Anthony of the Queensland Reds. As for Anthony, good luck to him, because he’ll be facing the wrecking ball that is Ma’a Nonu.

To have your first start at inside centre against the All Blacks in Christchurch is like being put right at the bottom of the deep end, but anyone who saw him play at 12 for the Reds knows what he brings to the game; pace, flat on the game-line, and good off-loading skills. His combination in the centres with Adam Ashley-Cooper looks a little lightweight, but in truth AAC is their best player. His flexibility in the backline, he can play 11-15, is testament to his high level of quality. At full back, Kurtley Beale faces his biggest test yet at international level and Carter and Weepu’s smart kicking game will be used to test him early on. They will have to fight for every chance and if they can keep the ball away from the All Blacks and play the phases, the opportunities to score will come.

Weepu comes in at 9 for the injured Jimmy Cowan

Weepu is the only change to an excellent All Blacks side. Graham Henry will look for his players to produce the same error free performance as last week but to try and not concede as many points as Australia put on the board last time out. A home win, and the Tri-Nations title, seems likely.

Live on Sky Sports 2 from 8:30am

New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Jo Rokocoko, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Sam Whitelock, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Alby Mathewson, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 Benson Stanley

Australia: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 James O’Connor, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Anthony Faingaa, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Will Genia, 8 Richard Brown, 7 David Pocock, 6 Rocky Elsom (capt), 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Salesi Ma’afu, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Stephen Moore, 17 James Slipper, 18 Rob Simmons, 19 Matt Hodgson, 20 Luke Burgess, 21 Berrick Barnes, 22 Cameron Shepherd.

Date: Saturday, August 7
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (SA)

New Zealand ominously rampant in Melbourne

I’ll be the first to admit I went into this match thinking the Wallabies had more than a fighting chance to win in Melbourne. And after Drew Mitchell’s charge down and try in the first 15 minutes, the little bit of luck you sometimes need to win tight games seemed to be on their side. Then from the resulting kick off, Carter, who doesn’t often get mugged, redeemed himself by charging down Berrick Barnes and going over. And you never really had any doubt who was going to win.

Cory Jane steps his way over the try line.

Every 12-18 months before a World Cup comes around, the All Blacks always seem to be people’s favourite to win it, and yet in the last three World Cups Australia, England and South Africa have rubbished these predictions. But surely, surely, this time round, in New Zealand, the trophy is the All Blacks to lose. Forget for one moment Australia’s idiotic indiscipline and Drew Mitchell’s red card; this was an awesome performance.

The way the All Blacks seemed to win back every restart, as Greg Martin brilliantly quipped, was as if they had employed a volleyball expert to help them with their spikes. Their ball retention was excellent and it’s impressive that the Wallabies managed to get any points on the board given how starved they were of possession. The back row of Kaino, McCaw and Read performs so well as a unit that Rocky Elsom and co were easily made to look second rate, one moment when Kaino handed off Richard Brown onto his back side springs to mind. But it’s not just in the back row, it’s all over the park. Muliaina at full back is playing as well as I can remember, his lines are sensational, his pace hasn’t waned with age. His first try, coming from an unbelievable in-field chip from Cory Jane, was beautiful to watch. They work so hard to win the ball and run it around the park, but there’s never any sign of strained effort, it all flows so smoothly and to use a sporting cliché, they really do make it look so easy. Joe Rokocoko’s finish in the second half was another touch of class amongst a whole collection of exceptional moments.

Joe Rokocoko scores with a superb finish.

For the Wallabies, Quade Cooper’s attacking edge was missed, and Berrick Barnes up against Ma’a Nonu always had mis-match written all over it in terms of power. The back row in particularly got pushed around and they are far better players than what they showed. Pocock at 7 is still a diamond of a player who gets better with every test, his work on the ground at the rucks being top class and he is worthy of being labelled as the next McCaw. The one thing I would say is it’s so easy to forget how young this Wallaby side is. Genia, Barnes, Horne, Pocock and O’Connor to name a few are still under 24, and some of the inexperience on the bench in the form of the Queenslanders Slipper and Simmons is a bit alarming. Robbie Deans has been applauded for his bold youthful selections and rightly so but against the All Blacks with 50 minutes on the clock and a man sent off you don’t want to be bringing on guys in the tight five who’ve only got 2 or 3 caps.

Corey Flynn (16) is congratulated by captain McCaw after scoring try number 7.

As for Mitchell’s red card for two yellows, the first one for a no-arms tackle is a penalty that is being given more and more in the game and rightly so. Owen Franks for the All Blacks had been similarly sent to the bin minutes before, so there can be no complaints there. As for the second, Craig Joubert was very clear to both captains that he wouldn’t tolerate any slowing down of the ball from tap penalties or quick lineouts, and yet Mitchell still went and did it. Joubert admitted in the process of issuing the card that he knew how it would affect the game, but he didn’t really have a choice. Whereas other referees might have let it slide, Joubert stuck to his word, and regardless of how it affected the game, that commands respect.

Bledisloe 2 is next week in Christchurch and you bet the Wallabies will work hard on their discipline and restarts in training. As for the All Blacks, expect more of the same.

Boks decline coming at the worst possible time.

In the last real chance to test themselves against the other top two teams in world rugby before the 2011 World Cup, South Africa have managed to find their worst run of form since 2007. The timing is poor to say the least, the Boks have not experienced 3 defeats in a row for some time, and the magnitude of the loss to Australia last weekend will really hurt deeply. But let’s be clear, these defeats have not come as a result of great misfortune or controversial refereeing; the Boks have been their own worst enemies with some suicidal indiscipline.

Coach Peter De Villiers is now under significant pressure.

In each of the last three tests, two against New Zealand and one against Australia, they have had players sin-binned within the first ten minutes. Losing players at such an early stage in a match damages any side but when you are playing the All Blacks in New Zealand it makes it even harder. Bakkies Botha, Danie Roussouw and Jaque Fourie all helped to put their side on the back foot right from the start in each of the tests, and the indiscipline continued, Matt Giteau and James O’Connor knocked over 6 penalties between them last Saturday. Take away those points and the Boks would have won. John Smit, the captain, didn’t exactly mince his words afterwards, “We’re not on the money really on anything, we’re very realistic, how poor, how average we’ve been in most areas in the last three weeks. We’ll be the first to say that we’ve been poor, the defence has been poor, the breakdown’s been poor.”

Full back Zane Kirchner loses the ball against the All Blacks.

The Boks now have a week off in the Tri-Nations and the chance to sit down and correct things. Whilst they can no longer mathematically retain the title, they can look ahead to next year and restructure, to try out new combinations. They are missing a load of top class players, Fourie Du Preez, Heinrich Brussow, JP Pietersen and Juan Smith to name a few, so not all hope is lost, but the squad is not getting any younger. More importantly, to lose the way they have in New Zealand ahead of the World Cup next year is a huge psychological blow, and a huge boost for the All Blacks. This mental edge could be the key if it comes to an All Black and Springbok final next year. Time will tell how much damage has been done.

Squads complete for new Premiership season.

Like the nations players I’ve been enjoying a well earned off-season break from rugby for the last few weeks, but am now back into pre-season…

The newly branded Aviva Premiership will kick off on the 4th of September, and now all transfers have been completed here’s a list of who’s gone where:

INS: Ross Batty (Rotherham), Lewis Moody (Leicester), Sam Vesty (Leicester), Mark McMillan (Glasgow), Tom Biggs (Leeds Carnegie), Simon Taylor (Stade Français).
OUTS: Daniel Browne (Leeds Carnegie), Joe Maddock (Treviso), Julian Salvi (Brumbies), Michael Stephenson (Leeds Carnegie), Ryan Davis (Exeter), Rob Hawkins (Leicester), Mike Baxter (Released), Matt Spelman (Released), Rhys Crane (Released), Nicky Little (Bristol).

INS: Luke Arscott (Bristol Rugby), Garrick Cowley (Esher), Ryan Davis (Bath), Ignacio Elosu (Viadana), Eoghan Grace (Shannon), Andrew Higgins (Unattached), James Phillips (Bristol Rugby), Jason Shoemark (Hawke’s Bay), Jon Vickers (Northampton), Chris Whitehead (London Welsh).
OUTS: Tom Bedford (Bedford Blues), Richard Bolt (Bristol Rugby), Sam Blythe (Taunton), Matt Cornwell (Northampton Saints), Toby Freeman (Ordizia), Danny Gray (unattached), Shane Kingsland (Manawatu), Steve Jones (Unattached), Emyr Lewis (retired), Sean Marsden (Bristol Rugby), Alan Miller (Unattached), Saul Nelson (London Welsh), Clive Stuart-Smith (Esher), Sean Tomes (Bedford Blues).

INS: Matt Cox (Worcester Warriors), Brett Deacon (Leicester Tigers), Jim Hamilton (Edinburgh).
OUTS: Jake Boer (Retired), Marco Bortolami (Aironi), Gareth Delve (Melbourne Rebels), Adam Eustace (Northampton), Ben Phillips (Birmingham & Solihull), Apo Satala (Sale), Greg Somerville (Melbourne Rebels), Semi Tadulala (Leeds Carnegie), Andy Williams (Worcester).

INS: Maurie Fa’asavalu (St Helens RL), Joe Gray (Northampton), Tom Casson (Saracens), Dave Moore (Leinster), Ollie Smith (Montpellier), Benjamin Urdapilleta (Pampas XV).
OUTS: Gonzalo Tiesi (Stade Français), Steve So’oialo (Released), Waisea Luveniyali (Released), Aston Croall (Sale), Tani Fuga (Retired), Seb Jewell (Wasps), Dan Frazier (Released), Tosh Masson (Released), Jim Evans (Retired), Neil McMillan (Released), Josh Drauniniu (London Welsh).

INS: Steve Thompson (Brive), Lachlan MacKay (Brive), Sean Hohneck (Viadana), Miguel Alonso (Viadana), Warren Fury (Wasps), Christian Lewis-Pratt (Northampton), Jesus Moreno Rodriguez (Bordeaux-Begles), Daniel Browne (Bath), Michael Stephenson (Bath), Semi Tadulala (Gloucester), James Tincknell (Wharfedale).
OUTS: Peter Bucknall (Leicester), Scott Armstrong (Northampton), Calum Clark (Northampton), Joe Ford (Northampton), Erik Lund (Biarritz Olympique), Seru Rabeni (La Rochelle), Villa Ma’asi (London Welsh), Jonny Hepworth (Rotherham), Richard Welding (Rotherham), Joe Bedford (Released), Jason Strange (Released), Rob Rawlinson (Retired), Alex Moreno (Retired), Andy Gomarsall (Retired).

INS: Thomas Waldrom (Crusaders), George Skivington (Wasps), Lee Robinson (Bristol), Rob Hawkins (Bath), Horacio Agulla (Brive).
OUTS: Scott Bemand (Retired), Lewis Moody (Bath), Sam Vesty (Bath), Johne Murphy (Munster), Harry Ellis (Retired), Ben Kay (Retired), Brett Deacon (Gloucester), Mefin Davies (Ospreys), Robbie Harris (Montauban), Aaron Mauger (Retired), Greig Tonks (Northampton).

INS: Darren Allinson (Cardiff Blues), Guy Armitage (Wellington College), Daniel Bowden (Canterbury Crusaders), Brian Blaney (Leinster), Sam Edgerley (Wellington College), Marland Yarde (Whitgift School).
OUTS: Danie Coetzee (Retired), Charlie Gower (Released), Peter Hewat (Suntory), Andy Perry (Released), John Rudd (Retired), Peter Richards (Retired).

INS: Andy Powell (Cardiff Blues), Richard Haughton (Saracens), James Cannon (Northampton), Seb Jewell (Harlequins), Charlie Davies (Stade Français), Nic Berry (Racing Metro), Riki Flutey (Brive).
OUTS: George Skivington (Leicester), Hugo Elllis (Dragons), Arthur Ellis (Dragons), Paul Sackey (Toulon), Dan Leo (Bordeuax-Begles), Danny Cipriani (Melbourne Rebels), Lachlan Mitchell (Melbourne Rebels), Lee Smith (Leeds Rhinos RL), Eoghan Hickey (Released), Daniel Bocca (Released), Mark Robinson (Retired), Warren Fury (Leeds Carnegie).

INS: Luke Eves (Bristol), Darren Fearn (Northumbria University), Luke Fielden (Bedford), James Fitzpatrick (Blaydon), Joe Graham (Tynedale), James Hall (Coventry), Andrew Henderson (Montauban), Joel Hodgson (RGS Newcastle), Ally Hogg (Edinburgh), Jeremy Manning (Munster), Redford Pennycook (Bristol), Glen Townson (Doncaster), Mark Wilson (Blaydon), Paul Moriarty (Assistant Coach), Richard Arnold (Academy Manager).
OUTS: Adam Balding (Worcester), Tom Biggs (Bath), Peter Browne (Harlequins), Spencer Davey (Retired), Carl Hayman (Toulon), Chris Micklewood (Brive), Rob Miller (Sale), Laurence Ovens (Bedford), Mark Sorenson (Northampton), Alex Walker (Esher).

INS: Tom Mercey (Saracens), Adam Eustace (Gloucester), Ryan Powell (Worcester), Tom Wood (Worcester), Mark Sorenson (Newcastle), Ryan Glynn (Sale Sharks), Scott Armstrong (Leeds Carnegie), Calum Clark (Leeds Carnegie), Joe Ford (Leeds Carnegie), Matt Cornwell (Exeter Chiefs), Stuart Commins (Cape Town University), Greig Tonks (Leicester).
OUTS: Christian Lewis-Pratt (Leeds Carnegie), James Cannon (Wasps), Joe Gray (Harlequins), Neil Best (Worcester), Juandre Kruger (Blue Bulls), Jon Vickers (Exeter), John Brake (Released), Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe (Retired), Mark Hopley (Retired), Scott Gray (Retired), Barry Everitt (Retired), Chris Mayor (Retired), Joe Gray (Retired), Darren Morris (Retired), Alan Dickens (Retired), Santiago Bonorino (Retired).

INS: Aston Croall (Harlequins), Matty James (Manawatu), Kyle Tonetti (Leinster), Mike Petri (New York Athletic Club), Rob Miller (Newcastle Falcons), Wame Lewaravu (Parma), Paul Williams (Auckland Blues), Karena Wihongi (Bourgoin), Mikaele Pesamino (Auckland), Chris Brightwell (Birmingham & Solihull), Iain Thornley (Wigan Warriors).
OUTS: Dean Schofield (RC Toulon), Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens), Luke Abraham (Lyon), Brent Cockbain (Retired), David Doherty (Rugby League), Rob O’Donnell (Rotherham), Oriol Ripol (Worcester Warriors), Lee Thomas (Lyon), Mark Atkinson (London Wasps), Ryan Glynn (Northampton Saints), Ed Styles (Loughborough Students), Alex Shaw (Coventry), James Jones (Released).

INS: Richard Wigglesworth (Sale), Kelly Brown (Glasgow), David Strettle (Harlequins), Nils Mordt (Harlequins), Matt Parr (Nottingham), Deon Carstens (Sharks), Matt Stevens (Unattached).
OUTS: Fabio Ongaro (Aironi), Matias Aguero (Aironi), Michael Owen (Retired), Moses Rauluni (Retired), Richard Haughton (Wasps), Justin Marshall (Retired), Tom Casson (Harlequins), Wikus van Heerden (Golden Lions), Kas Lealamanua (Released), Kevin Sorrell (Retired), Glen Jackson (Retired), Michael Horak (Retired).

Epic morning of rugby.

There’s not just the beginning of the World Cup to watch this weekend. Starting at 8:30 BST, there will be three back to back Test matches between the world’s top sides;

New Zealand v Ireland (8:45)

Israel Dagg makes his debut at full back

A New Zealand side is always strong, regardless of any new caps. Graham Henry gives starts to Israel Dagg, who had an excellent Super 14, at full back and Benson Stanley at 12 following a ton of injuries in that position. But the core is still there, Conrad “Snake” Smith, Dan Carter, McCaw, and Mealamu all world-class, household names, alongside players in good form like Owen Franks, Keiran Reid, and Cory Jane. Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks and maybe if they’d gone down with a full strength side this could have represented their best chance. But losing players like Lions captain Paul O’Connell, and others including Stephen Ferris and Keith Earls, means they are not at their best. The backline still has enough firepower to make New Zealand work, Stanley will be mercilessly targeted by D’Arcy and O’Driscoll (if fit after missing training). In tight games though you tend to predict a home win, and unfortunately for Ireland when the home team is New Zealand, that’s what you get.

Prediction:NZ 26 Ireland 13

New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Benson Stanley, 11 Joe Rokocoko, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Anthony Boric, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Aled de Malmanche, 17 Neemia Tialata, 18 Sam Whitelock, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 Zac Guildford.

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O’Driscoll (c), 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Tomas O’Leary, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 John Muldoon, 5 Mick O’Driscoll, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 John Fogarty, 17 Tony Buckley, 18 Dan Tuohy, 19 Shane Jennings, 20 Eoin Reddan, 21 Jonathan Sexton, 22 Geordan Murphy.

Australia v England (11:00)

Aussie wonderkid James O'Connor

The midweek game between the Australian Barbarians and a scratch England side showed again why James O’Connor is held in such high regard down under (if you didn’t see the game, the highlights are here). His pace and agility are simply frightening, let alone the fact he’s only 20 years of age. Needless to say his hat-trick performance won him a spot in the test side for tomorrow morning ahead of Peter Hynes, and England will have to be sharp to stop him from running loose again. The Wallabies front-row according to the stats is “the most inexperienced in 27 years”. Intriguing, but after excellent Super 14 seasons for the Reds for loosehead Ben Daley and hooker Saia Faingaa, it means nothing. Quade Cooper directing at fly half had a simply blinding season, his playmaking was excellent but he can make a break as well, with a side step that will give you the bends. Expect a big performance from him.

Hape makes a first start at 12

The best thing about Australia right now though is just how much strength in depth they have. Matt Giteau dropped out this morning, so in come Berrick Barnes, and Hynes onto the bench. Even with so many injuries, they can still put out a top test side. As for England, Shontayne Hape gets a first cap at 12, but otherwise the team is very much the same as the side that lost in Paris to France at the end of the Six Nations. On paper it looks a strong side, a tough front-five, especially in the second row (you wouldn’t be surprised if you found Shaw and Palmer working on the door at your favourite nightclub) and the return of Tom Croft at 6 gives the back row some pace. Toby Flood is still ahead of Jonny Wilkinson at 10 and rightly so, but it’s comforting to know that JW is on the bench. In the backs, England have to get over the game line with Hape’s offloading game and Tindall’s bull in a china shop approach, and then get it into the hands of gas men Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Mark Cueto.

As for a prediction, England have enough to do it, and may just snatch it by scrumming the Aussies out of the game. Australia 14 England 19

Australia: 15 James O’Connor, 14 Digby Ioane, 13 Rob Horne, 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Richard Brown, 7 David Pocock, 6 Rocky Elsom (c), 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Salesi Ma’afu, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Ben Daley.
Replacements: 16 Huia Edmonds, 17 James Slipper, 18 Mark Chisholm, 19 Matt Hodgson, 20 Will Genia, 21 Peter Hynes, 22 Kurtley Beale.

England: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Mark Cueto, 13 Mike Tindall, 12 Shontayne Hape, 11 Chris Ashton, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Lewis Moody (c), 6 Tom Croft, 5 Tom Palmer, 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Steve Thompson, 1 Tim Payne.
Replacements: 16 George Chuter, 17 David Wilson, 18 Courtney Lawes, 19 James Haskell, 20 Ben Youngs, 21 Jonny Wilkinson, 22 Mathew Tait.

South Africa v France (1:00)

Gio Aplon. Rapid.

In probably the happiest country in the World right now, the World and Tri-Nation Champions South Africa will look to boost the World Cup spirit even more with a win over Grand Slam winners France. Injuries mean the Boks have lost Bakkies Botha and Fourie Du Preez, but much like Australia, out goes one world class player, in comes another. There are plenty of new boys, like the lightening quick Gio Aplon at 14 and Francois Louw at 7, a reflection of the success of the Stormers season, but the core of Morne Steyn, Jaque Fourie, Victor Matfield and Juan Smit will guide SA once more. For France, on a personal level I just do not feel this is their best side. How Marc Llevremont can leave out players like Yannick Jauzion and David Skrela from the starting 15 after Toulouse’s Heineken Cup is bizarre. Francois Trinh-Duc has never struck me as France’s best option at 10, and this match could sound him out. Elsewhere, Wenceslas Lauret’s great season for Biarritz sees him get the 7 shirt in what is a strong pack. The main man though is Morgan Parra, the little general. His goal-kicking will be under pressure, but he rarely misses.

Prediction: SA 28 France 23

South Africa: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ricky Januarie , 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Schalk Burger, 5 Victor Matfield , 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 BJ Botha, 2 John Smit, 1 Gurthrö Steenkamp. Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Jannie du Plessis, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Dewald Potgieter, 20 Ruan Pienaar, 21 Juan de Jongh, 22 Jean de Villiers.

France: 15 Clement Poitrenaud, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 David Marty, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Aurélien Rougerie, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Julien Bonnaire, 7 Wenceslas Lauret, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Romain Millo- Chluski, 4 Lionel Nallet, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Jean Baptiste Poux, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Louis Picamoles, 20 Dimitri Yachvili, 21 David Skrela, 22 Marc Andreu.

South Africa’s strength in depth is frightening.

Juan de Jongh scores on debut

In yesterday’s game in Cardiff, 5 of the South African 22 made their test debuts. This was for sure an understrength South African team when you consider the names missing; Habana, Morne Steyn, Du Preez, Brussouw to name but a few. And yet against a near full strength Wales team, minus the mercurial Shane Williams but still near enough to their best side, they managed to pull out a win. Their squad included players who haven’t played for the Boks for a fair amount of time, those playing in Europe like BJ Botha, Francois Steyn, and Joe Van Niekerk. The fact that the Boks can call upon players of such high calibre is incredible; no other nation has such a good pool of players to pick from, and how it showed in Cardiff.

A special mention goes to the inside centre, Juan de Jongh. The 20 year old has had quite an incredible debut season, breaking into the Stormers side, scoring his first Super rugby try in the semi-final (if you haven’t seen it, it’s one of the tries of the season), and now has a test debut and first try to his name. Expect him to be well in contention with Wynand Olivier and Jean de Villiers for the number 12 shirt come the World Cup.

Saracens bravery and effort sensational, but not enough

Saracens haven’t been my favourite cup of tea this season. Both Guinness Premiership matches I’ve been too this season have been watching London Irish against Brendan Venter’s side (I’ll point out this is highly out of character, but living in Madrid causes such problems.) The Right Said Fred song, Venter’s attitude, and the frequent discussion of the nationalities of their playing squad have all been topics talked about amongst both supporters and the press this season often from a negative stand point. Yet come the final whistle on Saturday, none of it mattered anymore.

Sarries gave such a brilliant performance at Twickenham against Leicester that all that mattered was how they played, not who was representing them. Glen Jackson in his last game before retirement was simply awesome at 10, complimenting his legendary predecessor in that shirt, Michael Lynagh. His dummy for the first try and a beautiful inside ball at one point to Michael Tagicakibau where complimented by his as always strong tactical and place kicking. His heart and soul where there in every bit of play, especially the kick on 76 minutes which put Sarries ahead by 1. He must have thought then, that the perfect ending was not far off. The same can be said for Ernst Joubert, the number 8 and captain. His two well taken tries capped what has been an incredible first season for the South African. Along with fellow backrower Andy Saull, the young English openside, Saracens have had so many stand out performers this season. Schalk Brits, the Guinness Premiership player of the year springs to mind as well.

All in all, Saracens will only improve next season, given the quality of the signings they have made, the likes of Matt Stevens, David Strettle and Richard Wigglesworth. Whilst they may have been a surprise this season, they will definitely be contenders come the next.