So after last Saturday and the drama of the northern hemisphere ‘finals’ weekend (where Messieurs O’Driscoll and Wilkinson signed off with wins, and the Northampton Saints won their first ever title in the final minute of extra-time) you’d be forgiven for thinking that rugby this side of the equator would put its proverbial feet up for a few months. But not a bit of it! Barely seven days have past and, suddenly, we’re on a verge of another international test window – a time for our home nations to fight battles on foreign soil. 18 games involving 16 sides over four weekends (plus the additional bonus of the entire Pacific Nations Cup). A whole lot to look forward to then for fans on these shores over the next month…
…well, maybe not. Don’t get us wrong – we folk at Red Rugby Towers (i.e. a former skirting-board factory just outside Slough) are salivating at the prospect of another international window packed full of top-level matches (as we do when any test series appears over the horizon). But in terms of victories for our Six Nations teams we’re not expecting much. And (be honest) you’re probably not expecting much too. There’s good reason for this pessimism of course, and if you’re thinking the way we’re thinking (heaven forbid) you’re probably pointing to two factors: injuries and our really rubbish rugby calendar.
Injuries are part and parcel of the game nowadays. Players play so much rugby, and at such a high intensity, that injuries are bound to occur. This phenomenon is not restricted to one nation; it’s a problem that all international sides have to deal with. Yes, there will be periods where one side has a particularly bad run of injuries but over the course of the four-year international cycle (bookended by Rugby World Cups) things tend to balance out. What is true though is that some teams are better equipped (by virtue of their squad depth) to cope with injuries. Take New Zealand for example: this weekend they will be without the colossal Kieran Read, the lightning-quick Julian Savea and the exceptional Dan Carter. Will they miss these players? Of course they will. Will they lose? Probably not. In contrast their opponents this weekend (England) are likely to feel the effect of missing Billy Twelvetrees, George Ford and the in-form Danny Care. Wales too are bound to see their chances of winning this month heavily diminished with the loss of Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Leigh Halfpenny.
England’s cause is not helped by the ridiculous calendar-clash situation they have found themselves in. This Saturday, they play the World Champions in their own-back yard (a daunting task at the best of times) and they do this without Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola, Dylan Hartley, Luther Burrell, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood…to name just seven (there are more). These players are not injured. They are ruled out of the first test in Auckland because they all played in last weekend’s Aviva Premiership final. As these players ran out onto the Twickenham turf last Saturday, the majority of the squad were already in New Zealand, having flown out four days before. A couple of years ago this would not have been a problem as the ‘old’ three test tours have only been re-introduced in the last few seasons. It would seem that the extra test is struggling to find room in an increasingly busy international window, which immediately follows a packed domestic campaign. But, hang on, it’s only a difference of 4 days. 4 days! Surely, they could juggle the season a bit to find those days that would allow Farrell and Co. to play in the first test? Why didn’t they, as Steve Hansen has alluded to, organise the tests for June 14th, 21st and 28th which are all still in the international window? Failing that, couldn’t they start the domestic season a week earlier?
There will be a few of you at this point who’ll be crying, ‘does it really matter’? Surprisingly enough, we think it does. This June series is one of only four international windows left before Rugby World Cup 2015, and one of only two remaining chances for the northern sides to pit themselves against the likes of the Kiwis, Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas. Put bluntly, time is running out and few opportunities remain to gauge progress against your international competitors. Stuart Lancaster (although his usual cool self in public) will be incredibly frustrated that his side have to play a pivotal first test with one arm tied behind their back. Injuries happen but the fact that this situation could have been avoided is, at best, foolish and, at worst, detrimental to the national side’s progress. With international rugby rightly regarded by the IRB as the pinnacle of the game, some would say this situation is cruel: cruel to the teams involved, cruel to the spectators who want to watch the best possible sides play.
But enough of this soap-boxing, let’s take a look at the weekend’s fixtures and the Red Rugby predictions. If you’re thinking of putting a tenner on a rugby accumulator, look away now:
June 7, 04:00 – Fiji v Italy – Italy by 10
June 7, 08:35 – New Zealand v England – New Zealand by 14
June 7, 11:00 – Australia v France – Australia by 14
June 7, 16:00 – South Africa v World XV – South Africa by 28
June 7, 19:40 – Argentina v Ireland – Ireland by 5
June 8, 01:30 – USA v Scotland – Scotland by 7
There will be some cheer for the northern hemisphere this weekend with expected wins for Italy, Ireland and Scotland: Fijian rugby is in disarray at the moment both on and off the field, so Italy should prove too strong; Ireland will continue their good form from the Six Nations and just pip the Pumas who we expect to be a bit rusty; Scotland will be playing their first game under new Head Coach Vern Cotter and this ‘first day at school’ factor should see them through against USA.
Elsewhere, South Africa will warm up for later tests against Wales and Scotland with a comfortable win over a World XV. Australia too should have no problem overcoming the lukewarm French (remember last year’s tour to New Zealand anyone?) who again will be providing plenty of questions over whether Philippe-Saint Andre is the right man to lead them.
The big game though is the one in Auckland. Red Rugby expects this ever-improving England side to put up a fight and it will be good to see the likes of Kyle Eastmond and Marland Yarde back in the team following their exploits in Argentina last summer. The All Blacks, however, will be too strong. Don’t rule out an England win in the second or third tests though.
Alarm clocks and sun-screen at the ready…should be a scorcher!