The second full weekend of this year’s Autumn Nations Series brought us yet more drama, with Italy making history against Australia, France coming out on top in a physical encounter with the Boks and Scotland coming agonisingly close against the All Blacks. Let’s look at how the weekend unfolded…
Italy 28-27 Australia
Arguably the result of the weekend saw the Azzurri claim a first ever Test victory against Australia, having lost each of their previous 18 encounters against the Wallabies. Sometimes when the underdog wins it can come slightly against the run of play, but this was certainly not the case for Italy at the weekend. Despite making 72 carries to Australia’s 107, Italy beat more defenders and made three times as many line breaks as the Wallabies, while in defence they recorded a tackle success rate of 89%, compared to Australia’s 81%.
Rugby is a team game of course, but every team needs a player who can provide a spark and in Ange Capuozzo – who this morning was named as one of the World Rugby Men’s 15s Breakthrough Player of the Year nominees – Italy have just that. Capuozzo accounted for three of Italy’s six line breaks, his tally alone being more than the entire Australia team combined, while he also beat seven defenders and, crucially, crossed for two tries.
Capuozzo has now been directly involved in five tries in his six games for Italy and more importantly, his try contributions have contributed to vital wins against Wales and now Australia, victories that have given a new level of confidence to the Azzurri.
Ireland 35-17 Fiji
When Fiji scored a wonderful attacking try in the opening five minutes, the crowd at the Aviva Stadium must have felt they were in for a classic. However, despite Ireland winning comfortably in the end, Andy Farrell’s disappointment summed up an Ireland performance that was certainly below par, given that they spent over half the game with at least a one-man advantage, thanks to a Fijian yellow card in the first half, along with a red and second yellow card not long after the break.
Much like the previous weekend, Fiji’s indiscipline cost them dearly. They conceded 14 penalties in all, but nine of those came in the first half, more than any other team in a half of rugby at the weekend. That tally allowed Ireland to pull away in the first half leaving the Flying Fijians with too much to do after the break. However, Fiji will have been pleased with how they responded in the second half, particularly after the sending off and also being down to 13 men for 10 minutes. They made just six carries fewer than Ireland after the red card but gained the same number of metres and beat 15 defenders to Ireland’s 11. They also made more tackles and missed fewer than their opponents, recording a 75% tackle success rate while Ireland’s rate fell to just 63% in the closing 34 minutes.
Fiji won’t feature in the Autumn Nations Series next week, but they will have one further match to finish their European tour when they play the French Barbarians in Lille next week and their second half against Ireland will ensure they have some positives to build on as they round out 2022.
England 52-13 Japan
Fresh off the back of a humbling home defeat to Argentina last time out, England had a point to prove against Japan as Eddie Jones faced off against the side he previously coached to great success, eager for a return to form. It’s fair to say that England rose to the challenge, as they beat the Brave Blossoms by a margin of 39 points, a win that will go some way to restoring hope for next year’s World Cup, where they will also face Japan in the pool stages. In fact, this was their largest victory against a fellow Tier One team since their 57-15 win over Ireland in the buildup to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
In truth, England never looked like they’d finish as anything other than comfortable winners throughout the course of the match, even finishing the first half with a try despite Jonny May’s sin bin in the 34th minute. Despite that yellow card, England held their discipline well, something which was lacking in their defeat to the Pumas last weekend, conceding just six penalties, their lowest tally in a Test match since October 2020 (five vs. Georgia).
England’s pack were also incredibly solid at the breakdown, winning all 50 of their rucks and becoming the first Tier One side to finish a Test match with a 100% success rate on their own rucks in 2022, while loosehead prop Ellis Genge also found himself on the scoresheet, registering his fifth try in six games since the start of the 2022-23 season, including his escapades for Bristol Bears this term.
Japan, as ever, tried their best to pierce England’s lines, and did manage to cause a few problems, with their tally of 38 defenders beaten the most of any team in a Test match against England since New Zealand managed 46 in November 2018. However, considering their narrow loss to New Zealand in their last Test match, head coach Jamie Joseph will be disappointed with the manner of this defeat, and much work is needed defensively should they wish to avoid another heavy defeat in Toulouse against France in the next round of the Autumn Nations Series.
England, meanwhile, must prepare for what is certain to be a hotly contested fixture against New Zealand, in what will be their first meeting since their famous clash in the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup.
Wales 20-13 Argentina
Wales recorded a win against the Pumas to restore some much-needed confidence after their defeat to the All Blacks a week earlier. Although it wasn’t the most open game the crowd at the Principality Stadium are likely to see, Wales were certainly more efficient with their time in possession of the ball.
Despite making over 20 carries fewer than Argentina, Wales carried for 386 metres to Argentina’s 343, recording an average gain of four metres per carry, compared to just 2.9m for the Pumas. Wales also beat more defenders (21-15) and made more line breaks (2-1) and offloads (5-3) than Argentina.
But let’s talk about Taulupe Faletau for a minute. The Wales number 8 was as brilliant as ever, a man who doesn’t do performances that are any less than eight out of 10. He was Wales’ top ball carrier against Argentina (10) as well as making 15 tackles and hitting 19 rucks and his high work rate has been a theme so far this Autumn Nations Series. He’s made a combined 66 carries (25) and tackles (41) in his two games so far, 12 more than any other player over the last two weekends and even if you include the opening Autumn Nations Series weekend in which only Scotland and Australia played, only Matt Fagerson – who has played 60 minutes more than Faletau – has posted bigger numbers (68: 20 carries, 48 tackles). Oh, and did we mention he’s yet to miss a tackle too…?
Faletau rounded off his fine performance with a try, coming at the back of a maul and therefore being one of the easier ones he’ll score, but given his contribution around the park no one could begrudge him an easy five-pointer.
France 30-26 South Africa
One thing you’re always guaranteed when France take to the pitch is excitement, and their clash against South Africa on Saturday certainly provided no shortage of talking points. The tone for this heated affair was set early on, with Pieter-Steph du Toit sent off after just 12 minutes for an illegal clearout. The Springboks have now received either a sin bin or a red card in each of their last eight Test matches, after receiving none in their previous three.
They weren’t the only team to struggle with their discipline though, as the talismanic Antoine Dupont also saw red early in the second half for a tackle in the air following a dangerous cross-field kick from his opposite number Faf de Klerk, setting the stage for a grandstand finish with both teams reduced to 14 men.
It would take until the 74th minute, and another card, this time a yellow for Dean Fourie, for either side to fully capitalize on the extra space though, with Sipili Falatea (controversially) bundling the ball over the line from close range to score his first ever try at Test level and what would ultimately prove to be the decider. It was perhaps fitting that the winning try came from a series of pick and goes close to the line as both teams attempted to keep things tight and avoid having their opponents expose the gaps out wide, with France uncharacteristically moving the ball wide from 4% of their rucks and seeing just 8% of their carries progressing beyond the first receiver.
In a game which was filled with individual stars, including two former World Rugby Players of the Year, who incidentally were the two players to get sent off, it was a match which was decided by which team showed the stronger grit and spirit to win the key battles in what was a game decided by fine margins.
The Springboks must now dust themselves off and prepare themselves for a trip to Genoa to face an Italian side who are riding the crest of a wave following their shock victory against Australia on Saturday, while France will face Japan on Sunday, hoping for a more comfortable victory than their two Autumns Nations Series games so far.
Scotland 23-31 New Zealand
Scotland will have come away from their Autumn Nations Series clash against New Zealand with mixed emotions. They pushed New Zealand all the way in their quest to end their winless run against them, something to be proud of, but at the same time there will be a huge sense of disappointment that they were unable to hold on for the win, a feat Scotland have never achieved before in their 31 previous fixtures against the All Blacks.
The Scottish defence was ferocious, hitting the levels they’d achieved earlier in this Rugby World Cup cycle when they were incredibly hard to break down and didn’t give away easy points. However, in the final quarter of the game, there was a distinct turning point when the All Blacks seemed to move up a gear and it coincided with experienced scrum-half TJ Perenara’s introduction to the game.
When he came on in the 57th minute the All Blacks trailed 23-14. During his 23 minutes on the pitch, New Zealand scored 17 unanswered points, going on to win by a margin of eight points and leaving Scotland to rue their missed chances. Whether Perenara was the direct catalyst in changing the All Blacks’ fortunes is impossible to say, but there was certainly a rise in the tempo and intensity of their play when he came onto the pitch. New Zealand had 63 carries during his time on the pitch, just one fewer than they had in the first 57 minutes, but they managed to do more with these carries, getting over the gainline more frequently and winning more collisions than they had done before. This allowed them to free their hands and get seven offloads away, a stark contrast to the solitary offload they’d made before that, which was very uncharacteristic of the All Blacks’ style. The biggest change in their play saw them cut their penalty count entirely, not infringing at all in the final 23 minutes after doing so 13 times before Perenara was on the field.
Scotland will need to dust themselves off quickly as they hope to end their Autumn Nations Series on a high against the Pumas next week, while the All Blacks will roll into Twickenham hoping to maintain their 100% record in Europe this year, against a galvanised England.
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