The rugby union Autumn Internationals season comes to a conclusion this Saturday with two mouthwatering matches.
England get their final chance to beat one of the big Southern Hemisphere sides at Twickenham while Wales take on the Springboks at the Millennium Stadium. Keep reading for our preview of this weekend’s matches.
It has not been a great autumn for England after defeats to both New Zealand and South Africa but the home side have a chance to end the year on a high with a win over old rivals Australia.
Coach Stuart Lancaster has made the bold decision to drop Owen Farrell for the first time since June 2012 with Gloucester’s Billy Twelvetrees starting for England at centre.
Lancaster said: “It’s good to be able to give Billy his first start of the series. He took on board the feedback we gave him when he first came into camp and he has worked hard both with us and at Gloucester and deserves his chance.
“Owen is a key part of our squad and I am sure he will make a positive contribution should he get the chance.”
Northampton Saints pair Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley take over from James Haskell and Rob Webber at flanker and hooker respectively in England’s other two changes from the win over Samoa.
Australia have also made three changes from the side that was defeated by Ireland. Adam Ashley-Cooper switches to outside centre to replace the injured Tevita Kuridrani while Rob Horne comes in on the wing and Sean McMahon returns to the starting team at blind-side flanker.
In many ways this is a must-win match for England after the disappointment of their defeats to the Springboks and the All Blacks. They have won three of their last four matches against the Wallabies including a 20-13 victory in their last meeting at Twickenham in 2012. I fancy the home side to overcome the four point handicap and win at 10/11.
It would be fair to say that Wales coach Warren Gatland is unlikely to head straight to a BBC reporter at the end of Saturday’s match. The Welsh rugby authorities have written to the BBC complaining about Gatland’s treatment at the hands of the channel after the coach was asked if he felt under pressure after 22 consecutive defeats to the ‘big three’ Southern Hemisphere nations.
To beat South Africa on Saturday Wales are going to have to play well for the full 80 minutes. They were leading New Zealand with 11 minutes to go only for three late tries to give the All Blacks a 34-16 victory last weekend.
Wales’ defence coach Shaun Edwards said: “We have to be able to sustain intensity over 80 minutes, concentration, physicality and skill levels. I asked the players after the game whether they could raise themselves to that sort of intensity, passion, physicality, and aggression that we had for 69 minutes seven days later. To a man, they said yes.
“We’ve had two games [Australia and New Zealand], and we have acquitted ourselves relatively well in both. Now we have to do it for 80 minutes to beat a southern hemisphere team and South Africa probably have the best defence in the world. We have had some epic battles against South Africa over the years and hope we get on the right side of the scoreboard this time.”
It is the first time that South Africa have played a fourth Test on a European tour and coach Heyneke Meyer has made five changes from the side that beat Italy last weekend. Back-three trio JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana and Johan Goosen have returned to their clubs so full-back Willie le Roux and wings Cornal Hendricks and Lwazi Mvovo return to side alongside prop Tendai Mtawarira and hooker Bismarck du Plessis.
You have to go back to 1999 for Wales’ last win over the South Africa and a defeat on Saturday would be a 17th consecutive reverse to the Springboks. However, recent defeats have generally been by a small margin – five of the last seven have been by five points or fewer – and so the value looks to be in backing Wales with a six point start at 10/11.
The rugby union Autumn Internationals season continues this weekend with some intriguing matches. Improving Scotland welcome the All Blacks to Murrayfield while England face another difficult match, this time against South Africa. Wales and Ireland look to have easier opposition as preparations for next year’s World Cup continue.
Keep reading for our preview of this weekend’s matches.
England v South Africa
While England were narrowly losing to the world champions at Twickenham last weekend, South Africa were being soundly beaten by Ireland. It gives the home side confidence that they can finally end their poor run against the Springboks, who they haven’t beaten in eleven matches dating back to 2006.
“I know the players are looking forward to the challenge. South Africa have quality and experience across the park and it will be a big test for us,” said England coach Stuart Lancaster who makes just one change for the match. Anthony Watson will play on the right wing in his first Test start after Bath team-mate Semesa Rokoduguni was ruled out of selection by a thigh injury.
South African coach Heyneke Meyer has reacted to their defeat in Dublin by making five changes for this Saturday’s match. World Cup winners JP Pietersen and Schalk Burger return to the Springboks starting XV while hooker Adriaan Strauss and the half-back pair of Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie, move from the bench.
“Adriaan, Schalk and JP have all started a number of Tests this year and they will slot in easily,” said Meyer. “We decided beforehand that we wanted to start all of these players in one of the first two Tests on tour.”
South Africa are the only major team that England haven’t beaten under Stuart Lancaster but this should end on Saturday. Back the home side to overcome the two point handicap at 10/11.
Scotland v New Zealand
Scotland had a positive result in the first of their autumn internationals last weekend. They beat Argentina 41-31 at Murrayfield and have a New Zealander in charge in the form of new coach Vern Cotter.
The Scots have never beaten New Zealand and the All Blacks scored 51 points on their last visit to Murrayfield in 2012. However, the world champions intend to treat an improving Scotland with respect.
All Blacks winger Ben Smith said: “They are a team that want to play expansive rugby and they are a dangerous team. If they are going to get better, they are going to have to play that kind of rugby and it is the kind of rugby that brings rewards.
“I think they are a team that’s on the up and we’ve got to be on our game.”
I fully expect the All Blacks to win but Scotland look terrific value with a 21 point head start at 10/11.
Ireland v Georgia
After their excellent win over South Africa last weekend, Ireland can follow-up their triumph with another home win: this time over Georgia.
With a tie against Australia on the horizon, it is likely to be a different looking Ireland team this Sunday. Jared Payne, Rory Best and Chris Henry are unlikely to feature against Georgia on Sunday while there is also a strong chance that Paul O’Connell, Jonathan Sexton, Rob Kearney and Conor Murray will be rested ahead of the Australia match six days later.
Kearney believes that while Ireland should be buoyed by their win over the Springboks it’s important for them to treat the Eastern European side with respect. “Confidence is a brilliant thing and sometimes over-confidence can be detrimental too,” Kearney said. “It’s key that we find the balance and by no means get carried away with one win.”
Seven years ago Ireland were given the fright of their lives by Georgia in Bordeaux and they were lucky to emerge with a 14-10 in the Rugby World Cup pool match. Ireland should win but Georgia can make it hard and should be backed to overcome the 41 point handicap at 10/11.
Wales v Fiji
After their defeat to the Wallabies on Saturday it’s now 21 consecutive defeats for Wales against the ‘big three’ Southern Hemisphere sides. However, it should be an easier match this weekend as they welcome Fiji who lost 40-15 to France last Saturday.
Wales make eight changes from the team that lost 33-28 to the Aussies with both Mike Phillips and Rhys Priestland returning. Scrum-half Phillips takes over from neck-injury victim Rhys Webb while Priestland gets his chance because of Dan Biggar’s groin strain.
Scott Williams returns from injury at centre while Liam Williams switches to full-back and George North is back on the wing.
Wales coach Warren Gatland said: “We have made some changes, some have been enforced due to injury but we don’t feel it weakens the side. There’s still a lot of experience and firepower in that team. We feel that we’re good enough to win and hopefully win well on Saturday.”
Wales should win this comfortably and the 24 point handicap looks about right.
The rugby union Autumn Internationals season gets underway this Saturday with four intriguing matches. With just a year to go until the Rugby World Cup this is a great opportunity for the European sides to assess their preparations against some of the best teams in the world.
Keep reading for our preview of this Saturday’s matches.
England v New Zealand
For the first time in 22 matches, New Zealand arrive at a Test having lost their previous tie. The All Blacks were beaten by South Africa in October and arrive in Twickenham as the favourites having whitewashed England this summer.
However, it could pay not to put too much importance on England’s 3-0 series defeat in June. Many of the squad were missing for the first game as it came immediately after the Premiership final while the third Test in Hamilton came after England had already lost the series.
The second of those matches saw England deservedly lead in the second half before eventually succumbing to a heartbreaking 28-27 defeat. And, it is clear that the home side are desperate to have another go at the world champions.
Of the England team, fly-half Owen Farrell said: “Everybody knows what is expected of them. As a group we are pushing each other along and getting better. It is the things people don’t see, the detail of what goes on off the field and on it.
“It is not normally big shifts [in ability] that you get, it is little constant improvements. Maybe it is so subtle that people might not see it but we certainly see it here. We feel we are definitely going in the right direction and now we have to put in the performances to back that up.”
England won this fixture 38-21 in 2012 and I like their chances with an 8 point start at 10/11.
Ireland v South Africa
Ireland will have to face South Africa without 17 players this weekend with Rory Best the latest man to be ruled out through injury.
Despite the absences, Ireland could retain 10 of the starting line-up that squared up to the All Blacks and 10 of the side that kicked off the Six Nations-winning finale in Paris.
The South Africa coach, Heyneke Meyer, has remained loyal to the players who beat New Zealand last month by naming an unchanged starting team for their match against Ireland on Saturday.
“It’s only the fifth time in what will be the 34th Test since I was appointed as Springbok coach that I’ve been able to select an unchanged starting lineup,” Meyer said.
South Africa are worthy favourites and won this fixture 16-12 in 2012. The handicap of 6 points looks about right but on the day I’d favour Ireland with home advantage to keep it tight.
Wales v Australia
For a team blessed with so much talent, Wales’ recent record against the big Southern Hemisphere sides is woeful. Wales last beat one of rugby union’s big three in 2008 when they triumphed 21-18 over Australia. Since then, they have succumbed to 20 straight defeats to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa but have a chance to end the run when they welcome Australia on Saturday.
In their last four Australia tests, Wales have lost by a combined total of a 12 points and so they are getting nearer to an elusive win. Prop Paul James described the current training as ‘the toughest Welsh camp we’ve been in’ while Australia are playing under new coach Michael Chieka for the first time.
This could finally be Wales’ time. Back them with a three point start at 10/11.
France v Fiji
In the final of this week’s ties, France welcome Fiji.
Coach Philippe Saint-Andre has tinkered with his team again and three players will make their international debut this weekend. Scott Spedding gets the nod at fullback while Teddy Thomas is named on the wing and Alexandre Dumoulin at outside centre.
France should win the game but it could be closer than expected. The value could be in Fiji with a 24 point start at 10/11.
The 19th season of Super League reaches its climax this Saturday as Wigan Warriors face St Helens in the Grand Final. A huge crowd is expected at Old Trafford as the two fierce North West rivals go head to head in the end of season clash for the first time since 2010.
Keep reading for our preview of this weekend’s show piece event.
Saints looking to end Grand Final hoodoo
It’s been a terrific year for St Helens who have already secured the League Leaders’ Shield by finishing on top of the regular season table. However, their fans may have good reason to be nervous about another Grand Final appearance considering the Saints recent record in the end of season event.
Between 2007 and 2011 Saints lost five consecutive Grand Finals by a combined total of 71 points. You have to go back to 2006 for their last success in this event and so recent history doesn’t favour the league winners.
However, this could be the year when their luck changes. They had the easier semi-final, ending Catalans Dragons fairytale run 30-12, but unlike many previous winners of the League Leaders’ Shield who came unstuck at the final hurdle they finished the regular season strongly and have carried that form into the play-offs.
“Quite a few people wrote us off earlier in the year when we lost a few key players through injury,” says Saints second-row Mark Flanagan. “Rightly so – [Luke] Walsh, [Jonny] Lomax and [Jon] Wilkin are probably our three main playmakers. But credit to the coaching staff and players: people have stepped up and done different roles in the team, and we seem to be finding a way to win. There’s been a resilience when we’ve faced adversity.”
Wigan the favourites to retain their Super League title
“It’s life or death,” says Wigan coach Shaun Wane. “It’s non-negotiable. We have to get this win.”
The Wiganer knows that this is not just another match. “I played in Yorkshire derbies, and there’s nothing that compares to this,” he says. “There’s no doubt about that. This is the main one. We’re not far apart, only 15 or 20 minutes down the road, but the dislike we have for each other is pretty major.”
The Warriors are looking to defend the title they won in 2013 and had to be at their very best to defeat a spirited Warrington side in the semi-finals. Defence was key in that match when the Warriors made 309 tackles to squeeze past Warrington while St Helens only had to make 272 to see off the Catalans Dragons.
However, 21 year old Wigan star Dan Sarginson thinks that the Warriors are battle-ready, not weary. “Friday took it out of us but we’ve done all the recovery now… and we’re all fresh. We’re well up for it. If you can’t be up for a Grand Final against your local rivals at Old Trafford, you can’t be up for anything.”
St Helens v Wigan is always a special occasion and forms one of sport’s great rivalries. Just nine miles separate the two towns on opposite sides of the M6, but they have a shared heritage that stretches back to 1895, when the teams played out a 0-0 draw at Knowsley Road.
Wigan are worthy favourites – you only had to watch the last few minutes of their win over Warrington Wolves in the semi-final to understand why – although Saints are arguably the in-form team heading into the match.
With one win each this season – both beat the other way from home – it’ a tough match to call. I think it might be time for St Helens’ luck to change and the value looks in backing Saints with a six point start at 10/11.
81 teams have been whittled down to a final two in this year’s Challenge Cup and Saturday’s final pits the Leeds Rhinos against the Castleford Tigers at Wembley. It’s the first all Yorkshire final since 2005 and gives both clubs the chance to claim their first Cup success since Wembley was reopened in 2007.
Keep reading for our preview of this weekend’s show piece event.
Tigers have excellent record in Cup finals
After seven years of dominance by Wigan, St Helens and Warrington 2014 will finally see a Yorkshire side get their hands on the Challenge Cup trophy.
In many ways it is a David v Goliath affair between a major Yorkshire city and a small town twelve miles away. But, it’s worth remembering that the Castleford Tigers have a terrific record in Challenge Cup finals while the Leeds Rhinos have only won the Cup once in the last 35 years.
Malcolm Reilly starred in Castleford’s consecutive wins against Salford and Wigan in 1969 and 1970 before returning to the Tigers as coach when they beat Hull KR in 1986 – the last all-Yorkshire final at Wembley.
John Kear was Reilly’s assistant that day and was also the last coach to win the cup for Yorkshire when Hull stunned the Rhinos in Cardiff in 2005 – the third of six final defeats the Rhinos have suffered since they were last cup winners way back in 1999, in the last final at the old Wembley.
Kear says: “Cas is a battling town, it’s gone through some hard economic times. But you ask someone from the south about Castleford and they’ll probably say rugby league, the same as Wigan or St Helens. People in Cas are proud of that, and proud of their team, and especially of what they’ve done this year.”
The Tigers deserve their place in the final, having beaten reigning cup holders Wigan on their own patch in the quarter finals and Widnes in the semis. They have won four of their five Challenge Cup finals and should not be underestimated this year.
Leeds looking to avoid another Cup final defeat
For a club of the size of the Leeds Rhinos, it is perhaps surprising that their last Challenge Cup win was back in 1999. Since then they have lost in the final six times, including three years in succession between 2010 and 2012.
Coach Brian McDermott doesn’t believe the Rhinos have a problem with big games, however. He says: “We had a really close game against Wigan in 2011 and, while we never really got going against Warrington in 2012, we weren’t blown away. My point is that we’re not doing anything wrong.
“It’s not as if we’ve been getting there and everything has been going wrong. There’s nothing too dramatic. By nature, when you get to the Challenge Cup final, you play good teams and somebody has got to lose.
“You can put things in place beforehand to try to prevent that happening but the beauty is you just don’t know what’s going to happen when the whistle blows.”
While neutral viewers are likely to get behind Castleford on Saturday, this could finally be the year when the likes of Danny McGuire and Kevin Sinfield finally get their hands on the only major prize to elude them in their careers.
There hasn’t been a classic final since the last all-Yorkshire affair in 2005 when Hull upset the Tigers 25-24. Castleford will be competitive but I expect the Rhinos to finally get their hands on the Cup this year. Each of the finals since 2006 has been won by more than 8 points and so I’d back Leeds Rhinos to overcome the 8 point handicap at 10/11.
Scheduling a Test match just a week after the end of the English Premiership season is hardly the work of a genius. England would have found it tough to beat New Zealand with a full strength side never mind a depleted squad and so it promises to be a tough test for Stuart Lancaster’s side this Saturday.
The All Blacks haven’t lost a Test at Eden Park in almost 20 years and are coming off the back of the professional era’s first unbeaten year. Keep reading for our preview of the first Test.
The All Blacks are a fearsome team but respect England
Whichever way you look at it, the All Blacks are a fearsome team. The world champions have not lost at home in 30 matches and local expectation is for a 3-0 series whitewash. Steve Hansen’s squad is full of experienced, in-form players, with depth in almost every department. Richie McCaw, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Ma’a Nonu have nearly 50 more caps between them than England’s 31 man party for the first Test.
However, the hosts aren’t taking England lightly, considering Stuart Lancaster’s side were the last team to beat the All Blacks. Former All Black Craig Dowd told the Guardian: “The brand of rugby is different as England tends to favour a more pack-based game, whereas New Zealand like to throw it around but there’s plenty of respect.
“They’re building a strong side under Lancaster and whatever team ends up being put out it won’t be an easy task. That defeat in 2012 really hurt – the All Blacks didn’t play well, for whatever reason, but England were brilliant and deserved their win.”
And, coach Steve Hansen has called England the ‘most improved side in world rugby in the last two years’.
England fielding fourth choice players in some key positions
The scheduling of this match is a massive headache for England coming just seven days after the Saracens v Northampton Premiership final. On top of that, England also have injury problems with Billy Twelvetrees the latest player to be ruled out through injury.
Twelvetrees’ absence means that Kyle Eastmond is likely to win his third cap. The diminutive former Rugby League man shone on last summer’s tour to Argentina but has endured a tricky 2013/14, falling out of favour at Bath.
If, as expected, Eastmond and Freddie Burns – in the absence of Owen Farrell, Stephen Myler and George Ford – are to line up at fly-half and inside centre, then England will be fielding their fourth choice players in those key positions – hardly ideal for a game against the world champions.
The tourists’ problems were perhaps best summed up when All Black Brodie Retallick was asked about England’s likely line-up on Saturday…and failed to correctly name a single England player.
England may be the most improved team in world rugby but even their strongest XV would struggle to overcome this powerful and ruthless New Zealand team on home turf.
The tourists have conceded an average of 37 points in each of the three games they have played in Auckland since their win 41 years ago and another heavy defeat isn’t out of the question. England lost by 17 points at Eden Park in 2008 and I fancy this could be a bigger defeat.
Back the All Blacks to overcome the 19 point handicap and give a second-string England team a hiding at 10/11.
This year’s Premiership final marks the end of an era. It has been ten years since Leicester Tigers failed to appear in the end of season showpiece and this season’s final will feature the two best teams from the regular season: Saracens and Northampton Saints.
The sides experienced mixed fortunes in their respective European finals last weekend – Northampton won the Amlin Cup while Saracens lost out to Toulon in the Heineken Cup – and it promises to be a terrific occasion at Twickenham.
Keep reading for our betting preview.
European finalists bid for domestic title
Since Christmas, there has been one outstanding team in the league. Saracens only defeat in Aviva Premiership Rugby in their last ten games came at Leicester in round 22 and the Londoners have scored at least one try in 36 of their last 37 Premiership matches. This run included a win over their rivals in the final, Northampton, as recently as 13 April.
Northampton are bidding to become the eighth different side to become champions of England, having never win the title before. A win at Twickenham will also see Northampton become the first team since Wasps in 2003 to attain a Premiership and European Challenge Cup double.
This is the first time that the two clubs have met at Twickenham, and also the first time they have met in any final. They have clashed in eight previous quarter-finals or semi-finals in tournaments, with Saracens winning just twice.
Twickenham experience could be crucial
They have been the two best teams in the league this season but it is Saracens’ Twickenham experience that could prove crucial. The Saints have just two victories in seven previous finals played at Twickenham and the most recent of those was against Exeter in the National Trophy in 2008.
Sarries have won on five of their last seven visits to Twickenham in all tournaments including the Premiership final in 2011. In addition, fly half Owen Farrell has lots of experience of playing at HQ wand this could be critical. Twickenham is a big pitch and the best final performances are often by sides that use its wide, open spaces early on in the match.
Saying that, Saracens have lost four of their past five matches to Northampton and their last two victories against the Saints have been by narrow margins. The two Northampton second rows, Courtney Lawes and Samu Manoa, could have a huge influence on the game while Saints have plenty of pace out wide in the form of George North, Ken Pisi and Ben Foden.
Saracens centre Brad Barritt says: “We are desperate to finish the season with a trophy. If we achieve that, we will be able to reflect on a very successful campaign.
“It will take a concerted effort, but we are as hungry as ever. We were not that far off against Toulon, it was just minor things in the game. A big strength of this team is the way we bounce back and we have to show that this week.”
It promises to be a terrific match and Northampton are coming in on the back of their excellent win over Leicester Tigers in the semi-final and their Amlin Cup triumph. However, Saracens have simply been the best team in the league in 2014 and I expect them to overcome a 3 point handicap and win at 10/11.
The last time the Heineken Cup final was held in Dublin it featured two French teams. Toulouse beat Perpignan on that occasion, and with the Top 14’s two leading sides in action this weekend it could be another all-French affair this May.
The Heineken Cup has reached the quarter final stage and sees three sides from France, three from England and two from Ireland battling it out to reach the last four.
The Irish sides both face tough away trips to English opposition while two strong French sides will expect to reach the semi-finals with home advantage.
Six Nations match preview – 23/24 February 2013
The third round of Six Nations matches kick off this weekend and there are three intriguing ties to look forward to. England continue their Grand Slam challenge with a match against bottom of the table France with a leading newspaper reporting French rugby was ‘in tatters’.