England v South Africa, Saturday 2.30pm
England head into Saturday’s match against South Africa as two point favourites but they’re on a seriously poor streak against the Boks: one solitary draw and no wins in their last 11 encounters going back to 2006. Sky’s Laura-Jane Jones pointed out this week that South Africa is the only top tier nation that Stuart Lancaster hasn’t yet bested as England coach, and no member of this England squad has beaten a senior South Africa side.
Breaking those streaks this weekend could be very important for England as they look ahead to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. They’re currently 3/1, second favourites for the title, but if they drop their focus in a strong pool that includes both Australia and Wales a second place finish would put them almost certainly in a quarter final with, you guessed it, South Africa. A loss this weekend means carrying that hoodoo fully eleven months forward. Make no mistake, the pressure is on.
Both England and South Africa will look to be more efficient in the red zone. According to southern hemisphere outfit RuckinGoodStats the two sides combined for 18 entries into the New Zealand and Irish 22s last week but returned with points just five times. England conceded four turnovers when they got there, South Africa six. The team that can turn around that profligacy will win on Saturday.
England make just one change, springing 20 year old Bath wing Anthony Watson for his injured Bath team mate Semesa Rokoduguni, while South Africa responded to their shock loss to Ireland last weekend by making five changes including both half backs. Having talked up Hendre Pollard into being the next Dan Carter and Jonathan Sexton rolled into one, the present Jonathan Sexton showed the young Bok grasshopper a thing or two about fly half play. Coach Heyneke Meyer duly dropped his wunderkind for the more experienced Patrick Lambie (still only 24), while promoting Lambie’s Sharks team mate Cobus Reinach at scrum half.
Like so many before them, England dared to dream last week when they led 14-11 at half time only to be crushed by a New Zealand second half of extraordinary precision in soaking conditions. Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw led the tackle stats with 18, 17 and 16 respectively as they tried to repel the black hordes. Was fly half Owen Farrell a weak link? The Opta stats-gatherers say that of Farrell’s four missed tackles, two led directly to All Black line breaks. The South Africans will have noticed.
Green Giants to crush Georgia
Ireland v Georgia, Sunday 2.30pm
Ireland are 41 point favourites against Georgia on Sunday, befitting the meeting of the teams that are fifth and 15th in the IRB world rankings. In the past ten years Ireland has made decent work of the “weaker” side in their November schedule:
2013 Samoa 40-9
2012 Fiji* 53-0
2010 Samoa 20-10
2009 Fiji 41-6
2008 Canada 55-0
2006 Pacific Islands 61-17
2005 Romania 43-12
*match not awarded Test status due to an agreement between the IRFU and the naming rights holder of the stadium at the Lansdowne Road rugby ground
Although less heralded than Samoa, Georgia will almost certainly make for more organised opposition than that provided by the islanders last Autumn. However, whereas the bulk of those who played Samoa last season also played against Australia the following week, Joe Schmidt has made thirteen changes (including two new caps) for Sunday’s match with wing Simon Zebo and prop Mike Ross the two asked to go again.
Ireland’s second string pack will have to be hungry as it’s up front where Georgia traditionally have most firepower. If they can provide a solid platform, a potent back division awaits. Elder statesmen Eoin Reddan and Gordon D’Arcy should keep things organised but it’s the line-breaking talents of Ian Madigan, Simon Zebo, Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy that will give a punter hope of getting towards that 41 point handicap.