While much attention will return to New Zealand, Australia and South Africa this weekend, there are other games which should not be ignored. In fact a total of eight test matches are taking place over the weekend, with games from Toronto to Lautoka and many places in between. A number of games will feature teams who are close on the IRB rankings so there is plenty at stake.
Canada hosts a young Italian side, where a win for the home side would see them overtake Italy in the world rankings. Italy has won the last three games between the two sides but is coming off a loss against Argentina last weekend. Martin Castrogiovanni will win his 87th cap and leads the Azzurri for the first time. The Canadians were rightly happy to beat USA last weekend but will find Italy a tougher challenge.
Scotland will be expected to add to their win over Australia when they take on Fiji, for only the sixth time, in Lautoka on Saturday – a match that will see Dutch-born Tim Visser debuting on the wing for the Scots. Andy Robinson will be keen to secure a win and improve his win ratio as Scotland coach from its current 43% and one hopes that Robinson has done some work on his team’s post match celebrations and they avoid the gaze of the citing commissioner this week!
Ireland has made four changes for the 2nd test against New Zealand and will be particularly pleased to see the return of tight-head prop Mike Ross. The Irish scrum held its own last week without Ross, though the injury-enforced introduction of golden oldie scrums was unfortunate. It would be a surprise if the AB’s don’t raise their game further this week though some of their attacking genius might be compromised by the poor weather forecast. The ever optimistic Irish will give themselves a chance but such is the gulf between the teams in skill and pace that anything other than a repeat of the rout of last week would be a surprise.
Wales will miss Toby Faletau when they take on the Wallabies in Melbourne for the first time, but will get much support from the presence of Warren Gatland. Still recovering from his window-cleaning exploits in NZ, Gatland will insist that Wales reproduce the efforts of the world cup and six nations. If Sam Warburton can wrestle back control of the breakdown from David Pocock, and the Welsh can keep a lid on the genius that is Will Genia, then this series may not be decided until the final test in Sydney next weekend.
The Leicester triumvirate of Flood, Tuilagi and Youngs has the challenging task of firing the English back line when they take on the Springboks at altitude in Johannesburg on Saturday. Mike Catt will be hoping this combination will bring Ashton and Foden into the game and onto the scoreboard. The tussle between Bismarck du Plessis and Dylan Hartley again has the potential to keep the referee busy while Patrick Lambie’s selection at full back is an exciting prospect. England’s pack has a 3kg per man advantage over the Boks forwards but a home win is on the cards unless England can unleash their backs – and wouldn’t that be great to see?
The USA takes on Georgia in Colorado and will be looking to bounce back from the defeat to Canada last week. Eagles coach Mike Tolkin is building for the future and has combined some old faces with young players who have come through the age grade and USA Rugby Seven’s rugby programmes. The USA face Italy next weekend which will ensure the next generation of players get a good introduction to the test match rugby.
Argentina coach Santiago Phelan knows that France will present a significant challenge when the two youthful sides meet in Cordoba this weekend. In time it will be interesting to see if the Pumas are successful in their efforts to score more tries – what advisor Graham Henry described as their “greatest challenge”. Argentina has won three of the last five matches between the two sides, despite only one of those games being in South America. Meanwhile, Philippe Saint-Andre will be aware that a big win over Argentina could see France leap from sixth to fourth, potentially knocking England out of the top four.
The physical play of Samoa will contrast sharply with the speed and guile of Japan when the teams meet in Tokyo this weekend. Japan is winless after two games of the Pacific Nations Cup, while the Samoans are unbeaten and a win for them on Sunday will secure the trophy they last won in 2010.
Mention should also be made of the semi-finals of the Junior World Cup which take place in Cape Town on Sunday. Hosts South Africa take on Argentina, while New Zealand will be looking to exact revenge for the pool match defeat when they take on Wales. The Kiwis have won the title in each of the last four years, and it would take a brave man to bet against them making it five in a row.
So a great weekend is in store for rugby lovers and the prospect of some tight tussles. The Southern Hemisphere big three had a clean sweep last weekend but that may not be the case this week. Scotland, Wales and France will fancy their chances. How many Northern Hemisphere wins do you think we can expect this weekend in games against teams from south of the equator?