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Everyone wants to finish last round of test rugby on a high

November 23, 2018
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England's Owen Farrell during a training session in Bagshot, England, Wednesday Nov. 21, 2018. England head coach Eddie Jones has retained 26 players for the final Test of the Quilter Internationals against Australia, to be played at Twickenham Stadium on upcoming Saturday. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

It’s the last round of rugby tests for the year. Everyone wants to finish on a high.

Wales and Ireland are going for November sweeps.

New Zealand, Argentina, and Scotland are looking to rebound.

Australia hasn’t won two in a row all year.

France seeks a fourth win of the year.

The United States is trying to go unbeaten.

Here’s a look at the main tests on Saturday:

ENGLAND vs AUSTRALIA, London (Australia leads 25-1-23, in England 11-1-15)

When the Bernard Foley-inspired Wallabies cut through England at Twickenham to leave its Rugby World Cup dreams in ruins in 2015, few could have imagined they’d go winless in the next five matches against their biggest rival in the northern hemisphere.

England’s winning spree against Australia has come under the stewardship of Eddie Jones, the former Wallabies coach and an ex-teammate of current Australia coach Michael Cheika at Sydney club Randwick.

The relationship between Jones and Cheika has been a much-scrutinized subplot in matches over the last three years, but the big question this time round is whether Australia can end its testing year on a high.

The Australians beat Italy 26-7 last week, but it was only their fourth win in 12 tests in 2018 and the performance failed to mask issues that still affect a team that has slipped to No. 7 in the rugby rankings — Australia’s lowest ever position.

Unlike with Cheika, the pressure has eased somewhat on Jones as England looks for a third win of the month after a narrow victory over South Africa, just as tight a loss to New Zealand, and a second-half fightback against Japan.

In what feels like a significant decision ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup, hooker Dylan Hartley — one of England’s two co-captains — has been dropped to the reserves for the first time against top opposition under Jones.

Cheika will be praying David Pocock’s neck holds up after the flanker came off early in the second half against Italy.

— By Steve Douglas.

SCOTLAND vs ARGENTINA, Edinburgh (Argentina leads 9-8, in Scotland 4-3)

For a country which schooled its forwards in the Bajada scrum from a young age and turned it into a fearsome weapon, Argentina’s set-piece has been hellish viewing in Dublin and Paris this month.

The Pumas’ scrum has been hideous, conceding five tightheads to France and one to Ireland. Both teams exploited the superiority into tries.

The front row is no mystery to coach Mario Ledesma, who hooked 84 times for the Pumas, and yet he has stayed faithful to props Santiago Medrano and Santiago Garcia Botta, and not called on any European-based players.

Argentina changed its policy this year to allow overseas-based players to be picked in exceptional cases, and the poor stock of props prompted Ledesma to summon England-based Juan Figallo and France-based Ramiro Herrera during the Rugby Championship. Then Figallo injured knee ligaments in September, and Herrera suffered a back injury after being picked to tour. The other mainstay, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, was left out of the tour after shoulder surgery in October.

That left the two Santiagos as the senior props. Medrano has made his Jaguares and Pumas debut this year. Garcia Botta has been in and out since 2013. Both have played 10 of Argentina’s 11 tests this year, and it has been tough going, with no respite coming from Scotland at Murrayfield.

England-based hooker Marcelo Bosch recently called on Ledesma to choose more European-based players to strengthen the squad. But Ledesma has limited himself to the Jaguares, which is the equivalent of the All Blacks limiting their selection to the Crusaders. His decision will be tested next year when stalwart flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez leaves after this tour to join Stade Francais.

No. 8 Javier Ortega Desio marked his 50th test in Paris last weekend, and wasn’t happy with the result.

“We failed in areas where we had not been failing,” Ortega Desio said. “We did not maul well and our scrum also had some problems.”

He acknowledged the team’s ultimate goal was the Rugby World Cup, but performance still mattered in the meantime, and called on his teammates “to look within without reproach” to raise the bar back high against Scotland.

— By Foster Niumata.

IRELAND vs UNITED STATES, Dublin (Ireland leads 9-0, in Ireland 3-0)

The United States may be about to fall back to earth, but the year has been a blast.

Expectations are the Eagles, even against a second-string Ireland side, will come to the end of their unprecedented nine-test unbeaten run this year. If so, it won’t spoil a great year.

They successfully defended their Americas Rugby Championship title, becoming the first team to go 5-0, a Grand Slam of sorts. In June, they overcame Scotland from 21-3 down in Houston, beating a tier one side for the first time in 94 years. And this month they defeated Samoa for the first time. When Romania was accounted for last weekend in Bucharest the Eagles had nine wins in a row. Their previous best all-time winning streak was four.

It was after beating Scotland that the U.S. nailed down a match with Ireland at Lansdowne Road to complete an historic year. With combinations in synch and confidence soaring, it’s a perfect time for the Eagles to meet the Irish and measure themselves.

They even feature a player the Irish are wary of, center Paul Lasike. The Kiwi moved to the U.S. on a rugby scholarship and switched to American football. He played 10 games for the Chicago Bears in 2016 and returned to rugby last year. He debuted for the Eagles in February, and was signed by Harlequins in August.

Last Saturday, he scattered Romanians to set up the Eagles’ first two tries.

“Very talented player,” Ireland coach Joe Schmidt noted.

- By Foster Niumata.

ITALY vs NEW ZEALAND, Rome (New Zealand leads 14-0, in Italy 7-0)

The All Blacks and the Azzurri visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome this week.

If Italy prayed for a miracle to get its first win against New Zealand, the All Blacks probably prayed for a high score on Saturday to salve some of the wounds after losing to Ireland in Dublin for the first time.

The All Blacks have never lost to Italy and won 68-10 on their last visit, two years ago. The Azzurri haven’t managed to score more than 10 points against New Zealand since 2007.

In the aftermath of the 16-9 defeat in Dublin, New Zealand has come to Rome and relaxed some, with the players taking in the sights.

Some visited the Colosseum, and others went to the Cassino War Cemetery to pay their respects to the 343 Kiwi soldiers, including two All Blacks, who were buried there after World War II.

“It’s a different feel to the last two weeks, there’s no doubt about that,” assistant coach Ian Foster said, “but come Saturday we’re going to have to be ready for an Italian team that is going to really back themselves to have a good crack at us.

“We’ve got a lot to learn, we need to fix a few things, so it’s a pretty important week for us.”

— By Daniella Matar.

FRANCE vs FIJI, Paris (France leads 9-0, in France 6-0)

When coach Jacques Brunel announced his squad for France’s November tests, there was no trace of Rabah Slimani.

It was a real setback for the Clermont prop, a mainstay for France over the past four years.

“At the time, it upset me not to be in the list,” Slimani said. “But, with hindsight, I told myself it was part of the game, the law of sport.”

Slimani was finally called back as a second choice after Uini Atonio pulled out injured. A month later, he will end France’s November tests in a starting role against Fiji at the Stade de France.

In addition to his good substitute appearances against South Africa and Argentina, Slimani’s return to favor is largely due to his improved mobility.

“I needed to work in that area,” said Slimani, who won his 50th cap against Fiji. “I worked a lot on my skills, did a lot of runs without the ball, small things that can seem futile but matter much during a game. I’ve been asked to run more and to be at the right place at the right time.”

Slimani will have to watch his behavior in the scrum, though, as he is often a target for referees as one of the most scrutinized forwards in rugby.

“It went well during the first two tests. There is still one left,” Slimani said. “We know very well that each referee interprets things differently. I’m trying to do things as neatly as possible.”

— By Samuel Petrequin.

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