Jones rests Lions for Pumas; Navidi grateful to Warburton
The southern hemisphere’s supremacy over the north in rugby was punctured a year ago when the All Blacks lost to Ireland in Chicago, the Springboks couldn’t win a test in Europe, and the Wallabies lost to Ireland and England.
Rugby’s titans are back in the north, and keen to return to normal service.
Here’s a look at the big tests on the opening weekend:
ENGLAND vs ARGENTINA, London (England leads 17-1-4, in England 7-1)
Eight of England’s British and Irish Lions will meet the Pumas. But Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje are being rested. It was intuition that told Eddie Jones they needed to be sidelined because of their “exceptional workloads.”
The pair played throughout the series against the All Blacks, and has had regular action for Saracens. They are expected to return for the test against Australia next week.
“I was telling the players that I should be the data analyst,” Jones said. “I’ve got wellness stats, urine stats, psychological stats, reload, reform stats, GPS stats. It’s a bit like being a horse trainer. You get all this information, but you’ve got to look at the person and see what they are ready to do.
“I can’t explain it because it comes down to my gut feel for what they need. I don’t think I’ve ever been bad at it - I’ve always been a reasonable selector, but I’ve got better with age.
“I probably listen more to people now than I did when I was young. When you’re young you think you know everything and when you’re old you discover that you don’t know too much.”
Each of the Lions was appraised individually by Jones, who explained why another high workload player in prop Mako Vunipola has not joined Farrell and Itoje on the sidelines.
“He loves playing rugby and he hates training, so that is a pretty simple equation for me,” Jones said.
Henry Slade replaced Farrell at inside center, and Sam Underhill was given the nod at openside flank.
WALES vs AUSTRALIA, Cardiff (Australia leads 29-1-10, in Wales 16-1-8)
Wales flanker Josh Navidi has hailed the “massive” contribution made by Sam Warburton to his rugby career.
Navidi steps into the spotlight wearing Wales’ No. 7 jersey that is normally associated with Warburton or his fellow British and Irish Lion Justin Tipuric.
They are injured, however, and more than four years after making a test debut against Japan in Tokyo, Navidi finally gets his chance on home soil.
“He’s been massive,” Navidi said of Warburton, his Cardiff colleague, former Wales skipper and twice British and Irish Lions captain.
“We help each other out. It’s good to know his knowledge and how he reads the game. He is world-class at the breakdown, so anything from him you will take it in.”
Navidi has a tough task on his Wales home debut, lining up opposite Australia captain Michael Hooper.
“It’s a big opportunity for me,” Navidi said. “Hopefully, I can do one on him on the weekend and we will get the win.”
If Wales end a 12-match losing run against the Wallabies, Navidi could be just the man to get their party started, given his disc jockey interest.
“I know a bit how to do it with the decks and all that,” he said. “It’s mainly rap, mixed with a bit of dance as well. I kept my music to myself on the Wales tour this summer. Jamie (Roberts) was in charge of the music with his Oasis and all that!”
FRANCE vs NEW ZEALAND, Paris (New Zealand leads 44-1-12, in France 18-1-6)
On arriving in Paris, All Blacks lock Luke Romano was asked about the quality of French opposition in the second row.
“I actually don’t know who the French locks are, to be fair,” Romano said.
The reporter then asked a less specific question, curious to find out about Romano’s knowledge of the current crop of French players.
“I haven’t played France since 2013, and I know it sounds bad, but I tend to worry about my own game and how that’s going,” Romano explained. “Once we have a good look I’m sure there will be some players that catch the eye, but right now you’re putting me on the spot and I don’t actually know anyone.”
The anecdote speaks volumes about the team France coach Guy Noves has managed to put together following a spate of injuries that ruled out a dozen regulars, including flyhalf Camille Lopez and center Wesley Fofana.
Following their 3-0 series defeat in South Africa in June, and less than two years before the Rugby World Cup, the French are under huge pressure to deliver good results. French federation president Bernard Laporte has warned the squad could be restructured if France fails to win three out of its four tests this month. The Tricolors are facing New Zealand twice, South Africa, and Japan.
“Three out of four is largely feasible,” France lock Paul Jedrasiak said. “We want to win everything.”
But France has lost 10 consecutive tests to the All Blacks, and hasn’t beaten them in Paris since 1973.
SCOTLAND vs SAMOA, Edinburgh (Scotland leads 8-1-1, in Scotland 5-1-0)
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend sympathises for Samoa after its union was declared bankrupt by the prime minister this week.
Townsend, preparing to take charge of his first test on home turf, said it was important to keep sides like Samoa and Fiji in the world game.
“We want every country doing well, especially a nation like Samoa that has produced so many good rugby players and so many great wins over the years,” he said. “Let’s hope they get through this in a much better state than they seem to be in right now.”
Townsend has handed a debut to Edinburgh prop Darryl Marfo, who recently joined from Bath. The coach admits Marfo has come in under the radar.
“We didn’t know much about him,” he said. “He played in the first preseason game (for Edinburgh) and we started to take more notice of him after that.
“He got his opportunity at Edinburgh partly down to injuries, but he has played ahead of other players we were looking at.”
John Barclay has overcome concussion to lead the side, and Stuart McInally gets a first start in over a year in the front row following an injury to Ross Ford.
“We have probably known this team for a couple of weeks now,” Townsend said. “We explained to the players at the start of the camp that we want to make sure that in the short period we have with the group, that they train a lot together.”
ITALY vs FIJI, Catania (Fiji leads 6-5, in Italy 1-4)
Ian McKinley’s remarkable recovery could reach another milestone if the Ireland-born flyhalf makes his debut for Italy, six years after retiring after losing the sight in one eye.
The 27-year-old McKinley is in the reserves.
“I’m very happy, so proud, to be here with the team,” McKinley said this week. “Italy helped me so much when maybe other countries wouldn’t have, so I want to give my all for Italy.”
During a club game in 2010, a teammate accidentally stood on McKinley’s eye and perforated his eyball. The Dubliner was forced to retire the following year after losing the sight in his left eye.
McKinley returned to playing rugby in 2014 using specially manufactured goggles, and played for Viadana and Zebre before joining Benetton in 2016.
If he plays, McKinley will become the first player in an international to wear special protective goggles.
“I’m a lot more mature,” he said. “I don’t want to be a different player. I want to be a top-level player. I just want to be Ian McKinley.”
AP sports writers Sam Petrequin in Paris, and Daniella Matar in Milan contributed.