Europe's finest travel south for the summer
June 6, 2014
Ireland face Argentina as they begin life without Brian O'Driscoll © Getty Images
While the European club season offered one of the most exciting run-ins many fans will have seen, eyes now turn to matters in the southern hemisphere as the international teams begin their summer tours. Head coaches will lament the fact their preparations have been overshadowed by domestic storylines - from the retirements of Wilkinson and O'Driscoll, to the repeated heartbreak for Saracens - but with the club campaigns done and dusted, it's time for the cauldron of Test rugby to take centre stage.
Click here for a rundown of what's in store for England as they take on the All Blacks at Eden Park, or read on for ESPN's preview of the other European teams in Test action this weekend.
Argentina v IrelandSaturday, 7.40pm, Sky Sports 1
Darren Cave takes the No.13 jersey for Ireland © Getty Images
Ireland travel to South America hoping to build on their Six Nations title, but they are unlikely to be tested to full capacity by a weakened Argentina side in Resistencia. Pumas head coach Daniel Hourcade has opted not to pick his star Europe-based players for the two-Test series, instead giving domestic talent a chance as he looks to add depth to his shallow pool of players ahead of the Rugby Championship in August.
For all their success earlier this year, Ireland have now entered a transition phase as they prepare for the 2015 World Cup. The great Brian O'Driscoll, the face of Ireland sides for 15 years, is gone and head coach Joe Schmidt does not have the luxury of bringing in another experienced hand to replace him. Taking the No.13 jersey will be Darren Cave - with five caps to O'Driscoll's 133.
Argentina are not without their strengths and Schmidt has picked out backrowers Benjamin Macome and Javier Ortega Desio as Pumas dangermen. There is interest in the ability of fullback Santiago Cordero and scrum-half Martin Landajo has already performed well at Test level. But even without O'Driscoll, Ireland are littered with international-calibre operators and the likes of Paul O'Connell, Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray should steer them to victory.
The battle in the front-row is set to be an enticing scrap, with Argentina's scrummaging pedigree on the line. The pack is the Pumas' pride and joy, but with Ramiro Herrera making his debut at tighthead against bright Irish prospect Jack McGrath, and the young Lucas Noguera Paz taking on veteran Mike Ross, Argentina could find themselves on the back foot.
Ireland skipper Paul O'Connell will make his 100th Test appearance on Saturday, taking his tally to 93 for Ireland and seven for the British and Irish Lions.
Argentina have home advantage but lack their big European names. Even in the post-O'Driscoll era, Ireland have international stars aplenty and should win by at least ten points.
USA v ScotlandSaturday, 1.30am, streamed on dailyrecord.co.uk
Sean Lamont will partner Duncan Taylor in midfield for Scotland © Getty Images
A clash with the USA represents a huge banana skin for Scotland and their new head coach Vern Cotter. The New Zealander has been charged with restoring a sense of pride to the jersey after the lamentable performances under Scott Johnson in the Six Nations earlier this year, but he has chosen to freshen up a familiar squad rather than opt for wholesale changes.
While that might reflect more on the number of players available rather than faith in the current crop, Scotland do have some exciting new talent coming through. Glasgow Warriors' Finn Russell has been rewarded with the No.10 jersey after an impressive PRO12 campaign, while fellow youngsters Alex Allan and Grayson Hart should make appearances from the bench. However, after punishing training sessions in the Houston heat, it is likely to be more brute force than eye-catching flair that will see Scotland through.
Tests against top nations are what the USA need as the stock of American rugby rises. Speculation has swirled around the idea of a US-based Super Rugby team, while the Eagles' top players are being snapped up by leading European clubs. Samu Manoa, Blaine Scully and Chris Wyles all ply their trade in the Aviva Premiership, although Manoa is rested after featuring in the Northampton's hard-fought final win. Low on confidence after a disappointing 2014 so far, the Scots cannot take victory against the USA for granted.
Eyes are likely to be on the fly-half rivals Finn Russell of Scotland and the USA's Shalom Suniula. Both are young and inexperienced, but with the talent to produce something special.
Scotland's starting XV features three uncapped players, with Glasgow Warriors pair Gordon Reid and Russell, and London Irish back-row Blair Cowan all set to make their debuts.
It might not be pretty but Scotland have the experience to win by 15 points.
Australia v FranceSaturday, 11am, Sky Sports 1
Yoann Huget is available on the wing for France © Getty Images
Much has been said about the scheduled fiasco that has left England without some of their leading players for the first Test against New Zealand on Saturday, but spare a thought for France head coach Philippe Saint-Andre. He finds himself in a similar position for the tour to Australia, unable to call on those who featured for Toulon or Castres in the Top 14 final last weekend.
While French clubs might have dominated the European game in recent years, Saint-Andre has found it difficult to replicate that success on the international stage. The setback caused by a lack of Toulon or Castres players is exacerbated by injury to captain Thierry Dusautoir, who will not feature until the second Test, while the dynamic Louis Picamoles does not make the matchday squad.
Disappointingly for those who love a bit of flair behind the scrum, Australia are without the talent that is Quade Cooper. His place is taken by youngster Bernard Foley, who is partnered in the half-backs by Nic White. That means Will Genia is dumped out of the squad, with coach Ewan McKenzie saying the scrum-half's standards have slipped. But even without Cooper and Genia, the Wallabies have the likes of Israel Folau and Nick Cummins to provide the entertainment in Brisbane.
We're looking at the battle of the No.10s once again, with the mercurial Frederic Michalak taking on Bernard Foley. In Jonny Wilkinson's shadow at Toulon, Michalak has struggled for game time, but lining up opposite the green Foley could give him a chance to show European rugby fans what they've missed.
Australia fullback Folau has 10 tries in just 15 Tests.
France are far from a settled side and Australia at home are a difficult proposition for any team. The Wallabies should win by 10, maybe even 15.
Fiji v ItalySaturday, 4am
Manoa Vosawai will fill in for Sergio Parisse © Getty Images
Italy's three-Test tour to the Pacific could be the most intriguing of the summer. On Saturday they face Fiji before Tests against Samoa and Japan and will be desperate for a victory after a winless 2014 so far.
The European season has again taken its toll, with Italy unable to call on veteran Martin Castrogiovanni due to his involvement in the Top 14 final. More devastating for the Azzurri though is the loss of talisman Sergio Parisse, with the captain out injured. But despite the loss of such important pack members, Italy will aim to keep the game as forward-dominated as possible to stifle Fiji's potent backline.
As with several nations this summer, Fiji are entering a new era. Saturday's Test is their first under New Zealander John McKee, who took over last month, and he will hope to unlock the attacking potential of players such as Montpellier's Timoci Nagusa in Suva.
Not so much a match-up as a man to watch - Fiji-born Manoa Vosawai comes into the Azzurri pack to attempt the almost impossible task of replacing Sergio Parisse at No.8. If that wasn't difficult enough, appearing in the blue of Italy in front of the fanatical support of his country of birth means there is plenty of pressure on the Treviso man's shoulders.
Italy's last victory came against Fiji in 2013 after an ill-tempered clash which saw six yellow cards handed out - five of them for Fijians.
This is a tough one to call... but we'll stick our necks out and go for a Fiji victory by three points.
South Africa v World XVSaturday, 4pm, Sky Sports 1
Matt Giteau will line up for the World XV © Getty Images
While Saturday's meeting in Cape Town is not a Test match, it is certainly worth a mention in light of Wales' trip to South Africa next weekend. The Springboks are unable to call on captain Jean de Villiers, who is out for eight weeks with a knee injury, but their XV has talent in abundance. Bakkies Botha and Bryan Habana have bucked the trend to make themselves available despite featuring in Toulon's end-of-season double, while the veteran Victor Matfield assumes the captaincy.
For their part, the World XV should provide plenty of entertainment. Although they have had little time to train together, a squad of stars such as Matt Giteau, Steffon Armitage, Hosea Gear and James O'Connor are unlikely to disappoint. The Barbarians showed how entertaining exhibition rugby can be with their defeat of England last weekend and Nick Mallet's World XV will be unafraid to throw the ball around.
With all the hype around Wales' trip to South Africa, from the Probables v Possibles trial match to the arguments over the release of players by Premiership clubs, Warren Gatland will hope the World XV put up a fight so that Saturday's 'friendly' is more beast than beauty for the Springboks.
Saturday promises to be a great spectacle more than anything, with the score largely irrelevant, but for what it's worth South Africa should win by 15.
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A round-up of Saturday's action in the Guinness Pro 12
Liverpool slipped to a second straight Premier League defeat as West Ham secured their first home points of the new campaign with a 3-1 win at Upton Park
Leicester boss Richard Cockerill admitted "we got what we deserved" after the Tigers suffered a humiliating 45-0 Premiership defeat against Bath
Jenson Button admits a mistake on his crucial Q2 lap cost him the chance of making the top-ten shootout after qualifying 11th for the Singapore Grand Prix
Felipe Massa believes Williams is now in a position to get a good result at the Singapore Grand Prix after resolving its Friday practice issues