Who will end their summer tour with a bang?
June 20, 2014
Thierry Dusautoir will lead France in the third Test against Australia, with Les Bleus desperate for a first win of the summer © Getty Images
After long domestic and international seasons, Europe's elite players must be looking forward to their summer holidays once this weekend in through. Scotland aside, who travel to South Africa next weekend, this round of matches represents the final chance for the Six Nations sides to test themselves against southern hemisphere opposition. And while they have endured mixed fortunes so far this month, all head coaches will be desperate to sign off with a win.
England take on New Zealand in the final Test of the series on Saturday. Click here to read a preview of that match. But read on for ESPN's preview of the other European nations in action this weekend.
Argentina v ScotlandFriday, 8.10pm, Sky Sports 3
Duncan Weir takes the No.10 jersey for Scotland © Getty Images
Argentina will pose their first real test of the summer. Buoyed by impressive performances against Ireland, the Pumas will fancy their chances of putting one over European opposition. Even without some of their star Europe-based players - head coach Daniel Hourcade has opted to give rest them this summer - Argentina have the skill and passion to put up a real fight in Cordoba.
For Scotland, it is all change. Cotter has split his tour party in half, with a large chunk of players returning home after the unconvincing 19-17 victory over Canada last weekend. The head coach has made 11 changes to the XV that started in Toronto and who knows, that might reinvigorate his team. But if the new faces fail to get up to speed, Scotland could be in for disappointment.
The battle of the half-backs will be intriguing in Cordoba. Argentina's Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez benefit from the steady platform given to them by a hulking pack, but they have the guile between them to set Scotland scampering for the defences. Scotland's new-look half-back partners Duncan Weir and Grayson Hart hail from Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively, but will need to spark up an understanding if they are to get the better of their opposite numbers.
Scotland have faced Argentina 13 times since 1990, only winning four on four occasions.
Without wishing to pour scorn on Scotland's unbeaten run, Argentina will be too strong at home. It will be tight, but the Pumas should win by three points.
Australia v FranceSaturday, 6.00am, Sky Sports 1
Australia's Adam Ashley-Cooper looks relaxed in training © Getty Images
As the scorelines suggests, France were much improved in the second Test, both in performance and fighting spirit. The return of those men involved in the Top 14 final, plus captain Thierry Dusautoir certainly helped in Melbourne and France must now kick on from that performance to avoid a wasted summer.
Australia have tinkered with their starting XV, giving the monster Will Skelton a first cap in the second row. The 140kg lock comes in for the former captain James Horwill, suggesting head coach Ewan McKenzie is happy to use Saturday as sighter with the Rugby Championship in mind. The Wallabies management was criticised for failing to put bums on seats at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, so they will be hoping for a repeat of the free-scoring first Test rather than last weekend's plodding offering.
Standing over two metres tall, Wallabies debutant Will Skelton will be impossible to miss, and his French opponents will not necessarily be queuing up to take him on. Alexandre Flanquart and Yoann Maestri might be impressive Top 14 operators, but they are not a settled international pairing, so the hulking Skelton could cause some serious damage at the set piece.
Saturday's victory over France was Australia's sixth consecutive win, a feat last achieved by a Wallabies team in 2005.
After one try-fest and one damp squib, anything could happen on Saturday, so a prediction feels like a shot in the dark. But Australia should still have enough to win by seven points.
Japan v ItalySaturday, 6.00am
Leonardo Ghiraldini will pack down for Italy © Getty Images
Italy's strength is in the pack and the Treviso front row of Lorenzo Cittadini, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alberto De Marchi have once again been entrusted to try and establish a blue foothold on the Test. But while the forwards will benefit from a dose of consistency, the same cannot be said for the problem position of fly-half. After Italy failed to score a single point in Samoa, Tommaso Allan has been ditched for Luciano Orquera as head coach Jacques Brunel continues his search for some invention in the backs.
Given the low calibre of opposition they have faced, tt would be easy to overstate Japan's progress in recent months. But the stock of Asian rugby is certainly rising. The Brave Blossoms are on a nine-match winning run and, with the 2019 World Cup to look forward to, victories against top European nations are the next step towards stamping a Japanese mark on the global game.
It could come down to Ayumu Goromaru v Luciano Orquera. Although they will not line up as direct opponents in open play - with Goromaru at full-back and Orquera at No.10 - it is from the kicking tee that their battle could prove crucial.
Goromaru has been fantastic with the boot recently, scoring 17 points in Japan's 37-29 victory over the USA last weekend. But Italy have been struggling for points from any source, so they will hope Orquera is on target to give them a chance in Tokyo.
Japan have won their last nine games - against Russia, Spain, Philippines, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Hong Kong, Samoa, Canada and the USA - while Italy have not registered a victory in 2014.
Italy are not travelling well and there has been little evidence to suggest they will suddenly spring to life in Tokyo. Japan should win by seven points.
South Africa v WalesSaturday, 2.00pm, Sky Sports 1
Samson Lee is preferred to Adam Jones for Wales © Getty Images
Wales remain largely unchanged but have tinkered in the pack. Adam Jones and Aaron Shingler are dropped, with Samson Lee and Josh Turnbull coming into the XV. No one enjoys seeing a talisman such as Jones dropped, but Gatland has opted to give youth a chance in the shape of Lee, while Turnbull will be tasked with adding some backbone to the back-row after South Africa dominated the breakdown last Saturday.
While Jones might be out, South Africa are definitely sticking with their veteran in the pack. 37-year-old Victor Matfield will lead the Springboks in Nelspruit, but will be alongside a new partner in the shape of Flip van der Merwe. South Africa Head coach Heyneke Meyer has also included the formidable Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira, who will relish the prospect of packing down against the inexperienced Lee.
There are crucial areas all over the pitch. South Africa full-back Willie le Roux was hailed as one of the world's best last weekend, while the front-row scrap against Mtawarira will be a baptism of fire for Lee. But the back-row will be critical once again. Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts and Francois Louw were excellent in the first Test and Wales' Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau will need all the help they can get from new man Turnbull if they hope to stop them.
Both sides will salute a great of the game on Saturday as Victor Matfield breaks his country's appearance record to win his 112th cap.
Wales will put up a fight but it is unlikely to be enough. South Africa by ten.
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