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The cut-and-thrust of a Test series can be intoxicating, particularly when opponents are reasonably unfamiliar with one another. For that reason, next month promises a feast of international fixtures.
There are other eye-catching games, notably Italy’s banana skin of a visit to Georgia on July 10 and a double-header between Uruguay and Romania. USA and Chile also face off over two legs in a fascinating World Cup qualifier.
But here is a run-down of five series being staged next month:
South Africa v Wales
July 2, Pretoria
July 9, Bloemfontein
July 16, Cape Town
Without being disrespectful to Wales, this outcome seems so obvious. Even if you take the loss to Italy at the end of the Six Nations as a one-off, given Wales have never won a Test in South Africa it’s hard to see them breaking that duck. There might be a small window to do that in the opener because South Africa haven’t played together since the autumn. But playing at altitude in those two opening Tests works against Wales.
Wayne Pivac, the head coach, spoke positively about how Wales handled France’s big pack in a tight game in the Six Nations, suggesting they might be able to cope with the Springboks’ power. Yet even with Alun Wyn Jones and Josh Navidi back, that feels unlikely. The physically gruelling Tests against the Springboks are a tricky time to show some attacking improvement, but Wales do need to show something in that regard.
Buoyed by their success in the United Rugby Championship and with capacity crowds back for the first time since before the pandemic, South Africa will be ferocious.
All the big-hitters are available but of the many interesting things we learned watching the ‘Two Sides’ documentary, it’s that Eben Etzebeth sets the physical tone on the field and revs up the Springboks off it. Watching him clatter into Alun Wyn for three more Tests will be fun.
A strong case could be made for Dan Biggar but Josh Navidi’s physicality from ruck to ruck along with his ability to win turnovers will be vital if Wales are to have a hope. He was much missed during the Six Nations.
It’s a big series for whoever gets the nod at No 8, with Duane Vermeulen currently recovering from knee surgery. Jasper Wiese of Leicester would appear to be the frontrunner, after being named player of the match in the Premiership final, but Evan Roos of the Stormers and Elrigh Louw of the Bulls have both had cracking seasons.
Back-row riches have never been an issue for Wales over the past decade but Tommy Reffell, one of only three uncapped players in the Wales squad, can add something different. Superb this season for Leicester with his work at the breakdown and defence, Reffell has more than earned this call-up following the Tigers' title win.
Prediction: 3-0 South Africa
No history is being made here, sadly. Once South Africa settle back into a groove - and don’t forget Faf de Klerk is now back after missing the autumn - this feels like one-way traffic unless Wales have been quietly working on a revolution.
Japan v France
July 2, Toyota
July 9, Tokyo
The hipster’s choice? Maybe, but France have rested their biggest guns and Jamie Joseph admitted that the pandemic had left Japan “clearly behind” rivals in their preparation for next year’s World Cup. After reaching the quarter-finals at their home tournament in 2019, the Brave Blossoms did not have a single fixture in 2020 and lost five out of six in 2021. A single win came against Portugal.
They began this year by beating Uruguay twice, picking squads that combined older heads with new faces. Yu Tamura and Timothy Lafaele resumed their midfield partnership in the first game, for instance. Neither were in the 23 for the second encounter. Joseph is eager to build depth, but will surely assemble something close to a front-line selection to take the Grand Slam champions.
Fabien Galthié is in a comfy place. It was essentially his third team, plus a few ringers such as back-heeling George Kruis, that demolished England for the Barbarians last Sunday. For this tour, he has opted against bringing Top 14 finalists and those with miles on the clock. Expect the same tactical template, comprising patient kicking, fierce defence and flowing counter-attack. If Japan’s intricate phase-play clicks, we could have a classic clash of styles.
As ever, 33-year-old Michael Leitch is an influential figure for Japan and the absence of Kazuki Himeno, his fellow back-rower, only amplifies that. Combative hooker Atsushi Sakate will share game-time with Shota Horie.
Matthieu Jalibert is likely to be opposite him. Having missed the Six Nations due to injury, the talented playmaker, still only 23, will be motivated to lead convincing performances. Success breeds success, you see.
Gerhard Van der Heever, a strapping and well-travelled South African wing, was handed a Japan debut in the second match against Uruguay. The 33-year-old marked it with a try after his selection raised eyebrows. Dylan Riley and Yusuke Kajimura could shake up the midfield. Takuya Yamasawa, who guided Saitama Wild Knights to the domestic title with Rikiya Matsuda injured, will provide Yu Tamura with competition at fly-half.
There are a few potential World Cup bolters in the 42-man group that Galthié has put together. Nolann Le Garrec, just 20, is yet another prodigious scrum-half and may well jump the queue to become Antoine Dupont’s deputy.
Prediction: 2-0 France
Les Bleus will be too strong. The hope is that Japan regain some rhythm. They are heading to Twickenham in November.
Argentina v Scotland
July 2, San Salvador de Jujuy
July 9, Salta
July 16, Santiago del Estero
What next for Scotland? Just as hopes were beginning to rise after a good 2021 Six Nations, a big contingent on the Lions tour and a win over Australia in the autumn, they began the 2022 Six Nations by defeating England and then… fluffed their lines. Losing to a struggling Wales and copping heavy losses to France and Ireland felt like a regression.
It’s an interesting time to be touring Argentina, who are hoping the appointment of Michael Cheika can inject some urgency into a side on the wane after that heavy defeat to Ireland (53-7) in the autumn. Given how Argentina’s players are dotted across the world it’s a tricky gig, but the talent’s obviously there, and in captain Julian Montoya they have a hooker playing as well as anyone.
With a Scotland ‘A’ game against Chile this Saturday and Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Chris Harris all rested for the summer, it’s an intriguing tour for Gregor Townsend.
Along with Montoya, Argentina will need Marco Kremer to be at his best whether he’s used at lock or in the back-row. The 24-year-old is creeping up on 50 Test caps and offers plenty of physicality, which Argentina will need to tame Scotland.
As for Scotland, that first Test in San Salvador de Jujuy should end up being Hamish Watson’s 50th cap, having become essential for Scotland in recent seasons with his breakdown work and ability to somehow never miss a tackle.
Ronan O’Gara was full of praise for Joel Scalvi’s impact on La Rochelle’s run to the Champions Cup season, tipping the tighthead prop for big things with Argentina. Well, who are we to argue? Scalvi should push Francisco Gómez Kodela, who started all three Tests in the autumn, for that No 3 shirt.
Scotland, meanwhile, are blessed with plenty of good wing options - Darcy Graham, Damian Hoyland, Rufus McLean, Duhan van der Merwe - but Kyle Rowe is coming off a storming season in the Premiership with London Irish and his acceleration and footwork could pose Argentina problems.
Prediction: Argentina 2-1
Perhaps the hardest to call of the lot. Given the trio left at home by Scotland, plus a potential new-head-coach bounce with Cheika now taking the top job from Mario Ledesma, expect Argentina to sneak their first Tests at home since 2019. It’ll be emotional.
Australia v England
July 2, Perth
July 16, Sydney
This has the feel of a high-stakes, mid-table dust-up between a pair of sides struggling for consistency while figuring out who they are. Australia arrived in Europe last autumn buoyant from the Rugby Championship, having overturned South Africa twice. Dave Rennie missed the dynamism of Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete, though, and the Wallabies conceded a torrent of penalties on the way to three consecutive defeats.
We know all about England’s faltering attempts to energise their attack. Danny Care and the Vunipola brothers - Mako and Billy - have travelled. A retrograde step? Well, a top coach told Telegraph Sport recently that Eddie Jones needed to complement Marcus Smith and Freddie Steward with more experience should he want to win the 2023 World Cup. They suggested, however, that Jones’ ego would not allow him to do so.
In that regard, the selection U-turn must have come as a pleasant surprise. England certainly look more assured for the presence of some in-form veterans from the 2016 Bodyline bash.
Nic White, the snarling scrum-half, will be vital for his kicking game and competitive edge. He is an underrated breakdown threat. Michael Hooper spearheads the cohort of back-rowers. Marika Koribete and Taniela Tupou are keynote carriers. But the man that heightens Australia’s ceiling more than anyone is Kerevi.
Billy Vunipola comes in from the cold and, surely, into a prominent role – even if he may not start all three games. Shorn of Manu Tuilagi again, England require thrust and the Saracens back-rower was exceptional in the Premiership decider. Maro Itoje and Ellis Genge are big leaders, while the axis of Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith should finally get another spin.
With another code-hopper in Koroibete bound to start on one wing, Rennie could unleash rangy Reds star Suliasi Vunivalu for some serious back-three firepower. Dave Porecki, the former London Irish hooker, will be familiar to Premiership viewers.
As for England, young tighthead prop Joe Heyes is just 23 but the Premiership final represented his 101st senior appearance for Leicester. His clubmates, like the similarly promising Ollie Chessum, land in Australia with momentum. Tommy Freeman could get a chance with Jonny May doubtful for the first Test.
Prediction: 2-1 England
Confession: this is a fumble in the dark. No combination of results would be a surprise, such is the unpredictable nature of this series. Either nation could emerge 3-0 up and Australia were excellent in patches over 2021, especially at home. But Jones has picked a strong squad that should have enough if they show composure and clarity. There is a lot riding on it for him, at least.
New Zealand v Ireland
July 2, Auckland
July 9, Dunedin
July 16, Wellington
Outside of a Lions series, this is one of the most-anticipated summer tours for some time. Set up well with Ireland finishing second in the Six Nations, there was a clear gap in quality between Ireland and France to the rest. There are also two mid-week games against the Maori All Blacks, hence head coach Andy Farrell selecting a squad of 40. Even with Robert Baloucoune, Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell and Ronan Kelleher all ruled out with injury there’s great depth in that Irish squad.
There’s also plenty of intrigue given that (outside of the Rugby World Cup quarter-final thrashing dished out by the All Blacks) this has been a relatively even battle in recent years ever since Ireland’s historic first-ever win over New Zealand in 2016. Ireland have won the last two meetings in Dublin - can they pick up a maiden Test win in New Zealand?
How New Zealand head coach Ian Foster uses some of his uncapped newcomers in Chiefs No 8 Pita Gus Sowakula, rugby league convert Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in midfield and the threatening Crusaders wing Leicester Fainga’anuku will be interesting.
Expect a much-changed New Zealand side from the one which lost to Ireland in the autumn, particularly because Jack Goodhue is back in midfield and so, too, is Sam Cane to captain the side in the back-row. Cane’s defensive work will be a boost.
Hard to see Ireland winning down in New Zealand without Johnny Sexton, with Sexton one of five players along with Cian Healy, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Keith Earls who toured New Zealand back in 2012 on Ireland’s last trip. His control and captaincy will be pivotal.
New Zealand have intriguing midfield options - Jack Goodhue and Rieko Ioane were used in the autumn, while David Havili has just captained the Crusaders to another trophy. Goodhue and Havili tested positive for Covid on Sunday which could open the door for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, the former Dally M Medal winner (awarded to the player of the year in the NRL), who has won an All Blacks call-up after a steady debut season with the Blues. The impression seems to be that he is getting better with every game.
The way that James Hume finished the season for Ulster in the URC surely puts him right in the mix to crack Ireland’s midfield. He already has three caps but this would be his biggest stage so far, and he’s the man in form to work with one of Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw or Garry Ringrose.
Prediction: 2-1 New Zealand
An Irish Test win certainly seems possible and would be a momentous achievement in itself, but clinching the series might be a stretch.