Rugby
Martyn Thomas, Rugby Editor 11d

ESPN's rugby predictions: Game of the week, potential upset & more

Rugby

The end-of-year internationals are here and this month will provide fans of Test rugby with a gauge of how their side's preparations for the 2019 Rugby World Cup are going.

Ahead of a busy opening weekend of action ESPN predicts which team is set for a big Saturday night, which player will shine and where your attention should be trained amid a packed fixture list.

Player to watch

Bundee Aki (Ireland). The New Zealand-born centre has dominated column inches in Ireland this week after Joe Schmidt confirmed he would start the game against the Sringboks. Not all of the coverage has been complimentary for a player who has qualified for his adopted nation on residency grounds, and Schmidt will hope his player has not been adversely affected. Aki's midfield partnership with former Connacht teammate Robbie Henshaw should be enough to excite the Aviva Stadium faithful, but the pair will not be given an easy ride against Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende.

Game of the weekend

Ireland vs. South Africa, Saturday, 5.30 p.m.

The Springboks arrived in Dublin at an opportune time, given the game's proximity to Wednesday's 2023 Rugby World Cup host vote. But while the tourists have been anointed in that battle, they head to the Aviva Stadium in dire need of a victory. Allister Coetzee's side showed promise in a narrow defeat to the All Blacks last month, that followed two draws against Australia. However, those games with the Wallabies sandwiched a 57-0 defeat to New Zealand and the fact remains they have not won any of their last four matches. Ireland, on the other hand, have lost just twice in 2017 and Schmidt has been able to name nine British & Irish Lions in his starting XV. 

Potential upset

Scotland vs. Samoa, Saturday, 2.30 p.m.

Spirits are high at Murrayfield following a debut summer tour for Gregor Townsend that included a famous win over the Wallabies. Many arriving in Edinburgh Saturday will expect the hosts to knock over their opponents with ease, especially at the end of a week in which the Samoan Rugby Union was declared bankrupt. But adversity often brings out the best in athletes and every player in a white shirt will be determined to end a difficult week on a high. That the Scottish Rugby Union has decided not to offer their visitors a goodwill payment might just stoke that fire. Scotland should still win, but an inexperienced side will be pushed all the way.

Big weekend for...

Warren Gatland. Two years out from the World Cup Gatland has decided to move away from the game plan that he termed "Winningball" in his recent book. Owen Williams will start in the No. 12 shirt against Australia Saturday as Wales trial a second playmaker at the Principality Stadium. Gatland will hope the move can reap similar benefits for his side as Eddie Jones' use of Owen Farrell and George Ford has for England, and in turn help Wales end their woeful run against the Wallabies. Injuries, however, have robbed him of George North, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb for the clash, meaning the Wallabies start favourites for a 13th straight win over their hosts.

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