Ireland travel to Twickenham this weekend in their first of a gruelling round of three back to back World Cup warmup games which sees them up against England and then two encounters against the Welsh. England have one more match after this before Japan, so after coming unstuck against Wales last weekend will clearly want to put in a strong performance against a side that has rained on their parade more than they would have perhaps liked in the last few years. Ireland also need to find the form that had them being billed as World Cup contenders last year, but so far this year has all but deserted them. A poor Six Nations campaign has left Ireland needing to find answers and quickly.

Scotland were given an exceptionally rude wake up call last weekend in Nice by a rampant French side that looked very slick indeed. Whether that was one of those infamous one off French displays that we will now have to wait to see repeated at some point where we least expect it, remains to be seen. However, if they can keep up the kind of intensity they showed last weekend, then they will no doubt head into this World Cup with the label of dark horse, which has so often been their exclusive preserve with the exception of the 2015 edition of the tournament. Scotland surely cannot be as bad again as they were in Nice, and on the hallowed ground of Murrayfield expect a more convincing performance. However, if they do end up being blown out of the water again by “les Bleus” then Ireland may at least feel that their own progression from the pools is assured at Scotland’s expense.

It’s an interesting weekend ahead, and performance rather than results will be key as well as keeping the injury demons at bay. However, there is little doubt that in Ireland and Scotland’s case with places up for grabs on the plane to Japan, there should be a little more intensity on offer than an out of season “friendly” usually generates. Here’s what we’ll be looking at this weekend.

Scotland vs France – Saturday, August 24th – Murrayfield

We have to confess to being slightly perplexed at Scotland’s exceptionally inept display last weekend in Nice, especially with so many names in the Scottish squad that you would assume to be first choice picks for Japan. Whether Scottish players had taken their summer vacations far too seriously and as a result were beyond rusty is debatable, but as professionals you would have thought that even with a much needed break they would still have managed to show up to some degree on the day. France on the other hand looked as though the TOP 14 final had only been yesterday, as they were full of enterprise, skill and all round panache. Whether or not they will be able to maintain this is the quintessential question when talking of French teams and as a result Saturday’s result will say a great deal in terms of where France are at in terms of their potential form heading into the World Cup.

Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend wields the axe across the board and rings the changes

After their shambolic performance last weekend, there are very few survivors taking to the field on Saturday for Scotland. Only fullback Stuart Hogg gets to keep his place and probably only because Scotland has two options for the position, both of whom played last Saturday and will do so again this weekend. Scotland lacked any kind of bite whatsoever last weekend and could almost have been accused of not really caring about proceedings. They’ll need to make a massive step up this weekend in front of the Murrayfield faithful who will simply not tolerate another schooling from their French visitors. Scotland suffer the same problem as France, brilliant one day and then a disaster the next. The Twickenham “miracle” at the end of this year’s Six Nations, now seems just that based on their performance in Nice. They will need to dig deep and rediscover that form that makes them as entertaining to watch as Fiji at times.

There is something strange brewing in France – consistency in selection

After years of watching the team sheets change dramatically from one match to another, this weekend’s team list looks almost identical to last week’s. The only difference being that some of the starters are now on the bench and vice versa. Is French Coach Jacques Brunel going to do away with the French propensity to chop and change and instead focus on a settled squad – a luxury French teams have been denied for at least the last five years? We have to confess to finding it hard to believe that Brunel himself is the proponent for such a radical change in French thinking, but if the experiment works on Saturday, then the long overdue call for such an approach will finally have been justified.

He almost singlehandedly reversed Scotland’s fortunes against England in the Six Nations and Scotland will be looking to Hamish Watson to do the same again this weekend.

The energy that Hamish Watson injects into any Scottish performance is now legendary and Scotland clearly missed the dynamic loose forward last weekend. Perhaps more than any other Scottish player he epitomizes the image of grabbing a match by the scruff of the neck and shaking some sense into it. His value to any Scottish team and their endeavours in Japan is an absolute given, and Scotland will be crossing their fingers that he escapes this match injury free.

Two of the most exciting half backs in Test Rugby set out to try and bamboozle each other

French scrum half Antoine Dupont and Scottish fly half Finn Russell, are two of the modern games most prominent masters of the X-factor. Both players excel at seizing sudden and unexpected opportunities that leave opposition defences completely wrong footed. With an exceptional set of footballing skills, these two players are always fascinating to watch, and the added bonus of having them both on the same pitch makes this a contest well worth watching. As masters of the element of surprise, expect plenty of enterprise and borderline reckless chance taking on Saturday.

In a stable of top quality backs how good has Damian Penaud become?

As you may recall, in this year’s Six Nations we kept lamenting French Coach Jacques Brunel’s insistence on playing Damian Penaud out of position on the wing. Up to that point the Clermont player had been known as a centre and a fine one at that. He clearly struggled initially with life on the wing despite a series of brave efforts. However, he has clearly matured into the role to the point now where he looks as though he has always played there and seems completely at ease running the touch lines. Expect him to be one of France’s danger men on Saturday.

Verdict

This is one of those calls where you would think the obvious is a given. However, after Scotland’s abject performance in France last weekend and “les Bleus” seeming renaissance ahead of the World Cup, anything could happen at Murrayfield on Saturday. Of one thing we are certain, this is a quality French side that will take some beating. However, their next big hurdle is to prove that they can produce this kind of form on the road, a talent that has often been missing from their armoury in recent years. Meanwhile an equally talented Scottish team needs to fire, and a rousing Murrayfield encouragement should be just the tonic needed. It should all provide for an entertaining contest, but Scotland should surely at home be the dominant side, albeit one pushed hard. We think Scotland are likely to bounce back and make it one apiece, but it won’t be easy and expect the scoreboard to tick over from both sides, with the Scots squeaking it out by 3 points!

England vs Ireland – Saturday, August 24th – Twickenham

England know what their World Cup squad looks like and after tomorrow Ireland should have a pretty good idea of what their selection for Japan should look like. The Emerald Isle’s World Cup warmup opener against Italy saw Ireland get the job done, but a few worrying injuries put a damper on an already conservative approach. Saturday see them face an English side feeling confident but disappointed by their loss to Wales last weekend. It’s very much a first choice England squad running out onto the pitch at Twickenham on Saturday, and Ireland have responded accordingly in their selections, with only fly half Jonathan Sexton and second rower James Ryan being the only notable omissions. England will no doubt focus on performance first and results second, but much like against the Welsh, neither team will want to lose this one. In short in terms of quality preparation for Japan, and provided the injury demons are kept at bay, it doesn’t get much better than this.

The return of Tom Curry to full match fitness it without doubt the best news England has had all month

He may not have much Test experience but his value to England has already been cast in stone, and expect the young flanker to have a huge role to play in Japan. As a result the sight of him hobbling off in England’s first game against Wales this month, must have set alarm bells ringing across the land. His return tomorrow could not be more welcome, and having to deal with the likes of Peter O’Mahony and Josh Van der Flier will be superb practice for the challenges that lie ahead. Our estimation of Curry is so high that we wouldn’t be surprised to see him sporting the Captain’s jersey come the next World Cup.

Ireland’s second row – a chance to shine under pressure

Jean Kleyn stepped up to the plate against Italy, and Ian Henderson will need to make a similar impression on Saturday, as places up for grabs in Ireland’s second row offerings for Japan are likely to be hotly contested. With James Ryan likely to be the only dead ringer for the World Cup at this stage, expect all four Irish second rowers starting and on the bench to play out of their skins on Saturday, meaning that England’s exceptionally capable trio of Maro Itoje, George Kruis and the indomitable Courtney Lawes will need to be at their best.

A slight surprise at seeing George Ford starting at 10 again, but he has clearly earned it

George Ford was outstanding against Wales in the opening World Cup warmup match for England, and despite the loss a week later in Cardiff he still put in a respectable performance. This match will probably see Owen Farrell move to the fly half position at some point in the match, allowing Jonathan Joseph to take over his starting position at centre. Coach Eddie Jones clearly favours this in terms of rotating his two World Cup number 10s, and consequently Ford continues to get the opportunity to make up for lost time after a poor domestic season.

We are delighted to see Ross Byrne get another start at 10 in an Irish jersey

Jonathan Sexton’s understudy at Leinster, Ross Byrne has impressed at club and European level but really needs to settle into the role at Test level. With the outstanding Joey Carberry in a race to be fit for Japan, Byrne has been given a golden opportunity to provide some much needed back up to Ireland’s two first choice number 10s. We think he is a quality player and very much, along with Carberry, the new face of the 10 jersey for Ireland once Jonathan Sexton hangs up his boots. His battle with George Ford should be one of the afternoon’s most fascinating contests.

If both half back pairings fire this could be a fantastic afternoon of running rugby

The backs selections for both teams ooze quality and excitement. Jordan Larmour, Gary Ringrose and Jacob Stockdale for Ireland can really put on a show and Jonny May, Jonathan Joseph and Joe Cokanasiga can do the same for England. Manu Tuilagi also looked rather frightening with ball in hand for England in his appearances off the bench against Wales, whilst Andrew Conway can also run a good touch line for Ireland. We’d argue that in terms of service delivery from the fly half department and overall game management, England are likely to be better served but there is plenty of potential for Ireland to upset the apple cart here on Saturday. As a result this could end up being a high scoring game and certainly one high in entertainment value if free flowing attacking rugby is your cup of tea.

Verdict

Ireland may still remember fondly their Grand Slam win at Twickenham in last year’s Six Nations, but for all intents and purposes that is all ancient history. England are the form team and it is Ireland who have everything to prove. However, as a result they couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to dispel the claim that they peaked too early for the World Cup. Nevertheless this looks like a very settled and focused English team, and Ireland have yet to show us anything comparable this year, and while they are a team brimming with World Class talent, it simply hasn’t gelled so far this year the way England have. As a result, we’re handing this to England by six points, but expect to see Ireland’s first really clinical performance of the year, and one which gives us a hint that they are regrouping to be the force everyone originally thought they’d be in Japan!

Yes we know, Scotland also travel to Toulon to get their World Cup preparations underway but we won’t be covering it as we are unable to watch it here in Canada (though we will be able to get the return fixture at Murrayfield next weekend and thus will cover that).

However, there is plenty to look forward to this Saturday, as the matter of the Bledisloe Cup will be settled between New Zealand and Australia, and Argentina travel to South Africa to take on a Springbok side that is positively humming after lifting the Rugby Championship (or TriNations as it was formerly known) silverware for the first time in 10 years last weekend.

Meanwhile in Cardiff, England arrive to really up the ante in their World Cup preparations with Coach Eddie Jones already having named his Rugby World Cup squad of 31 players, 23 of whom will be seeing action on Saturday. Wales have already started to reel from pre-Japan injuries and without the depth at their disposal that England has, will no doubt be taking a cautious approach to this weekend’s proceedings.

So without further ado, here’s what got us pondering this week in relation to Saturday’s showdowns.

New Zealand vs Australia – Saturday, August 17th – Auckland

First up, our heartfelt apologies to the Wallabies after we had essentially written them off last weekend. That was a quality performance that was long overdue for Australia, and one we always felt they had in them, but were struggling to figure out how to execute. The radical turnaround in their fortunes against the number one team in the world, was however not what we were expecting. So as we say egg all over our faces and congratulations to the team and their supporters.

New Zealand were not their usual sprightly selves and one could argue they haven’t been for quite some time now, and there is no doubt that being reduced to fourteen men for the last half of the match didn’t help their cause much either. However, New Zealand foibles aside, Australia put in the best performance we’ve seen from a Wallaby side in at least two years. They were clinical, efficient and downright enterprising at times, as well as making sure they capitalized on the All Blacks’ mistakes of which there were many. It was a sparkling Australian performance and one which give them plenty of confidence in the buildup to their World Cup – the trick now is to maintain that standard.

New Zealand are clearly a conundrum at the moment. Whether or not it is a case of Coach Steve Hansen trying to lull the opposition into a state of complacency is debatable. However, there is no getting away from the fact that even if he is reluctant to show his hand this far out from Japan, New Zealand are looking a long way from being the self assured side that for the last five years has comfortably kept the opposition at arms length, barring the odd hiccough. Nevertheless, we still don’t buy the argument that they are all of a sudden a World Cup pushover. In the last twelve months they have only lost three times. Admittedly they have also been pushed incredibly close at times in the last year, but their win ratio is still pretty impeccable and the envy of most teams.

It is after all Eden Park we are talking about on Saturday, as well as the fact that lightning rarely strikes men dressed in black twice

If ever there was a hallowed ground for a team then Auckland’s Eden Park surely ticks all the boxes. As the All Blacks spiritual fortress the ground has been kind to them like no other team on earth. New Zealand have not lost a rugby match here since July 3, 1994 (in an epic match against France which I can remember to this day). So yes it is over 25 years and 42 matches later, that anyone has had the gall to upset New Zealand’s finest on this cherished turf. As good as Australia were last weekend against New Zealand, they are going to have to be even better by at least another gear or two to pull off the same unthinkable feat in Auckland. Throw into that equation the fact that the All Blacks simply do not suffer back to back losses very often – 2011 to be precise and by two different teams. So Australia may fancy their chances, but unless New Zealand play worse than they did in Perth (which on home ground is rather unlikely) then Australia will need quite a bit more than just a few lucky rabbit feet and one hell of a game plan this Saturday.

Our biggest surprise last week – the Wallaby scrum

It was competitive – plain and simple – and provided Australia a solid platform and Tolu Latu’s dart throwing skills at lineout time were for the most part pretty accurate. New Zealand have decided to change things up a bit here on Saturday with Owen Franks not even making the bench in place of Nepo Lualala. Even Dane Coles was fairly ineffectual as a backup winger, a role he usually causes all kinds of havoc in. In short Australia seemed to have the measure of New Zealand at the coalface and how to contain the nuisance factor of Dane Coles in loose play. It will be interesting to see this weekend if that was simply a temporary reprieve for the Wallabies.

That Australian second row means business

We stuck our necks out last weekend by saying we felt that Australia’s stocks in the second row were in exceptionally rude health. We were certainly not disappointed. Izack Rodda and Rory Arnold played a huge part in the Wallabies success in Perth and the long awaited return of Adam Coleman from injury when he came off the bench also did not disappoint. This week Rodda keeps his place, while Coleman gets a starting berth. Arnold gets given a much needed break to be replaced by Rob Simmons on the bench which may be one of the few weak links in the Wallabies armour in this part of the park.

New Zealand’s back row needs to step up

With the exception of Ardie Savea, who despite being out of position continued to play like a man possessed, New Zealand looked well off the boil here last Saturday, with the Australians grabbing all the headlines in this part of the park. We doubt they will have it that easy again this weekend, but New Zealand really need to assert some authority once more here.

Given the events of last weekend we were once again surprised at the halfback combinations for New Zealand as well as those in the backs

We’ve said it before and last weekend seemed to bear us out – Aaron Smith is not New Zealand’s first choice scrum half anymore and in reality hasn’t been for quite some time. Consequently, given the events of last weekend we were more than a little surprised to see him get the starting berth for Saturday’s match. TJ Perenara is a much more difficult proposition for opposition sides, and while he makes the bench again in this match, expect to see him sooner rather than later if things are not going well for New Zealand from the outset. Furthermore, the Richie Mo’unga/Beauden Barrett 10-15 axis is not really working, and Mo’unga seems to be struggling to bring his Super Rugby game to the Test arena. For a match with Bledisloe silverware on the line we would have thought Hansen would have reverted to the tried and trusted formula of Barrett at 10 and Ben Smith at fullback instead of the wing as he was last weekend.

Talking of the rest of the backs the omission of Ben Smith really caught us off guard. While we didn’t quite get to see him at his best last weekend on the wing, his experience at fullback is pretty hard to replicate. Furthermore much like the Mo’unga experiment we’re not sure George Bridge or Sevu Reece will translate their Super Rugby form to the Test arena. Add in the fact Sonny Bill Williams’ one dimensional play is unlikely to be able to counteract the high stepping antics of the Wallabies James O’Connor and Samu Kerevi, and New Zealand’s selection policy for a match where one of their most prized pieces of silverware is on the line, is slightly baffling.

Verdict

All these variables aside, it is still hard for most of us to get our head around the fact that New Zealand would a) lose at Eden Park, b) lose two back to back matches to the same opponent and in the process c) give up the Bledisloe Cup. If this Wallaby team plays anything like they did in Perth, then they will be good but we still find it hard to believe they are THAT good to pull off the unthinkable scenario above. If they can play to that level, and we think they are more than capable of doing so, then one thing is for certain – we are in for one hell of a Test match! However, as close as it may be at times, this is one occasion where it is simply impossible for us to buck the form and history books and thus we give it to New Zealand by six!

Wales vs England – Saturday, August 17th – Cardiff

Wales World Cup anxiety is now in full swing after last weekend’s tussle with England at Twickenham. All the teams are now playing Russian Roulette with the injury wheel in these warmup games and Wales have been the first to list a fatality. Last weekend’s match saw fly half Gareth Anscombe who played such a large role in Wales’ Six Nations Grand Slam campaign, succumb to a World Cup ending injury. Wales now have to dig deep into their depth stocks in a race against time to find a reliable second choice fly half to support Dan Biggar.

England have no such problems, and in an almost cavalier attitude, Coach Eddie Jones became the first to name his 31 man World Cup squad, 23 of whom see action on Saturday. Last weekend he got a chance to have one last look at a few players on his shopping list and it would appear they ticked all the right boxes in the Coach’s estimation. Consequently it is a strong England side that runs out onto the Cardiff pitch on Saturday, and one which knows it has two tough matches in which to really refine structures and combinations, without the need to compete for places. Some may say it was bold and brash to name your squad so early, but it certainly has its merits if you ask us, whether you’re a fan of Jones or not.

England’s front five will be hard to beat and Wales clearly struggled to get any traction here last Saturday

England were dominant here last weekend, and even with the noise of the Cardiff faithful as encouragement for the Men in Red, we don’t see much change here on Saturday. England’s substitutes really didn’t get much of a look in here last weekend except for George Kruis, but except the England bench to provide plenty of niggle and frustration for an embattled Welsh tight five on Saturday.

Where you might see a change in Welsh fortunes is later in the game off the bench in the back row

Wales were competitive here last weekend make no mistake, even if at times they were shaded by an all star English contingent of Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry and a suprisingly robust performance from Lewis Ludlum. In the half hour he was in the match Tom Curry showed what genuine world class pedigree he already offers England despite his youth, and seeing him leave the field with injury must have caused consternation in the English camp. However, it would appear it is only a temporary setback and he was more than ably replaced by Courtney Lawes who had a barnstormer of a game. This weekend, sees Wales have Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler on the bench and in our opinion these two are superb individually, but together they are something special for Wales and an attack threat that England will really need to contain.

How much of a loss will Gareth Anscombe be to Wales – while England’s new half back pairing shone

The loss of Welsh flyhalf Gareth Anscombe last weekend was a bitter blow for Wales, especially as he will miss the World Cup. England on the other hand can feel absolutely delighted with the partnership of debutant scrum half Willi Heinz and established fly half George North. Once again we feel we perhaps owe the Leicester Tigers playmaker and fly half an apology after last Saturday. Ford put in a superbly controlled and measured performance, while scrum half Willi Heinz ensured fast and crisp delivery off the base of the scrum and at the rucks. England looked sharp here and with Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs on the bench this weekend, this is a powerhouse quartet for the Men in White. Wales look good as well with Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies but should they suffer any further injuries here it could be a very long afternoon for the Welsh with nothing in the tank to provide the kind of quality cover they need to match England’s offerings.

The English backs were outstanding last weekend and another powerhouse display looks to be in the making

England really topped the charts last weekend in back field play, and that was without the likes of winger Jonny May. We thought the return of centre Jonathan Joseph and winger Anthony Watson was something England have been missing, with neither player seeming to miss a step. Joe Cokanasiga showed that he is not just a new Jonah Lomu in the making, as he also proved pretty handy in the forward battles close to the try line. Elliot Daly took a cheeky drop goal and continued to reinforce our belief that despite the odd “off” day he is one of England’s most valuable assets in both defence and attack. This weekend sees one more Test debut for England in the shape of winger Ruaridh McConnochie, but given his supporting cast we doubt he’ll disappoint. Wales were competitive here make no mistake with Jonathan Davies and George North in particular catching the eye on numerous occasions, but there is no denying that England ran the show for the most part in this part of the park.

The English bench should seal the deal on Saturday

As mentioned above, for us the only Welsh bench offering that should really set alarm bells ringing for England is the back row partnership of Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler. Otherwise that is a rather daunting English bench facing up to a capable but still relatively green Welsh bench.

Verdict

Wales are always tough to beat in Cardiff, but there is no denying they looked rusty and a little creaky against England last weekend. The loss of playmaker Gareth Anscombe is a further setback, and despite a vociferous home crowd rising to the occasion that encounters between these two traditional rivals always generate, form would seem to favour England for this one. England look well drilled, disciplined and very sure of what they want to achieve. Wales on the other hand know what they want to be, but perhaps lack the same degree of clarity as to how to go about getting it. They have had a good year leading up to this point make no mistake, but after last weekend there is the inevitable question being asked as whether or not they peaked too early in a World Cup year. As always expect this to be a ferocious contest with no quarter given and much tighter than last week, but a more settled and focused English side to take it by five points!

South Africa vs Argentina – Saturday, August 17th – Pretoria

Argentina’s preparations for the World Cup do not appear to be going according to plan. Despite holding the All Blacks close in their Rugby Championship opener, they have looked a shadow of the team that set the last Rugby World Cup alight. A humiliating defeat to Australia and then a comprehensive schooling by South Africa in the final match of the tournament, has left this Pumas side with little confidence as they prepare to face South Africa in this World Cup warm up match. This is their last game before their World Cup opener against France, and consequently even though there may be no silverware on offer the Pumas really need a strong showing here. The last time these two met in a World Cup year, Argentina not only claimed their first ever victory over the Springboks, they did it on South African soil to boot. They will be hoping that some of that same inspiration that served the 2015 squad so well will be with them in Pretoria this weekend.

South Africa on the other hand are riding high. Deserved winners of the Rugby Championship, they swept past both Australia and Argentina, and held the All Blacks to a draw in New Zealand. Coach Rassie Erasmus seems to know how to get the most out of his charges, despite a constantly changing team sheet. He can feel pleased with the depth he has available, while at the same time not having to lose too much sleep over his selection decisions for any given match. The players are clearly enjoying themselves and the pride in the famous jersey, which had seemed absent in recent years, is back with a vengeance. In short the Boks are back and are a team to be feared once more.

With some silverware in the cupboard it’s clearly time for one last bit of experimentation for South Africa

South Africa are not exactly throwing caution to the wind on this one, especially given what happened in 2015, but as a “friendly” and the Rugby Championship not on the line, the focus of this match is one last look at the depth tank. That is the only reason we can think of when we look at the front row selections for South Africa. We would imagine that Coach Rassie Erasmus has his front row World Cup squad already picked with perhaps just one floater left to fill. Of the selections for Saturday’s match we’d argue that the spot likely has Vincent Koch’s name on it, but no harm in having one last look at what else you’ve got in case of injury between now and the World Cup. Therefore for the other five front rowers turning out in a Springbok jersey on Saturday the pressure is on for a BIG game.

Talking of scrums – where has Argentina’s gone?

Argentina are in the emergency ward in this department – plain and simple. Once a key foundation of their game, the scrum is now for the most part an enormous liability for the Pumas. This is made all the more ironic when you consider that Coach Mario Ledesma in his playing days was one of the cornerstones of that foundation. We really haven’t seen much evidence that Argentina is making much progress in getting its house in order here. If this doesn’t happen soon then Argentina may find themselves on the plane home after the pool stages in Japan. We are not quite sure why this is the case as there are some quality players in Argentina’s front row offerings, but somehow as a whole the unit just isn’t working. South Africa’s piecemeal scrum offering on Saturday should provide the Pumas a perfect opportunity to start getting back on track here and restoring some much needed confidence to a clearly beleaguered unit.

Argentina need to play to their strengths and not let an inexperienced halfback duo waste good possession gained by a powerful back row.

Argentina’s second and back rows can compete with the best on any given day, and in Saturday’s offerings we’d argue they have the kind of edge they had back on that famous day in Durban back in 2015. However, the Pumas young halfback partnership tends to squander an awful lot of good possession by either reckless passing off the back of the scrum and rucks, or aimless kicking by the fly half. Given that Argentina will be looking to scrum halves Felipe Ezcurra, Gonzalo Bertranou and fly half Joaquin Diaz Bonilla to provide backup to incumbents Tomas Cubelli and Nicolas Sanchez during the World Cup – Saturday’s match is crucial in terms of World Cup preparation. They will be up against one of South Africa’s finest returning sons Cobus Reinach, so will have to be on top of their game, with Faf de Klerk frothing at the mouth on the bench to get involved if Reinach fails to rise to the occasion. Springbok fly half Elton Jantjies seems to have gotten over his own penchant for aimlessly kicking the ball away so the Pumas will have to be at their best here.

If you fancy a flutter on the horses then we’d put your money on the Pumas

This is one area of the park where we think Argentina could really lay down a marker for that type of free flowing game they seem to really excel at come the World Cup. Ramiro Moyano is a well known commodity to the racing fraternity out wide, but for us it is Sebastian Cancelliere who is also likely to be generating a lot of excitement come the World Cup. For the Argentina XV side in the Americas Rugby Championship and more recently with the Jaguares, the twenty five year old has consistently impressed and we are surprised that it has taken him this long to secure a regular Pumas starting jersey. South Africa pack some punch here make no mistake, but our money is on the Pumas out wide on Saturday.

Verdict

How you call this one will depend very much on what Pumas team shows up on Saturday. If we get the kind of Pumas team we see so often at the end of the Rugby Championship, then for all intents and purposes you can write them off and hand it to the Springboks with no further discussion. It will also depend on what kind of Springboks team will show up as this has a much more piecemeal and experimental look to it than what we saw during the Rugby Championship. Argentina need to find their groove in their final match before the World Cup, so we’re hoping they will be like one of those French surprise teams that steals the show with some champagne rugby when you’re least expecting it. However, reality at the moment would tend to dictate otherwise and given the Pumas problems at scrum time, it’s fairly easy to argue that Argentina is the side with everything to prove and the Springboks the team with nothing to lose. As a result we hand it to the Springboks by eight, in a match that may not be quite the spectacle needed to cap off what should otherwise be a very interesting weekend of Test Rugby!

It may be a World Cup warmup match, but an encounter between Wales and England is always something special and an occasion to be savoured. This weekend is no exception, as these two great rivals meet at Twickenham and with it all the atmosphere that such matches bring. For Wales the goal will be to continue the momentum they built up as Six Nations Grand Slam Champions, and while England are probably more focused on getting their squad in order for the World Cup, there is also the small matter of avenging that defeat in Cardiff earlier this year.

Wales run with a trusty group of players and it would appear that they know the squad they want to take to Japan. What is perhaps of greater concern to them, much more so than England, is the risk of injury – as lose any of these players and all of a sudden the Welsh depth tank starts to look a bit empty. England on the other hand have no such problems, and consequently are clearly looking to this match and probably the other three this month to find out a bit more about the depth they have available to them. To that effect, for those of us not familiar with English club rugby there are quite a few names on the team sheet we simply know very little about. However, there are also plenty of familiar faces who haven’t quite had an opportunity to shine in an England jersey so far this year, and who will be really keen to lay down a marker that they deserve a seat on the plane to Tokyo.

Consequently, although this match may not mean that much in terms of what is at stake for the teams as a whole, there will be plenty on the line for some of the individual players involved to ensure that it is a highly entertaining contest. Here are the main question marks that came up for us heading into the match.

England vs Wales – Sunday, August 11th – Twickenham

Wales are clearly looking to this match to keep their momentum going in what has been a remarkably successful year. If they come away unbeaten in the course of the next four weeks, then the label of dark horse will be replaced by genuine contenders at the global showpiece in Japan next month. Expectations will be high and even with no silverware on offer for this match, rest assured that an opportunity for Wales to turn over England at Fortress Twickenham will be high on the agenda of players and supporters alike.

The question is will this slightly experimental English side let them have their way, and does Coach Eddie Jones even really care about Sunday’s result? Obviously he would not want to see his charges made a mockery of by the Welsh, but the win while potential icing on the cake, is probably not his main focus on Sunday. Instead it is a last chance for some players to stick their hands up for World Cup selection as he intends to name his World Cup squad this Monday. On that note you have to wonder how fair that is to some of the players who have hardly had a chance till now to prove themselves. Put your hands up if you know anything about Lewis Ludlum, Joe Marchant, Jack Singleton, Ruaridh McConnochie and the biggest surprise Willi Heinz. From a depth perspective it will be fascinating to see what hidden gems England are about to uncover.

There are no surprises from either sides in the front rows at least

The only possible omission being Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler for England, but otherwise it’s business as usual for both sides at the coalface. However, given England’s shambolic performance in their last Six Nations match against Scotland, perhaps the absence of George and Sinckler is no bad thing. England still bring plenty of familiarity in their offering, though we still wonder at the disciplinary liability that Joe Marler presents for England. The Welsh front row though needs no introduction and played a large part in Wales’ successful Six Nations campaign this year. As a result it presents a golden opportunity for England’s representatives to really make their case to Eddie Jones if they can keep the Men in White competitive here.

Where England need make no excuses is in the back row

If Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola are not on the plane to Japan, then something will be seriously amiss in Eddie Jones’ thinking. We very much doubt that these three gentlemen have anything whatsoever to prove to their boss on Sunday. Wales pack some heavyweights here, especially in one of the Lineout’s all time favourite players Justin Tipuric, as well as the long awaited return to Welsh service of Aaron Shingler who had to sit out the Six Nations due to injury. Nevertheless, we can’t help feeling that the English trio is the more dynamic and could really build the platform England needs to go on the offensive.

Who is Willi Heinz and is a game against Wales the right place to make his mark?

Sure the Kiwi, now England qualified, scrum half had a very successful domestic season with Gloucester, but on the European stage Gloucester fared very poorly raising question marks about his ability to handle high stakes matches with an international flavour. Furthermore, given the depth of resources in England, you have to wonder about Eddie Jones obsession with bringing in ostensibly overseas talent. Agreed other teams are doing it, but they with the exception of possibly France, have much smaller player bases – not the case in England. We would have thought that this would have been a golden opportunity to put Ben Spencer or Dan Robison to the test. Don’t get us wrong, we are not anti foreign born players by any stretch of the imagination, but given the depth of resources in England we still find this a slightly strange call so close to the World Cup.

As this is the last chance to have a look before the World Cup, we are amazed at the omission of Danny Cipriani at fly half

Sure George Ford rescued England at the death from a humiliating defeat at Twickenham by Scotland in the last match of the Six Nations, but in reality that has been his only claim to fame for quite some time now. His club Leicester Tigers have become the laughing stock of both the English Premiership and the European Champions Cup, and we find it hard to believe that he is the best England has to offer outside of Owen Farrell in the position. Despite the English public’s love/hate relationship with Cipriani, there is no denying he brings plenty of imagination and unpredictability to the position, something you would think England could really do with at the World Cup. By the same token is this George Ford’s last chance to shine? Has Jones already made up his mind to surprise everyone and simply announce on Monday he is taking Cipriani without having the need to look at him in an England jersey? The plot thickens!

The return of Joe Cokanasiga is something everyone wants to see

England’s supposed wonder weapon on the wing had to live in the shadow of the outstanding Jonny May the last time these two sides met in the Six Nations, and was sorely missed against Scotland. Quite why the turbocharged winger finds it so hard to find favour with Eddie Jones is a mystery. However, of one thing you can be certain, he is unlikely to let his chance to be noticed go missing on Sunday. Once again though we are scratching our heads at him starting on the bench, though we have a hunch we are likely to see him much sooner than we did the last time he was included in Welsh and English festivities. Is this, like the Cipriani question, another case of Jones not wanting to show his hand? Either way we’re looking forward to seeing Cokanasiga having an opportunity to scorch some turf on Sunday!

Verdict

This is a very good Welsh team – plain and simple, who are going to be very hard to beat on Sunday. They know each other exceptionally well, have the benefit of a winning culture behind them and know the kind of game they want to play and their roles and responsibilities in implementing it. England’s slightly eclectic mix of talented but unfamiliar players don’t quite have the same gel factor. Despite home advantage it’s England with everything to prove, but for once they may be genuinely relishing the underdog tag which could ultimately work to their advantage. Having said that however, we find it hard to imagine such an accomplished Welsh unit getting caught off guard by England on Sunday. Wales are more than likely to play it safe against an English team they are probably unsure of in terms of what to expect. However, the Welsh defence has been absolutely watertight this year, and despite whatever surprises this English team may have up their sleeves, Wales are likely to be too hard of a nut to crack on Sunday. Consequently, in what should be an entertaining match with England doing most of the attacking, we’re handing it to the Welsh defence to keep things safe and in order for the Men in Red by four points!

We’re continuing with looking at this weekend’s action and with the teamsheets still to be announced for the England/Wales game, we’ll be covering the first of the Rugby Championship matches this weekend between Australia and New Zealand along with the first of the European World Cup warmups between Ireland and Italy. We’ll put out our thoughts on the England/Wales clash at Twickenham on Sunday once the teams are announced.

New Zealand travel to Australia, hoping that Argentina will do them a favour later in the day if they still hope to lift the silverware for the Rugby Championship. Failing that though, two important agendas are still on the table for both teams. Saturday’s match sees the first of two annual Bledisloe Cup matches between Australia and New Zealand – a trophy almost as hotly contested and meaningful as the World Cup itself. Just as important will be the settling of World Cup squads and one of the last chances the selectors will have to pick their 31 ticket holders for Japan. New Zealand perhaps have far less to prove in this department than Australia, but they also know there is significant room for improvement. Australia on the other hand need to find some answers and quickly. Despite their recent win over Argentina, it was less than convincing and their demolition at the hands of South Africa means that the Wallabies, unlike New Zealand, find themselves scrambling to define who goes to Japan and what type of game they want to play once they get there.

Italy travel to Dublin, looking to experiment, whereas Ireland will simply be looking to consolidate depth and hopefully avoid pointless injuries in the process. With no silverware on offer we have to confess that this series of warmup matches for the Six Nations competitors right before the World Cup are always a nerve wracking affair, for Coaches, players and supporters and we are all likely to breathe a huge sigh of relief once they are over and hopefully our respective teams have emerged unscathed.

So here’s what got us talking about these two matches.

Australia vs New Zealand – Saturday, August 10th – Perth

Australia really need some good news at the moment but may be hard pressed to find it in Western Australia on Saturday, despite Perth being a relatively happy hunting ground for the Wallabies. Sure they beat Argentina a fortnight ago, but it was a dire game of rugby which showed off very little skill from either side, with Australia winning by simply making slightly fewer mistakes than the Pumas. An inspirational performance it was not.

New Zealand on the other hand have now been pushed hard twice. They managed to eke out a tough win against a determined and highly capable Pumas side in Buenos Aires, but a week later could only manage a draw with a Springbok side that simply refused to quit. While both matches are hardly indications of the All Blacks suddenly becoming vulnerable, there is no doubt that there isn’t quite the polish that we have come to expect from the World Champions as they seek to experiment with some injury enforced combinations.

If Australia could actually hang on to the ball then they really could cause some grief

This single point has been our overriding impression of the Wallabies at the moment. In both their game against the Springboks and the match with the Pumas, we lost track of how many times they dropped or coughed up the ball. Promising breaks were squandered through endless knock ons and fumbles made worse by poor and erratic passing. Tactically there didn’t seem to be too much situational awareness either, and their execution looked promising but ultimately sloppy. We simply think that Australia should be far better than the sum of their parts would seem to indicate. Once they do get it right then, they could well be a force to be reckoned with. However, in their current condition and with the sands of time rapidly running out before the World Cup it would appear that Australia have the odds stacked against them.

One of the world’s best front rows is likely to cause Australia all kinds of heartache

Whichever way you cut it that is an outstanding All Black front row. Sure South Africa seemed to get the measure of it, but there are very few sides who can and Australia in their present shape are unlikely to be one of them. Add Dane Coles lurking menacingly on the wings whenever he’s not packed down in the scrum and Australia are likely to feel frustrated and rather ineffective for the full eighty minutes.

In the second row Australia continue to get ten points for effort

This is one aspect of the Wallabies game where their supporters could feel that there is something to cheer about. With Adam Coleman hopefully being fit for the World Cup, you could argue that Australia’s stocks here are strong. We felt that Rory Arnold and Izack Rodda have been reliably consistent in the second row, and often given the Wallabies something to work with, even if the rest of their teammates then proceed to drop the ball.

He’s back just when New Zealand need him most

There is no denying that the All Blacks really missed Ardie Savea against South Africa. The powerhouse utility forward is a complete force of nature and almost impossible to read and we wish Australia’s Michael Hooper and his back row colleagues the best of luck in trying to contain him. It’s an accomplished and capable New Zealand back row but with Savea in the mix it becomes a defensive nightmare for any opposition. Savea has more than earned his place as an All Black starter and we expect to see him as such in every one of New Zealand’s key matches in the coming months.

Nic White returns and for a match of this stature we think it’s the right call but also feel that an opportunity to create some depth is being missed

While Will Genia may be Coach Michael Cheika’s go to scrum half, we feel that Nic White brings a lot to the table despite being on the losing side against South Africa at the start of the competition. While Will Genia was one of the better Wallaby players against Argentina, we felt that Nic White actually brought more to the table in terms of quick and efficient delivery from the scrum half berth, and varied the Wallabies pace and style of play in a way that has been long overdue. Although his teammates were rarely able to capitalize on the opportunities he created, he still offers some depth to the position that Australia desperately needs for the World Cup. However as a depth creating exercise we are also surprised to not see any use of Brumbies scrum half Joe Powell on the bench, but given it’s a Bledisloe Cup match we can understand the caution.

Verdict

If they can hang on to the ball and gain some parity with New Zealand in the set pieces then Australia could be in with a shout for this one. However, based simply on the form of the two sides it’s hard to see anything other than predominantly one way traffic for New Zealand. Australia need to up their game significantly if they are to be competitive on Saturday and we haven’t seen much ability from this beleaguered Wallaby side to do so of late. New Zealand may not be overly fussed about this abbreviated edition of the Rugby Championship and its silverware, but they and the rest of their fellow countrymen always care about the Bledisloe Cup. Consequently we see New Zealand taking Saturday’s game by a comfortable margin of 12 points.

Ireland vs Italy – Saturday, August 10th – Dublin

Ireland start their World Cup preparations with a relatively straightforward exercise against an experimental Italian side. For the most part it’s an Irish side we all recognize, and while it may not be Ireland’s first choice team, this is an exceptionally capable side that will give this new look Italy a serious workout. Given the dip in form of many of Ireland’s key players this season we’d actually argue that what we see on Saturday may not always be that different from some of the starting lineups we’re going to see for many of Ireland’s World Cup matches, especially in the Pool stages.

While we understand Italy’s need for experimentation especially after a poor Six Nations, we’re not sure Dublin is the place to do it

It’s interesting to surmise what Conor O’Shea’s logic is for this match. We’d have thought that you would have gone the experimental route for Italy’s two middle warmup games against France and Russia, with more of your key players participating in the opener against Ireland and the final warmup match against England to build some important confidence at the start and end of a challenging set of matches. On the flip side a good performance on Saturday and Italy can use the next four weeks to really build some momentum. However, unfortunately a lot of O’Shea’s rolls of the dice have not gone favourably, but we hope for his sake he’s got this gamble right.

Ireland field a positive halfback combination that smacks of depth and the future

Former Leinster teammates Luke McGrath and Joey Carberry occupy the scrum and fly half berths respectively. Carberry since moving to Munster and getting regular starts has come along in leaps and bounds, while McGrath has really grown into the scrum half role at Leinster this year. This is Ireland’s most probable halfback combination post Japan and in the lead up to the next World Cup, whilst at the same time providing Ireland with excellent depth heading into the tournament next month. However, with Kieran Marmion also a proven commodity on the bench at scrum half and the rapidly rising star of Jack Carty as Carberry’s replacement, Ireland really do look in exceptionally rude health in this part of the park. All this adds to the pedigree that established veterans like Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton already bring to the positions.

Chris Farrel makes a welcome return for Ireland in the centre of the park

Irish supporters will be delighted to see Chris Farrell back in the green after injury ruled him out of this year’s Six Nations. The big centre packs some real punch to Ireland’s efforts up the middle of the park and allied to the vision of Gary Ringrose this could be an outstanding combination on Saturday. They’ll have to deal with Italy’s Marco Zanon who is one of Italy’s rising stars and the rather capable Tommaso Benvenuti, but the latter is out of his preferred position on the wing, so the Irish pair should dictate proceedings.

Talking of highly anticipated returns, Italy will be watching Matteo Minozzi carefully

The Italian fullback was one of the stars of the 2018 Six Nations, but sadly was ruled out of this year’s competition due to injury, and Italy certainly missed him. He starts on the bench this for this match, which is a wise call but he is a player that we are really looking forward to seeing in action again for the Azurri, as he is one of their most exciting talents. If he remains injury free expect this player to feature heavily in any headlines about Italy in Japan.

The last time he played Italy, he stole the show and Ireland will probably expect him to do the same again

Fullback Jordan Larmour missed Ireland’s tepid Six Nations performance against Italy, and Irish supporters probably wished he hadn’t. The last time he played Italy in their exhibition match in Chicago in last year’s November Internationals he ran in three tries against the Azurri. With his defensive abilities dramatically improved though still needing some work, expect the Irish fullback to put in a big shift on Saturday, and really lay down a marker that he is the future of the 15 jersey for Ireland once Rob Kearney hangs up his boots after Japan.

Verdict

With no disrespect to Italy, and despite Ireland’s dip in form this year, this is not exactly a hard game to call. Italy seek to find out a bit more about their depth, but it is doubtful they are expecting much more than that from Saturday’s proceedings. Ireland meanwhile will look to solidify their second choice string while also giving players the chance to rattle the cage for those in Ireland’s regular starting lineup. There is enough talent in this squad to cause Coach Joe Schmidt to hardly blink an eye when it comes to selection for some of Ireland’s big games come the World Cup. He already has most of the answers he needs about the majority of the players that take to the field on Saturday, and instead is focusing on giving them some much needed game time. Italy as always to be brave and perhaps surprise us with some dazzling individual performances, but Ireland to comfortably settle proceedings by 22 points, in what should be a convincing team effort!

Yes we know there are three other big games this weekend, but as we only have team sheets for the Canada/Tonga and Argentina/South Africa matches, our usual previews of Australia/New Zealand and the European World Cup warmups will have to wait till tomorrow.

Canada finish up a difficult Pacific Nations Cup this weekend, and if they don’t get an elusive win against Tonga tomorrow night then you’d have to wonder what they’ve actually learnt if anything over the last three weeks in terms of their World Cup preparations.

Meanwhile South Africa travel to Argentina, to try and seal their first Southern Hemisphere title since 2009. There is no denying that the Springboks are looking sharp this year and after dispatching Australia with ease and holding New Zealand to a draw, they find themselves at the top of the Rugby Championship table as they head into this weekend’s final round of games. Argentina will be no pushover though, and themselves put New Zealand under enormous pressure in the tournament opener. What exactly happened to them a week later in Australia is anyone’s guess, as we watched a dismal spectacle riddled with errors from both sides – quite frankly one of the worst games of rugby we’ve watched in this last World Cup cycle. Argentina are better than that – much better- and on home ground expect them to once more become the smoking gun that everyone is inevitably talking about as the World Cup draws closer.

Like we say we’ll cover the European warmups tomorrow along with Australia vs New Zealand in Bledisloe 1, but in the interim here’s what got us talking about these two matches.

Tonga vs Canada – Friday, August 9th (August 8th for Canadian TV viewers) – Fiji

Poor against the USA and a completely inept second half against Fiji, means that Canada have never really looked the part in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup which for all intents and purposes has been a warmup for the World Cup more than anything. Sadly Canada would appear to have learnt little about their strengths but a great deal about their weaknesses. Whether or not there is sufficient time between now and their World Cup opener against Italy to address these issues is a million dollar question. As a result, Canada know that tomorrow’s game will require a huge performance in order to restore some confidence to a team that has not enjoyed a winning culture for a very long time now.

With no disrespect to Tonga, who sadly we know very little about, Canada should at least be competitive and hopefully decidedly more polished than they were against Fiji and the USA. The game against Fiji was simply painful to watch. Canada spent the first half aimlessly box kicking to a team that is renowned for their ability to run the ball and who possess some of the most mesmerizing ball handling skills in open play in the modern game. Canada then spent the second half continuously trying to use rolling mauls which the Fijians brought to ground with almost joyful abandon. Canada seemed completely without a plan B, and simply stuck doggedly to two tactics that got them no traction whatsoever for the full eighty minutes. What was going on in the coaching box was beyond us.

This week, we are not exactly holding our breath after looking at the team sheet.

Michael Sheppard take a bow

We were really surprised to not see the Toronto Arrows tank in the starting lineup for last week’s match, and although we were devastated for Justin Blanchet who had to leave the field after only 2 minutes due to injury, the opportunity that it provided Sheppard was golden. In a match where Canadian standout performances were hard to find, the big second rower was one of the few who stood up and were counted. As a result we are delighted to see him get a starting berth for this match, and expect him to make life difficult for Tonga as well as provide some much needed inspiration and go forward ability for the rest of his colleagues.

Also in the forwards Tyler Ardron makes a welcome return

Like Sheppard against Fiji, Ardron was one of the few players who stood out in the game against the USA. With himself and Sheppard on the field tomorrow Canada should not be short in the inspiration department.

Tonga’s forward pack have plenty of Top14 experience in France so Canada will really need to be at their best here, but overall Canada are fielding perhaps their best forward pack of the competition. Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie shore up a solid back row.

The halfback combinations are not working and we don’t see much room for improvement tomorrow either

This week sees Gordon McRorie moved from scrum half to fly half, and when he moved to the role in the second half last week Canada did seem to gain a bit more fizz in their attack. Sadly we feel that McRorie brings absolutely nothing to the scrum half position and if his service was any slower off the base of the scrum and rucks then it would be more akin to lawn bowling than rugby. He allows the opposition so much time to set their defensive structures that Canada is going nowhere on attack. Phil Mack brings much more energy to the position, but his performance in the USA game was riddled with errors. We would really prefer to see Jamie Mackenzie get a starting berth at 9 in preparation for the World Cup and once more are dismayed to see him start on the bench. He did add some value in the last quarter against Fiji, and him at scrum half and McRorie at fly half does seem a better combination unless Mack has one of those games we all know he is capable of.

Canada will be looking to DTH to once more save the day

He is undoubtedly Canada’s only genuine world class player, but all too often he is expected to perform miracles by the rest of his teammates. Furthermore, to be honest the outstanding winger has been ominously quiet in Canada’s most recent outings. We really hope that won’t be the case tomorrow.

Verdict

Canada has a hard road to hoe tomorrow, but surely their luck has to turn at some point, even if doing it in the heat of the South Pacific is a tall order. Tonga have a better winning record than Canada at the moment, and have managed to beat Fiji last year. However, much like Canada they seem to be a very hit and miss outfit. Playing in Fiji will be much more like home turf for them than Canada, as well as being more used to playing in the humidity. It’s a close call but based on form we’d have to hand it to Tonga. Nevertheless, Canada should be able to run them a lot closer than perhaps they expect. However, we’re still giving it to the Pacific Islanders by three while still hoping for a big performance from Canada!

Argentina vs South Africa – Saturday, August 10th – Salta

Like we say we are really not sure what happened to Argentina in Australia, but hopefully by now they have figured it out. South Africa on the other hand while still having some work to do, are no doubt feeling rather pleased with their World Cup preparations which seem to be on a very positive trajectory.

Argentina are not in the hunt for any silverware but that is clearly not much of an agenda item for them, as they seek to use the tournament to gel overseas based players back into the squad, and Saturday’s match is no exception.

Argentina’s scrum has struggled and Saturday’s Test will see just how much progress Coach Ledesma has made in fixing it

South Africa bring two powerhouse front rows to Argentina on Saturday, with tight head prop Frans Malherbe being the only possible weak link. We’re not overly convinced that the Pumas outfit will be able to go the distance. The only real consistency and competitiveness we see here for the Pumas is at hooker with Agustin Creevy and Julian Montoya. The rest of it we fear will just be going backwards on Saturday.

Talking of hookers is Mbonambi bringing the accuracy the Springboks are missing at lineout time?

Don’t get us wrong we are HUGE fans of Malcolm Marx, but there is no denying his lineout throwing has been poor to say the least, and to make up for it we haven’t quite seen the kind of barnstorming heroics that made him such a household name in Test rugby eighteen months ago, to make up for his discrepancies at lineout time. Consequently, up steps Mbonambi who for the most part appears to be a pretty accurate dart thrower. He’s no slouch at the coalface either and Coach Rassie Erasmus clearly sees him as Mr. Dependable heading into the World Cup, with Marx coming in to shake things up when the opposition could really do without it.

Argentina’s Europeans didn’t quite make the cut in Australia but history is unlikely to repeat itself this weekend

We really felt that Argentina looked poor against the Wallabies, and we certainly weren’t expecting it. We are putting it down to the overseas based players’ unfamiliarity with a unit that essentially has operated as one for the last six months in the shape of the Jaguares. There was no denying that Facundo Isa and Santiago Cordero looked slightly out of sorts and unsure of how to function in a unit that had a genuine track record of success under their belts. We very much doubt that will be the case this Saturday, and despite a wobble against Australia Nicolas Sanchez should also be back to his best, especially after putting in such a strong performance against New Zealand last month straight off the plane from France.

Is this the kind of game where Kwagga Smith finally lights up the pitch?

As regular readers of this blog know, we are big fans of the Springbok utility forward who is an expert at putting his sevens experience to good use. Unfortunately he hasn’t quite had the opportunity to do so in his last few outings in a Springbok jersey but this could be his chance to shine. Given the slightly frenetic pace of any match against the Pumas, Smith could well find himself with the kind of open space he excels at exploiting. Talking of open space for the Springboks, we also feel that Pieter-Steph du Toit deserves honourable mention here as well, after his chip kick exploits against New Zealand a fortnight ago, with the big utility forward clearly becoming one of the Springboks most valuable players. Much like Smith we’ve rated him from day one in a Springbok jersey.

The rise of the small men

Springbok winger Cheslin Kolbe has become something of a legend here at the Lineout, and we don’t think we are the only ones who hold him in such high regard. He may be one of the smallest men on the pitch, but you would never think it. The sight of him hauling New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick to the ground needed to be seen to be believed. The man simply has no fear, and his tackling game is something to behold. Add to that his vision and pace and there is no doubt that the diminutive winger has developed into one of the finest all round players in the modern game. Debutant scrum half Herschel Jantjies has also become one of the finds of the year. Having scored a try in each of his two matches to date in a Springbok jersey, he is also a player playing well above his weight and experience grade. We can’t remember when we saw such a natural transition to Test level rugby. In a team renowned for giant bone crushing leviathans, the Springboks have finally found a place for 5 foot tall 75 kg titans!

Verdict

Beating Argentina’s Jaguares on home soil has become next to impossible, however beating the Pumas for some reason on home soil doesn’t quite hold the same challenge. However, despite their present form, South Africa have struggled with this task more than their other Southern Hemisphere rivals. Argentina has not been a happy hunting ground at times for the Springboks and Saturday should provide more of the same in terms of a challenge. Nevertheless South Africa seem to be going from strength the strength while the Pumas are still finding their feet after a disappointing season last year. With the added bonus of some silverware on offer and the confidence booster this provides ahead of a World Cup, expect the Springboks to be well and truly up for this one. Argentina will give them a very good run for their money in the process, but we expect South Africa to take the game by five!

Test Rugby is now in full swing and will remain so till the beginning of November and the final whistle of the World Cup. As a result there is plenty of action to be had this weekend. The Rugby Championship and Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa’s unofficial warm up for Japan continues in its abbreviated format this weekend. South Africa travel to Wellington to attempt to repeat their historic win against New Zealand on the same ground a year ago. Meanwhile Argentina travel to Australia to take on the Wallabies in Brisbane and also hope to repeat their famous victory on Australian soil last year. Lastly Canada travel to Denver before heading down to the South Pacific and take on the USA for the second time this year.

Unfortunately due to the pressures of work this week, we’ve been unable to do our usual five talking points for each match, but here’s a quick summary of what we’re looking at for all three games.

New Zealand vs South Africa – Saturday, July 27th – Wellington

Without a doubt given the thrill of last year’s spectacle, this is THE big fixture of the weekend. South Africa are fielding an exceptionally strong squad for this encounter as are New Zealand who will be keen to seek revenge for their defeat on home soil last year by the Springboks. South Africa arrive brimming with confidence after a comprehensive thrashing of Australia last weekend, made all the more impressive without some of their key players. Admittedly Australia are not exactly setting the world on fire at the moment, but it was still an important win that saw a well disciplined and cohesive Springbok performance. New Zealand on the other hand, although not fielding their strongest side, struggled to keep Argentina at bay last weekend, and were lucky to come away with a narrow win.

This weekend sees both sides field their first choice lineups, and given the form of both teams, promises to be an exciting encounter and a mirror image of both sides’ opening match in the World Cup in two months time.

Looking at the lineups, a couple of things stand out for us most notably the appearance of the two main contenders for the All Black 10 jersey on the field together. Beauden Barrett reverts to the fullback position for this match, while Richie Mo’unga takes up his usual spot with the Crusaders and New Zealand at fly half. Barrett ultimately got the job done last weekend but we felt that Argentina often had his measure and it wasn’t his greatest day at the office. In the case of Mo’unga we have yet to see him have a bad day this year, and if he can translate this form to Test level in an intensely physical and demanding Test, then the race for the selectors first choice will be that much tighter between the two fly halves. Barrett has not played fullback at Test level for quite some time, almost six years ago to be precise against Japan, and he has only played three times in the 15 jersey for the Men in Black. There is no doubting his versatility but to shift one of your key play makers to such a relatively unfamiliar position for such a big game, will really be a testimony to Barrett’s abilities if he pulls it off with flying colors. He’ll be up against one of Test Rugby’s best in the shape of Willie le Roux and we’d argue that in the aerial contests the South African may come off better given his familiarity with the position.

TJ Perenara gets the starting scrum half berth this weekend, and deservedly so in our opinion for a match of this stature. We’d argue he is New Zealand’s form number 9 by a country mile at the moment, and his rival Aaron Smith didn’t really do anything last weekend to make us sit up and take notice, and was often outplayed by Argentina’s Tomas Cubelli. Perenara will need to be on his toes as he goes head to head with South Africa’s live wire Faf de Klerk and with try scoring debutant machine Herschel Jantjies on the bench New Zealand will really have to keep their wits about them in this part of the park.

The back row for South Africa sees the highly anticipated return of one of our favorite Springboks Kwagga Smith. For us he is the try scoring equivalent of New Zealand’s Ardie Savea who we are surprised to see sit this one out. Whenever Smith is on the field South Africa’s X-factor goes up another few notches. He may not be the whirlwind wrecking ball that Savea is, but he is one of Test Rugby’s most glorious opportunists. Add to the mix the figure of flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, whose emotions at the end of last year’s match on the same ground so effectively summed up what that victory meant to the Springboks, and South Africa will be hard to beat up front.

Our last big surprise for a game with so much riding on it was the decision by New Zealand to start Sonny Bill Williams. This surely must be the last chance saloon for the All Black centre, as in our opinion, with no disrespect to the great man we feel he is past his sell by date and brings nothing particularly dynamic to an area of the park that will be hotly contested, with South Africa’s Lukhanyo Am being an exciting prospect for the Springboks and Damian de Allende having dramatically upped his game since last year.

Lastly we feel South Africa pack an absolute power house bench. New Zealand’s offering from the sidelines is respectable make no mistake, but we feel if South Africa have the edge by the time the bench becomes a factor it could swing the game in the Springboks favor.

Verdict

Either way a huge match in prospect and one you won’t want to miss. Despite their shock defeat last year, the likelihood of New Zealand losing at home twice in a row and at the same venue to boot seems on paper to be rather remote. We think South Africa is fielding a team more than capable of matching up to the All Blacks, but New Zealand will have a fairly hefty point to prove in front of a home crowd who will make sure they remember why they’re there. Consequently in a hard fought match we’re giving it to New Zealand by five, perhaps more than anything on the premise that lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice!

Australia vs Argentina – Saturday, July 27th – Brisbane

Last year Australia got ultimately shown the door by a better disciplined and structured Pumas side. We’d argue the Pumas are even better organised and focused than they were last year, and despite their loss last weekend will be buoyed by the fact that they made the best team in the world work for a full eighty minutes last Saturday. Australia to be honest, seemed no better than they were last season and if anything a tad worse. Their match against South Africa was riddled with schoolboy mistakes, handling errors and a general lack of cohesion and poor execution. To get past a Pumas side that is really starting to click nicely they are going to have to be a lot better, and home advantage alone is unlikely to address the error count we saw last week.

Argentina seem to have finally addressed their scrum problems, while we have seen little if any evidence that Australia have got their house in order in this department. Argentina still have plenty of work to do, but guiding proceedings at the coalface is the exceptionally capable Julian Montoya. Argentina to make some much needed progress here on Saturday, most likely at Australia’s expense, with the Wallabies misery likely to be compounded in the second row, as Argentina’s Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini show them how it’s done.

Australia’s problems are unlikely to improve in the back row, with the talking point of the week being the eagerly awaited return of Facundo Isa to the Pumas number eight jersey. Throw in the wrecking ball that is Pablo Matera who is likely to make mincemeat of the Wallabies Michael Hooper and we just can’t see Australia making any inroads here. In short, when it comes to the battles up front we have a hunch that Australia may find themselves completely outclassed.

Things get better for Australia in the backs, but even there we’d argue Argentina don’t have too much to worry about, especially given Australia’s lack of ball handling skills last weekend. The one positive we did see for Australia was the welcome return to the scrum half berth of Nic White, and in one of the very few standout Wallaby performances last weekend, White has given Will Genia a lot to think about this Saturday as he makes his bid for the first choice scrum half berth. Australia pack some very big, powerful and mobile units in their set of backs both on the wing and the center channels this weekend, and Kurtley Beale  immediately made his presence known last Saturday when he came off the bench. He has also proven himself handy in the fullback position which is where he starts this week. Argentina though possess some devastating speed merchants and Saturday also sees the long overdue return of European based winger Santiago Cordero who made plenty of headlines for the Pumas at the last World Cup. With the exception of perhaps the physical aspect, it is very much a question of Argentina being able to say to Australia, “anything you can do, we can do better” in back play.

Verdict

Australia may be at home, and on paper have a very good looking spreadsheet from 9-15, but up front we feel they just don’t have parity with Argentina. Add to that the fact that the Pumas are no slouchers from 9-15 themselves, and we’d argue that Argentina look much more like the finished product. With the exception of their two overseas based players this is a very settled and familiar unit, that has already proved that it can rise to the occasion. Australia may have home advantage but we feel that Argentina have a better understanding of what game they want to play. Consequently in what should be an absolutely fascinating contest we’re handing it to the Pumas by 2!

USA vs Canada – Saturday, July 27th – Denver

We’ll be completely honest, after two months of cheering on the Toronto Arrows close to home, we were a little disappointed to see less players from the successful MLR side than we were expecting for such a crunch match, unless Coach Kingsley Jones is saving his best for arguably one of Canada’s most challenging encounters this year – the game with Fiji. Canada is boasting some very big names for this match, most notably the incomparable winger DTH van der Merwe who is truly world-class. However, we felt that Toronto Arrows scrum half Jamie Mackenzie was certainly worth inclusion over the remarkably pedestrian Gordon McRorie.

Furthermore the fact that neither second rower Mike Sheppard or winger Dan Moor even made it to the bench left us puzzled. One thing we were delighted to see though was the return of number eight Tyler Ardron, who always brings such shape and presence to a Canadian side, while newcomer Ben LeSage gets a worthy call up to the centers.

The Americans are also open to experimentation, but having watched the last half of the MLR season with interest, there are a lot of very familiar looking and exceptionally capable American players in this starting XV. Based on what we saw this year, Canada are really going to have to work hard to contain the threat posed by second rower Nick Civetta, flanker John Quill, and number eight Cam Dolan.

After a very successful season with English Premiership side Sale Sharks, Eagles Irish import fly half AJ MacGinty returns to service for the USA, and his game management skills are going to really put Canadian newcomer and fellow Irish import Paul Nelson to the test.

Verdict

Canada need a big performance on Saturday, but their away form has for quite some time now been poor. However, the one saving grace is that they did manage to run the United States close in their last encounter which was also on the road. If the likes of DTH van der Merwe can find the gaps in what would appear to be a fairly solid US defense, then Canada could come out of this on a positive note in their build up to the World Cup. However, we can’t help feeling that it’s still a tall order especially for some of the less experienced players in the squad, as well as those whose continued selection leaves us slightly puzzled. Consequently, in front of a home crowd, and with some serious talent in the mix, the USA should ultimately pull ahead and get the job done by eight points!

 

 

 

 

 

The start of the Rugby Championship this weekend, the annual dust up between the Southern Hemisphere’s big four, marks the official start to the warm up process for the World Cup in Japan which kicks off in just over two months time from now. The competition as it always is in a World Cup year, is abbreviated down to six matches instead of the normal 12, and although the traditional silverware is still on offer, due to the radically changed format it doesn’t quite have the same value of non World Cup years. In short what the next three weekends are all about for the four countries involved, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is finalizing structures and getting a broad mix of experienced and inexperienced players to gel together ahead of the big show in Japan. Winning the Rugby Championship this year is likely to have little bearing on your chances come September, but being able to put in solid performances and consolidate your depth will say a lot about your preparations.

Consequently all four coaches will be looking to see what their squads are made of and what combinations work. Sure it will be nice to have some silverware to round off the experience, but consistency and an understanding of what’s in your toolbox will be of much more value to the coaching staffs and players alike over the coming weeks. For us there will be plenty to have a look at and lots of excitement on offer as players seek to lay down markers and really compete for those coveted seats on the plane to Japan. The focus may be less on the trophy and more on what can be put on show over the next three weekends, which ultimately should make for some great rugby entertainment. So while the Rugby Championship title may not really matter all that much this year, the tournament certainly will for the players involved.

Here’s what got us talking this week about what’s on offer on Saturday and what we’ll be looking at.

South Africa vs Australia – Saturday, July 20th – Johannesburg

There is lots of experimentation going on here from both Coaches, some injury enforced, but plenty done with an eye to depth in the tank for Japan. As mentioned above it should make for two sides who are perhaps less focused on the silverware and more on the opportunity to shine and thus book a trip to Japan. Of the two sides, South Africa perhaps looks the more familiar from a Test point of view, while Australia drafts in some players we haven’t seen for a while and gives some of the Super Rugby youngsters a chance to  come to the fore in a Test jersey. Either way it should a be a fascinating match and one which should give both Coaches an interesting and much needed look at options with a view to Japan.

It may not be South Africa’s traditional front row, but it is going to make life more than a little challenging for Australia

Quite frankly with Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff out of the mix for this match for the Springboks, we were curious to see what Springbok Coach Rassie Erasmus would come up with. When we saw the starting XV we felt immediately reassured. For us Bongi Mbonambi has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few years. He’s a competitor make no mistake and has been pivotal in securing some big wins for South Africa in recent years, even if it has often been from the bench. Consequently, seeing him get the starting nod for this match and a chance to show that he can deliver in some of South Africa’s key games in the pool stages can only be a plus for Springbok depth. Put him alongside Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and all of a sudden you’ve got a unit that can put some real pressure, especially at altitude, on a new look Australian front row. Trevor Nyakane on a good day can also add some bruising beef to the Springboks efforts at the coalface, and with Vincent Koch fresh from Saracens duty in England on the bench, Australia are likely to struggle to keep up here.

Australia do have some hope up front in the second row as they continue to produce some quality here

The Wallabies field a highly rated second rower in the shape of Rory Arnold and a very underrated one in our opinion in the form of Izack Rodda on Saturday. If they can keep their heads in the face of constant niggling from Springbok Captain Eben Etzebeth, then this Australian duo could spark some go forward ability for Australia especially at lineout time. Rodda in particular needs a big stage and this year’s Rugby Championship could really give him the platform he needs to secure that highly coveted ticket to Japan. Arnold and the injured Adam Coleman are likely shoe-ins but Rodda could really stand up and be counted on Saturday, and we think he may just get the better of Lood de Jager who hasn’t really caught our eye the last couple of seasons for the Springboks.

Even with the experimentation South Africa look terrifying up front and even pack a surprise in the back row.

South Africa seem to be going true to form in this match and are packing a formidable punch from 1-8. In short, there is only one real surprise in the starting XV, the inclusion of Toulouse flanker Rynhardt Elstadt. Oh hang on, did you see Toulouse’s road to the Top 14 title? If you did and some of their exploits in the European Champions Cup, then Elstadt’s inclusion suddenly becomes a no-brainer as he was a key player for the French side this season. His Springbok debut may be late at the age of 29, but there is no denying that his European exploits have earned him the jersey and then some.

It all looks great till 9 and 10 for South Africa

Australia are strong here and South Africa just aren’t plain and simple. Elton Jantjies just isn’t a Test level fly half, and although they are not related Herschel Jantjies doesn’t fill us with optimism either. Although he makes his debut for the Springboks, the Stormers scrum half had some great moments in Super Rugby against weaker teams, but was usually shown the door by stronger outfits during the competition. As for Elton Jantjies, as most readers of this blog know, there is just no faith there in his abilities to run games at Test level. South Africa’s biggest problem is kicking perfectly good possession away, a skill that Jantjies unfortunately excels at. We are fascinated to see Nic White back in action for the Wallabies after a spell in the Premiership in England with Exeter Chiefs. With Will Genia on the bench for Australia, South Africa could have real problems here on Saturday. Bernard Foley keeps things steady at fly half for the Wallabies, and we just can’t see South Africa having much to offer here.

This has to be Warrick Gelant and Tom Banks’ big chance

Australia is without the soap opera that comes courtesy of Israel Folau for this match and as a result we finally get to see what Tom Banks can do on the big stage. Although we felt he got marginalised by the Jaguares in the Brumbies Super Rugby semi final, there is no denying the impact the young dynamic fullback had on the Canberra outfit’s campaign this season. By the same token Warrick Gelant has increasingly caught our eye with the Bulls at fullback, and is starting to live up to the hype surrounding him in South Africa. If these two and the rest of their fellow backs on both sides can cut out the handling errors, then we could be in for a fast paced running game with both teams offering up some real speedsters in their midst. If Gelant and Banks can be solid in defence and set up the kinds of counterattacks that their wingers thrive on then we could see some genuine fireworks on Saturday. Gelant will be more comfortable with the thinner air of the high veld, so it will be fascinating to see if he can really turn the screw on Australia in the aerial game.

Verdict

Australia perhaps have more to prove than South Africa in this match, and with the Springboks having home advantage, the Wallabies couldn’t ask for a better start to their World Cup warm up. South Africa though may be making life harder than it needs to be in terms of game management, especially given the wealth of experience Australia offer in Bernard Foley, Nic White and Will Genia. If the Springboks get this crucial aspect of their game wrong on Saturday then it could be a long afternoon at Ellis Park for them. Australia are likely to struggle to gain parity up front, but possess two exceptionally dangerous centres and a back line that has speed and power written all over it. As a result it’s a match where both sides’ positives cancel each other out, but we still think at home it’s South Africa’s game to lose. If South Africa’s forward pack can bludgeon Australia into submission and give their half backs no space in which to operate in, the the Springboks have enough pace of their own out wide to feed off whatever scraps may come their way. We’re concerned about the Jantjies squared combination, but feel South Africa still has enough street smarts and cohesion to get the job done by four points!

Argentina vs New Zealand – Saturday, July 20th – Buenos Aires

This is almost part 2 of the Super Rugby final, as New Zealand’s best take on Argentina’s best, this time on home soil for the South Americans. With the Pumas side looking almost identical to the Jaguares side that traveled to Christchurch earlier this month to take on the Crusaders, it’s hard to not draw the comparison. This time though the Pumas take on instead of the Crusaders, the best of the rest from New Zealand who would arguably be the dream team of most Coaches’ starting XVs.

Many are writing off the Pumas, given the Jaguares inability to put any big points on the Crusaders a fortnight ago, and a seemingly one sided game when one looked only at the scoreline. However, delve into the statistics for that match and it suddenly becomes clear that the Jaguares were keeping level on most fronts and in some cases well ahead, it was their execution at times and some poor decision making from some of their less experienced players that cost them a match played at full throttle. On home soil and with the value added of star play maker and fly half Nicolas Sanchez back in the mix, the Pumas are likely to be a much different prospect. With a rapturous crowd at the Jose Amalfitani in full voice, the All Blacks couldn’t ask for a more demanding fixture in which to sharpen up those World Cup talons and maintain focus and composure in a challenging environment. Whatever the scoreline come the final whistle, we have a hunch that the adjective boring won’t feature in any post match analysis of this one.

Can Coach Mario Ledesma restore the Argentinian scrum?

As a former front rIower himself for the Pumas, Ledesma must have looked on in horror at the seemingly inexplicable weak link in an otherwise stellar Jaguares Super Rugby campaign. It looked like it was finally starting to come together by the time of the final, and seemed much improved against the Crusaders. However, given that a dominant scrum has been such a traditional staple of Argentinian rugby in the past its seeming demise this past eighteen months is of concern. If they are going to reverse that trend and stop Argentina going backwards then Saturday is potentially a golden opportunity to get some confidence back at the coalface. Apart from the legendary Dane Coles, who to be honest we fear more outside the scrum than in, New Zealand are not bringing anything to Buenos Aires that sets alarm bells ringing. If the Pumas get their structures and techniques right on Saturday they could restore some genuine pride to a battered unit, which they desperately need ahead of the World Cup.

Brodie Retallick vs the Lavanini/Petti axis – one of the weekend’s biggest attractions

The last time these three met in their Super Rugby quarter final, it was the South American duo who made the headlines, giving Retallick an exceptionally quiet afternoon by his standards. We doubt that in an All Black jersey the giant New Zealand powerhouse will be as demure, but there is no denying the spoiler alert that the Pumas pair have become especially at lineout time. After two years of disciplinary therapy Lavanini has transformed himself from masquerading as a giant red card  disguised in a rugby jersey, to becoming a genuine master of the dark arts of the forward battles within the laws, albeit at the very fringes. Petti has been off the charts and in open play is one of the Pumas best opportunists. New Zealand will simply have to be at their very best here, and this contest alone should be worth the price of admission or your TV subscription.

Could these be two of the best back rows in Test rugby right now?

Even without Keiran Reid, we feel this is not an under strength All Black back row. Quite frankly we thought the Crusaders back row came off distinctly second best in their tussle with this Jaguares, now Pumas back row a fortnight ago. Consequently, New Zealand now field arguably a much more mobile back row to counter the bruising ball carrying abilities of the likes of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Javier Ortega Desio. Matera is simply off the charts and we side with the argument that he is currently the best number 6 in the world at the moment. Ardie Savea though is simply brilliant whether at 7 or 8, although we feel he has the slight edge at 7. He was an absolute monster for the Hurricanes against the Crusaders in that epic semi-final a few weeks ago. We all know what Vaea Fifita can do against Argentina, so in short this is likely to be a battle of truly epic proportions with Savea and Matera causing complete havoc at times. You won’t want to miss it.

Is it business as usual again for New Zealand with Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith?

The next three weeks will perhaps shed light on the biggest question facing New Zealand heading into the World Cup. What is New Zealand’s starting halfback combination? Is it these two or Richie Mo’unga and TJ Perenara. Either way the race is on for all four, and Saturday sees Barrett and Smith get the first opportunity to stake their claim. What is not in doubt is the quality of all four, although we’d argue that Smith has more to prove than Perenara, with Mo’unga and Barrett in a photo finish race at the moment for the starting 10 jersey. If life wasn’t challenging enough for Smith and Barrett, Saturday’s match sees the return of star fly half Nicolas Sanchez for the Pumas, alongside established scrum half Tomas Cubelli.

Ramiro Moyano vs Sevu Reece – now you see them – now you don’t!

Sevu Reece’s eagerly anticipated All Black call up comes as no surprise after his explosive exploits for the Crusaders this season. Ally him to the vision of Beauden Barrett and in space he could prove to be Argentina’s worst nightmare and Ramiro Moyano’s ultimate defensive workout. However, the Pumas winger has a sidestep and pace of his own that has seen him carve giant swathes through opposition defenses completely unhindered. On top of that the Argentinian winger tackles like a man possessed and has made twice the number of his All Black counterpart this season. All Black Coach Steve Hansen could ask for no better opportunity to put Reece under the microscope in his All Black debut.

Verdict

This is no doubt for Argentinian supporters the rematch they wanted so badly with a New Zealand side, after the Jaguares failed to secure a home final in the recently concluded Super Rugby season. Expect the Jose Amalfitani Stadium to be standing room only and the noise simply deafening. As a result the All Blacks couldn’t ask for a more fitting opener to their 2019 campaign which culminates with the World Cup. After all is said and done though we don’t buy into the argument that this is a second string All Black side, and if the Pumas make that mistake then it will be all over by half time. It will take an exceptionally focused and disciplined Pumas side, despite their success in Super Rugby, to get past 23 rather gifted men in black jerseys on Saturday afternoon. With so much at stake and the emotional factor of the crowd, it could all get too much for the Pumas in the heat of the moment, and we all know what any All Black side can do once they get a whiff of any kind of uncertainty in their opponents. This is an excellent Pumas team, which now has to translate their Super Rugby success to the Test Arena. Even with home advantage we feel it might still be too much of a tall order on the opening night of their season. Consequently, we have a suspicion that the All Blacks’ combined experience of winning away from home in tough environments might just get them through on Saturday, and in a very tight match, New Zealand to get the job done by five points – but brace yourself for the ride as Argentina make them work for every last inch of it!