Australia vs New Zealand – Sydney
There is no doubt that this is the game of the weekend. After a dismal season last year that only got better at the last gasp on their European tour, Australia are finally, under coach Ewen McKenzie, starting to look like a serious contender for the Webb Ellis trophy next year in England. There is often talk of a side starting to click at just the right time leading into the World Cup. In Australia’s case this definitely seems to be true. With Australian sides doing exceptionally well in this year’s Super Rugby competition, and a clinical demolition of a disorganised, fractious and weary French side in June, the omens look good for Australia. With Australia boasting one of the quickest and most exciting backlines out there at the moment, if New Zealand give away possession they could potentially pay dearly for it.
However it’s not all roses for Australia, as the one problem they are faced with is the continuing lack of a dominant forward pack to liberate their backline geniuses. It seemed that this problem had been addressed through the talent available in the recent Super Rugby competition. However the brutal and gruelling nature of this competition has left too many injuries for Australia to really be able to take on New Zealand and South Africa up front, and therefore the Australian scrum goes into the competition slightly untested and looking rather vulnerable. If Australia cannot compete up front against New Zealand then their woes will only get worse when they come to face the powerhouse forward packs of South Africa and Argentina.
Lastly the decision to play Kurtley Beale at fly-half is another one of those coaching decisions that we see so often in Test Rugby that seems to defy logic. Given Australia’s weakness up front, the number Ten position will be key in covering for the lack of ability in the forwards and linking it to the obvious strengths in the backs. In watching Kurtley Beale since the last World Cup, I am sorry he is simply not consistent enough particularly in the kicking aspect of his game especially when under pressure from an aggressive forward opposition.
New Zealand are no longer the invincible juggernaut they were last year. Sure they are still holding the world record for being unbeaten, but have had far too many narrow escapes (i.e. by 2 or 3 points) in their recent outings and who can forget that epic game against Ireland last November in which the Men in Green came closest to derailing the All Black express. However, New Zealand despite some chinks in their armor are still the ultimate finishers in the world game. Richie McCaw whether you like him or not is still intensely annoying but devastatingly effective especially if the referee’s attentions are elsewhere.
However McCaw is getting towards the end of his inspirational career and it remains to be seen whether this bedrock of the All Black side can be replaced effectively before the World Cup. Rugby is a game of fifteen men and there is little room for individual superstars as there is in football but there is no doubt that some individual players provide a degree of motivation and inspiration to their teammates that is hard to replace – talk to any Irish fan on how they are going to deal without an O’Driscoll on the field and you will understand.
New Zealand unlike Australia are blessed with such depth in their talent pool that unlike Australia the loss of players like Dan Carter is really a non-event. New Zealand have an incredible backline, strong centres and a set of halfbacks the envy of the world. Link that to a forward pack boasting the likes of Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Owen Franks, and if I was Australian I would be feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
In conclusion, if Australia can overcome their question marks up front, rely on Beale to make the right decisions and release their backline and hang on to possession, in front of a vocal home crowd this could be their game. However there are slightly too many questions to be asked of them at this stage and therefore I still can’t help feeling that New Zealand will take the spoils on Saturday albeit after one hell of a struggle. Hang on to your seats folks it’s going to be a cracker!!
South Africa vs Argentina – Pretoria
While I think that South Africa will comfortably take this game, it will not be without a struggle at times and certainly not along the runaway score lines of this fixture in last year’s competition. I also think that of the two games this weekend it is the most interesting prospect in terms of who’s who in the Rugby world order.
South Africa have a potentially brilliant squad and one that could easily bring home the Webb Ellis trophy next year. I for one don’t believe that the dismal performance of South African teams in this year’s Super Rugby competition will have much if any bearing on the Springboks performance in the Rugby Championship. The provincial and national sides are two very different beasts. I am still sceptical that Heineke Meyer despite his impressive track record with the Bulls is the right man for the coaching job at the Boks. He tends to let his emotions get away with him resulting in almost panicked decisions on the playing field which at this level of rugby can be a recipe for disaster. Note the facial expressions in the coaching boxes of New Zealand and South Africa and it is small coincidence who has the better track record. Meyer is also guilty of often sticking with what he knows and players he likes rather than players on form. Having said that, his current selection for Saturday’s game with Argentina debunks this slightly as there are several names that many outsiders will not be that familiar with.
If South Africa kick away good possession through their inexperienced fly half then Argentina will punish them, especially as the Pumas front pack is strong enough to take South Africa on at their own game of the rolling maul. I am particularly concerned that the bench fly half is Francois Hougaard, who in my mind is an exceptionally overrated player and has not shown that he can cope when fast and calm decision making is required especially in terms of to kick or not to kick. South Africa have a good blend of experience and youth in their forward pack, who given the right decisions from the scrum and fly halves will release a devastating backline. There is no question that Willie le Roux is one of if not
THE most exciting players in Test Rugby right now. I have also been seriously impressed with Cornal Hendricks and coupled with Brian Habana this is the backline of a fantasy league first XV. If the untried De Allende can live up to his potential and a brilliant but slightly war weary Jean de Villiers can remain injury free then the Springboks could tear apart the Pumas defences. The question marks for South Africa in this game will come around the 9 and 10 positions and Meyer’s use of the bench.
As for Argentina, this is very much a mystery side under new coach Daniel Hourcade. Hourcade’s work with Argentina’s junior side has been exemplary but he remains unproven at this level. Argentina are very much a side in development, but blessed with potentially enormous talent. I am always surprised at the media and public’s willingness to write off Argentina’s chances. Lest we forget that Argentina finished the 2007 World Cup in third place. Argentina’s problems centre around their inability since 2007 to finish off big games. There is no doubt they have the passion, motivation and skill to do so, it’s just can they keep it up for 80 minutes?
Argentina has some excellent young players coming through the ranks and the exposure of key players to this tournament and playing at top level clubs in Europe, is continuing to strengthen the Pumas chances at big tournaments like the Rugby Championship. With many of their top players rested for the June internationals against Ireland, a crop of exciting new players were given an ability to show off their skills, and at times an Argentinian B side gave an Irish A side some serious discomfort. Put that experience together with a group of skilled veterans and throw in a dash of heartfelt passion, motivation and hunger for Argentina’s first win in this tournament and the Pumas will be no pushover over the next two months.
As for Argentina’s chances in Pretoria at Loftus which is one of the cathedrals of the world game, I fear it will be too much for them to pull off a win. However it will give them an excellent chance to settle as a side and given a strong backline and a powerful and aggressive forward pack, the Springboks could well have their work cut out for them the following week as they face the Pumas in front of a very vocal home crowd.
So yes, South Africa will win on Saturday, but may well pick up some irreparable injuries in the process of what promises to be a bruising encounter. Argentina will learn a great deal on Saturday and I am convinced they will get stronger and stronger throughout the course of this tournament and one of the big scalps is there for the taking. While the game may ultimately end in a rather one-sided naturein favour of the Springboks, from an analytical point of view this could be a fascinating encounter and leave us all with much food for thought.