Fixtures this weekend
New Zealand vs Argentina – Napier
While, there is little doubt that New Zealand are the favourites to walk away with a win from this match and easily take first place in the competition standings, it won’t be done without considerable effort and Argentina will cause problems for the All Blacks especially through their outstanding forward pack. The days where the All Blacks could write off a match against the Pumas as a training match are long gone. Furthermore, despite the anomaly of the Pumas being winless so far in the competition, this Pumas side and Daniel Hourcade’s coaching style have seriously impressed their opposition. South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have all remarked on the talent in the Pumas current lineup and Argentina has earned some serious respect from the “Big Three”.
So what’s likely to happen in Napier on Saturday? Firstly the weather does not look to be too kind and although not on the biblical proportions of Pretoria, will nevertheless slow down the ball and make running it less of an option. This provides Argentina an excellent opportunity to take on the All Blacks up front. If they can maintain constant pressure on the All Blacks at the breakdown which they have shown they are more than capable of doing, shut down the opportunities for New Zealand out wide and generally keep the ball in tight with their forwards given the potentially slippery ground – they will find gaps in the All Blacks’ defence. This will both rattle and irritate New Zealand to the point where they will start giving away penalties, as we have seen so many times before, especially now as referees have key All Black players like Richie McCaw on their radar.
While I cannot see Argentina winning the game, a strong showing by them against the best team in the world will be a massive confidence booster going into the next round against a questionable Australian outfit, especially up front. Therefore, I think Argentina’s expectations of this game are not necessarily to win but to really make the All Blacks uncomfortable and run them close, gaining the Pumas even more respect.
New Zealand are unlikely to underestimate the quality of this Pumas side, as they have tended to do in the past. In the last three years, there have been periods of serious discomfort for the All Blacks during this fixture in the Championship. Ironically Argentina seems to play better against the All Blacks in New Zealand than they do at home. New Zealand will also not be fielding the same team that annihilated Australia two weeks ago. Aaron Cruden will not participate in this game due to injury and is ably replaced by Beauden Barrett at fly half. However as impressive as Barrett can be, he certainly has an equal in Nicolas Sanchez of Argentina. It will be the battle of the fly halves and the forwards that will determine this game, especially given the forecast wet weather. New Zealand’s experience ultimately will still probably win the day, but they are definitely going to have to work for it. In short a fascinating fixture awaits us.
Australia vs South Africa – Perth
It’s interesting that in many ways this is the game that will really determine where everyone stands in the Rugby Championship at the halfway point in the tournament. Unless Argentina pulls off a miracle in Napier then sadly despite being one of the most impressive teams, they sadly do not have the results that reflect their performance on the field. Of the four teams, the only two that have put in impressive performances have been Argentina and New Zealand – in the case of New Zealand this was only in the second game and both of Argentina’s games were outstanding but without the sought after result. So at this stage the question is whose scalp is Argentina going to take on their first ever win? Meanwhile New Zealand seems to be settling into invincible mode.
That leaves us with the two contenders in this fixture who so far have singularly failed to impress their fans and critics. South Africa have been for the most part woeful, despite clawing out two lacklustre victories at the last minute, while Australia benefitted from an off-form New Zealand in their first game, only to be subsequently made a laughing stock by the All Blacks the following week.
There has been much talk in the South African and Australian press in the last two weeks about lessons learned and how both sides are brimming with potential that is just not being fully utilised. The coaching staff have been well and truly put under the microscope in both countries, especially in South Africa where many are questioning Heineke Meyer’s so called game plan or as many believe lack of one.
As a result in many ways this weekend’s game between South Africa and Australia is of enormous importance to both sides’ morale and confidence, as well as showing the world where these two teams stand in the global pecking order.
Australia know if they falter then the Pumas will arrive next weekend smelling victory and opportunities to be had, while South Africa know that if they don’t put a decent score line between them and the Wallabies they too will suffer horrifically at the hands of the All Blacks in New Zealand a week later. Therefore for both sides a simple win by a few points will simply not be good enough – an all-out barnstorming victory with a 15 to 20 point difference in the score line is the only option, and one which their fans will expect.
The changes to the Springbok side, and Heineke Meyer realising the futility of recent experimentation, sees a more settled Springbok side with considerably more experience running onto the field in Perth. Most Springbok supporters are breathing a great sigh of relief to see Morne Steyn starting at 10. The forward pack looks more settled as well, with a good balance of youth and experience, though like most people I am surprised at the willingness to try and reinvent Victor Matfield’s career. As great a player as he was I am not really sure he has another World Cup in him at his age. South Africa need to get their younger players the game time and experience they need for next year’s rugby showpiece. Although Meyer has tried to do this in the past two games, his choices were inappropriate given the intensity of this tournament. It would have made more sense to blood some of these younger and less experienced players on the European tour in November, where the intensity of matches is there but not the level of competition coupled with the public’s expectations of the Rugby Championship.
On paper these are essentially two completely equal sides, and as a result it will be almost impossible to call. Australia still have issues in the forward department, but then so do South Africa and this weekend will show which of the two has done their homework better. Like Meyer, Australian coach Ewen Mckenzie has realized the error of his ways in trying unproven halfback combinations and this match sees the out of place Kurtley Beale sitting on the bench as opposed to starting at number 10. As for the backs, once again Australia’s back three are the equal of their South African counterparts – it will just come down to which team plays a complete 15 man game on Saturday and does so for the full 80 minutes.