The next month sees an abbreviated Rugby Championship as a result of the World Cup only 2 months away but the brevity of this year’s competition certainly doesn’t diminish the significance or importance of the tournament. What it does perhaps highlight is a challenging travel schedule over a relatively short period of time, with Australia and South Africa definitely having the better luck of the draw, whereas Argentina and New Zealand will have to factor jet lag and life on the road into their strategy. New Zealand after this year’s Super Rugby tournament and the All Blacks dominance of international rugby in 2014, are surely the favorites despite a daunting itinerary of continent hopping. Meanwhile Argentina, have an even more challenging travel schedule which ultimately despite their best efforts may provide them with too much to do. South Africa and Australia have the luxury of less travel and greater home advantage, which provided they can move on from their poor performances in Super Rugby this year should make them strong contenders to derail the All Black juggernaut!
Fixtures this weekend
New Zealand vs Argentina
Friday, July 17th
New Zealand have the enviable task of starting the competition at home in Christchurch. There is no doubt that home advantage and lessons learnt ten days ago in a tough test against Samoa, should make the Men in Black as favourites for this one. This is not to discredit Argentina, but as their first international outing as a team since last November, playing the All Blacks at home is a pretty tall order, especially as there is a slightly new look and feel to this Pumas side for this year.
Argentina have said, which came as little surprise to most, that they will use their world-class scrum as their key weapon against New Zealand on Friday. Argentina’s front three of Marcos Ayerza, Agustín Creevy and Ramiro Herrera will challenge any front three New Zealand can put up against them, even given the significant pedigree that New Zealand were able to demonstrate in this year’s Super Rugby. However, once you move away from the scrum and set-pieces I would imagine that New Zealand will easily start to pull away from Argentina especially once the ball gets amongst the backs. If the electric Waisake Naholo has any say in the matter then Argentina will have to fall back on their traditionally resolute defense. If the Pumas can ensure that New Zealand are deprived of quick ball then the scores should be fairly close albeit still in favour of New Zealand. One question mark for me is will the normally talismanic Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe recover his usual inspirational form in a Pumas shirt or will the rather hit and miss form he showed for Toulon this season continue?
Many people have criticised Argentina for not sending their first string team to New Zealand for this match and some have even labelled it disrespectful to the All Blacks. In fairness, with a World Cup only two months away it is unrealistic to expect Argentina to send all its first choice players to a match they feel in all likelihood they will probably lose and thus risk injury to players vital to the Pumas World Cup campaign only weeks away. As good as Argentina is they have only about the third of the depth that New Zealand has in their player base. Instead, they will probably focus on the one match in this year’s abbreviated Championship that they feel they have a chance of winning, the home game against Australia, and use the other two away matches to test new combinations and give newer players a shot at top-level competition in readiness for the World Cup. In fairness to Argentina, New Zealand are not exactly fronting many of their first choice players for this match either, and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has adopted a similar philosophy to that of his Pumas counterpart Daniel Hourcade, in resting key players for certain matches. Lastly let’s not forget that Argentina will play New Zealand again this year but this time in the pool stages of the World Cup and I would imagine that they will certainly front their best squad for such a crucial game on that occasion, especially as it will likely decide who finishes first and second in the pool.
Nevertheless with the likes of try scoring machine TJ Perenara directing New Zealand’s efforts from the base of the scrum as well as constantly harrying the Pumas at scrum time, you realize that New Zealand will still be boasting far too much talent up front and in the backs to let the Pumas ever really establish any kind of dominance. It will be interesting to see if Israel Dagg who forms the last line of defence for New Zealand in the backs can recover from his recent dip in form. If Waisake Naholo is cut loose on the wing then expect plenty of sniping attacks on a stretched Argentine defence from every quarter of the field. Throw in the talents of Ma’a Nonu who had a barnstorming Super Rugby season with the Hurricanes and you realise that there is just too much class in New Zealand’s back line for an initial outing by a Pumas side who have not played together in almost a year. Argentina will challenge New Zealand up front, but even there they will be hard-pressed against the likes of Richie McCaw and Brodie Retallick with the latter rapidly returning to his immense form.
So in short, I predict a comfortable win for New Zealand against a solid performance from Argentina who will use this match to really prepare for an encounter against Australia at home where they will fancy their chances much more. New Zealand to take this by 12!
Australia vs South Africa
Saturday, July 18th
Of the two games this weekend this is by far the harder to call. After South Africa’s performance against a World XV last weekend, one could argue on paper that South Africa easily look the more dangerous side. However, I am afraid that as much as I was impressed by some aspects of South Africa’s efforts, I simply can’t put too much weight on such a match. It’s a one-off and a Test match is a very, very different beast.
However, for South Africa let’s look at the positives. Willie Le Roux seemed to return to his absolute best in the fullback spot and was instrumental in defence and attack. The new centerfield pairing of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel seemed to fire, especially in the case of De Allende, whose spectacular form at the end of the Stormers’ Super Rugby campaign was much in evidence. For any rugby fan irrespective of your loyalties it was fantastic and inspirational to see one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors Jean de Villiers make a heroic comeback from a horrific injury, and there is no doubt that his presence will provide valuable inspiration and courage to the rest of his teammates. Marcel Coetzee who has always impressed me along with Eben Etzebeth were showing some absolutely superb form which helped to compensate for the worrying absence of Duane Vermeulen in the side. However, the choice of Schalk Burger at number 8 in place of the injured Vermeulen is sure to help alleviate such concerns. Although not Burger’s normal position, South Africa’s legendary loose forward is having such a barnstormer of a year I have every confidence in him delivering what is expected of him on the day provided he can keep his composure and discipline.
So in short lots of positives for the Springboks, but also some concerns. The worrying trend of useless kicking and thus giving away perfectly good possession still seems to be an issue in the Springbok camp and flyhalf Handre Pollard despite his obvious talents and work ethic is still lacking the composure and big game experience often required at this level. Don’t get me wrong he has the skill set and when it all clicks together he can be one of the best in the world, the problem is it is just too hit and miss at times. Furthermore the Springboks are still suffering from a lack of discipline which cost them dearly last year and has the potential to do so again this year. They seem to rely on a premise of all out physicality at any cost which at times causes them to lose sight of the overall ebb and flow of the game as well as push them into the very fringes of the laws of the game as their concentration breaks down and with it their discipline. These are all problems that a side boasting the talent it has should be able to fix. However, their first outing of real merit is away from home at a venue, Brisbane, that has not been kind to the Springboks. South Africa’s poor record on the road last year and their Super Rugby record on the road this year, ultimately may put them at a slight disadvantage this Saturday against an Australian side at home and with everything to prove. Lastly the choice of Jannie Du Plessis in the forwards and JP Pietersen on the wing, defy all logic as these two players’ form in the last year has been questionable to say the least and South Africa has so many more exciting and promising prospects on hand in these positions. There occasionally does seem to be an “old boys network” prevalent with coach Heineke Meyer’s selections and let’s hope he knows something we don’t.
As for Australia, they will be desperate to prove that last year’s record was merely a process of them welding a new team together under new coach Michael Cheika and that Super Rugby performances really don’t have a bearing on Wallaby performances. I will accept the first point but can’t help being sceptical about the second. This is not to say however, that if they click and get the combinations right, the Wallabies have the potential to be world beaters every time they run out onto the park. The skill and talent available to them from 9-15 has been clearly demonstrated for all to see. For me one true standout player for Australia during this year’s Super Rugby was veteran centre Adam Ashley-Cooper and I expect to see him causing lots of havoc over the coming weeks. There has been much talk of Israel Folau, and while I don’t doubt his genius I have often found him highly vulnerable defensively and easy for other teams to read on attack to the point where he can often be effectively silenced and starved of quality ball for the full eighty minutes. Which Folau we will get over the coming weeks and in the World Cup remains to be seen but South Africa will be wise to have a plan to keep him in check.
For such a crucial game, I must confess to being very surprised by Australian coach, Michael Cheika’s selection to take on South Africa. Up front, provided they can keep their discipline I fully expect South Africa to have the edge over Australia. I was pleased to see Scott Fardy in the starting lineup for the Wallabies, especially as he had a solid season with the Brumbies and I have often felt he is one of Australia’s most underrated players. If David Pocock, who arguably was the best number 7 of this year’s Super Rugby competition, is able to make an impact after coming off the bench and dominate the ball in the loose then this could well give Australia a much-needed edge in the final quarter. There is no doubt that South Africa will be well prepared for any rolling maul attempts by Australia through which Pocock has proved to be so devastatingly effective. Australia’s halfback pairing choice for such an important game has left me wondering though. The form halfback partnership for Australia in this year’s Super Rugby was without doubt Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley of the Waratahs, with the Brumbies Nic White also providing solid service. Quade Cooper and Will Genia did little for the Australian cause with the Reds this season, and while I can perhaps see some merit in Genia’s selection, I can’t help feeling that Cooper especially for big games like this is probably not only Australia’s most overrated player, but also a huge liability. I am sure that I will get completely shot down by Australian supporters for this last comment but let Saturday be the test!
In short, in front of a home crowd I expect Australia to just clinch a hard-fought and intensely even contest. I would even go as far as saying that the Springboks may well hold the edge for the first hour. However, as South Africa’s first proper test of a new look team, this will be a tough game on the road. They will be competitive for the full eighty minutes but I think home advantage will just swing the game in favour of an Australian side brimming with talent in the last quarter especially as the bench starts to make an impact. Despite the slightly bizarre halfback choice based on form, and with everything to prove – Australia by 2!