The Rugby Championship wraps up this weekend, and Australia and New Zealand will do battle in Sydney to decide who gets to keep the silverware this year. Meanwhile in Durban, South Africa find themselves having to tough it out with Argentina for third place. This year’s abbreviated tournament due to the World Cup looming on the horizon come September has provided plenty of thrills and spills and the decider in Sydney this Saturday should be no exception. Although South Africa are out of the running for this year’s Rugby Championship, a strong showing and emphatic win against Argentina are key to ensuring they get on the right footing to build for the World Cup with a side that is so close to being serious contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy.
Fixtures this weekend
Australia vs New Zealand
Saturday, August 8th
Even though these two sides have another meeting the following weekend in New Zealand to decide this year’s Bledisloe Cup, this match especially for Australia is of enormous significance and is being eagerly anticipated by both sets of supporters. Both Australia and New Zealand come into the game undefeated in this year’s tournament and clinching the title for either side will be a massive confidence booster going into the World Cup. Australia finally seems to be returning to form after a year in the wilderness and the side seems to be settling well as Coach Michael Cheika focuses on the type of game and team he wants for the World Cup. New Zealand although lacking some of their customary sparkle this year in the tournament have been devastatingly effective in closing out the big games in the last quarter while at the same time giving exciting new talent a shot at top-level Test competition. All the signs are pointing to a thrilling contest in Sydney on Saturday night.
New Zealand have been consistent for the last two years, so in many ways the expectations and pressures on them going into this match are not as high as they are for Australia. After a poor year last year, the Wallabies finally seem to be hitting all the right gears and are determined to prove that a narrow win against South Africa and the dismantling of a poor Pumas side in this year’s competition were platforms to build on for the World Cup. Of the two teams Australia has the most to prove on Saturday night. A loss for the All Blacks would be a setback but they know they have the luxury of facing the Wallabies again at home a week later to set the record straight. Whereas for the Wallabies this is the last time a home crowd will see them in action before they head off to the World Cup and thus a statement needs to be made!
For such a crucial match for Australia, I was slightly surprised to see Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell in the starting lineup rather than on the bench, however their possible replacements in the shape of Matt Toomua and Kurtley Beale, both of whom have shown some superb form this year, should settle the nerves of Australian supporters. Mitchell and Giteau are sound players but neither have had that much game time with the Wallabies over the last two years. However, the rest of the Australian starting XV is about as solid as you could ask for. Coach Michael Cheika is clearly expecting a battle of attrition up front and the bench reflects this accordingly, as well as the Wallabies fielding a set of forwards who should be able to mix it with the best New Zealand can throw at them. The talking point of the week has been the choice of David Pocock at number eight instead of his customary position of flanker, while Michael Hooper gets to keep his 7 jersey. Pocock is so devastating in the loose and at the breakdown one could almost argue it doesn’t matter where you play him, whereas Michael Hooper seems to relish the role of trying to wind up his opposite number Richie McCaw. The battle between two of rugby’s most contentious players is always one to look forward to, though McCaw’s class and skill at the very edge of the laws often gets the better of the slightly more hotheaded Michael Hooper. I expect to see Scott Fardy, who I have always felt to be one of Australia’s most underrated players, really step up on Saturday night and possibly even edge out his opposite number Jerome Kaino.
Australia will be counting on Bernard Foley to find his rhythm with the boot this match after he struggled at times with the kicking duties against Argentina a fortnight ago, and the fact that he has to try to match Daniel Carter in this department is only going to add even more pressure. Australia’s Nick Phipps for me has been one of the standout scrum halves of the last year but even he will have his work cut out for him as he goes up against the world’s best scrum half in the shape of New Zealand’s Aaron Smith. Australia will be looking to the figure of Adam Ashley-Cooper to provide composure in the back line as the veteran of more than 100 Tests for Australia should, as he has done all year, provide another epic performance for the Wallabies. Israel Folau at fullback for Australia will have every last ounce of his defensive abilities tested, which have sometimes been found lacking, as he goes up against New Zealand’s Ben Smith. There is no question that Folau is brilliant but in terms of tactics and intelligence in the fullback position for me Ben Smith is the much more complete player.
Up front in the scrum, Australia looks evenly matched with New Zealand with the Wallaby scrum holding its own in recent outings. Lastly the contest between the locks should be fascinating as Dean Mumm tests his mettle against the might of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick. Mumm looked good against Argentina a fortnight ago, even though he benefitted from a try off a forward pass, but Argentina were uncharacteristically weak in defence and he was given lots of space to work with which you can be assured that Brodie Retallick will shut down in a heartbeat.
As for New Zealand, the big news for this match is getting to see Nehe Milner-Skudder get his Test debut for the All Blacks on the right wing. For me he was unquestionably one of the most exciting players of this year’s Super Rugby competition and it was only a question of when and not if he would get his first All Black call up. Up against probably one of the most experienced and prolific try scorers in International Test Rugby, Australia’s Adam Ashley-Cooper, this will be a baptism of fire. However, I personally feel that Milner-Skudder will relish the challenge and I think we will see plenty of sparks flying once this speedster finds some space and gets to use his almost surreal side-stepping skill. Furthermore, although he is not the biggest player on the park his strength is deceptive and he has been seen to shrug off up to five defenders. To say that any true rugby fan is looking forward to seeing Milner-Skudder in action on Saturday night is probably one of the understatements of the year – let’s hope he rises to the occasion and doesn’t disappoint.
Lastly for New Zealand, I will be interested to see how the combination of Sonny Bill Williams and Conrad Smith work together as the centre pairing. For me there is absolutely no question regarding the class and quality of Conrad Smith as an International Test player, but the jury is still out on all the hype surrounding Sonny Bill Williams. I have seen hints of what he can do, but under this kind of intense pressure I agree that he is very easy for many teams to read and thus contain and as a result doesn’t really bring the quality of attack that Ma’a Nonu brings. While Nonu is not available for this match, it will be interesting to see if the question marks surrounding Sonny Bill Williams get removed in this game as he goes up against his opposite number Matt Giteau who is also facing many of the same questions for the Wallabies.
In short, an epic contest awaits with a fascinating blend of youth and experience. Either way it should be a classic between the two trans-Tasman rivals. Given that I feel the pressure to win is greater for the Wallabies, I am just going to give them this match by a mere two points, with the caveat that they have to contain the All Blacks at all costs in the final five minutes of the match. Let’s face it, Quade Cooper will not be coming off the bench at such a critical time for Australia in this match so their chances to pull this off are good provided they can hold their nerve and discipline!
South Africa vs Argentina
Saturday, August 8th
As Argentina field their strongest team of the tournament, South Africa must surely be feeling just a tad nervous. The Pumas have become the Springboks “problem” team in the last two years, as South Africa struggled to get past the Pumas in both of their encounters last year, with a narrow last gasp win in their second match in Mendoza. However, a year is a long time in international rugby. This is a very different looking Springbok side this year. They may be winless in this tournament so far, as are the Pumas, but they have put in some very big performances and have dominated both Australia and New Zealand for long periods of time to then only fall apart in the last quarter. In front of a home crowd and up against a strong but nevertheless slightly experimental Pumas side, you get the feeling that Saturday should end up being all about a comprehensive Springbok victory. If it isn’t then their trip to Buenos Aires a week later will be fraught with anxiety!
It is clear that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has all of this very much in the forefront of his mind and is very conscious of the fact that a third straight loss and at home to boot, would be completely unacceptable to a South African public desperate for results. As a result there is very little experimentation going on in the starting lineup for Saturday. However, there are question marks going into this match. Firstly, despite his remarkable return from a horrific injury, will Captain and centre Jean de Villiers in his first real outing be able to stand up to the physical punishment that a Pumas side always dishes out? We all want to wish de Villiers the best, and as one of the ambassadors of our great game, sincerely hope that he emerges from this unscathed. Furthermore will it prove his fitness for the Springboks World Cup campaign as his leadership will be so critical to the squad? As a result of de Villiers return, Meyer has had to split up one of the most exciting centerfield pairings in International Rugby right now – Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel. Consequently, Kriel finds himself on the wing in the back line with fullback Willie le Roux. I can understand the need for Meyer to do this, especially as Kriel has shown he has great versatility and is a possible understudy for le Roux should he be an injury concern for the World Cup. The fullback position for South Africa going into the World Cup is a serious concern. Willie le Roux is amongst the best in the world right now after a dip in form last year, but should he be lost to injury South Africa has very little depth in this position other than Kriel.
However, from positions 1-8, this is a total powerhouse Springbok team, and one which Argentina will have to dig very deep to contain. Schalk Burger maintains the number eight position at which he was so effective against New Zealand a fortnight ago, and without the added burden of the captaincy expect to see him at his blitzkrieg best. Marcel Coetzee returns to the number 7 jersey alongside Heinrich Brüssow who made such a spectacular return to Test rugby a fortnight ago against New Zealand. Expect Brüssow with Coetzee alongside him to be even better than he was against New Zealand. I have always said that Brüssow is one of South Africa’s best and was amazed that we have seen so little of him in the last four years. Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth had a barnstormer of a game against New Zealand and should help South Africa dominate the lineouts. Lastly, Meyer has chosen a solid scrum that boasts the youth of Vincent Koch and the experience of Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira. Du Plessis has been immense for the Springboks in both Rugby Championship outings and his ability to get turnover ball often singlehandedly has been the envy of any forward pack.
For Argentina, as mentioned above, they are probably fielding their best team of the year so far, and obviously feel that their two games against South Africa are the ones they are really targeting in their buildup to the World Cup. While I still think there is a much more experimental feel to this Pumas side than their Springbok counterparts, it is nevertheless an impressive and competitive unit. The most significant decision has been the exclusion of regular Pumas flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez. To be honest Sanchez has had a shocker of a tournament so far, further weakened by his amateur dramatics acting skills as evidenced against Australia, leading many Argentine supporters to suggest he switch to a career in football. Instead we see the vastly experienced Juan Martin Hernandez come into the squad at flyhalf. Despite his record of injuries, Hernandez brings a sense of composure and vision to the position along the lines of the great Felipe Contepomi.
The rest of the Pumas squad is quality through and through, especially the back line, though many were surprised to not see the inclusion of Santiago Cordero and Gonzalo Camacho as these two provided some of the best individual plays of the clash against Australia and it would have been interesting to see how they played in a side that is actually working as an organised unit. Meanwhile the forwards see further experimentation with different combinations and the return of the always impressive Leonardo Senatore at eight and Pablo Matera at flanker. As impressive as Agustin Creevy and Marcos Ayerza are, I can’t help feeling that the Springboks will have the edge in the scrum while de Jager and Etzebeth should easily win the battle of the locks for South Africa.
In short the Pumas should be competitive provided the Durban humidity doesn’t get to them, but this really is the Springboks game to win and one which they really need to win comfortably in order to be able to go to Argentina the following week and face a full strength first choice Pumas side at home. For South Africa now, with the Rugby Championship a chance gone begging, the focus must be on building for the World Cup with a squad that is just agonizingly short of greatness. Find the finishing prowess that the All Blacks have shown the world with such devastating effect for the last two years, and this Springbok side are without doubt world beaters!