On one side of the coin, this weekend’s Rugby Championship action gives us one of the easiest predictions we’ll make all year while on the other one of the hardest we’ve had to call. The contest this Saturday between New Zealand and Australia in Wellington is likely for all intents and purposes to be a one-sided affair in favor of the Men in Black, with Wallaby supporters desperately hoping for some improvement on the dire display their side offered up last weekend. Meanwhile in Argentina we are set for a barnstormer, as on current form Argentina and South Africa look set to be duking it out for second place with the Springboks having the edge especially when it comes to closing out big games. However, the Pumas at home are a daunting prospect and have a habit of providing the Springboks with plenty of nasty surprises should they be caught napping.
New Zealand vs Australia
Saturday, August 27th
Many observers leading up to this match feel that although Australia are likely to get another painful lesson from New Zealand, their performance can’t get much worse than the inept performance from the Wallabies we witnessed last weekend. Looking at the starting line-ups for both teams we sadly have to disagree. Australia’s selection for this match if anything smacks of desperation. New Zealand however have stuck for the most part with the side that caused Australia so much heartache last weekend barring one or two minor adjustments. Given the Wallaby line-up and the fact that they are taking on an All Black side at home brimming with confidence we can’t help feeling that it is all going to go horribly sideways for the Australians in perhaps even more of a dramatic fashion than last weekend.
The main talking point this week has been the selection by Australian Coach Michael Cheika of mercurial fly half Quade Cooper in the starting number 10 berth with regular fly half Bernard Foley being switched to centre, a position he is not familiar with at Test level. If that’s not the gamble to end all gambles given what is at stake then we don’t know what is. Regular readers of these pages will be well aware of the relative disdain we have for Quade Cooper. Although he can occasionally, and we emphasise occasionally, produce moments of brilliance, the last time we can actually remember him doing so is back in 2011. Since then he has made more blunders than we can care to remember both at club level with the Reds and in a Wallaby jersey. Cooper played no real part in Australia’s efforts at last year’s World Cup apart from a dead rubber against Uruguay as he was seen as far too much of a liability in big games. Although capable of genius his regular form makes even the most simple aspects of Test Rugby look incredibly difficult and challenging. Having failed to impress at his club Toulon this past year and a disastrous flirt with Sevens rugby, Cooper now suddenly returns to the Wallaby fold as the supposed saviour in waiting. To us that smacks of nothing more than desperation and the Wallabies suddenly finding themselves clutching at straws. If he surprises us on Saturday then we will be the first to happily eat these words, but we can’t help feeling that it will be unlikely. New Zealand know they have an easy target and will put Cooper under the most intense pressure, something which on current form he cracks easily under. Beauden Barrett must be licking his lips!
That aside what can we expect from Australia? Australia got totally bossed around by New Zealand in the scrums and at lineout time last weekend. While we expect a tighter effort from Australia in these areas on Saturday, they’ve been struggling all year with this forward pack and a week is simply too short a time to turn things around. However, we do like the look of Adam Coleman and Kane Douglas as a lock partnership, even though they are no match for the powerhouse New Zealand pair of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Nevertheless, we still expect to see Australia to be much more competitive here. One welcome inclusion in the forwards department however for the Wallabies is the return to the starting lineup of flanker Scott Fardy. Despite his poor form this season with the Brumbies at Super Rugby level, Fardy seems to bring something different when he pulls on a Wallaby jersey and as such we have always felt he is one of Australia’s most underrated and undervalued players of this current Wallaby generation. Combined with fellow flanker the irrepressible Michael Hooper, Australia should have a powerful and competitive back row shored up by number eight David Pocock. Pocock himself has been struggling with form since his return from injury but given his outstanding form last year, it is only a question of time until this player starts hitting his straps again.
It’s from the half back point onwards that Australia starts to show its weaknesses. Will Genia at scrum half singularly failed to impress last weekend and we’ve already said enough about fly half Quade Cooper who will have a giant target on his back all afternoon. While regular Wallaby starting fly half Bernard Foley did have a bit of an uncharacteristic shocker last weekend, we still feel he is a much more reliable and committed player than Cooper. Add to that he is now being played out of position and we can’t help feeling that his confidence from the previous weekend is now well and truly out the window. Australia’s complete lack of a real attacking threat last weekend was painfully exposed. Winger Adam Ashley-Cooper although one of our top-rated Wallabies looked out-of-place not helped by the fact that he and fellow winger the impressive Dane Haylett-Petty had no quality ball to work with. We can’t see much difference taking place this weekend. Israel Folau was also kept strangely quiet and ineffective last weekend, and we have often argued that if you are going to gamble with a centre field change then it should be Folau at centre rather than Foley. Folau was one of the few success stories of the Waratahs Super Rugby campaign this year when he played at centre. Lastly centre Tevita Kuridrani had a shocker last weekend, but his replacement this weekend Samu Kerevi despite the excitement in Australia about this player is just not a reliable enough player for our liking especially in defence, and we feel that Australia will pay dearly for a weak and untested centre field pairing this weekend.
As for New Zealand it is very much business as usual this weekend with few changes other than the Test debut for Centre Anton Lienert-Brown. We’ve always liked the look of this player at Super Rugby level with the Chiefs and feel that he is more than likely to deliver the goods this weekend. New Zealand packs a powerhouse forward pack with the irrepressible Hooker Dane Coles leading the charge and seeming to suffer no loss of pace and power after suffering an injury at the end of the Hurricanes Super Rugby campaign – in short one of the toughest competitors out there. The scrum and lineouts should once again be superb platforms for New Zealand in terms of dominating possession. The breakdown battles though should be a bit more competitive with Australia’s loose forwards being slightly more up to the challenge than last weekend, that is until the All Blacks secret weapon and force of nature flanker Ardie Savea comes off the bench.
New Zealand’s half back partnership is infinitely superior to anything that Australia can offer up and as such scrum half Aaron Smith and fly half Beauden Barrett should comfortably dictate the pace of the game all afternoon. Beauden Barrett for us has really been a revelation and in our opinion is about to eclipse the legendary Dan Carter in terms of sheer ability. An exceptional player at the beginning of what is likely to be an incredible Test career. Winger Julian Savea finally started to show the form that has made him such a sensation and we expect more of the same this weekend. Ben Smith switches to fullback with Israel Dagg moving to the wing, but this gifted pair seems fairly interchangeable so there should be no concerns there. In the centres we’ve already mentioned the welcome inclusion of newcomer Lienert-Brown and think that Malakai Fekitoa has more than enough pace and power to cause endless headaches for his Australian counterparts on Saturday.
In short, a New Zealand victory is easy to call, it’s by how much that is the hard part. If Australia manages to hold their composure, and Quade Cooper in particular, then we expect a better performance than last weekend and as such New Zealand to win by 15 points. We don’t think that Australia can possibly be as bad as they were last weekend, however, if Australia and Cooper implode as we suspect they will away from home, then New Zealand to walk away the victors by 25 points!
Argentina vs South Africa
Saturday, August 27th
This fixture is the much harder contest to call and as a result the one we are anticipating the most this weekend. With the All Black/Wallaby clash essentially being a one-sided affair, the dust-up in Salta between the Springboks and Pumas will provide us a much clearer idea of where these two stand in the pecking order of Test rugby. South Africa have had more than their share of scares since June. Ireland rattled them to the core at the beginning of their Test season causing them to have to dig deep and produce the comeback performance of the June Test calendar. South Africa’s opener in the Rugby Championship provided yet more drama as the Springboks suddenly found themselves with their backs against the wall as a feisty and slick Argentinian side completely outplayed them for a full sixty minutes. Argentina for their part have everything to prove after their Super Rugby side the Jaguares often entertained but rarely produced results and, for the most part, a lacklustre June series by the Pumas against Italy and France. The Pumas dominated the Springboks for a good sixty minutes in the Rugby Championship opener against South Africa but their inability to close out big games came back to haunt them in the most dramatic fashion as South Africa scored 17 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes to snatch the victory.
South Africa have proved in the last two months that comeback rugby seems to be their forte but their supporters must surely be hoping that this impressive ability is not going to become their stock in trade. There are essentially no changes to the Springbok side that at times struggled against a Pumas side playing at breakneck speed. The main change is the inclusion of prop Vincent Koch in the starting line-up as opposed to being on the bench. Although this change has been forced by injury we welcome it as Koch was one of the few standout players of the failed Stormers Super Rugby campaign, and as a result up against a highly competitive Pumas scrum Koch should add some much-needed stability.
We’ve already mentioned that we feel that flanker Francois Louw’s inclusion in the starting XV is a poor decision by Coach Alastair Coetzee. His form simply doesn’t merit it whereas Jaco Kriel who is once more on the bench for this match has been one of South Africa’s most exciting and powerful players all year. South Africa simply can’t allow themselves to get bossed around up front by the Pumas in this match like they did last weekend. With the Pumas being at home they are more likely to get a significant lead early on if the Springboks can’t contain the likes of Facundo Isa and Pablo Matera up front. In short, it is going to be one hell of a contest up front. Locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jaeger are going to have to be at their best to contain their opposite numbers from Argentina Tomas Lavanini and Matias Alemanno. With Pieter-Steph du Toit waiting on the bench South Africa have some solid cover in the lock department but then so do Argentina with the exceptional Guido Petti. In the battle of the benches both sides have their strengths but we’re giving Argentina the slight edge here. At number eight Warren Whiteley was outstanding in orchestrating South Africa’s comeback last weekend and we expect more of the same again from him up against the equally impressive youth and strength of Argentina’s Facundo Isa who we have a hunch may emerge as one of the players of the tournament.
In the half backs, a battle royale is set to take place. Quality meets quality even though South African fly half Elton Jantjies wasn’t quite the reliable figure last weekend that he has been for his Super Rugby franchise the Lions this season. Despite that some of his breaks and ability to put players in space were still exceptional even if at times his kicking game deserted him. Springbok fly half Faf de Klerk however was exceptional last weekend and at times singlehandedly turned around the fortunes of his struggling teammates. We think his ability in defence and attack is rapidly starting to rival that of All Black great Aaron Smith. The sight of the diminutive de Klerk single-handedly bringing down Argentinian giants like Lavanini and Leguizamon was the stuff of legends. He is an utterly fearless competitor and his commitment deserves the greatest respect. Argentina on the other hand have an impressive duo in the shape of fly half Nicolas Sanchez and scrum half Martin Landajo. These two players work exceptionally well together and their speed and pace of distribution is outstanding. Landajo’s replacement last weekend Tomas Cubelli simply picked up where Landajo left off once he came off the bench. Sanchez has an exceptionally reliable boot and his vision in putting winger Santiago Cordero in space for Argentina’s second try last weekend summed up his ability to think quickly and accurately. Like their Springbok counterparts these two are equally fearless in attack and defence and the contest between these four this weekend should be riveting.
It’s in the backs where we think that at home Argentina will have the clear edge. Although the Springboks boast the exceptional talent of Super Rugby Lions heroes winger Ruan Combrinck and centre Lionel Mapoe, we weren’t overly impressed by what we saw otherwise last weekend. Mapoe and Combrinck are worth their weight in gold, but the rest of South Africa’s back line was often found lacking last weekend. Despite his try we thought fullback Johan Goosen rarely did much right last weekend, and winger Bryan Habana just looked tired and out of form. Centre Damian de Allende missed far too many tackles last weekend and looked exceptionally one-dimensional for most of the match. For us he is far too hot and cold to be a consistent starter for the Springboks. However, the backs overall seem to be South Africa’s biggest issue at the moment with few if any players apart from Combrinck or Mapoe standing out. The one notable exception is Rohan Janse Van Rensburg the Lions centre who was truly outstanding in this year’s Super Rugby, yet for some strange reason seems to be completely off Springbok Coach Alastair Coetzee’s radar.
Argentina’s back line on the other hand is exceptionally solid and as evidenced last week, a very cohesive unit. Centre Matias Orlando’s try was one of the top highlights of last weekend’s action. The big physical winger Manuel Montero is very hard to bring down and centre Juan Martin Hernandez is one of Argentina’s most gifted players. Add to that the electric pace and elusiveness of winger Santiago Cordero and the reliability and vision of fullback Joaquín Tuculet and you have a complete set of backs that are going to be very hard to stop on Saturday in Salta.
It’s going to be tight and incredibly close and should be the encounter of the weekend between two evenly matched and very talented teams. At the moment these two sides are clearly in the race for second place in this year’s Championship and this weekend should give us a fascinating insight into how the rest of their campaigns should pan out. For us though we are going to just give this one to Argentina by the slimmest of margins in a real cliffhanger of a match. However, at home it should just be Argentina’s day by two points amidst plenty of fireworks!