As Round 3 of the Rugby Championship gets underway this weekend, New Zealand take on Argentina and look set to consolidate their stranglehold on the tournament. Argentina are likely to give as good as they get but taking on the All Blacks in New Zealand is a task that most would relish but one that few will succeed at. Despite Argentina’s impressive pedigree of late, they are unlikely to derail the All Black express this weekend. Meanwhile in Brisbane two sides with everything to prove go head to head in probably the most fascinating contest of the weekend. Australia somehow have to end a six match losing streak while South Africa have to prove to their critics that this is a Springbok side worthy of the name and the legend and not just a bunch of misfiring comeback kings.
New Zealand vs Argentina
Saturday, September 10th
It may be fairly easy to predict the result on this one, but it should still prove to be an interesting match and a spectacle worth watching. The Pumas have played some exquisite rugby this year at times, but have lacked consistency and staying power at crucial times. As a result it will be difficult for them to upset the 2016 version of the All Blacks which, despite some rebuilding, shows no signs of losing any of the potency that New Zealand has demonstrated in dominating the arena of International Test Rugby for the last five years. New Zealand at home is always a challenging prospect for any opponent, but on the back of 14 straight wins it is more than just a little daunting. However, expect this Pumas side to relish and rise to the task at hand. There will be plenty of spirit and more than just a little flair on display at times and as a result we should be treated to a match well worth watching. New Zealand however are still for the most part in a league of their own but long gone are the days when they can afford to regard an encounter with Argentina as anything less than the very best in top-level competition.
As a result New Zealand and Coach Steve Hansen are not taking the Pumas lightly by any stretch of the imagination. They know they are up against worthy opponents in the Pumas who are rising rapidly through the rankings of international rugby and could well be challenging for second place in this year’s Rugby Championship. Take the threat lightly and New Zealand could end up on the biggest banana peel of their 2016 campaign. New Zealand field essentially the same side that put Australia to the sword in Wellington a fortnight ago. The essential difference being that Ryan Crotty returns from injury to centre with Anton Liennert-Brown who so impressed on his debut in Wellington warming the bench in this match. It’s an exceptionally solid, fast and talented set of backs that New Zealand will run out in Hamilton but then they will need to be as Argentina clearly boast the second best set of backs in this year’s tournament. However, given the defensive skills of the likes of fullback Ben Smith and winger Israel Dagg it is unlikely that the Pumas speedsters are going to get even half as much room as they were afforded by the Springboks. Meanwhile winger Julian Savea seems to be clearly returning to some devastating form in an All Black jersey and the Pumas are going to have their work cut out in trying to keep the powerful winger in check for the full eighty minutes.
New Zealand’s half back partnership of scrum half Aaron Smith and fly half of the tournament Beauden Barrett should have the edge over their Argentinian counterparts. Barrett in particular is playing some truly exceptional rugby and in addition to conducting affairs for New Zealand like the maestro he is rapidly becoming, he provides plenty of attacking potential that most opposition sides find it almost impossible to read.
Expect fireworks aplenty up front as two very capable forward units engage in battle. Many are already highlighting the contest between the exceptional Puma number eight Facundo Isa and his All Black counterpart Kieran Read as one of the key contests of the match. Isa’s youthful exuberance and raw talent meets the experience and wisdom of seasoned veteran Read. We’ve been exceptionally impressed by both units and this should really be a battle royale especially if the Pumas can maintain their composure and discipline against New Zealand for the full eighty minutes. We always look forward to watching New Zealand hooker Dane Coles in action, especially if he decides to do double duty on the wing which is more than likely. The lineouts should be well matched contests though with the likes of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock’s experience New Zealand should just get the better of a spirited Pumas challenge.
Argentina are fielding a strong side and should be able to give as good as they get in Hamilton and as a result even though they are unlikely to emerge the victors they should still emerge with their heads held high. Taking on the best team in the world in their own backyard is an exceptionally difficult task but one which the Pumas are well equipped to take on. The Argentinian backs are unlikely to get as much space as they got against South Africa in the first two rounds of the Championship, and we would caution them against trying to be as adventurous with ball in hand as they were against the Springboks. New Zealand are much better at capitalizing on their opponents’ mistakes and if Argentina try to be too clever at times they may well pay dearly for it. Nevertheless we are still looking forward to seeing the likes of Joaquin Tuculet, Santiago Cordero and Matias Orlando operating at full throttle once more. Argentina’s half back partnership of Martin Landajo and Nicholas Sanchez is quality through and through but it doesn’t quite have the vision and consistency at the same level of New Zealand’s Barrett and Smith.
As already mentioned in the forwards it’s going to be an exceptionally tight contest but once more over the course of the full eighty minutes New Zealand should just get the edge especially once the All Blacks bench starts to make their weight felt. For us it’s here where the match will be won and New Zealand is packing a more potent set of replacements than the Pumas. As a result we’re giving this to New Zealand by fourteen points! The Pumas will be highly competitive for the first sixty minutes, but will start to tire and as New Zealand makes full use of their powerhouse bench the All Blacks will slowly start to pull away.
Australia vs South Africa
Saturday, September 10th
For us this is the match we’re most looking forward to this weekend. Australia and South Africa have everything to play for this Saturday and a loss for either will carry with it a painful post-mortem that will go on long after the final whistle. Australia is in disarray after a six match losing streak, while South Africa have rallied when it matters most to produce some impressive comebacks, but as we have argued all along such luck was bound to eventually run out, as it did in no uncertain terms in Argentina two weeks ago. For South Africa the issue is less of talent and more about the lack of a cohesive game plan. For Australia it seems to be a combination of both. As a result we can’t help feeling that between two struggling sides South Africa find themselves in a slightly better position this weekend than Australia. Australia will have home advantage and South Africa has had an exceptionally poor record away from home over the last few years, and this may tip the scales in the Wallabies favor. However, we just haven’t seen anything from Australia this year that has really given us the impression they have the mental fortitude to win high pressure games, something which despite their problems the Springboks have managed to do this year, albeit only at home. In short, a fascinating contest awaits.
One thing we think we can say with certainty is that South Africa are going to dominate the battle up front. The Wallaby scrum has been a disaster all year and we see no reason for it to be any different on Saturday. Although the South African scrum has creaked at times and Hooker and Captain Adrian Strauss is under enormous pressure he and prop Tendai Mtawarira have still been more successful than their Australian counterparts this year in the heat of battle. Australia’s lineouts have been a complete shambles all year and Captain Steven Moore’s accuracy with the throw has been seriously hit and miss. Once again the Springboks have had better success in this department and provided locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager show the kind of tenacity and commitment which they are renowned for then once again South Africa should win the day here. We must confess to having to scratch our heads over the inclusion of lock Lood de Jager in the starting fifteen for this match at the expense of Pieter-Steph du Toit who once more finds himself on the bench. Du Toit has eclipsed de Jager in everything he has done this year and adds some much-needed ferocity and power to the Springbok attack which has been sadly lacking at times.
It’s in the back row where Australia should finally assert some dominance in the forward battles. With the exception of South African number eight Warren Whiteley, South Africa are offering a poor challenge to Australia in the back row. David Pocock although a quality player is still not quite back to his best while Whiteley should atone for his sub par performance in Argentina in this match to South Africa’s advantage. It’s in the flankers where Australia should have the clear edge. We have been saying all year now that we simply cannot understand Springbok Coach Alastair Coetzee’s fascination with Francois Louw in this position as opposed to the vastly superior Jaco Kriel who once more finds himself on the bench. Louw and his back row partner Teboho Mohoje were a complete liability in Argentina two weeks ago with the latter preferring to try to decapitate his opponents by high tackles as opposed to any kind of solid defensive work. We fear the worst for South Africa again this weekend, with Kriel having to come off the bench and try to work miracles in the final twenty minutes.
In the half backs we are still giving the nod to South Africa. Although fly half Elton Jantjies and scrum half Faf de Klerk were clearly out of sorts and struggling to adapt to the circumstances they found themselves in Argentina a fortnight ago, they are still a high quality outfit and benefit from being team mates at Super Rugby level where their form has been exceptional. Although former Reds teammates fly half Quade Cooper and scrum half Will Genia are also familiar running mates, they haven’t played much together recently and Cooper is prone to horrific lapses in concentration under pressure of which there will plenty on Saturday in Brisbane. Will Genia did make an impression in Round 2 against New Zealand and seemed to be about the only Wallaby along with fullback Israel Folau who had an idea of what was needed to turn Australian fortunes around – it was a just a shame they never got the support they needed.
As for the backs we find it hard to call. Australia has plenty of talent but everyone seems to be playing out of position with the exception of centre Samu Kerevi and fullback Israel Folau. Debutant winger Reece Hodges made an appearance in Round 2 off the bench and landed a monster penalty kick so is clearly a potent threat in that department should South African discipline start to falter around the park. However, winger is not his regular position despite him being a genuine utility back at centre and fullback and occasionally fly half. Bernard Foley continues to operate at centre in this match instead of his regular position at fly half. Although a winger by trade even Dane Haylett-Petty suddenly finds himself on the right hand touch-line as opposed to his usual left.
For South Africa’s offerings in the backs, we feel this could also be hit and miss. Stormers centre Juan de Jongh finds himself in the starting fifteen alongside Bulls centre Jesse Kriel. De Jongh and Kriel did little to impress us in this year’s Super Rugby, though Kriel has shown some stellar form in the past especially in this fixture. Bryan Habana on the wing although of impressive pedigree is only good if he gets some quality ball to work with which has often been sadly lacking of late. Francois Hougaard finds himself restored to a Springbok jersey on the wing and he could be a player to watch. However, we find him rather like Australia’s Quade Cooper in terms of form, brilliant at times but occasionally showing a degree of decision-making that defies all logic. Lastly South Africa’s Johan Goosen at fullback is no match for the incomparable Israel Folau for Australia. If Folau gets the support he was so often denied two weeks ago then it is going to be a long afternoon for Goosen especially if in desperation South Africa resort to the panic button of meaningless kicking. South Africa simply have no one of Folau’s pedigree under the high ball.
It’s going to be a tough afternoon for both sides and both Coaches are going to be feeling the heat in no uncertain terms. In theory Australia should be the winners on home advantage and South Africa’s tendency to implode away from home. However, we can’t help feeling that Australia’s current disarray is greater than that which a troubled Springbok side find themselves in. As a result we are going to give this to South Africa by five points! It’s going to be close at times but we feel that the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Jaco Kriel off the bench may just swing it in favor of South Africa at the death against a disorganised Australian pack.