As we have for much of the Rugby Championship this year we find ourselves with an easy game to call and one that could go either way. South Africa travel to New Zealand to take on an All Black team that is likely to leave them in their dust, while Argentina travel to Australia to take on a Wallaby side that is possibly in the very early stages of a long-awaited resurgence. For South Africa most are viewing the forthcoming fixture with the All Blacks not in terms of a potential victory, but more as an exercise in damage limitation. Few if any are expecting a Springbok win and more are concerned with whether or not South Africa can even be competitive for what promises to be a gruelling encounter. The match up between Australia and Argentina should be a much more level playing field in terms of a contest. Argentina will want to make amends for letting the game against the All Blacks slip away from them after showing so much promise in the first fifty minutes. Australia will want to show that the victory against the Springboks was a sustainable return to winning ways for the Wallabies after a poor run of form since the World Cup. Of the two contests the one in Perth looks set to balance on a knife-edge while sadly the one in Christchurch should clearly favor only one side as New Zealand look set to have the Championship wrapped up this weekend.
New Zealand vs South Africa
Saturday, September 17th
As mentioned above, we share the common consensus that this is likely to be a long and painful afternoon for South Africa as New Zealand emerge comfortable winners and secure an unassailable position at the top of this year’s Rugby Championship. Despite being rattled by Argentina last weekend, New Zealand demonstrated their remarkable ability to regroup and adapt by half time and as we all know the rest was history at the expense of a skilled and spirited Pumas side. What is perhaps concerning for Springbok supporters is that so far South Africa has yet to demonstrate the kind of skills or game plan that is likely to cause the All Blacks much to be concerned about. South Africa has some exceptionally talented players in the squad who will run out onto the pitch in Christchurch but without a clear game plan or sense of focus in what they are trying to achieve it is sadly all rather academic. The fault for that lies clearly with the Coaching and Management of South African rugby at the moment and it is unlikely that this can be fixed in the space of a mere week. New Zealand on the other hand boast a phenomenal skill set and the ability to execute not just one game plan but several. As we saw last weekend the All Blacks may not be invincible but their ability to adapt their game plan to their opponents strengths and weaknesses as a match unfolds is without parallel in International Test Rugby at present.
Up front South Africa should be competitive, though once again we scratch our heads at the back row partnership of Francois Louw and Teboho Mohoje who have done little to impress us this tournament, while exceptional players like Jaco Kriel continue to warm the bench. The scrum however should still be competitive and Hooker Adrian Strauss and veteran prop Tendai Mtawarira have both acquitted themselves well so far this tournament. We were very pleased to see Vincent Koch get a start in the front row as he is a quality player. For New Zealand it’s business as usual in the front row with Dane Coles, Owen Franks and Joe Moody. Simply because we’re such fans of the exceptional Dane Coles we just give New Zealand the edge here but it will be close. The second row partnership of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter Steph du Toit should provide South Africa with plenty of fireworks. They may not have the experience of their All Black counterparts Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock but they provide plenty of firepower and competitiveness especially at lineout time. Furthermore with Etzebeth and du Toit being teammates at the Stormers this familiarity should lend a degree of cohesion to the Springboks forward play that has been lacking in the first three rounds of the Championship. Having said that though we can’t help feeling that New Zealand’s experience and all round ability in the second row should still give them the edge here. As mentioned above it’s in the back row where things will fall apart for South Africa up front. Louw and Mohoje are not the right fit and have offered very little in either attack or defence for South Africa. Jaco Kriel should be getting a start and making an impact from the get go, as opposed to having to come on when too much damage has already been done. New Zealand’s back row partnership of the electric Ardie Savea and Jerome Kaino, who has been outstanding in the Championship are streets ahead of the South African offering here. Expect a whitewash especially when you have such a gifted and unpredictable player as Savea thrown into the mix. It’s at number eight where once more order is restored, as South Africa’s Warren Whiteley has been superb. However, despite his ability to constantly put his body on the line and lead his team by example, he is up against one of the most composed number eights in the world in the shape of New Zealand Captain Kieran Read. Both are quality players but it’s Read’s experience that should ultimately see New Zealand attain dominance in a feisty forward battle.
In the half backs South Africa once more offers some genuine talent, but sadly it just doesn’t have the seasoned skill and experience that New Zealand’s pair bring to the table. Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk is an exceptional player but seems to be struggling to figure out what South Africa’s game plan is and as a result his considerable skill set seems wasted at times. Fly half Elton Jantjies benefits from being de Klerk’s teammate at the Lions where the pair lit up this year’s Super Rugby. Jantjies has shown some real flair in the tournament and alongside de Klerk could potentially light up any pitch, but seems to also be suffering from a lack of clarity as to what type of game he should be managing for South Africa. No such problems exist for New Zealand’s fly half Beauden Barrett and scrum half Aaron Smith. Although Smith didn’t have his best game against Argentina he is still one of the best in the world while Barrett is rapidly emerging as the player of the tournament. Some have lamented Barrett’s goal kicking at times, however, for us it is not a question of his skills in this department it is simply a matter of consistency. It is Barrett’s exceptional vision and speed with ball in hand that sets him apart from most fly halves. His ability to think quickly and create opportunities from nothing has provided New Zealand with some remarkable tries this Championship and we expect to see more of the same on Saturday. With TJ Perenara waiting on the bench for Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden for Barrett, as we saw last weekend against the Pumas, New Zealand really does have the most extraordinary depth here which we fear will cost South Africa dearly on Saturday.
Once you get to the backs it suddenly becomes all about New Zealand. Julian Savea on the wing has returned to some exceptional form and is once more carving giant holes in opposition defences while being almost impossible to bring down. Israel Dagg on the opposite wing is the perfect complement. All Black centres Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty are becoming an exceptionally powerful partnership with the latter playing out of his skin last weekend against the Pumas. When you have the best fullback in the world on your side in the shape of New Zealand’s Ben Smith then you complete a back line that would appear invincible. Ben Smith’s remarkable skills and cool head were a key part of New Zealand turning the game around last weekend against the Pumas. Sadly for the Springboks there is just not the same kind of quality available to counter such an impressive All Black unit. We were impressed by fullback Johan Goosen last weekend against Australia but as the game wore on he tended to kick away far too much possession and if he does that this weekend we shudder at the potential consequences. Winger Bryan Habana’s quality needs no introduction but without support or quality ball he is desperately ineffectual. The jury is out for us on Francois Hougaard on the opposite wing, as we didn’t see much from him last weekend that made us sit up and take notice. Sadly the same can be said about the centre partnership of Juan de Jongh and Jesse Kriel even though Kriel has impressed in the past.
We fear that this is going to be a painful schooling for South Africa on Saturday. Fixtures between these two sides have a proud and noble legacy but the dust-up tomorrow in Christchurch is unlikely to reflect that. We hope that for South Africa’s sake they are able to put up a brave fight but the result is not in doubt – New Zealand by 25!
Australia vs Argentina
Saturday, September 17th
When New Zealand is not involved in a fixture in this year’s Rugby Championship the result is much harder to predict and that is very much the case with this match. Argentina were truly outstanding at times last weekend against the All Blacks and it is hoped they can bring that kind of game to the table in Perth on Saturday. There have been enough video analyses on the web that have spread like wildfire since last Saturday, that showcase the Argentinians exceptional offloading abilities. The Wallabies will have done their homework this week and are less likely to be surprised by the Pumas abilities than New Zealand were initially last weekend. The Wallabies go into this match having got to grips with a lot of the basics that were woefully lacking in the opening rounds of the Championship. While it wasn’t pretty it was still a much more cohesive and structured performance from the Wallabies against South Africa than we saw earlier this year against New Zealand and the humiliating series whitewash by England. However, Argentina has a much better attacking game than the Wallabies and it is this area where Australia are going to have to up the ante on Saturday if they really want to silence their critics and prove that the horrors of 2016 are behind them.
Argentina’s forward pack needs no introduction and will provide Australia with the sternest of tests. Despite the vastly improved scrummaging on display from Australia against the Springboks, they will need to find another gear to match Argentina’s traditional strengths in this area. The Pumas front row of props Ramiro Herrera and Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro coupled to inspirational Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy is an exceptionally daunting prospect. With the erratic form of their Wallaby counterparts, particularly Captain and Hooker Stephen Moore, we expect to see Argentina have the edge here. In the second rows, it should be a more even contest with Argentina’s two key playmakers in this department Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti being absent with injury. We liked what we saw from new Wallaby second rower Adam Coleman last weekend and despite his occasional lapses in discipline we are giving the edge to Australia here over Argentina, especially if Stephen Moore maintains the accuracy at lineout time which he showed last weekend. In the back row though, the pendulum swings back to Argentina by the narrowest of margins. Pumas number eight Facundo Isa has been one of the finds of the tournament and he will be more than a match for Australia’s David Pocock despite the Australian’s greater experience. In the flankers it should be a battle royale as Manuel Leguizamon and Pablo Matera are devastating in the loose. So too is Australia’s Michael Hooper and Dean Mumm lends a steady hand when needed. However, we can’t help feeling that based on what we saw last weekend the Argentine back row trio are likely to cause more damage than their Australian counterparts especially when they have a player with the quality of Leonardo Senatore waiting on the bench.
In the half backs we hand the battle once more to Argentina by a narrow margin. Mercurial Australian fly half Quade Cooper has the potential to surprise but so far has done nothing that has made him really stand out for us and is famous for his tendency to go to pieces when it comes to decision-making under pressure. His opposite number Nicolas Sanchez has been outstanding by comparison this tournament and should run rings around his Wallaby counterpart. In the scrum halves the contest becomes much more competitive. We have to admit we like what we have seen from Australia’s Will Genia so far this Championship and he is often the catalyst of the Wallabies’ faltering attacking game at times. His opposite number Tomas Cubelli starts for the Pumas this Saturday, based on his time with the Brumbies and knowledge of Australian rugby. A gifted player in his own right he has impressed from the bench all Championship, and will be ably replaced by Martin Landajo at some point in the match. Australia’s Nick Phipps may impress from the bench given the chance but he tends to be slightly too erratic and unfocused for our liking at times, therefore we hand this contest to Argentina.
It’s in the backs where it should be a real contest and hopefully provide plenty of excitement in terms of an open and free-flowing game. Despite their quality we’re actually giving Australia the nod here over Argentina. Argentina’s backs have been electric so far in this tournament with winger Santiago Cordero and fullback Joaquín Tuculet deserving special mention. However, we are reserving judgement on centres Matias Moroni and Santiago González Iglesias. Moroni is a big powerful player who is exceptionally difficult to stop and has a remarkable turn of speed, but as a player who creates opportunities we feel that he offers considerably less than Australia’s Bernard Foley. Foley has made some serious errors not helped by the fact that he is having to learn in the deep end his new position of centre. However, when the chips have been down for Australia he is usually the player to pull a rabbit out of the hat for the Wallabies. This ability under pressure and his constant willingness to put his body on the line for his team has earned him the greatest respect as far as we’re concerned. His counterpart Samu Kerevi had a good game against South Africa despite some basic errors and with continued exposure to Test level rugby will continue to develop the attacking threat that Australia has so often lacked of late.
On the wings Australian newcomer Reece Hodge has really impressed us and to a lesser degree Dane Haylett-Petty. Whether or not the pair of them are enough to counter the extraordinary threat posed by Argentina’s Santiago Cordero remains to be seen, but if they are we feel they will have the edge over Cordero’s fellow winger Lucas González Amorosino. In the fullbacks Argentina and Australia are evenly matched. Argentina’s Joaquín Tuculet may not quite be the master of the high ball that the Wallabies’ Israel Folau is, but he has often been much more effective with ball in hand on the attack than Folau. For us, this is more an issue of Folau getting little or no support once he does set off, but Saturday’s contest will give us a much greater insight into this aspect of the Australian game. If Australia have got in place the attacking game they need by Saturday, then we are just giving them the edge in the backs over Argentina. Argentina has plenty of destructive talent here, we just feel that the Australian unit are likely to look slightly more structured provided they get the opportunities and support they have so far been denied.
In short this is going to be an exceptionally close encounter and for us without a doubt THE fixture of the weekend. If Australia cannot muster an effective attacking plan then Argentina should have a much easier day of it. However, if the Wallabies do we still just give the match to Argentina by three points as the Pumas forward pack should be slightly more effective in stifling any creativity that Australia may come up with while providing plenty of opportunities of their own.