We all know who will be lifting the trophy on October 8th, what we don’t know is how the rest of the table will look when all is said and done. New Zealand have clearly been in a class of their own this year and the only question mark is whether or not they can complete the perfect season as they head out on the road for the rest of the year, barring a brief return to New Zealand at the end of October for the penultimate Bledisloe Cup match against Australia. For the rest of the Rugby Championship competitors the battle for second place is heating up with Australia leading the charge. Australia had a woeful start to 2016 but their last two matches have seen a gradual resurgence of the team as the rebuilding process since last year’s World Cup finally seems to be bringing rewards. However, the big question mark remains as to whether or not they can now repeat their successes on the road as they will play no more matches on home soil for the rest of the year. South Africa meanwhile seem to be catching the elevator to the basement as Australia pass them on the way up. Woeful Springbok performances away from home in their last three matches have left many in South Africa calling for heads to roll. As a result the pressure will all be on South Africa in Pretoria on Saturday. Lastly, Argentina while showing enormous promise this tournament at times have rarely looked like they can close out big games. With their last encounter on home soil before they too head out on the road for the autumn internationals, it is hoped that they can replicate their outstanding performance against the All Blacks in New Zealand and this time keep the scoreline that much closer.
South Africa vs Australia
Saturday, October 1st
Australia clearly look the more settled side going into this match. Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika seems to have an idea of the kind of team he wants and how he wants them to play. The same cannot be said of Springbok Coach Alastair Coetzee as he cobbles together a Springbok squad that has left many, ourselves included, scratching their heads. The Springbok team that will run onto the pitch at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday looks makeshift to say the least with a number of untried combinations and players who have not got much to offer in the form books. In reality it is only in the tight five where Coetzee seems to be sticking with a semblance of order established during the course of the tournament. The rest of the lineup if anything smacks of desperation. South Africa are always a challenge when their backs are against the wall especially at home, but it would seem that this time around the wall they are being pushed up against is rather flimsy.
As already mentioned the one positive is that South Africa seem to be sticking with a forward platform that has served them relatively well this tournament. The front row of Hooker and Captain Adriaan Strauss and prop Tendai Mtawarira have been reliable at least, and Vincent Koch for us is one of South Africa’s most exciting new forward talents. Koch can be a real catalyst for getting quality ball in the tight forward exchanges and on home soil we are looking to see a big performance from the number 3. For us the Australian front three of Stephen Moore, Sekope Kepu and Scott Sio is still the weak link in the chain, and we feel that the South African offering will have better structure and discipline giving the Springboks the edge here in this match. In the second row, we also feel that the South African duo of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit bring more of an edge to South Africa’s lineout play and scrum stability than their Wallaby counterparts in the shape of Rob Simmons and Adam Coleman. However, we must say that we have been really impressed with Australia’s Adam Coleman in the Wallabies last two outings and he is a clear talent for the future. Expect to see plenty of sparks between him and South Africa’s Du Toit at lineout time. In the back row the battle swings dramatically back to Australia. Australia’s Michael Hooper and Dean Mumm are more than a match for the lacklustre Francois Louw and Teboho Mohoje, with the South African pair having failed to impress all tournament. Lastly shoring up the back row at number eight, there should be one of the more memorable contests of the match between South Africa’s exceptional Warren Whiteley and Australia’s impressive Sean McMahon. We have been impressed with both players and McMahon is a growing force to be reckoned with for Australia and will take some stopping on Saturday. However, we still give the nod here to South Africa’s Warren Whiteley. For us Warren Whiteley embodies all the best qualities of the new generation of Springboks and consistently provides inspiration to the rest of his teammates. On home soil we once more expect to see him at his best.
It is the half back pairing we really expect to see Australia outclass South Africa on Saturday. Wallaby scrum half Will Genia has been one of the best players of the tournament and has consistently provided the attacking spark that Australia have struggled with in the first half of the year. He is more than a match for South Africa’s inexperienced Rudy Paige and we expect to see South Africa pay dearly here on Saturday. South Africa’s Morne Steyn has a wealth of experience to counter the mercurial form of his Australian counterpart fly half Quade Cooper. As much as we are not fans of Cooper we have to grudgingly admit that he hasn’t played that badly in the Wallabies last two outings. However his ability to undo all his good work in the blink of an eye is still there for all to see as evidenced in the match against Argentina and his no arms tackle without the ball on his opposite number Nicolas Sanchez. However, on the basis of experience and Will Genia’s outstanding form at the moment we are handing this battle hands down to Australia.
In the backs, Australia once more will have the clear edge and a much more settled line up than South Africa. We have seen little from South Africa’s centre partnership of Jesse Kriel and Juan de Jongh to get excited about, whereas the Australian duo of Samu Kerevi and Bernard Foley have attacking flair by the bucketload, and Foley like Genia has been the bedrock of Australia’s attacking platform this tournament. On the wings we simply prefer the youth and energy of Australia’s Dane Haylett-Petty and Recce Hodges over the South Africa offering of Francois Hougaard and Bryan Habana despite the latter’s pedigree and experience. Hodges and Haylett-Petty if given the right opportunities have some exceptional pace and Hodges has proved outstanding in defence as well as having a very handy boot. Lastly at fullback, Patrick Lambie makes a welcome return to the Springbok jersey but not in his customary position of fly half. A quality player through and through, Lambie should bring some steady nerves to an often fraught encounter for the Springboks. However, his lack of game time this year will be a major concern. No such problem for his Australian counterpart Israel Folau. Still one of the best players under the high ball, if South Africa resort to a meaningless kicking game which they tend to do so often when under pressure, then Folau will make them pay dearly for it. In short, in the battle of the backs we expect it to be all about Australia.
On the benches there is only one South African name to get excited about in the form of flanker Jaco Kriel, while Australia is able to boast the likes of Scott Fardy, Tevita Kuridrani and to a lesser extent Nick Phipps. Although some may welcome the return of Willie le Roux for South Africa on the bench, his form has been so erratic in the last three years that we simply can’t share in the excitement.
We fully expect to see a more spirited performance from the Springboks in front of a home crowd. However, if as we suspect this makeshift selection will struggle to click at times the crowd is likely to turn hostile very quickly adding another level of pressure that may erode the confidence that a beleaguered South African team are struggling to develop. Australia are still a work in progress but for us they are finally starting to find a rhythm whereas the Springboks are still consulting a dictionary for the meaning of the word. A spirited contest at times but one we ultimately expect to see Australia walk away with by 8 points!
Argentina vs New Zealand
Saturday, October 1st
While we don’t expect Argentina to derail the All Black express of 2016 in Buenos Aires on Saturday, we are certainly looking forward to watching them give it their very best shot. Although like many neutrals we have been left feeling frustrated by the Pumas in the this tournament as the final whistle blows, we’d be lying if we said we hadn’t enjoyed the ride. We are expecting more of the same on Saturday, with the added bonus that in front of a rapturous home crowd the Pumas will have that much more fire in their bellies. New Zealand will know they are in for a tough and bruising encounter and after the Pumas heroics in Hamilton last month will be that much better prepared. New Zealand are clearly relishing the challenge while at the same time using the calibre of a match against the Pumas to give some of their younger players another baptism of fire.
Up front we are very happy to see Hooker and inspirational Pumas Captain Agustin Creevy returned from injury. Although the Pumas Captain hasn’t quite got the remarkable range of skills of his All Black counterpart the incomparable Dane Coles this should still be an epic tussle. Ably supported by props Ramiro Herrera and Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, the Argentinian scrum will be a force to be reckoned with. However, we still give the battle to the accomplished All Black outfit of Owen Franks, Joe Moody and the ultimate X-factor Dane Coles. As readers of this blog know we are huge fans of Dane Coles and can’t wait to see what set of skills he will show off in this match as he seems to add something new every game. In the second rows a good contest will be on offer between Argentina’s Guido Petti who also makes a welcome return from injury and New Zealand’s Patrick Tuipulotu. We give the nod here to Argentina as despite the presence of the All Blacks exceptional Brodie Retallick, we feel that the more established partnership of Argentina’s Matias Alemanno and Petti will rule the day here in the first sixty minutes of the match but once New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock comes off the bench the balance will swing back in the All Blacks favour. In the back rows it will be another titanic struggle between Argentina’s Javier Ortega Desio who impressed against the Wallabies alongside the powerful Pablo Matera up against New Zealand debutant Liam Squire and the electric Ardie Savea. Although Argentina has some real talent in the back row, the sheer all round X-factor that Savea brings to the All Blacks game should see New Zealand win a tight contest here. At number eight, another epic battle awaits between seasoned All Black and Captain Keiran Read and Argentina’s Facundo Isa, who we expect to see emerge as one of the players of the tournament when it wraps up on October 8th. Experience and skill meets raw talent and brute strength in this battle but we hand New Zealand the edge here.
In the half back contest there is once again a solid challenge from Argentina in the shape of fly half Nicolas Sanchez and scrum half Martin Landajo, two of the most reliable and exciting players in the tournament. However, put them up against New Zealand’s TJ Perenara and the extraordinary Beauden Barrett and it is almost impossible to deny New Zealand a clear advantage here.
New Zealand’s backs are outstanding and we expect plenty of excitement from these five gentlemen on Saturday and as a unit their experience and sheer talent are likely to be just that much better than Argentina’s impressive offering here. In the centres, All Black newcomer Anton Lienert-Brown has been outstanding and gets another chance to showcase his talents as he starts alongside the proven wrecking ball of Ryan Crotty. Argentina’s Matías Moroni and Santiago González Iglesias are solid counterweights to the New Zealand pair but we still expect to see the All Black duo dictate proceedings here. On the wings Argentina have Santiago Cordero who has proven exceptionally hard to contain if given any kind of room to run in, and in front of his home crowd we are really looking forward to seeing the youngster really pull out all the stops. However, we must confess to regarding his teammate Ramiro Moyano on the other wing as something of an unknown commodity. As a result, we feel that it is likely to be all about New Zealand on the fringes in the shape of Israel Dagg and Julian Savea. These two have been in a league of their own all tournament and should ensure that the attacking game out wide belongs to New Zealand on Saturday. Lastly at fullback, as good as Argentina’s Joaquín Tuculet is, you can’t compare him with one of the most gifted players in world rugby at the moment, New Zealand’s Ben Smith. Tuculet will give as good as he gets, but it will be Smith who will be making the points for New Zealand on Saturday.
Both teams are packing impressive benches, and we are really looking forward to seeing Damian Mckenzie get his first All Black cap, as well as a return to the All Black fold of loose forward Elliot Dixon. Argentina for us though are packing a slightly more tried and trusted bench in the shape of veterans such as flanker Manuel Leguizamon, loose forward Leonardo Senatore and scrum half Tomas Cubelli. Furthermore we have always been impressed with Pumas replacement hooker Julian Montoya and in the backs Matias Orlando has had an impressive tournament. Consequently unlike the first match between these two teams in New Zealand, the All Blacks will need to start strongly and build up a signficant lead early on which to be honest we fully expect them to do. However, if they struggle to get out of the blocks like they did in the first match and allow Argentina into the game then it could be a very different story as we feel that Argentina has a slight advantage in the cohesion they have on their bench, as opposed to New Zealand’s which has a much more experimental feel to it. If the scores are close going into the final quarter and both sides start to use their benches, we would even go so far as to say that Argentina could be the team to break the All Blacks remarkable unbroken run. However, we still feel it to be unlikely even though it won’t be for the want of trying on the part of the Pumas.
New Zealand will be much better prepared than they were in Hamilton and are unlikely to allow Argentina the room to operate that they were given in that first Test. As a result New Zealand should build a strong enough lead early on, which will then leave the Pumas with too much to do. It should still be an outstanding Test match and for us the highlight of the weekend. New Zealand to win by 13 points in a match full of drama and excitement from two of the most thrilling teams in Test rugby at the moment!