It’s Rugby Championship time again and in this second iteration of the tournament since the 2015 World Cup, it is likely to be a much closer competition than what we saw last year. South Africa failed to show up in 2016, and Argentina struggled to translate their World Cup form and first year in Super Rugby into anything tangible on the field. Meanwhile New Zealand simply breezed through the opposition while the downward slide of Australia was there for all to see. This year a much different prospect seems in the mix despite their being a myriad of questions surrounding all four participating countries.
New Zealand are still the benchmark team in the tournament and clear favourites to lift the trophy when the tournament draws to a close in early October. However, they are less likely to have things all their own way this year. Despite the numerous controversies surrounding the recent Lions tour to New Zealand, particularly in terms of refereeing decisions, it showed that the seeming invincibility of the All Black machine is no longer a given. In the last two Tests of the series New Zealand were under enormous pressure and clearly looked vulnerable at times, something we simply haven’t been used to seeing from them for a very long time.
Although we doubt very much that Australia or Argentina will derail the All Black juggernaut, South Africa in the final match of the tournament at home in Cape Town could be the side to upset New Zealand’s apple cart, especially if they have had a good tournament leading up to this penultimate fixture. South Africa have emerged from a disastrous 2016 which saw them reach an all time low, looking meaner, fitter and faster on and off the ball. The Lions heroics in this year’s Super Rugby need little or no introduction, and many of those players are featuring in the Springbok lineup. However, there still remain question marks around the coaching setup despite South Africa’s successes against France in June as well as continued speculation as to how much of the team selection is affected by political interference. Nevertheless, especially at home South Africa are going to be a very tough nut to crack this year and are clearly rebuilding with some success.
Argentina once more on paper promise plenty, but there is a legitimate concern that they will yet again fail to deliver on that promise. A concern that has been given extra weight by the fact that once more their Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares had yet another disappointing season. Furthermore, add to this that their star player of 2016, back rower Facundo Isa, will no longer be eligible for Pumas colors as he has gone to ply his trade in France. Nevertheless, give Argentina space and they can be lethal allied to a gritty and very physical forward pack. Although they may not have the scrum dominance they have had in past years, they still possess an exceptionally dangerous second row and back row especially in the loose. Underestimate the South Americans at your peril regardless of their Super Rugby form.
Australia meanwhile languor in the depths of a rugby crisis that is crippling the sport at a national level. The truly dismal performance of Australian teams in this year’s Super Rugby, coupled to a dreadful June series of which the loss to Scotland in Sydney represented the ultimate low point, has left Australian supporters with very little if anything to cheer about. Quite simply Australian rugby is not in a good place right now which will make it hard for the Wallabies to focus on the job at hand in this Rugby Championship. We doubt it is permanent, but the rot that has set in since the England tour to Australia last year has clearly reached its peak with more questions than answers as to how Australia is to emerge and solidify its building process for the next World Cup. Australia has a proud rugby tradition and can produce players of exceptional skill and ability, however, for the moment the ship is rudderless and in very stormy seas making it hard for us to see Australia being a real competitive force in this year’s Rugby Championship.
And so to the business at hand our musings on the head to head clashes about to take place this weekend.
Australia vs New Zealand
Saturday, August 19th
Australia at home, despite the dark clouds hanging over Australian rugby, is always a daunting prospect and Saturday should be no different. However, to take on an All Black side smarting from an inconclusive Lions series and looking to get themselves back to their dominant best, is a task few teams would want to take on, especially a team in the depths of a confidence crisis. Looking at New Zealand’s team sheet for Saturday’s dustup, the Wallabies must surely be feeling more than just a little anxious. If the Wallabies find their long-lost groove on Saturday under such daunting circumstances then Coach Michael Cheika and his charges will have pulled off a transformation of almost mythical proportions. We hope he can but can’t help feeling that at the moment given the circumstances the odds are stacked against him.
Up front Australia is clearly going to battle. As Hooker Stephen Moore prepares to take his bow for the Wallabies, the Australian scrum just looks weak coupled to Moore’s erratic form at lineout time. The All Blacks by comparison even without the exceptional abilities of Hooker and “backup winger” Dane Coles, look the business. Props Joe Moody and Owen Franks looked solid against the Lions and boast a wealth of experience. Meanwhile Hooker Codie Taylor is rapidly learning how to fill the enormous shoes of Dane Coles. He was excellent in the Lions series and also is proving a very reliable figure when it comes to the lineout. Consequently, New Zealand should comfortably dominate the front row battle on Saturday. In the second rows there is simply no contest. The All Black duo of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are the most devastatingly effective second row partnership in Test rugby right now, and we just can’t see Australia’s Adam Coleman and Rory Arnold being able to upset that hierarchy. However, expect some fireworks from Australia’s Coleman, as in our opinion he was one of the few real standout Australian players of 2016, and despite a weak June series, we fully expect him to play to the level that tips him to be one of Australia’s rising stars of the future. In the back row the contest evens out slightly. Many have questioned the omission of All Black flanker Jerome Kaino, with Liam Squire taking his place. In our opinion it’s the right call by Coach Steve Hansen. Kaino is no longer the player he used to be, and New Zealand need to start to build to the World Cup now, and Squire is the perfect player to do so. Line him up alongside Sam Cane who now boasts some solid Test experience and this will be a hard unit for Australia’s duo of newcomer Ned Hanigan and the irrepressible veteran Michael Hooper to get the better of. However, Australia will be competitive here make no mistake, allied to the figure of Sean McMahon at number eight who is always problematic for opposition defences. New Zealand Captain and number eight Kieran Reid should nevertheless ensure that the skill set and experience available to New Zealand see them achieve overall forward dominance in Sydney.
In the halfbacks, with Beauden Barrett’s form in a league of its own for New Zealand, alongside Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara at scrum half, it is going to be really hard for Australia to get any kind of an edge here. The only real chink in the All Blacks armor in this department is Barrett’s goal kicking as seen in the recent Lions tour. He’s not a bad goal kicker – he’s just not consistent. However, with Damian McKenzie thrown into the mix backing up the kicking duties at fullback for New Zealand then this should be less of a concern. Australia’s pair of Bernard Foley at flyhalf and Will Genia in the scrum half position are no slackers and are a really solid unit on their own, despite some saying that Genia has passed his sell by date. Bernard Foley for us is one of Test rugby’s most underrated players, and we steadfastly remain big fans of the Wallaby number 10. Foley’s biggest problem is that, despite a phenomenal work rate and a keen eye for space and opportunity coupled with a willingness to throw himself into the fray with no fear whatsoever, the rest of his team often expects him to singlehandedly perform miracles but are not there in support after some stellar work from the talented fly half. Despite the talent of the Wallaby pair it will be hard for them to get the better of New Zealand’s offering here, especially if Barrett starts popping up all over the field.
In the backs, we have to confess to being slightly puzzled by the selections here, while at the same time feeling some empathy for Coach Michael Cheika not having the outstanding winger Dane Haylett-Petty available due to injury. We suppose that Cheika is looking for impact off the bench, hence centre Tevita Kuridrani and the outstanding utility back Reece Hodge sitting out the starting fifteen as substitutes. However, if as we suspect Australia are chasing the game at this point as talented as these two are they are unlikely to swing the balance. It’s such a crucial opening game we are surprised that Kuridrani and Hodge are not starting as they are more likely to help stem the All Black tide in defence as well as make a statement of their own on attack. The centre pairing of Kurtley Beale and Samu Kerevi have the potential to bring plenty of surprise and power to Australia’s attacking efforts, and Kerevi in particular has really impressed us even in these dark times for the Wallabies. New Zealand bring some changes as well but they are still working with some tried and tested commodities, so much so that Australia are going to struggle to keep these five men in black in check added to some phenomenal replacements. Damian McKenzie is perhaps the first eye opener for New Zealand at fullback. However, he needs no introduction and is a truly remarkable player despite his diminutive size. Despite his supposed physical disadvantage he appears utterly fearless in the contact areas and packs a boot that ensures that the ball will be getting some healthy and reliable mileage around the park and between the posts on Saturday. In short he may not have much Test experience to his name, but this is a player who deserves the exposure and in our opinion is without doubt one of the All Blacks biggest smoking guns. Rieko Ioane on the wing also lacks in experience but proved lethal in the opening exchanges of the Lions tour, though was contained as the series wore on. Ryan Crotty at centre and Ben Smith on the wing are two of the game’s finest and possess a rugby intelligence that the Wallabies will find hard to counter. With Smith taking a much-needed break after the opening two Bledisloe matches it remains to be seen what New Zealand will do for the rest of the tournament without his services. The only real weak link for us in New Zealand’s backs is Sonny Bill Williams. Sure he has plenty of potential but we still feel he is rather one-dimensional, often poorly disciplined and despite his strength not exactly hard for opposition defences to figure out. In short, and much to the ire of many New Zealand supporters we are sure – a rather overrated player in our estimation. Against weaker opposition he is less of a liability but up against tougher opponents for us the jury is still out. Australia will struggle to match New Zealand’s pace and brains in the backs, despite the obvious talents of players like fullback Israel Folau and the above mentioned Kerevi. We simply don’t know enough about winger Curtis Rona to offer any comment and his partner Henry Speight tends to blow hot and cold too much for our liking. Consequently we expect to see New Zealand comfortably running the back lines on Saturday.
Apart from Tevita Kuridrani and Reece Hodge the Wallaby bench looks rather tepid compared to New Zealand’s offering. With the All Blacks having the likes of wrecking ball Ardie Savea at their disposal, the annoying but highly effective TJ Perenara, the speed of Anton Liennert-Brown and the reliability of Lima Sopoaga to call on New Zealand should ultimately be able to run away with this match in the last twenty minutes. Australia have to and will put up a brave showing in front of a home crowd, but the sideshows going on in Australian rugby tied to a team seriously lacking in confidence and results, means that barring one of the greatest comebacks in recent times, this match has a comfortable All Black win by 18 points written all over it! For the sake of a proud rugby nation in crisis we hope we’re proven wrong.
South Africa vs Argentina
Saturday, August 19th
South Africa looked fantastic against France in June. There was a pride, passion and energy in the jersey that we simply didn’t see last year. Couple that to some superb execution and exquisite open running rugby, allied to the Springboks traditional physical strengths and South Africa seemed to be back with a vengeance. Many, ourselves included wanted to believe that this was South Africa emerging from the wreckage of 2016, however the inevitable questions were still being raised about the quality of the French opposition. French touring teams are usually exhausted after the end of international rugby’s longest domestic club season, and therefore apart from one-off upsets such as the famous victory against the All Blacks at Eden Park in 1994, rarely put in a series that gives the opposition too many sleepless nights. Consequently, the Rugby Championship will be the first real litmus test of whether or not the Springboks are once more on the rise. However, all that aside from what we saw in June we liked what was on show and if they can maintain that momentum they are going to be a very difficult side to beat especially at home. As a result we are really looking forward to this opening contest between Argentina and South Africa in which two talented sides have to lay down some important markers for the future, with South Africa perhaps carrying the higher burden of expectation.
Apart from the exceptional Malcolm Marx for the Springboks, and despite the fact that the Pumas front row is not the wonder weapon it has been in the past, we still expect to see Argentina win the battle of the front rows in Port Elizabeth. Pumas Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy continues to be such an enormous talisman for his team, and packing down alongside Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro and Enrique Pieretto, we feel that this is a slightly more effective and edgier unit than the Springbok offering. Malcolm Marx at Hooker for the Springboks has been truly outstanding this season and we can’t wait to see him in action but we feel his supporting props, Connie Oosthuizen and Tendai Mtawarira, are not as effective as their Argentine counterparts with Mtawarira starting to lack some of his consistency and potency of years gone by. In the second rows, a battle royale is imminent as two of the most aggressive second rowers in the modern game have at each other in the shape of South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini. Meanwhile for us one of 2017’s best players, South Africa’s Franco Mostert is likely to have a huge impact in Port Elizabeth. Having said that though we are also big fans of Argentina’s Guido Petti. Etzebeth and Lavanini in particular will have to watch their tempers as they are renowned for lapses in discipline, but with the Captaincy being given to Etzebeth, the South African is likely to be much better at keeping himself in the referees good books than the Argentinian. Nevertheless the battle between these four very talented players will be one of the most fascinating and entertaining aspects of the contest on Saturday. Expect Argentina to give as good as they get here, but Mostert’s phenomenal work rate this year should see South Africa rule the day here. In the back rows despite the absence of regular Captain and number eight Warren Whiteley, South Africa should be the dominant force. Flanker Siya Kolisi was nothing short of extraordinary in the series against France and often singlehandedly epitomised the rebirth of Springbok rugby after the nightmares of 2016. His partner Jaco Kriel is a player who needs no introduction and brings enormous power and motivation to the Springbok game. The Pumas flanker Pablo Matera and number eight Leonardo Senatore are extremely dangerous in their own right but in our estimation not quite the match of the two South Africans just mentioned. Tomas Lezana is still a relatively unknown commodity to us as is Springbok number eight Uzair Cassiem, and personally we would much rather have seen Jean-Luc du Preez start at number eight after some stellar performances against France. Overall despite a strong showing from the Pumas we think South Africa have the more destructive and effective forward pack.
In the halfbacks we once more hand the battle to South Africa especially on home soil. Fly half Elton Jantjies was outstanding against France and for the Lions in their Super Rugby campaign. His opposite number Argentina’s Nicholas Sanchez is a proven talent but suffers from a lack of consistency at times as well as a penchant for amateur dramatics which sadly detracts from his otherwise considerable abilities. We really liked the look of Springbok scrum half Russell Cronje this year and his familiarity with Lions team-mate Jantjies should give South Africa the edge here. The same could be argued of Martin Landajo of the Pumas, who also plays alongside Sanchez in the Jaguares at Super Rugby level. However, the Argentinian pair can be brilliant one day and utterly error strewn the next – whereas the South African duo while perhaps not as dazzling with ball in hand appear the more reliable of the two.
In the backs however, if Argentina are allowed to cut loose we actually rate the Pumas more highly than the Springbok offering. If the likes of fullback Joaquin Tuculet, wingers Ramiro Moyano and Emiliano Boffelli and centres Matias Orlando and Jeronimo de la Fuente are allowed any kind of space then it will be a long afternoon in desperate defence for South Africa. We really liked the look of fullback Andries Coetzee for the Lions this year in Super Rugby and against France in June, and the same can be said of Jan Serfontein at centre. However, although Jesse Kriel at centre can be brilliant on his day he’s had too many matches where he has been a bit too quiet for our liking. Although wingers Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule pack plenty of pace we feel that both can be an enormous liability in defence and with the likes of Boffelli and Moyano attempting to catch them off guard all afternoon we fear that this could be a serious weak link in South Africa’s armor. Thus despite the star quality of the likes of Coetzee and Serfontein we can’t help feeling the Pumas quintet are the more established and thus dangerous unit, and one which could swing the balance Argentina’s way if South Africa, as they traditionally do, get their Rugby Championship off to a shaky start.
If South Africa do end up having a bad day at the office, they may struggle to make amends with their bench, and if this is the case we actually prefer Argentina’s chances here. The standouts for us on the Springbok bench are lock Pieter-Steph du Toit and prop Stephen Kitshoff with the latter having had a stellar series against France. As mentioned above we were surprised to see flanker Jean-Luc du Preez on the bench, as he was outstanding against France and expect him to have plenty to say earlier rather than later in this match, especially if South Africa falter in the beginning. However, the rest of the bench doesn’t really make us sit up and take notice in South Africa’s case though we are excited to see newcomer Curwin Bosch get a chance at glory when he comes on for Elton Jantjies. We cannot for the life of us understand the inclusion of centre Damian de Allende as he has consistently been one of South Africa’s most overrated players for a long time now. The Pumas bench by comparison is packing some very big names in shape of Hooker Julian Montoya, Prop Ramiro Herrera, Flanker Javier Ortega Desio, scrum half Tomas Cubelli and centres Juan Martin Hernandez and Matias Moroni. If South Africa get off to their traditionally poor start to the tournament, this group of Argentinians could cause the first upset of this year’s competition in the final quarter.
All that being said though we expect to see the Springboks to play a more effective and composed physical game up front and wear down the Pumas, while closing down any gaps that would allow the kind of open play that Argentina is so good at exploiting. Jantjies will punish any kind of disciplinary lapses by the Pumas, and given that this is one of Argentina’s biggest weaknesses the points board should be ticking over on a regular basis in South Africa’s favor. South Africa are likely to be the more clinical of the two, while Argentina’s adventurism is unlikely to be backed up by the execution needed at this level under pressure. There will be some breathtaking moments from both sides, but South Africa are more likely to stay the course and get the job done, and as a result walk away the winners by 8 points! However, if they fail to establish a stranglehold on the game from the outset and the scores are close on the hour, the last quarter could be an exceptionally tense time as Argentina’s bench seeks to give us the first major talking point of the tournament.
Women’s Rugby World Cup
With the semi-finals now decided we felt that we needed to pass comment on what we feel is a great tournament marred by some structuring decisions that simply aren’t fair in the way the event is set up. Yes we were sad to see the Canadian team, runners-up in the previous tournament get knocked out by New Zealand today. We do not for a moment bemoan the fact that New Zealand were the better side by a country mile and are going to be very hard to beat and thus likely front-runners to lift the trophy. Furthermore, the four teams in the semi finals, England, France, New Zealand and the USA all deserve to be there. However, England and the USA benefitted from being in a relatively ‘soft pool’, and thus having the chance of both getting through to the semis. For the other eight teams in much harder pools they had to win all three of their matches to stand any kind of chance of getting through to the semis. This must surely make the hosts Ireland feel more than a little hard done by as well as Canada – both these teams finishing a strong second in their pools. Add to this the fact that all pool matches, which we thought lacked nothing in intensity and physicality, had to be played in the space of 8 days, hardly giving the players a chance to recuperate.
The previous tournament was a glorious advertisement for the women’s game, but this tournament despite starting off well, has felt rushed with player welfare being a secondary concern as well as only really allowing four out of the twelve teams a genuine shot at glory by reaching the finals. Consequently it is unlikely to now capture the imagination as much as the 2014 tournament did. There has been some very worthy rugby on display by all the women involved in this tournament in the past week, but the format of this year’s tournament has detracted from the effort and hard work put in by all the teams involved and as a result left many of us feeling distinctly dissatisfied with the outcome. If the spectators feel that we can only imagine how the players who have trained and worked so hard up to this point over the last three years must feel. In short World Rugby can and must do better for the next Women’s World Cup in order to give women’s rugby the respect it has earned and deserves!
We’re including the 1014’s excellent preview of this year’s Rugby Championship on YouTube. As stated after the Lions Tour, we are HUGE fans of the work these two fine gentlemen, Steven and Gareth, are doing. So give them a big thumbs up and subscribe in order to keep this excellent content coming. Well done guys and looking forward to more!