There were thrills aplenty on hand as this year’s Rugby Championship got underway with New Zealand and South Africa having plenty to shout about. Australia meanwhile were left staring into the abyss not helped by the fact that most of their players would have trouble figuring out which letter of the alphabet the word defence starts with let alone spell it. Argentina showed promise but as usual their execution and discipline let them down too many times, as well as the absence of one of last year’s best players, Facundo Isa, was there for all to see.
New Zealand completely destroyed Australia in the first 50 minutes, running in a score of 54-6. However, despite the emphatic scoreline, they will surely be asking themselves some very uncomfortable questions about how they let such a woeful Australian side back into the match with four unanswered tries in the space of 15 minutes, even if the fourth try was marginal at best in terms of a refereeing decision. New Zealand were spectacular in the first 50 minutes by which time they had got the job done. Whether or not they then took their foot off the gas will remain a subject for debate long after this tournament closes. However, All Black Coach Steve Hansen was clearly displeased by their performance in the last quarter of the match as they looked distinctly sloppy at times. Australia were so bad in the first half and New Zealand so unfocused in the final twenty that it was hard to really judge where the All Blacks are at. There were certainly questions raised about New Zealand’s supposed invincibility during the Lions Tour, but the Wallabies in their current shape were not the side to test out whether or not such vulnerabilities had really been addressed. New Zealand will be happy with the win which was emphatic, but concerned about the concentration lapses in the second half. Brilliant in the first 50 minutes, but decidedly average and almost unsure of themselves in the final 30 is not something we’re used to writing about in terms of New Zealand. No doubt many of these questions are likely to be addressed and resolved once and for all this Saturday in Dunedin.
Australia have little if anything to get excited about from the proceedings in Sydney. That first half was one of the worst displays of defensive rugby we have ever had the misfortune of witnessing. Australia did come back in the second half but mainly because New Zealand appeared to rest on their laurels and take the rest of the night off. As many have said Australia’s moments of good fortune in the second half arose from All Black mistakes and individual efforts from Wallaby players, most notably Kurtley Beale, Tevita Kuridrani and Israel Folau. There wasn’t much of a team effort going on, and the sight of All Black flyhalf Beauden Barrett effortlessly ripping a bobbling ball out of the normally steadfast Michael Hooper’s arms was an image that summed up the dark place the Wallabies find themselves in at the moment.
South Africa proved that the form shown in the series against France in June, was continuing to build as they dismantled a strong but ineffective and error strewn Pumas side. The forward effort from South Africa in Port Elizabeth was immense, but despite its physical prowess it showed some real intelligence and ability to create and use space rather than just bash the opposition into submission as in the past. The current Springbok forward pack is exceptionally powerful, fast and highly mobile. On top of that South Africa made mincemeat for the most part out of the much vaunted Pumas scrum while dominating the lineouts and making Argentina’s dangerous second row seem almost nonexistent. The Springbok half back partnership was steadfast and reliable and controlled the game well, while their backs were electric, and the centre partnership of Jesse Kriel and Jan Serfontein made some excellent inroads into a stretched Pumas defence. In short, it was a quality Springbok performance from start to finish. Argentina came to the party make no mistake and the tries by Landajo and Boffelli were a joy to watch, and showed once more that if you allow the Pumas into any kind of space then magic is in the air. However, there is no getting away from the fact that Argentina made far too many errors, and fly half Nicholas Sanchez was clearly way off the boil both in terms of game management and goal kicking. There was plenty of passion from the Pumas but a few key players simply did not have the game their team needed them to have.
Australia face another painful schooling from the All Blacks at the House of Pain in Dunedin this Saturday, while South Africa make the trek to Argentina where they hope to shake off their seeming inability to perform well away from home – something a Pumas side with everything to prove will be keenly aware of.
New Zealand vs Australia
Saturday, August 26
Australia somehow desperately need to prove to the world that the current Wallabies side has the ability to make some inroads at the World Cup in two years time, however, Dunedin and an All Black team keen to answer some niggling questions about their current structure and form, are neither the place or team to do it against. Consequently and sadly for the Wallabies we fully expect Dunedin to live up to its nickname of the House of Pain.
On thing New Zealand are unlikely to lose much sleep over is the battle of the front rows, even without the services of Owen Franks who made such an impact last Saturday in Sydney. Dunedin sees the return of the exceptional Dane Coles at Hooker and the ever reliable Joe Moody continues to man the fort at loosehead prop. The only real question mark is Nepo Laulala at tighthead for the All Blacks. Nevertheless, the Wallaby front row looks so weak by comparison, and Laulala it should be pointed out does have four Test caps to his name already, that we can see little other than complete dominance by New Zealand here. The Australian scrum got pushed around in Sydney last week and with Hooker Stephen Moore’s lineout throwing erratic to say the least, then it is likely to be a long day at the coal face for Australia’s front three with New Zealand benefitting from their pain and suffering. Meanwhile in the second row, despite Wallaby lock Adam Coleman’s best efforts at being one of the few things to be excited about in this Wallaby lineup, New Zealand are likely to walk all over Australia in the shape of the incomparable duo of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. Retallick in particular was a source of constant misery for the Wallabies last Saturday. We simply don’t rate Rob Simmons for Australia who is clearly light years beyond his sell by date and feel that Coleman is going to have to do the work of two in Dunedin. Australia’s agony is set to continue in the back row as New Zealand’s Liam Squire, who had a blinder of a game last weekend at flanker, and his back row partner Sam Cane take on a completely lacklustre Michael Hooper and Ned Hanigan. As mentioned above the sight of All Black fly half Beauden Barrett ripping the ball at speed out of Hooper’s flailing arms last weekend sums up the Wallabies woes in this part of the field. We don’t think that Australian number eight Sean McMahon is a bad player it’s just that he is simply no match for New Zealand’s Kieran Read, who has a wealth of Test experience and the knowledge it brings behind him. In short the forward aspect of Saturday’s game will be all about the Men in Black.
In the halfbacks we didn’t get too excited about Australia’s performance in Sydney with scrum half Will Genia just not having his customary snap and spark of days gone by, and his replacement Nick Phipps just doesn’t cut it for us. Bernard Foley is a good player but he very rarely if at all, took control of the game in Sydney and despite a reliable boot for goalkicking duties did little to really spark the Wallabies into action. New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and Beauden Barret by comparison were everywhere on Saturday and certainly for the first 50 minutes completely controlled the pace and energy of the game. Smith’s decision-making at scrum half was superb whilst Barrett was a tactical genius as well as wrong footing Wallaby defences on his own all over the park. Both however did seem to take their foot off the gas slightly in the last quarter and TJ Perenara failed to really get New Zealand back into the proceedings after he replaced Smith. Nevertheless when on song as we saw in New Zealand’s first 50 points in Sydney last Saturday, the two New Zealanders are in a league of their own and something Genia and Foley are unlikely to be able to match up to especially away from home. So once again expect New Zealand to be conducting the orchestra in this aspect of the game in Dunedin.
In the backs, New Zealand’s offering was just sublime last Saturday. Winger Rieko Ioane proved he was no flash in the pan, running in two superb tries of his own. While he may not have the brute force of Julian Savea he clearly has a turn of pace and elusiveness that is going to cause him to be a nightmare for defences to read as New Zealand builds towards the World Cup. His opposite number, the veteran Ben Smith put in his traditional vintage performance with a fine try of his own and New Zealand will sorely miss his presence after this match as he takes a sabbatical. Fullback Damian McKenzie embraced his first Test start with vigor and was absolutely outstanding so expect plenty more in the fireworks department from this magician in Dunedin. Centre Ryan Crotty had a huge impact in the match and is clearly one of the best in the business right now. His partner Sonny Bill Williams made an impressive return to the jersey after his Lions red card mishap, however, we were still not convinced he is the way forward for New Zealand in the long-term at centre. Australia meanwhile had little to cheer about especially in defence. Centre Samu Kerevi had a shocker of a game, especially in defence and doesn’t even make the bench this week. There is some hope for Australia as they see the return of Dane Haylett-Petty on the wing, someone who can really provide some spark to Australia’s attack. Henry Speight looked good on the opposite wing but again was found wanting in defence at times. Coach Michael Cheika is rewarding centres Kurtley Beale and Tevita Kuridrani for their performances last weekend, as they both start, and as individual playmakers they did manage to put some lustre back into Australia’s performance last week. Israel Folau also made an important contribution on his own last weekend and expect more of the same. However, as a group unless these five really gel it is unlikely that despite their individual talents they will be able to change the fundamental problems inherent in Australia’s performance as a team last weekend. In short, New Zealand boast all the class and vision and know how to use it in their offering from 11-15. Australia may have some brilliant individuals but not much of a platform to enable them to perform effectively. New Zealand are likely to be much more focused for the full eighty minutes than in Sydney and dominate the running game at Australia’s expense.
New Zealand’s bench once more looks the stronger of the two and more likely to make an impact, especially with names like Ardie Savea, Anton Lienert-Brown and Codie Taylor in the mix. New Zealand are unlikely to fall asleep at the wheel like they did in Sydney and as a result in front of a passionate crowd in Dunedin, it looks like it is going to be another dominant display from the New Zealanders. The All Blacks at home to run away with it for the full eighty minutes this time by 26 points!
Argentina vs South Africa
Saturday, August 26
From a Springbok perspective there was a lot to cheer about as a packed Port Elizabeth stadium saw South Africa put in a clinical and effective display against a passionate but ultimately error strewn Pumas side. South Africa are clearly out of the nightmare known as 2016 and a rebuilding process is clearly bearing fruit. They were better organised, infinitely better disciplined and their execution across the park was watertight. When the Pumas managed to click they looked a real threat, the problem was they were only able to do this in short bursts and several of their key players were simply not putting in the kinds of performances we have come to expect. The result is the Argentinian line up sees a brace of changes for this match while South Africa see only one.
The once dominant Argentinian scrum clearly came out worse for wear last weekend in Port Elizabeth against a rock solid Springbok platform. Springbok Hooker Malcolm Marx continues to make the rugby world sit up and take notice and last weekend was no exception. We were very pleasantly surprised by a monumental effort from his two props Coenie Oosthuizen and Tendai Mtawarira. Mtawarira was immense both in the scrum and with ball in hand and Oosthuizen clearly had the better of his Pumas counterparts. With no change to these three this weekend expect more of the same and even with Ramiro Herrera back alongside Captain Fantastic and Hooker Agustin Creevy for the Pumas we still expect to see the South Americans struggle to contain the Springbok front three. The Pumas duo of Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti, normally such a threat in the second row, were strangely quiet in Port Elizabeth, so much so that Petti doesn’t even make the bench this weekend in Salta. While Lavanini stays Petti is replaced by another reliable figure in the shape of Matias Alemanno. However, despite the pedigree of these two and on home soil to boot they are still going to be hard pressed to keep South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and the exceptional Franco Mostert in check. In the back row, Argentina are clearly struggling to find some answers. While Flanker Pablo Matera is a proven commodity he too was strangely quiet last weekend except towards the end of the match, and Leonardo Senatore at number eight was clearly past his best. We like the look of Tomas Lezana but for now he is still too green especially up against the powerhouse that is Jaco Kriel for South Africa. Kriel allied to Siya Kolisi was devastating on Saturday in Port Elizabeth and expect these two to dominate once more for South Africa this Saturday. We liked the look of new Springbok number 8 Uzair Cassiem despite our initial reservations and feel he merits the second consecutive start he has been awarded. Argentina are clearly struggling to find the right fit for their back three with the departure of the exceptional Facundo Isa. Although Manuel Leguizamon comes in for the injured Senatore, doubts remain about his longevity in this Pumas squad despite the considerable presence and solidarity he brings to the squad. South Africa’s forward pack is simply so strong and Argentina’s still clearly a work in progress that even at home we still expect to see the Springboks dominate the contest here.
At fly half we have to confess to being very disappointed in Puma fly half Nicholas Sanchez’s performance last weekend. Normally the Argentine 10 is a reliable source of points and a boot to put his team into space. Neither really happened much at all last weekend, and is surely a concern for the Pumas. This week sees Sanchez move to the bench and veteran Juan Martin ‘the Magician’ Hernandez take over the number 10 shirt. When this player is on form he really can do something special for his team, but like many of his countrymen he has good days and bad days. Scrum half Martin Landajo despite a try that showed off some dazzling footballing skills, finds himself on the bench and the slightly more conservative Tomas Cubelli take his place. Cubelli seems to have a calmer head under pressure than Landajo despite not being nearly as impressive with ball in hand. South Africa make one change as the injured scrum half Ross Cronje makes way for Francois Hougaard. We still reserve judgement on Hougaard, although he makes quick decisions they are not always the smartest and feel under pressure Cubelli could actually have the edge over the South African here. Elton Jantjies was solid last weekend and expect more of the same but has yet to be in a winning Springbok side on the road. Consequently we actually hand the Argentines the battle of the halfbacks in Salta, especially given the benches in this area of the game.
Get their execution right and we still hold that the Pumas set of backs is more than a match for their Springbok counterparts especially on home soil. Winger Emiliano Boffelli had a good game last weekend in Port Elizabeth, our only criticism being some soft defence on the Springbok try by Raymond Rhule. On home ground we still hold that the Argentine centres and wingers are bigger, meaner and faster, especially in space, than their Springbok counterparts. This is in no disrespect to the Springboks especially the centre pairing of Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel which clearly got the better of the perceived advantage we feel the Pumas have in this part of the park last weekend. Add to that the Springbok pair being much better at hanging on to the ball and able to go to ground when needed. However, despite some real razzle dazzle from Springbok wingers Raymond Rhule and Courtnall Skosan who both scored excellent tries last weekend, questions still remain for us about their defensive capabilities especially when matched up against the size of their Argentine counterparts. We have to admit to being pleasantly surprised at some strong tackling from Rhule at times last weekend, but until we see the results of this weekend, the jury is still out for us on the Springbok pair, especially as away from home they are going to be put under immense pressure from this Pumas back line. At fullback it’s an even contest between the excellent Andries Coetzee for South Africa and Joaquin Tuculet for the Pumas. Tuculet looked fantastic with ball in hand at times last Saturday and expect more of the same, but then so did Coetzee allied to some superb defence to the point we actually rate the Springbok slightly higher of the two. Although we feel that the Pumas set of backs could really turn this game upside down in Salta on Saturday, we can’t help feeling that this all dominant Springbok pack will effectively smother any chance the Pumas have to cut their backs loose especially if last weekend’s performance was anything to go by.
Once more we feel that Argentina, especially at home, has the match clinching bench. If the Pumas are in it with a points difference of a converted try or less going into the last 15 minutes, then at home this Pumas bench could swing the match Argentina’s way as a group of relatively untested Springbok replacements struggle to find their footing under pressure and away from home. However, the problem is we just can’t see the starting Springbok XV let the match get to this point. Consequently it is likely to be a lot tougher contest than the match in Port Elizabeth but South Africa should get over their notoriously poor performances on the road of last year and seal a tight and fiercely contested match by 3 points! Argentina will have everything to prove and South Africa will have their first truly nail biting test of character of 2017.
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!