This weekend’s action is sure to have most of us glued to our TV screens especially the match between Australia and South Africa in Perth. Of all the teams, these two have given us the most food for thought. The horror show that was 2016 is clearly over for the Springboks, and the importance of that first win of the year on the road against Argentina cannot be understated for South Africa. Meanwhile the spectacle that unfolded in Dunedin between Australia and New Zealand in Round 2 was one which we will all be talking about for a long time to come. Given the fact that most people, ourselves included, had written off Australia before the match, the turnaround in the Wallabies’ fortunes in the space of a mere 7 days and on the road to boot was the stuff of legends. Full marks must go to their Coach Michael Cheika and the character that his charges showed a fortnight ago in Dunedin. Meanwhile Argentina, seem at sixes and sevens despite some obvious potential, but perhaps their biggest concern is a disciplinary issue that is crippling any chances they may have to be competitive.
The match between Australia and New Zealand in Dunedin was breathtaking and definitely one of the most memorable Test Matches we’ve seen for a long time. Australia came out all guns blazing and their opening three try blitz left most of us, who had predicted a whitewash by the Men in Black, with a healthy smattering of egg on our faces. It was brilliant, energetic attacking rugby from the Wallabies and they were playing as a unit as opposed to the individual flashes of brilliance we saw from Australian players in the second half of the opening match of the Rugby Championship between Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand were slightly out of sorts and their defensive structures were clearly battling to come to grips with Australia’s new-found sense of purpose, execution and intensity. Australia appeared to have completely reinvented themselves in the space of seven days, and as mentioned above, to do this on the road is quite an achievement. New Zealand once more looked rattled at times, and as a result were making errors we are simply not used to seeing while at the same time their defence looked alarmingly porous far too often. However, once more though the All Blacks demonstrated their remarkable ability to regroup in the final quarter, and as always their bench were able to deal the final hammer blows to close out a game that had produced some spectacular rugby from both sides. It’s this ability to finish, unlike any other Test side at the moment, which still makes New Zealand the benchmark team to beat. However, as we have seen on the Lions tour, last year in Chicago and in the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship, New Zealand are clearly trying to shape the team they want for the 2019 World Cup – a process that is clearly not without its teething problems. Are they still the team to beat? Yes. Can they be beaten? It would seem on the evidence of the last twelve months – yes albeit with great difficulty. Don’t get us wrong we are huge fans of New Zealand, but it does make International Rugby that much more interesting if every time the All Blacks grace a pitch it is not necessarily a foregone conclusion as to who the winner will be, as it essentially has been since the 2011 World Cup.
In the other contest between South Africa and Argentina, the Springboks showed that the momentum since the series against France in June is clearly building and more importantly can be maintained when the team is on the road. Admittedly Argentina are struggling to define themselves at the moment, but South Africa played with purpose, cohesion and a focus that was clearly lacking in 2016. Despite the struggles South Africa went through last year, we never doubted for a moment that the country was not blessed with some truly impressive rugby talent. We always felt that once that talent was allowed to come to the fore and the politics plaguing South African rugby was put aside, then South Africa would once more become the powerhouse of International Rugby it has always been. Consequently we are delighted to see the Springbok jersey being worn with such pride and intent this year and more importantly producing the results that justify such beliefs. Argentina on the other hand are clearly struggling to map out their path to the 2019 World Cup. Like South Africa there is some remarkable rugby talent in Argentina, although it clearly doesn’t have as much depth in terms of a player base that South Africa has. However, since the last World Cup and the inclusion of an Argentinean franchise in Super Rugby, Argentina have struggled to turn their considerable prowess on paper into results on the pitch. Always competitive and a force to underestimate at your peril, Argentina just can’t seem to string a solid eighty minute performance together at the moment. Add to that their woeful disciplinary record, and despite the world-class brilliance of many of their players, it would appear that they are often playing with one hand tied behind their backs. We hope it changes soon as they still remain one of our favourite teams to watch, and one which can produce some breath-taking rugby when they click as a team.
So with that said, let’s look at the matchups this weekend for Round 3.
New Zealand vs Argentina
Saturday, September 9th
Despite some of the question marks around New Zealand at the moment, especially in defence, it is hard to see Argentina pulling off the kind of upset that Australia came so close to doing in Dunedin a fortnight ago. We have to admit to liking the Pumas team sheet for this match, especially up against perhaps the most experimental All Black side we’ve seen in a while. However, there is still enough star-studded power in the All Blacks side that will run out in New Plymouth to make life incredibly difficult for a Pumas side that would appear to have lost its way in the last year. Still as mentioned above, underestimate the South Americans at your peril and as we saw last year in this round of the Rugby Championship, Argentina certainly gave New Zealand a healthy scare in the first half. Whether they will be able to do so this year remains to be seen but they will clearly be up for the challenge.
Up front it’s clear that Argentina are not the force of old, and the All Black front row offering for Saturday’s clash should get the upper hand. Argentina’s front row of prop Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Hooker and Captain Agustin Creevy and prop Lucas Noguera Paz is a solid and capable unit, but they clearly struggled against a rampant South African front row in the opening two fixtures of the Championship. New Zealand sees Hooker Dane Coles back to his best with props Joe Moody and Nepo Laulala a real force to be reckoned with. Moody has been superb so far in the Championship, and despite his lack of experience we really like the potential we see in Laulala. In the second rows, Sam Whitelock gets a much-needed break, being replaced by Luke Romano, but the indomitable Brodie Retallick remains. Retallick is simply in a class of his own and has been for quite a while now. Even though the jury is out for us on Romano, the mere presence of Retallick should cover for any shortcomings in his teammate. We do think although they’ll come off second best here, Argentina will be competitive. Even though he has had a quiet tournament so far, we are huge fans of the Pumas’ Guido Petti and his fellow second rower Matias Alemanno also brings much to the table for Argentina. In the back row although we were slightly surprised to see Sam Cane on the bench for New Zealand, we have to confess to being more than just a little excited about seeing Ardie Savea getting a start at 7. In our opinion he is one of the most destructive and unpredictable loose forwards in Test Rugby and Argentina are going to have to work overtime to keep him in check. His back row partner for us is a surprise in Vaea Fifita, who normally plays in the second row for the Hurricanes. As a result we can’t really say too much here. However, we have yet to see Argentina’s answer in the shape of Javier Ortega Desio and Pablo Matera really fire this year, and Matera has had more than his fair share of disciplinary discussions with referees. So despite the experimentation New Zealand should comfortably win the day here, especially when you have Kieran Read shoring everything up at number eight, even though we’ve heard great things about new Argentinian number eight Benjamin Macome.
The half backs see All Black scrum half Aaron Smith sit this match out, and TJ Perenara get the starting position, with Chiefs scrum half Tawera Kerr-Barlow on the bench. There is no question that Perenara is an exceptional player, but his penchant for trying to referee the game alongside his scrum half duties has meant that he sometimes doesn’t have the overall view of the game and opportunities that can be created that Smith does, as he focuses too much on the immediate action in front of him. Meanwhile Kerr-Barlow has some real skill but struggles with consistency and the kind of game management needed at this level – attributes that will only improve with continued exposure. However, Beauden Barrett remains for New Zealand at flyhalf and now he seems to have found his goalkicking boots again, it would seem that this contest should sit firmly in New Zealand’s favour. Tomas Cubelli is Argentina’s scrum half, and in a match where the slightest mistake will cost you dearly, we feel his slightly calmer albeit more conservative approach to the game is a wise choice, leaving Martin Landajo to come in for impact later in the match. Pumas fly half Nicolas Sanchez makes his return but really needs to bring both his vision and accuracy back to the game, two qualities that we haven’t really seen from him that much this year.
In the back five we are absolutely ecstatic to see the return of winger Nehe Milner-Skudder into the starting fifteen. Having had the privilege of watching this exceptionally talented player in action at the last World Cup we can’t wait to see him in action on Saturday, and hope to see much more of this player during Ben Smith’s sabbatical. We are also happy to see Anton Lienert-Brown get a start at centre, though New Zealand will feel the loss of Ryan Crotty to injury. We have to confess to not being overly impressed with Lienert-Brown’s centre partner Sonny Bill Williams and have seen very little from him so far this year that justifies Coach Steve Hansen’s continued reliance on him. We’re not saying he’s a bad player, we just don’t think he is that creative and rather one-dimensional, making him much easier to read than his elusive partner Lienert-Brown. Still it would seem that New Zealand are struggling to find a long-term centre pairing, particularly if injuries continue to plague the exceptional Ryan Crotty. Israel Dagg makes a return to the wing while Damian McKenzie shores up the fort at fullback. We have to share the reservations that many in New Zealand seem to have regarding Damian McKenzie. He is utterly outstanding make no mistake, and on attack almost impossible to stop once he has built up a head of steam coupled with the fact he has a fantastic almost cat-like sense of where players are around him. However, we’re just not convinced he is Test level yet, but by the same token how is he going to become so without these kind of opportunities? Clearly a conundrum, but as a result a big performance will be expected from the youngster on Saturday to put such doubts to rest. Argentina bring their usual quality and excitement to the back five, particularly in the shape of winger Emiliano Boffelli and a welcome return of his teammate Santiago Cordero on the opposite wing. These two provide skill and speed all over the park, though Cordero’s star has dipped in relation to Boffelli’s meteoric rise this year. Matias Moroni is great value for money at centre, but his partner Jeronimo de la Fuente has yet to really stand out. Lastly the battle between the experienced head of Pumas fullback Joaquin Tuculet and New Zealand’s Damian McKenzie should be fascinating as both players can be electric with ball in hand, though we favor McKenzie to provide more of the surprises on Saturday. Argentina’s back line has danger written all over it, but the superb combination of youth, experience and extraordinary talent that New Zealand are boasting should see them dominate the metres made on Saturday.
We would love to see a tight contest, but sadly in Argentina’s current condition and the fact they are a long way from home, we can’t help feeling it is going to be a long and uncomfortable day in the office for Argentina. Their discipline should be better with wild card second rower and hot head Tomas Lavanini out of the equation, but experimentation aside, they are going up against a very skilled All Black side which if all its component parts click should be able to blast holes in a fractured Pumas defence from all over the park. Bring New Zealand’s bench into the equation and the deal should be sealed. Argentina to put up a good fight but ultimately New Zealand to run away with it by 32 points!
Australia vs South Africa
Saturday, September 9th
If Australia play anywhere near like they did a fortnight ago in Dunedin, South Africa will be put to their first major Test of 2017. Australia put in a blinder of a performance in the second round which made most of us eat humble pie, fortunately with a great deal of relish, as it was great to see Australia bounce back onto the world stage with a vengeance after the misery and rot that seemed to grip Australian rugby as a whole since the England tour to Australia last year. If Australia put in the kind of performance they put up against the All Blacks in Round 2, we will really get to see if the enormous progress South Africa has made this year is based on a solid foundation. South Africa really need to hold their own in what should be a serious challenge, with both sides having absolutely everything to prove in terms of where they are in the pecking order of International Test Rugby. This is clearly the game of the weekend, and one of the most eagerly anticipated match-ups of the tournament after Australia’s remarkable transformation a fortnight ago.
Despite a better showing at scrum time from Australia in Round 2, we still can’t help feeling that this is still a problem area for them, whereas for South Africa it is one of the defining features of their resurgence this year. The Springbok front row of props Tendai Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen, with the exceptional Malcolm Marx at Hooker in the middle is a force to be reckoned with and Australia are going to struggle on Saturday to match up to the power and clinical efficiency of these three. The only side that can in our opinion challenge South African dominance in this aspect of the game in this tournament is New Zealand. Australia is getting better but there is still too much work to be done to really match up to this South African trio, so we expect to see the Springboks dictating conditions in this department on Saturday. However, one area we really were impressed by last week was Australia’s efforts in the second row. While they couldn’t match up to New Zealand’s remarkable partnership of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, Australia looked stronger here than they have in the past and we thought Wallaby lock Rory Arnold was one of the unsung heroes of Australia’s efforts in Round 2. Pair him up with the outstanding Adam Coleman, and Australia are clearly going to give as good as they get against South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit. We still favor the Springbok duo but it’s going to be quite the contest here. In the back row it’s South Africa all the way for us. Flankers Siya Kolisi and Jaco Kriel are already well on their way to taking this tournament by storm, and quite frankly we expect to see them run rings around Australia’s Ned Hanigan and Michael Hooper. Hooper had a solid game in Round 2, but as we saw in Round 1, put him under pressure and cracks appear while Hanigan has been almost invisible so far. However, at number eight Australia has a clear advantage in Sean McMahon who played out of his skin in the second match against New Zealand. We have always been a quiet fan of the Wallaby number eight and feel there are some very big performances to come from this gentleman as we head towards the World Cup, and he rewarded our confidence in his abilities a fortnight ago in no uncertain terms. His Springbok opposite Uzair Cassiem has pleasantly surprised us, but to contain a guy like McMahon we would much rather have seen Jean-Luc du Preez get the starting number eight berth, instead of getting a bench spot. However, overall we just feel that South Africa are going to dominate forward play in this match as the traditional ‘smash and bash’ Springbok forward game has given way to a much more mobile and intelligent approach, whilst still keeping many of the physical attributes that have always been associated with Springbok rugby.
In the half backs, we actually give Australia the edge perhaps to the surprise of some. If you watched the way Genia turned up for the Wallabies in the second round against New Zealand then you’ll understand our bias. The Australian scrum half was utterly outstanding and one of the key components in the Wallabies remarkable turnaround. South Africa’s Ross Cronje is a competent and skilled player, but unlike Genia is still growing into the role at Test level, coupled with a much more conservative approach. Elton Jantjies has been excellent for South Africa this year at fly half, and is clearly the way forward for South Africa in this position as they build to the World Cup, however Bernard Foley is still in our opinion an exceptionally dangerous and fearless player. If he had brought his goalkicking boots with him a fortnight ago, then there would be everything to play for in the third Bledisloe Cup match in October. As readers of this blog know we are big fans of Foley and feel he is one of Australia’s strongest assets, especially as he seems to pop up all over the park, much more so than Jantjies. South Africa have a great platform in their half back partnership, but the sheer experience and unpredictability of the Australian duo give the Wallabies the clear edge here.
In the backs, after what we saw a fortnight ago from Australia, then we hand the contest to Australia. In the centres, Tevita Kuridrani and Kurtley Beale had a huge game for Australia. South Africa’s response in Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel make for worthy and exciting opponents, but they’ll be hard pressed to match the physicality of Kuridrani and the X-factor of Beale. On the wings we also think that this is the first real defensive test for South Africa’s Raymond Rhule and Courtnall Skosan, with Australia’s Reece Hodge and Henry Speight providing plenty of explosive and powerful running for Australia to keep the South African pair more than just a little busy. In the fullback position Israel Folau was a constant source of excellence for the Wallabies a fortnight ago in Dunedin, and expect more of the same in Perth. Springbok fullback Andries Coetzee has consistently made us sit up and take notice this year, but he simply hasn’t as yet got the pedigree and experience of Folau, especially when the Australian is on song which at the moment he very much appears to be.
This is going to be a contest of South African forward dominance against the speed, power, and vision of Australia’s backs. For us the key linchpin of this match is going to be at 9 and 10. If Australia, as we suspect, get the upper hand here it will be up to the South African forwards to simply suffocate any creativity that Genia and Foley can conjure up. If neither side has created any kind of dominance on the scoreboard after the first hour, then the game could go either way as a mixed bag in terms of the benches from both sides could make it anybody’s game, with South Africa perhaps having the slight edge. However, despite Genia and company’s genius at times, we still hold that this South African side is the more settled of the two especially from 1-7, and a pair of cool heads at 9 and 10. It’s the combination of the power and mobility of the South African forwards, coupled with some safe play from the Springbok half backs that should ultimately get the better of Australia’s creativity and unpredictability. Either way an epic contest should be in store with South Africa just edging it by two points!
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And as always head over to our TV listings page for video highlights if you missed the first two rounds of the tournament: