With the dust settled on Round 3, the Rugby Championship seems to be entering an all too familiar pattern once we get to the halfway point in the tournament. New Zealand start to pull away dramatically on the table leaving their opponents in the dust, while the other three engage in a frantic scramble for position, with Australia and South Africa usually having the better odds leaving Argentina to pick up the crumbs. While this year seems to be no different there are still clearly some major differences from years gone by, which consequently make this year’s edition of the tournament such a fascinating contest.
New Zealand are clearly going through a major phase of experimentation which has led to mixed fortunes in terms of performances on the pitch. Sure they’ve won all their games, and with the possible exception of the Round 2 fixture against Australia, by a comfortable margin. However, at times they have looked less than their usual clinical selves. Just as we saw on the Lions Tour and on the road last November, there are some missing links in the All Blacks supposed invincibility. Nevertheless, before their opposition gets too excited there is still some mind-boggling depth and talent available to Coach Steve Hansen and the New Zealand selectors which means that although they may be vulnerable at times right now, by the time the World Cup rolls around in two years time the arsenal at their disposal will be alarming to say the least. Last weekend’s rumble with Argentina, left us once more with egg all over our faces in predicting the scoreline when it came to New Zealand matches, as we had predicted a 32 point whitewash of Argentina by the Men in Black. However, we were delighted to have our crystal ball gazing turned on its head, as Argentina put in a fantastic 55 minutes of rugby but then failed to back themselves and consequently New Zealand, as they always seem to do, spotted the weaknesses and put in a ruthless final quarter. In doing so, they once more put on show some truly dazzling new talent in the shape of flanker Vaea Fifita. There was clearly a sense of deja vu watching the 25-year-old brushing a stunned Argentinian defense aside, akin to the great Jonah Lomu tossing English defenders aside like rag dolls at ninety miles an hour in the 1999 World Cup. Meanwhile winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, who for us was the find of 2015 for New Zealand, returned to the Test fold with a vengeance. And while debates rage in New Zealand around the readiness of fullback Damian McKenzie to make it at Test Level, we sit firmly in the camp that feels he needs the opportunities he is getting now. While he made some significant errors last Saturday, when he got it right there is no question that this player possesses some sublime ability. The question in our opinion is more about where to play McKenzie and how to use his considerable talents, than whether or not he is Test calibre yet.
In short, we have found some of the gloom and doom in the New Zealand media around the All Blacks performances so far this year rather bemusing. They are still for the most part mopping the floor with the opposition they face, albeit with difficulty at times, and boasting some talent both old and new that would make most Coaches and selectors feeling that they had died and gone to rugby heaven. In our opinion this year is all about experimentation with players and combinations for New Zealand. Expect next year to be all about consolidation and putting the finishing touches to a team that is likely once more to have everyone else quaking in their boots come the opening whistle of the Rugby World Cup in Japan. In the process New Zealand may occasionally trip up and, dare we say it lose the odd big Test, but are they still likely to remain the benchmark team going into the World Cup? Whoever you support we would be willing to bet you would probably have to answer yes to that question.
South Africa, as we feared they would, started to lose some of the momentum of their excellent start to the Test calendar this year. Life on the road has rarely been kind to the Springboks in recent years and the cracks once more started to show in Perth. This was the contest we were looking forward to the most last weekend, but instead found the Pumas/All Blacks clash to be the more enthralling of the two. Perhaps because both teams had so much to prove, a cautious game of rugby from both sides unfolded which consequently saw neither side able to play to their respective strengths, resulting in a less than satisfying draw. Don’t get us wrong, there were some great moments, Wallaby centre Kurtley Beale’s try was pure magic and it was great to see Springbok flanker Siya Kolisi cross the whitewash in his typical barnstorming manner. However, too many key players on both sides remained strangely quiet for much of the match and were rarely able to assert themselves. South Africa’s second half resurgence in our opinion was led by their incomparable flanker Jaco Kriel, who provides so much quiet leadership to this Springbok side and as a result his absence due to injury for this weekend’s crucial fixture against New Zealand, could well be a death-blow for the Springboks. Australia are still clearly emerging from the wreckage of the last few months and the turmoil created by the country’s Super Rugby crisis, but once more some exceptional players were strangely quiet and reluctant to really make a statement in a critical Test last weekend.
Lastly, we take our hats off to the men from Argentina, who last weekend managed to make our crystal ball gazing look rather amateurish. As regular readers of this blog know, as neutrals we are some of Argentina’s biggest supporters and consequently frustrated by the lack of results from what we consider is a potentially lethal Test entity. Argentina, despite their critics, came to the party and then some last weekend in New Plymouth and we thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Playing with poise, discipline and intent for the first fifty minutes they looked fantastic and there was even the hint of an upset to end all upsets. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and even though it was unlikely that they would ultimately have beaten New Zealand in their own backyard, the scoreline could have been so much closer had they just had the confidence to back themselves a bit more. For us the turning point in the match was on the 50th minute, when with New Zealand a man down, Argentina failed to believe in themselves and chose an easy kick at goal rather than kick for touch and go for the seven pointer. They had New Zealand under enormous pressure, and as everyone knows you don’t beat the All Blacks or even run them close with three pointers. Against New Zealand it’s all about getting across the whitewash, and Argentina will hopefully take this lesson to heart on the return fixture in Argentina as well as applying it to the Wallabies this weekend in Perth. All that aside however, one has to make special mention of the other find of the weekend alongside New Zealand’s Vaea Fifita – Pumas winger Emiliano Boffelli. In short – spectacular and given his astounding kicking abilities by the time of the World Cup expect to see this guy slotting drop goals from his own 22!
So given there is so much food for thought from last weekend, let’s have a look at this weekend’s fascinating matchups for two eagerly anticipated contests!
New Zealand vs South Africa
Saturday, September 16th
As we mentioned above, the loss for South Africa of their outstanding flanker Jaco Kriel has sadly put a whole different complexion on this match for us, but we still anticipate an epic match with no quarters given, as one of Test Rugby’s greatest rivalries is once again put on display. However, New Zealand at home and given the squad they have assembled for this fixture will be extremely difficult to beat. South Africa will have to dig deep and with the absence of Kriel and Whiteley, the Springboks biggest Test of the year may see them lacking much of the polish that has rightly given us so much to cheer about this year. We hope to be proven wrong, but the Springbok supporters amongst us are feeling more than just a little anxious about this one, with the term damage limitation, perhaps being foremost in our minds.
Two great forward packs will go head to head on Saturday, with an intriguing battle in the front rows. South Africa and New Zealand as a result of injuries have been forced to make major changes here. For the Springboks, Coenie Oosthuizen is replaced by Ruan Dreyer, while the All Black front row sees Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala start alongside experienced Hooker Dane Coles. Although Dreyer has had a good season with the Lions, we sadly feel that technically and discipline wise he is somewhat lacking especially in relation to Oosthuizen. Despite the lack of Test experience of the two New Zealand props we like the look of Laulala. However, we can’t help feeling that the contest between exceptional Springbok Hooker Malcolm Marx and New Zealand’s Dane Coles will be one of the highlights of the weekend. Meanwhile Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira is having an epic year, and consequently with Coles only just back from injury and the relative inexperience of his two props, we feel that South Africa should just have the edge here, provided Dreyer can put in the game of his career to date and keep his discipline and composure under pressure. However, if South Africa are struggling here come the final quarter, New Zealand’s bench should secure the killer punch in the shape of Wyatt Crockett and Codie Taylor, with the latter clearly having the ability to fill Coles’ enormous boots. The Springboks Steven Kitshoff can be a real game changer, but if significant damage has been done by the time he comes on, it will be difficult for him to stem the tide.
The second row contest should be the stuff of legends, and definitely in tune with the character of the traditional rivalry between these two teams. New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are without a shadow of a doubt the best in the business right now, requiring an enormous effort from South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert to keep them in check. The South African pair are more than up to the challenge and we are huge fans of Mostert, but he really needs to put in a massive performance on Saturday, while the intensity of the contest will seriously test Etzebeth’s cool and discipline under pressure, something which he has struggled with in the past and which we saw flashes of last weekend in Perth. If the South Africans can hold their own here for sixty minutes, then there is a chance that their bench could swing this contest in their favor in the shape of the exceptional Pieter-Steph du Toit and Lood de Jager. Du Toit has provided some spectacular impact for South Africa in the last two years, and the Springboks will be expecting a signficant contribution from the young lock in the final quarter. Nevertheless we expect New Zealand’s starting pair to get the better of an exceptionally tight contest, with some of the niggles involved ultimately causing Etzebeth to lose his calm and discipline as a result.
In the back rows, as we have already said the loss of Jaco Kriel is likely to be a huge hole to fill. Nevertheless South Africa will be packing some serious firepower in the shape of the incomparable Siya Kolisi and Jean-Luc Du Preez. Du Preez really made us sit up and take notice during the series against France, and despite being saddened by the loss of Kriel we are delighted to see the youngster get a well deserved starting spot, despite the magnitude of the challenge he faces. If he and Kolisi really click then New Zealand’s Sam Cane and Liam Squire are going to have their hands full. However, despite the raw talent of the two South Africans we feel the calm head and experience of New Zealand’s Sam Cane and explosive power of Squire should give New Zealand a slight edge in this contest. However, with the arrival of Ardie Savea as a replacement for New Zealand, whatever parity South Africa may achieve here is likely to be sorely tested. Savea is a bit of a conundrum for us, and as result we side with the view that he is more of an impact player at the moment than a starter. If you watch the game last week against Argentina where he was in the starting lineup, it was clear at times that his live wire, almost frantic style of play, is hard to fit into an overall strategy for a team from the outset. Once dominance has been established and secured Savea’s destructive unpredictability as a loose cannon can then prove devastatingly effective in the final quarter, but perhaps a potential liability in the opening three-quarters of a match. As a result we feel his place on the bench as opposed to the starting fifteen is the right call from Coach Steve Hansen.
At number 8, sadly it’s going to be all about New Zealand, plain and simple in the shape of Keiran Read. An exceptional Captain and player, Read is simply streets ahead of South African newcomer Uzair Cassiem, despite us being pleasantly surprised by some of his performances so far. There’s simply too much experience and outright rugby knowledge on Read’s shoulders, for Cassiem to do much more than try to keep him in sight for the course of the match, as opposed to asserting any kind of dominance.
In the halfbacks, once again we hand the battle to New Zealand. Injury has once more plagued South Africa here, with Ross Cronje out at scrum half and the mercurial Francois Hougaard in instead. While Cronje may not be the most exciting player on the planet we still prefer his sense of calm over Hougaard’s sometimes careless exuberance. Under pressure Hougaard can often implode and his decision-making and execution start to suffer. It’s a tough call as in his own right he can be an amazing player at times, but consistency does seem to be a concern. Elton Jantjies needs no introduction at fly half, and has consistently performed so far this year for the Springboks despite a rather invisible second half in Perth last weekend. What also concerned us in the second half from Jantjies against Australia was the tendency to revert to the aimless kicking and giving away of possession that has plagued South African sides over the last few years. If South Africa do that on Saturday, then New Zealand will end up running riot against them and exposing their suspect defences out wide. We don’t see anything on the South African bench to really address this should things start to go awry. New Zealand on the other hand have it all going on in this area of the game, both in the starting fifteen and on the bench. Aaron Smith is clearly in a league of his own at the moment, with perhaps only Ireland’s Conor Murray able to give him a run for his money. There has been much talk about All Black fly half Beauden Barrett of late, much of it negative. For us we see only two concerns. Firstly his lack of consistency in the goal kicking department. Like we say he is not a bad goal kicker and on his day can be outstanding, the problem of late is just a complete lack of consistency in this area of his game. Brilliant one match, and then unable to hit a barn door the next, this is clearly an issue for New Zealand. Like many we agree that this is surely the time to give Damian McKenzie the goal kicking duties, and allow Barrett to focus on his exceptional play making and game management abilities. Our second concern with Barrett would be an increasing lack of discipline when under pressure, making the case for removing some of this pressure by giving the goal kicking duties to McKenzie. However, even if Barrett is off the boil again, his replacement Lima Sopoaga has shown that he is more than capable of making amends. Add to this TJ Perenara off the bench for Smith and this contest is clearly in New Zealand’s favor.
It’s the centre pairings, that are perhaps causing the most vocal debates in this match. We are going to stick our necks out and say that South Africa actually have the edge here at least for the first sixty minutes, an advantage that will rapidly go out the window if they have not held their own and made it count, once the bench comes into play. A controversial call we know, but we just feel that New Zealand’s centre partnerships are just not firing at the moment. New Zealand will be delighted with the return of Ryan Crotty, as are we, as in our opinion he is clearly one of the best in the business. However, Crotty sadly seems prone to more than his fair share of injury this year, and we doubt that he will last the match. His partner Sonny Bill Williams, just hasn’t made us sit up and take notice this year, and as a result feel that South Africa’s Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel’s seeming indestructibility, speed and power are more than a match for the All Black pair. The Springbok duo can really light up a pitch, as well as being exceptionally difficult to bring down once they’ve built up a head of steam. Given the injury doubts around Crotty, we consequently hand this battle by the slimmest of margins to South Africa. However, if the Springbok pair have not established dominance by the time the bench comes into play then with the arrival of New Zealand’s Anton Liennert-Brown then it could turn into a very long afternoon for South Africa. Sadly in our opinion South Africa’s offering of Damian de Allende is no match for the elusive New Zealander.
In the backs, it’s once again all about New Zealand. We hate to admit it, but despite some question marks around All Black fullback Damian McKenzie, South Africa’s back three are likely to be found sorely lacking by comparison on Saturday. New Zealand’s offering on the wings has excitement and danger written all over it in the shape of Nehe Milner-Skudder and newcomer Rieko Ioane. The two All Blacks have gas, panache and flair in a league of their own and are simply leagues ahead of their South African counterparts Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule. We, despite a lot of views to the contrary in the South African press, have actually been pleasantly surprised by Raymond Rhule’s defensive abilities and give the guy some open space he is clearly a threat. However, the comparison between the All Black wing contingent and that of the Springboks is a bit like having a Lamborghini and Ferrari on one side and a Golf GTI and Audi TT on the other. Both are fun to drive, but one set is clearly more likely to be in the rear view mirrors for much of the time. At fullback, despite some of the controversy surrounding Damian McKenzie, we still feel the decision to have him in the All Black line up is the right call by Coach Steve Hansen. Sure he still has a lot to learn, but as witnessed in his own try and the one he set up for winger Nehe Milner-Skudder last weekend, he is an exceptionally dangerous and difficult player to contain. While we agree there are issues with his tactical kicking game, and some concerns about his abilities under the high ball, we feel these are all things he will master with continued exposure at this level. The big question mark is whether or not he will take over some of the goal kicking from Beauden Barrett, which in our opinion could be key on Saturday. While many in New Zealand rightly see the injured Jordi Barrett as New Zealand’s long-term solution to the fullback position there is no question that McKenzie has a role in this All Black team, it just remains to be determined in what capacity. South Africa’s Andries Coetzee is developing nicely into the role of fullback for the Springboks but will need to really capitalise on any mistakes McKenzie makes, and make the resulting pressure count if South Africa are to be even remotely competitive in the back line battles.
This is going to be a tough, physical contest with emotions on both sides running close to the boiling point in the best tradition of match ups between these legendary rivals. However, for us South Africa still look far too much like a work in progress, especially in the backs, for it to be anything other than a convincing All Black victory by the final whistle. South Africa will give it their all, and likely be competitive well into the final quarter. However, it’s the question marks around South Africa’s game management and back line ability which should dictate that New Zealand will be able to close the game out with some clinical flair in the last fifteen minutes. Should still be the game of the weekend, with New Zealand ultimately pulling away by 13 points at the end!
Australia vs Argentina
Saturday, September 16th
Let’s face it, this is a great weekend for Test Rugby and this contest only looks set to round out some epic entertainment. Both sides have EVERYTHING to prove. Argentina were, against all odds, exceptionally competitive last weekend against New Zealand, and caused the All Blacks no end of headaches at times. Add to that the revelation that winger Emiliano Boffelli seems to be able to slot the ball between the posts from his backyard in Argentina and Australia will be well aware of the challenge the South Americans will present them with on Saturday in Canberra. Australia produced the Test of the Tournament so far in Dunedin last month, and as a result when this team fires it is going to be very hard to contain. In short, this should be a great match and one which we are eagerly looking forward to.
In the front rows, despite some significant progress made by Australia in the last few weeks, we still hand the battle to Argentina and a return to their characteristic scrum dominance of old. Pumas Hooker Agustin Creevy, put on one of his Captain Fantastic performances last weekend and expect more of the same this weekend. As he so often does he led his troops with his body and soul and provided the inspiration that is so key to whether or not his charges come to the party, something they did in no uncertain terms last weekend against New Zealand. We still think the front row partnership of Creevy, and props Lucas Paz and Nahuel Tetaz is a more effective unit than Australia’s Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu. However, we think Australia has solved many of their problems at Hooker with Tatafu Polota-Nau. The contest should be even with the Australians potentially being the more powerful of the two, but we just feel that under Creevy’s leadership Argentina should have the edge here.
In the second rows, we also just give the nod to Argentina in the shape of Guido Petti and Matias Alemanno, both of whom we rate highly. By the same token we have enormous faith in Australia’s Adam Coleman, and as regular readers know we rate him as one of Australia’s brightest prospects for the future in the mold of the great John Eales. However, his second row partner Rob Simmons selection has left us scratching our heads, especially as Coleman and Rory Arnold seem to work so effectively together. To add insult to injury Arnold doesn’t even make the bench and we are completely baffled as to why, and feel that Australia and Coach Michael Cheika are going to rue this decision on Saturday.
In the back rows, we also feel that Argentina can get the better of Australia. Much has been said of newcomer Ned Hanigan at flanker for Australia. Many have called him invisible but if you actually look at the statistics for last weekend’s match against South Africa it would appear he had a pretty busy afternoon. Consequently we reserve judgement, but by the same token he hasn’t really done anything to get our attention, even though his partner Michael Hooper has been outstanding in the last two Tests for Australia. For Argentina however, we just think the bruising ball carrying abilities and defensive attributes, especially at the breakdown if they can keep their disicipline, of the Pumas Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio are that much more dangerous and destructive. We may be wrong but we give Argentina the nod by a very small margin here.
At number eight, however, the balance swings back to Australia. Sean McMahon had an absolute blinder of a game in the second Test against New Zealand, and this is an exceptional player. However, like many in the Wallaby squad he seemed rather quiet last weekend, so if he shows up on Saturday like he did against New Zealand, Argentina’s Tomas Lezana may pale into insignificance. While Lezana is certainly an able player, we actually preferred the look of Benjamin Macome who we thought had an outstanding game against New Zealand, to the point where we were even starting to relax about the loss of Facundo Isa for the Pumas. However, Lezana although having plenty of talent is not quite the same calibre of McMahon.
In the halfbacks, it’s an even contest and one we can’t call. Both sets of halfbacks ooze talent but really need to click, something that they have trouble doing consistently. Argentina’s Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez can be masters of game management when the stars line up for them but we have yet to see this happen consistently this year. The same can be said for Australia’s Will Genia and Bernard Foley. Individually brilliant, with Genia producing one of the games of his career in the second Test against New Zealand, the Australian pair rarely asserted any kind of influence on proceedings against South Africa last weekend. However, we actually feel that Tomas Cubelli off the bench at scrum half is a stronger player than Australia’s Nick Phipps, plus Cubelli is more than familiar with Canberra as a surrounding, as he plays with the Brumbies. Impossible to call, but we think given the bench and if Argentina’s pair fire, Argentina could have the better day here.
In the centres, we fancy Australia’s chances. Since coming back from his time at Wasps in the English Premiership, Wallaby centre Kurtley Beale is on FIRE. Despite Australia’s problems at times this year, he has consistently stood out in every Test they have played. In short – brilliant and alongside the destructive force and power of Tevita Kuridrani, Australia have the clear edge here over the equally talented but less experienced Pumas duo of Jeronimo De la Fuente and Matias Orlando. As brilliant as Samu Kerevi is for the Wallabies off the bench, he was exposed defensively in no uncertain terms against New Zealand, and if the Pumas are gaining any kind of momentum here, this could be a concern for Australia going into the final quarter.
However, in the backs, we are once more putting our money on Argentina. After his monster boot performance last weekend, we doubt many are surprised to see Emiliano Boffelli off the wing and in at fullback for the Pumas. Boffelli is all class and as usual Argentina produce one of the top ten most exciting newcomers of the year in this exceptionally capable player. Australia’s Israel Folau is a player of enormous pedigree and talent, but he seems to be all over the park in one Test for Australia and then strangely absent in the next – last week’s performance against the Springboks versus his performance in the second Test against New Zealand being a perfect example. Right now given the WOW factor surrounding Boffelli we give Argentina a better chance in the contest between the two. On the wings, we also feel that Argentina possess a bit more X-factor in the shape of Matias Moroni and Ramiro Moyano, with Manuel Montero packing a few more surprises up his sleeve off the bench. These are three big, fast and powerful men who will be difficult to contain. Henry Speight for Australia has definitely caused defences some serious problems so far this year, and for us Reece Hodge can be very effective if Australia are able to play to his strengths, as well as him being a strong defensive proposition. However, if Argentina are getting the upper hand here we feel their bench and any traction they have gained on the Australian defences should give them an advantage in this contest.
This should be a very tight and enthralling match between two very evenly placed and competitive teams. We think we may be wrong, but on paper we actually feel that Argentina are fielding the better unit, and as a result think they are more than in with a chance on this one. However, it is that inability to back themselves at times and lose the plot in the final quarter that prove such liabilities for them and negate any dominance they may have established in the first hour. Fortunately they seem to have got a handle on their discipline and their execution seems to have improved. The big question is can they hold it together for 80 minutes? Sadly we feel that despite many of the odds being in their favor on Saturday, that ability is just not there at the moment especially away from home. We think the Pumas could steal this by two points, but given home advantage are actually giving it to the Wallabies by two! Either way folks hold on to your hats and pints as this could be a real humdinger!
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!
And as always head over to our TV listings page for video highlights if you missed last weekend’s action: