New Zealand have once again comprehensively got the Rugby Championship squared away in their favor this year, barring a miracle in Buenos Aires this weekend. Even if that were to happen, given the schooling they gave the Springboks a fortnight ago, it would still take a monumental effort in Cape Town next week from South Africa to make any kind of dent in the Men in Black’s complete domination of this tournament in recent years. Meanwhile South Africa desperately need to find redemption in Bloemfontein this weekend against Australia after the soul-destroying 57-0 loss to New Zealand a fortnight ago. As we feared, South Africa’s seeming resurgence this year proved fleeting once up against some serious opposition, coupled with their inability to string together victories away from home. Australia will also be seeking to make a point after a disappointing draw with the Springboks in Perth, but their conclusive win over the Pumas will mean that they may not be feeling the pressure as much as the Springboks. Lastly Argentina remain nil from four so far in the tournament despite putting in some big performances, most notably the thriller against the All Blacks in Round 3. In the first of two home fixtures they too will be seeking to make a point, but against an All Black side overflowing with talent, even if some of it is a bit raw, they are clearly going to be up against it.
Round 4 saw New Zealand completely eclipse South Africa in a textbook performance, as they dispatched the Springboks 57-0. They clearly took the threat of a Springbok side that was finally starting to show some promise seriously. In doing so though they showed once more how far ahead of the rest of the world they really are. South Africa simply imploded on the field as New Zealand ran rings around them. Wingers Rieko Ioane and the electric Nehe Milner-Skudder set the pitch alight, while for us fullback Damian McKenzie answered his critics and then some. Fly half Beauden Barrett brought his kicking boots with him once more, and New Zealand’s forwards negated any kind of threat the Springboks attempted to bring to the party. It was a complete team performance that showcased the remarkable depth of talent and skill levels this New Zealand side has at its disposal, even if it is not quite the thoroughbred stable of the 2011-2015 edition.
South Africa were found wanting and then some a fortnight ago. Admittedly their cause was not helped by the absence of three key players prop Coenie Oosthuizen, flanker Jaco Kriel and scrum half Ross Cronje, but to lose by such a record-breaking margin was hard to fathom as there was some considerable talent wearing the green and gold. There appeared to be a fundamental problem in terms of staying power, leadership and commitment especially in the final 60 minutes of the match for the Springboks. In the first quarter despite the scoreline building up in New Zealand’s favor there seemed plenty of intent from South Africa and they had the lions share of possession. However, possession was continually coughed up after a few promising phases and once the All Blacks found themselves in the open, South Africa’s weak defence especially out wide was shown up in glaring Technicolor. The pressure on them this weekend in front of one of Test Rugby’s most passionate groups of home supporters will be immense, and something they will really have to rise to in order to get themselves in the right head space for the ultimate fixture on their calendar of 2017 – the home Test against the All Blacks in Cape Town in just over a week.
Australia will feel happy with their effective demolition of Argentina a fortnight ago, but will suffer no illusions about the enormity of the task ahead of them this weekend. A wounded Springbok side at home is a very dangerous animal, especially at altitude, something which will definitely play a part in proceedings in Bloemfontein. South Africa is traditionally an unhappy hunting ground for the Wallabies and one in which they end up being the prey more often than the victor. However, with the spotlight being much more on the Springboks they may fancy their chances this weekend, and are more likely to be the calmer of the two sides.
Argentina on the other hand will not be happy with their performance a fortnight ago in Canberra. The Pumas once more showed that they struggle to be more than a sixty minute side. As always a few players really stood out, with Captain Agustin Creevy once more leading the charge and a solid performance from the back row forwards, but overall they never really looked like they were going to trouble a Wallaby side that, much like the Springboks this weekend, had it all to prove. Argentina will desperately want to salvage something out of this year’s Championship but the odds are against them this weekend, leaving them with the final fixture of the tournament, a home fixture against Australia, as the match they will realistically have to focus on as their best chance for a win.
So without any further ado let’s have a look at the matchups for another fascinating weekend of Test Rugby.
South Africa vs Australia
Saturday, September 30th
Without any shadow of a doubt this is the BIG match of the weekend. Two sides with everything to prove. The result of this match will say a great deal of who’s who in the pecking order for International Rugby. Of the two sides as we mentioned above, we think that South Africa at home will be feeling the pressure much more, allowing Australia to be able to focus much more on the business at hand. However, that being said South Africa know they have to produce a comprehensive win in order to be able to face their arch rivals the All Blacks with any degree of confidence in a week’s time in Cape Town. Strap yourselves in folks this should be one hell of a contest.
In the front rows, we buck the trend here and for once fancy Australia’s chances in this department. South Africa without Coenie Oosthuizen, and Malcolm Marx’s highly erratic form at the lineouts a fortnight ago against New Zealand, causes us to give the Australian trio the nod. Australia has struggled here of late but at the moment it seems to be gelling well and we have been impressed with Hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau in his last two outings. Ruan Dreyer is for us not the answer at Tighthead Prop for South Africa, as he struggles with his binding and discipline, and the Australian trio will bring plenty of power and pressure on Saturday to make sure Dreyer’s problems continue. Springbok Hooker Malcolm Marx is a great player, make no mistake and we are huge fans, but perhaps the pressure of the occasion a fortnight ago got to him. When you take into account that he will be under the same kind of pressure, if not more, on Saturday, we sadly have to reserve judgement on this fine player’s potential performance till the final whistle. With the benches being pretty well even, and Australia seeing the return of Stephen Moore in his swan song year we still tilt our head towards the Wallabies camp in this section of the field.
In the second rows, we hand the ball back to South Africa as we expect to see a massive performance from the lock pair of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert especially in front of a home crowd. Mostert was strangely quiet in the Test against New Zealand, something we don’t expect to see a repeat of this Saturday, while Etzebeth really needs to channel his immense physicality and power into providing some solid leadership and momentum on the field. Australia field the excellent Adam Coleman who will provide a real challenge, but much to our surprise, Izack Rodda of the Brisbane Reds gets his first Test Cap. Not having watched much Super Rugby this year we are a bit in the dark on this newcomer so will have to reserve judgement, though the Reds were’nt exactly topping the charts this season. We would have thought now would have been the time to solidify the partnership between Coleman and Rory Arnold who has played some solid rugby this tournament, but can also understand Australian Coach Michael Cheika wanting to build some depth in his squad ahead of the World Cup. It’s the bench where South Africa should have the edge in the shape of Pieter-Steph du Toit up against Rob Simmons for Australia.
In the back rows, we also feel South Africa have the edge despite the continued absence of Jaco Kriel, an absence which was plain to see for all in the match against New Zealand. This match sees the return of veteran flanker Francois Louw, who needs no introduction but hasn’t played much in a Springbok jersey since the last World Cup. Consequently his performances have varied in quality and it remains to be seen what he can deliver on Saturday. However, we can’t help feel that given his experience and alongside the powerhouse of Siya Kolisi, the Springbok duo should get the better of Australian newcomer Jack Dempsey and the veteran Michael Hooper in front of a very vocal home crowd. At number eight Australia in our opinion have the clear edge in the shape of Sean McMahon who as regular readers know, is one of our top picks for a Wallaby starting XV in 2019. He should easily get the better of South Africa’s Uzair Cassiem who is clearly struggling to find his feet at Test level. Once again the bench should see South Africa edge the contest here in the shape of Jean-Luc du Preez over Australia’s Ned Hanigan, who despite some impressive statistics has rarely stood out for us so far in the tournament.
The halfback battle for us is a dead heat, with the South African duo perhaps having the slight edge simply due to the altitude and home soil. Australia’s scrum half Will Genia has been impressive this tournament, of that there is no question, but we also really like the calm head of South Africa’s Ross Cronje. He may not be as flash as his Australian counterpart but he does seem to be able to read the game relatively well and keep his cool, something that South Africa clearly lacked in his absence from the Test against New Zealand a fortnight ago. Of the two fly halves, South Africa’s Elton Jantjies seems to be having the more productive year and should be able to read the travel of the ball at altitude much better than Australia’s Bernard Foley. We are usually big fans of Bernard Foley but have to confess to finding him rather off his game this year, however, given his quality feel it is surely temporary. Off the bench Australian scrum half Nick Phipps has clearly had an impact in this tournament, despite him not being one of our first choice players as we find him rather impetuous and ill-disciplined at times. However, there is no denying that he has put in some good work for Australia in the final quarter of all of their Rugby Championship matches this year. We also feel that although South Africa’s Rudy Paige is not starting material at Test level for the scrum half position, he seems also capable of making an impact and as a result we are happy to see him on the bench for this match which should develop his playing abilities even further, especially in such a high stakes game. In short, home advantage and altitude should see South Africa emerge triumphant here.
Once again though it’s the doubts about South Africa’s back line strengths that cause us concern when looking at the centre matchups. While they may not be as great a worry as the wings, there is no doubt that in Kurtley Beale Australia have a magician, backed up by the brute force and raw power of Tevita Kuridrani – in our view the perfect centre pairing. South Africa’s Jessie Kriel and Jan Serfontein are solid players in their own right and Serfontein in particular is renowned for breaking the gain line. However, neither player has the vision and skill sets possessed by Australia’s Kurtley Beale, which makes us think the Wallaby duo, even at altitude, will dictate proceedings here on Saturday. Add Samu Kerevi to the Australian mix later in the match and Australia’s dominance here should be assured, as unfortunately in our opinion Damian de Allende brings little if anything to the table for South Africa.
On the wings, we’re giving South Africa the slight edge, mainly because we know little about the Australian number 14 Marika Koroibete. South Africa’s Courtnall Skosan needs no introduction, and despite a generally poor performance against New Zealand, he is still a serious threat out wide. The Springboks also blood Dillyn Leyds for the first time in the starting lineup on the wing. Consistently impressive this season for the Stormers in Super Rugby, Leyds has some impressive speed and some handling skills that can really light up a pitch. Australia’s Reece Hodge consistently gets a solid rating from us and he will certainly put Leyds defensive skills to the test. However, on home soil, given what is at stake and the potential X-factor Leyds has, we give South Africa the edge here.
At fullback, we also think that South Africa will be better suited to the challenges of the day in the shape of Andries Coetzee than the always exciting Israel Folau for Australia. Although Folau is the more experienced of the two and arguably the better player, we just think that Coetzee’s familiarity with the characteristics of high balls at altitude should mean he will be a better line of defense when the chips are down. However, if Folau brings his A-game then it doesn’t matter what the conditions, he is exceptionally dangerous with ball in hand and is a proven master under the high ball. Nevertheless expect to see South Africa put him under pressure with deep high kicks all afternoon.
There is no question that this is going to be an exceptionally tight match between two sides needing to make a statement. A loss at home for South Africa would be catastrophic, especially given the calibre of the opposition they face in a week’s time in Cape Town. Given the damage sustained to the South African rugby pysche a fortnight ago, we fear that another humiliation could once more see the rot creep in that plagued South Africa’s season so dramatically in the latter half of 2016. Nevertheless, despite the thrashing they got a fortnight ago, this Springbok team is still a stronger and more cohesive unit than it was a year ago. As a result, in a nail biting contest, we feel that home advantage will just see the Springboks home by two points!
Argentina vs New Zealand
Saturday, September 30th
New Zealand aren’t exactly coasting through this tournament, but their dominance is doubted by few. With the Championship honors wrapped up in New Zealand’s favor for all intents and purposes, experimentation and depth building are clearly at the top of the agenda for the New Zealand coaching staff. The squad picked for tomorrow’s match against Argentina is clear evidence of this. We’d argue that this has very much been the case for much of 2017 for New Zealand, even going back to the season’s opening matches against the Lions. New Zealand are clearly looking to assemble and fine tune the squad they want to take to the World Cup in 2019. Their problem lies less in ability and more, given the depth of talent at their disposal, who to pick and how to give them enough game time between now and 2019 to make them real contenders in Japan. Argentina on the other hand, boast plenty of talent but much of it lacks the kind of experience to really compete for a full eighty minutes at this level. It is the last quarter of every match that seems to be killing Argentina, not just in this tournament but every Test they have played since the World Cup. As we saw last month in New Zealand, they can actually beat the world’s best until the sixty minute mark. Until they can find that extra twenty minutes then Argentina will continue to promise so much, but with the odd exception like the 2015 World Cup quarter-final, rarely deliver. It remains to be seen what they can salvage from these last two home games in the tournament.
In the front rows, New Zealand field no changes from the one that so effectively put South Africa to the sword a fortnight ago. New Zealand’s Dane Coles appears to be back to his best at Hooker and “support winger” and newcomers Nepo Laulala and Kane Hames were immense against South Africa. Argentina’s trio of Hooker and Captain Fantastic Agustin Creevy and props Lucas Paz and Nahuel Tetaz is an impressive unit but it just doesn’t seem to be getting the traction that is usually associated with Argentinian front rows. The New Zealand scrum looked so accomplished a fortnight ago, we can’t see it changing this week, even away from home, so the All Blacks to have the clear advantage here. It’s a strong bench for Argentina in this department, but by the same token it’s equalled by New Zealand’s offering.
In the second rows, we have to confess some surprise at seeing Tomas Lavanini back in the squad for Argentina so soon again, after his supposed “cooling off period” for disciplinary issues. Don’t get us wrong he is a powerful and intimidating second rower in his own right, but given the kind of pressure that Argentina will be under to perform in front of a home crowd on Saturday in Buenos Aires, we fear that it will get to him causing the disciplinary lapses for which he has now sadly become a household name. We prefer the partnership of Matias Alemanno and Guido Petti, but are at least happy to see Petti make the starting lineup, although strangely Alemanno doesn’t even make the bench. New Zealand bring in Luke Romano and Scott Barrett and despite home advantage for the Pumas we still expect to see the All Black pair get the better of proceedings here, with many tipping Barrett for World Cup glory in 2019.
In the back rows, we see the return of Matt Todd for New Zealand, who while perhaps not a regular starter for the All Blacks he always impresses for the Crusaders. Meanwhile the man who lit up Round 3 of the tournament, Vaea Fifita returns. The big, powerful and devastatingly fast flanker put in a jaw dropping display against Argentina in New Zealand causing him to be instantly compared to the great Jonah Lomu. Up against Argentina’s Tomas Lezana and Pablo Matera expect to see more of the same, despite the quality of the Puma pair. New Zealand’s Kieran Read and Juan Manuel Leguizamon do battle at number eight, but sadly for us Leguizamon is seeing the twilight days of his career whereas the All Black Captain is clearly in his prime. It will be a solid contest and we expect the Argentinians to give as good as they get but with the experience of Read and the X-Factor of Fifita, we expect to see New Zealand get the upper hand, especially when the All Black whirlwind of destruction, Ardie Savea, comes off the bench.
In the contest between the halfbacks, we see probably Test rugby’s ultimate combination right now, New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett, take to the field. It is perhaps a measure of the respect New Zealand has for Argentina that they choose to field these two, as opposed to giving Smith’s understudy at scrum half TJ Perenara a starting berth instead of warming the bench for the first hour. There is no question that the Smith/Barrett platform gives New Zealand such a commanding base to work from in the first sixty minutes as well as controlling any threats or surprises that opposition sides may have up their sleeves. Argentina’s Tomas Cubelli and Nicolas Sanchez are accomplished players in their own right but just not in the same league as the New Zealand pair. Bring on TJ Perenara for New Zealand in the second half and despite Martin Landajo’s brilliance and energy for the Pumas whether as a starter or off the bench, the All Black still usually has the better execution and skill set.
In the centres, we don’t feel that Matias Orlando and Jeronimo De la Fuente have really fired this season for Argentina. Brilliant at times individually, they seem to have struggled to gel into this Pumas unit as a collective in the way that perhaps the coaching staff and supporters would have liked. Meanwhile we are delighted to see Anton Lienert-Brown get a starting berth, as for us he is one of the clearest sign posts to the 2019 World Cup for New Zealand. As usual we are waiting with bated breath for the evidence that makes Sonny Bill Williams appear at the top of every selection list drawn up by Coach Steve Hansen and the New Zealand management. Yes we’ve seen the offload statistics and we also get that Ryan Crotty is being rested for the big dustup in Cape Town, but come next Saturday, unless Williams leaves us speechless in this match then we would argue that the Lienert-Brown/Crotty axis is the one New Zealand should be solidifying for the World Cup. We wait to see if Juan Martin Hernandez will come off the bench for fly half Nicolas Sanchez or for one of the centres, but with Ngani Laumape on standby for New Zealand, Argentina are going to have to have their wits about them on Saturday. Expect to see New Zealand run proceedings again here on Saturday.
On the wings, it is once more likely to be New Zealand’s party on Saturday evening in Buenos Aires. Rieko Ioane has been one of THE talking points of the International season this year and Waisake Naholo needs no introduction whatsoever to those of us who know a fast pacy back when we see one. In fairness to Argentina they also have one of the talking points of the season in Emiliano Boffelli and if he gets put into any kind of space, New Zealand are going to have to be at their best, especially given the Pumas winger’s footballing skills. Off the bench, Santiago Cordero has the potential of being an enormous X-factor for Argentina, but to be honest we haven’t seen a great deal of this quality from the young man since the World Cup. The Pumas will need him to be at his best if they hope to have any chance of competing with New Zealand.
Lastly at fullback, New Zealand’s Damian McKenzie continues to grow into the role, but as we saw in Round 3, Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet actually got the better of the Kiwi youngster. McKenzie still has a lot to learn, but he possesses such a dazzling array of skills coupled to an almost cat-like sense of where his teammates are, that we agree wholeheartedly with Steve Hansen’s decision to keep him in the starting XV despite many in New Zealand calling for the opposite. This is clearly a star for the future and consequently needs the game time now, ahead of a World Cup in which he will likely play a big part. Having said that though, and in seeming contradiction to what we feel about McKenzie, in front of a very vocal home crowd we think that this is one area of the park that Tuculet will dominate for Argentina. All eyes will be on newcomer David Havili if he comes off the New Zealand bench for either McKenzie or one of the wingers, especially as the youngster boasts some pretty impressive skills of his own and has consistently turned heads in his performances with the Crusaders at Super Rugby level.
Our biggest concern for Argentina in this match is that although it is in front of a home crowd, tradition tends to see them running out of gas towards the end of the tournament much as they seem to do in the last quarter of every Test match. It must be immensely frustrating for Argentinian supporters, and we count ourselves amongst them even as neutrals, as this is a good team and they are playing at home. We hope that they can rally themselves for these last two fixtures and get the confidence they need to prepare themselves for a tough European tour in November. Unfortunately we can’t see them emerging the winners on Saturday, but Australia a week later should be firmly in their sights. However, to the business at hand tomorrow, we hope for a an even closer and edgier contest than the one we saw between these two in Round 3, but still expect to see New Zealand pull away comfortably in the last quarter by 18 points!
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